The Symbolist Conundrum
We went to see this exhibition recently, and I loved the pictures. They were mostly landscapes, forests, lakes, mountains, rivers – and they were extremely beautiful, haunting and atmospheric. I came home enthused about the Symbolist movement, and looked them up on Wikipedia, and a couple of other sites. What a disappointment! A more miserable bunch of self-indulgent, elitist, proto-fascist, self-dramatising fantasy-merchants I never came across.
And yet. I bought a postcard of Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, and I love it. I love Yeats’s Celtic Twilight poetry too, and Debussy’s music, and a lot of artists of the faerie kind. It’s beautiful, it’s passionate, it’s full of genuinely good things, but nevertheless, the Symbolists give me the creeps. Which leaves me with a conundrum I explored in my Orpheus sequence, when I was working out my own poetics. Orpheus is the poet of the ‘other-world’, a wild, magical, romantic realm, irresistibly lovely, unimaginably risky, wonderful and terrifying. It’s why he loves the dysfunctional Eurydice, why he can’t cope with her becoming happy and normal. He begins the sequence, as Persephone says, ‘hooked on eerie’, and he needs to be rescued from her dysfunction zoo as much as his wife.
And yet. The Faerie King tries to tell Orpheus that without the Elf-Country there will be no beauty, no ideals, just a commercial exchange of duties and obligations in which he will grow dull, and over-worked, and never rise above the ordinary destructiveness of domestic drudgery. It is a familiar argument – a defence of poetry that has been made since the Renaissance, an exaltation of the imaginary ideal over the experience of dull reality. And it is intrinsically dualist, setting matter against mind, facts against spirit.
The consequences of this can be awful. As Wordsworth says in The Prelude (I don’t think I’m taking this too far) if you’re not talking about reality, you’re only talking about yourself. The artist disappears up his own ego in quasi-gnostic feeling that there are some people who know these things, who can appreciate these things, and they are better than the lumpen clods who can’t. An artist becomes a shamanic figure, a wild man, (I leave the reader to ponder the obvious sexism under-pinning that cliché), and respect and understanding of the work is buried beneath anxiety about the status of its creator. Creative writing classes are plagued by it -there are a lot of people who don’t write poetry because they don’t feel they have the soul of a poet. And there are unfortunately a lot of people who think they can write poetry because they do. It can lead to some pretty destructive myths around mental illness, too, but that’s beyond my remit – I just didn’t want to leave it unsaid.
There are two endings to my Orpheus story. In one, Orpheus’ art becomes manipulative, predatory and cut off from his audience. He looks back, not at Eurydice, but at his lost realm, and, as in the Classical story, he is torn to pieces by Maenads. The other follows the Northern version of the story. In this, Orpheus finds the key to Eurydice’s prison in recognising his common humanity. By the time he meets the Faerie King his work is full of compassion. The beauty he celebrates is grounded in the real world, and is shared with everyone. And I think that’s it. We don’t have to have pedestrian poetry full of grit and graffiti and suburban blight. There is beauty in the real world, there are inspired and gifted people on every street, places in our back gardens where nature flourishes, work going on that brings people together, ways of living that don’t involve disregarding and destroying everything that inconveniences us. We can have poetry that wakes us up to it, that celebrates it, that inspires us without having to blow fairy dust all over it. Can’t we?