Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Inter-textuality: ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’


Robert L. Fielding

Looking inward – introspection, is valuable to those who possess the knack.  H.G. Wells’ Mr. Polly didn’t and blamed the world around him for his imagined dilemmas, even though they were more a product of his poor digestion than anything done by those with whom he came in contact.

Looking outward is also valuable – regarding the world as teacher, learning from everything you see, hear, feel, taste and smell.  We do this automatically every day of our lives, of course – unconsciously and consciously too.

When reading though, we should be aware that some writing promotes some world- views and not others; that problematic areas of life can often go unnoticed and unmentioned by art in its various forms.

With outward looking art we get references to people, situations, dilemmas and activity out there in the real world.  In the world of music, for example, composers such as the Frenchman, Hector Berlioz, an early exponent of what is now referred to as Romantic music, wrote characters and particular episodes of their famous lives into his symphonies and symphonic poems.

In literature, Dickens modeled some characters in the pages of his best loved novels on well known personalities of the day, and his readers would not have been slow to spot who they were.

The poet, Walter Savage Landor, for example, is said to be the model for one of Dickens’ characters in his enormous novel, ‘Bleak House’.  All Landor’s idiosyncrasies – love of justice, impatience, forthrightness, and a healthy distrust of the rich and powerful in the society of his day come out admirably and clearly in Mr. Boythorn’s dispute over land with Baronet Sir Leicester Dedlock.

On stage, and in the plays of people like Shaw and Shakespeare, we get parodies of people of stature and renown, and not always in a favourable light either.

Professor Higgins from Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’, later to reappear more sensationally and famously to modern audiences in Lerner and Lowe’s musical masterpiece, ‘My Fair Lady’ was based, it is said, on the character of  Frederick James Furnivall, the well known lexicographer of his day, who “cared little for convention, never understood the quality of tact, who married a lady’s maid, but who would have married a flower girl just as readily.”

Now, it is left to writers like the late Anthony Burgess in his enormously knowledgeable and entertaining book reviews for The Observer newspaper to point out such parallels – the readers at the time Shaw was writing though would have easily spotted them.  

These days, however, the practice of using known characters from real life and weaving them into one’s stories is probably rare, if it is done at all.

Fear of litigation has probably put an end to it, that and the plethora of personalities who are usually flatteringly photographed, and sometimes less so.

The ‘paparazzi’ fill this need of the public (if it is a need) to examine under spotlight the lives of the rich and famous.  The camera does not lie, as we know, but nor does it do much of anything else.  Personal traits and idiosyncrasies can only be inferred from photographs, and opinion is then subjugated to little more than tittle-tattle and gossip.

Complaints that many characters in today’s novels are flat, mere cameos of real people rather than skillfully drawn and fleshed out protagonists probably stem from this under-utilisation of real people in the world of popular literature.  

Dickens rarely characterized fully, usually not at all, but his canvases were so broad and wide-ranging, catching the full panoply of society, from Baronet Sir Leicester Dedlock to Jo, the crossing sweeper, and from Inspector Bucket to the dancing master, Mr. Turveydrop, that characterization would have made his already sizeable novels double in length, unwieldy and  probably not as readable.

Dickens touched on them merely, they were as flicks of his paintbrush as he painted in the life of the teeming metropolis – the London of his day.

What he did manage to do with the help of drawing upon these recognizable others, was to criticize unjust institutions (Chancery in the case of Bleak House), hold them up to public scrutiny, and hence bring about much needed change.

Is any form of art capable of that today?  There is every bit as much need, and yet the public’s gaze rests upon the trivialities focused on by the lens of the photographer rather than on anything of real importance from the pens of writers.

Robert L. Fielding


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