Yesterday

Frank Kermode

  • The Pleasures of Peace: Art and Imagination in Post-War Britain by Bryan Appleyard
    Faber, 367 pp, £12.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 571 13722 9

‘The immediate past can frequently seem very distant and very alien; that strangeness can only be perceived through the medium of the present.’ Thus Bryan Appleyard, conscious of the difficulty of his project, which is to sketch the history of British art in the post-war years.

The sentence occurs in an apologetic introduction, and it indicates some of the difficulties inherent in the author’s approach to his book. To say that the past can only be perceived through the medium of the present is a truism, and to add that what is now perceived as strange can only be so perceived at the present moment is to add nothing at all. The point of such a history as Appleyard has attempted must presumably be to explain why the immediate past seems strange – even stranger, it is implied, than pasts less recent, on which there is at least some agreement as to what ought to be argued about – and in so doing to make it less strange. To achieve that end the author will be obliged to impose familiar patterns on the material, working according to inherited ideas which may well have eluded critical inspection. Only thus can he discern some sort of coherence in works that seem strange largely because they appear to have none. Historians are professionally prejudiced in favour of order; they cannot simply record chaos; sequences are what interest them, and connections, as many connections as possible, so that disparate events will be seen after all to belong together in their time. And before long, in exercises of this kind, the Zeitgeist, or something resembling it, is likely to make an appearance.

This is an endlessly recurring problem in cultural historiography, and it has over the years been the subject of lucid comment by Ernst Gombrich. Some aspects of that scholar’s work are discussed in The Pleasures of Peace, but nothing seems to be said about what Gombrich has called ‘the Hegelian habit’ (of course you can acquire it without being consciously Hegelian). Among other things, this demands ‘that everything must be treated not only as connected with everything else, but as a symptom of something else.’ There are many ways of going about it, but all are subject to one constraint, which Gombrich expresses with perfect simplicity: ‘whether we know it or not, we always approach the past with some preconceived ideas, with a rudimentary theory we wish to test.’ And this will be true even if the author has the mature and ranging reading of an Appleyard; and even if the rudimentary theory started out as a hunch that things don’t really hang together in any of the ways they used to, or as people in the past may have thought they did.

For instance, it is now fashionable to profess a bias against coherence, continuity and so on, and to affirm the ‘bewildering plurality’ of the period you’re discussing: but what you come up with in the end is always a name for, and a theory of, the period. An obvious instance is Post-Modernism. Even the proponents of that latest of historic periods cannot escape the need not only to demonstrate a coherent incoherence in Post-Modern arts, but to suggest, with whatever degree of irony and blague, a perhaps similarly oxymoronic relationship between those arts and everything else.

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