Self-Positioning

Stefan Collini

  • The Movement Reconsidered: Essays on Larkin, Amis, Gunn, Davie and Their Contemporaries edited by Zachary Leader
    Oxford, 336 pp, £18.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 955825 4

Craig Raine recalls that when the former chairman of Faber, Charles Monteith, encountered the suggestion that one of Philip Larkin’s poems was indebted to Théophile Gautier, he was ‘incredulous’. To Monteith, the idea that Larkin might have been influenced by a foreign poet was ‘ludicrous’. ‘He had fallen,’ Raine comments, ‘for the propaganda – Larkin’s bluff, insular, faux-xenophobic self-caricature.’

Compound terms using ‘self-’ often raise questions about agency and responsibility. When we speak of ‘self-criticism’ or ‘self-restraint’, we are calling on ideas of dividedness, where the ‘self’ that is doing the criticising or restraining is in some sense more sophisticated or more knowing, as well as more in command, than the ‘self’ that is being criticised or restrained. But when we talk about being ‘self-revealing’ or ‘self-destructive’, the ‘self’ in question is precisely not in control of the process. More victim than agent, the ‘self’ in these cases is unknowing, unwitting; the behaviour involved is something that people, as we say, end up doing ‘despite themselves’.

Raine obviously intends ‘self-caricature’ to be understood as an example of the first of these categories. Larkin, he is suggesting, knew what he was doing: ‘propaganda’ is something deliberately put about in order to persuade or mislead. The poet, we are invited to conclude, may have chosen to appear bluff, insular and faux-xenophobic (or just xenophobic), but he wasn’t really like that, or at least there was a lot more to him than that, and the ‘more’ included the subtler, knowing self who was responsible for designing the propaganda in the first place.

There is, however, an ambiguity lurking in the phrase ‘self-caricature’ which threatens to destabilise this comfortable conclusion. When we say of someone ‘he’s becoming a caricature of himself,’ we are, pointedly, not crediting him with masterminding a cunning disguise or raising a smokescreen; we are regarding his behaviour as out of control. In addition, we are suggesting that the characteristics causing our distaste or disapproval are not arbitrary or unprecedented: they are intensifications of qualities that have long been part of that individual’s personality and social identity. (This is the sense in which it is said that as we become older we all become caricatures of ourselves.) So ‘self-caricature’ can be doubly threatening to our idea of conscious agency, both because it may be partly involuntary and because the direction it takes is already in some sense laid down. The most that can be said, and it is Larkin who said it, is that

    in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear.

Much of our response not just to Larkin but to Movement writers more generally turns on the question of how we construe the process of ‘self-caricature’. There is much about their writing and behaviour, that of Larkin and his close friend Kingsley Amis in particular, which contemporary sensibility finds parochial, conservative and sometimes offensive. For some years now, condemning these writers has been a means of affirming one’s credentials as progressive and internationalist, as pro or post but definitely not anti-modernist, of being right-on in one way or another. But there is always the suspicion that to respond this way is to fall into a cunningly designed heffalump trap, a spectacle witnessed with rowdy delight by the shades of Larkin and Amis, drinks in hand. For it could be said that their critics had, like Monteith, ‘fallen for the propaganda’ and failed to recognise the elements of ‘self-caricature’. Or – the question swings back – is this to credit Larkin and company with too much self-awareness and too much choice? Should we not emphasise, rather, the blind impress that, despite their knowingness, all their behavings bear?

Labels may be necessary in literary history, but they are also a great source of bother. From the outset, there has been incessant dispute over whether such a group as ‘the Movement’ ever existed, what its members were supposed to have in common, who belonged and who didn’t, and so on. Many commentators have been tempted to concur with Thom Gunn’s later weariness: ‘The whole business looks now like a lot of categorising foolishness.’ Yet it is a label that has stuck, at once serviceable and misleading, much as we still speak of ‘the Metaphysicals’ or ‘the Georgians’ before immediately moving on to deny any strong notion of group identity. In the case of the Movement, the success and longevity of the term probably have as much to do with the social history of postwar Britain as with poetic practice more narrowly conceived.

The story has no single starting point, but it is, as usual, easier to identify the date of the christening than the conception. In the early 1950s, there had been several attempts, by participants and observers alike, to identify a new tendency in contemporary writing, before, on 1 October 1954, J.D. Scott, the literary editor of the Spectator, published (anonymously) a leading article entitled ‘In the Movement’. Modern Britain, Scott argued, was emancipating itself from the old social hierarchies of the prewar years, and this new spirit was finding expression in a literature that deliberately distanced itself from the hitherto dominant styles of modernism and Bloomsbury, as well as from the more recent New Romanticism of 1940s poetry. Younger writers, taking their tone from Orwell as well as from Leavis and Empson, were adopting tougher attitudes and plainer idioms. ‘The Movement,’ Scott wrote, launching the capitalised noun on its successful career, ‘as well as being anti-phoney, is anti-wet; sceptical, robust, ironic, prepared to be as comfortable as possible.’

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