Notes from an Outpost

Kenneth White

I am just back at my home in Brittany after a week’s moving round Britain doing talks and readings on the occasion of my return to English-language publishing after twenty years’ absence. Before going further into this return, which I do not see as any kind of ‘come-back’, but as a new departure, maybe I should lay out the reasons for that long absence and silence in the English-language field. My first books came out in London (from Cape) in 1966: Letters from Gourgounel (prose) and The Cold Wind of Dawn (poems). A year after the reviews appeared, I had left Britain, and entered into a nine years’ silence (full of work) in the Pyrenees. If my third manuscript had just got through (a book of poems, The Most Difficult Area, no doubt considered as fringe-work, came out in 1968), my fourth, a prose book, even more difficult to classify than the Letters, had met up with a lot of resistance.

When Cape said they wouldn’t do it, I said I’d get it published in France (which I did – ten years later), and I was told: ‘Ah, but France is a literary country!’ What did that make Britain? To give that British scene a chance, I went to see two other London publishers. One said this was great stuff, really original writing, but I should put that manuscript in the fridge for ten years, and in the meantime write a nice little novel to establish my reputation. I said, politely, that I did not wish to establish my reputation that way. Another told me he was in the entertainment industry ... I was already on the boat.

When had the rot set in? Way back in the 18th century, analysing the socio-economic situation that was coming, Adam Smith, professor of philosophy in the university at which I had graduated, concluded that the writer would henceforth have to present his books on the market in the same way as socks. And what if you didn’t like ‘knitted literature’ or stink-sock books, but had another conception entirely of the intellectual and poetic life – which is to say, of life itself? Well, you were out in the cold. Carlyle was to say that in modern times the intellectual would be more and more considered ‘an accident in nature’, destined to wander round the world ‘like a wild Ishmaelite’. The signs were already there, but since then, the situation had worsened. On the one hand, what Hegel, in the Aesthetics, called ‘the mass of the prosaic’ had thickened. On the other, the intellectual path had led into areas and conceptions even ‘farther out’, not only unacceptable as normal, saleable propositions, but inconceivable to the humdrum mind.

If the situation was European, indeed worldwide, it was even worse in Britain, where a latent anti-intellectual Johnbullism is always ready to assert itself, reducing life to kitchen realism and literature to descriptions of the stew-pot. This was particularly evident after 1945, when Britain went into a cultural slump from which it is only now, perhaps, emerging. ‘How dare we now be anything but numb?’ wrote an English poet in the Fifties. It was as if, having seen where corrupt ideas could lead, the British mentality had decided it would be safe, and much more comfortable, to have no ideas at all. So the numbness set in: a lack of intellectual thrust, a lack of extensional research, a lack of space for radical (mind-opening, world-opening) writing. Sporadic protestations and local scenes left the general context unmoved. More literature was produced than ever before, but almost all on the one mediocre level. There were still poets around, but most of them were doing no more than knitting up neat verse in a domesticated space. And there were still intellectuals, but more and more diffident, more and more dithering, if not manifestly engaged in biting their toe-nails. Everybody else wrote novels: big, fat, family-size novels where the mother is dying of cancer, the father is a disguised homosexual with war memories, the son is drugged to the marrow and the daughter wants to get out of it all and run away with a guitar-player from Newcastle ...

Let me make it clear, I have never set up France as a model, or put forward Paris as a paradise. French ideology is every bit as burdensome as its British counterpart. There is, in France, a culture-citadel badly needing overhaul. And French publishers are no more Platos than their British colleagues are. But French ideology tends to be more articulate than the British – intellectual argument can exist. There have been cracks in the culture citadel ever since, say, Rimbaud, and all kinds of attempts have been made to open up another space: Surrealism, Existentialism, the work of the College of Sociology as well as that of individual writers such as Artaud, Bataille, Michaux. And if publishers have a production spectrum that operates on at least 80 per cent more or less trash-literature, meant to bring in fast returns, they keep the rest for more fundamental and longer-lasting work.

I remained silent for nine long years in France, between two worlds, working away at several manuscripts. I was living in the Atlantic Pyrenees, with the sensation of being at one of the sources of Europe (‘a fresh experience of place,’ says Olson, ‘those caves, the Pyrenees, old France, old Spain, old earth, just fresh out of ice, those animals’) and at the departure point of its expansional movement: Celtic migration to the Western islands, Spanish movement to the Americas, French moves to Canada and the Arctic. While also moving around elsewhere in Europe (and in Asia, America), I was working at poems (on a basis of what I called ‘open-world poetics’ and, more recently, geopoetics), at prose manuscripts I called ‘way-books’ (based on a topology and typology other than that of the novel), and at a vast wad of think-tank manuscript variously called Elements of Literary Anthropology, Marx, Reich and the Third Eye, An Introduction to Tantric Culture, and finally, The Nomad Mind. These manuscripts began to appear in France, at a rapid rate, as from 1976, and immediately received a good deal of attention. From the French they began to be translated into other European languages, with the result that, by 1987, there was more of my writing available in Bulgaria, for example, than in Britain. The paradox was all the greater in that, except for essays, which I tend now to write in French, all my books were and are written in English.

In early 1987, a new Edinburgh publisher, Mainstream, got in touch. I made it clear I wasn’t interested in a one-night stand, that there was a whole opus (narrative, poems, essays) I would like to see out pre-posthumously in Britain. They said that would be their policy. So, the first two books have appeared: a collected longer poems and the book that charts my outward movement, Travels in the Drifting Dawn.

When I came over on the plane to London, a Chinaman seated beside me was reading the Sunday Telegraph, and I couldn’t help noticing the title of one article, ‘Met any good publishers lately?’ ‘The book trade is thriving,’ it said, ‘with more than 60,000 titles published each year. But how many of those 60,000 titles are worth the paper they are printed on?’ I thought to myself: so, even the big media are beginning to ask radical questions? Is there a good time coming in Britain?

Probably not, and certainly not so fast. It will be long before the tired topologies are broken, long before the cult of competent mediocrity is abandoned, long before anything like a live critical discourse is generally in the air (there have always been pockets). The move towards this will be delayed and hindered not only by stick-in-the-mudness and dog-in-the-mangerism, all kinds of small-minded interests, but by half-way attempts to improve matters: local scenes with ‘news’ value, pseudo-poetic jamborees with stagey effects meant to outdo the usual screeds of staid sad-sack verse. But a beginning?

Moving around Britain, I could see a desire for ‘something else’ in the air, an openness to new forms of writing, a new interest in ideas. This was evident, of course, not among run-of-the-mill writers – poets, no doubt feeling threatened, can be particularly puny – nor the run-of-the-mill reviewers (very often they are the same, and these people are obviously out to defend a niche more than anything else), but either among young people who are fed up with the ‘scenes’ in general, or older people who, despite everything, have maintained wider-flung references and more demanding values. This was perhaps more evident in Scotland than in England. Which reminds me of a remark by a friend in London: ‘They’re wallowing in all kinds of oldey stuff here, it’s better to belong to a Scottish context.’ If Scotland can be the lever for a general change, why not? But it won’t if it gets stuck in literary nationalism. Don’t let’s get all tied up in picayune polemics and dead dialectics. Let’s open a new cultural space.

For an analogy to the ‘new cultural space’ I’ve spoken of, I propose we look back a moment to Southern Siberia, in the second millennium BC, the far-eastern point of paleolithic civilisation (for years I was looking out from the Pyrenees, with Marx, Freud, Mauss at my elbow). The tribes were beginning to settle down into societies based on a productive economy, itself based on the invention of bronze: strong tools and weapons, full stables, harvesting. By the middle of the second millennium, the Bronze Age had reached its peak, and people were ensconced, apparently once and maybe for all, in comfort and prosperity – but it was just at that moment that several tribes dropped out and turned nomad. Which meant extensive movement rather than the huddling round social edifices: an adventure in space rather than the security of codes. It soon spread throughout Asia, until it became the very substratum of the continent (moving into Europe and America), a perpetual threat, and an incomprehensible presence, to the bureaucracies.

Something analogous is happening today. At the very peak (and early decline) of industrial civilisation, a discontent has manifested itself – a discontent that has not always merely run itself down into quiet desperation, or resigned itself to ready-made grooves, or allowed itself to be bulldozered over by bread and circuses. And this discontent began a long time back, together with the search, and the research, for something else. We can go back to Romanticism, where we have Hölderlin talking about the ‘eccentric paths’ necessary for any move towards completion, and Novalis declaring that ‘the art of writing books hasn’t been invented yet.’ But Romanticism, as we know, despite these advances, tended to hark back to older models (Classical or Medieval), and it is only at the end of the 19th century, with Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Gauguin, Segalen, that the figure of the intellectual nomad comes into his own.

Let’s put it another way. There are two main lines of Western civilisation. There’s the high line, the religious line which goes from the birth of Christ to the hypothetical return of that same Christ, with the time-space in between those events seen as a vale of tears, a testing period. This line is still a locus of belief, but no longer a locus of live thought. The other line, the humanist line, slightly lower, but strictly parallel, begins with Plato and continues straight to Hegel, who puts ideas into history, sees history as rational. The 19th century is Hegelian: history is going somewhere – towards a Super-State, or (in a more liberal context) the happiness of the greatest number. This is the highway of Western civilisation, and it seemed all set for unlimited Progress. It’s only recently that more and more people have begun to feel less and less convinced. They see it leading either to disaster or to massive platitude interrupted by mindless violence. Some minds saw all this coming a hundred years ago. And they started leaving the highway, advancing into the landscape-mindscape neglected by the highway, moving along obscure paths, striking trails through thickets, following lost world-lines. This, again, is the intellectual nomad (alias way-man, alias earth-poet). I’ve been working in this space for the past twenty-odd years. The only parallel I can see in recent British literature is with Bruce Chatwin. The movement is from history to geography, and from the deconstruction of metaphysics, via a differently-grounded thinking, towards a new poetic-intellectual (and hence living) space.

For the last five years, I have been living on the north coast of Brittany, which I consider at once a symbolic and strategic situation. I am in Europe, as a Euro-Scot, as a Breton-Britisher, with Britain (about to become European) just across the water. My neighbours are Tristan Corbière (in whose work Eliot sought a remedy for the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ he diagnosed in English literature), Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen (one of the best interpreters of China to Europe), and on an island just a few miles away Conrad came to write one of his finest books. The landscape is what is called in geology a ‘centred complex’, which is exactly how I feel. And I am looking out on the Atlantic, from which area, according to Frobenius (in The Destiny of Civilisations), in the wake of societies based on myth, religion, philosophy and techno-economics, the germs, the first winds, of a new civilisation, or at least of what I’m calling ‘cultural space’, may rise – if we work hard enough at it. So from this stony house, this cosmopoetic observatory, lined with a thousand books, my Atlantic salutations. Till the next time round.