[Another addition to this blog's ongoing lockdown series: ‘books I would actually write, if only I had the time’. Non-fiction this time. I owe the name for the phenomenon I discuss, or say rather posit, here, imprinting, to Paul McAuley, who suggested it as a better term than the one I initially used, ‘shaping bias’.]
What do I mean by ‘imprinting’?
Let's take a man in his 50s. As a kid he fell in love with the music of (let's say) the Beatles. In this he's no different to millions of other people. But although some of what he responded to, in that music, had to do with the skill of Lennon-McCartney as popular composers, much more had to do with the extraordinary potency of music itself. Nobody ever hears music in the abstract; we always listen to music embodied in one composition or another. The thing is whichever musical text happens to be the one that introduces you to the wonder of music itself will tend to receive, back over itself (as it were) a lustre it has not in and of itself earned. Lennon-McCartney were a talented pair of songwriters, no question; but they didn't invent Music Itself. And a good proportion, arguably a majority, of the emotional impact of their work involves them piggybacking on Music Itself.
This might happen in any artform, any cultural mode, and it might go one of several ways. Take another example. A person falls in love with Tolkien at an early age. We might say that they're actually falling in love with ‘story’, ‘worldbuilding’, the particular enchantment characteristic of Fantasy (escapism, magic, whatever) and we might object that there are a great many texts that provide these qualia, many of them ‘better’ (for whatever metric of better we prefer) than Tolkien. Nonetheless, when this person grows up she retains her affection for Tolkien, warts and all. She broadens her reading of course, perhaps becomes an expert in Fantasy writing, or in novels more broadly; but Tolkien ‘imprinted’ upon her at an age in a way that marks her for life.
Alternately, a text might imprint in a different way. Imagine a person saying: ‘I used to think Robert Graves' Claudius novels were brilliant; now I see what I was reacting to was the fascination of Roman history as a field; and Graves's novels are actually rather clunkily put-together. The Claudius novels were my gateway drug (and I'll always have a fondness for them) but I've gone beyond them now to become a world-renowned historian of the Late Republic.’ Or ‘it was, ironically enough, comic books that first awoke me to the glory of art; I still retain affection for them although I have outgrown them and am now Slade Professor Rembrandt Studies.’ I'd this partial retreat is more commonly found than adults who entirely repudiate their youthful passions, although I suppose there will be some who do the latter. We've all had the experience of returning to a work we loved as children only to be disappointed that it didn't live up to our memory of it; but this, I would suggest, reinforces rather that falsifies what I'm arguing here. Imprinting means that we carry a version of a key culture-text in our minds as we age. Its that mental version that interests me, however complicated, or indeed tenuous, its relation to the source text may be. And I'm suggesting it's a significant, perhaps a dominant, factor in adult taste.
We can take Amanda's line, in Coward's Private Lives ‘extraordinary how potent cheap music is’ as a comment upon how we are most likely to be imprinted by the aural wallpaper of our youth, the chart-stuff that pours out of the radio, than by (say) Shostakovich string quartets. Although I suppose we can also take it as an indication that imprinting happens in childhood or adolescence. The salient in cheap music is its simplicity, I think, and the art of our childhood will tend to be simpler than more adult art.
There will be exceptions, of course. John Stuart Mill was taught Greek at three, and had read Diogenes Laërtius, Demosthenes and six dialogues of Plato by the time he was six. But the work that imprinted him was Wordsworth's poetry, which he didn't discover until his early twenties. But this, I think, does not contradict my fundamental point. Wordsworth saved Mill from a suicidal depression by connecting the over-cerebralised self his upbringing had created with a simpler, or perhaps say rather a purer set of emotions. It would be a mistake to describe Wordsworth as simple, I think; but he is certainly plain, non-ornate.
The problem is: how can a critic separate out her imprinting from her assessment of any given work of art? It's a particular problem in SF, where the sort of short stories, novels and films that first blew our minds and introduced us to Sense-of-Wonder can shape our tastes, such that we prize works that imitate those earlier works, and we ignore their faults to the exclusion of other, better-written or better-made stuff. But as with Music Itself, ‘the Sublime’ was not invented by Asimov's Nightfall (or Paradise Lost, or whatever).
Related to this is the following observation by Northrop Frye:
The basis of critical knowledge is the direct experience of literature, certainly, but experience as such is never adequate. We are always reading Paradise Lost with a hangover or seeing King Lear with an incompetent Cordelia or disliking a novel because some scene in it connects with something suppressed in our memories, and our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting ... As a structure of knowledge, then, criticism, like other structures of knowledge, is in one sense a monument to a failure of experience, a tower of Babel or one of the "ruins of time" which, in Blake's phrase, "build mansions in eternity". [Northrop Frye, The Critical Path: an Essay on the Social Context of Literary Criticism (1971), 27]I think this resonates so strongly with me partly because science fiction was something I fell in love with as a child-reader. I still love it; still write it and write about it. But I'm conscious of the ways in which my engagement is based upon a kind of structural hermeneutic inadequacy. ‘Our most deeply satisfying responses are often made in childhood, to be seen later as immature over-reacting’ is almost a too perfect thumbnail of the adult apprehension of SF; and SF criticism always a kind of running-to-catch-up uttering various post-facto justifications. What's neat about this Frye quotation is the sense it conveys that, actually, all criticism is in the business of doing this.
Our best bet is honesty, here. Some critics operate according to a myth that we respond to a kind of Platonic form of Paradise Lost or King Lear. We critics do, after all, like to make a fetish of disinterestedness and objectivity, and if we involve ‘the reader’ it is, via ‘reader-response theory’ or Moretti-esque panoptic surveys, a collective reader. It might even be argued—I don't think I agree with this, but I'm not sure—that we copper-bottom our critical approach by reading Paradise Lost hundreds of times, or seeing scores of productions of King Lear, ironing-out the variables such that we respond critically to a kind of artificial synthetic text. Texts are not synthetic, though; they are always particular; and we, as readers, are never disinterested when we engage with their particularity. It'd be a strange world, and criticism would be a weirdly bloodless business, if we were.
One critic who comes to mind as someone who has, in a manner of speaking, discussed this is the late departed Harold Bloom. We could redescribe the main argument of his The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) as: good artists struggle to move past their imprinting, and in doing so create something new and significant that might in turn imprint on others (and bad artists simply replicate whatever imprinted them). This, though, is to focus on artists. I'm interested in the extent to which imprinting becomes an unconscious determinant in taste, and therefore in criticism. I also wonder if we can usefully dispense with all Bloom's odd quasi-Freudian bag-and-baggage. Not that I've any problem with Freud, you understand.
One danger here is that it might seem I'm valorising some kind of intrinsic bias in the critic. Bias, obviously enough, is a bad thing. But as it is also inescapable so best option, surely, is to flag it so as to be able to factor it in. And actually I'm more interested in a different question. Does imprinting (assuming we agree it is a thing) mean that there is an inevitable lean towards the juvenile? To be clear: I do not use the word in a derogatory sense. A great deal of children's literature is manifestly great art. But the exigencies of connecting with a young audience means that it is often more simply formed and expressed, perhaps more direct and primitive, than (some) adult art.
Does imprinting, as it were, aggregate? Might this explain the fact that the twentieth-century democratisation of art, predicated on big expansions of literacy, mass production and affluence, coincided with an era in which Primitivism, in the broadest sense, became the dominant aesthetic?
By ‘Primitivism’ I mean the way the intricacy and formal complexity of classical music was dethroned, and a much more texturally simple pop-music became the era's defining kind; the way painterly craftsmanship and fine brushwork was replaced by Van Goghian, Picassoian or Pollockian crudenesses and energies? The way film and TV, powerful media but without the interiority or complexity of which novels are capable, became the way narrative was mostly consumed. Of course, complex art continued to be produced throughout the 20th-century, and some of this, even some rebarbatively difficult art, has been highly praised. But it seems to me clear enough that the broader aegis of ‘Art and Culture in the 20th-century’ has been Primitivism, for better and worse. I would largely say better, since I am heavily invested in several frankly primitive modes myself: science fiction; pop music; cartoons and comic books to name but three. Of course it's true that complex art can do things primitivist art can't, but it's also true that primitivist art can do things complex art can't—can access energies and disruptions, potencies and wonder that more fussily or intricately filligreed culture never could.
I probably sound defensive. A brief personal aside. Science fiction imprinted on me early. For a long time it was all I read. My path (to contuinue the digression) into scare-quotes ‘high art’, which has also absorbed a great deal of my adult time and my love, came about in the following more-or-less banal manner. In addition to reading lots of Pulp SF (Asimov, Clarke, Le Guin) I used to pore over SF illustrations, visual art I really loved. One birthday my Mum bought me a big A3 book of this art, a sort of paperback elephant folio of Golden Age magazine covers and illos. I went though and through it until the glue crumbled out of its spine. Noting my enthusiasm and thinking, perhaps, to encourage me to diversify my interests she bought me another volume in the series—the name of the series eludes me now, but it wasn't expensive; not glossy high-end art books but rather a range of cheap-and-cheerful for-the-masses portfolio. This new vol was ‘British Art’ and it was pretty cool. But one image in particular lodged in my head: the one at the head of this post, in fact: Millais' 1851 Mariana.
This image absolutely bowled me over.
Now, my visual taste, we can assume, had already been shaped to some degree by the bright-colours, clear lines and dynamic forms and composition of the typical Golden Age SF illustration. It's easy enough to see how Pre-Raphaelite art slotted into aesthetic predilections pre-established by all that stuff. But this Millais affected me very deeply and in a way I hadn't, I think, encountered before. I can be honest, looking back, and accept that some of this (her stretch, the curve of her figure, the allure of her being so thoroughly clothed) was erotic, but that's clearly something that plays a part in a lot of imprinting, cultural and otherwise. And some of it was its own thing: the combination of medievalism and Victorianism, for instance. The visualisation of ennui.
At any rate, the image so moved me that I sought out the Tennyson poem on which it was based, and that bowled me over in quite a new way. I was (I don't say this lightly, or imprecisely) a depressive adolescent, and Tennyson's articulation of melancholia was darkly thrilling and moving to me in a way I hadn't encountered before. From there it was a short step to reading other poems by Tennyson, then reading other Victorians, then the Romantics that inspired them. It was because of this I read my first work of literary criticism (Ricks's Tennyson, which I borrowed from Canterbury Public Library; I still think that's an excellent monograph by the way, and something of Ricks's style as a critic has imprinted onto mine) and I was on the long and winding road that led me to being Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at the University of London. I haven't abandoned the science fiction of course. Quite the reverse. These are my two main passions.
The difference, of course, is that my passion for poetry is ‘respectable’ where there's something, I can't deny it, increasingly unseemly in a fiftysomething professor still getting so excited by science fiction. Hal Foster's LRB review of a translation of Derrida’s The Beast and the Sovereign rehearses the recent theorising of ‘homo sacer’ via Agamben, Derrida himself and Eric Santner. Derrida:
At the two extreme limits of the order, the sovereign and homo sacer present two symmetrical figures and have the same structure and are correlative: the sovereign is the one with respect to whom all men are potentially homines sacri, and homo sacer is the one with respect to whom all men act as sovereigns.This is all interesting, especially Foster's doscussion of Santner's On Creaturely Life (2006), a book I hadn't otherwise come across.
Creaturely life, as Santner defines it—‘life abandoned to the state of exception/emergency, that paradoxical domain in which law has been suspended in the name of preserving law’—is close to bare life. But he adds two important touchstones of his own, Kafka and W.G.Sebald, some of whose characters, caught between human and nonhuman states, or stranded in the vertiginous space of exile, allow Santner to imagine bare life from the position of homo sacer, ‘on the threshole where life takes on its secific biopolitical intensity, where it assumes the cringed posture of the creature.’Not to go from the negative sublime to the ridiculous, but my reaction on reading this was to think of ‘exceptional’ state of SF with respect to other genres of literature; the ‘cringe’ of embarassment it can't shake off, howsoever proudly its adherants proclaim its princely supremacy—such that the more aggressively we proclaim that SF is proper literature, the more a tone of desperation enters our voices. The desire for respectability is a kind of category error here, I suspect. SF is the genre sacer, outside the law as a way for ‘genre’ itself to uphold the law.
This, I think, has to do with one of the elephants in the futuristic room of SF: its juvenility. That it is in many ways an adolescent mode of art seems to me not a thing to deplore or hide, still less a thing to be purged in the evolution of the genre into some notional full aesthetic ‘maturity’. It seems to be precisely the ground of the genre's potential for true greatness. Alone amongst the genres of contemporary literature, SF understands that the energies informing contemporary life, its kinetic restlessness, its tech-facility, its cyclotropic moods, its to-the-bone fascination with sex and violence, are precisely adolescent ones. At the same time this is the quantity about which contemporary thought and culture is most ashamed.
To bring in a parallel, this is what Foster says about what he calls ‘my own field, modernist art’:
...in particular its pesistent fascination with the art of the child, the insane and the primitive. For the most part the [critical] inquiry into this has been conducted in terms of the unconscious and the other, that is, in the languages of psychoanalysis anthropology. This is not wrong as far as it goes, but might we not also view these identifications as creaturely expressions of a ‘fissure in the soace of meaning’ opened up by ‘exposure to a traumatic dimension of political power’?Mutatis mutandi, this comittment to a version of the ‘the child, the insane and the primitive’ defines SF too. I wonder, I suppose, how much of this can be attributed to the potency with which SF has imprinted on certain critical and creative figures, and the correlative of whether this imprinting imports a (saving or demeaning, depending) juvenility along with it.