T.E. Hulme wrote and lived in the first decades of the twentieth century, he was a poet and a philosopher of poetry, he was friends with Ezra Pound and was known as “the father of imagism.” He was an intellectual rebel, failing to graduate from Cambridge twice, and an eager militarist: he welcomed World War One and died, on the western front, in 1917.
He published very little during his life, and left behind a huge collection of notebooks; the best of those notebooks are collected in a short book called, “Speculations.” It is one of my favourite books of philosophy. Hulme writes simply, with an appealing tone of common sense, taking on vast problems and offering devastatingly acceptable answers. One of my frustrations about living right now is that it is necessary to continually respond to the beliefs of modern day life, to either mutely overhear or argue with beliefs which often seem merely dismal and life-defeatist. These include: “‘High literature’ is only for pretentious people,” “Religion is just a way to make yourself feel better,” “Science explains everything.” Hulme, without yelling or hyperbole, sets the modern world straight.
His essay “Bergson’s Theory of Art” is one of the best parts of “Speculations.” In it, Hulme argues that while poetry (and by extension, fiction) does many things, and offers many pleasures, its core pleasure, its true gift to its reader, is an aesthetic emotion related to its use of language.
Hulme suggests that all of us go through life more or less in a daze, unaware that we are unaware, thinking and speaking in pre-set cliches.
“I look, I listen, I hear, I think I am seeing, I think I am hearing everything, and when I examine myself I think I am examining my own mind.
But I am not.”
Language is inevitably conventional. I say, “I feel tired,” and a friend says, “Me too.” Most likely we are experiencing quite different emotional states.
“As we not only express ourselves in words, but for the most part think also in them, it comes about that not only do we not express more than the impersonal element of an emotion, but that we do not, as a matter of fact, perceive more. The average person… does not even perceive the individuality of their own emotions.”
Art is the solution, and not just any art, but that which strains to overcome our usual conventionality of experience.
“Language… lets what you want to say slip through. In any writing which you recognise as good there is always an attempt to avoid this defect…”
“It is because language will not carry over the exact thing you want to say that you are compelled, in order to be accurate, to invent original ways of saying things.”
Hulme gives the image of a man equipped with a number of metal curved rulers (language), each a different pre-set curve, straining to bend one of them to match the exact curve of an actual experience, and when we as readers sense this in good writing, we sense a writer alive to vivid, lived experience, and through reading, we are able to have a similarly vivid experience.
And so I don’t know what Hulme would have made of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Reading Stieg Larsson’s best seller, I am repeatedly struck: ah, now I understand the difference between literature and fiction. The novel frequently gives the feel of words thrown at a page, not necessarily carelessly, not wantonly, but missing that strain that Hulme describes, that dissatisfaction with the everyday, the known. Sentences abound like:
“The work of shaping the autobiography was moving smoothly.”
“Bjurman gave her a pitying look.”
“Berger and Blomkvist looked at each other across the table. She was cool and furious. He was thinking hard.”
What Hulme would call the conventionality of these statements allows for easy reading, and allows the reader to focus on perhaps the novel’s main intellectual challenge: keeping track of the vast investigation of a forty year old crime.
And yet, I cannot say that “Tattoo” lacks all aesthetic appeal. I’m only on page 250, so don’t spoil anything for me, but the book is a good reminder that not all images exist within lines and within sentences. The most powerful image for me, so far, is the island of Hedeby, where the wealthy Vanger family live, growing old and insane in their cold houses, and Larsson evokes over many pages its cold, its absences of exit routes, and its destruction of the one hope of the Vanger family, Harriet, who is, symbolically, the one (lost) hope for Sweden. Surrounding this island is Sweden, a wretched and corrupt society, where businessmen are dishonest and investigators lazy; on it, the country’s one honest industrialist, eighty four years old, is obsessed by the loss of one good heir he ever had. Perhaps if they can find her killer, Sweden can have a future.
Image works at level of the sentence, myth at the level of the page, the chapter, the book.