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M Blackman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

On Silence and Art (2 of a 3 part Blog)

On the whole I prefer to be silent, particularly in the midst of bar fights. Whether my silence is motivated by the cowardice that Alex Smith mentioned in her comments, I have never fully resolved this issue with myself, and so I wish to remain silent on this. But Saturday night proved something to me, that silence, although useful when bar fights begin, is not a full proof solution to escaping them. As for my involvement in the fight I cannot plead my innocence enough. It happened quite suddenly as I was standing, in silence, next to Ed Young at the Kimberly. All of a sudden an English tourist, who was having an argument with a woman, suddenly grabbed me around the neck, pulled my chain off and started throttling me and then pushing me up against the bar. When I tried to break my silence I found myself unable to do so – having ones Adam’s Apple in one’s air passage, I discovered, seems to have a certain silencing effect. I had no option but to return the favour to our English cousin until Ed and Welly, the barman, came to my assistance and some kind of peace was restored.

When I expressed my surprise to the man that he had nominated me as the person to transfer his sexual rage upon, he could not offer me a reason for attacking me. But he did express a desire to gouge my eyes out. Whether seeing King Lear or Skulk Burger put the idea into his head, I suppose, only he would know. He kept shouting: ‘I’m not the kind of person to do something like that without provocation.’ Thankfully, Welly had seen the whole thing brewing and explained to the armed response, when they arrived, that I had not done anything to provoke the eye gouger from Elephant and Castle.

I have always found statements that start with the phrase ‘I’m/am not the kind of person who…’ tend to stray quite far from the truth. They, more often than not, seem to have no relation to the person uttering them. Personally, I am the kind of person who has always found it difficult to make statements about myself. They always, in someway or another, seem untrue. I prefer to remain silent when it comes to these kinds of judgements. Just like I prefer to remain silent on issues like Israel and Palestine. Camus once expressed that there is value in fighting evil but that it is sometimes impossible to know what is evil. And in the case of Israel and Palestine I simply don’t know who the evil sits with.

Silence, I believe, can be a justifiable response to instances of when human knowledge breaks down. I believe, to a degree, that art can fill this silence, but I shall leave that idea for my next blog.

The question for me is when is it the role of the artist to remain silent within their art. Artists must, so Keats agued, access a ‘negative capability’. That is to say their egotism and personal beliefs must fall silent in order to for them to express something true. So often in the past thirty years of artistic endeavour this has not been the case. Many of us have filled our work with our own self-righteous beliefs and sententious judgments, which have little to do with knowledge. Two works which spring to mind are Ian McEwan’s Saturday and JM Coetzee’s Age of Iron – and dare I say a great deal of ‘resistance art’. Often what has been at the heart of these artistic disasters is the belief that the artist can speak for and understand the oppressed and underprivileged. A noble (and sometimes, one feels, a self-serving) idea, yet one that is flawed.

I believe Camus was right when he said that, since the French Revolution, art has been a response to the realization of the oppressed in society. So, what is the difference between the art of Wordsworth, van Gogh, Tolstoy, Orwell and Camus and its contemporary equivalent? In a word the answer is, experience. The artists mentioned above, to a greater or lesser degree, had some experience of what was at the heart of their creations. Personally I do not believe the oppressed’s position can be understood through the imagination lone, or through a priori means, or thought experiments, or believing that their position is somehow equivalent to mine because I was beaten at school.

I believe that the only way of attaining this kind of knowledge is the old British Empiricist way; through experience. All of the above writers had experience to write from. The lack of experience that Tolstoy had, although he endeavoured to spent much of his time with peasants, haunted him to such an degree that his last words were in fact: ‘But the peasants, how do they die?’ And certainly I do not know a single contemporary writer of fiction or indeed an artist who would die with similar sentiments on their lips. More and more the artists of today have retreated into their ivory towers to make their judgements and pronouncements on what in actual fact they should be silent on, because they simply do not know or understand what it is to be oppressed or underprivileged. Towers can be good places for self-introspection, Montaigne showed us that, but they are not places where empirical knowledge is discovered. The majority of contemporary artists who wish to show the position of the oppressed simply do not understand it and, I for one believe, their art suffers as a result. The value of silence for an artist is that in our silences we can retain the truth of our other pronouncements.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://alexsmith.book.co.za/" rel="nofollow">Alex Smith</a>
    Alex Smith
    July 13th, 2009 @06:16 #
     
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    No, no, Matthew the cowardice has nothing to do with you, it was a moment of exasperation, and I was rambling about some other person entirely - that is exactly the problem with chattering, I suppose. Since then I've taken a vow of silence, of sorts ... whereas last week I found silence exhausting, today I'd say the silence is refreshing, it's a very safe place to be.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    July 13th, 2009 @09:38 #
     
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    Nice post Matthew - u work well with emotive stuff. i too was "attacked" this weekend, tho by a girl who is quite trashy and decided to call me on eyeing out her boyfriend. i was sitting on a chest so i was above the crowd and was looking around and he is the barman, so er.. yes i did make eye contact! this is not the first time i have been attacked by a girl so i was quite shaken and knew that if i retaliated (my tongue is extremely sharp and i tend to go straight for Id) i would be playing into whatever she wanted (the idea she has of me as a bitch/threat) so i sat mute. then took my shaking hands back home and spend the rest of the weekend with friends who are much of love. there's not much art in this i am afraid, but thank gd there's love.

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    July 13th, 2009 @09:41 #
     
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    PS - why did u call the attack "sexual rage"?

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 13th, 2009 @10:07 #
     
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    I think the key question, Kate, is whose chest you were sitting on. That would go some way in explaining your experience.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 13th, 2009 @12:50 #
     
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    You work well with ethical stuff, too, Matthew. But perhaps you're operating from a false premise here, re the moralistic pontificating of authors? You seem to focus on fiction writers? But many of us (yup, I have a stake in this, given that I've written far more non-fiction than fiction) write non-fiction. I'm interested in this debate because it's a divide I straddle uneasily -- I'll read and write about utter horrors "in real life", wearing an activist and academic hat -- but I become distressed if confronted with the mildest of representations of similar violence in fiction. Now and again, fiction (esp poetry) handles the question of "evil" so brilliantly that it's worth a dozen research reports. But good non-fiction does so more consistently. Thinking not so much of academic stuff, but stuff like Jonny Steinberg and the WISER folk produce. Let's have a drink one day and discuss, for now I have a deadline (which is why I am trawling around Book SA)...

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  • <a href="http://kathrynwhite.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Kathryn</a>
    Kathryn
    July 13th, 2009 @14:23 #
     
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    Speaking of drinks I am in CT this Friday day - Monday and if any CT writers are available, would love to meet somewhere early eve if anyone's keen. i promise to not sit on any chests or eye any barmen and i won't be driving either (that's another story) cos i can walk home from a certain hotel. or we can have coffee at the Vide Church Sq during the day, but i hear the rain is coming down in your city.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 13th, 2009 @15:53 #
     
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    Count me in, Miz Kitty. I owe you a drink for emerging from your Cape hermitude to hear me read at the Book Fair. Pick a time and venue and post it. Somewhere that serves tea and cuke sandwiches. We cannot let AR down.

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