Saturday, 28 February 2015

Imitation game? The power of pastiche

We learn first by imitation. Later, we look for originality – in ourselves and in others. Thus, to say of someone ‘He’s a master of pastiche’ sounds to me a rather backhanded compliment. I discussed this recently with a friend, following the death of the composer Patrick Gowers.  Gowers was best known for his TV music in programmes such as Sherlock Holmes and Smiley’s People. Never a one-track musician, however, he was equally at home with classical music and with jazz; but he’d have liked, I think, to be remembered above all as a composer of sacred music. His cantatas and anthems have been performed and admired in cathedrals across England, and he was in the middle of composing an oratorio for the Three Choirs Festival when (as I learned from his obituaries) he suffered a stroke that left him unable to write any more music at all.

Patrick Gowers loved Bach. ‘If at times,’ said one obituary writer, ‘the music sounded like the work of Bach, that was no accident: Gowers was particularly passionate about the composer’s style, and some of his spiritual works had a Bach-like contrapuntal ingenuity.’ Does that mean his music had elements of pastiche? Technically perhaps yes, but certainly not in the sense of lacking originality. Of course, a composer writing film or TV music may need to evoke period or setting: the opening song from Dad’s Army sounds like an authentic morale-boosting 1940s tune; but it isn’t. It’s a neat 1960s pastiche, sung by the WW2 entertainer, Bud Flanagan, and now it’s impossible to imagine the series without those opening lines, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, / If you think old England’s done?’

That music - affectionate and slightly self-mocking – surely works so well because it is a homage to the spirit of an earlier age. I think all good pastiche needs this element of homage, but it also needs two further qualities. First, it needs a sympathetic understanding of what the musicians, artists, writers, even perhaps the architects, of the past were doing and how they were doing it. As for the second: well, art is never created in a vacuum and, paradoxically, artists need to be able to build on their sympathetic understanding of what’s gone to create something genuinely original. When Ezra Pound proclaimed ‘Make it new!” as the battle cry of Modernism, he did not mean, ‘Start from scratch!’ Few writers of the twentieth century valued the past and the literary tradition they had inherited more than Pound or Eliot.

So what does pastiche really mean? Is it still useful as a descriptive, if not an evaluative, term? The word itself derives, according to Chambers, from the Italian pasticcio, a pasty or pie with a variety of ingredients. This sounds appealing, but the dictionary’s definition – a musical, artistic or literary work in someone else’s style, or in a mixture of styles – still makes me uncomfortable. I can’t quite overcome the prejudice that to label the work of an artist, composer or writer as pastiche is, by implication, to belittle their work as lacking originality. But it was not ever thus: my Shorter Oxford Dictionary – trusty, but elderly now: it was a 21st birthday present – only admits the word pastiche as meaning in general ‘a medley, a hotchpotch, farrago or jumble’, though it does go on to be more specific, allowing (a) ‘a musical composition made up of pieces from different sources’ or (b) ‘a picture or design made up of fragments pieced together’. 

It’s curious that this OED definition makes no mention of literary pastiche; but change the word ‘picture’ for ‘poem’, and you have a good definition of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’. And within the poem itself there is fragment and imitation at the same time:

When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone. (ll.253-6)

You need to know what Eliot is echoing here (the song from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield) to decide whether it’s a fully-fledged pastiche. Olivia’s song in Goldsmith’s novel leads to a question:

When lovely woman stoops to folly,

And finds too late that men betray,

What charm can soothe her melancholy,

What art can wash her guilt away?

Re-reading this quatrain, it becomes clear that Eliot’s lines – a sardonic commentary by Tiresias on the seduction of the typist by the ‘young man carbuncular’ – offer an ironic answer to Olivia’s question. So, here the effect of the pastiche goes well beyond the pleasure of recognition.  What Tiresias says may answer one question, but it also requires us to interrogate our own response to the post war desolation at the poem’s heart. And that, I think, is the test of good pastiche: it must have a purpose beyond simple imitation.

Imitation for imitation’s sake is just a witty exercise. Imitation for a serious purpose, however, is the basis of both homage and artistry. Think of Hamlet and the First Player between them sharing an extended monologue on the death of Priam: it’s a bravura Shakespearean pastiche of Dido, Queen of Carthage, a play by Marlowe and Nashe. But it’s not just one playwright nodding to another. In this scene, which reduces the First Player to tears even as he speaks the lines, Shakespeare demonstrates how art can ‘amaze / Indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears’. In the context of Hamlet, this passage of pastiche becomes one of the most serious, and moving, sections of the whole play. After it, Hamlet has no doubt of the power of art to reveal truth; and, in the next act, the play-within-a-play, The Mousetrap, does truly ‘catch the conscience of the king’. Shakespeare offers here a masterclass in what pastiche can achieve: and for that I’d gladly call him ‘a master of pastiche’ – and mean it, as a genuine compliment.

Adrian Barlow


  1. Adrian, I remember – heaven knows how! – a line from a review of a novel in the Guardian, c 1967: ‘Eclecticism is not incompatible with integrity.’ At the time I sensed that this was right; and it does not seem to me to be too oblique to the kind of ‘borrowing’ that is a part of the subject of your blog. I was fascinated to learn that Eliot had ‘lifted’ an entire line from Goldsmith. But the whole point is that in The Waste Land Eliot has indeed made of this line something entirely new. This is completely acceptable, and Eliot’s poem would have been the less for its omission.

    For some strange reason, when I first read The Waste Land, I had no idea of its date, so closely did it seem to mirror the London that I knew in the 1960s. Further, I have always associated the typist’s ‘automatic hand’ with the automatic arm of those record players that could be set to play several records, one after another. But I wonder now: had such machines been invented at the time of Eliot’s writing? Or is it simply an ‘Eliotic’ observation of human behaviour, as in ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’: ‘So the hand of the child, automatic, / Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the / key.’?

    1. Peter, your mention of ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’ is very apt: together with ‘Preludes’ it provides both the prompt and the source for the lyrics of the key song from the musical ‘Cats’ - one pastiche begetting another, each one a further transformation. I like your remembered line ‘Eclecticism is not incompatible with integrity’ very much: it sums up what I was struggling to say.

  2. The automatic record changer was invented in the mid-1920s, soon after The Waste Land was published, so it could not have been in the poet's mind. But Eliot's work, and The Waste Land in particular, is full of memorable hands: 'The broken fingernails of dirty hands', the 'exploring hands' of the young man carbuncular, the 'controlling hands' towards the end of 'The Fire Sermon', as well as the typist's 'automatic hand'. There are hand-related gestures, too, of clutching ('What are the roots that clutch...?') and holding ('Marie / Marie, hold on tight'). No gentle or caressing hands, as far as I recall; a cold and troubling lot, in keeping with the atmosphere of The Waste Land. I suppose one could go on, and you will be making me reread Eliot to find more of them.