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

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Fifty Shades of English Lit.

Early on in Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian Grey (strictly Christian – no one dares to call him Chris) asks Anastasia Steele what turned her on to English Literature: Jane Austen, the Brontë novels or Thomas Hardy. Ana (always Ana to her friends) pauses only for a moment before answering, ‘Thomas Hardy’. ‘Strange,’ says Christian, ‘I had you down for Jane Austen.’

Fifty Shades is a film in which many questions are asked – of the audience as much as of the characters. It begins with Ana, an Eng. Lit. senior at university in Vancouver, going to interview the implausibly young, successful and well-heeled Christian Grey for a student newspaper. ‘Why do you keep biting your lip?’ he enquires as she struggles to put to him any questions worth asking. There’s quite a bit of lip biting later on. Later on, too, he will ask her, ‘Are you a romantic?’ She is surprised by the question, but replies, ‘Me a romantic? Well I’ve just graduated in English Literature – so yes, I guess I must be a romantic.’

I’m interested by the assumptions behind these questions, and by the answers given to them. Two of the three novelists Christian lists – all from the 19th century, as if this is where the heart of English Literature is located – are women. In the UK now, more than two out of three students (71% at the latest count, data from the GCE Inter-Board Statistics 2013, published by Pearson) taking A level English Literature are women, and almost the same proportion of A* and A grades in the subject are achieved by women. This is having an increasing effect on the ratio of male and female applicants to read English (still the most popular Humanities subject) at university. Year by year English Departments are producing fewer and fewer male graduates. Consequently, the number of men training to teach English in schools continues to shrink, and neither in secondary nor in higher education has the profession begun to come to terms with the implications of this.

It changes the way the subject is approached in class. I spent an interesting morning last month with a group of A level students who were studying Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems and Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls. These three texts, all by women, were their coursework, and they had to find ways of comparing them. One starting point they had been given by their teacher was this, from Plath’s poem, ‘Daddy’:

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

I had been asked to talk about how context affects our understanding of these three texts, both studied individually and as a group. Still at school myself when Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, I thought it might be revealing to compare Plath’s lines from ‘Daddy’ with the ways in which both she and Ted Hughes recalled their first meeting – she in her private journal immediately after the event and he in Birthday Letters, published thirty-five years later.

Plath’s Journal entries were more than late-night jottings: they were carefully crafted exercises undertaken by a young writer, at this stage inclined to imagine herself as a novelist rather than a poet. She and Hughes, by this time both graduates in English Literature, met for the first time at a party in Cambridge in a now long-demolished alley, Falcon Yard, off Petty Curry. Here is her first sight of him:

Then the worst happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me … came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes.  (26 February 1956)

No shortage of bobbysoxer excitement here, though ‘Then the worst happened’ is a disturbingly proleptic verdict on a romance that hadn’t even begun. Plath admits in her journal that she’d been drinking heavily before she saw Hughes; even so, what happened next comes as a shock:

and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off, my lovely red hairband scarf which has weathered the sun and much love [….] And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face [….] Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists.

Violence and submission:  the students with whom I was working were anxious to justify Sylvia Plath’s status as a second-wave feminist, but I think her admission – ‘I can see how women lie down for artists’ – troubled some of them, especially when set alongside the lines from ‘Daddy’.  So I suggested we should compare Ted Hughes’s recollection of the same fatal evening in his poem ‘St. Botolph’s’. Hughes looks back on it with a mixture of astonishment and regret. Recapturing his first ‘snapshot’ of Plath – ‘Taller / Than ever you were again’  – he says

I see you there, clearer, more real
Than in any of the years in its shadow –
As if I saw you that once, then never again ….

He goes on to claim he remembers little about the evening itself, that afterwards he was ‘stupefied’ to find her headscarf (which he remembers as blue, not red) in his pocket. But that wasn’t the only trophy he carried away from his first encounter with Plath: he also had

    the swelling ring-moat of tooth-mark
That was to brand my face for the next month.
    The me beneath it for good.

If Hughes, I tried to explain to the students, had found himself in a sense ‘beneath’ the ring-moat Plath had imprinted on his cheek, then in that same sense he was already a drowned man – drowned ‘for good’, with all the ambiguity that phrase implies. 

I’m not sure I convinced them. But perhaps Ana would have understood what Ted Hughes meant, and what Sylvia Plath had meant too. After all, like them, she was a romantic: and like them, she’d graduated in English Lit.

Adrian Barlow

Extracts from the Journals of Sylvia Plath (Karen V. Kukil ed.; London: Faber and Faber, 2000) pp.211-212
Extracts from ‘St. Botolph’s’ in Ted Hughes, Birthday Letters (London: Faber and Faber, 1998) p.14.