What the Dickens?
The column: Howard Jacobson has only been back in the UK for a short while. But that's been long enough for the state of our television to confound his great expectations
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 01 May 1999
Make it all look like something we know already, something we discuss routinely with our doctor, solicitor, maybe even probation officer if we've got one - that was the implicit ambition of the venture. Make Miss Havisham understandable as someone who doesn't get out enough. Make Pip's sickly lurching fascination with Estella understandable as wanting what you can't have. A man behaving badly. Reinterpret in familiar language, for God forbid we should learn from what seems strange. Strange? Strange to us, who go about armed in the all-comprehending vocabulary of science, sociology and psychotherapy - what can be strange to us?
Everything, is the answer to that. We know next to nothing. And every time we miss the point of Dickens we know a little less.
And there's the folly - the self-damaging condescension - of the whole reinterpretation industry. Not only is it insulting to the past to assume it requires the elucidation of the present before it can resonate, it imprisons we contemporaries in self-sufficiency, exiling us from any understanding of the world which is not the one we have already.
Forgive me - you don't want a review of a telly programme weeks after the event. But Great Expectations was no aberration. Everything else on television at the moment dances to the same imperative. Only a fool would risk a word like "relevant" any longer, but the ghost behind the word still haunts the popular culture. Drama, fiction, docu-drama, docu-fiction - fine, fine, all fine so long as no one is made to feel left out, so long as every reflection is recognisable in a flash, so long as we ditch all notions of awakening the soul in favour of the blanket idea of help. We watch now, literally, in order that we may be helped. Turn on telly and we are immediately on welfare. You too suffering from drug addiction, cancer of the prostrate, loneliness, gout, garrulousness, erotolepsy, beach sores, abuse of all the usual kinds? - here's the number you should ring. You too thinking about an abortion, leaving home, murdering your husband, giving up fags? - turn to Teletext page 340.
I am no lover of soaps. I am not concerned that their integrity as drama should be respected. But even I am shocked to hear a voice telling you who to contact when your marriage is in trouble before the credits have begun to roll.
There are those, though, who would argue that this is all art was ever for. "Fictional narratives," the neuroscientist Steven Pinker suggests, in How the Mind Works (for which read How His Mind Works), "supply us with a mental catalogue of the conundrums we might face some day and the strategies we could deploy against them." Not a good thought or a good sentence. But then I am not one of those who gets carried away by the poetry of the new science. We should all stick to what we know best. I don't do test tubes, they shouldn't do sentences. I'm not sure that scientists should do thought either. Or go near art or the imagination. Is there a sadder spectacle in contemporary intellectual life than that whimsical sceptic Richard Dawkins trying to wrap his mind round the strange and subtle phenomenon of belief?
I say again, we comprehend next to nothing. And scientists comprehend still less. Big Bang and then zilch.
As for art, which is all we know on earth and all we need to know, reduce it to a catalogue of conundrums and it too becomes a withered arm of welfare. Oedipus Rex? Trust to Pinker and we behold Sophocles' classic in wonder only so that we'll be able to deploy the relevant strategies for dealing with the evidence, once it's presented, that our wife's in fact our mum. Oh, bugger! Having trouble coming to terms with that? Try Ceefax page 233 or write to TV House, W1A 1A, for an illustrated factsheet.
How long, then, before we get social services surtitles at the National? Two minutes into Hamlet and the whole cast is seeing ghosts. Wouldn't a number help? If you think you've seen your murdered father's spirit recently, armed cap-a-pie, his beaver up, his beard a sable silvered, his pale countenance carried more in sorrow than in anger, wouldn't it be of service to you to have the name and address of some psychologist or counsellor, some exorcist or priest, some New Age soother at the very least, to scribble on the corner of your programme?
Can't act? Can't make your mind up which is nobler? Can't kill the King? Write Dr Speedwell, c/o the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, Tabernacle St, London EC2.
The best novelists have of course been warning us all century that this was going to happen. What you get when you worship democracy. For which diagnosis we dismissed them as fascists. But it's not fascistic to hold that we are more than our daily aches and pains, that there are some alleviations, just as there are some illuminations, the social services cannot provide. Nor is it fascistic to believe that we are great mysteries to ourselves - bizarre, every one of us - and that whoever seeks to iron us out is our enemy
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