Hilary Lawson on error, philosophy and TED: “It’s really a business conference organisation”

Preview: How The Light Gets In.

If you walk north from the main festival site at Hay, through the town along Broad Street onto Heol Y Dwr, you’ll come to a separate enclosure. Inside there are small tents, a three-chambered pavilion, food and music stands, fronted by a repurposed 18th century chapel. You won’t find any readings or book signings. Instead, you’ll find little arguments.

How The Light Gets In, the annual festival organised by the Institute of Art and Ideas, aims to use music and philosophy to destabilise the reigning orthodoxies of modern thought. We no longer live in a religious age, but rather, as John Gray has argued, an age in which secular humanism – with its faith in human and technological progress – is the dominant mode of thought.

The festival was named for Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”, and this year’s theme, “Error, Lies and Adventure”, has been chosen to inspect the cracks. Terry Pratchett, AS Byatt and Terry Eagleton will debate the usefulness of fantasy to human understanding; Will Hutton, Shirley Williams and Cory Doctorow will ask whether we have reached the final days of the American Empire, and Oliver James, Frank Furedi and Richard Bentall will discuss the roll of power and influence in psychiatric practice. These are just three of over four-hundred events.

I spoke to Hilary Lawson, author of Closure (2001) and founder of the Institute of Art and Ideas, about “error”, TED and philosophy.

How did this year’s theme come about?

Each year we go for a theme to structure our events. We try to go for themes that we think are contemporary and at the edge of current thinking. One of the ways in which the festival is a little different from others is that we don’t simply identify well-known people in relevant fields and invite them along to talk. That’s not how we function. We identify what we think are the big intellectual themes, break them into smaller debates, and set about deciding who’s saying the most interesting things about each topic.

In the case of “error, lies and adventure”, there are lots of different layers. The first is that we tend to regard error as being something to be avoided, certainly in public life. Instead we should be looking at error as a way of realising that there’s something wrong with the way one is doing things which provokes new challenge and adventure. I think there was bigger philosophical thought … do you have any philosophical background yourself?

Not especially. My reaction to the theme was to think about the usefulness of error: that not every problem is a deviation which can and ought to be “fixed”. There’s also the serendipitous nature of acquiring knowledge – the hazardous, random aspects of the learning process. A lot of the time we have no control over the way knowledge is spread and I kind of like that. Sorry, that’s a long answer … I don’t have any philosophical training.

But it’s all related. One of the things we have been exploring in the biggest broad-brush sense is where does culture go after postmodernism? If you’re drawing huge brush strokes through decades of thinking – what is going on at the moment? Well, we had modernism and scientism and the belief that science would eventually uncover the truth about everything – and though there are some people who still think that is the case and indeed most of the media still operates in that frame – intellectually speaking, postmodernism and relativism have become more dominant. That’s left a lot of people intellectually lost.

To operate in a postmodern space where there are alternative ways of holding the world and there’s no objective truth is not entirely satisfactory. We have to get things done. We have to decide what matters and what works and all of those sorts of things, but we can’t just revert to some previous modernist notion that we’re going to discover the secrets of the universe tomorrow and that we might just lay them out in an educational form.

So, we could put the rigorous optimism of say, TED talks, at one end of the spectrum, and the useless polarisation of the sciences and humanities at (undergraduate level at least) in our universities, at the other?

I think that the academy has lost itself. As far as philosophy is concerned the academy is still operating with a framework which is one-hundred years old: a sort of Russell-Wittgenstein framework. A belief in clarifying what you mean by your words. This may have been exciting 100 years ago but it certainly isn’t exciting any more. When we started which was four or five years ago I think the primary perception of philosophy was Monty Python’s football match – a sort of joke. You certainly wouldn’t take philosophers seriously, they were just people to be laughed at, couldn’t even manage to kick a football. So our thought was, “this is crazy, it is obviously the case that we are all philosophers in the sense that all we wonder what it means to be alive and what’s going in the world and what’s really true.”

A lot of discussion of science in the media is both misrepresentative and false. I’m particularly irked by the news stories which say “well, y’know, the geneticists say this about our behaviour and so therefore case closed.” A first rate geneticist will in fact tell you our behaviour cannot always be explained by such easy assumptions.

We have lots of science debates, but our science debates aren’t about presenting science, rather, they’re examining whether this is a good way of going about things and asking what are the challenges to it. So in fact, the closer you look at science you see it’s full of underlying arguments and, as it were, black holes in thinking – rather than it being presented as a monolith of knowledge which is gradually uncovering the truth. What we’re trying to do in those situations is identify the big issues which lie behind the developments around science and to examine them and challenge them.

One of the ways in which we differ to TED is that they focus on giving individuals a platform (and I would say, those individuals frequently have commercial interests as well and a particular point to make – it’s really a business conference organisation.) What we do is try to focus on the debate. We do have individual talks, but we don’t let them do that unless they’re also prepared to be in debate and its debates that drive our festival programme and the IAI site.

It’s easy to forget that half of the festival is dedicated to music. Does having live music, in some way, help the intellectual atmosphere along?

The reason we have music is that if you go into a lecture hall, it's rather po-faced. There are all sorts of status and hierarchy issues in the lecture hall. Our venues are relatively small - our biggest venues have an audience of about 250 - so if you’re in our audience you can ask a question or make a point without it being a vehicle for the handful of people wanting to promote themselves. If there is some music drifting in from an acoustic set happening outside it stops people thinking “gosh that’s the professor of Physics from Harvard I can’t possibly have anything to say to them” and it somehow encourages space where people really talk to each other.

Really it's how student life should work: we have our debates and talks during the day, and in the evening we have a party. Of course, some of the best conversations happen in the evening. You see our speakers shouting to each other on the dancefloor about a debate that they’ve been in.

Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to this year, as distinct from last?

People frequently say to me “what’s the thing you’re looking forward to most” and I say “well, we’ve got 450…”, it’s not really reasonable to be looking forward to one. We didn't mention it before, but the third layer to the theme is that if you operate in a postmodernist space, one of the puzzles is that the reason people get lost is that it looks as if anything goes. If there’s no objective truth how do you discriminate between one thing and another? One question that’s interesting there is the question of error. There may not be objective truth but there clearly is error.

Error seems to be a starting point for so many things. The discovery and imagination that has come about through error, for example. Joyce relished mistakes – there are all those great anecdotes about the mistakes in Finnigan’s Wake, which he kept and still exist in the book today. It also has moral connotations. These are, I suppose, further layers.

We’ve tended to focus on trying to avoid error and just trying to present things as “truth”, but in an odd sort of way its almost the reverse, that we can never arrive at an ultimate truth. What is interesting is that we can say things that are in some way wrong. How does that work? How is it that the world enables us to get things wrong, but it somehow doesn’t enable us to get things right?

How The Light Gets In will run from 23 May to 2 June in Hay-on-Wye.

Let there be light. A bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Quoting psychoanalysts – and other innovative ways of coming up with lines of poetry

Three new collections of poetry – Stranger, Baby, Jackself, and Cain  test the limits of the lyric and of writing the self in extremis.

Stranger, Baby, by Emily Berry
Faber & Faber, 61pp, £10.99

Jackself, by Jacob Polley
Picador, 80pp, £9.99

Cain, by Luke Kennard
Penned in the Margins, 100pp, £9.99

Here are three new collections by poets who in various ways are testing the limits of the lyric and writing the self in extremis. The poems in Emily Berry’s second collection, Stranger, Baby, concern grieving the death of one’s mother. One of the many risks that Berry runs is to be mistaken for a straightforwardly autobiographical poet. These poems frequently feel close to unmediated candour and, throughout, we seem to be in the presence of a single voice (albeit one on the brink of emotional fragmentation) and a single personality.

In fact, they are constructed of many voices and they collage quotations from a number of psychoanalysts, which may account for the way they introduce psychic tumult by striking an unnervingly matter-of-fact tone: “You must imagine it like this . . .” or “This is the body’s way of handling emotion . . .” They are at once more intelligently crafted and more saturated with feeling than most poems, refracting the loss again and again, suspicious and vigilant:

I wrote: The sea! The sea! as if that might be a solution

Didn’t we always suspect the pain of intelligent people was truly the most painful?

The sea – that timeless and inescapable symbol of the unconscious, the memory, the mother – is a near-constant presence in the book, as in “Picnic”:

Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person

I tried to do that

All that year I visited a man in a room

I polished my feelings

The striking metaphor for analysis, and Berry’s unusual angle of approach, are impressive, but the subtle sense of alienation that pervades Stranger, Baby has even more to do with her use of that slightly awkward “a person” instead of the more expected “someone”. Of course, what Berry mistrusts above all is the polishing of feelings: if grief is to be written with honesty, it must be written as the ragged, ugly trial that it is. “Drunken Bellarmine” ends with the warning:

. . . DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,

fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.

I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,

raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Stranger, Baby is a daring, hard-won collection of poems.

I vividly remember the first time I read R F Langley’s “Man Jack”, and it still seems to me one of the most remarkable poetic creations of recent decades. Inspired by the OED’s enormous list of entries for “jack”, the poem shakes loose a new, timeless character and lets him range across English folklore and song. It begins:

So Jack’s your man, Jack is your man in things.

And he must come along, and he must stay

close, be quick and right, your little cousin

Jack, a step ahead, deep in the hedge, on

edge, a kiss a rim, at pinch, in place, turn

face and tip a brim, each inch of him, the

folded leaf, the important straw. What for.

“Man Jack” is also a technical tour de force, resolving syllabics and traditional prosody into a seamless music. It would be cruel but not entirely inaccurate to say that Jacob Polley’s latest collection, the T S Eliot Prize-winning Jackself, spends 80 pages trying to do what Langley accomplished in 90 lines. Here is Jackself’s playmate Jeremy Wren:

tell us what’s wrong, Jeremy Wren,

crouched in the corner, spitting no blood,

robust in bladder and bowel, your toes

untouched by fire or flood,

no cold wind blows

there’s hair on your feet and mint

in your groin and tonight

is milk, tomorrow cream

and the day after that

a herd that lows

from your very own

meadowland of light

The rhythms are borrowed, but at least Polley’s imagery can be relied on to transport the reader to his spooky version of northern England, where Jack Frost stalks the suburbs “wearing his homemade thousand-milk-bottle-top/winter suit”. The trouble is that it’s only a matter of time before a Literary Influence barges in and spoils it for everyone. Even if you don’t know “Man Jack”, the shades of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Walter de la Mare and Marianne Moore intrude; and it is dismaying that in Polley’s fourth book Ted Hughes still acts as if he owns the place. At one point Jackself and Jeremy Wren go night-fishing in “the kidney-coloured pool/all the streams of England run into”. This reworks Hughes’s signature poem “Pike”, in which the poet night-fishes a pond “as deep as England”.

The most telling moments come when Polley confronts the question of precursors. In “The Lofts”, the timid Jackself stands among “the skeletons of past Selves” such as “Edwardself, Billself/Wulfself” but runs away scared before he can claim “the silence that was yours/by birth”. In “Snow Dad”, the more proactive Jeremy Wren makes a larger-than-life replica of his father so that he can “run clean through him/and leave a me-hole”. Sadly, we are yet to see Polley’s me-hole. His skills are beyond doubt, but his ambitions feel derivative and his last collection, 2012’s The Havocs, attempted and achieved far more than Jackself.

In Luke Kennard’s Cain the trope of the alter ego gets a more contemporary treatment: the only thing here “resplendent in the twilight” is a supermarket logo when the poet wants to buy booze. The poems tell the story of a character, “Luke Kennard”, preyed upon by the mysterious Cain, “Tutelary spirit of the fugitive and/heavenly advocate for fan fiction”. Part guru and part tormentor, Cain cajoles the poet into a series of damning self-assessments: “Self-Portrait at Primary School” begins “I was so obliging I let the weirdest, smelliest kid pick on me/because I thought it might make him feel better” and ends “And even at the time it struck me: maybe I was the dangerous one”. To some extent this is ground that Kennard has covered before, but Cain is an altogether darker creation, written from the doldrums between youth and middle-age (the stretch that people who don’t hate themselves call their “prime”).

The second section of the collection consists of 31 anagrams of Genesis 4:9-12, in which the Lord curses Cain for the murder of Abel. This generates such phrases as “Huff on that cheroot, doorman! How’s the deathshroud, honeydew? From here on all will be [Static.]”. Many of the anagrams would be almost entirely resistant to sense, but surrounding them, like exegesis bordering a sacred text, are prose glosses explaining how the Cain anagrams are in fact the product of a surreal sitcom. Written from the perspective of a rabid fan of the show, the glosses regale us with trivia, interviews with the cast and crew, and fan theories on the meaning of each anagram/episode.

The result is hilariously reflexive about the self-imposed challenges Kennard has taken up, as the anagrams howl through the language like a prisoner through the bars of his cell. It feels strange to describe a book of poems as gripping, but Cain is so profoundly funny and so profoundly sad, so inconsolably intelligent and so brilliantly vulnerable, that “gripping” is the word. 

Paul Batchelor is the director of the creative writing programme at Durham University. His poetry collection “The Sinking Road” is published by Bloodaxe

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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