Actor Robert Helpmann as Shylock in the Old Vic's 1958 production of The Merchant of Venice. Photo: Monty Fresco/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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The whole damn literary canon needs a trigger warning

Until we appreciate how much of our literature is potentially traumatic, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence?

The trouble with trigger warnings is: how would you know when to stop? It isn't just that triggers (the sensory inputs that revive experiences of trauma; the violent siblings of the Proustian Madeleine moment) can be erratic. For some people, a description of the violence that traumatised them will leave them unscathed, but a taste, a smell, a colour or a texture might summon every horror they've known. How can any system of warnings predict the strange and painful networks of memory? But even if you restrict the trigger warning to only the obviously violent, to depictions of sexual aggression and racism, how much is there in the canon of literature that could be considered non-triggering?

The Bible would have to wear the warning, of course: too much begetting without consenting, and a lot of shedding of blood. Shakespeare too. There are the obvious horrors, like Titus Andronicus with its hideous maternally-directed rape ("Away with her and use her as you will./The worse to her, the better loved of me") and subsequent mutilation of the victim. But then there are the comedies, which even at their merriest contain intimations of rape. Measure for Measure hinges entirely on a woman being coerced into intercourse to save her brother's life. Problem play? More like problematic play. Get behind the tape.

The great works of the Restoration, then. Pope's The Rape of the Lock parodies a society incident in which a young rake violated a beautiful woman's hair in retaliation for slighting him. The wit of the poem comes in the bathetic contrast between the epic ornamentation Pope uses and the perceived smallness of the crime – but really, and not to be a massive downer, we are talking about an assault and a more than passingly creepy one. Cutting away a lock of a woman's hair assumes a right to her person that is rooted in the deepest woman-hatred. And then there's Swift, both a great satirist and a great misogynist: "Oh Celia, Celia, Celia shits!" he cries out, revenging rejection by dragging the desired woman into the humiliations of the grotesque. (At least Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was able to pay Swift back with her imperious and much funnier reply.)

To the romantics. Byron, of course – there's no shortage of triggering moments in Byron for victims of sexual violence. The novel appears about this time, and is reputedly a more female-friendly form, but Fanny Burney's Evelina is riddled with hate for women, especially the unmarriageable ones: in one scene, two elderly ladies are humiliatingly forced to race for gentlemanly entertainment. Jane Austen is surer ground, assuming we see no violence in the marriage market that she delineates with satirical clarity. Our contemporary expectation that women are people and not chattels would call such bargaining "financial abuse", and so Austen must be blazed with content notes too.

We should find safety in the reputed primness of the Victorians. But Browning's Porphyria is erotically strangled, Tess of the d'Urbervilles is raped – in decorous circumlocution, but repeatedly, until she has finally had enough and stabs the source of her abuses (Hardy blames the President of the Immortals for Tess's travails, but I blame the patriarchy) – and Bram Stoker's Dracula is a cavalcade of sexy sluts getting violated right in the vein. Wuthering Heights is an anatomy of familial violence, and a highly disturbing one. Racist too, with the focus on the exoticism of Heathcliff's dark gipsy skin and his bestial affinity with dogs.

As we get past the suffrage movement and into the 20th century, things should be looking up. Actually, not so much. The Waste Land plays on rape as a metaphor – and Eliot has no concern for the inner life of the female character he has fictionally despoiled; he doesn't want sympathy for her, her wants her as a symbol. The Great Gatsby ambushes you with antisemitism. Of Mice and Men, with the tragic, nameless Curley's Wife who exists only to menace men with her sexuality and be killed by an absolutely blameless character, because who could help killing a woman like that? Lolita, of course: how great, how elegant, how jewel-like in its precision, how absolutely stuffed with woman-killing and the sensual pleasures of child rape. Sylvia Plath's Ariel with its savage recreations of male violence – definitely triggering.

Where are we now? Practically contemporary. We could study Margaret Atwood's work, with its anatomical exploration of the marks left by violence against women – The Handmaid's Tale is the obvious classic (TW: rape, sexual assault, extreme patriarchy). Or one of my favourite novels, Alasdair Gray's 1982, Janine – a luminous descent punctuated by wild and lurid fantasies of sadism against female bodies. The problem is that what the trigger warning would highlight is something that is simply endemic in our culture: violence against women is just so much background hum, a cracked neck here, a severed tongue there, an aggressively inserted cock here and here and here.

There is nothing exceptional about this content. Wanting to be warned that it is coming is like wanting to be warned that there may be some exhaust fumes in the air you breathe. Well of course there will be – what do you want to do, live on a Hebridean smallholding in isolated purity, breathing in a clean, cultureless atmosphere? And with so much literature being subject to the trigger warning, if they are introduced to university syllabi (as has been proposed), what's to stop the lazy student from feigning trauma and skiving off two-thirds of the set texts? Not that English literature students need much institutional support for their skiving.

But a trigger warning doesn't have to be a do-not-enter notice. It could be a road sign, simply informing travellers of the kind of place they're about to enter: welcome to our village, twinned with patriarchy since publication date. And for every one of the works I've named above, I could write you an elaborate defence of the misogynistic content, contextualising it, explaining its artistic necessity or the way the author is interrogating patriarchy rather than simply replicating it. In some instances, I'd even believe what I was telling you.

That's not the point, though: the point is that this is what our art is made of, and until we notice that, how can we hope to make a culture that is not shaped by white supremacy and male violence? Trigger warnings are crude. They are patronising. Yes, they suggest that you the reader need to be protected from art. But get over all that and see them instead as beads on an abacus, counting up the many destructions of humanity that have gone into making our white, male canon: tick-tick-tick-tick – until at some point the frame topples over, and we realise that we must make something new and different if we can ever live beyond violence.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State