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The Renaissance man should be celebrated, not dismissed as a dilettante

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

The producer and director Steven Soderbergh has retired from filmmaking to concentrate on his passion for painting. That’s what he said at first. Now, it seems as if he’s going to focus on television. It doesn’t matter – either way, it takes bravery to walk away from a career while you’re still at the top of your game. Not only does it suggest a sense of proportion and perspective, it also supports the civilising idea that not all lives, even the most successful ones, can be limited to one narrow path.

Many have interpreted Soderbergh’s departure as a warning signal about the decline of the film industry, the death of a canary in the coal mine. As film has become more riskaverse and predictable, influence and recognition have shifted towards television. As a means of exploring intelligent ideas and complex human relationships on screen, television has usurped cinema. Few films have the depth, subtlety and drama of The West Wing, The Wire, Borgen and House of Cards.

It is logical that leading talents should use the most exciting and fulfilling platform. Stephen Frears, whose HBO documentary Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fighthas just been shown in Cannes, recently argued: “No studio would have made this film. The good writing is now being done in television.” Put differently, if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing mini-series for HBO.

There is also something heartening about Soderbergh’s reluctance to repeat himself. An artist friend once told me that he was constantly being encouraged to rehash familiar themes. “If you paint anything with spots, your dealer will want all spots. If you paint stripes, he will ask for all stripes. Range is regarded with suspicion.” That is a common curse within artistic industries increasingly dominated by focus groups and marketing departments.

The equivalent in the literary world is the genre writer who keeps churning out a different version of the same novel so that readers “know what they’re getting” and (depressingly but just as importantly) bookshops know where to put the books on their shelves. In contrast, Soderbergh, like Frears, has always eschewed being easily pigeonholed. Whenever he pulls off a populist success, he instantly wrong-foots his fans with a change of mood and form.

There is a deeper reason to celebrate Soderbergh’s mid-career hiatus. The ascent of professionalism has reinforced a depressing puritanism about the way we think about high achievement. It is true that to get to the very top of any sphere requires dedication and sacrifice. To that extent, the “law” (or Malcolm Gladwell’s theory) that 10,000 hours of practice and experience are a pre - requisite for greatness is true enough.

This is necessary, yes; sufficient, no. For it does not follow that more dedication to one thing alone will lead to a better career, let alone a more interesting life. Total monofocus may work for a tiny handful – the ultraprofessionals within professionalism – but it does not suit most people, even those who are masters of their field.

We used to celebrate the ideal of the Renaissance man. Now, it is regarded with suspicion, as though a generalist must suffer from dilettantism. That is not true. It is possible to succeed in one sphere, intensely and with total absorption, before moving on to something quite different – and then perhaps returning once more to your initial discipline.

The questionable link between narrowness and success has hardened into a depressing celebration of indefatigable and dutiful suffering. There is a falsely democratic delusion that success follows from effort alone, the hours spent at the chalkface. That view omits the most important dimension of all. As W H Auden once put it: “The first criterion of success in any human activity, the necessary preliminary, whether to scientific discovery or artistic vision, is intensity of attention or, less pompously, love.” If Soderbergh has fallen out of love with film, he should express himself in a medium that now excites him. Rather heartfelt promiscuousness than long-suffering monogamy. A passionate affair might even help him return one day to his first love.

There is a final imbalance about the way we judge success. We increasingly celebrate weight of achievement rather than height, as though success can be parcelled up into convenient units of excellence and plopped on to a set of scales. My point is not that longevity and resilience are not admirable – but what about passing mastery, more intense, yet shorter lived? Imagine if Alex Ferguson’s astonishing career had encompassed even greater success per season but for a fewer number of years – if the peaks had been even higher but the time span shorter. Would his retirement have been greeted with such respect? I fear not.

In 1930, the golfer Bobby Jones Jr won all four of the biggest tournaments in the world, the “grand slam”. The achievement has never been equalled. A month later, aged 28, he retired. And yet Jack Nicklaus, not Jones, is regarded as the greatest golfer because he has won more majors, spread more thinly over many more years. For most pundits, weight trumps height.

If I am unconvinced about using a weighing mechanism to gauge success in sport, I find it even more problematic in the arts. There are real dangers in turning creative life into a tournament in which we seek to rate artists according to the number of their “wins” and “successes”. Robert Frost had a superb reply to this wrong-headedness. The poet’s ultimate pursuit, Frost argued, was “to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of”. At first, it sounds modest and light. On reflection, you realise how high Frost was setting the bar for himself.

If Soderbergh feels he has already made a few films that will prove hard to get rid of, he is right to pursue new challenges elsewhere without a moment’s remorse.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide