Monday, 3 June 2013

The children of the revolution

It's the helicopter scene from Jurassic Park, the 1993 Speilberg film. Imagine for a moment that you and me are sitting in the helicopter with the Jeff Goldblum character, Ian Malcom, and the Richard Attenborough character, John Hammond. As the helicopter descends into a deep crevasse tufted with jungle trees, aiming for a landing pad built deep in the forest, Malcolm and Hammond are talking about the moral implications of bringing extinct animals back to life using science applied through technology. Here's what Malcolm says to Hammond:
The problem with the scientific power you've used is it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge yourselves, so you don't take the responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it, slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and now you want to sell it.
I want to bring a few dinosaurs back to life here, starting with the great innovators of America and France. Walt Whitman, for a start, a man born in 1819. His Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, around the same time as Moby Dick, which came out in 1851. This novel was written by Herman Melville, a man also born in 1819, a couple of years before Charles Baudelaire, who was born in 1821. Baudelaire's famous collection of poetry,  Les Fleurs du mal, was published in the same decade as the other two men's masterpieces, in his case in 1857. There is another dinosaur in this park as well, the polymorph Edgar Allen Poe, who was born a bit earlier than these three, in 1809. Poe constitutes a direct link between Baudelaire and what I call the "children of the revolution". The American Revolution.

Because despite how wonderful the works by these four writers are, they will  always remain the ones, in Malcolm's words, "standing on the shoulders of geniuses". On the shoulders, to be precise of the ones born around the time of the Declaration of Independence, the political manifesto of the colonies, written in 1776. They are Coleridge, born 1772, Wordsworth, born 1770 and Austen, born 1775. In fact Poe belonged to the third generation of writers whose themes and styles were impacted by the events surrounding 1776; there are a whole group of English writers - Byron (1788), Shelley (1792), and Keats (1795) for example - who were young children at around the time Lyrical Ballads was published and Northanger Abbey was written.

I'm reminded of Malcolm's words when I see someone's blogpost about getting published, which usually will contain warnings and advice about the financial aspects of writing. Because there have been few literary works as great as the ones mentioned above that came out in the 1850s - Poe's writing was published in various ways in the late 1820s and 1830s - I usually ignore links that invite clicking through to those pieces. Good advice, no doubt, but what does it mean if the only aim of publishing is to make money - package it, slap it on a plastic lunch box and sell it - when history tells us that to change the world something more is needed.

You might say that the children of the revolution were merely fortunate to have been born at the time they were. You might also say that Austen always had financial returns in her mind when she wrote - Northanger Abbey was, after all, aimed at capitalising on the booming market for gothic fiction in the 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century - but then you have to remember that Austen, apart from being the only woman among those listed, was also the only political conservative among them. In any case, she failed. Northanger Abbey was written starting in 1798, prepared for publication in 1803 and was only finally published after the author's death in 1817. It was far too radical stylistically and thematically to capture the attention of London's publishing fraternity.

So what happened after the 1850s? Modernism is what happened, the relentless search for the stylistically new and the thematically striking. All, attempts to recreate the kind of innovation introduced by the children of the revolution. And while there have been plenty of political radicals, leftists, and bohemians among the writing class in the years since then, only one stands out, and he's probably the most self-consciously radical, bohemian and unusual of them all: Arthur Rimbaud. Born in 1854, his first published work came out when he was just a teenager, but Rimbaud merely attempted to recreate the emotional state that the children of the revolution possessed in their youth due to their exposure to the zeitgeist. He knew that something extreme was needed, but it was necessary for him to make it happen from within, by himself, alone. He wanted to be a giant, which is of course a lot more than you can say for most writers published since.

See also: Vladimir Nabokov, father of Gonzo. The link between the 20th century innovators, Nabokov and Thompson, and the children of the revolution is, of course, war.

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