Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel Artist In The Floating World is a beautifully crafted story of Japanese culture immediately after World War Two. It tells the story of an ageing painter whose own suspect memory has blinded him to his own forgotten war crimes. The novel explores the limits of personal memory, and shows the dangerous flaws in the way we construct our own self-image.
When it was announced that Ishiguro was the new Nobel Prize winner for literature, it was tempting for me to unleash a critique. Still smarting from the ruthless and ignorant anti-Dylan responses to the songwriter’s prize last year, I wanted to fight back.
I wanted to fight back against the the repressed writers and Faber customers who themselves felt affronted by Dylan getting the prize.
Ishiguro’s prize marks a return to consensus, a return to the safe, clipped and codified view of literature. Artist In The Floating World has much to say about our own lack of objectivity about ourselves, as well as a culture’s view of itself. It is indeed the debut novel of a brilliant craftsman, a writer fully deserving of a Nobel Prize.
However, this same questioning of objectivity in the novel represents a subtext of arrogance, a novelistic delusion about what can be deemed certain and uncertain. It is the same arrogance that is found in broadsheet newspapers or BBC interviewers. It is the same self-aggrandisement that exists in the editorial pages of the New York Times.
By giving Ishiguro the Nobel prize, the Swedish Academy is re-narrowing the frame of the Overton Window, eliminating the subjective, eliminating the imagination, and salvaging a quasi-Newtonian pseudo-objectivity that is the only security blanket of the academic class.
Ishiguro’s first novel characterises this world view. By a calm and ironic dismantling of subjectivity, it is effectively affirming the post-modern cynicism of the age. The crimes of the twentieth century, we are being told, are the product of inflated self-image, of histrionic grandeur. Far better to return to an artistic palette of positivist blandness, lest we veer into superstitious folk-Romanticism.
The reaction to Dylan’s Nobel Prize revived a centuries-old disagreement about the nature of literature; between what Robert Graves called the ‘Bardic tradition’ and the ‘folk tradition.’
For all their sophisticated meters and systems of prosody, the Bardic poets were always propagandists. Not just for immediate campaigns and wars, but also for the overall world-view of the moment. The court poet’s job is to crystallise and entrench the king’s worldview into the cultural norm.
The folk poets by their nature were less refined in forms and meters, and they were outright dangerous to the political consensus. It was for this reason that Elizabeth I outlawed unlicensed ballad singing. After printing presses started to dominate the folk tradition, oral transmission became even more of a threat, as centralised printers could now distinguish between the ‘real’ versions of songs, the ‘wrong’, or oral versions of ballads.
This propagandist’s distinction existed for the fledgling newspaper industry as much as it did for the established art of ballad-mongering.
Dylan’s art emerges out of the latter tradition. As a result it has more in common with the idea of literature in the Romantics, the Beats, Blake and the many unknown, unofficial geniuses of the ballad tradition.
The crucial line of distinction between official and unofficial runs down this divide between those who see the subjective as valid, and those who do not.
The Faber&Faber, puritan positivism of the pro-Ishiguro, anti-Dylan camp, is the view of those who attack subjective superstitions, in order to salvage a reassuring objectivity. This objectivity, it must be said, doesn’t even exist in the most rigorous of scientific laboratories. However, it has become the refuge of educated elites, who wish to bolster their own status with claims to special insight.
The art of the subjective, beautifully exemplified in the work of Bob Dylan, has no need for this reassurance. As the poet says, ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’ There is no investment in objectivity, in consensus, in a fixed frame of cultural reference.
An artist like Dylan is far more interested in a man’s flawed recollection of events, than the objective truth about those events. In fact, the very term ‘flawed recollection’ is meaningless. It doesn’t matter if it’s the product of a misremembered mistake of perception or not. What matters is the virtue and quality of the story, the positive drive of the narrative and the emotive response it evokes. The notion of objectivity, which is a kind of obsession for the Faber&Faber types, is merely a distraction for the Romantic poet.
This commitment to the primacy of imagination over objective fact, is often dismissed as a kind of primitive laziness. It’s not ‘real literature’ because it does not affirm the God-like authority of a world of facts. A post-modern deconstruction of the imaginative subjective, amounts to nothing more than the inverse of this lust for authority. Behind both the post-modernist and the Bardic authoritarian, lies a desire for the cosmic daddy-figure.
The folk tradition doesn’t recognise either. That is why far more is said about perception, recollection and flawed memory in Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue, than is ever said in Artist In The Floating World. The latter is a guilty, cynical examination of the idea of cultural authority and personal objectivity. The former is joyful, Dante-like journey into the mysteries of memory, shared experiences and the mysteries of the imagination.
The many praise-filled opinion pieces about Dylan’s Nobel Prize should not fool us into thinking that his art has indeed been welcomed into the realm of ‘proper’ literature. The gatekeepers of the Bardic elite have manifested their backlash in Ishiguro’s award.