In the third part of his What Good Are The Arts? series, Alan Riach considers how culture maps our psychic and physical geographies

IN his little book on Melville, Call Me Ishmael (1947), Charles Olson proposes that the story of a great historical era can be read to its final end in the nineteenth century, in three great odysseys: “The evolution in the use of Ulysses as hero parallels what has happened in economic history.” In The Odyssey (c.700 BC), Homer’s Ulysses pushes against the limits of the known world, the Mediterranean, and in this way he projects the archetype of the West to follow, the search, to reach beyond the self. By the 14th century, in the Inferno (c.1314), Dante finds Ulysses in Hell, among the evil counsellors. He has become an Atlantic man. He bends the crew to his purpose, and drives them West. After five months on the Atlantic, they see the New Land there on the horizon, but a terrible storm blows up and they are drowned and destroyed before they reach land.

Then comes Herman Melville and Moby-Dick (1851).

“The third and final odyssey was Ahab’s. The Atlantic crossed, the new land America known, the dream’s death lay around the Horn, where West returned to East. The Pacific is the end of the UNKNOWN which Homer’s and Dante’s Ulysses opened men’s eyes to […] Ahab is full stop.”

But is he?

Olson’s map of history shows us the globe and we can recognise the truth in what he’s saying. We cannot repeat those journeys, but every setting out is a new beginning, and the open complexity of all journeys is the domain of the arts, and understanding this is a form of resistance. It is to resist the vanity of all efforts to bind and contain imaginative life, it is to resist the mechanical excess of systematic meaning. It is to teach that intelligence and sensitivity reside with an irreducible openness, never with the closed. The energy of the arts is full of exactly this sense of possibility, both in prospect and in elegiac retrospect. For example, Elgar’s cello concerto defines a tone we can legitimately associate with the Europe ruined at the end of the first world war, when, as Elgar wrote, “Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away – never to return.”

But the world of possibility, of energy rushing to articulate itself most comprehensively, is nowhere more palpable than in the opening of Elgar’s last symphony, the third, left in fragments at his death in 1934 but brought together by Anthony Payne in the 1990s. Despite Payne’s wonderfully rich achievement in reconstituting Elgar’s symphony, there remain two fragments which eluded even his best effort to get it all in. These two tiny, terribly eloquent, elegiac pieces – scarcely more than two short footnotes – are balanced with the utmost poignancy on the very edge of oblivion, ending with a C minor that haunts the memory. But pause on Elgar in full eloquence, blending together the stately nobility of authoritative command and the tragic knowledge of an Edwardian world that was ending, in the opening of his first symphony of 1909.

To Wilfrid Mellers, Elgar’s case is unique, because his “magnificently ripe symphonies are the culmination of a symphonic tradition that had never happened”. When Holst and Vaughan Williams tried to bring about a renaissance of English music in the early 20th century, they returned to Tudor choral music and folk-song – they thought of their art as fundamentally vocal. Perhaps something of the poignancy of the lack of a symphonic tradition is an integral part of Elgar’s first symphony. It carries a self-knowledge of loneliness. It speaks of worlds now far away, but it allows us to imagine them each time we listen, and perhaps it allows us a glimpse of worlds that might have been.

But that’s what all the arts do, really, all old maps and new.

They speak of things of the spirit and the body, Rilke’s innumerable angels and the carnal comedy that runs from Chaucer to the “Carry On” movies, from Boccaccio to Pasolini, from Rabelais to Joyce or Sydney Goodsir Smith. They speak of movement and locality, travel and place, history and geography. We grow familiar with particular locations, actual places like Wordsworth’s Lakes, Dickens’s Rochester, Melville’s Nantucket, Charles Olson’s Gloucester, Gregory O’Brien’s Wellington, Grofé’s Grand Canyon – or we might enter worlds of fantasy, Debussy’s Cathedral Undersea, the lost worlds of Shakespeare or Conan Doyle or Rider Haggard or Joseph Conrad or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In the Tarzan the Untamed (1920), Burroughs describes the fight between Tarzan of the Apes and Ska the vulture. Tarzan has been trekking across an African desert for days. For once he has underestimated the requirements of the trip. There has been no vegetation, no game, no water. Above him in the merciless sky circles Ska. At times Tarzan falls, and rises, and struggles on. Ska circles lower and lower. Finally, Tarzan falls and does not move:

“Ska, filled with suspicion, circled warily. Twice he almost alighted upon the great, naked breast only to wheel suddenly away; but the third time his talons touched the brown skin. It was as though the contact closed an electric circuit that instantaneously vitalized the quiet clod that had lain motionless so long. A brown hand swept downward from the brown forehead, and before Ska could raise a wing in flight he was in the clutches of his intended victim.

“Ska fought, but he was no match for […] Tarzan, and a moment later the ape-man’s teeth closed upon the carrion-eater. The flesh was coarse and tough and gave off an unpleasant odour and a worse taste; but it was food and the blood was drink and Tarzan was only an ape at heart…”

Sustained by the vile blood and flesh of the vulture, Tarzan survives his trek, and moves on to new sanguinary adventures. Burroughs, like Conrad and all these artists in whatever capacity, attempts to raise and answer the same questions: What might have been? What yet might be?

Conrad’s Lord Jim and Mister Kurtz in Heart of Darkness are the most troubling transgressors of possibility. We learn from them by training our own imagination. A particularly egregious member of staff at a university English department once suggested in all seriousness that Heart of Darkness should be taken off the curriculum because Kurtz was not a very good role model! The proper reply was mercifully given quickly: “Neither is Lady Macbeth!”

Of course the Macbeths are not role models: they are the embodiments of our human potential at its worst. The arts propose not literal but metaphoric truths. But it’s easy to see how dangerous the simple approach might be. And how infectious.

It is difficult to recognize the truth of greed, fear, envy, vanity and selfishness in ourselves, when so much of our culture is determined to locate the bad things only in others. It’s because we see ourselves in the ambition of Macbeth, the foolishness of Lear, the jealousy of Othello, that we can face up to our own weaknesses, and if we cannot fully “militarize ourselves against our capacity for self-destruction”, in Marshall Walker’s phrase, we can at least be wary. Hugh MacDairmid: “All creative work in the arts proceeds from below the level of consciousness and one has to dig into one’s self, down to the very depths of one’s personality, to get the kind of material that’s required for first-class creative work.”

That’s another kind of map: a map of the strengths and weaknesses in our capacity and make-up. A map of what we might be, and of what we might lose. And we can read it, or hear it, in the climactic moments of Sibelius’s first symphony as clearly as we can in Hamlet or Lear – or in the fifth section of Yeats’s poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”. In MacDiarmid’s words, this is “first-class creative work” and even when it registers defeat, it remains defiant. Yeats invites us to mock at the great, the wise and the good, in the certain knowledge that greatness, wisdom and goodness are themselves transient things and all will pass away. But if we accept his invitation and assent to his proposition there is one further group we might disdain and mock as comprehensively:

Mock mockers after that

That would not lift a hand maybe

To help good, wise or great

To bar that foul storm out, for we

Traffic in mockery.

However much the snow falls, however much time passes, adding to land, and even in the knowledge that old maps lose their accuracy and new ones are required, however much we mock what is great, wise or good, there is something more profound to understand. We have to acknowledge and understand that greatness, goodness and wisdom are there, they exist, there is truth to be found in them, and that mockers inhabit oblivion already, while these essential qualities, the things that make us human beings, do not pass away. Their depths are of the earth itself.