Articles of interest
28th June 2021
Book in Focus
The Quality of Life
Essays on Cultural Politics, 1978-2018
By Richard Pine
Looking back over forty years, the immediate impression about the earlier work is: how young we were, so innocent in our aspirations, uncontaminated by reality. We were uttering gross acts of faith, and today faith is both unfashionable and unprofitable, in a world without signposts to meaning.
It is a daunting, and sobering, fact that so many of the social, political and cultural changes we considered essential for our survival remain aspirational. I can easily understand the frustration of young people today—especially those without an occupation or who have lost their roots or connections—at the poverty of politics, the lack of statesmanship—and, indeed, leadership—and the diminishment and cheapening of cultural values, through the globalisation of anonymity.
However, it is my concern for the “quality of life” in all its aspects—social, political, cultural, and economic—which sustains these essays. “Cultural politics” is my code-word for the convergence of our personal and public lives, the interaction of what F. S. L. Lyons called “the furniture of men's kitchens and the furniture of their minds”. In all departments, we seem to have lost our way.
Having no scientific understanding, the one absence in this collection is the environment and the mindless way we are destroying the world which our children’s children will inherit. However, in another sense, everything I have written about “quality of life” implies an environmental responsibility and a respect for the oxygen of others. It is as if we were repeating the old escape-valve “What has posterity ever done for us?”—we are avoiding the fact that the future is our legacy; “criminal damage” will be inscribed on our collective tombstone, not only because we are polluting the planet to death, but because, culturally, we are joyriding the universe.
In place of a “green” orientation of these essays, there is an “Irish” dimension to the issues of identity, articulation and self-government. Like the Greeks, the Irish have tended to think of the future in terms of the past. Despite this, all the topics I have addressed over the past forty years have been forward-looking inasmuch as they ask, “How can we carry our experience and perspective of the past into a newer and better world?” (those aspirations again!). Even as we lose our literacy, we are also losing our connection to the orature which supplied us with the still-potent myths and sense of ritual that power both primitive and sophisticated social networks.
Writing about the “communications debate” and cultural democracy (Chapters 1-3) when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, almost in the same breath as I was exploring theatre history (Chapters 15 and 16), brought together ideas about relationships, metaphor and translation. Greece (my second home after Ireland) gave these topics a new perspective (Chapters 10-12) because I was not only seeing Europe from “the other end”, but also encountering a culture which was in many ways similar to what I had known before. Greece and Ireland both have literary roots which themselves are rooted in the oral culture with which the primitive mind confronted various phenomena; this power to motivate our behaviour remains one of my continuing sources of fascination, and is, I hope, reflected in all of these essays.
These remain acts of faith which I consider important not only for myself and my family and associates, but indicative of the fact that all the writers and composers whose work it has been my privilege to discuss regard these as necessary faiths, linked to necessary imaginations.
At any rate, these 20 essays across the territory of music, drama, literature and communication represent the crucial interface between our cultural lives and our political lives. They are a retrospective that affirms—if we can use such an old-fashioned term, with its resonance of positive, passionate commitment—the importance of exploring issues of identity, expression and imagination. Indeed, it is this latter factor, imagination, which is so much at risk, because it threatens the identity and means of expression of those who lack it, or who would like to deny it. To contradict Goya, it is not the sleep of reason that breeds monsters, but the sleep of imagination.
If we diminish another’s quality of life, we diminish our own. It is this need for cohesion in our thinking—an adult form of joined-up writing—that characterises the contemporary debate, as it did back in the 1970s. The great theatre director Sir Tyrone Guthrie said that all we can hope to achieve is to keep the bush from encroaching on the yard, to become “bushwackers”, sweeping the intellectual weeds from our foyer, and in “cultural politics” in the harsh light of the 2020s, that is maybe all we can do. However, we should, like the butterfly and the moon, subscribe to a greater responsibility than we can fulfil.
Richard Pine is Director of the Durrell Library of Corfu. He is the author of many books on literature and music, including Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape (1994/2005), The Diviner: The Art of Brian Friel (1999), The Disappointed Bridge: Ireland and the Post-Colonial World (2014), Greece through Irish Eyes (2015), and Minor Mythologies as Popular Literature: a student’s guide to texts and films (2018). He co-edited Islands of the Mind: Psychology, Literature and Biodiversity (2020) and Borders and Borderlands: Explorations in Identity, Exile and Translation (2021). His most recent books are Lawrence Durrell’s Woven Web of Guesses and The Eye of the Xenos, Letters about Greece.
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