Imagining “the Public Good”

Posted By: Writers' Centre Norwich, 22 June 2010

Fiction writer and experienced blogger, Adrian Slatcher provides an insight into the first session of the Worlds Literature Festival Salon. Adrian will be blogging about the Salons thoughout the week, so stay tuned!

When UEA was designed in the nineteen sixties, the architect deliberately created a sense of flow between disciplines and faculties which can perhaps only now be discerned as some kind of architectural memory, hidden in the blueprints of a contemporary campus university. This was one of the interesting points that came up late in the first morning of this year’s Worlds’ Literary Salon.


    This year’s theme is “the education of the imagination” and there’s already a palpable sense of it’s appropriateness just through the gathering of around 40 writers in the UEA’s council chambers. Though many of the writers there are based at universities, the relationship between institution and creative practitioner is one of the themes that comes out of our first morning’s discussion.

    Though we had started to get to know each other the previous evening, and some, such as myself, had a chance to catch up with those we had met in earlier years, like any good party, the salon requires a little bit of judicious oiling from the genial host to get things going.
    Our two provocations this morning came from Rukmini Nair and Graeme Harper. Firstly though, Jon Cook sketched out the thought process that had led to this year’s theme. A recent piece in the Spectator by Martha Nussbaum has argued in favour of literature’s capacity to educate the imaginations of its readers is a public good. For a room full of writers and academics, surely this should be an uncontentious statement? Yet Jon wanted us to consider whether this was always the case, for though Schiller and Coleridge may have based there views of the value of the imagination as part of what makes a civilised state, there are other times in history where this is not necessarily the case. Think of Nuremberg, Cook suggests, and I was also moved to think of the Kapoor Olympic sculpture, and the alliance of big business and political ambition that will make it happen. Going back to literature and it’s relationship to the state, will it always be tinged with irony?

Rukmini’s presentation took us on a tour of the imagination, her provocations stopping off at various unconventional places – not all of which we had time this morning to fully explore. If previous year’s salons have been anything to go by, we will come back to them, both in the formal space, and in informal discussion.
She began by considering the basis of what we mean by “imagination.” After all, in a world without written language or written literature, the imagination still exists. On visiting remote villages in India she finds “storyboards” and “story boxes” – which you open up, like a children’s plaything, to find multiple meanings. At the back of the story box is an imagination tree that is “mounted on the back of a cow – the giver of all good.” She finds puppets in these villages; archetypes of joker, death and monkey God. They’re immediate familiars in all cultures – I’m instantly reminded of Punch and Judy, and the dark stories told in the Punch and Judy booth, clearly not just for children. Our stories exist, she surmises, beyond the writing of them down, as does our imagination. In meeting Mr. Hu, a Chinese architect, Rukmini – who is a technologist as well as a writer - and him have a shared understanding of the distances between the “analogue” of the village, and the “digital” of the city – and how we need to look at the spaces between. Interesting for an architect, but also for a writer.
    Yet this is only one of her provocations. In the Mahabaharata, the figure of a Guru is ambiguous, not always doing what is morally right, a sometimes repressive representative of the state (of things.) In a university is the creative writing tutor also a guru with a statist agenda? Are, as a result, the University creative writing courses, by nature of the institutions within which they exist, creating “bonsai” writers? Cultivated, but out of nature.
And, if literature is a “state” or a “country” – how does it speak to its neighbours? Does it have a dialogue with them? A treaty? Or is it perpetually at war?
It seemed that our first discussions concentrated on some, but not all of these points. Rukmini had raised a number of “oppositional” forces: the city v. the village, the state v. the individual writer. In this world, literature is something negotiated, perhaps, even misunderstood (or re-interpreted) between the different oppositional points.

Following on from Rukmini, Graeme Harper wanted us to think about a more specific “role” for creative writing (and by implication “the imagination”) within our institutions. He took us back to the ancient universities, and reminded us that creativity was there at the very beginning, as places not just to study the world, but to create our understanding of it. The role of a scholar was cross-disciplinary – with a fluidity between critical and creative thought which only now may we be looking to go back to. Universities are partially established to protect their own “liberties” – of learning, of imagination, of action, outside of church and state, though linked to them, so surely putting writers into universities only to then separate them from the critical discourse therein, is in itself artificial?
Sitting on a train, Harper sees people on their mobile phones, browsing their Facebook page, sharing their experience via Twitter, and wonders whether this is the new model – already happening – that allows the creative and critical to sit side by side and mutually enhance each other. I’m reminded of China Mieville’s “The City and City” where two mutually exclusive cities are in the same physical space and exist side by side through a process of “unseeing.” Mieville has created a powerful metaphor. Learning, rather than being in a physical space, can happen between people, across disciplines. In the placing of creative writers – “imagination workers”, if you like – in the academy, we are not displacing their imaginations but finding some kind of utilitarian yoke for it. It is why some writers are reduced to describing their “day job” as some form of “alibi” – “I do this to earn money” etc. etc. – rather than revelling in the daily truth; which is creative people coming together, choosing to connect with others who share certain beliefs and aspirations, rather than remaining in isolation.
    In a room full of writers it takes a bravery to mention that writers, often self-involved, are not always the most empathetic of people in real life, and we should not pretend that they are. In some ways, it’s not even part of the job description. The empathy, if it exists, comes from the work. On coming to England a writer from another part of the world can have a recognition of place through seeing something – in this case a “copper beech” – that she has only read about, never seen, creating for her a kind of “luminous shock.”
    For us “imagination workers”, there’s almost a contradiction here. We sometimes despair at the short attention spans of web-surfing students who want to write long novels, but to read short Wikipedia entries. Yet, as children we all revel in the imagination.
Perhaps, I start to wonder, trying to pick apart the morning’s session, the “public good” of studying the humanities is literally that, state-sanctioned at certain times in society, and at other times dropped because it does not fit the pressures of the age. In a less than benign financial environment, there is no doubt that we are all under a certain “threat,” for the arts and the universities are developments of our civilised society as much as necessities for developing it.
Yet, for children, imagination, like play, is of immense value to their  development – later in life, society has, at various times, less of an obvious need for it. Yet the storyteller, the “imagination worker”, did not just appear with the renaissance, or flourishes in times of prosperity, but appears wherever humans gather together to reflect on their world.
Remember, the internet offers us endless opportunities to be “creative”,  in fact, it is the raison d’etre of the business models of such sites as YouTube, Blogger and Flickr; yet at the same time, those of us who have to “justify” the imagination to funders or institutions, have to use words and structures that are utterly utilitarian.
    The day’s final thoughts broadened out from the value of “imagination” to that of “knowledge.” What is that we need to know? We need to know that a bottle of water is clean, and safe, not that the plastic it is made out of is derived from oil. It is impossible to be like the young Gertrude Stein, frightened that she would one day run out of books to read, yet even if we can’t know anything we make choices on what we need to know to flourish in the contemporary world, in the same way that an isolated village would learn to know the medicinal properties of those plants that grew surrounding them.
    With the images of Rukmini’s archetypes – joker, death, monkey God – flickering in our thoughts, we finished for the day. We were, I felt,  a little less certain about the arguments that we began with. Over the rest of this week I think we will  want to define a little better what it is we mean by “educating the imagination.” As we slipped out of the meeting, the campus around us seemed keenly utilitarian, as buildings from that era always do, but a building, however well-designed, does not entirely describe what goes on inside of it, no more than you can access a person’s imagination from looking directly into their face.

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