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On its own terms: political sentiment in Scottish writing

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The controversy over Alasdair Gray’s contribution to a recent collection of essays on Scottish independence points to the often fraught and false relationship between the arts and politics. This is the fourth piece in the ‘Restating Scotland’ debate series.

Stewart Sanderson
1 May 2013

Last December saw the publication of a collection of essays on independence by a number of well-known Scottish writers. The writers’ contributions were diverse, reflecting the plurality of contemporary literature in Scotland.  However, one contributor was the subject of almost all media response to the collection: the writer and artist Alasdair Gray. Much of this was hostile, premature and gave the impression not only of certain critics’ ignorance of Scottish culture, but of the actual content of Gray’s essay, which was accused of promoting nationalism alongside hostility and anti-English sentiment.

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The Booker Prize winning novelist James Kelman has eloquently defended Gray, pointing out that sixty years of seminal artistic activity, from the great 1980 novel Lanark to the large murals visible in various locations throughout the West End of Glasgow, emphasise his profound opposition to all forms of racism and cultural inequality. The polymath Gray, who will publish a larger work of non-fiction discussing Scottish independence in summer 2014, is undoubtedly a great many things, but bigot is not one of them.

The events surrounding the publication of Unstated highlighted a far broader lack of comprehension between politicians, the media and artists in Scotland. For at least three centuries, Scottish artists, musicians and writers seem to have anticipated political events, laying the cultural foundations for certain political sentiments that were then realised years, sometimes many years, later. Two key instances from the recent past are the Scottish Renaissance’s crystallisation around Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1930s and the process of radical cultural re-imagination following the failed 1979 referendum. In the 1980s and 90s, writers like Kelman, Gray and the poet Edwin Morgan, alongside a talented generation of visual artists including Ken Currie, Peter Howson and Adrian Wisniewski, were integral to the formation of alternative political narratives to those promoted by Westminster. Some of these narratives may have been partially realised in 1997 and 2011. Some of them may yet be realised further.

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But this view of artworks, which temporarily limits them to the sphere of political sentiments, omits a great deal. Political and cultural feeling may be important to the impetus driving artistic production, but they are arguably subservient to more aesthetic imperatives. In their discussions of literature and art, inevitably predicated on the ultimate political results of such discourse, politicians tend to forget this. One of the functions of art would seem to be the broadening of meaning, or the multiplication of potential narratives. Deployed politically, much of this is lost.

The alternative position is that political action is concerned with the realisation of human potentiality and creating the material conditions in which this can take place, and therefore justly sublimates artistic production to this greater end. This might be an extreme formulation, but is implicit to varying degrees in most of our politicians, who are rarely willing to discuss art on its own terms. Clearly, most serious artists are equally unable to meet politicians halfway.

MacDiarmid’s greatest poem, ‘On a Raised Beach’, presents a good example of this sort of paradox. Employing the language of geology and words derived from the extinct Shetland Norn, it is undoubtedly a challenging work. It would be very difficult to use it politically in the way the SNP, for instance, have deployed other poems by MacDiarmid, Burns and Norman MacCaig – to add cultural or emotional significance to an apparently materialist argument. However, the central symbol of ‘On a Raised Beach’, the unfeeling stones with which the speaker attempts to align and infuse his consciousness, is political at its core. The stones on the Shetland beach are presented in absolute terms, as unconscious entities against which human thought and societies must measure themselves. Such extremity pushes MacDiarmid’s argument far beyond what might be generally acceptable or credible in the political sphere, but makes for an enormously powerful statement of opposition towards material injustice. It is also, crucially, an argument against intellectual complacency, since the poem’s complexity militates against precisely the sorts of easy, superficial reading which characterised the media backlash against Gray’s essay.

Edwin Morgan’s 1984 sequence ‘Sonnets from Scotland’ is another work which broadens, rather than constrains, the Scottish vocabulary of response to unsatisfactory political conditions. A long poem comprising fifty-one sonnets, Morgan employs the traditional form with great skill and sensitivity, marrying science and historical fiction with his personal experiences of life as a gay man and university lecturer in twentieth century Glasgow. Such breadth defies paraphrase, but one of the better known sonnets, ‘The Coin’, is emblematic of the range of imaginative possibilities contained in Morgan’s work. The poem takes the form of a fourteen line dramatic monologue, in which an unknown speaker relates the discovery, on a strange, marshy planet, of a one pound coin of unclear provenance. The obverse shows Scotland, the reverse the head and antlers of a red deer. Most importantly, the alien archaeologist can make out a Latin inscription round the edge which reads Respublica Scotorum. The fate of this republic is left, as with so many things, unstated. Nevertheless, the image of the coin persists, an imagined trace of a state which might have been – and might yet be.

The Coin
We brushed the dirt off, held it to the light.

The obverse showed us Scotland, and the head

of a red deer; the antler-glint had fled

but the fine cut could still be felt. All right:

we turned it over, read easily One Pound,

but then the shock of Latin, like a gloss,

Respublica Scotorum, sent across

such ages as we guessed but never found

at the worn edge where once the date had been

and where as many fingers had gripped hard

as hopes their silent race had lost or gained.

The marshy scurf crept up to our machine,

sucked at our boots. Yet nothing seemed ill-starred.

And least of all the realm the coin contained.

‘Sonnets from Scotland’, like many other works by twentieth and twenty-first century Scottish writers, projects a vision of the nation which goes beyond the merely national boundaries of much contemporary political discourse. As with most great literature, the sequence resists attempts to reduce it to a single, utilitarian narrative. It would be foolish, however, to claim that it entirely subverts the promulgation of political sentiments. On the contrary, its main argumentative thrusts have the direct and intended effect of enabling them. Explicitly, Morgan was in favour of political actions which would lead to a Scottish Republic’s realisation in actuality, however unlikely that eventuality often seemed. Explicitly, he was in favour of the restatement of gender politics in an independent Scotland, and for putting an end to the old patriarchal inequalities which continue to blight so many of our people’s lives. His poetry is virtually a machine for the production of political sentiments. What it is not is a body of text to be mined for independence-friendly slogans, while glossing over those parts of it which seek to problematize or otherwise draw attention to its own emotional and sentimental mediation.

The same can be said of Alasdair Gray’s work. Since the 1950s, Gray has been a tireless and ingenious inventor in prose, poetry and the visual arts. The scantiest acquaintance with the sentiments expressed in his painting and novels would render absurd any accusations of anti-English racism. But absurdity emerges from politics as a matter of course. A deeper acquaintance with his work make plain the deeper absurdities ingrained in every level of contemporary political discourse. It is fortunate for the political class of this country that Gray’s art is less well-known than it should be!

There are many good arguments for enabling Scottish children to study Scottish Literature at school. There are just as many equally good ones for encouraging Scottish adults to absorb, criticise and most of all enjoy the real and important works of art which their country has given the world. They all go beyond the purely national, with the emphasis on locating Scotland in geographical relation to the international, supra-national realm of human expression. For example, an engaged reading of MacDiarmid naturally leads to an interest in the productions of Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Pound, since the Scottish Renaissance remains unthinkable without the backdrop of international Modernism. Studying Morgan leads, through his myriad translations from many languages, to the poets of dozens of countries, many of whom faced similar problems of cultural marginality.

Scottish writers and those who attempt to make their works available to the wider public are often accused of blind nationalism. On closer acquaintance with these works and the individuals who produce and teach them these accusations seem misdirected. Blind nationalists (and blind unionists) do exist, but the engaged study of literature is one of the best ways of reducing their numbers and allowing more productive and enlightened political sentiments to replace reductive and reactionary impulses.

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