Magazine article The Spectator

Experience Is Only the Beginning

Magazine article The Spectator

Experience Is Only the Beginning

Article excerpt

A fortnight ago Sam Leith, reviewing Neil Powell's book on the Amises, father and son, wrote:

Powell is insistent -- and for all I know dead right, but that's hardly the point -- that Kingsley was a sufferer from depression. Of the last sentence of The Anti-Death League ('There isn't anywhere to be.'), he writes: 'This -- the last sentence especially -- is the authentic voice of depression, and only a depressive could have written it.' You may wonder where that untestable assertion gets us.

You may indeed, though the answer is pretty obvious: not very far. Powell has fallen into a trap that catches many critics and also, though perhaps less often, ordinary readers: the assumption that everything in a novel or play derives from the writer's experience, rather than his imagination. It's absurd.

Take another example: 'To-morrow, and tomorrow, and to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death.' Here too we may say, with Powell, 'is the authentic voice of depression', at least as authentic as that heard in the line he quotes. But would you say that 'only a depressive could have written it'? Or would it be more sensible to conclude that Shakespeare has imagined how Macbeth should feel as this moment when he has just been told of his wife's death and when the props of his existence are shuddering?

Shakespeare had no need to be himself on the point of despair; all he had to do was imagine Macbeth's feelings and find the right words for him to speak.

It's easy to demonstrate the idiocy of the sort of assertion Powell makes. Suppose you write a nasty and violent rape scene so well that it is utterly and horribly convincing. You might be rather pleased with it. But you would reasonably be offended if some critic came along to assure the world that 'only a rapist could have written it'.

Almost 20 years ago my friend, the poet Robert Nye, wrote a remarkable novel about Gilles de Rais, once a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc, then brought to trial charged with witchcraft and heresy, sacrilege and the practice of unnatural crimes against children of both sexes, ending with their murder for his delight. He was convicted and executed at Nantes in 1440. Now I can think of no one less like Gilles de Rais than Robert Nye, also of nobody more capable of thoroughly imagining him. …

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