Week Wherever

Illustration by Harry Furniss from Lewis Carroll, Bruno and Sylvie Concluded (1893)

Resisting the stampede towards the virtual

From a Philip Larkin documentary presented by A.N. Wilson to an obscure Lewis Carroll novel, the latest isolation diary entry from ArtReview’s editor-in-chief

Well, this week has been a write-off. I read a slightly disappointing novel about fatalism and love during the Sri Lankan Civil War. I thought that an intense account of the suffering of others would help with my empathy problem. (Like it had when I’d read an account of Kurt Gödel starving himself to death a few weeks ago.) And that I’d somehow be connecting with my Sri Lankan ancestors. From an apartment in London. Sporadically decorated with some of their religious knickknacks. It didn’t and I didn’t. Although in some respects I was reminded that I do share aspects of their faith. And, like them, I don’t like being bombed.

I watched a documentary about Philip Larkin presented by A.N. Wilson, a very English newspaper columnist ‘known for his biographies’. For the next day I couldn’t stop imitating Wilson’s clipped British accent, while I talked to myself (obviously – although podcasts did begin to seem like an option), having somehow morphed from colonised to coloniser in the space of 24 hours. And I could not stop staring out of my high windows and dreaming up the poems Larkin might have written about our shitty new world: ‘An air of baffled absence, trying to be there / Yet being here…’ Yep. It turns out he had already written them. Parody potential denied. Like I said, the week was a write-off. Rather like Wilson’s attempts to deal with Larkin’s racism in the documentary. And to think that at some point I thought that these columns were going to be uplifting in a dark sort of way. Now I was going to have to give in to the barrage of emails exhorting me to ‘experience’ art online. So I would have something ‘new’ to say. Not, as the whole Larkin fiasco reminds me, that such a thing is possible.

That’s when I moved from the definite racist to the possible paedophile. (Isn’t that the history of British literature?) Discovering, while avoiding the online art shows, an old ArtReview article written by an architect friend in which he mentioned an episode from Lewis Carroll’s obscure, unpopular and final novel, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. (For the record, it’s Carroll, not the architect friend, who’s the possible paedophile.) It’s the sequel to his (Carroll’s, not the architect’s) penultimate unpopular novel, Sylvie and Bruno. Carroll had originally planned that they should be one popular novel, but his publisher worried that it was too long to be popular. It turns out people had developed short attention-spans even in the age of Victorian verbosity and Dickens. Nothing is new.

With the benefit of hindsight, people today say that it was the lack of humour rather than the length of Carroll’s ramblings that the publisher should have been worried about. And, to be fair, it’s not like I could bring myself to read every page of Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. Although that might be because I don’t have part one of the project to hand. So the characters never seemed to develop. They arrived at the beginning of the book fully formed. Somewhere else.

Doubters: this is how the preface begins – ‘I MUST begin with the same announcement as in the previous Volume (which I shall henceforward refer to as “Vol. I,” calling the present Volume “Vol. II”), viz that the Locket, at p. 405, was drawn by “Miss. Alice Havers.”’ Carroll goes on to thank his ‘many’ reviewers for their bad reviews of ‘Vol. I’, before continuing thus: ‘In the Preface to Vol. I were two puzzles, on which my readers might exercise their ingenuity. One was to detect the 3 lines of “padding,” which I had found it necessary to supply in the passage extending from the top of p. 35 to the middle of p. 38. They are the 14th, 15th and 16th lines of p. 37.’ Old fool. FYI there is no locket on p. 405. There’s an engraving of a locketless woman in bed on p. 404. Although maybe he was referring to ‘Vol I’. In case ‘Miss. Alice Havers’ sued. The need for the ‘padding’, beyond puzzling his readers, is never explained. Still, a life in pieces is what we all have to deal with these days. And, in that sense, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded isn’t all bad.

The passage in question concerns cartography. And it somehow seems to encapsulate what our new lives are like. And why certain aspects of them – online or virtual art shows, for example – are worthy of a certain scepticism:

“What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr [although he seems German, he’s supposed to be a visitor from another planet, btw – presumably these amounted to the same thing to English people in the late nineteenth century]. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So now we use the country itself as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

It’s not that I don’t look at artworks online. I do. But I want to resist the stampede towards the virtual, the arms race of the digital and any move to exchange the virtual for the real or to pretend that they are somehow equivalent. Because, as the extraterrestrial German says, the country itself does nearly as well.

In my mind, the passage by Lewis Carroll will always be read to me by someone impersonating A.N. Wilson. I’ve got enough fuzzy edges and unstable connections already. I like them. And no screen can mimic them. Even if this week was a bust.


As I write this the Rijksmuseum has just announced the release of ‘the largest and most detailed ever photograph of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch’ a 4.8-gigapixel image that will allow viewers to see ‘individual brushstrokes’ and ‘even particles of pigment in the painting’. Whatever.

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