Richard Pierce

Richard Pierce – author, poet, painter

Life, Writing

Brecht and Diderot and the internet

Dear Ren,

Sorry not to have written back sooner. Ever since I got back from the US, I seem to have been doing nothing but day job work, volunteer commitments, and sleeping (and that mainly on trains).

Some words from long ago.

I haven’t seen Set Fire to the Stars, though I went through a phase (in 1999-2000 to be precise) where I was totally and utterly obsessed with him and his words and his life. We were on holiday in Wales in the summer of 1999, and went to his house, and I spent hours gazing in through the window of the shed in which he used to write. There were reams and reams of paper in there with him testing thousands of words to see if one of them actually would fit into a poem. I started doing the same, and my notebooks of the time (which I have just got up from the desk to check) are full of similar notations, full of poems with long, rolling sentences, images ripped from some place in my head that I’m not sure I want to go back to. I ended up in hospital with what I thought were heart attacks during that phase. It turns out they were panic attacks brought on by God knows what (stress brought on by thinking too much, I should imagine, seeing as my osteopath asked me why I hadn’t seen him about these episodes because “your shoulders are as stiff as concrete, and that’s where all this has come from”). Despite still loving some of his poems (the simpler ones, mainly, like the one I quoted), I am nowadays still not sure whether Thomas was a genius or a charlatan, if the real reason for him drinking so much was to get away from what he had turned himself into, to get away from the part he was playing. But then we’re all playacting, aren’t we?

I had to google immersive theatre to be absolutely sure what it was. I’d initially thought it was just getting so absorbed in the piece you’re watching that you feel like you’re a part of it. The full definition is that the audience actually is a part of it. I know next to nothing about theatre except for my usual visceral response to any piece of art. Because I like simple things and emotions. What I do know is that I went to a Jacobean theatre in London a while back to watch a play, and there were a couple of actors in the audience playing the audience (in all senses, ie being the audience but part of the play, as well as involving the out-of-costume audience which had paid to watch). All very enjoyable, but all a bit strange, for me, brought up as I have been on Brechtian alienation where the whole pint of involving the audience is to remind them that what they’re seeing is a play, to stop them from suspending disbelief, for them to engage their critical faculties and say to themselves “this is a play, but it’s a play with a message.” Nothing fake about that.

The whole landscape of news has changed in the last fifteen years (I sound like a grumpy old man now), and I must admit that I often agree with people when they say that mankind has not become more evil but just that we’re so much more aware of it because the news is global and because it’s available 24/7. Does this apply to fake news, too? Has that always been around? Propaganda certainly has, though I suppose there used to be places where you could hide from that propaganda. Now, with social media, and the internet, ubiquitous, there’s a much bigger audience to be misled, a captive audience that wants to be told what it wants to hear. Mankind is kept alive by bestial acts is what Brecht said. And, in Going Underground, The Jam sang The public gets what the public wants, but I don’t get what this society wants. I suppose that just about sums it all up.

Living on the internet is like living in a big city. It mostly isolates rather than socialises. That’s why you’re always right when you withdraw yourself from it. I haven’t perfected that art yet, partly because I need it for my day job (and there it has done wonders for what factual information I can gather, for how far I can reach to gather that information, and to reach out to people in need on behalf of my masters. By the way, a wise old friend of mine (now sadly dead) quite rightly pointed out that it was pornography which drove the whole speeding up of the internet – to transmit photos and films of people doing unspeakable (and maybe speakable) things to each other needed higher bandwidth, better technology. And pornography, with its ultimate aim of generating revenue, drove all those developments, because money breeds money. And that’s probably pornography in itself.

Never rip up any paper you’ve started writing on. It would actually have been easier for you to press Delete and start again, but I wouldn’t have wanted you to start again, because since when are letters supposed to be endlessly optimistic and forward-looking. We don’t know we have a navel unless we gaze at it, or touch it with our hands. Same thing. We need to reflect, we need to allow ourselves our sadnesses as well as our happinesses, and we need to share them with each other (and not just you and me).

I get what you say about schooling, and, unlike you, I’ve never had the patience to teach children properly. What I argue with, in my situation, though, is the lack of guidance given to my children. What is the point of teaching children there are hoops to be jumped through (over here they call them assessment objectives), to tell children you don’t think they’re meeting those assessment objectives, and then not to go on and explain to those children how they can work towards meeting those objectives? That is the point. And, at the risk of sounding again like a grumpy old man, why not teach children the tools with which they can achieve (ie how to acquire knowledge and how to use it) rather than spoonfeeding them what they need to pass an exam? It makes no sense to me. And especially in the arts where the teaching I’ve experienced here in the last ten years is so prescriptive that it eliminates any talent anyone might have. And with that dies curiosity.

I love the name of your restaurant.

Speaking of Diderot, as you were, you must read To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury. It’s all about Diderot and Catherine of Russia, and St. Petersburg, which is on my bucket list of places to visit.

Do poets mean anything by what they say, except to create extraordinary images of ordinary things? If stars can be ordinary, that is.

Dead Men bound by Ren.

What do I question? The colour of the sky, the colour of the grass, my existence, why success seems to come to those who are mean, not those who are kind, why I chose to write, why I choose to write and not just to put it all to one side and say that’s it, that’s enough, that’s that done with, now focus on life. When I last ran, on 16th February, I tried to conjure, out of the countryside around me, out of the hedgerows on the side of the road, that blonde girl who jumped out at me in 2008 and told me to write her story (Dead Men), so that I could write some more. And, miraculously, she did, and I now have it all in my head. I just need to create the time to write it all down, to make sense of it all, of a life that’s just in a book, but is real nevertheless.

Much love to you and E.


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