Monday, December 18, 2006

Legacy and bequest - some musings

I have begun to ponder the nature of legacies in order to contemplate what can be derived from a writer whose work I have begun to study. His identity is unimportant, in many ways, but the question of what can be considered his legacy is significant. Here are some preliminary thoughts.

In some definitions, notably the legal concepts, there is no distinction to make between the idea of a legacy and that of a bequest. If I make a bequest to someone in my will, they get a legacy from me. No bequest, in suitable legal form, no legacy.

And yet this legal definition presents a very limited compass. When someone or something is lost to us, we can still draw a legacy, still take something which remains despite the ending of our involvement with that person or objects’ life. Sometimes this will be something quite unintended, indeed perhaps in contradiction with what was intended.

A short but not too sentimental illustration comes from my sister and her regard for objects that belonged to others. I sometimes think that she will need to acquire a warehouse, indeed bequeath this and its contents to my nephew and niece, in order to accommodate items of furniture and effects that belonged to various members of her and her husband’s family. My late great-aunt died in 1999 at the age of 94, and left various pieces of furniture and ornaments to my sisters and myself. We divided these between ourselves, reasonably amicably, but my eldest sister’s parting shot was “Of course, we must keep these items of Aunt’s for ever”. Along with, it seems, pieces that belonged to two or three aunts and uncles of her husbands, books that belonged to my grandmother, and so on. These, it seems, are their legacies to my sister. Nothing else, either. My father has been gone for 20 years, and for most of those 20 years my sister has rarely spoken his name, to the extent that her daughter, herself 20, seems to be very uncertain who he was. There is thus no legacy of the man himself to his grand-daughter.

I derived a quite different legacy from my aunt. I have not seen her furniture as an essential legacy which would represent my feelings for her. We had very different views on politics – she was very proud to have spoken on the same platform as Churchill in 1948 – but I would have liked to have known more about the world she came from, even if I would condemn much of it. Very late in her life, I had intended to tape some of her memories, and these, capturing her voice and her feelings, and especially memories of my father, her nephew, would have been a much better legacy. Sadly, the opportunity to record my aunt never finally arose. Undoubtedly, she saw her direct bequest to me as her legacy, something by which she would be remembered. Ironically, she felt that these items, which had belonged to her father and mother, would somehow stay in a family which will, in reality, die out with me, as I have no children. What I could draw from my experience of her, and my feelings about her life, would present a quite different inheritance.

Thus, a distinction can be developed between a bequest, which is intended to pass on something to someone, and a legacy, which is what we draw from that person (or thing). A writer may well intend his or her readers to derive something specific from his or her writings. Some literary critics would see it as their task to determine the precise nature of that intentional literary bequest. Others would draw something quite different, in investigating and evaluating the personal life of the author, sometimes stressing the divergences between that life and the author’s work. In a way, this could be to draw out a set of meanings that are not what the author intended to bequeath, but these can be seen as one legacy. The postmodernists, declaring the death of the author (whether or not the person whose name is on the book cover is actually still in this world), might see no reason to investigate the life or the writer’s intention, but to draw a quite different set of meanings. In a way, when other writers are influenced by a book, their own writings may draw on a legacy that is independent of the original author, so it is the book as a thing that influences. In that sense the postmodernists, with their insistence on the validity of the text, are correct.

The multiple interpretations of texts have occupied small armies of people, sometimes concerned to justify their support for actions on the basis that they are fulfilling a legacy. The examples of Marx and Freud as writers, or the Bible or the Koran, come to mind. Attempts to understand these writings is not just a matter for semantic literary criticism or the development of an academic career, but for very real insights into what the legacy of these writings should be, and what has been done in their name. The bizarre competing industries seeking to claim the late C S Lewis (of Narnia) for their own illustrate what can happen when wishful thinking takes over from the readings of actual texts and biographical rigour.

To return to my original question, what of the writer whose legacy I am considering? It does seem appropriate to know more about his life, to determine what inspired his writing and indeed those whom he influenced directly. It is valid to consider his books and articles, what they conveyed and how these have influenced others who did not know the man himself. And, without subscribing too far to postmodernist obscurity, it is possible to set his work in context, to consider the range of meanings therein which may well diverge wildly from his intentions, and probably to derive from the influence exerted by him and by his work, conclusions of which he might disapprove. Ultimately, unless enforceable conditions are attached or accepted, a legacy is ours to do with as we will.

15-10-06 amended 19-11-06, 24-11-06, and 18-12-06

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Space We (or Someone) Loved: Reflections on Denbigh

For many years, I have photographed, and sometimes researched, elements of the built environment that seemed in danger of disappearing. Since my childhood in the 1960s these have included canals, and some railways, and, since the 1970s, local buildings, mostly in my home town. Since the advent of digital photography, with no effective marginal cost, almost anything that seems of interest has become a potential subject. Sometimes this is out of interest, for the record, but it is often to cover my increasingly failing memory of places. I have even recorded parts of my house, so that parts laid out with my first wife, but now modified, will no longer require the uncertainty of recall, and the multiple struggles for memory that that can involve

I recently published an academic essay on my feelings about my home for a volume which embodied various perspectives on domestic space. One theme in this volume was the work of an obscure French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard, whose work was often similarly obscure, but full of scattered (and unresolved) insights into the human experience of space and place. In The Poetics of Space, he wrote about felicitious space, “the space we love”, and I related this concept to my house. During the formal launch of the book, I attempted to develop the idea that there are places and spaces that we relate to emotionally, but that these do not have to be domestic or even places that we have personally shaped. Such spaces could include, to present a random list, other people’s houses, libraries, schools, universities, holiday places, cafes and restaurants, pubs and nightclubs, dance halls, cinemas, theatres, shops, railway stations and transport places generally, general townscapes, amusement parks, public parks, churches, and even workplaces. I feel that there is a large potential agenda here for academic research, into a subject that many might not feel even exists. It would relate space and place to questions of identity and loss and to the difficult concept of love, not just for self or other people but for the inanimate.

In September, my wife and I spent Sunday touring historic buildings and structures in Denbigh, as part of a Heritage Open Day. Having photographed numerous buildings and landscapes within the centre, I suggested that we might as well take the opportunity to photograph the North Wales Hospital, which stands in parkland outside the town. This was long popularly known as Denbigh Mental Hospital, and my family had known one or two people who had been “sent to Denbigh”, or “sent to Deva” (the latter near Chester, later renamed)or "sent to Rainhill". Their exact experience inside the walls of these total institutions was never known, but during the 1980s and early 1990s the North Wales Hospital was emptied out, as were many asylums. Its inmates were mostly assigned to “care in the community”, which in some cases meant elderly people with Alzheimers being re-incarcerated in private nursing homes. By 1995 the main buildings were vacant, and acquired at auction by property interests who had never viewed the premises. While proposals continue to be considered, aiming to cherry pick the most profitable parts of the very large site, most of the buildings are now in severely vandalized condition, but still standing, with the future uncertain.

On our visit, the buildings stood in the distance across walled parkland (with iron railings to reinforce the walls), and from that distance they looked reasonably intact, only the boarding up of some windows betraying their disuse. Looking more closely through the front gates, their true condition was much clearer, with almost every window in the front elevations of this Gothic Victorian complex broken. It is a place that, even in decay, makes me shudder, with the thought that people were drugged, and subject to electro-convulsive treatment there – and that in later, more enlightened times, when they were lucky enough to have conditions deemed treatable. Others may well have lived out pointless monotonous lives with no hope and chaotic and unacknowledged feelings, often behind locked doors. At best they were probably treated by management and staff with care and compassion, but at worst mistreated by staff brutalized by endless close contact with people who had fading identities, no rights, no voice and no recourse to complaint. An initial reaction is to shudder, to endorse the reasons for the closure of such asylums (mooted as long ago as 1960, by the late Enoch Powell, then Minister of Health), and to wish such buildings to be removed as surely as the workhouses, as institutions, have been erased from the modern world. Standing outside, I felt a greater respect for the late Ronald D Laing, who at least felt outrage and drew attention to the inhumanity with which those classified as mentally ill were treated in the 1950s and 1960s. Wondering about the fate of many who would qualify for admission if this kind of institution was still running, I commented to my wife that at least such people would be insulated from the attacks and ignorance of those in the “community” outside, that at least the asylum protected them from those who would be disturbed by their behaviour, and might well persecute them. In that sense, and certainly in intention, the asylum provided a “safe house”.

When I returned home I looked online for sites that might feature the hospital at Denbigh, and soon located many photographs taken by “urban explorers” who had made their way inside the buildings. The photographs depicted a very heavy level of vandalism and looting, with leaking roofs leading to vegetation growing inside strewn rooms and corridors. I had scarcely heard of “urban explorers”, but learnt that they have deposited a great deal of interesting material on the internet about abandoned places. Photographs of abandonment can be curious and disturbing, but also display a strange attractiveness, the attractiveness of decay. I began to look at photographs of various other abandoned buildings, many of them hospitals, and especially asylums. I remain surprised at my emotional reaction to these, a creeping and then rapidly growing awareness of loss. I had forgotten that these grim places were also homes, not only for the inmates, but also for staff who lived on site and others who experienced the kind of qualities of “home” that such a workplace can become. The photographs invoked feelings of desecration and violation. Appalling though it might seem to outsiders, the patients’ living rooms, the theatre, the chapel and the grounds were the only home that many inmates knew, and one that they rarely left. Indeed many probably lived there longer than most of us in homes outside, and certainly spent much more of each day there. To see the consequences of fittings torn out, the effects of leaking roofs, smashed windows and arson, among the tattered remains of furniture, effects and decorations, can be as distressing as seeing someone’s home trashed. I had similar responses to the many other abandoned buildings, the lost meanings and sense of outrage at destruction, which became cumulative as I looked at view after view.

I am still considering my reactions to the unexpected consequences of a casual visit to photograph yet another interesting historic structure. The places like Denbigh were like terminally ill people, steadily fading away towards oblivion but still, somehow, still there, showing some sort of continuing meaning, albeit confused and confusing, that challenges the view of them when they were fully functioning and well. One of my preliminary responses has been to ponder the nature of love and loss, its irrationality, its traps, even its retrospective nature, referring to Laing’s phrase about “the lies of love”. “You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is as true as the rush of emotion when tributes are paid to someone almost forgotten who is dying or dead. What also seems true is that such feelings, attachments to space, place and objects as well as to people, can change in time; they too can fade or die. It is possible to feel nostalgia for a place we never knew, to wish ourselves able to experience the positive aspects of that space, and to feel bereft when that is no longer possible. Home often seems to be a place you can never return to, and Bachelard’s evocations of loved spaces related to places he had known in childhood, not those experienced in later realities. And, however bizarre it may seem, when we are separated forever from special spaces and places, it is possible to mourn, to endure processes of grieving and to transform that love into positive commemoration rather than overwhelming and unrequited longing.
26-9-06 revised 6-10-06 and 30-10-06, and 5 Nov 2006

What's this for?

Here's a place to store some of my writings and musings. Not published stuff, just things I have read out to my writing group.

And yes, it's all copyright. Nick it and I sue you, simple as that. Thank you.