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Oct 9, 2013

Herbert Read

The Impact of ‘Regional Ethos’ on the Creative Process: An Analysis of Herbert Read’s Standpoint in “The Writer and His Region”

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Herbert Read was and remains better known as an art critic. He was a champion of modern British artists, such as Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. He was one of the earliest English writers to take notice of existentialism, and was strongly influenced by proto-existentialist thinker Max Stimer. He had read Bergson, Nietzsche, Hegel, Marx etc. discovering explanations linking the aesthetic and the socio-political. This experience sowed the seeds of his moral and spiritual convictions. Dividing Read’s writings on politics from those of art and culture is difficult because he saw art, culture and politics as a single congruent expression on human consciousness.

According to Read, ‘Regionalism’ is product of historical tradition as well as geographical restriction, where the basic factor is landscape. For example, Hardy’s novels are called ‘Wessex’ Novels, as all of them are based in Wessex region. Here, landscape not only denotes natural scenery, but also familiar scene. This is expression of people who create them generation after generation. It depends on political set up of a particular region not of one but of several generations. Region implies heritage, tradition, continuity of race, culture etc. A locale suggests all these as well as accepted customs, continuity of language that is intonation, dialect, pronunciation etc. Another is the mindset of people; climate, landscape, speech, customs make up this. All of these contribute to an unconscious bond of feeling – the invisible matrix. Here comes the concept of ‘ethos’. Original Greek meaning of ‘ethos’ is prevailing spirit of a city. This is dependent on the situation and physical character of the city. Each city has its own mythology. Greek God is not a blank term. Ethos is interested in region, mindset. In this connection, Read clarifies the differentiation between ‘Provincialism’ and ‘Regionalism’. Whereas the former is a derogatory term, the latter is always universal although centered in a locale. To illustrate this point Read provides various examples.

Though Read flirted with philosophical communism, he was finally dissuaded from close association with this movement because of its antipathy towards all realities of creative art, except the one it had contrived in social realism. He was appalled to discover that, like Fascism, it had stamped out avant-garde art and his conclusion was that contemporary art had to become active rather than contemplative, partisan rather than disinterested, and subliminal rather than super-evident. In other words, artists and theorists had to adopt a militancy of a sort that was, in the 1930s, most apparent in Surrealism, and contemporary aesthetics had to assume less easily victimized forms. The most prominent themes of Art and Society were that the greatest art of the past had belonged to communal societies, and that the modern artist, conscious of an ability to transform the world by his or her visions of a new reality, had to become a more consistent communist than those, so called, who would compromise with the aesthetic conventions of a last phase of capitalism.

In his philosophical outlook, Read was close to the European idealist traditions represented by Friedrich von Schelling, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, believing that reality as it is experienced by the human mind was as much a product of the human mind as any external or objective activity. In other words, the mind is not a camera recording the reality it perceives through the eyes; it is also a projector throwing out its own reality. This brings Read’s realization as an artist that region is not all that important in shaping a creative process. Here, Read often comes close to the Romantics. He rejects the notion of Lockian Empiricism that mind is a ‘tabula rasa’, where only outer sensations engrave upon, and create knowledge. Rather Read endorses Kantian philosophy that knowledge is ‘a priori’, there is an analytical power of mind. Following Kant, Read does not deny the processes of experiencing sensory perceptions and declares that analytical power of mind coheres the sensations and turns them into knowledge. In this connection, Read comes closer to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Poet’s realization is related to organic sensibility. Deep feeling leads to thought and thought leads to perception of Beauty and Dignity. Feeling gives importance to action and situation. Poetic genius sustains images, thoughts, emotions of poet’s own mind. According to Coleridge imagination is ‘essemplastic’. Creation does not come instantly. Creative process is a conscious, willful process. Read has serious objection to identify creation as something momentary. It needs an inspiration, which is a complicated relation between artist-environment, artist-material and artist-technique. Environment has its own impact.

Similarly, in Tagore’s “Realization of Beauty” in considering the realization of beauty as a process of “extention of one’s consciousness”, Tagore argues that the ‘extension’, in this context, means widening of one’s aesthetic awareness as well as one’s vision of life. In fact both are interlinked, when one has the larger awareness, one finds beauty not merely in the thing or object, but in all things. This is totally nullifying the impact of region on the creative process that Tagore indicates in the essay.

In this connection, Herbert Read also comes closer to Postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory negates concepts of region and border. Everything written or painted is actually a collage. There is no point on emphasizing cultural-local-geographical specificity. This meant that art was not, as many Marxists believed, simply a product of a bourgeois society, but a psychological process that had evolved simultaneously to the evolution of consciousness. Art was, therefore, a biological phenomenon, a view that frequently pitted Read against Marxist critics such as Anthony Blunt in the 1930s. Read, in this respect, was influenced by development in German Art Psychology. His idealist background led Read towards an interest in psychoanalysis. Read became a pioneer in the English speaking world in the use of psychoanalysis as a tool for art and literary criticism.

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