Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

She began with Dorothy Wordsworth walking the Lakeland fells in May 1800 and continued by way of Karl Marx, prehistoric cave painting, James Hargreaves’ spinning jenny, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century,  John Maynard Keynes, Degas and the Arts Council, to arrive at the First World War and Wilfred Owen.  All this in the space of  a brilliant fifteen minute essay by Jeanette Winterson broadcast on Radio 3 last week.

Winterson’s essay was one of a series in which writers from different countries were asked to reflect on the meaning of the First World War for them personally, and as a creative artist. Lavinia Greenlaw, who curated the series, gave the contributors only the loosest of frameworks, borrowing the title, Goodbye to All That, from Robert Graves’s famously ‘bitter leave-taking of England’ in which he wrote not only of the First World War but also of the questions it raises: how to live, how to live with each other, and how to write.

Jeanette Winterson used her fifteen minutes to sing a hymn of praise to creativity – ‘the heartbeat of who we are’ – and to indict the capitalist system and its drive to maximize profit for fostering inequalities which eliminate for the great majority the opportunity to be creative or to enjoy the creative arts. ‘Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet’, she argued, ‘is the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human.’ For Winterson, the question posed by the First World War and all those that have followed is: ‘Why is it that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

Winterson began with Dorothy Wordsworth in May 1800, walking in Ryedale and meeting a friend who observes that ‘soon there will only be too ranks of people, the very rich and the very poor’.  She notes how Dorothy’s journals were alert to both ‘the flow of beauty – and poverty’, and how her friend, at their meeting in 1800 – alert to the implications of the emerging industrial revolution – had prophesied ‘the present state of our world in which the richest 85 people control more wealth than the poorest three and a half billion’.

A few decades later, Winterson continues, Marx envisaged a socialist future where our basic needs – food, water, shelter, health, rest and so on – could be met collectively, so that people might have the means and the leisure to supply their human needs – education, books, music,art, friendship, and curiosity. In other words – creativity.

In a spell-binding section of her talk Winterson unpacks her understanding of ‘creativity’: she gives examples of daily activities which reveal its presence.  Creativity is there ‘every day in everything we do’ (or at least, it should be, or could be, she insists).  Creativity is revealed in cave paintings from prehistoric times – ‘the earliest expressions of what it means to be a human being’.

Hargreaves’ spinning jenny represented that creativity, too.  But whereas the technology of the Industrial Revolution ought to have been liberating, instead it ‘became a measure of what had been lost’. With all the technological advances since then, Winterson argues, ‘we should be working less, not more’.  That we are not is because ‘profit is more important than people’.

In 2008, when the crisis happened, recalls Winterson, it seemed like a golden opportunity to act a basic question: ‘is the economy for human beings – or are human beings for the economy?’  Instead, as she crisply expresses it, ‘politicians talked about capitalism like a powerful car, stolen for a while by a few crazy teenagers and driven too fast and crashed.  Fix the car, get decent drivers back behind the wheel, and off we go towards the sunshine.’

From there, it’s a short hop to Thomas Picketty, whose Capital in the 21st Century challenged whole basis of modern capitalism by bringing economics back to the key question of inequality. Exploring the nature of inequality and deprivation, Winterson concludes:

I do not believe that the point of being human is for the majority to scrape a living with not a chance at the imaginative, open, ingenious, curious, playful, creative life that we see in every one of our children. How can we dream if we can’t sleep in safety?  What chance to read a book, let alone write one, without a home? How can you buy even the cheapest theatre ticket when you need two jobs just to feed the kids?

Underneath the endless, acute crises of our planet, she argues, is ‘the chronic crisis of how we manage what it is to be human’.  Which brings her, at last, to the significance of the First World War.  ‘Why is it’, she questions, ‘that no matter what shape we are in we can always afford a war?’

War dead

Winterson concludes by reading Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Futility’, written in May 1918, not long before he was killed in a particularly futile effort in the last moments of the war:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

At the end of the First World War, notes Winterson, the motto became ‘lest we forget’. Recalling that John Maynard Keynes, tasked with negotiating the French war debt to Britain, secured an agreement that a collection of paintings by Degas (modern art!) should be accepted in lieu of payment – and then displayed, free of charge, to the public in the National Gallery, Winterson incisively compares that act with the recent Arts Council cuts in support for the arts forced in consequence of bailing out the collapsed banks.  That same Arts Council, she notes, that was established by Maynard Keynes. No Marxist, Keynes did believe, argues Winterson, that wealth should be in the service of human beings.

‘Lest we forget’: what it means to be human.  Creativity, insists Winterson, is not ‘ornament or luxury’, but ‘the heartbeat of who we are’

Better to hear Jeanette Winterson read the essay herself.  It’s available for a year on iPlayer or permanently as a downloadable podcast. Or you can read it here on the 14-18 website.

3 thoughts on “‘The heartbeat of who we are’: Jeanette Winterson on war, wealth and creativity

  1. Thank you for the link Gerry . I really appreciate your continuous stream of posts giving a wide variety of essential information for those who recognise the importance of creativity and art.

  2. Gerry, Thanks for the heads up: I’ll certainly listen to this. The centenary of WW1 seems sometimes to be more a marketing opportunity for some as a commemoration. The older I get, the more despairing I get about our species. The current situations in the Middle East being only too indicative that we’ve learnt nothing about the futility and obscenity of war. Not that we need to look far from home for the stupidity – we’ve just spent a fortune on an aircraft carrier for which we have no aircraft and are unlikely to have any time soon as the plane in question, the development of which has cost billions, is useless. Still, “we can always afford a war” – and the companies who make the weapons enrich their owners and shareholders by the death and misery of millions. I often think our species’ name – Homo sapiens – really isn’t appropriate. Of course, it is creativity and its many products that lightens the darkness of humanity’s stupidities but sometimes I wonder if it can ever prevail against the rampant greed that appears to drive our societies. Sorry for the rant and thanks again for the link. Andy.

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