06.13.2016

“It's all too easy to think one's world is the whole world.”

Professor Gavin Cologne-Brooks of Bath Spa University (BSU) gave a lecture on North American literature at the UM.

Writer, painter, lecturer, professor of American literature and wanderer, Cologne-Brooks visited Uruguay and the UM. His lecture was a wise view on pragmatism in North American literature with a strong impulse to follow art and all its expressions. Cologne-Brooks is writing a book on the popular singer Bruce Springsteen, and is visiting Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina while exploring new lands for inspiration and a better comprehension of the world in which we live.

A brief interview to professor Cologne-Brooks.

You travelled throughout the United States for many years when you were young. What did you learn during that period?

In travelling the United States between 18 and 25, in particular, I learned self-reliance (only reading Ralph Waldo Emerson later). I learned of the kindness of strangers; I learned that we only begin to fully understand our own country, and continent, by going elsewhere and rethinking it from the outside. I learned that we have in our minds an idea of a country, or a place, or a person, but only by visiting, experiencing, and conversing do we even begin to see the complexities involved. I came to see that everything is connected, and that who we are, as individuals, is made up out of where we visit, who we meet, what we read, what we see and hear, and what we expect. In a way, the less we expect, or anticipate, the more open we are to what is actually there. I owe much to the United States for how I see the world and my life, but it has also long since occurred to me, as it did to Allen Ginsberg (and here I of course include 'America' in entirety--North, South, Latin) that "I am America." Whoever I may be, the travels in the United States, like my current travels in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, are part of that identity.

You have studied the works of the novelist William Styron. How would you describe his work? Why should we read him?

William Styron wrote (in my view) three important novels and one important short book of nonfiction. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, is a remarkable novel for a 25 year old to have published. He did not want to write a 'young' first novel, so he sought to disguise his youth through a complex structure (he used the term, "architecture"). The older I get the more I admire the skill and dedication (born of desperation, given the loss of his mother to cancer and his experience in the Marines at the end of World War II and call up for the Korean War), that enabled him to produce this work. The novel's importance is as an example to young writers of what they can achieve. His second important novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) was told from the viewpoint of the historical figure of that name, a black slave who led an insurrection in Virginia in 1831. The novel won him the Pulitzer Prize but also led to a book-length attack from black intellectuals, who, among other things, argued that, as a white southerner, he should not have written from a black perspective, distorted the historical record, and ideally should not have written a novel on the subject at all. This opened up a vociferous and extended debate about the novel and history, about the rights of a novelist, about who can write for whom, and about racial matters in the United States, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Quite aside from any question as to who is right in these debates (and of course there is no single Truth about such matters), I value Styron as a novelist who took risks; who wrote about issues that matter. His most famous novel, Sophie's Choice, is about a young would-be writer meeting and becoming infatuated with a Polish Catholic survivor of the Holocaust. This too of course wrestled with important questions about human behavior, but the novel is also extraordinary for the way Styron structured it in terms of time, viewpoint, and the mixture of fact and fiction, drama and essay. He had written a not-so-good novel, Set This House on Fire, some years before, but with Sophie's Choice, he succeeded where earlier he had perhaps failed. Joan Didion's novelist husband, John Gregory Dunne, (she writes), read the novel several times when it appeared, to see how it worked. When a novelist reads another novelist to try to work out how they could achieve their novel, we have something special. Styron produced only a handful of books, and wrote in long hand. In many ways he belongs to another era, but I see him, like Flaubert and Stendhal, as a writer who may have produced something lasting. Finally, his short nonfiction book, Darkness Visible, explains clinical depression in an enlightening way to those of us who fortunately have no experience of this condition. He received more letters about this than in response to any of his other work. He literally saved lives. Writers, as Christa Wolf writes, really are "important people," or can be if they choose their subjects carefully and remain humble--taking their art, rather than themselves, seriously--as Nietzsche indirectly said.

You are also studying and will be writing about Bruce Springsteen. Why Bruce and not another musician? Like Prince, for example…

As with many aspects of my life, it is personal and professional. On the one hand, like many listeners, Springsteen's music has been formative in who I am and the shape of my life. Certain lines have been my companions. I feel that writers, painters and musicians are a community who travel with me. They offer me inspiration, comfort, thought, encouragement, wisdom, enjoyment and much else besides. Springsteen has been the most important contemporary North American musician in millions of people's lives. But he also writes incredibly well--succinctly, aptly, compassionately--and in my role as a Professor of American Literature I see no reason why his work cannot stand comparison with the novelists I've written about previously. He writes about things that people feel are important; he reads widely, and he is concerned with social justice. He sees himself as a student. I would guess that some part of him remains humble, even though another part of him, of course, seeks attention and constant fuel for his ego. Like Styron he understands depression; like Joyce Carol Oates, he's intimately connected with New Jersey/New York. Like both, he is concerned with the usefulness of art. What difference does it make? Many have written on Springsteen--more than I realized when I began!--but I have to trust myself, as I've always done, and offer my vision of his significance. Why we choose one artist over another has to do sometimes with timing: with when we encounter them. But I was struck today when talking to Sofia Florin, an English teacher and translator, who attended my lecture, by the fact that people of different generations feel a special, personal connection with Springsteen's work. My students (some of them) find it life changing, even though he is of their parents' era. Like the very best artists, Springsteen communicates the fact that, in the end, fame and wealth and personal ego trips are all very well (and not to be rejected necessarily, if available!) but only art lasts. In a phrase from Hippocrates, Ars longa, vita brevis. Art is long, life is short.

 Why are you interested now in Latin America?

At many turns in life, we discover that we've neglected something huge that we should pay attention to! Humans can be very myopic. It's all too easy to think one's world is THE world. We can't know and do everything, but we can easily settle for doing and knowing less than is available. How much of our brain do we use? 10% of its capacity, perhaps? How much of the world do we experience? In youth, the United States obsessed me, and there's some value in getting to know one other culture more than superficially. Then I turned to Europe. Then I became interested, having lost the shyness of youth, in languages. I visited Istanbul and, to relive it, read writers like Orhan Pamuk. Then I chose a city I didn't know, Lisbon, and read Saramago and others and got to 'know' the city before visiting. Then I became interested in Portuguese. Then I thought more about Spain and Spanish. Then the opportunity arose to expand my understanding of the Portuguese and Hispanic world. Way leads on to way. I had been myopic in the sense that I'd not thought of expanding from Europe and the US to the Americas, but in truth I'd also be impecunious, and raising a family. If only we could live five lives! Ten! But we do what we can. This opportunity arose, and I chose three countries with a view to deepening that experience through art, music, literature (and sport--today I bought Uruguayan national football shirt since it occurs to me that I am Uruguay, or a little part of me is now Uruguayan). We are lucky if we feel there is mystery in places, and even luckier if we get to visit them and find that they are more interesting than mere mysteries. Latin America was always mysterious to me, exotic. Now parts of it are becoming real, which is even better. In turn, I will pass on what I experience to students, and encourage them to find out about the reality sooner in their lives than I am doing.

Tell us about Bath Spa University and how do you imagine a relationship with the Universidad de Montevideo?

The most important things to be aware of with regard to Bath Spa University are: that it is beautifully located on the edge of a World Heritage city, not far from Stonehenge, Glastonbury, and other 'mysterious' places, but only 90 minutes from London. It is a relatively small university but with large ambitions; its current Vice Chancellor is Australian and her vision is that our students will become global citizens and will see their lives in wide contexts. It emphasizes interdisciplinary approaches, creativity, innovation and international perspectives. But since these are new emphases it currently has no direct connections with South America (only with North America, including the US, Canada and Mexico). I believe that this initiative will produce a whole new range of opportunities for our students and staff, and my small role in this is to make connections, rethink my modules, and find ways to help make this vision all the more real. My sense is that UM and BSU--certainly on the personal level that I've experienced--have much in common, and much to learn from one another to the benefit of us all. I see this happening through exchanges and research co-operation, through a dialogue that has only just begun, and perhaps in ways we have yet to envisage. In the words of UM's Luisa Peirano, it's a win-win situation.