Reinventing Scotland, Reinventing Ourselves: After the Referendum

To be in the minority is the natural condition of artists. The referendum gave Scotland's creative community a brief respite from its sense of isolation.

“I took a long time getting ready to exist.”

— Fernando Pessoa

It is disturbingly easy to get lost in your own country.

One such wayward soul was a multitude that inhabited one mind: the poet named Fernando Pessoa. Within his native land of Portugal, Pessoa is regarded as a ground-breaking Modernist and an incomparable literary giant. Beyond Portuguese borders, he is known more as a curiosity than a genius, and that is to the wider world’s shame. By our own ever-incomplete understanding of art, the work he did, its scope and nature, should have been impossible.

Many of us dreamed, with a naiveté I resolutely refuse to apologise for, that a newly-minted country would have every reason to revitalise its own national culture; that social and artistic progress go hand in hand. Had the reality of independence offered us such unparalleled inspiration, I don’t doubt Scotland’s artists — and many from beyond our borders, looking to our example — would have risen to the task with aplomb

What Pessoa did, other than produce a mountain of verse, prose, philosophy, essays, critical works, translations and more, was create, define and inhabit the concept of the heteronym. Literary theorists are prone to tell us that authorial identity exists only on the page; Pessoa exploited that assumption in ways they we still cannot account for. While a pseudonym is merely an assumed name, a heteronym is an entirely new personality, perhaps inspired or informed by the old, but separate and distinct from what preceded it. A reinvention, be it artistic, intellectual, spiritual or moral. In short, when Pessoa sat down to write, he became an entirely different person.

By the count of his posthumous editor, Pessoa inhabited 70 heteronyms over the course of his life. Their writing styles and aesthetics differed, and sometimes clashed. Their philosophies were often radically opposed. Some dabbled in occultism, while others held radical political views. Their contradictions made it impossible to align them all as mere facets of Pessoa himself, while the sincerity of their expression makes it feel offensive to regard them as fictional characters and nothing more. When he wrote as Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis or Álvaro de Campos, they were not Pessoa — they were who he had chosen to become.

Some would argue that his heteronyms were ultimately inauthentic, somehow: that they paled into cheap invention next to the ‘real’ Pessoa, the lonely human being who haunted the coffee-houses and wine-bars of Lisbon under a quiet alcoholism, which finally killed him. And yet it is the heteronyms that have endured, including the one he mischievously named ‘Fernando Pessoa’. One voice among many.

Pessoa forged new identities both as both a means of confronting the world and escaping from himself. Many, including myself, envied his ability to do that. Until recently, I felt that Scotland, and many other countries, besides, needed to develop a similar capability, but for different reasons. Before we confronted the world, I believed that we must first become a part of it. To change ourselves, the world must change also. That is, for now, no longer an option.

For myself and so many others, we knew what we wanted to be, and we took steps to try and make that transformation real. Pessoa had poetry. We had a vote. I’m still not sure which of the two options was really the most effective.

“Things have changed.”

— Bob Dylan

This was not what I intended to write. Of course, in these days of late, much of what I intended has been declared irrelevant. It may become my default position.

In the final days before Scotland’s independence referendum of 18 September, I wrote an earlier draft of this column, knowing it would only be published after a result was declared. I had hoped to fashion a kind of instructive artifact that would have relevance in any eventuality; a snapshot of hope, written in a moment that acted as a prism from which countless futures split and emanated. This was part of what I wrote:

It seems only right that I should take advantage of this period of uncertainty; this time that is so rapidly running out. Right now, there is not just a sense that anything could happen, but a genuine possibility. The sensation, as (almost) all of Scotland has learned, is positively intoxicating.

I miss being the person who wrote that.

Scotland did not vote No. A majority of its people did, but ‘Scotland’ did not, because Scotland does not exist as a nation, sovereign and inarguable. It exists only as an idea, or rather, as many ideas, in the hearts and minds of those who voted for its realisation. There, for the foreseeable future, it will remain.

When I last wrote here of Scotland’s possible futures, a little over a year ago, I focused on its artists, and their many and various contributions and interventions in the referendum discourse. In doing so, I bemoaned the political apathy which, I believed, had not been fully overcome. Engagement with the most significant decision our nation had been faced with in three centuries was, at the time, growing but not universal. Things have definitely changed.

As we now know, an incredible 97 percent of Scotland’s eligible population has registered to vote, including many thousands of 16- and 17-year-olds to whom the franchise has been extended, and who voted for the first time. The eventual turnout was 84.5 percent. Within very, very recent memory, this was virtually unthinkable. Now, it is a fact. Alex Salmond, Scotland’s outgoing First Minister, recently boasted that Scotland now has the most politically engaged population in Western Europe. The Catalans might take issue with that, but even so, it’s a close run.

In my earlier draft of this column, I concerned myself with the distinctiveness of the approach the Scottish arts community was taking to the referendum. As someone who has spent most of his adult life in arts journalism, they are, for better of worse, my constituency, and I was gladdened to see that the boldness and verve of their activism shamed the political establishment, which once controlled the narrative. Over the past year, the influence of their example has been monumental, and the distinction between artists and activists has become gloriously blurred. It is vital to the interests of this unrecognised nation that this remains the case.

I once praised National Collective, an organisation of “artists and creatives for Scottish independence”, for the originality of thought and imaginative flair it brought to the grassroots campaign. Since then, I have seen the more ideologically-focused Radical Independence Campaign and the youth-based Generation Yes conduct themselves with equal creative brilliance.

I have seen a new, homemade and largely unfunded media rise to surpass, if not supplant, the old. I have seen ordinary people outdo the most seasoned journalists in both prescience and honesty. I have seen people who never previous cared about art or politics affected and changed by both.

As the cynic in me expected, this did not come without a backlash, not just against the referendum’s artistic exponents, but against all those who might challenge the old way of doing business. Beyond arguments of Yes and No, many, too many, for some people’s liking, now feel that what they say, what they do and what they think matters. Plenty would love nothing more than to punish them for that.

Now the referendum is over, and all those people and groups who made the Yes campaign the most unprecedented European political movement of the 21st century are now searching — some with battered hope, some with undisguised bitterness — for new ways to channel old dreams. Once again, the so-called ‘creative industries’ are ahead of the curve: artists will always be artists, in good times or bad. They are more used than most to being marginalised. Lost causes are their business. And they show no indication of retiring to their studios, keyboards and modern-day garrets, humble and quiet.

Nevertheless, there are plenty within the mainstream media who expect the high-profile artistic interventions that have become a staple of Scottish politics to recede and fade, just as they expect the Yes campaign to splutter and die from shock and self-pity. The eternally uninspiring Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, with barely concealed relish, told the first post-referendum session of the Scottish Parliament that “the eyes of the world had moved on.”

In other words, no one cares any more. Cease your excitement. You’re nothing special. Scotland shall remain small, unfinished and easy to dismiss — exactly as it should be. Back to business as usual.

“Books were the proper remedy: books of vivid human import, forcing upon their minds the issues, pleasures, busyness, importance and immediacy of that life in which they stand; books of smiling or heroic temper, to excite or to console; books of a large design, shadowing the complexity of that game of consequences to which we all sit down, the hanger-back not least.’

— Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Old Morality’.

The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson, whose recent conduct has demonstrated that the Corporation’s much-touted impartiality is no greater than that of say, Russia Today, infamously challenged Alex Salmond in the final weeks before the referendum over the warnings of several business leaders, who had been hastily drafted by the British government to prophesize doom in the event of Scottish sovereignty. “Why should a Scottish voter believe you, a politician,” Robinson sneered, “against men who are responsible for billions of pounds of profit?”

Leaving aside Robinson’s strange conviction that these individuals were single-handedly responsible for their firms’ success (as opposed to the blood and sweat of those who work under them), the implication was clear: business leaders are naturally more trustworthy than politicians. If you believe that, please get in touch. I have a bridge to sell you.

Some months earlier, David Torrance, a journalist who has made scepticism and hostility towards independence the central theme of his career, offered a telling mirror of Robinson’s supposition. Reflecting on the wide-ranging involvement of many Scottish ‘creatives’ in the referendum campaign, he felt that they had offered “proof of the old adage that writers should stick to writing and leave politics to politicians.” In other words: politicians may be less trustworthy than our brave captains of finance, but for god’s sake, don’t let those awful bohemian artistes anywhere near the debate.

“Most writers’ interventions in the independence debate (on both sides) have betrayed the worst sort of naive, ill-informed analysis worthy of student politics,” Torrance wrote. An odd slur, especially in the all-too-recent aftermath of the Quebec student protests, but typical of Torrance and the unionist establishment which, even in light of its narrow victory, has been deeply perturbed by the disruption of the status quo and the sudden expansion of Scottish civic life to include many types of people it had previously excluded.

Within the British press, there are some who hold that pro-independence sentiment is an expression of ‘anti-politics’; that is, an unprincipled, unideological protest against a stale political culture with which voters of all stripes are dissatisfied. The main reason such an ignorant analysis has taken root is that the independence campaign did not look like politics as usual. It was louder, more colourful, more unpredictable… And yes, more bitter.

Even amidst the inescapable despair I have seen in too many good people to count, I do not believe that bitterness will take control, at least not permanently (though it may have its uses). I find it incomprehensible that the independence campaign could look back on what it has built, an alternative Scotland living within the shell of the old, and say it was all for nothing. That Scotland will survive through us, even if we must carry it through an unvanquished Ruritanian plutocracy, built on denied passions, old lies and wilful illogic. There will also be consequences.

When the Guardian newspaper rallied an assortment of Scottish writers to give their views on independence earlier this year, Alan Warner made a stark prediction:

“Think on this: if there was a no vote, has there ever been another European country where a “progressive” – and to use two pompous words – “intelligentsia”, has united in a liberation movement, yet the majority has finally voted against the aspirations of this movement? A no vote will create a profound and strange schism between the voters of Scotland and its literature; a new convulsion. It will be the death knell for the whole Scottish literature “project” – a crushing denial of an identity that writers have been meticulously accumulating, trying to maintain and refine. With a no vote, a savage division will suddenly exist between the values of most of our writing – past and present – and the majority of our people.”

‘Scottish writers on the referendum – independence day?’, July 19, 2014.

As one would expect, some commentators pointed out that the people, Scottish or otherwise, are under no obligation to care what writers think, and as a result they generally don’t. They’re under no obligation to care about art, either. One cannot legislate such a concern, or make it a moral imperative. The only instruction one can give is advisory: “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

And yet, I don’t entirely agree with Warner’s analysis: to be in the minority is the natural condition of artists. The referendum gave Scotland’s creative community a brief respite from this sense of isolation. I do not believe they will, en masse, return to it so willingly. Not when there are imaginations left to be provoked.

Many of us dreamed, with a naiveté I resolutely refuse to apologise for, that a newly-minted country would have every reason to revitalise its own national culture; that social and artistic progress go hand in hand. Had the reality of independence offered us such unparalleled inspiration, I don’t doubt Scotland’s artists — and many from beyond our borders, looking to our example — would have risen to the task with aplomb. Considering the alternative, I could only imagine the despair. Now… I don’t need to imagine it any longer.

Yet despair does not kill art, but finds expression through it, providing eternal solace to the desolate and disenfranchised. Where a better world cannot be built through political means, it can be imagined and articulated through art. Ernst Bloch (one of the theorists your professors would be teaching you instead of Foucault if they knew what the hell they were talking about) argued that this was a matter of necessity, not comfort: dreams, utopian and escapist though they may appear, are the seeds of radical change. Only by imagining something other than what is can we begin the progression to what should be. “Thinking,” as he put it, “means venturing beyond.” That is what artists do. That is all they ever need to do.

The unrivalled passion that has gripped both the Scottish artistic and political scenes will, I think, not disperse, but continue, completely unleashed from the the phony politeness and pragmatic self-restraint of the democratic process. You ain’t seen nothing yet…

We shall see. I am obviously no soothsayer. But what I am most certain of is this: Scottish artists will spend the next generation coming to terms with their nation’s self-denial. Great art will no doubt be produced, from the anguish of this process.

I wonder, for the first time, if it will be worth it.

“A Scottish poet maun assume

The burden o’ his people’s doom,

And dee to brak’ their livin’ tomb.”

— Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’

In a previous column that I wrote on this subject, Undeclared Republics: Scotland’s Artistic Independence, I spoke of Hugh MacDiarmid, another poet whose relevance stubbornly refuses to dissipate. I was, not so long ago, greatly aggravated by the absence of MacDiarmid’s legacy from the referendum discourse. An individual to whom art and politics were at once equally important, and in another sense one and the same, his lack of visibility seemed to leave an enormous, MacDiarmid-shaped hole in Scottish culture.

Whether you loved or loathed him, MacDiarmid’s very presence posed difficult questions, and then demanded answers. What relation does Scotland’s idea of itself bear to reality? What connection should be drawn between its art and its politics? How radically different can we imagine ourselves being, without giving up those aspects we hold to be indivisible from the national character?

When I was a few years younger, it seemed that minus the ghost of the grumpy old bastard, Scotland — its literary scene, its political culture, its entire civic discourse — had abandoned such questions as too difficult and inconvenient. I cannot overstate how happy I am that I have been proven wrong. While I would still encourage those my age, Scottish or otherwise, to make acquaintance with MacDiarmid’s verse (I was always fond of ‘On a Raised Beach’), it turns out we did not need voices from the past to prompt us towards important, inevitable questions.

Not only have the Scottish arts risen to the challenge their incredible political circumstances have demanded, but they have done so with minimal references to cobweb-strewn voices from the past. They figured it out for themselves. That is no small thing.

The point of almost every column I have written for PopMatters has been to explore those intersections where artistic and political concerns meet (save for those occasions when I mourn Lou Reed, or find it necessary to tell you that Blade Runner is just really, really good). I do this not because I feel artistic and political principles are the most important expressions humanity can aspire to (though that is undoubtedly what I sometimes suspect), but because, between these central strands of civilisation, I believe all that humanity is can be found.

Between the reality of society, and the dreams its people might dare to imagine, is everything I prize most dearly. I know that neither encompasses everything. But they are everything to me.

The great unspoken element of the referendum discourse was that of identity, mainly because the entire conversation is regarded as tainted goods. The ‘British’ identity, muddied with empire, warfare and chauvinism, has resisted any amount of good-natured, faux-progressive reinventions. By contrast, the Yes campaign, untouched by ethnic separatism and characteristically broad-minded, showed an admirable instinct for knowing when an argument is too big for them.

Settling the question of the Scottish identity and how it is determined is not only too monumental a question, but also not theirs to answer. With studious silence, while their opponents postured furiously about kilts, football and cartoon patriotism, they declared that it is not for them, or anyone, to define such an identity, whether for an individual or a nation.

Identity is a construct, though not one that exists in a vacuum. Nothing can. It is certainly shaped by the social, political and economic conditions surrounding it, and intelligent minds can disagree over exactly how and why this occurs. But the identity that results is either organic, growing naturally in accordance with circumstance, or intentional, built as a response to what the present moment demands.

Scotland, far from unique amongst the nations of the world, found itself in an untenable, intolerable position, from which the externally imposed stereotype of their nature could not extricate them. And so, a great swell of their would-be citizenry sought to change their own identity. They lost the vote, but I’m not entirely sure they failed in that.

The regime of the British state, which remains their government and mine, fought back. You are not what you think, they said. You are what you say we are. Get used to it.

Artistic attempts to sum up an entire nation are often clumsy and frequently flawed. But that is not the point. National identity is not what we should seek from artists, politicians, or indeed anyone. Identities are personal; we should never surrender the right to define ourselves to those who would impose such a identity from without. What artists can do, however, is show us, sometimes unwittingly, how such a process of self-definition may be carried out, opening our minds to possibilities we may not have considered.

It was often been argued that there is something narrow and parochial about the case for Scottish independence, leaving the cosmopolitan melting-pot of the UK to retreat to our own backyard. Impartial observers may wish to look at how immigrants have been treated by a succession of British governments as a measure of how ‘multicultural’ the UK is, but that is incidental to my point.

My heritage is Scottish, Irish and Armenian; three nations, for much of history denied the right to rule or even define themselves. The three strands of a national identity that I have made my own do not contradict, but compliment each other. It is also an identity that is entirely mine, serving no political purpose but my own. With the self-determination of those nations largely unfulfilled, that identity was all I had. As it turns out, it still is.

For now, my friends and I need nothing else than that: the ability to define ourselves, and our refusal to recognise any order or reality that would deny us that. Fernando Pessoa, and countless others besides — poets and painters, novelists and singers, scholars and soldiers, family and friends — taught us how. Reinventing a nation will come later. It will, I trust, be waiting for us. And it will be a work of art.

This is Sean Bell, from Scotland, signing off. For now.

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Above image: Bella Caledonia poster, designed by Ciaran Murphy.