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The three things people don’t want to talk about are soccer, jazz, and infidelity, at least according to Jack Donaghy. He may be right. They are difficult, embarrassing and complex. Which adjective applies to each item is debatable but let’s say for here, that complex is the implicit criticism made of jazz.

I had a friend who couldn’t abide jazz at all, as for her, it was just one long sax solo; it all sounded alike. That tends to be how anything is seen when it’s not understood. But the main problem is one of complexity.

If something is complex it can be dismissed as not making contact with a listener, a reader or viewer, and then it’s turned off. That is a real concern now as there is more stuff than ever before. But it reminds me of the French criticism of apparent choice where something like a 1000 flavors are offered, but in fact it’s just one taste.

In the UK last week a teacher wrote that the teaching of simpler writers like Steinbeck, in preference to the complex works of Shakespeare, had to stop. At face value that is probably a reasonable argument: time to stop dumbing education down. But then, stop there for a moment! Is that a fair appraisal? Is Shakespeare so much more complex and deeper, richer than Steinbeck? This questions is refracted in the UK in nationalist terms, which, along with their sole victory in the World Cup, is used to demonstrate prestige.

The assertion of simplicity versus complexity which is implicit to their value is absurdly binary. In this case Shakespeare wrote some very complex and intellectually stimulating plays. He also wrote some very simple ones: Timon Of Athens; Henry VI parts 1-3 is long and complex historically but not as literature; The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet make a list of the easy plays. The Merry Wives of Windsor is in the special category of banal.

On the other side, Steinbeck is not quite so simple. A few weeks ago I picked up Cannery Row, a deceptively simple work, and while its humor didn’t charm me the form of the work is interesting, as it is a series of impressions and shades overlaid to build the whole. Sure he wrote of a simple character and was successful with it, but that’s not all the work.

I recall an academic biography of Nabokov which exalted the Russian too highly and claimed that unlike Faulkner, who wrote of idiots, Nabokov’s characters were rich and varied. Well, that is just false. Faulkner’s Benjy is an idiot but Quentin is not. Nor is Charlotte Rittenmeyer and so on.

Educators seem to fret over the relevance of a work to teenager, and will the student understand. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. Some of the books given to students are too complex at that level and rendered into simplified templates. Works are forced into categories of interpretation that are not really justifiable.

I saw the film director Ang Lee talking about Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which he saw as an eighteen year old in Taiwan. He said he was transfixed by this mysterious work, it was something he had never seen before, and he had to see it again because its complexity and otherness fascinated him. His reaction is rare. Mostly complexity and foreignness would mean instant switch off.

Teachers can’t make an imagination but they can show what is available and invite those students who wish to use the imagination to be puzzled by what they encounter.

Guy Cranswick
3rd March 2013