Against talent

At a children’s talent show, listening to flaky child sopranos warbling about over songs built for the meandering squelch of autotune rather than any naked human voice, I started thinking about Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. I don’t think about Gwendolen Harleth very often – though she’s possibly my favourite George Eliot heroine (alright, favourite after Dorothea Brooke), she’s a character about failure, and since George Eliot is bound up in probably the biggest failure of my life, the resonances are all just a bit too keen.

Gwendolen is hardened and sharp and satirical, and the journey she’s taken on by the novel feels like one her character fights against throughout. I don’t mean that in the sense of Gwendolen actively resisting her fictional destiny, though she does do that. I mean rather that, as much as George Eliot is heartfelt and eloquent on the sublimation of individual ambitions to a greater social cause (Gwendolen is to be bathetically valourised as “one of these frail vessels in which is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection”), Gwendolen is so witty and so savagely charming in her unreconstructed state, you feel a strain in the novel as it bends to give the moral education it thinks she needs.

And the way she gets that education is through failure. Cast out of her fortune, 21-year-old Gwendolen decides to try her luck in a musical career. She approaches a visiting singing teacher, expecting him to be warm towards the idea. She has reason to expect that, too: her voice is praised in local society, and her beauty absolutely proven by the willingness of young men to drive their horses over stupid jumps in order to impress her (the novel thinks Gwendolen should feel guilty about that, though personally I tend to agree with Gwendolen and feel that any idiot who goes chasing after a better rider deserves to lose his horse and bust his shoulder).

In her own small world, Gwendolen is a star. In order to dislodge her from that position, she’s subjected to a 14-page dressing down from the singing teacher, Herr Klesmer (one of Eliot’s grim-faced lecturer characters, though a more bearable one than Felix Holt or Savonarola in the utterly unenjoyable Romola). Her voice isn’t good enough, he tells her. If she’d been training her whole life, she might have made herself a singer by practice, but she hasn’t. The career she could scratch out from her good looks will barely pay enough to live on – certainly not enough for the “independent life” Gwendolen intends to have. And she will never be an artist. It is one of the most comprehensive neggings in literature.

The note about money, though, makes me see why Eliot’s sympathies are with Klesmer rather than her charismatic heroine. Eliot was a self-supporting artist before she was an august authoress, making her way through translations and journalism while other women seemed to write as a parlour trick – her essay on Silly Novels By Lady Novelists is a deftly written emanation of bile aimed at “the frothy, the prosy, the pious or the pedantic” works generated by dilettante writers of her own sex.

The typical heroine of a Silly Novel sketched out in the first paragraph of that piece is of course the kind of character that Gwendolen Harleth would be in another writer’s hands:

Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues.

Gwendolen believes herself to be this kind of heroine. But she has no superb contralto, because she has not worked at it. Klesmer tells her:

Genius is at first little more than a great capacity for receiving discipline. Singing and acting… require a shaping of the organs towards a finer and finer certainty of effect. Your muscles – your whole frame – must go like a watch, true to a hair.

The dreadful note in Gwendolen’s story is Eliot’s insistence that a conviction of specialness is no guarantee that one is actually special. And just to drive it home, she forces Gwendolen into a contrasting association with an Actually Chosen Person, in the shape of Daniel Deronda the pristine Jew (and apparently Eliot’s apology for all anti-semitism ever). Maurice Sendak nailed that queasily patronising perfection in one of his last interviews: “Daniel Deronda, oy gevalt! [Eliot] put aside her hard hat and was determined to be sweet and understanding. That won’t get you anywhere, honey.” For Gwendolen, there’s nothing but the hard hat.

Talent is a curious thing. Gwendolen lacks it, but her delusion that she may have it is similar to the act of self-confidence trickery that most people go through whenever they attempt something. When you work in a business like freelance writing that makes blunt rejection into a career constant (pitches go uncommissioned, pieces get spiked, exciting prospects prove to be concrete-and-scrub cul-de-sacs), sometimes the only way to proceed is by screwing up your ambition into a blunt fist and calling it “talent”.

Despite the absurd unlikelihood of this great title acknowledging your existence off the back of a single email and a sketchy idea, you tell yourself that it will happen, because you are one of the ones it happens to. Many try, but you’ll succeed, because you have that small allotment of talent. Even if you’re generally crumpled with self-doubt and crying into your keyboard, you have to summon up at least enough of that attitude to press send on yet another doomed email.

Only, eventually you may realise that everyone is engaged in the same con, including those people who you don’t think are talented at all. What sets you apart from them? And here I agree with Klesmer: it’s work that actually supplies what we think we mean by talent.

Eliot’s words, via Klesmer, are echoed by (and probably primed me to agree with) Richard Sennett in The Craftsman, with that book’s understanding of art as the outcome of refined craft and craft as the outcome of labourious repetition. Talent is a silly novel’s fiction. Doing – and accepting that in the doing you might, Gwendolen-wise, fall short of your own ideal for yourself but also that it’s the only way of ever becoming better – is the thing.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; picture from the August 1872 issue of The Graphic

9 thoughts on “Against talent

  1. When you work in a business like freelance writing that makes blunt rejection into a career constant (pitches go uncommissioned, pieces get spiked, exciting prospects prove to be concrete-and-scrub cul-de-sacs), sometimes the only way to proceed is by screwing up your ambition into a blunt fist and calling it “talent”.

    You landed a solid punch right there.

    Lovely piece. Thanks.

  2. Only the other day, I found myself thinking, “I’m so pleased Sarah has her regular gig at The Guardian; she’s such a talented writer.”

    I shall re-programme myself immediately.

  3. (Oh, and this–“genius is at first little more than a great capacity for receiving discipline”–reminded me of one of the things Nietzsche says about Goethe, that “he disciplined himself to wholeness”.)

  4. Chris, I think we’ve chatted about Eliot’s Germanic-ness before, so that connection figures quite nicely. (Further doctoral sadness: being asked how I got on with Feuerbach “in the original”. Oh the monoglot shame.)

    Andrew – thank you.

  5. Have you read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell? I know he (and those who admit to learning from him) come in for a great deal of scornful dismissal, but I think it’s a fantastic book – and its main thesis is that what we regard as ‘talent’ is in fact a cocktail of very hard work and extremely good luck. Naturally, I read it in the original American.

  6. I think – speaking from experience – every underachiever tells themselves the same lie: That any level of accomplishment is possible if you could just apply yourself; the innate talent is obviously there. It’s even worse for those that have an aptitude for picking things up quickly.

    There of course lies the rub. It’s terribly easy to underestimate both exactly how much work is involved in really mastering a particular skill, and in your own ability to sit down and actually do the work.

  7. I hadn’t come across Silly Novels by Lady Novelists before. It’s glorious.

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