Sunday, April 15, 2007
Amanda Claybaugh, Part 2: The Comedy of Defamiliarization
In my first post on Amanda Claybaugh’s book The Novel of Purpose, I suggested that she preferred collectivist organizations to the fictions of individual identity and national identity. I also argued that Claybaugh understands literary categories such as “realism” and “temperance narratives” similarly, as purposive, arbitrary umbrellas, rather than as organic wholes.
I ended with Claybaugh’s discussion of Henry James, and suggested that her admiration for James was related to James’s own embrace of the 19th Century literary tradition in France. In this post, I will explore the critical questions that haunt Claybaugh’s text:
• What about the figure of the author in France, as analyzed and codified by Pierre Bourdieu, appeals to Claybaugh?
• How does Claybaugh reconcile her own social conscience, and her concerns about the status of women, colonized subjects, and the poor, with her mistrust of reformist narratives that seek to help? Why is she drawn to comic writers like Twain and Dickens, who parody reform, and to novels like Felix Holt that ironize it somberly?
• What, exactly, does Claybaugh think the novel ought to do, and how does this relate to the strange recurrence of Don Quixote (as, of all things, the realist novel par excellence) at the beginning and end of her book? How does it explain her epilogue about Twain’s successfully reformist pamphlet on the plight of the Congolese?
My answer, confirmed again in Claybaugh’s marvelous comment here, is that Claybaugh wishes to substitute the ironic novel of defamiliarization for the earnest novel of purpose. This is how she marks the transition from the novel of purpose to the modernist novel, and it is why she admires the self-otherness of cosmopolitan writers like James.
For Claybaugh, any act of novelistic representation that seeks to generate pity and spur reform is a travesty. First of all, because novels have to work with individual characters, they are apt to glorify an individual’s salvation at the expense of the mass. Claybaugh describes the resolution of The Pickwick Papers thus:
The circumstances of poverty are always overwhelming, as Dickens is finding and temperance reformers have long known, but the return of Jingle offers a nostalgic strategy for delimiting poverty’s depiction. Where temperance reform attends only to what fits into a particular narrative—drunken suffering, sober reward—the charitable picaresque attends only to what belongs to a particular character. Because everything is done to help Jingle and Job, nothing need be done to help anyone else. (70)
Second, representing a group of people in need of aid is an unacceptable repetition of colonization. Claybaugh writes that George Eliot “is unusually acute in capturing how reform is experienced, and she is equally acute in reflecting on what reform entails. It entails representation” (124). There is an unacknowledged play here on the term “representation,” which means both artistic representation and representation in Parliament:
But in order to alter the world beyond the estate, a reformer must persuade large numbers of people, many of them ignorant, irrational, or self-interested. Middlemarch foregrounds this problem in its account of a parliamentary campaign. (124)
The representative, who is called upon to become the exemplary figure for the people’s interests, ends up (like so many revolutionaries and evangelicals before him) having to dictate to the people what their interests should be: temperance, property reform, education, piety. If, as we saw in the first post, representation entails the creation of an organizing fiction, that fiction—and its teleological narrative of progress—is then imposed upon those being represented.
In a comment to my last post, Scott Eric Kaufman asks about what he calls “communities of sympathetic readers,” who “exist only on the basis of their being able to understand the intention of these reformist plots even when they’re distorted by realist conventions,” and who are constituted by novels of purpose. The problem with such communities is twofold: first, they are either not composed of the people who are supposed to be helped, or they are composed of interpellated subjects who have allowed themselves to be converted to such narratives as temperance, despite the gaps such narratives produce (covered in the earlier discussion of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall). Second, Claybaugh is very pessimistic about whether the specific intentions of a reformist plot are even comprehensible to readers. It some cases, these intentions may be invalid. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn argues eloquently for abolition, despite the fact that the slaves (and Jim the slave in particular) are already free. As for the rest, the “purposiveness” of the novel is a supplement that has to be added ex post facto. Claybaugh recounts the story of a woman who was made to believe that Madame Bovary was a “novel of purpose,” and also describes how Thomas Hardy turned his early works into reformist novels retrospectively, through his characterizations of them and the selective publication of excerpts. On its own, it seems, a novel of purpose can never be quite purposeful enough.
In contrast to these novels, which create problematic communities of sympathetic readers, Claybaugh sets novels that challenge existing communities of convention through a process of defamiliarization. The novel of defamiliarization is most frequently a comedy, and it takes aim at “those conventions that are imperceptible” and therefore “achieve verisimilitude” (37) rather than being recognized as fictions. The comedy is the comedy of the swindle, in which the reader becomes aware of a character or characters mistaking an illusion for reality. This is why, following Boris Tomashevsky, Claybaugh calls Don Quixote “the classic text of verisimilitude” (37). We as readers know that the Don has been captured by fictions, and is tilting at windmills.
Thus Claybaugh presents us with two kinds of self-otherness. There are bad, futile kinds of self-otherness which derive from attempts at what Jacques Derrida would call “self-presence.” Hence the “doubling” of supplemental, purposive criticism, which tries to make the novel of purpose transparently instructive, and the “doubled promising” of marriage and temperance that, in trying to shore up marriage, reveals the instability of the construct as a whole. A repetition that is supposed to confirm a reality by mirroring it, as a marriage vow would be re-confirmed by a temperance pledge, instead institutes a gap. In a marriage, this gap opens the door to adulterous desire: “the plot of doubled promising also raised the specter of adultery” (99). In a novel, the gap between text and critical re-statement reveals that the novel of purpose may not be identical with its reformist “purpose,” but instead may contain both shameful vicarious pleasures and inadmissably radical critiques.
The good kind of self-otherness is that of Henry James, whose “remarkable conception of cosmopolitanism” means “not transcending national boundaries but rather always remaining on their other side” (150). This makes the author a transgressor, rather than a figure of transcendence. From the alienated perspective of the transgressor, the goal is not to inspire pity for the victim, but rather to pierce the alibis of the community of victimizers to which the author also belongs. Dickens and Twain among others understood that these alibis were frequently the temperance narratives themselves, and depicted con artists who feed on the popular demand for illusion but do not “take in” the reader: “Con artistry does the work of defamiliarization. Dismal Jenny reveals the temperance narrative as a narrative” (63). Claybaugh describes Twain’s pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, thus:
The interiority that interests Twain is not the victim’s but rather the victimizer’s, and so he writes, as the title reveals, Leopold’s own soliloquy. Written from Leopold’s perspective, the text is bitterly comic; the sufferings it depicts are mediated and so do not prompt in us the tears of an Uncle Tom’s Cabin or even of the early sections of Huckleberry Finn. Tears, in this text, are what were shed by the European nations taken in by Leopold’s false claims of antislavery concern, and so tears are what Twain refuses to produce, so that we may more clearly see. (221)
Claybaugh writes almost mystically about the fact that this pamphlet, which ultimately stirred opinion enough to provoke Theodore Roosevelt to action, coincided with Twain’s newfound pessimism about the ability of literature to affect public opinion at all. We see that Twain’s pessimism actually made it possible for him to write an effective text, because Leopold’s comic ignorance of his own monstrousness reflects on the citizens of the United States. The U.S., by refusing to intervene in the Congo, is complicit in Leopold’s practices of exploitation, and so Leopold’s soliloquy is really a defamiliarized version of the American consciousness.
The model of French bohemianism, though perhaps not appealing as a series of clichés, is fundamentally appealing to Claybaugh because it is a method of deliberately alienating oneself while remaining “inside” one’s own inherited communities. Claybaugh writes:
Reformist activities became the Anglo-American counterpart to the conspicuous bohemianism that was so central, as Pierre Bourdieu has shown, to literary self-presentation in France. French literary figures displayed their status as litearry figures by transgressing the rules of ordinary sociability and eschewing money and position; when they did speak out on political issues, as Emile Zola did in the Dreyfus Affair, their authority came from their total separation from the political domain. (49)
This is the same authority that Twain achieves paradoxically at the time of the writing of King Leopold’s Soliloquy, through a pessimism about public opinion that separates him from the public. One also sees here the groundwork for Claybaugh’s dislike of authors in pursuit of money and position, for example authors seeking expanded copyright laws.
In another sense, though, the Anglo-American reformer is the counterpart of the French bohemian because the desire to reform society, like the desire to transgress it, allows one some measure of perspective on what society actually is and how it works. The reformer is a disruptive presence, and the revelations produced by this disruption were interesting even to conservative novelists like George Eliot.
This brings us back to Don Quixote, with its layers of irony, and back also to the Kantian aesthetics of reflection. The protagonist of Don Quixote is not merely a madman, beholden to chivalric discourses that have fallen out-of-fashion and become recognizable as fictions. He is also a provocateur who reveals the customs of the present day, frequently in an unflattering light. The Don finds himself in a world both cynical and cruel. When an innkeeper and his prostitutes treat the Don as the lord he claims to be, the irony will not wash away: the difference between old and new social fictions is a matter of timing, not of truth. Part Two of Don Quixote utterly destroys any claim about verisimilitude by portraying the Don as a celebrity. The people he encounters have read about him, and Don Quixote has to contend (like Cervantes himself) with multiple, unauthorized versions of his own story.
Instead of an exemplary hero, Cervantes gives us a satiric figure whose ironies infect those around him. He forces us to reflect upon the fictions that structure our own lives, and denies us the option of escaping our dilemma through an idealization of the Don or a conversion to his madness. This is the return to Kant: art reveals the possibility of radical change without presuming to determine how such change should be effected. For Claybaugh, a passionate hatred of oppression is joined to a melancholy confidence that “affects are produced that do not—because they cannot—change the world” (174). The reformer, via James, Eliot, Twain, and the rest, is her deluded knight-errant, and The Novel of Purpose is her Quixote.
Now you’ve got me thinking of Dan McCall’s work on Hawthorne and James in Citizens of Somewhere Else and hoping/wishing that Claybaugh has a few pages at least on Hawthorne or McCall.
We might want to triangulate Twain’s anti-reformist critique of King Leopold with Conrad’s more famous anti-reformist critique of King Leopold: *The Heart of Darkness*. For that is the dangerous direction of anti-reformist, anti-sentimental, reflexive, ironic literature: in portraying the savagry of civilization, it normalizes the complete obliteration of the oppressed. Kurtz might horrify us with his “Exterminate the brutes!,” but Conrad basically exterminates Africans by denying them a presence in the text.
Which is to say, as Said wrote, the reflexive literature of modernism turns the (Third) world into a stage for the acting out of Western psychological dramas.
We can see a similar dynamic in Henry James’s *The American Scene*, especially in the chapters on his return to NYC. While the robber barons and new technologies have effectively alienated James from his homeland, it is the figure of the alien, the immigrant, who embodies the terrible realization that the native is now a foreigner and the foreigner now a native. Ellis Island is not a place, as in Emma Lazarus’s imagination, where the poor of the world are redeemed, but instead a stage for James to apostrophize his hysteria on being disowned by his nation.
Is there a critical energy to James and Conrad? Sure. But it is the critical energy of the egoist. As such, it probably has more in common with the brutal energies of Carnegie, Ford, and monopoly capitalism than with the liberalizing force of 19th century reformers.
And with Walter Benn Michaels’s older arguments about the racism of the anti-imperialists of Twain’s time. And with newer studies of that time like Paul Kramer’s The Blood of Government. (And with the debates in Hawthorne studies between those who basically argue that LB’s above critique applies to Hawthorne and those like McCall and Berlant, for example, who for different reasons and in different ways look for more in/from his texts [and claim to have found rather than invented it].)
Why has Victor Hugo’s great novel Les Misérables (1862) not been mentioned here?
As his award winning biographer Graham Robb notes:
“One can see here the impact of Les Misérables on the Second Empire…. The State was trying to clear its name. The Emperor and Empress performed some public acts of charity and brought philanthropy back into fashion. There was a sudden surge of official interest in penal legislation, the industrial exploitation of women, the care of orphans, and the education of the poor. From his rock in the English Channel, Victor Hugo, who can more fairly be called ‘the French Dickens’ than Balzac, had set the parliamentary agenda for 1862.”
Not a bad result, especially given Les Misérables’ purpose, stated as a brief preface by Hugo:
“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age- the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night- are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
More on this by Graham Robb here:
And what of these critical folks?:
Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist (1903):
[The novel] may be a great force…fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak….
Morris Edmund Speare, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America (1924):
The political novel…is the most embracing in its material of all other novel types...[and] must be dominated, more often than not, by ideas rather than by emotions…
W.E.B. Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art” (1926):
…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.
V. F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature (1932):
Most of the literature of the world has been propagandistic in one way or another…. In a word, the revolutionary critic does not believe that we can have art without craftsmanship; what he does believe is that, granted the craftsmanship, our aim should be to make art serve man as a thing of action and not man serve art as a thing of escape.
John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934):
A particular work of art may have a definite effect upon a particular person or upon a number of persons. The social effect of the novels of Dickens or of Sinclair Lewis is far from negligible....
Joseph Freeman, Proletarian Literature in the United States (1935):
To characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn it…. In the case of the liberal critic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weapon....
James T. Farrell, A Note on Literary Criticism (1936):
Literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence…. I suggest that…the formula ‘All art is propaganda’ be replaced by another: ‘Literature is an instrument of social influence.…’. [Literature] can be propaganda…and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation.
Bernard Smith, Forces in American Literary Criticism (1939):
‘Propaganda’ is…used [here] to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readers’ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something.
Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel (1940):
That Charles Dickens assisted the reform of the Poor Law, and Charles Reade that of the Victorian prison system, is undeniable…. Such novels influence.
Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):
The contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art.... Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable.
George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press” (1943) (Excerpt from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm):
The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.... The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
After the end of Jennifer Howard’s article “The Fragmentation of Literary Theory,” notice the gap in the timeline of works of literary “theory” that occurs roughly between the two world wars: That gap comprises much of easily one of the most vital periods of US literary criticism, as partly indicated above, a time that Bernard Smith overviews and analyzes in the last two chapters of Forces in Literary Criticism (1939). It seems to me that there should be more discussion among political artists and others of the sort arising, both figuratively and literally, from that gap in the timeline - discussions that relate the creation of art and literature today to the urgent concerns of today.
“Then comes the modern question: why is there not today (or at least so it seems to me), why is there no longer an art of intellectual persuasion, or imagination? Why are we so slow, so indifferent about mobilizing narrative and the image? Can’t we see that it is, after all, works of fiction, no matter how mediocre they may be artistically, that best arouse political passion?”
I’ve taken the quotations above from this article:
The quotations below by Barbara Harlow and Michael Hanne are appended to this article:
Barbara Harlow writes in Resistance Literature (1987):
“Resistance literature, as this study has attempted to show, has in the past played a vital role in the historical struggle of the resistance movements in the context of which it was written. That same literature continues to enlist readers and critics in the First as in the Third Worlds in the active reconstruction of interrupted histories. Omar Cabezas, former FSLN guerrilla and author of The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green (published in English as Fire from the Mountain), and now head of the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior’s Political Section, still maintains that:”
To have participated as a guerrilla, to have written this book, son of a bitch: it’s dealt a real blow to the enemy. You feel like you could die after something like that. After that book and one more. Or that book and two more. Or that book and five more. Or just that book. What I want to say is it’s dealt a blow to imperialism. I saw a photo, once, of a dead guerrilla in a Latin American country, and they showed everything he had in his knapsack: his plate, his spoon, his bedroll, his change of clothing, and The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green. And I think back to when I was a guerrilla; when a guerrilla carries a book in his knapsack, it really means something.
Michael Hanne writes in The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change (1994):
“Can a novel start a war, free serfs, break up a marriage, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of fiction over the last two hundred years or so. How seriously should we take such claims?
“In their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naïve, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to ‘work in the world’ and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimed…”
“Storytelling, it must be recognized from the start, is always associated with the exercise, in one sense or another, of power, of control. This is true of even the commonest and apparently most innocent form of storytelling in which we engage: that almost continuous internal narrative monologue which everyone maintains, sliding from memory, to imaginative reworking of past events, to fantasizing about the future, to daydreaming…. It is a curious thing that, in the liberal democracies, the word ‘power’ is used more frequently than any other by publishers and reviewers to indicate, and invite, approval of a work of narrative fiction…. This flooding of popular critical discourse with the term ‘power’ does not, of course, indicate a widespread belief in the capacity of narrative fiction to ‘change the world.’ The use of ‘power’…indicates little more than approval of the novel’s capacity to involve and move the individual reader emotionally. Indeed the term is so devalued as to imply a denial that narrative fiction can exercise power in a wider social and political sense…. Power, as is usual in a liberal democracy, is treated as individual and unproblematic, rather than collective, structural, and problematic.
“Two important corollaries follow from this: a) there is no public acknowledgement that literature plays a role in the maintenance of existing power structures and b) literature is seen as incapable of playing a seriously disruptive role within such a society…. If, in a liberal democracy, a piece of imaginative writing seeks or achieves social or political influence that goes beyond such a limited conception of its proper power, it must either be nonliterature masquerading as literature or a literary work being manipulated and misused for nonliterary, propagandistic purposes…. In overtly authoritarian states whose form of government does not rely on liberal bourgeois conceptions of constitutionality, such as Russia under the Tsars or the Soviet Union under Stalin, these assumptions are entirely reversed. Literature is required, by a combination of censorship and patronage, to contribute to the maintenance of power as constituted at the time. The government’s insistence on retaining tight control over what is written and published reflects the belief, which is most often shared by the regime’s opponents, that fictional writing possesses an extreme potential for disruption.”
“To anyone who is skeptical about the assertion that narrative fiction, in certain circumstances, plays a central role in the lives and political thinking of ordinary people, I recommend the earthy reminder provided in a letter to Solzhenitsyn by a reader of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich living in the Ukraine, who wrote to the author: “In Kharkov I have seen all kinds of queues—for the film Tarzan, butter, women’s drawers, chicken giblets and horse-meat sausage. But I cannot remember a queue as long as the one for your book in the libraries.”
“One of the earliest, and best known, examples of a novel which is claimed to have exercised a massive, direct, social influence is Goethe’s story of hopeless love, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which is said to have so stirred the feelings of a whole generation of young readers all over Western Europe that a number were recorded as committing suicide in imitation of its lovesick hero. Of a very different kind is the impact claimed for the novels of Dickens and Charles Kingsley, which have been credited with contributing, through the exposure of some of the social evils of mid-nineteenth century Britain, to the most important pieces of reform legislation enacted in the later part of the century. Perhaps the most specific (and best-documented) claim for a novel’s leading to significant legislative change relates to the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which, through its depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry, is reliably said to have been instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. Congress a few months later…. (A curious knock-on effect of the widespread anxiety about the health risks associated with canned foods provoked by The Jungle was the immediate collapse of whole communities based on canning quite remote from Chicago—including those in my country, New Zealand.)”
And these views by Morris Edmund Speare on governmental and political fiction, from his book The Political Novel (1924)—taken from this article:
In the political world [an author] had to know his material not as a reporter knows the facts which he has covered in an ‘assignment,’ nor even as some scholar probes and garners the fruits of his study, but rather as the fisherman knows the sea or the ploughman follows his furrow. To be able to wed politics to art and bring about a consummation where neither the first became tractarian or statistical nor the other too honey-sweet, required not only an imagination of a particularly high order, but a knowledge of material which had been gathered at first hand, with the accuracy which only a participant himself could possess. One had to be able to think in political formulae, to adorn his thoughts in the natural imagery of the political life. Then only could he interpret it intelligently and interestingly to the reader.
We deal here with a genre of the novel which, if excellently developed, must make its appeal to the reader not primarily as a social force but as an intellectual force.
And if he succeeds in endowing his characters and his situations with warmth, color, and vitality, and if his world of statesmen, diplomats, and all lesser figures--man, woman, and idealized youth--are spread in an intelligible pageant before us, there is yet a philosophy of politics, so to speak, to represent in a legitimately artistic manner….
The attempt, then, to combine impersonated characters with fiction, and to add to the result some significant political or social moral, aside from acting as a check upon the genius of every writer in this field except only the greatest writer…is fraught with peril. It is unfortunate indeed that in this milieu the critic is swift to find what may easily be termed ‘propaganda’ when it is actually nothing but an impassioned view of some political ideal of the novelist’s… It is not difficult to make out a case for the statement that in a sense all art is propaganda.…
Finally, if anyone can readily pass out this story in high schools, etc—Warhawk Guns for Hire—I would appreciate it:
The works of James and Conrad address the problem of egotism. This does not make the works egotistical; if that were the case, it would be difficult to write about egotism directly at all without succumbing to it.
I shudder to think what Conrad would have produced, had he taken it upon himself to write from inside the “subjectivity” of an African colonized subject as he imagined it. His novella was about colonizers; one might just as well say that he exterminated the Portugese by leaving them out, as say that he is responsible for a literary form of genocide against Africans. Nor is it possible to know whether a “meanwhile, inside the chieftain’s hut” scene, or many such scenes, would have done anything to enhance the fiction.
Tony, while I respect the effort involved in reproducing this tissue of quotations, I confess that this is too much for me to synthesize in its current form. I don’t know what to make of all these words, despite the impeccable nature of your sources, and worry that the main effect will be people abandoning the thread.
I would be interested to hear your own take on one or two of the most significant quotes; or perhaps to hear how Les Miserables relates to Claybaugh’s text and concerns.
It doesn’t seem that much to take in to me, even irrespective of the fact that your post isn’t exactly tiny.
I think my opening question is a good one.
It also seems obvious to me that one key intent of the quotations is to show that the notions in these threads that seem dismissive of the fact that the novel has been and can be an effective, skillfully handled agent of social change crumble in the face of the facts of the matter, and analysis.
Joseph, it’s not a matter of Conrad switching subjectivities or POVs. His novel simply erases the presence of Africans in Africa. The sin of colonialism for Conrad is *not* what it does to Africans but what it does to Europeans. (And I didn’t mean to suggest that failure to represent is the same as genocide, just that we’re not meant to be horrified by Kurtz’s sentiment—“exterminate the brutes”—but rather we are asked to be horrified that a *European* could come to such a conclusion after having such high ideals.
And I don’t think Conrad and James “address” the problem of egoism, anymore than Pound or Lewis do. (Joyce might be an exception.) *Heart of Darkness* deals with two consummate egoists, Kurtz and Marlowe, and Marlowe’s take is not terribly ironized. And James doesn’t ironize his egoism at all in *The American Scene*. He even eroticizes a young Confederate war veteran whose beauty makes him realize that it’s time to let bygones be bygones!
I don’t know enough about Pound—and don’t think enough about Lewis—to know whether or not they address the problem of egotism; Joyce certainly does in his satirical second looks at Stephen.
You may well be right about The American Scene; I haven’t read it, and invite other readers to share their thoughts.
As for James’s other work, I am thinking of Gilbert Osmond, Merton Densher, and John Marcher—the men in James tend to be monsters of egotism and are portrayed as such.
Marlowe’s mission, which is so much of what we see of his subjectivity, turns out to be useless and traumatic: this is what I take to be Conrad’s irony. I agree that Conrad’s story laments what Africa does to Europeans, but I don’t think the definition of “Africa” he uses can be separated from the ways colonialism has shaped it. A more accurate description of the novella would be what Africa does to colonizers, with all the corresponding doubt that casts over whether colonialism and high ideals are ever compatible.
Claybaugh may leave us facing something of an either/or: the novel of purpose vs. the novel of defamiliarization. It is perhaps possible to believe in the novel of purpose (that is, in the arousal of compassion) without discounting the value of artworks that hold a mirror up to one’s own culture, asking whether we are the people we’d like to be.
Hugo is missing from this account because he was French, and (to my knowledge) did not influence Anglo-American writers as much as Balzac, Zola, and Flaubert.
Neither Amanda Claybaugh (in her book) nor I dispute that the novel can be an agent of social change. But that’s not the end of the story. A novel can produce questionable social changes—for example, temperance narratives may have been inadequate to the problems they were supposed to solve (e.g. poverty and domestic abuse), and bad for the diversity and freedom of art.
In addition, there is a great deal of difference between the various thinkers quoted here, and even between their quotations. I would perhaps support “novels of resistance” over and above novels of purpose. I certainly wouldn’t support a consciously propagandistic theory of literary production (if that is even what Burke or DuBois mean to propose). To claim that “all art is propaganda” is to make a dangerous general claim in the interests of authorizing some single act of political concern.
To take another example from this cavalcade, the unfortunate young men who took their lives in imitation of Werther did not understand Goethe, and are not exactly tributes to the salvatory powers of art. Furthermore, we have no way of knowing how many of them would have taken their lives anyway, and gone ahead and written suicide notes without dedication pages.
Finally, several of the quotes provided switch over into critiques (or potential critiques) of reformist writing, in modes that precisely resemble the critiques animating Claybaugh’s study.
Yes of course I realize Claybaugh’s book is primarily about Anglo-American writers (I haven’t read the book, though would like to, as it sounds worthwhile), yet Cervantes is referenced in your account and in the book (according to an Amazon search), and not the quite germaine, one would think, Hugo with his Les Miserables, the widely read great novel of social reform and revolution, the novel that penetrated deep into the Anglo-American world, being instantly translated and internationally published and being read, as biographer Robb notes, in the trenches of both sides of the U.S. Civil War. The influence of Hugo’s fiction, Les Miserables in particular, seems to me to be extraordinarily underestimated and overlooked. It’s something of a scandal, as Robb discusses. As is the burial of Upton Sinclair’s best book of sociological literary criticism, Mammonart (1924), as is the burial of American political and literary figure Thomas Manson Norwood’s epic Dickensian novel Plutocracy; or, American White Slavery (1888). An important utterly unknown novel, though terribly racist, that in a number of ways rivals the great American classic Huckleberry Finn, published three years earlier (that also has a number of racist aspects, in the opinion of prominent critics). I’ve written about Plutocracy here: http://www.socialit.org/plutocracy.html.
“Neither Amanda Claybaugh (in her book) nor I dispute that the novel can be an agent of social change.”
Glad to hear it, but of course that’s not what I said, which was considerably stronger.
“But that’s not the end of the story.”
Yes, as I just indicated, it’s not really even the beginning of my point.
“A novel can produce questionable social changes—for example, temperance narratives may have been inadequate to the problems they were supposed to solve (e.g. poverty and domestic abuse), and bad for the diversity and freedom of art.”
Of course. So can a well-intentioned political policy or law, etc. The point is to do the best you can, and learn and improve.
“In addition, there is a great deal of difference between the various thinkers quoted here, and even between their quotations. I would perhaps support “novels of resistance” over and above novels of purpose.”
You’re too vague here to be meaningful. A novel of resistance _is_ a type of novel of purpose. If you’re speaking in jargon, it’s far from any jargon accepted even within the discipline, for good reason.
“I certainly wouldn’t support a consciously propagandistic theory of literary production (if that is even what Burke or DuBois mean to propose).”
That is precisely what both mean, and precisely what Burke wrote about at length in The Philosophy of Literary Form.
“To claim that “all art is propaganda” is to make a dangerous general claim in the interests of authorizing some single act of political concern.”
This is absurd, to the extent that it is even intelligible. All speech, all action can be said to be propaganda, at least at some trivial level—and it is not so difficult to find some significant degree of social implication in virtually any “speech” or act, let alone art.
“To take another example from this cavalcade, the unfortunate young men who took their lives in imitation of Werther did not understand Goethe, and are not exactly tributes to the salvatory powers of art.”
Exactly. Which is why it is important to know just how influential, unwittingly propagandistic, art, etc, can be even and perhaps especially when not _consciously_ wrought as propaganda, or, if you like, as an element of influence, whether private or public.
“Furthermore, we have no way of knowing how many of them would have taken their lives anyway, and gone ahead and written suicide notes without dedication pages.”
You’ve studied the study of it? I haven’t, but experiments can be devised to test for the consequences of a lot of things, reading literature included. And careful observation can be highly suggestive. To say we have no way of knowing is absurd.
“Finally, several of the quotes provided switch over into critiques (or potential critiques) of reformist writing, in modes that precisely resemble the critiques animating Claybaugh’s study.”
Excellent. It’s good to have such books, and good to critique them.
An extraordinary number of highly political works, such as Dos Passos’s U.S.A. and Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath, have survived from the early 20th Century and will continue to prosper. One cannot separate the aesthetic achievements of such works from the political passions that animate them, but your goal here is to throw out aesthetic considerations in favor of whatever content you happen to find important.
I cannot imagine what criteria one would use to discover that Les Miserables has been neglected; suffice it to say that the works of Elizabeth Stoddard have not received as much attention from Andrew Lloyd Webber. As for the references to Don Quixote, it is a symptom of severe aesthetic insensibility to miss why Cervantes’s satire might be more relevant to Mark Twain than reformist French melodrama, no matter how well-written.
Concerning the supposed vagueness of my responses, I must beg your pardon—it was impossible to do more with vague material, such as one paragraph from Barbara Harlow about the “reconstruction of interrupted histories.” The quotations jumped around so much, without any explanatory commentary, that it was obvious we were supposed to respect the names of the authors, rather than trying to comprehend arguments in full.
Your idea that we could perform empirical “experiments” to gauge the propagandistic power of literature apparently confuses the reading of literature with the response to a direct order.
The notion that all literature is, in fact, “propaganda,” is either trivial (as you yourself so helpfully assert), or brutally dogmatic and authoritarian. Which leads us to this:
The point is to do the best you can, and learn and improve.
I’m not sure, acting on my own power, that I can do enough with my propaganda to further whatever causes it is you support. So I’ve sent letters on your behalf to today’s major literary figures, ordering them to start writing books where every conversation, every detail of setting, every felicitous experiment of form, helps to prove that the United States needs to immediately withdraw its armed forces from Iraq. I’m not sure if you also want all television programs and magazines to continually repeat this message until further instructions, but I’ve also sent them letters, just in case.
Once we have accomplished our objectives, we can look forward comfortably to the withering-away of literature altogether—or else risk decadence.
Of course one can “separate the aesthetic achievements of [political novels] from the political passions that animate them.” People do it all the time.
Really, my “goal here” is “to throw out aesthetic considerations in favor of whatever content I happen to find important”? I had no idea that was my goal, because, well, it isn’t. I did hope to reveal or emphasize a very relevant and vital critical literary tradition, what I call “liberation criticism,” that seems to me to be typically badly overlooked and ignored when discussing the relationship between novels/literature and social change. Sorry, it’s entirely appropriate, professionally and otherwise.
If your interests are exclusively aesthetic, that’s nice for you. The discipline surely has room for esthetes. As for aesthetic considerations: the aesthetics of, call it, the liberation tradition of literature are not inconsiderable. In fact, some of the aesthetics in this tradition are unsurpassed and groundbreaking. Les Misérables for example is a tremendous aesthetic achievement. It’s at least on par with War and Peace, Middlemarch, and the greatest novels of all time in a wide variety of ways, aesthetics not least. I discuss aesthetics at length elsewhere, should you be interested, as do the vast majority of the critics I cite here.
Of course you simply make up the notion that I “miss why Cervantes’s satire might be more relevant to Mark Twain than reformist French melodrama.” I never considered it. I introduced Les Misérables to the conversation for the reasons I’ve given, not yours. But as long as we’re on the point, comparing Twain’s satires to, say, the agitational satire “A Modest Proposal” by Swift would help to bring out some of the “liberation” qualities of Twain’s writing that Twain felt hounded away from by the dominant society, literary and otherwise, as he himself wrote, but that do emerge in some significant degree in his writings nevertheless.
Les Misérables has been neglected, in the U.S. at least, in its function and features as an extraordinary progressive novel. You yourself seem prejudiced against it in calling it a melodrama. Much of the novel is _essayistic_, that is, extraordinarily analytic, not to mention informative. There is a high degree of analysis in Les Misérables, a high degree of realism, and a high degree of melodrama, etc, in this extraordinary and complex novel. But to you, as it seems to me is a typical notion, it’s “reformist melodrama.” There’s a lot of melodrama too in Middlemarch, War and Peace, Dostoevsky of course, but in regard to Hugo, melodrama is often connotated or explicitly stated as a dismissive, whereas with other great novelists who employ significant melodrama as a literary device it’s referred to more often as “suspense” or “intensity” or “deft use of plot,” etc…. This and other prejudices against Les Misérables, consciously committed or not, help to create significant neglect and sheer ignorance about this unusual great novel, in intellectual circles in particular, as Graham Robb, for one, has shown.
“Concerning the supposed vagueness of my responses, I must beg your pardon—it was impossible to do more with vague material, such as one paragraph from Barbara Harlow about the “reconstruction of interrupted histories.” The quotations jumped around so much, without any explanatory commentary, that it was obvious we were supposed to respect the names of the authors, rather than trying to comprehend arguments in full.”
Well, hopefully my explanations now are helping you to better understand – as apparently these are utterly alien ideas and views to you, whether rendered by myself, or by any of the “name authors”.
“Your idea that we could perform empirical “experiments” to gauge the propagandistic power of literature apparently confuses the reading of literature with the response to a direct order.”
Apparently you may find you need to “beg [my] pardon” again because once again you are sufficiently vague as to be incomprehensible.
“The notion that all literature is, in fact, “propaganda,” is either trivial (as you yourself so helpfully assert), or brutally dogmatic and authoritarian.”
Rhetorical fallacy 101: false either/or choice; also, dogma. To you, literary propagada is either “trivial” or “brutal” – rather than a fact of life, in literature as in any number of other acts of communication, expression, and experience. The propagandistic, that is influential, elements of literature (as with any experience) may be incredibly great or trivial, incredibly constructive or destructive (and anywhere in between, of course, on these spectrums) whether intended or not.
“I’m not sure, acting on my own power, that I can do enough with my propaganda to further whatever causes it is you support.”
Satiric though it is, the point is moot, as I certainly wouldn’t dream of asking you to, and have not.
“So I’ve sent letters on your behalf to today’s major literary figures, ordering them to start writing books where every conversation, every detail of setting, every felicitous experiment of form, helps to prove that the United States needs to immediately withdraw its armed forces from Iraq.”
Excellent. Now that’s a literary experiment I would like to see carried out. But you know, as I’ve said, if only someone would produce a single explicit anti Iraq War novel, then even that lone act would be a tremendous sign, a start.
“I’m not sure if you also want all television programs and magazines to continually repeat this message until further instructions, but I’ve also sent them letters, just in case.”
Most wonderful. We are really beginning to make some progress here. A couple of million Iraqi slaughtered are counting on you then, their ghosts anyway, not to mention the other dead, and those alive who still have a chance.
“Once we have accomplished our objectives, we can look forward comfortably to the withering-away of literature altogether—or else risk decadence.”
You can “risk” whatever you want, whenever you want. But of course there is no end to such “objectives.” Liberation is an ongoing struggle, in literature, and far beyond as well – and it’s no little bit compelling, and challenging, in every way.
Tony: there’s a ton of anti-Iraq-War poetry. I believe fiction hasn’t caught up in part because of the dangers inherent in trying to represent folks in the Middle East when you’re an American. No matter how politically correct the representation, it’s going to get attacked. Then there’s the total ignorance of military experience by most contemporary American writers, with the exception of very old guys (like Pynchon or Mailer) and Bill Vollmann. In truth, I’d rather have no anti-Iraq-war novels than one about a man in suburban American having moral qualms.
At the same time, you might want to check out Pynchon’s *Against the Day*. Ultimately, it’s not a successful novel, but it is about 9/11, terrorism, and how we respond to terrorism. Towers keep on falling down throughout the novel, anarchists throw bombs and worry about collatoral damage, a family of good-ole-boys go galavanting throughout the world to avenge their father, &c.
Luther, there’s a lengthy article in the current issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, by David Wojahn, titled “The Fate of Political Poetry” that is very critical of the current mass of anti Iraq War poetry. I actually think the antiwar poetry movement and efforts deserve more credit than Wojahn seems to give them. In other ways though, I don’t think he is critical enough.
“I believe fiction hasn’t caught up in part because of the dangers inherent in trying to represent folks in the Middle East when you’re an American.”
This is an excuse, and a particularly weak one. In any event it certainly didn’t seem to slow Updike from writing his novel Terrorist, or Rushdie from writing his earlier novel of a terrorist, Shalimar the Clown.
Thanks to the internet not least, Iraqi blogs, and so on, there are plenty of Iraqi eyewitness accounts, and many long and thoughtful Iraqi analyses, plus some great on the ground in Iraq reporting by Americans Dahr Jamail, Patrick Cockburn and others. As for military experience, there are even more military blogs and videos and documentaries available, not to mention the embedded reporters lenthy accounts and videos.
If a real issue is concern with such representation, then realism can be eschewed for hard hitting fantasy, satire, caricature, given the tremendously Orwellian nature of the US invasion and occupation.
“In truth, I’d rather have no anti-Iraq-war novels than one about a man in suburban American having moral qualms.”
That doesn’t sound appealing to me either. But how about, say, the family of a KIA US soldier in suburban America expressing and acting on great moral outrage (and anguish) against the criminal invasion (in which the soldier was killed) and the subsequent criminal occupation? That’s what I attempted to achieve in my anti Iraq War novel, Homefront (and the Homefront trilogy). I had to cofound a press to publish Homefront in 2006. I wrote it almost in its entirety in 2003 in the six months after the US ground invasion launched in March. (Review at Counterpunch.)
If I was really cheeky I would post or link my condensed and adapted story/play of Homefront here—“Civil Acts”—but I won’t. It has been declined thus far at 8 journals, with some interesting comments in response, particularly from The New Yorker and The Missouri Review. The submission process has now become a sort of political experiment, it seems to me.
Pynchon’s novel Vineland I appreciate, though am also critical of. Against the Day seems to have some wonderful parts—though overall, I don’t find it that appealing.
While I both write and appreciate very much reading some conventional literary fiction, I’m most interested in and focused on (popular and/or literary) progressive partisan fiction, especially that which is focused on “Orwell’s problem”: how is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to “instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?”
It is amusing, to me, to be accused of an irresponsible aestheticism four months after being accused, by one Steven Augustine, of demeaning literature by trying to appropriate its aesthetic splendor for practical ends. I’ve included the link to his blog, of course: Scylla, meet Charybdis.
Of course, the truth of the matter is that many wonderful pieces of art have already tackled the issue of the Iraq War, such as the film Children of Men that I covered in an earlier post.
A plethora of books, films, blogs, news stories, magazine articles, and other media have served as vehicles for reports on the realities of the war, among them Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. I liked that one a great deal, and it certainly obviates any further hyperbole about the Orwellian present: the point has already been made in a film that (rightfully) received massive publicity.
And yet, this is not enough for you; somehow, for you, the issue has not received enough attention, just as Hugo has not received enough attention, and has not been praised highly enough, for his wonderful portrayal of the Iraq War in Les Misérables.
For you to trumpet contemporary performances of Lysistrata, and then to turn around and demand literalism of contemporary authors, is a laughable contradiction.
But you know, as I’ve said, if only someone would produce a single explicit anti Iraq War novel, then even that lone act would be a tremendous sign, a start.
Actually, someone has produced that very novel: it is called Homefront (you may know it as Civil Acts), and it was written by you, as were the many blog entries to which you have provided links.
Homefront‘s odyssey is not a political experiment; it is a test of your worth as an author. But I assure you that nothing you can do in this forum will change the parameters of that trial. At worst, you will convince us that it is you who you want to advocate for, and not Victor Hugo, who has no need of it, or the victims of the present war, to whom you do a great injustice when you presume to speak on their behalf.
I originally opened my previous post with the following lines but deleted them because I thought they might be taken as too abrasive: “I don’t know whether to laugh at your response, or, well, laugh. So I opted for the latter. And the former.”
It seems now that I may have been wrong to omit them, as your responses grow increasingly irrational and/or irrelevant. I’m not “accusing” you of anything, though when you make caricature of my thoughts, I don’t mind in passing making caricature of yours. However, the vast bulk of my posts are straightforward argument. I have stated clearly some thoughts about how and why criticism, the academy, etc, and novelists among artists in particular could do some vitally needed work that too often is neglected, in my view.
First, I’ve primarily focused my comments here on novels and the criticism of novels. Second, I’m commenting on the neglect of explicit partisan novels—not the conventional work that is Updike’s Terrorist and Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown.
It’s striking that to you I’m “trumpeting” and going on a “cavalcade” and “demanding,” as I present and discuss ideas in what seems to me a rather clinical fashion.
In reference to your comment about Fahrenheit 9/11 – of course, no one piece of art or any one document “obviates any further” need for other works about any ongoing personal, social, or political issues…whether the works employ similar technique or not. New such works can have further constructive and enlightening effect.
Of course, I haven’t “demanded literalism of contemporary authors.” First, again, I haven’t “demanded” anything. Second, much of my own antiwar and other partisan writing is caricature and fantasy, and though often among the fantastic elements it does include pertinent facts, views and information, there is nothing unusual about this approach. It can be found in a tremendous number of _conventional_ art forms, let alone novels.
Tremendously informative and persuading political discussions and ideas, etc, have been generated in and around performances of Lysistrata, and there is no little bit to be learned from the script itself for political organizers and others in understanding some of the difficulties of wielding power, confronting authority, and building and keeping together a coalition of resisters (some of Lysistrata’s group keep slipping out to live their private lives, for example, and she has to learn how to work with or handle that).
“But you know, as I’ve said, if only someone would produce a single explicit anti Iraq War novel, then even that lone act would be a tremendous sign, a start.”
“Actually, someone has produced that very novel: it is called Homefront (you may know it as Civil Acts), and it was written by you, as were the many blog entries to which you have provided links.”
No, it should have been clear, since I quoted your comment, “someone” refers to “today’s major literary figures” of your satire. Still waiting for the first one.
“Many blog entries...written by” myself, really? Try, 2. I provided exactly 2 links to blog entries written by myself, and one of those I did so only because the review has not yet been run at PopPolitics. The only other two links to my weblog that I provided consist entirely of comments on caricature by Noam Chomsky, one, and two, entirely comments on Les Miserables and Victor Hugo by the biographer, Graham Robb. The three other links to my own writing were to critical articles run at Znet, and were expansions of my thoughts in my comments here.
“Homefront‘s odyssey is not a political experiment; it is a test of your worth as an author.”
So there’s nothing necessarily political, ideological about the operations of any number of journals? That would be a naïve statement coming from someone anywhere on any political or intellectual spectrum. And I’m sure you’ve taken the trouble to assess the literary quality of my writing, let alone “Civil Acts,” the piece in question here, to which you have no access.
“But I assure you that nothing you can do in this forum will change the parameters of that trial.”
I certainly hope not. I hesitated before mentioning the work and submission because it may affect the experiment to do so, but in which direction I don’t have a good sense for. Probably in virtually no direction, it seems to me. In any case, it’s no “trial”. It’s interesting, illuminating.
“At worst, you will convince us that it is you who you want to advocate for, and not Victor Hugo, who has no need of it, or the victims of the present war, to whom you do a great injustice when you presume to speak on their behalf.”
Thanks for the advice. It has as much connection to reality as much of the rest of what you’ve written. I don’t presume to speak on anyone’s behalf, even as I am critical of our roles and work as scholars and artists.
"It is amusing, to me, to be accused of an irresponsible aestheticism four months after being accused, by one Steve Augustine, of demeaning literature by trying to appropriate its aesthetic splendor for practical ends.”
If I were less nail-paringly Formalist and more the leg-folding Metaphysician, I’d say there’s Karma at work here…
Political “Art” is, demonstrably, a form of kitsch. We all ("we" defined quite narrowly as anyone with enough of an open mind to even consider your argument) think war is bad, and peace is good, and it would be nice to end poverty, illiteracy, sexism, racism and hunger on the planet sooner than later. Well, that just about sums it up; how can a reverent (that is: message-intact) treatment of these themes amplify such sentiments or in any way energize a novel? And how could such a novel supersede a documentary on the same material?
Having said this, I think Art can strengthen a left-leaning (or anti-fascist) consciousness in the public by normalizing an aesthetic violation of “decorum” (meaning: the status quo) and by habituating this public to the kind of critical thinking that great literary Art, in all its ambiguity, requires of the reader.
A reader capable of “getting” Naked Lunch or Cosmicomics or Underworld or The Joke is less likely to go flat under “the government’s” ideological steamroller. Beyond the philosophical utility of Formalist ambiguity (versus the Ideologue’s univalence; the Ideologue’s dogma), there’s the plain fact that polemics don’t age well, and are invariably a transcription of the preacher’s sermon to the choir.
Any anti-War movel about Iraq is already too late by the time it’s published, in any case. Rather, let’s investigate the conformist (or non-existent) reading habits of a public so intellectually docile that the confabulated connection (an exampole of the State as novelist, actually) between Mr. Bin Laden and Mr. Hussein was swallowed hook, line and sinker.
While Great Art *inspires* Free Thinking, it’s a small Art indeed that attempts to supply the thought itself...whatever the ultimate goal, it’s still propaganda.
PS Updike’s Terrorist (however one gauges its success as Art) isn’t “political” Art, even if it deals with a theme current to certain political discussions; Updike’s attempt to present a fair portrait of the protag’s motives recuses him from the category. Updike is anti-death without being either anti-American or anti-Muslim: there again, the ambiguity of Art.
In contrast, Martin Amis’s long short story about the last days of Mr. Atta listed so heavily to one side that it crossed the line into the territory of kitsch and then sank, actually damaging him as an artist.
There are fairly well-tested limits to the extremes that Art can and cannot bear...its tolerance for decorum-smashing (obscenity) is practically infinite. But a grain of polemic is polonium…
PPS “Les Miserable” is *pure* kitsch. All the proof of that we need is its amenability to Broadway (the death of Gavroche, par example, is polemical kitsch at its overblown best). It’s not Art, it’s Entertainment. That’s where Issue-Oriented Activism is a better fit: in Entertainment.
PPS Re: WEB Dubois’s pronouncement: show me please to WEB’s masterpiece of a novel.
PPPS: Pynchon: there again, Pynchon’s sly, oblique, parabolic and cubist filter through which his themes process is the essence of Art, whatever targets the allusions connect to. It’s the *transformation* that counts.
“Political “Art” is, demonstrably, a form of kitsch. We all ("we" defined quite narrowly as anyone with enough of an open mind to even consider your argument) think war is bad, and peace is good, and it would be nice to end poverty, illiteracy, sexism, racism and hunger on the planet sooner than later. Well, that just about sums it up; how can a reverent (that is: message-intact) treatment of these themes amplify such sentiments or in any way energize a novel?”
See Les Miserables…. Assembly line workers carried copies of Sinclair’s novel critiquing Henry Ford in their back pockets. Such novels can be strengthening, affirming.
“And how could such a novel supersede a documentary on the same material?”
Of course it doesn’t have to, to still be highly effective political art.
On the other hand, what has caused more people to become vegetarian: Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, or any documentary? Evidence seems to point toward the novel. That wasn’t the vegetarian Upton Sinclair’s primary intent, but it squares with what he valued and shows the great effect a novel can have.
What is said, with good evidence, to have set the parliamentary agenda in France in 1862? Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables. Today the technology is different, but there’s no reason a novel can’t have great effect itself, or be transformed into a film or other form that has great effect, in this hi-tech age.
Of course the political effects of movies and TV shoes and movies are striking and continuous, in particular the ongoing inculcation of violence as acceptable behaviour. Studies bear this out. The military recently asked the TV drama 24 to stop using torture scenes because US soldiers are mimicking it in Iraq. There’s tremendous socio-political effect of all sorts. Best that it be progressive. My wife’s sister’s young daughter just became a vegetarian after reading/being read a children’s story (unlike the girl’s other two young sisters; these things don’t happen in a vacuum).
“Having said this, I think Art can strengthen a left-leaning (or anti-fascist) consciousness”
-- in all sorts of ways – that’s political; that’s an example of creating individual change that facilitates social and/or political change --
“in the public by normalizing an aesthetic violation of “decorum” (meaning: the status quo) and by habituating this public to the kind of critical thinking that great literary Art, in all its ambiguity, requires of the reader.”
“A reader capable of “getting” Naked Lunch or Cosmicomics or Underworld or The Joke is less likely to go flat under “the government’s” ideological steamroller. Beyond the philosophical utility of Formalist ambiguity (versus the Ideologue’s univalence; the Ideologue’s dogma), there’s the plain fact that polemics don’t age well, and are invariably a transcription of the preacher’s sermon to the choir.”
This latter bit is false. Swift’s satiric polemic “A Modest Proposal” has aged well. Les Miserables is a dramatic partisan work, and it has aged well.
Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” has polemic satiric elements that have aged well over millenia. Ditto some of Juvenal’s satires. And this is very artful, also Artful, work.
“Any anti-War movel about Iraq is already too late by the time it’s published, in any case.”
Not necessarily. But the effect of such novels can be to stop or limit the next war. And what hasn’t been too late to stop the war? Homefront is being used in the antiwar movement, as are other works of art and much nonfiction. It seems to me that all such efforts are combining to end the occupation earlier than it otherwise might. Real effects, individually and socially.
Pakistan has banned _all_ novels from India because of their undesired individual and social effects in Pakistan, the sort of thing that has gone on throughout history, of course.
“Rather, let’s investigate the conformist (or non-existent) reading habits of a public so intellectually docile that the confabulated connection (an exampole of the State as novelist, actually) between Mr. Bin Laden and Mr. Hussein was swallowed hook, line and sinker.”
Unquestionably it would be good if more people knew more in more depth, not least in this example you give, but as I just noted in response to your similar such comments at my weblog:
I disagree that “the masses are a selfish voting bloc” by and large. The polls show time and again the opposite. The majority has consistently been found in the polls in the last several decades to consider the Vietnam war immoral, a degree far beyond what officials and the privileged tend to call it, a mistake. Year after year the polls show the majority in the US wants a universal health care system like Canada’s. The privileged officials have continuously blocked it. The majority of people in the US, as polled, initially and always have been against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, except for a short time around the beginning of the ground invasion in 2003 when the media propaganda blitz was at its height. This enlightened, humane trend continues in issue after issue polled with very few exceptions, in my view. Gun “rights” is an exception. Of course, the privileged official view is usually the opposite of the majority/popular view and so far the privileged have been successful in retaining power and acting against the will of the majority of the people. The educated, more affluent tend to be more ideologically aligned with the rulers in holding retrograde unpopular views on key issues, views that serve wealth. On the other hand, truly quality education and literacy is in itself a good and can and does help people fight for their democratic rights and ideals.
“While Great Art *inspires* Free Thinking, it’s a small Art indeed that attempts to supply the thought itself...whatever the ultimate goal, it’s still propaganda.”
Political art can function and read well 1) propagandistically (that is, directly, influentially by incorporating damning or enlighting facts or views) and/or 2) co-creatively by being structured so that readers are forced to think through to the realties and possibilities of life themselves. Virtually all great art functions in both ways and is necessarily politically status quo, retrograde, or progressive to varying degrees, depending on the author’s intentions and capabilities.
“PS Updike’s Terrorist (however one gauges its success as Art) isn’t “political” Art, even if it deals with a theme current to certain political discussions; Updike’s attempt to present a fair portrait of the protag’s motives recuses him from the category. Updike is anti-death without being either anti-American or anti-Muslim: there again, the ambiguity of Art.”
All art is political, see above, etc.
“In contrast, Martin Amis’s long short story about the last days of Mr. Atta listed so heavily to one side that it crossed the line into the territory of kitsch and then sank, actually damaging him as an artist.”
Art requires skill every time out, no matter what the conscious or unconscious political intent or nature of the piece is.
“There are fairly well-tested limits to the extremes that Art can and cannot bear...its tolerance for decorum-smashing (obscenity) is practically infinite. But a grain of polemic is polonium…”
There is great and powerful polemic art, including parts and wholes of some of the works I’ve just mentioned.
“PPS “Les Miserable” is *pure* kitsch. All the proof of that we need is its amenability to Broadway (the death of Gavroche, par example, is polemical kitsch at its overblown best). It’s not Art, it’s Entertainment. That’s where Issue-Oriented Activism is a better fit: in Entertainment.”
Les Miserables the novel is great art. It has flaws, as it seems to me does every massive masterpiece. Your proof is a non sequitur. I saw one production of Les Mis. I thought it was terrible, extremely kitschy, while others enjoyed and appreciated it, and still others didn’t. Maybe I was sitting too far back in the cheap seats. No doubt there are some great productions and performances of Les Mis and some terrible ones. The novel itself is a great achievement, aesthetic and otherwise.
“PPS Re: WEB Dubois’s pronouncement: show me please to WEB’s masterpiece of a novel.”
Again, beside the point. As I recall, he was referring to art, not novels, but even if he was referring to novels, and even if he was a novelist, even if he never wrote an effective or accomplished novel, it proves nothing. Especially since others have.
“PPPS: Pynchon: there again, Pynchon’s sly, oblique, parabolic and cubist filter through which his themes process is the essence of Art, whatever targets the allusions connect to. It’s the *transformation* that counts.”
To you, clearly. That’s Pynchon’s way. All sorts of types of “transformations” and transformative experiences are not difficult to find in political, partisan, and polemic art. However, I also value quite a number of works of art, or aspects of them—all across the political spectrum—that don’t seem much or at all transformative in the sense that you seem to mean it, but still engage me in other interesting or appealing or useful ways. In fact, Sinclair’s The Jungle is one such work. It seems to have a transformative effect on others. It doesn’t really work that way for me, very much unlike Les Miserables, or A Modest Proposal, or parts of Huckleberry Finn, etc…
I’ll respond to your entire response in a capsule:
“On the other hand, what has caused more people to become vegetarian: Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, or any documentary? Evidence seems to point toward the novel. That wasn’t the vegetarian Upton Sinclair’s primary intent, but it squares with what he valued and shows the great effect a novel can have.”
Again, I’d distinguish between “Art” and effective propaganda (see my initial response).
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is a good example of a work in which I can draw the line for you between real Art and political pamphleteering. On the surface, Slaughterhouse may appear to be a polemic against a war, but the experiences that it in part recounts are specific to a war that was long over by the time the book was published. Some politically engaged folks love to see it as a parable of Vietnam, or an anti-war statement pertinent to Vietnam, but could two wars...WW2, and Vietnam...be more different in their meanings, their results, their specifics?
Vonnegut himself considered it a noble cause to have fought against the Nazis; the book is clearly anti-death, anti-violence, without presenting the case that the U.S. should never have entered the war. The atrocity at Slaughterhouse Five’s heart is, famously, the Allied firebombing of Dresden, but who would claim that Vonnegut’s book was written so that no firebombing of Dresden would ever happen again?
The book is neither anti-American nor anti-German; it’s anti-War within the paradox that the fight against the Nazis was just. It’s anti-death within the paradox that death is inevitable; can never be stopped. Billy Pilgrim, the protag, becomes a dentist, survives a civilian plane crash and the near-simultaneous death of his wife in an auto-accident: how can these passages be said to bolster any particular political argument? And yet they are parts of the overall arc of Vonnegut’s creation, which is more about the absurdity of human life than anything else.
Vonnegut sidesteps the polemicist’s trap of narrowing the novel’s effects or thematic focus to arguing a Leftist’s (or any other -ist’s) case. It indulges in plot developments involving time-traveling, a burlesque star named Montana Wildhack, and advanced civilizations on other planets, developments which showcase Vonnegut’s sweetly absurdist comedy, revealing his essential position as an Artist, which has been unflaggingly *secular humanist nihilism* from the beginning.
Claiming that “all art is political” is exactly like claiming all sex, or all dinner parties, or all souvenirs from one’s Mexican vacation are “political”, too. Only in the broadest sense, by association (sometimes free-association), and by filtering out the all-important ingredient of intent.
Re: Swift’s Modest Proposal: I think it’s only the burnishing effect of time that might cause you to mistake it for Art; can you point to the aesthetic achievement that places it on a par with, say, Kafka’s The Trial? (And please take a deep breath and count to ten before you conscript Kafka for your cause...Laugh).
Art that is ambiguous enough to be worthy of the term makes for poor propaganda; propaganda unambiguous enough to function as such makes very poor Art, though it admittedly, at times, has its place.
I’m sure it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that totalitarian regimes tend to be the most vociferous supporters of political “art” and the most virulent oppressors of ART. Why do you suppose that is?
This is always the fallback: well, if it has public impact, if it’s publicly effective, it’s not good art. “A Modest Proposal” belies this. As does Les Miserables. As does Lysistrata. All considered to be high level art (though of course not by some). Highly artistic editorial cartoons belie the fallback, even if weakly artistic art also is publicly effective (and I do consider the Jungle to be generally weak art objectively and subjectively; though others enjoy reading it, and other such works).
The status quo outpouring of many of the most aesthetic (and less aesthetic) contemporary novelists seems to me to have the affect of entrenching generally status quo views—be they liberal or conservative—among its readership. Why should we expect no effect? Art is an experience. Experience may powerfully and subtly affect people in positive, neutral, and negative ways. The cumulative effect (at least) and potential of such art seems to me to be substantial. The creation of novels and other works of fiction could be far more “civilized,” in the ways I’ve detailed, than it generally is.
For much more about Vonnegut and related such writing, see below. I’ve never considered Vonnegut to be a progressive partisan novelist. I don’t entirely know what his views are on his work, but I don’t recall that he ever claimed to be, either. (Others do find his work politically important and he does seem to have made some impact in some way.) I’ve only ever read Slaughterhouse-Five. My view of it agrees with that of Robert Alter’s (below). That said, I would like to look into Vonnegut’s novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which Ron Jacobs notes “might be Vonnegut’s most pointed piece of social criticism.”
“Claiming that “all art is political” is exactly like claiming all sex, or all dinner parties, or all souvenirs from one’s Mexican vacation are “political”, too. Only in the broadest sense, by association (sometimes free-association), and by filtering out the all-important ingredient of intent.”
Yes, in a broad sense. But whether it is intended or not the political impact can still be significant, constructive or destructive.
“Re: Swift’s Modest Proposal: I think it’s only the burnishing effect of time that might cause you to mistake it for Art; can you point to the aesthetic achievement that places it on a par with, say, Kafka’s The Trial? (And please take a deep breath and count to ten before you conscript Kafka for your cause...Laugh).”
I think it was Einstein who was once handed a novel of Kafka’s and he returned it largely unread saying, “The mind is not that complex.” I’ve never found Kafka to be much interesting or politically potent. I realize others have. The “mind-melding” satire of Swift’s proposal, as I believe Northrop Frye described it, and others have essentially concurred, makes it great art.
“Art that is ambiguous enough to be worthy of the term makes for poor propaganda; propaganda unambiguous enough to function as such makes very poor Art, though it admittedly, at times, has its place.”
The “fallback” – qualified.
“I’m sure it hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that totalitarian regimes tend to be the most vociferous supporters of political “art” and the most virulent oppressors of ART. Why do you suppose that is?”
Of course totalitarian regime, totalitarian inflected art is not the sort of art I support, quite the opposite.
The US government crushed the popular, democratic art movement that it originally funded during the Depression in the thirties, pulled its funds when it became too political in its view.
Ms. Bush cancelled a literary event when she learned some of the poets were going to focus on the political aspects of art. She said art is not about the political. That seems to be your view too.
Art in general has typically supported the status quo in liberal nation states, thus the status quo has supported it—a status quo that is intolerable in many way, in my view, and very often demonstrably out of accord with public opinion.
About Vonnegut – as I’ve noted elsewhere:
Today’s hysterical realists are the highly acclaimed remnants and descendants of Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., John Barth and others, those who have written, what was at least once called, “black humor,” of which Robert Alter makes telling observations in “History and the New American Novel” (1975)—in Motives for Fiction (1984)—to a degree that in part not only foreshadow but surpass leading literary critic James Wood’s critique of today’s hysterical realism. Alter on “black humor”:
“If much of this fiction has been obsessed with the war and the terrible revelation of the nature of history embodied in the war, the writers, following the general logic of obsessions, have addressed themselves more to the materials of recurrent fantasy than to their ostensibly objective referents. What I am suggesting is that these novelists, even (or perhaps especially) when their surface details are most insistently historical, have been concerned with something very different from history. Indeed, one frequently finds their adversary impulse toward contemporary reality accompanied by a predisposition to dismiss it impatiently, not to bother with imagining it in any complex way. This quality was shrewdly observed a number of years ago by Burton Feldman in a trenchant critique of black humor (Dissent, March-April 1968): “For all the violence of its assault on American culture, black Humor gives no sense that this enemy is worth attacking. It is only there, a middle-class moonscape; and then Black Humor slips off into fantasy and parody.”
“ ‘Middle-class moonscape’ is an apt description of the America evoked in the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, where outraged social criticism, sentimental moralism, and science-fiction fantasy form a piquant if not altogether credible ménage a trios. The case of Vonnegut is an instructive one because the comic-strip clarity of his novels lucidly illustrates a conception of history largely shared by Pynchon and Barth, though perhaps partly camouflaged through the complicated elaboration of design in their more ambitious work. Vonnegut’s stylistic, structural, and psychological simplicity, coupled with a genuine verve of narrative inventiveness, makes him the most easily accessible of these writers and thus the most widely read. I would attribute at least some of his popularity, however, to the need of many readers over the past decade for a novelist who could write away history while seeming to write about it.”
Despite the weaknesses and limitations of Robert Newman’s recent novel The Fountain at the Center of the World, unlike today’s “hysterical realists” or fantasists, his progressive geo-political epic essentially avoids nearly all the weaknesses perceptively and clearly detailed here by Alter. Like today’s hysterical realists, their predecessors, “Pynchon, Barth, Barthelme, and Vonnegut…finally [do not take] history very seriously,” Alter concludes, “despite the overwhelming density of actual historical detail in the [novels].” Consequently:
“If the end of history is at hand, historical time being only a welter of statistical events, without causal links, all bent on destruction, there is no objective ground for narrative structure; calculated formal design must substitute for anything like development in the novel; and perhaps most critical, there are no criteria for selectivity in the novelist’s shuttle between history and invention…”
which often results today in the “Hysterical Realism,” as Wood notes in his aptly titled essay, of, say, work like that of Zadie Smith, “who does not lack for powers of invention. The problem is there is too much of it” creating such a welter of details that “as realism, it is incredible; as satire, it is cartoonish; as cartoon, it is too realistic; and anyway, we are not led toward…consciousness…” but instead are deluged in a sort of haphazard narrative schizophrenia that “is all shiny externality,” the too-often shallow or chaotic or boring juvenilia that Alter finds in Pynchon, et al, and that Wood notes of a passage in Smith’s White Teeth, which:
“might stand, microcosmically, for her novel’s larger dilemma of storytelling: on its own, almost any of these details (except perhaps the detail about passing the shit and piss through the cat-flap) might be persuasive. Together, they vandalize each other: the Presbyterian dipsomaniacs and the Mormon aunt make impossible the reality of the fanatical Muslim.”
In a remarkably similar observation almost thirty years prior, Robert Alter notes that Pynchon’s highly acclaimed novel Gravity’s Rainbow is also greatly marred, because:
“If history is no longer a realm of concatenation, if there are no necessary connections among discrete events and no possibility of a hierarchy of materials ranged along some scale of significance, any associative chain of fantasies, any crotchety hobbyistic interest, any technical fascination with the rendering of odd trivia, can be pursued by the novelist as legitimately as the movement of supposedly “significant” actions. The end of history [in novels], in other words, is a writer’s license for self-indulgence, and Pynchon utilizes that license for page after dreary page of Gravity’s Rainbow as he describes at incredible length varieties of turds in a sewer, varieties of revolting wine-jelly candies in a British cupboard, varieties of bizarre sexual combinations in a very long daisy-chain, and so forth.
“The lack of selectivity leads to local flaws; the unwillingness to make differential judgments about historical events results in a larger inadequacy of the novel as a whole.”
Later, Alter adds, “I have no quarrel at all with fantasy or flaunted artifice in the novel but only with their deployment in ways that are ultimately self-indulgent and mechanically repetitious, that tend to turn the imaginative energies of fiction into a crackling closed circuit.” Five years later (1980) in “The American Political Novel,” while critiquing Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Alter notes:
“What is particularly troubling about this book—and virtually the same could be said about the political novels of Pynchon and Barth—is the astonishing degree of puerility it exhibits, [including an ending that] like much of the sexual and scatological imaginings of Pynchon, Barth, and others, finally directs us more to the psychology of the writer than to any political referent, expressing ultimately a child’s fantasy of a brutal, threatening father, based on paranoid fear and resentment…. One may wonder why so many gifted and serious novelists have chosen to treat politics in such a fundamentally unserious fashion….
“One would think that the political novel, perhaps more than other kinds of fiction, requires adult intelligence…. The novel’s great strength as a mode of apprehension is in its grasp of character, and the political novel at its best can show concretely and subtly what politics does to character, what character makes of politics.”
Alter critiques Norman Mailer’s attempts to craft effective political fiction and concludes that (as of over three decades ago) he seems to come closest to this in The Deer Park where:
“What he confronts centrally for the first time is the special power of American society to mask, sham, evade, forget reality, to seduce its individual members into giving up on engagement in the real world; and the ultimately political nature of his moral imagination is reflected in his effort here to show how this American style of cotton-candy insulation from reality allows a society to perpetrate horror and obscenity at home and abroad with hardly a twinge of conscience.”
If only the novel did greatly reveal such reality. Unfortunately, The Deer Park seems to me to be regrettably dry and in any case far more focused on characters’ private lives and relationships than on any public realms within which they exist. Perceptive mid-century critic Maxwell Geismar in American Moderns—From Rebellion to Conformity (1958) also found this novel to be largely if not wholly bankrupt, with weak political gestures. Surely it is the case, as Alter notes contemporaneously, that the non-fiction but highly novelist The Armies of the Night is not only Mailer’s “most fully achieved book” it is also “certainly his most successful engagement of politics through a narrative form” and where political novelists likely have the most to learn from Mailer, though Alter’s view is that “the implications of this achievement for the future of the political novel are at best ambiguous….” Alter reasonably concludes:
“It may well be that at this point in history we all need the aid of the novelist’s imagination simply to help us imagine what seems to be more and more unimaginable—the real world in which we have to live, make decisions individually and collectively, and still struggle to shape a livable political future.”
Certainly there is no reason why novels (and much else) cannot contribute mightily to the task of creating “a livable political future,” but to do so novelists and their novels will have to dramatically engage, present, and explore how people interact with history in its crucial “social, political, and economic aspects” in far more accomplished detail—and not shrink from what might be thought of as “lumpy” and non-novelistic materials more often associated with non-fiction but that are actually indispensable and comprehensively beneficial to many types of intensely social and political novels—geo-political national and global epics probably especially.
It’s futile quoting an “authority” to support your claims in this debate; Alter’s point of view doesn’t sway me any more than yours does (or Wood’s, for that matter; Wood proves nothing more than my belief that the critic is the artist’s vestigial twin...the brilliance of being even the best literary critic is that the novelist has already done 95% of the work for you. Wood’s claims against DeLillo, especially in Wood’s post-9/11 broadside, are the perfect opposite of truth). I think Pynchon is rather smarter than Alter and nothing more serious is at work in Alter’s strictures than Pynchon flying over Alter’s pious head.
Rail all you want, I have no use for your vision of the novel as Americanized version of Socialist Realist Poster Art. What a dull fate for literature, comrade! The self-righteous naivete of it all...it’s just too easy to see why “revolutionary” movements (when “successful") devolve almost immediately into mirror images of the regimes they topple.
In any case, if you’re serious about swaying the masses and saving the planet, I can’t help asking: why dwell on the Artform guaranteed to reach the *absolute* minimum number of people? You’re about forty years behind the times, aren’t you?
I’m not debating. I’m not even mainly attempting to convince you of my views. I’m discussing my views on the topic in this public forum.
Also, Wood, as far as I know, does not support my views. Although, I don’t know what he thinks entirely about the matter.
Further, I’m not “railing.” How again, does rather clinical analysis get turned into “railing”?
Also, I have no “vision of the novel as Americanized version of Socialist Realist Poster Art.” Much of my fiction is fantastic, satiric, or mixed genre. Some is realistic. Though I agree with Rebecca West in regards to realism that “one of the damn thing is enough.”
I see why you resort to name-calling—“self-righteous naivete”—because so little of what you say stands up under examination.
“In any case, if you’re serious about swaying the masses and saving the planet, I can’t help asking: why dwell on the Artform guaranteed to reach the *absolute* minimum number of people? You’re about forty years behind the times, aren’t you?”
Every novel is a potential movie—not exactly a marginal art outlet. But I also write political short stories (also potential movies), and scripts, and satires, and poetry, and essays, and weblog entries—all of which is available or accessible online worldwide. Not to underestimate the power of a book, of any form.
Before nipping up out of this thread entirely, I’d like to comment allegorically on Ms. Claybaugh:
Easy to imagine a Newtonian physicist (I pointedly invoke a kinder, gentler physics) doing her/his best to describe the riding of a bicycle using all applicable formulae to do so...without, of course, managing to even come close to apprehending the pleasure of riding one around a sailboat-decorated lake on the first truly glorious day of spring.
Sprucing up her/his formulae with quasi-arcane jargon, the physicist would, puzzlingly, fall woefully short of describing the complex sequence of sensual pleasures the ride would involve...even less so the cascade of free-associations sparked in the mind of the bicyclist contemplating the experience.
Would the physicist’s reductive-yet-jargon-ridden analysis be truly valuable to *anyone*? Even the most ardent bicyclist would have to consider Dr. Publishorperish’s efforts a harmless (irrelevent) amusement at best. Aye...but one finds oneself longing for the comparative lightheartedness of the flights of fancy of *Duns Scotus* instead…
Anyway, it’s nice to think that in this digital age, less than the customary number of trees will have had to have perished for Ms. Claybaugh’s published efforts.
And now I’m off on my allegorical bike because the weather’s lovely…
Two of my fellow eccentrics seem to have colonized this post before I got around to reading it. On the off chance that you’re still around, though, Joseph, there is a perplexity which has much troubled me over my overly long life, and it’s more or less that Henry James (for instance) was not just not an in-your-face reformer but also often an out-and-out reactionary, albeit a polite one. Now, by nature and nurture I’m no activist; I’ve been a short-term stimulant and longer-term poison to every political group with whom I’ve ever associated. And I’ve come to terms to some extent with the idea that we also serve who’re only sand in swimtrunks. Activists must exist, and at the same time I and Henry James must not be them. But how can we stay sand in the swimtrunks and out of the gears? ‘Cause as simpatico as I find James, he was fucking _loathsome_ towards feminists, and he was no prize when it came to immigrants or ex-slaves either. (I suppose the easy answer is to just try not to be loathsome, but it can be easy to slip into while you’re being polite.)
(I suppose the only slightly less easy but much less refutable answer is that no one gets any guarantees they’re doing the right thing no matter what they do....)
(And Joseph gave that answer a few posts later on. Oops. Nothing to see here, move along....)
“‘Cause as simpatico as I find James, he was fucking _loathsome_ towards feminists, and he was no prize when it came to immigrants or ex-slaves either.”
But why should anyone care?
Should anyone care that neither of our great-grandfathers would have been models of comportment at a radical lesbian Kwanza party? And does anyone much care about Lautrec’s or Soutine’s or Morandi’s or Berthe Morisot’s politics? Why the dogged connection between literary artists and morality?
(Is it due to the misapprehension that visual art is more ambiguous in presentation than literay art? Or the misapprehension that literary art is less detachable from the artist? Thought experiment: Mein Kampf is re-written, with word for word fidelity, by a radical lesbian Jewish performance artist, only *her* version is meant ironically. What’s the difference between the two Mein Kampfs, if we aren’t aware of the *intent* behind the respective versions? Is this not an argument that text is no less morally ambiguous than, say, abstract art?)
Further: is Academe as concerned about Flannery O’Connor’s possible racism (talk about Conrad “denying” Africans a “presence in the text”...what about the proportion of Flannery’s use of the word “nigger” in *her* text to the lead roles given to Negroes in it?) and Gertrude Stein’s outright racism (read Melanctha again) as it is with the personal moral imperfections of James, Conrad, Larkin, Amis and all those other dead white fellers?
In other words, are literary artists more moral/immoral than visual artists and are male literary artists more moral/immoral than female literary artists?
(Sub-question: are visual works that feature literary content...paintings with words in/on them...more moral/immoral than those that don’t?)
Is the “moral” value of any specific literary work possibly an *illusion* generated by the powerful mechanisms of illusion brought to bear in the finest examples of the Art?
Just a few rhetorical questions to mull…
Steven, I’m concerned with my own soul rather than Henry James’s. James’s rests, I very much hope, forever content in a perfectly heavenly Venezia.
Admittedly, the existence of critics’ souls is a contentious issue, and so I may be worrying for nothing.
Ray, is there anything you’d like me to add here? I’m happy to try to tackle the question more fully, if I’m able. You might look at what I wrote under the brief pseudonym René Daumal here.
Steven, whether or not an artist insists that something they wrote was written ironically is besides the point. Either the work contains clues to its own ironic content, or it has to be taken at face value. It doesn’t make the text morally ambiguous to assert that it all could have been meant ironically; for earnest texts, that is an empty, unprovable, useless assertion.
Thanks, Joseph, but I thought you got the job done already in advance—you should volunteer for part-time pseudo-priestly duties at The Weblog. (Of course, I’m going to go look at what you wrote anyway.)
Tony, allow me to respond to your thread-within-a-thread here about vegetarianism, since I think it is representative.
First of all, I have no idea how many people converted to vegetarianism after reading The Jungle, and neither do you. A more interesting question is whether their decision could ever be justified in terms of the novel itself. The Jungle is about the industrial production of meat products, not about the inherent ethics of killing and eating animals. So if one person decides to become a vegetarian, and another person decides to eat only free-range meats, what then?
It’s too easy to say, “Well, even then they both agreed on avoiding industrially produced meats.” According to your theory, one of them has to actually be a better reader of Sinclair’s text. And what of the person who continues to eat processed meats, out of a combination of personal preference and respect for those employed by the industry, but begins to speak out against the working conditions in those factories?
Sure, now we can class all three people as doing good things, but at that point the thread of causality becomes tangled indeed, or else subject to an idiotic reductiveness. Any author, Wildean aesthetes included, might produce similar “goodness” in a reader.
The proof of this is in your anecdote about your nieces. One of them became a vegetarian, two did not. According to your logic of writing and reading, the two who didn’t become vegetarians either have less aptitude for understanding books, or less of a conscience. There’s no space in your account of the arts for diversity of interpretation, because diversity of interpretation doesn’t lend itself very well to mass organizing and mass action.
For my part, I always militate against The Jungle, because of my friend who read it and became a vegetarian. He didn’t know enough about the switch, and developed severe anemia. As a result, he was forced to quit his job.
He had been working at a non-profit dedicated to ending the war in Iraq.
I’m merely saying that texts are no less ambiguous than graphics, and if they seem so, it’s an illusion. I’m not saying that illusions aren’t useful in their way, I’m saying auditors project what they want to, based on their private and/or professional goals. There’s not a text you can provide that I can’t generate persuasive-yet-diametrically-opposed interpretations of.
Idea for a grand project: a biochemist goes from three-star restaurant to three-star restaurant, analyzing every item on the menu on a molecular level, amassing a huge amount of data! There’s so much data there, in fact, that an entire new industry, interpreting his data, or imitating his experiments, might come into being! New departments might spring up in the Universities to teach and continue research in this new discipline!
Of course, what this would have to do with *the cooking or eating of excellent meals* would escape explanation...and perhaps, eventually, there’d be more and more biochemists where once there’d been actual chefs...(ominous chords)...
Obviously, we’ll never agree on all this. But it can’t hurt to try, eh? (laugh)
If you’re trying to link this hypothetical biochemist to the real-life activities of literary critics, the analogy is rather strained, since food critics exist everywhere and certainly have not caused the extinction of food.
Of course I favor the kinds of complications that you suggest here, starting with the fact that no criticism is produced in a vacuum. If you produced a book called My Persuasive Yet Diametically Opposed Readings Of Kugelmass’s Intepretations, I would take it as an enormous compliment, but I don’t think it would catch on very widely, nor would it speak to hermeneutical problems of irony. It would speak to a doggedness quite separate from any matter of textual interest.
My comments interspersed at arrows (-->):
I have no idea how many people converted to vegetarianism after reading The Jungle, and neither do you.
--> It’s evidently quite effective in that regard – apparently due to the revolting depictions – as widely reported, over a long period of time.
A more interesting question is whether their decision could ever be justified in terms of the novel itself. The Jungle is about the industrial production of meat products, not about the inherent ethics of killing and eating animals. So if one person decides to become a vegetarian, and another person decides to eat only free-range meats, what then?
It’s too easy to say, “Well, even then they both agreed on avoiding industrially produced meats.” According to your theory, one of them has to actually be a better reader of Sinclair’s text.
--> No. First, I don’t have a theory. Second, my general claim is that certain texts tend to affect certain people, or a certain number of people, in certain ways. Some texts will tend to produce some vegetarians, for example. Some texts will tend to have no effect in this regard. Such effects can be studied, anecdotally and/or otherwise.
Any author, Wildean aesthetes included, might produce similar “goodness” in a reader.
--> No, not _any_ text tends to produce certain effects. Some do, some don’t. I refer you to the studies that have been done along these lines.
The proof of this is in your anecdote about your nieces. One of them became a vegetarian, two did not. According to your logic of writing and reading, the two who didn’t become vegetarians either have less aptitude for understanding books, or less of a conscience.
--> No. In my view, people _should_ react to certain texts in different ways, in their own particular ways, just as they do to any experience. How could we expect otherwise? The girls are all different ages with different experiences at different moments in their lives. The same would be true of any group of people. Certain experiences, i.e. certain books, affect some people powerfully and others not much, which is as it should be. As long as the other two sisters upon reading or being read the book don’t vow to increase their meat intake to offset their newly vegetarian sister, the book can be said to be an effective agent of change toward vegetarianism in this (actual) example.
There’s no space in your account of the arts for diversity of interpretation, because diversity of interpretation doesn’t lend itself very well to mass organizing and mass action.
--> On the contrary, as I’ve just explained. Also, if everyone had to agree on absolutely everything, probably no one would ever do much of anything together, even sign petitions. There is tremendous diversity in mass organizing and action.
No. In my view, people _should_ react to certain texts in different ways, in their own particular ways, just as they do to any experience. How could we expect otherwise? The girls are all different ages with different experiences at different moments in their lives. The same would be true of any group of people. Certain experiences, i.e. certain books, affect some people powerfully and others not much, which is as it should be.
Tony, if you pull on this thread the whole fabric unravels. Sure, I agree with you. Anyone who cares about literature would agree with what you’ve written here, and you clearly do care about literature.
But you are granting a freedom to readers that you want to deny to authors. If each of these girls were to sit down and write a story, each story would be about different experiences. Each story would reflect that portion of one’s experience which is social and affected by current events—including the Iraq War and still-larger realities of oppression and threat—but they would not necessarily reflect upon these social facts in identical or obvious ways.
If you’re trying to link this hypothetical biochemist to the real-life activities of literary critics, the analogy is rather strained, since food critics exist everywhere and certainly have not caused the extinction of food.”
My word, Joseph! I wasn’t attacking literary critics...I *like* those! (If they’re good performers). Are you being wittily obtuse?
That’s not my intention, so...?
We’ll let it resonate and ramify in deep unspokenitude like a Zen koan, then...(larf)...off to scrambled eggs I go....
”...you are granting a freedom to readers that you want to deny to authors.”
No, the situation is exactly analogous. It’s not only analogous between readers and authors but also editors, publishers, agents, etc. I encourage authors (etc) to work in more progressive veins. This entails being more cognizant of the socio-political effects and potential effects of their work, and much else, as I’ve noted in detail. (Not only can such work help create a better world, it can help create better art.) Not every author is going to do so, but some may, some have, as a consequence of reading progressive lit and criticism that explores and encourages it.
Tony, can you post a link to a passage from your own writing you feel most embodies the principles you espouse?
As opposed to the principles you espouse? It’s the wrong question.
One could write about principles, and I suppose at times I do, and I write fiction, etc, for a lot of reasons, but when writing partisan fiction, as far as the socio-political aspects go, I mainly focus on overcoming “Orwell’s problem” and related concerns.
For example, I didn’t write the antiwar novel Homefront to “embody the principle” that massive thuggery, US aggression, the criminal invasion and occupation is wrong. In other words, I don’t write to try to convince people that murder is a great crime, and that theft is a crime, etc. (Everyone from Cindy Sheehan to George Bush agrees with that.) I write to try to help overcome Orwell’s problem, to show that the US invasion and occupation _is_ in fact a great crime of murder and theft, and no defense against terrorism, and no humanitarian or pro-democracy effort, either in intent or actuality, etc. (Again, the novel functions a lot of other ways too as would any lit or lit/pop novel.) That’s not an embodiment of principle; that’s an embodiment of reality. The embodiment of reality, or of its potential, of course—in full or in some crucial or provocative aspect—has always been one of the great purposes and functions of the fictional mode – and it can also have real social and political effects, as I’ve noted.
[For a brief further explanation of this, you could see what I wrote a couple years ago in regard to my fiction and Orwell’s problem, what appears at the main page of my first website - http://www.socialit.org.]
As for some piece of mine that “most embodies” some such socio-political reality, “most” embody might mean the longer works, Homefront and the Homefront trilogy (or a forthcoming novel—Texas, MFA), or the novella Youthtopia. Some of which, except for Texas, MFA, is available at my weblog. But probably better than a fragment from a longer work would be a complete short work, like the namesake satire of my weblog: “A Practical Policy” – with or without the footnotes: http://apragmaticpolicy.wordpress.com/2007/03/03/a-practical-policy/