Tuesday, July 08, 2008
The Current Consensus
Adam Gopnik has an article in the current New Yorker on Chesterton that’s worth reading. It’s not on-line, I don’t think. Toward the end, he observes:
Besides, if obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will---voices of tolerance and liberal democracy---we would probably be down to George Eliot.
I thought this was piquant and immediately sought counterexamples. Some French ones came to mind: Rimbaud ("Solde," in particular), Céline, Bataille, Blanchot, and Houellebecq all seem to be voices of tolerance and liberal democracy, but are they “obviously great?” Some might suggest Joyce, I suppose. (In fact, I think he probably is a better example than Eliot.)
Nincompoop statements of this sort are rife within the literary establishment when it comes to speaking of literature in political terms (directly or indirectly), because the establishment is so ideologically biased or prejudiced as to be essentially brainwashed or heedless. Much safer and more thoughtful ground for establishment writers is James Woodsian neo-new criticism, that is, would-be apolitical technical criticism, of which he is the shining star.
“Great writers” of “liberal good will” is a very narrow, if highly lauded, categorization. Probably more aptly phrased would be something like good or great humane writing. A list of revolutionary progressive writing would be considerably more challenging to assemble (and for establishment writers it would too likely be a foolish or impossible endeavor). In any event, many authors more or less fit the humane type referred to in the quote, with some of them writing beyond to more progressive or revolutionary modes:
Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The later Kingsley Amis would also fit in with your list. His correspondent and friend Larkin as well. Larkin was a globalist whose work has enjoyed much sustained attention in the recent age of globalization and Empire.
Why, Rimbad running guns in East Africa is the epitome of liberal good will, or it may be, of a liberal good cheer.
Who could forget Brecht?
How far back are we going and how many ‘lapses’ are we allowed? Just for fun:
Dickens(forget prejudice, think reform)
Chaucer(overlook age, promote cerebral multiplicity)
Sterne (ignore obscurity, celebrate idiosyncracy)
Gissing(seek cynicism, find truth)
Shakespeare(hey, I’m English, he’s got to be there)
great party game!
What I took Gopnik to mean by “conforming to the current consensus of liberal good will” was something like “conforming to current expectations about political correctness on American college campuses, and also to the relentless push on campus to be ‘positive.’” I also assumed he was thinking of dead writers, which excludes folks like Morrison and Gordimer.
A slightly different way of translating the question is: “If I mentioned casually in the faculty senate my upcoming seminar on this author, should I expect eyebrows about the author’s politics or temperament?”
If those approximations are reasonable, then I think Gopnik’s dead-on.
Would your faculty senate, which I assume is made up of the entire faculty, on average appropriately superciliate if you mentioned, say, an upcoming seminar on Wyndham Lewis?
If we were talking about live writers who are warm, positive, and laureled, I’d also suggest Coetzee.
I read a frequently cold and sardonic George Eliot, personally, whose conformity to current pieties is by no means total.
Joyce is still a good answer for what I take to be the best interpretation of Gopnik’s remark. Auden, also.
I read a frequently cold and sardonic George Eliot, personally, whose conformity to current pieties is by no means total.
I’m not wholly in agreement about the “cold and sardonic” part, but about conformity to current pieties, I think Jonathan is quite right about George Eliot. I’m pretty sure, for one thing, that she would not think most of us are ready for “liberal democracy” yet. But I expect hardly anyone on our faculty senate would know that, so no raised eyebrows. Safest bet? Probably J. S. Mill (if we’re allowed to stray into non-fiction).
How about Carol Ann Duffy? Think of ‘War Photographer’, ‘Valentine’, ‘Anne Hathaway’ - very pc!
The problem is, there is essentially no “current consensus of liberal good will” or if there is it is very narrowly held, and consists largely of the platitudes uttered by someone like Barack Obama. In which case, the only authors to be found are equally platitudinous writers. That is, it’s not a serious categorization, but comes off as a political gripe.
And yet, there is an ideological line in the literary establishment against progressive and revolutionary writings of various sorts, a barbaric line, which is set just on the other side of what might be called, if meant substantively, a liberal (and conservative and also reactionary) status quo consensus.
In academic departments, there are all sorts of ideologic lines that savvy graduate students know they must or may not cross.
This (US) liberal democracy has slaughtered 4 million Indochinese, and seems intent upon making quite a run at that number in Iraq and other areas of “humanitarian intervention”. So we don’t really want to demonize George Eliot and the others by dumping them in with such tolerance and liberal goodwill, especially since about all of Eliot’s characters in her greatest novel Middlemarch as she gave voice to them, with the possible (probable?) exception of the criminal evangelical banker Bulstrode, would blanch at the thought of such blood on their hands.
If we give Gopnik the benefit of the doubt and take him seriously about “voices of tolerance and liberal democracy” then we can easily come up with a long list that either belies his point or shows he has posited a fantastical label for platitudinous writing of a certain type.
Of course, there is a lot of platitudinous and shallow writing in circulation. Literary magazines are choking on it, as is The New Yorker. The lit establishment in general pumps it out by the oil-barrelful.
To call such work “tolerant” as opposed to shallow or low-quality, trivial or irresponsible is often false, though not always, as Gopnik (who is criticizing such work) may agree in part, in his various ways. However, to call such work good willed, well, even Hitler and most of his sort have grand justifications for what they do. And to call such work “liberal” is a prejudicing half-truth, because such work is far more accurately described as status quo - which includes conservative elements (which may be said to tolerate and accept, say, “the poor") and even reactionary elements (which sometimes have live and let live streaks and progressive public works components sandwiched in between cherished and vicious oppressions and bigotries). To call such work good willed is to stigmatize good will as shallow, trivial, and even irresponsible or worse. It also stigmatizes “tolerance” let alone acceptance, plus the ongoing stigmatization of liberal. And leaves in the wake, what? Progressive and liberatory revolutionary alternatives? Or conservative and reactionary elements, more of the status quo? Chesterton? Would have to have access to the article to know, but given The New Yorker’s well established track record…
The status quo speaks. Iraq burns.
Explicit investigative anti Iraq war stories are not fit, not appropriate for The New Yorker, informs the editor, no matter the editor’s personal views. Antiwar novels are “belligerent,” we are told, by The New York Times.
Granted, we are given no context here for Gopnik’s statement, but it’s not exactly an original one. It’s boilerplate establishment, and a strong sign that Gopnik is fit for the job at which he works. If he didn’t think or write the way he does, he wouldn’t have the job. And so the article may be worth reading for some substantive insight, but not for that which is slight and absurd, the ideological barb - rebel-glossed but status quo based, the loaded dud (dud loaded), quoted here.
Quality literature may be found with some degree of almost any variety of bias or prejudice or inhumanity, since literature like people is complex - though sometimes these aspects are so odious or overwhelming as to deny such classification. To my mind, at least, it’s necessary though not sufficient that the greatest literature minimizes poisonous effects.
Sure, quality literature often has to buck reigning status quos. The liberal, conservative, reactionary status quos are very powerful, and not only financially. Yet they not only actively and passively block, repress, discourage various progressive and liberatory work, they actively and passively promote, engender, and encourage quality (and poisonous) art suitable and tolerable to the status quo - which often extends far beyond “liberalism,” far beyond tolerance, and also far beyond good will and any niceties the author may wish to summon up.
Mill’s ideas about India would disqualify him, I think, but I think we should also restrict ourselves to the writers of imaginative literature.
I find Eliot’s characterization of Casaubon to be cruel, for example. A vital, likable figure of significant scholarly and personal magnetism, he is whittled down to a nub by Dorothea’s coldness and coyness. Before I ever read the book, I had contemplated a key to all literatures and saw no reason to be hip to the latest fads from Germany.
It’s made up of representatives of the entire faculty. I can’t imagine all our faculty showing up for anything.
I’d assume that many wouldn’t have heard of Lewis, more’s the pity.
But randomly distributing pages from Blast! to faculty senate meetings sounds like an excellent act of civil disobedience.
What I took Gopnik to mean by “conforming to the current consensus of liberal good will” was something like “conforming to current expectations about political correctness on American college campuses...’”
I am tempted--Bloomianly, I guess--to nominate Tony Kushner (whom I notice you’ve quoted here before, T. Christini) as someone who, curiously enough, fits that description rather well and also happens to be an obviously great (albeit living) writer. I don’t have much of a sense of how controversial it would be to say that, at this point, or at least to call Angels in America an obviously great play.
In any case, other, older American counterexamples to Gopnik’s claim suggest themselves quickly and seem relatively uncontroversial. What about Whitman?
"Mill’s ideas about India would disqualify him...”
I think that this is true of practically everyone who lived in the past—is there any writer whom we could unambiguously embrace for exemplifying the values that (let me limit myself here) most Anglophone academics in the humanities have come to embrace? According to the strict and lofty moral standards of scholars in the humanities, practically everybody would be disqualified for some offense (against morals or sensitivities) or another.
Spartacus had a Roman centurion crucified on the eve of his final battle to demonstrate to his soldiers the fate they would suffer should they be defeated. Brecht was capable of acting rather coldly towards the women in his life. Not that this character flaw detracts fatally from his work, but rather that he, as an artist of vision and ambition, most likely possessed a will-to-power in excess of the average sensitive PC male.
I think that it is telling how easily and confidently we as tolerant, multicultural, feminist, liberal subjects judge the past and impose our values upon it. To link up this post somewhat ith the discussion on Reading Comics, there is a character in Bill Willingham’s JACK OF FABLES called REVISE, who is the grandson of Jack’s sidekick, the Pathetic Fallacy. Revise runs an internment camp for characters drawn from fairy tales and folklore, who are kept out of the mundane world and are also being “reeducated” to become as normal and as ordinary as the modern individuals living in the free world. As Revise describes his mission, it is to “castrate” the stories of old, to take away their violence, potency, and power, so that they can be suitable for liberal tolerant consumerist society—“Do you even remember anymore Jack? How much more sensual [the fairy tales] used to be? How violent? How concupiscent? [Images of the wolf about to sexually violate Little Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel taking sadistic delight in the charred corpse of the witch] My job is to neuter you, to take way all that is potent and fearsome. All that is memorable and distinct.”
As Tocqueville pointed out, democracy is characterized by the spread of compassion and sympathy along with the extension of the idea of selfhood to those who were denied full recognition as individuals. As such, it’s a difficult vision to argue against, and those who do, like Zizek, and before him, Nietzsche, usually end up flailing from one form of noble cruelty to another. It is common for democratic and free-thinking Athenians, who are often tempted to become chicken-hawks, to admire the harsh and severe ways of the Spartans, whose brutality towards their slaves ruled out imperial ventures abroad. A liberal, compassionate, and tolerant society is a marvelous historical achievement. But at the same time, its values tend to cause its members to react in horror at—and repudiate—the very past from which it has emerged. We are thus faced with the danger of cutting ourselves off from history, a history the values of which the adherents of militant Islam, the peoples of the global South, and, I might add, even Kansans who vote against their economic interests are all quite well aware. In short, how can we understand those who reject the Western liberal and consumerist way of life, unless we relearn how to think and feel historically, rather than censoring our culture to suit our sensitivities?
"Politically correct” is a politically asinine term, typically used, since the 1990s, as a derogatory gesture to a wide variety of social progress. Wikipedia has a pretty good entry on it.
Here in the US, nothing has been more whitewashed in literature and in privileged educated circles than the wide and devastating variety of “Western liberal” marauding and oppression of the present day and past (contrary to the rather absurd notions of a “left” academy). The extensive use of “politically correct” in such circles is a symptom and sign of that. I’ve frequently pointed out other glaring symptoms and evidence.
Other cultures and histories should not be whitewashed either, but until one understands that the “Western liberal and consumerist way of life” - if the phrasing can be rendered intelligible at all - must include the recognition of the intense and various ongoing “legal” economic and military pillaging and slaughtering that is a key part of such “Western liberal and consumerist way of life,” then problems will abound, because if we won’t understand and control our own Western status quo viciousness, then understanding the virtues and brutalities of others will be used, as it is, to (pitifully, pathetically) bewilder us or to (viciously) demonize them. In which case, one can only hope that other societies, gaining strength, show the mercy toward us that our society has not shown to them.
If one recognizes, acknowledges the full reality of “Western liberal and consumerist way of life,” then one can readily “understand those who reject” its included, part and parcel brutality as being rather sane and human, no matter their culture or history.
It seems to me that imaginative literature, the novel especially, is far more de facto censored along these lines than is nonfiction. Far, far more. Probably because the novel most thoroughly reveals, as is said, “the full human condition.” That sort of power needs to be held in check above all. People who acquire gatekeeping positions know this intuitively at least, reflexively hewing to semi-visible ideological lines. The more savvy gatekeepers, either callous, or powerless, understand the ideological lines consciously, if they care to.
Sometimes it seems to me that the novel is so thoroughly censored that a magical lifting or an organized overthrow, a revolution, of such blockage in society and mind and then in culture would revolutionize the novel beyond much or any possible current conception. That may be an overstatement, not least given the wide variety of imaginative literature and societies throughout history, but it’s where thought seems to lead.
First of all, as far as “political correctness” is concerned, I don’t know if you were responding more to Jason B. Jones’s comment or to mine, but I share your suspicion of the term and ought to have been clearer. What I meant to say about Kushner, for what it’s worth, is that he seems to me to be a writer whose (obvious?) greatness is inextricable from qualities that would make it all too easy for many people to sidestep the question of greatness altogether, by dismissing him as merely an exemplar of academic political correctness.
Having now read and enjoyed Gopnik’s article, I am, alas, more inclined than ever to agree that this parenthetical statement about liberal good will and obvious greatness is not a particularly meaningful one. What strikes me about the remark, in the context of the paragraph that it concludes, is the extent to which it feels like a superfluous afterthought--a throwaway line which, for reasons astutely explained above, doesn’t work:
“He died, at the age of sixty-two, in his beloved country town of Beaconsfield (Disraeli had previously been its most illustrious resident), worse for wear after decades of non-stop writing, editing, and lecture-touring. His coffin was too big to be carried down the stairs, and had to be taken out through a window. But even in his final years the sinuosity of his mind and the beauty of his line remained strong. (Besides, if obviously great writers were allowed onto the reading list only when they conform to the current consensus of liberal good will---voices of tolerance and liberal democracy---we would probably be down to George Eliot.)”
I would add, though, that the essay has several other offhand remarks of this kind which I found much more successful (and which I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone).
Sure, but not meaningless. In the specific context you quote the statement doesn’t make sense (a non sequitur), but the meaning of the comment in general is clear to those who adhere to a typical ideology of the establishment (as well as to other readers). The comment is both 1) false to the point of absolute absurdity and 2) retrograde, yet he can just toss it out there as a throwaway line in an esteemed publication, with no (futile) explanation necessary, because it has long since become a type of conventional wisdom. And his offhand statement reinforces, in a variety of ways, the absurd and retrograde. It says a lot.
Let me just say that I agree with Tony Christini’s characterization of notions of a “left academy” as absurd. Indeed, in part my sense of “political correctness” involves substituting pious ideals for concrete action.
Having said that, I believe that I’ve now exceeded my willingness to expend mental energy defending throwaway lines by Adam Gopnik.
Using “politically correct” the way you do, the way it is commonly used, is a step backwards from quality concrete action, since the efforts and innovations that the term PC stigmatizes both embody and have helped create a lot of concrete progressive experience and change. Don’t think so? Eliminate all the progressive, or even liberal, academic and cultural and community events and organizations, discussions and personal involvements, and political and social activities that became high profile enough to be attacked and slandered by right-wingers. What a narrow, homogenous, ignorant, and exclusionary place that would be - at best.
If you’re looking for “pious ideals” to attack, the right-wing realm, the main brandishers of “politically correct,” is a rich, rich place to start. It’s the epicenter of pious ideals, desperately needed to camouflage the incredibly unjust, uncivilized ruling powers and basic anti-democracy arrangement. The phrase “politically correct” has been propagated since the 1990s by the politically retrograde, and it carries that essence today. It does the work of the retrograde, intentionally undermining as often as it can, progressive change, concrete and otherwise.
Why is there a Nazi among JG’s “voices of tolerance and liberal democracy”? I don’t get where the irony is meant to take us.
All of the French figures I mentioned are as objectionable, in various ways, as Céline from the perspective Gopnik assumes. I believe that Gopnik’s point was to criticize what he sees as a reflexively censorious political environment in academic criticism. I’m not so sure that this is the case. Bataille and Blanchot are, or at least were, lionized in the corners of literary theory that I’m most familiar with. Rimbaud as well. (The example of Céline came to mind, as I recall, from Booth’s An Ethics of Fiction, which, despite what Gopnik would seem to imply, is one of the least fashionable approaches I can think of.)
Wait---forgive me if I’m being dense or belaboring an insignificant point, but your response to Josh confuses me. I thought Gopnik was conducting a thought experiment and asking what it would be like if we inhabited a reflexively censorious political environment, one where only Eliot was permitted; which would mean that he doesn’t actually think the environment is like that.
I took Gopnik’s comment to be part of “the magazine“‘s general olympian disdain toward academic literary criticism, dating from at least Acocella’s piece on Cather.