Saturday, November 22, 2008

Literature is not Innocent

Following up on my post from last week, responding to Zadie Smith's essay in the New York Review of Books, "Two Path for the Novel": Why might the narrative modes of what Smith calls "lyrical Realism" not be justified? Not because they are old, or even necessarily because someone else has used them. I think there are a few reasons. Here I will discuss just one of them. They are not justified, not least because, to quote a character from Roberto BolaƱo's The Savage Detectives, "Literature isn't innocent."

Literature is not innocent. What does this mean? Zadie Smith refers to "the Anglophone novel", a term that obviously covers a lot of area, given the extent of the British Empire and the widespread influence of both British and American cultural products. I think this is a clue. For Smith, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland represents the path of "lyrical Realism" (a term, Anthony Cummins suggests, possibly meant to specifically counter James Wood's famous denunciations of so-called "hysterical realism"); Mark Thwaite's favored term is "Establishment Literary Fiction". I'd like to revive for a moment the term "bourgeois novel". If we remember that the bourgeois novel was in cultural ascendance during the heyday of the British Empire, I think we can get closer to having a handle on it.

Let me revisit a portion of the passage from Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism that I have already excerpted. Said writes:
. . . the almost oppressive force of Marlow's narrative leaves us with a quite accurate sense that there is no way out of the sovereign historical force of imperialism, and that it has the power of a system representing as well as speaking for everything within its dominion, Conrad shows us that what Marlow does is contingent, acted out for a set of like-minded British hearers, and limited to that situation.

Yet neither Conrad nor Marlow gives us a full view of what is outside the world-conquering attitudes embodied by Kurtz, Marlow, the circle of listeners on the deck of the Nellie, and Conrad. By that I mean that Heart of Darkness works so effectively because its politics and aesthetics are, so speak, imperialist, which in the closing years of the nineteenth century seemed to be at the same time an aesthetic, politics, and even epistemology inevitable and unavoidable. For if we cannot truly understand someone else's experience and if we must therefore depend upon the assertive authority of the sort of power that Kurtz wields as a white man in the jungle or that Marlow, another white man, wields as narrator, there is no use looking for other non-imperialist alternatives; the system has simply eliminated them and made them unthinkable. The circularity, the perfect closure of the whole thing is not only aesthetically but also mentally unassailable.
While empire is pursued and maintained abroad, daily life in the metropolitan center continues in its shadow. Narrative papers over everything; everything is rendered comprehensible through narrative. The novel presents a world that makes sense, passing over certain details in silence, while other details make it abundantly clear how much the narrated world depends on the activities of empire, as Said shows, for example, with Sir Thomas Bertram's lengthy absences, attending to the far off Antiguan plantation, in Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. Said is far from reductively political; he neither condemns nor dismisses the classic European novels. On the contrary, he treasures them as great works of art. But he is arguing that the peace and prosperity of the English countryside in Austen's novel are not possible without the unseen violence of slavery, and that this fact is present in the novel, though obscured by most readings. And the same is true of the narrative form of the bourgeois novel in general (whether it be the Bildungsoman or imperial adventure or travel narrative or fictional biography, etc; thanks to Edmond Caldwell for the link). I think this basic point is indisputable.

In a post addressing Lionel Shriver's idiotic harangue against writers not using quotation marks, Dan Green reminds us that:
"Literature" of course is itself a concept that develops during the 19th century and after as an umbrella term that attempts to gather "poetry" together again with its now renegade forms, fiction and drama, precisely in order to make them available to the newly literate middle class as "good for" such readers. However, even this dilution of literary value--by which literature becomes valuable not in and for itself but as a tool of education and emergent nationalism--assumed that the appreciation of works of literature was something to aspire to, that "great books" required an elevation of taste and skill, although "common readers" could indeed reach this higher level.We now appear to have reached the point where literature can be relevant only if it turns itself into just another "inviting" mass entertainment.
It is not just the concept of Literature that develops in the 19th century, but the idea of Culture itself, its chief virtue being as "a tool of . . . emergent nationalism". I'm not so sure that this represented a "dilution of literary value", as Dan puts it, but he's of course right to note that this is when literature begins to appeal to a larger class of literate people, a class that needed to be incorporated into the dominant work of the day--which is not to say that writers set out to serve this function. But, as resistant to the idea of "learning" from literature as some of us might be, it can't be denied that one of the chief cultural functions of the novel was to normalize the reality and activities of Empire, nor that cultural artifacts contribute to what we "know" about the world, whether or not we are consciously aware of the specific contributions themselves. In his book, Said repeatedly stresses that it is "too simple and reductive to argue that everything in European or American culture . . . prepares for or consolidates the grand idea of empire." However, it would be "historically inaccurate to ignore those tendencies--whether in narrative, political theory, or pictorial technique--that enabled, encouraged, and otherwise assure the West's readiness to assume and enjoy the experience of empire." And the novel does this work not just with its "content" but also through its formal properties, which of course can never be easily separated.

The fictional container that is the descendant of the bourgeois novel today can at times appear rather different than the Victorian novel of the 19th century. But just as capitalism has no trouble co-opting rebellion or counter-culture, or even eventually insurrection, for its own systemic ends, the novel sucks in everything around it. The novel purports to be the genre-less genre: it can and does contain anything. It has absorbed the techniques of the modernists, smoothing them out, transforming them into mere items in the writer's toolbox, as if those techniques had not been arrived at as a result of highly personal responses to what those writers perceived as an artistic crisis.

Returning to the question of innocence, focusing on the United States for a moment. One common theme in American history is the strange notion of American "innocence". It remains astonishing that, in a country founded on genocide and slavery, Americans have been able to appear innocent, if only to themselves. And yet the idea persists. The United States, and Americans generally, have good intentions, the story goes, and just don't understand--or even know about--all the damage that is caused by American so-called bumbling on the world stage. Not only do we act innocent of the crimes that maintain our standard of living, we innocently consume cultural artifacts as if there were no question at all that we have the absolute right to be entertained, and that our entertainment is untainted by the violence of the American enforcement of the global capitalist system, that our consumption of entertainment is innocent. But our pleasures do not exist in a vacuum. That pretty, well-written, journalistic novel has a pedigree, a pedigree of cultural work in service of Empire, the ongoing consequences of which we may choose to ignore as we read yet another iteration, but that choice is itself the function of this process and an enormous privilege.

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