Thursday, April 27, 2006

Politics and Literature

In response to a brief post about George Saunders at The Reading Experience, commenter Tony Christini (see his website, Politics and the Novel) says, in part,
All story is in some sense tentative, of course, just as all science is in some sense theory. It doesn't mean nothing is proved.

As Noam Chomsky notes: "It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called 'the full human person' than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do...."

But don't hope to give "deep insight," striving writer, because you just might wind up proving something, like there's a bunch of "Good Germans" around here, in this way and that way and the other way, which would in any case be utterly useless and unimportant knowledge, since soft heads like Chomsky are surely wrong that:

"We learn from literature as we learn from life.... In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry [science], which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope."
Before I go any further, let me say that I first encountered Tony three or more years ago in the ZNet forums (unfortunately, these old forum exchanges no longer appear to be archived over there). There had been, as I recall, an interesting discussion of The Corrections and James Wood's criticism. I then posted something recommending Peter Dimock's A Short Rhetoric for Leaving the Family, a strange little novel with definite political themes; Tony read it and posted some critical observations of his own about the book. I found him to be a careful reader and an intelligent, thoughtful guy.

However, this is at least the third blog post I've read where he has commented and has quoted Chomsky in support of the "political novel" (the others that I immediately remember have been at The Valve, here and here). I admire Chomsky's political writing a great deal, and I even more or less agree with the quoted remarks. So my problem is not with the remarks themselves. But, first, they are exactly that: remarks. They all come from forum discussions or interviews (they are familiar to me, both as a regular reader of Chomsky and as a semi-regular visiter to, if not participant in, the ZNet forum), and as such are basically "throwaway" lines, typically in response to questions about science and "human nature"--that is, Chomsky himself is not extolling the virtues of political fiction. I don't mean to suggest that all of Chomsky's responses in the forum or in interviews are throwaway lines. Of course they are not. Chomsky is a very thoughtful and generous respondent. But he does not engage in these exchanges for the purposes of discussing literature. In fact, on several other occasions it has become clear that he keeps his reading of literature separate from his political reading. In general, I have found that he is reluctant to comment on fiction, or the arts in general (he is occasionally asked--people ask him all kinds of weird things). (Granted, in his writing Chomsky does quite often describe political statements as "Orwellian" or sarcastically sum up a situation with "Orwell would be proud"--but then he doesn't consider 1984 to be of especially high literary quality. It's one of the few novels on which I can recall him expressing an opinion of any kind.)

Second, the remarks strike me as highly unlikely to persuade anyone. Certainly not Dan Green, whose position on the matter is clear. Indeed, in a post from December 2004, Green sought to clarify his position on political literature, in the wake of the discussion resulting from this post (also from December). In doing so, he quoted a statement from the site Imaginative Literature and Social Change (another, related site run by Tony Christini):
Imaginative writing can be both literary and political simultaneously, and inevitably is, to varying degrees. In its own way, fiction can accomplish something similar to what Noam Chomsky and many other progressive workers try to accomplish through non-fiction: the creation of works that clarify and better the world socially, politically, culturally. . . .
Dan follows this immediately with this:
Right down to the invocation of Chomsky, this is the sort of thing I object to when I hear talk about "political literature."
Given a statement like this, it strikes me more than a little odd that one would continue to cite Chomsky (or for that matter, Howard Zinn, as he has also) in this context. It amounts to little more than an appeal to authority, and it does not further the debate. At the outset of the later December post, Dan specifies what he means by "political fiction":
When I use the word "politics" in this context, I am referring to its narrowest, most concrete meaning: "the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy"; "the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government"; "political actions, practices, or policies." In my opinion, when writers or critics speak of fiction as being "political," they most often mean that it concerns some subject or idea that might have some immediate consequence in terms of "influencing governmental policy."
I actually find this to be a too narrow view of "political" art. More to the point, I do not think this is necessarily what is most often meant when people refer to fiction as "political". However, for the sake of my own clarity, I should reiterate that I agree that the aesthetic experience of art is what is of foremost importance, by far. I agree that attempts by artists to intentionally send political messages with their art most often fail to succeed as art. But, good art can and does nevertheless powerfully communicate social or political ideas. They can be "political" in effect, if not in intention per se. Not that they incite people to, for example, demand a certain course of action or a certain piece of legislation, but that the experience of art can and does influence the ways in which we see the world, perhaps opening our eyes in the process, allowing us to see how other people live, to understand a little bit better. This experience is often better at illuminating "human nature" than is science (the claims of evolutionary psychology notwithstanding). I have no problem calling this experience in some way "political"--and, unlike Dan, I don't think that this drains the word of all meaning. But, that said, I wouldn't try to convince someone, Dan Green in particular, by quoting vague remarks from Noam Chomsky.

Interestingly, in the comment section to the earlier December post, there is much ado about what is meant by "political" (hence, of course, Dan's desire to clarify). One commenter asserted that overtly political literature offers "little surprise", to which Tony objected by citing various novels and satirical pieces such as "A Modest Proposal". Dan responded:
Political fiction that uses a political subject or seems inspired by some political concern will be "surprising" if it uses this inspiration to explore the complex and inevitably muddled conditions that actually motivate human behavior and institutions, that underly the superficially "political." (Satire such as Swift's is something else entirely.) Unsurprising political fiction merely rehearses already familiar political or politicized ideas. Surprising political fiction winds up not being about politics in the superficial sense at all. Unsurprising political fiction does indeed just "grind away to make a point." Unfortunately, most political fiction falls in the latter category.
I find this interesting because I think the first sentence fits in with what I'm trying to define above. Continuing in that vein, the following passage appears on Tony's site immediately after the paragraph Dan quotes:
Fiction can be used to address what Chomsky calls "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?" In other words, how is it that people are persuaded to act willingly and willfully against their own best interests and against values - regarding themselves and others - they otherwise hold dear? Fiction can debunk harmful propaganda and taboos; it can help energize, motivate, inspire and all the while maintain a vital literary quality by staying focused in part on fiction's core strengths, the plumbing of the depths of the human condition through character -- psychology, personality, motivation, mindset....
I have little problem with most of this--on the surface it's also not incompatible with my own conception outlined above, except that, crucially, I think that when a writer's primary goal for creating a work of fiction is to "debunk harmful propaganda and taboos" and "help energize, motivate, and inspire" then that work of fiction is highly unlikely to succeed as art. (Note, also, that here again Chomsky is anyway not talking about fiction himself.)

Unfortunately, it appears that Tony Christini does subscribe to Dan Green's definition of political fiction, as demonstrated, for example, in his same comment to Dan's clarifying December post (where, again, the words of an authority are provided):
(1994) Michael Hanne, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change: “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.)”
The examples provided do not inspire confidence. Note that the social or political impact of the novels in question is mentioned, but there is no commentary about their respective literary merits. So this passage does nothing to further the argument that fiction can be both politically motivated and literary. As for the effects themselves....for one thing, at risk of being excessively glib, I strongly doubt Göethe intended to raise the rate of suicide with his work. I've never heard of Charles Kingsley, but certainly I've often read about the impact Dickens' novels allegedly had on popular awareness of social conditions in Britain. But nothing is said, either by this critic or by Tony, about the literary aspects of Dickens. Maybe it's to be taken for granted that Dickens' work was generally of high literary quality, but I don't think that's getting us anywhere, especially when the next example is Upton Sinclair's muckraking novel, The Jungle. It's well known that Sinclair wrote The Jungle with a political purpose in mind (though it might be worth considering that the political purpose he had in mind was different than the one that was achieved), but I've never heard anyone seriously praise its aesthetic qualities.

Backtracking a little to Dickens, it can be argued that he succeeded aesthetically in spite of whatever political motives he may have had in his fiction. In fact, Dan, an admirer of Dickens, is on record as doing exactly that. In another post, this one from last November, addressing an Ellis Sharp post in which Sharp, in part, argued against Nabokov's "aestheticizing impulse" in the latter's discussion of Bleak House, Dan wrote:
In my view, that Bleak House might express Dickens's "rage and contempt" is not necessarily one of its admirable qualities. Fortunately, what Dickens really did in this novel--perhaps more effectively than any of his other books--was to transcend his rage and contempt and to translate them (if indeed they were feelings he held) into literary art, into a novel that is indeed fully shaped and ingeniously structured. And so what if the novel "projects Dickens’s vision of England as a rotten and corrupt society"? Such visions are a dime a dozen. The only thing that distinguishes Dickens's "vision" is that it served as the impetus for a series of great fictions. Nabokov was right: What makes Dickens still a writer well worth reading are his specifically literary gifts, his ability to create singularly memorable characters, his prodigious prose style.
I'm more sympathetic than Dan is to the general position held by Sharp in his post (which is ostensibly about politics and literary allusion in Bob Dylan songs), but I agree with Dan that ultimately it's because of Dickens' aesthetics that he is still worth reading today. The point is not that it's irrelevant that Dickens wanted to expose certain social conditions. But that's not why Dickens was a great writer, and his fiction is at its weakest when it is most obviously political.

I think Tony Christini has made many valid points when he's commented at some of the blogs I read regularly. For example, where Dan says "If the goal is so resolutely political, it can't also be literary, or the two terms are simply washed of their meaning..." I agree with Tony that "This is not argument, or evidence, or explanation. It is simply your assertion re-asserted." I think Dan has a tendency to do that in the comment section when pressed. But he also often revisits topics in more detail in subsequent posts. However, I don't think Tony's comments, in the vein quoted above, further the discussion either, or indicate that he's been paying attention to what Dan and others say. It would be more interesting to read an actual demonstration of the political elements of a novel enhancing its aesthetics or not hindering them. (To that end, I'm interested in taking a look at his own explicitly political novels, which are available through Mainstay Press, which he co-founded.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Richard, I commented on your post at my weblog, A Practical Policy, in the April 30, 2006 post, The Possibilities of "Political Fiction":

I tried to post my comments here but couldn't figure out how to keep the hyperlinks...