Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse"

Reading this Bookslut interview with Cynthia Ozick the other day (the interview is from December; I don't remember where I found the link, sorry), I was interested in her remarks about politics and the novel. The interviewer, Paul Morton, is trying to press her about what he perceives as her lack of engagement with the present, a premise to which she objects. He tries to clarify his question:
I may not have been as precise in what I’m criticizing. There’s a scene in Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost that takes place on the 2004 election night. I haven’t seen any writer or journalist depict that night better than Roth does in those 10 pages or so.

I remember it very well. And I remember my reaction to it very well. Notwithstanding my hot admiration for Roth, both in part and as an astonishing whole, this scene struck me as the weakest point in the novel, because -- agree with Roth’s views or not -- it leaped out of the disbelief-suspending frame of the novel to become topical political rage and topical political advocacy. Nothing will kill a novel more than when it falls away from serious irony and veers into frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse. Twenty years from now, maybe ten, maybe even five, that scene is going to be as stale and dead and ludicrous on the page as Herbert Hoover’s chicken-in-every-pot oration. It won’t survive even as comedy, though it might as self-indicting cartoon. Still, it goes without saying that Roth’s power and repute will outlast the occasional sermonic glitch.

But think of a book like Fathers and Sons which is filled with conversations that were contemporary to 1861 Russia.

But in Turgenev’s novel, one of my favorites, both sides of the political argument are lived out and imagined from the inside. Turgenev doesn’t sneer, he empathizes, he dramatizes. It’s not mere polemical advocacy thrown down out of animus. You can feel the force of history, and of torn human passions, and the troubled bewilderment of parents, and the draw of family love. For me, the greatest political novel of the twentieth century is A Passage to India, a wonderful case in point of how a novel can transcend its topical politics when the issues themselves have become obsolete. India has been an independent sovereign state for many decades. Its unhappy period as the possession of a foreign power is long over and done with, and today it has a bristling, fruitful international economy. Yet that novel lives beyond the British imperial circumstances of its moment, and why? Because of Aziz, because of Professor Godbole and Mrs. Moore, because of Adela, because of the Marabar Caves, because of a dominating uncanny mystical echo. A beautiful and amazing novel despite its dead political element and yes, the political impulse that may have partly motivated it.
It so happens that I read Exit Ghost just last week. In case you haven't read the book, our man Nathan Zuckerman has returned to New York after several years in self-imposed exile, has entered into an agreement to allow a couple to occupy, for a year, his cabin in the Berkshires in exchange for their apartment in Manhattan. In the scene referred to in the interview, Zuckerman is in the apartment with the couple, who have invited him to celebrate with them what they are sure will be a Democratic victory that night, in the 2004 presidential election, before they officially move out to the cabin. Zuckerman, intentionally, has no knowledge of or interest in what's going on, having stopped following politics years prior, though it seems clear his sympathies are not with the Republicans. His young friends are sure of a Kerry victory, sure of the evil of the Republicans, and just as sure that the latter have destroyed a great thing. They are, of course, disappointed in the event and spend much time denouncing the evil of Bush and Cheney and despairing the direction of this great nation.

A few things interest me about this and Ozick's response to it. First is her assumption that Roth, her hero, in writing this scene, necessarily has failed as a novelist, allowing "frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse" to overtake him. Assuming, that is, that inclusion of such a scene can only be Roth taking time to either lecture the reader, or to make his own feelings known, which are otherwise irrelevant. And yet, it is a note-perfect rendition of the kinds of scenes that happened in real life, in true-blue liberal households across the land. Is it relevant to the rest of the book? I think it is, but I'm not going to go to great lengths to argue the point.

Second is her appraisal of the two older novels. She claims that in Fathers and Sons "both sides of the political argument are lived out and imagined from the inside. Turgenev doesn't sneer, he empathizes, he dramatizes. It’s not mere polemical advocacy thrown down out of animus." Note that she refers to both sides of the argument, as if there were only two, as if Turgenev had not selected his two sides to dramatize. In doing so, she fails to notice that two sides are indeed presented in Exit Ghost, that of the politically committed young couple and of the indifferent Zuckerman. And Ozick seems to accept at face value that the only sides involved in the 2004 election, or in any other presidential election, are the Democrats and the Republicans and their respective supporters. But the novel doesn't include any Nader voters, nor any others who might be capable, unlike this couple or Ozick apparently, of recognizing that, awful as they were, the Bush gang did not destroy a "great" thing but were rather implementing an extreme version of basic policies which enjoyed bipartisan support for decades, nor should it necessarily have included such characters. The book is not about the election or about politics. It is, however, largely about the risks of commitment, of life, of involvement, and the attraction of removing oneself from it all, whether for art or security or otherwise. In which case the two "sides" presented are indeed relevant to the novel.

A Passage to India, Ozick claims, is "a wonderful case in point of how a novel can transcend its topical politics when the issues themselves have become obsolete." Apparently, then, it's just fine for a novel to be about politics if those politics don't matter, as long as characters are memorable and place is well enough evoked. How convenient. Is it possible that decades from now Exit Ghost might be able to "transcend its topical politics"? Ozick doesn't say either way, but she implies that the political scenes in the novel are bad by definition. It seems to me that Ozick has allowed her a priori conviction that politics is always detrimental to fiction to determine her take on this particular scene. She claims that it is the weakest part of the book because "agree with Roth’s views or not -- it leaped out of the disbelief-suspending frame of the novel to become topical political rage and topical political advocacy". I'm curious at her assumption that the scene is anything like "political advocacy". What are Roth's views? Are they Zuckerman's or those of the young, politically attuned couple? Both? Neither? It's probably safe to say that Roth strongly identifies with the opinions expressed by the young couple. He is on record as having been appalled by the Bush Administration ("Bush is too horrendous to be forgotten", he says in the linked interview). And yet one can easily see him making common cause with Zuckerman, a sort of "this too shall pass" attitude. So, it could be argued, Roth splits his own attitude on the then-current situation. Possibly, yet it seems to me that this kind of speculation is quite beside the point. I make no great claims for Exit Ghost; it's a perfectly worthy, if sort of slight--in the way that Roth's recent books have managed to somehow be both slight and fascinating--coda to the numerous Zuckerman books. But the question of politics and fiction is important and too often dismissed out of hand by critics like Ozick who find the political novel anathema to aesthetic success, while many who desire the political in their art seem to me to be all too reductive.

I hope to return to these matters in the near future. But before finishing up here, I'd like to hint towards the nature of my problem with the overly reductive approach. I was struck a while back by a comment by jane dark at Ads Without Products, which Ads drew attention to in an excellent post the other day about Lars von Trier's new film, Antichrist:

The most compelling approach to "truth" in the novel is probably Jameson's account of "the real of history" in Political Unconscious and it is exactly what can't be inserted via choosing to do so, as both Ballard and the bourgeois novelists would have us do.
I'd like to meditate on this, and on that which is "exactly what can't be inserted via choosing to do so". . .


Andrew said...

"My hot admiration for Roth"--never let these words be heard again.

Andrew said...

One of the things I'm very interested in is figuring out what goes on when the notion of dialectic becomes 'balance' or "both sides" getting equal opportunity to speak, and how the notion of Aufhebung becomes this very bloodless notion of a "transcend[ence of] topical politics." Because I really can't understand why anybody would want to read the way Ozick does, with this mock-dialectic shunning of any direct idea or political statement. Ozick's just blurting out received nostrums from Trilling; it's frustrating, but thank you for pointing out the interview.