Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The politics of the politics of literature

Politics is one of those words, like “race” or “love” or “satisfaction guaranteed,” that has a stable instability of meaning. Everyone thinks he knows what he is talking about when he talks about politics, but I’m not so sure. It would be nice if the word could be restricted to discussions of practical arrangements, proposals to innovate or preserve, institutional mission statements, bureaucratic policies, the charters of social associations. The likelihood, however, is small. Michael Oakeshott explains why:

The language of politics is the language of desire and aversion, of preference and choice, of approval and disapproval, of praise and blame, of persuasion, injunction, accusation and threat. It is the language in which we make promises, ask for support, recommend beliefs and actions, devise and commend administrative expedients and organize the beliefs and opinions of others in such a manner that policy may be effectively and economically executed; in short, it is the language of every-day, practical life. But men engaged in political activity . . . in order to make their opinions and actions more attractive, are apt to recommend them in the idiom of general ideas; and in order to make the opinions and actions of others less attractive are apt to denigrate them in terms of general ideas.[1]The reverse is also true, especially among intellectuals. You abridge the conceptual experience of agreeing with another man’s argument by speaking as if he belongs to your party. To place a man in the opposite camp is to refute him.

Here politics serves as a sheet of pregummed stamps for identifying allies and enemies. But the politics of literature is far more complicated. One small example. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the late twentieth century, in my opinion. On September 11, 2001, its stature grew. Unlike Don DeLillo (“There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists”) or Paul Auster (“if these two-bit explosions forced people to rethink their positions about life, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all”), Roth demonstrates that terrorism is a “crime [that] could never be made right.”[2]

The novel was celebrated by writers publicly identified as conservative. Carol Iannone, for example, whose nomination to the National Endowment for the Humanities by the first President Bush had provoked a tantrum on the academic Left six years earlier, praised the novel in Commentary. The father of a beloved daughter who sets off a bomb that kills a local doctor, Roth’s hero Swede Levovbegins to grasp that America is [his daughter’s] stand-in not only for the hard reality of her own family and its experience but for the inherent, flawed limitedness of the human condition, ‘for everything that was imperfect in life.’ And in his agony the Swede also begins to apprehend something else: that behind the righteous indignation and ‘idealism’ of the radical movement that snatched away his daughter lies a kind of counter-truth to decency—namely, the sheer, malicious joy of violent wasting. . . .[3]Edward Alexander, once described to me by an academic Leftist who had studied at the University of Washington as “beyond the pale,” wrote that Roth’s novel delivers a powerful rebuke to Leftist clichés (“Everything is political. Brushing your teeth is political”), but not by putting up an opposing rhetoric:[T]he truly potent critic of sixties radicalism in American Pastoral is neither Roth’s narrator Zuckerman nor . . . Swede Levov, nor any other character sickened by the arrogant ignorance of the kamikaze radicals; rather it is the counter-image of productive labor in the glove factory that the Swede . . . takes over from his father. . . . Work is real; idealistic sloganeering about exploitation of workers by profit-hungry bosses is idle wind.[4]When it came time to face the public reaction to The Plot against America seven years later, however, Roth was prepared. Writing in the New York Times Book Review prior to publication, he declared that President George W. Bush, “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one,” had affirmed his book’s moral: “all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy.” The public isn’t always so docile, though. Ruth R. Wisse dismissed Roth’s Book Review article as a “preemptive strike.” The politics of the novel itself is “irrelevant,” Wisse continued—“except perhaps inadvertently.” For if Roth intended The Plot against America as a warning about the possibility of antisemitism, even in a country that has never been host to a pogrom, the danger lies not with Bush, but in the potentiality for ahomegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right . . . with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left.[5]Even when it contains injunctions, accusations, and threats, a literary language may not have any practical effect—or not the effect its writer intended. That’s because literary persuasion is of a different order from political persuasion. In a public speech or a newspaper column, I am trying to win adherents to a cause. Once my relation to the cause becomes mediated by style, however—a concern to write well—I am no longer trying to win adherents but readers, and to persuade them of the reality (not the social justice) of what I have to say.

The political commitment of the literary Left, then, is extraliterary. It rarely serves any purpose in literary texts, or not the purpose originally hoped for. Depending upon the institution in which he operates, the Leftist may even be a conservative, opposing such innovations as, for example, hiring political conservatives for the sake of ideological diversity. Even then, many activities which are advertised as political are anything but. Signing petitions, publicly expressing “support” or “opposition,” marching in public demonstrations, affixing a bumpersticker on the car—these are cards of identity. They are neither persuasive nor effective. They are, in truth, an affirmation of one’s self-esteem, a means of establishing one’s purity of heart, a reassurance (to oneself) that one stands with the angels.

This is not politics, however, but confession.
[1] Michael Oakeshott, “The Study of ‘Politics’ in a University” (1962), in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), p. 206.

[2] Don DeLillo, Mao II (New York: Viking Penguin, 1991), p. 41; Paul Auster, Leviathan (New York: Viking Penguin, 1992), p. 244; Philip Roth, American Pastoral (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 69.

[3] Carol Iannone, “An American Tragedy,” Commentary 104 (August 1997): 55.

[4] Edward Alexander, “Philip Roth at Century‘s End,” New England Review (Spring 1999): 183–90. Alexander is author of Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

[5] Ruth R. Wisse, “In Nazi Newark,” Commentary 118 (December 2004): 65–70.


Daniel M said...

Another interesting set of observations - I'm glad I came across this blog.

One point which I would take issue with: "Roth demonstrates that terrorism is a “crime [that] could never be made right.”

I feel this is a moralized language, which confuses things somewhat. What I took from American Pastoral was the idea of a disconnection maintaining between the politics of terrorist spectacle, and politics in a deeper sense, which takes it leave from the point that all political sense turns on the issue of their social effects.

D. G. Myers said...


You propose an excellent “moral,” if you will.

But you are right that the language—note, however, that it is Roth’s—is “moralized.” American Pastoral is a deeply moral novel. Swede (borrowing Nathan Zuckerman’s intelligence and literary talents) is far more concerned with the morality of his daughter Merry’s terrorist bomb-setting (and the social circumstances of her upbringing that might have contributed to the act) than he is with politics.

As for his own share in events. Swede is preoccupied with questions of responsibility—just like H. Richard Niebuhr or Emmanuel Levinas. His brother Jerry tells Nathan early on that Swede is “fatally attracted to responsibility” (p. 72).

And just before he “dream[s] a realistic chronicle”—the chronicle that becomes American Pastoral—in fact, coming to the realization that stirs the dream, Nathan says: “There is where it must begin. It doesn’t matter if [Swede] was the cause of anything. He makes himself responsible anyway. He has been doing that all his life, making himself unnaturally responsible, keeping under control not just himself but whatever else threatens to be uncontrollable, giving his all to keep his world together. . . . The disaster that befalls him begins in a failure of his responsibility, as he imagines it” (pp. 88–89).

Italics in the original. Swede comes alive for Nathan, in all the concrete details of his social life, when he stands out as the rare man for whom “responsibility follows him through life” (p. 79).

I agree, Daniel, that a moralized language is inappropriate to politics, but my point about Roth (and, by extension, other novelists) is that the political uses made of them, by me as much as any other political critic, is a secondary extraliterary effect. Hence the title of my post. The politics of the politics in Roth’s novel is not the same as the politics in Roth’s novel.

Thanks for the kind words.

Daniel M said...

I read American Pastoral a few years ago, and so my recollection of it is inexact. And also, I have really formed much of a view on it before, so this is all stuff which is condensing now.

But I think what I found most interesting about the book was Merry's trajectory from bomb-thrower to hermetic spiritualist - a trajectory sort of mirroring (at least one element) of the New Left itself, which became increasingly concerned in the seventies with inner development, as opposed to mass political organization.

Roth, I think, is unfair in some respects with regard to this. I mean, he loads the dice. Merry is always wrong, no matter what she is doing. In my opinion, this isn't the whole of it, on either side of the ledger, and I think in presenting things as such risks mystifying matters immeasurably.

Finally, I am not sure I agree with you (If I understand you correctly) when you say that the political uses made of novels are "secondary" and "extraliterary" - is it not the case that forms of language, style, and so on, contain their own politics - in the sense that they organize communities of readers around certain key themes? For my part, I strongly feel that this dimension of organization is the essence of politics, whether it is happening through novels or else other forms of media.

D. G. Myers said...


Right again when you observe that “Merry is always wrong, no matter what she is doing.”

The great thing about fiction—great fiction, like Roth’s—is that a person can never be reduced to her politics. This is decidedly not the case in our current political discussions.

Merry is the ugly-duckling daughter of a mother who is a former beauty queen. She is the product of a mixed marriage in which neither the husband nor the wife cares very deeply about the religious commitments of their forebears. She lives in a suburban utopia—that is, it is located both nowhere and everywhere. Rather than introducing her to the glove business, as his father did him, Swede tries to shield Merry from it.

In short, she is the ideal product of the American Pastoral—that dereligionized, departicularized, denatured celebration of American ordinariness. She tries to rebel against it, but she hasn’t the intellectual or moral tools.

Anonymous said...

I think there's more to say about "mediation by style" in American Pastoral. Swede's thinking is presented almost entirely by way of free indirect narration, which means that (after the Zuckerman introduction is over) any sentences expressing thoughts about terrorism, the Sixties, and so on must be taken as the thoughts of Swede even when the narrator doesn't precede them with some version of "Swede thought that..." And Swede is presented to us as a extremely traumatized and at times deranged man, reacting to the disaster in his life, and looking for solace in his memories of the glove factory. So we can't really say that Roth "demonstrates that terrorism is a 'crime [that] could never be made right.. .'" because this is a thought that Swede thinks, and that is therefore embedded in and conditioned by his distress and struggle. Similarly, we can't say that Swede "begins to grasp" something about America, because, once again, all we can grasp is that a person such as Swede in a circumstance such as his might plausibly think and feel the way Zuckerman surmises that he might have or must have felt.

Taking notice of Zuckerman's narration is important because any statements concerning America, terrorism, the sixties or the glove factory aren't even really Swede's thoughts, but rather they are Zuckerman's speculations concerning what Swede must have thought and felt. And the long introductory section depicting Zuckerman's class reunion allows us to consider what Zuckerman's own stake in the story of Swede Levov really is, much as The Customs House requires us to wonder what Hawthorne's stake in the story of Hester Prynne really is. How does a concrete and visceral experience of his own aging shape Zuckerman's moevment toward the story of Swede? How do the literary bombs that Zuckerman set off in his own family's life during the sixties (Portnoy, The Anatomy Lesson) lead him to project onto Swede thoughts and feeling concerning America, etc. that are currently his (Zuckerman's) own? Does Zuckerman share the opinions concerning America, the Sixties, work, etc. that he attributes to Swede, or is he presenting them to us ironically, as the thoughts and feelings of an innocent who has been violated? Does Roth offer us Zuckerman and Zuckerman's Swede ironically, as a sixties rebel whose conscience is still troubled by bad faith? Do the clear feelings about America, the sixties, work, etc. survive Zuckerman's return to New York in The Ghost Writer?

In the samples you've provided, the political commitment of the literary right is clearly extraliterary, or rather nonliterary, that is, tone deaf to the novel, a conclusion readily argued from the premises of the New criticism concerning ambiguity in narrative voice.