Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Politics and literature

My comment Sunday on the news that President Obama is reading Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom was not intended to be a political comment, especially not if the word political means “partisan.”

Whether Obama is more or less sophisticated than the “anti-intellectual slob” who preceded him in office is not a question that interests me very much, nor one (I suspect) that any of us is in any position to answer. It is true, I believe, that President Bush cultivated an image of the well-socialized rural Southerner as thoroughly as Obama cultivates an image of the well-read sophisticate who is “the product of three elite schools.” (The hair in the soup is that Bush, despite his reputation, is a heavy reader, something that was kept from the public until the President’s last weeks of office—“awfully late in the day,” as the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen marveled in some perplexity.) For politicians, books and authors are props, which are either carefully staged or sedulously avoided depending upon what the “base,” as the saying goes, demands.

The real question about politics and literature lies elsewhere. In Grand Strategies, Charles Hill suggests that literature can serve as a “tutor” to statecraft. Adam Kirsch scoffs at the suggestion, because (after all) the rational man can no longer approve what the classical poet once glorified: “imperialism and conquest.” For Kirsch, then, the important thing is to determine Hill’s own politics, by which he means Hill’s side in current political squabbles. Thus Hill is “at least a social conservative,” Kirsch warns, since he “dwells often on the sanctity of marriage and family. . . .”

And this is what politics has been narrowed to: as the old Mineworkers’ song used to ask, “Which Side Are You On?”[1] “Will you be a lousy scab,/ Or will you be a man?”—there is no third possibility. Either you deserve a slur or an honorific, and the political problem is to distribute them correctly.

Kirsch can hardly be blamed for not having read Hill’s book with any comprehension, subject as he is to the current commonplace about politics. Hill himself proposes a different understanding. Take his views “on the sanctity of marriage and family,” for example. They do not identify him as a “lousy scab” who irrationally opposes gay marriage (in contradistinction to a rational “man” like Kirsch, who supports it). Rather, Hill argues that marriage, as a legally binding form of contract, is one of the political mechanisms by which primitive uncivilized tribes organize themselves into a modern civilized state.

On Hill’s showing, politics are the extra-personal “strategies” by which people knit themselves together into a polity, and all the members of a polity engage in these “strategies,” even when they take sides to redefine them. (Hence gays’ insistence upon marriage rather than being content with “civil unions.”) The political question in literature is not which side an author is on, but which political “strategies” grab his attention and how he exhibits them in operation in the daily round of life.

[1] Autobiographical note: both of my grandfathers were coalminers who belonged to the UMW.