Friday, October 08, 2010

Animadversions of a reactionary

“Lifting a rock only to drop it on one's own feet” is a Chinese folk saying to describe the behavior of certain fools. The reactionaries in all countries are fools of this kind. In the final analysis, their persecution of the revolutionary people only serves to accelerate the people’s revolutions on a broader and more intense scale.

As one of “the most sordid rascals,” what is it that I really want? To hasten literature back to the day when only middle-aged white dudes were worth anything? For a Jew, that would be self-defeating, since it would mean turning the clock back to before Moses, who was a Jew before the Jews had become white. It would also mean that I would have to abandon several of my public enthusiasms.

As Richard M. Weaver once said, however, turning it back is one of the things you can do to a clock. Although I have no confidence that it can ever be restored, I mourn the lost age when her race, class, gender, and sexual orientation were not all you really needed to know about an author. I miss talking about books in terms of something other than their meaning. I would kind of like to go back to discussing authors as if they had intentions, just like their critics, which could not be happily dismissed in an effort to squeeze a more ingenious message out of them. I wish critics still had a conscience.

I am nostalgic for writers who understand that political novels must do something in addition to sneering at Bush. In fact, I wish there were a few writers (or a president, for that matter) who understood that bashing Bush, at this late date, is neither clever nor appealing. I am lonely for writers and intellectuals who actually wish to address those who disagree with them rather than assuming that only the like-minded need read them. I want to know where the writers are like the British novelist Elizabeth Taylor, who was a lifelong woman of the Left and perhaps even a Communist, although you would never know it from her novels.

I want to return to a time when writers were judged by their style, their success in bringing artistic coherence out of actuality’s confusion, their distinctiveness and distinction, even their interpretation of the human experience. But to want such a thing, I guess, is to be a “densely stupid reactionary.”

And so I must be. My critical pursuits must only serve to accelerate the descent into revolutionary illiteracy. My bad.


David Gruber said...

Among my favorite thoughts from Weaver is this, from "The Phaedrus and the Nature of Rhetoric": "Sophistications of theory cannot obscure the truth that there are but three ways for language to affect us. It can move us toward what is good; it can move us toward what is evil; or it can, in hypothetical third place, fail to move us at all...[A]ny utterance is a major assumption of responsibility."

I agree with you that many, perhaps most, of contemporary American fiction writers and poets write from a position of assuming a political stance rather than trying to move us toward one; their stance devalues us as thinking individuals, whereas Weaver's concept of writing as responsibility means that the writer must respect the humanity of his audience, their ability to reason, to consider evidence, to see nuance. Regardless of whether or not the audience are primarily liberals or conservatives, writers and critics fail in their responsibility (and fall into Weaver's third category) when they do not challenge us to think about the world outside the parameters of cliche, and to sneer is always to buy into cliche, rather than to conceive of the subject of the sneer in its/his/her wholeness.

PWells said...

I was so glad to see your mention of Elizabeth Taylor, whose novels I have only recently discovered. She seems, at least from my unsuccessful attempts to find even a single acquaintance who has heard of her, to be little known here in the United States. Most people confuse her with the other Elizabeth Taylor. Her novel Blaming is one of my favorites, which I mention in case any of your other readers would like a reading suggestion.

I gave scarcely a thought to Taylor's politics as I read, if by politics we mean where the writer (as opposed to a character) stands on contemporary politicians or how the state might be organized. However, it seems to me that there are politics woven into the cloth of some brilliant novels--take Middlemarch, for example.

D. G. Myers said...


I am delighted that someone else has discovered Elizabeth Taylor! My favorites (in order) are The Soul of Kindness, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (with Ludovic Myers as the primary male character), and Angel.

Nicola Beauman’s recent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor is indifferently written, and critically unsteady, but for the facts of the former Miss Betty Coles’s life, it is worth a look.

Shelley said...

As a writer, the question, I think, is not whether a book is political or not: it's whether it is well-written or not. Facile political/social depictions, as well as facile non-political/non-social depictions, do not have the depth and complexity of art.