Sunday, May 29, 2011

Writers who Sit on Your Face

In the brilliant comic novel U.S.!, in which Chris Bachelder imagines what a continually resurrected Upton Sinclair would make of our world, there are many brilliantly hysterical riffs, jokes, and parodies, but my favorite is the review of Pharmaceutical!, the novel our 120 year-old hero would be writing. (I remembered it as a Times review although it's actually not labelled as such, but hey, it's a Times review.)
Sinclair never understood that art and polemic do not mix, that great and lasting art has no authorial agenda. Novels are not tracts or pamphlets; they do not serve to convince readers of anything. A novel may ask questions, but a good one never supplies an answer. In the long history of Western Literature, in the Natural Selection of Great Books, we can clearly see that the survivors are those that aspire to a timeless and organic Beauty and not those that are written to support an autoworker's strike.
Only the Natural Selection bit is a tip off - the rest you could find on any given Sunday. And just like on the editorial page, it's always anyone tainted red, or some progressive variant thereof - who has to answer for the great sin of Ideology against Beauty.

I think of this riff every time I read something like this. Carmen Callil is an Australian-born author who has spent her writing life in England, the founder of Virago Press and the author of a book on Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Vichy's go-to man for aiding the deportations. She made the news recently for resigning as a judge from the Man Booker International Prize because she didn't like the winner they picked. Now, this is perhaps an odd thing to do, but normally you'd expect it to be discussed in terms of how much more contentious the British are about books, something American writers often describe with not a little longing and envy. But because the writer whose book she didn't like is Philip Roth, and because Virago is a feminist press, she had clearly committed the sin of Ideology against Greatness. She was a accused of "ideologically inspired illiteracy" and, of course, "misunderstand[ing] what a novel is" - that by Jonathan Jones who wondered if she was disturbed by "a terrible scar of monotonous male sexuality" - whatever that might possibly be. Laura Miller gamely tries to defend Callil, pointing out what Callil actually said, which was in part
Roth digs brilliantly into himself, but little else is there. His self-involvement and self-regard restrict him as a novelist.
This is a pretty straight-forward and non-controversial thing to say - in fact, it's something Roth's alter-ego Zuckerman might have said about himself. Miller tries to argue that these are "legitimate aesthetic reservations" that don't deserve to be branded as ideological. One understands the impulse, but this hard line between the aesthetic and the moral never works. After all, if Roth's only and ultimate topic is the self (and yes, one could argue this is true of every novelist, but leaving that aside for a moment), surely one manifestation of this is that every woman one comes across will likely be a projection of that self, its desires, or its fears. I happen to enjoy all of this - I like listening to a self wind and weave, I like sex, ego, and self-involvement as themes, and I prefer a world in which women are projections to a world like Cormac McCarthy's where they mostly don't exist. But surely this is a matter of taste - and one not unaffected by my own particularities of class, temperament and Jewishness - and not a question of Greatness.

Which is of course the point: it would be much better if, when Callil said "he goes on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe" - his defenders had said something to the effect of "how interesting! I for one enjoy this topic enough for a hundred books, and in fact, I rather enjoy having my face sat upon." (Because come on, it's a pretty accurate description.) Wouldn't that be a better tribute to the liberation of sex and ego than the usual pap about Transcendent Greatness and Beauty?

Of course, then, how would we know who to give the prizes to? Maybe it's the need to award and rank that's the real ideology here.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Opium Feels Good

In high school, we had a semi-famous writer come and lecture us about drugs. Looking back I can imagine he was probably an ok guy, who'd been persuaded to get into the motivational/anti-drug business that, in an early nineties post-Nancy-Reagan haze, was probably a better career move than, oh, being a semi-famous writer. At one point during his speech, he tried to be "interactive" by pulling kids from the audience and asking them questions. I remember that he pulled out this kid named Troy, and everyone started to snicker. Troy wore a worn black leather jacket over Tesla t-shirts (I know), so obviously, I guess the thinking went, by both the semi-famous writer and the snickering kids, he knew something about drugs. He asked him why people did drugs. Troy said, "because of the way it feels?" and everyone snickered some more before the semi-famous writer said, no, no, clearly it was all about trying to fit in, and Troy looked embarrassed and sat down. On my way out of the assembly I heard one kid say to another, "God that was awful. I need a drink."

I think about Troy sometimes when you hear some smart-ass atheist talk about "the opiate of the masses." Jonathan Kozol had a good reply when asked about this in the context of a South Bronx church and he said "here, opium is the opiate of the masses." But the point is, each in their own way, opium and religion can make us feel good. The fact that this feeling is temporary or purchased at some expense does not make this feeling "false." In The Corner David Simon talks about the bargain we've made with people our system has rendered disposable. The puny welfare checks people bitch about are a very small bribe to keep the real demands at bay, and we should pay them gladly. You can say you want to take drugs away from people, but you have to give them something in return. Same thing with religion, which the political atheists don't really understand. They say, condescendingly, that they understand religion gives some people meaning and hope, but the implication is always that needing this is a sign of underdevelopment, and that if those people would just wise up they wouldn't need it: as if anyone among us lives without taking pleasure from something that could be called an illusion.

All of this came to mind as I recently finished watching the first season of Simon's current show, Treme (highbrow television being of course one socially acceptable way to get pleasure from an illusion.) Like The Wire, it's the portrait of a city, in this case New Orleans. The feel is so different, though. Instead of drug dealers, cops, politicians and teachers, we have musicians, a bar owner, a chef, a dj. All the systematic injustices are there - and are heightened even further by the storm - but there's so much more joy. How often did we see folks in the Wire take solace or pleasure in each other? If we did, it was usually a sign something bad was around the corner. Here, the musical scenes, of the manic Davis riffing on what he'd play if he didn't have to stick to the station's playlist, the scenes of Janette running around her kitchen and managing to pull something beautiful out of the chaos are all such joys to watch, not to mention Clarke Peters (Lester from the wire) as the Mardi Gras Indian Albert, stitching his costume and getting his crew back together. (If only Lester had had a whole crew of miniature makers to run with!) The lawyer and the academic are naturally partial exceptions, but even they get in on the fun at times.

At one point a young musician whose success has taken him to New York wonders if all the effort being put in to the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras is worth it, if it would be better put into rebuilding the city. It's an interesting question: if you looked at the usual statistics (and taking into account how how Katrina and the post-Katrina exile of the city's poor) you'd look at New Orleans like people look at Baltimore, as as series of outrages and problems, and of course Simon is the last person who'd deny this. But there's a lot in how people get by and resist and make beauty in their lives that can't be measured. It's a tricky point, one that can easily sound sentimental. A lot of my lefty friends probably think that talking about resistance through culture or the resistance of everyday life is some kind of weak-kneed cultural studies wishful thinking best left back in the eighties. And I agree that it's important not to confuse this with something systematic: Albert triumphs in getting his tribe together but can't make any progress with his protest about public housing, because it's mostly just him. Still, how we carry ourselves, reflect ourselves back to ourselves, celebrate and mourn really matters. In the end any guard against inevitable suffering and loss can be thought of as a kind of opium, but there's still a big difference in the fact of being soothed, and the ways in which we do it.

ETA: Based on the first three episodes of season 2, it's going in a very different direction which puts what I'm saying here in a very different light. More soon.