A Few Notes on the Literary Establishment
A Few Notes on the Literary Establishment
As political consciousness and knowledge grow more prevalent in the broad culture, leading literary stars lag behind, as does much of the literary establishment (as journalist and filmmaker John Pilger has noted in a series of articles). Less than a month after the
In â€œResistance,â€ the article where Perl makes this central point, his major assertions are often so ambiguous or unsubstantiated (and inaccurate), that it hardly seems worth refuting what is scarcely there, but examining a few of the more lockstep reactionary statements can show in more detail some of the dominant debilitating views on art and politics held by much of the literary establishment. Perl claims, â€œthe trouble with political art remains pretty much constantâ€¦for an artist's effort to speak to a wide audience on a specific topic all too often compromises art's essential discourse, which is a formal discourse, a discourse with its own freestanding meanings and valuesâ€â€”as if only â€œpoliticalâ€ art (and not, say, â€œpsychologicalâ€ art) attempts â€œto speak to a wide audience on a specific topic.â€ Then there must be no great novels on adultery or on first love or on a particular virtue or vice. There goes Anna Karenina,
â€œIn spite of the crudeness of most political artâ€”â€ Perl continues heedlesslyâ€”as if "political" art, whatever he means by it, can be any more crude than the largely apolitical or politically retrograde art that is endlessly spewed from out of TV, Hollywood, and across the airwavesâ€”so heedlessly that one wonders if as Perl writes he is simultaneously chanting â€œI must not (appear to) be political, I must not (appear to) be political...â€ In full he asserts: â€œIn spite of the crudeness of most political artâ€”â€œ [for some great political art, see here] â€œand of most of the debates about itâ€ [for over a century of evidence to the contrary, that is of thoughtful, far from â€œcrude,â€ discussions on political art, see here and here] â€œâ€”there are very deep feelings involved. Even the cheap-shots and prepackaged effects and self-righteousness poses reflect a very old and honorable debate about the relationship about art and life," Perl would have us know, with a marvel of condescension.
After a brief discussion of the quality of Guernica (Picassoâ€™s famous anti-war painting of the Spanish Civil War) as political art, Perl arrives at the concluding paragraph, within which my comments are interspersed below for clarity:
â€œThe closer one looks at
â€”but not with arguments for psychological art, for some magical reason, or social art, or lyrical art, or commercial art, or â€œpureâ€ art, or abstract art, or concrete art, or any other mode of artâ€”
â€œis that they deny the manifold nature of experienceâ€”they aim to fit everything all too neatly together.â€
For examinations of thoughtful arguments and examples of political art extending back at least to the 1800s, arguments and works of fiction that do not â€œdeny the manifold nature of experience,â€ quite the opposite, and that also understand the importance of employing experience selectively in crafting wonderful, distinctive and powerful works of art, interested readers may turn to Michael Wildingâ€™s Political Fictions (1980), or Barbara Harlowâ€™s Resistance Literature1 (1987), or Michael Hanneâ€™s The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change2 (1994), or John Whalen-Bridgeâ€™s Political Fiction and the American Self (1998) and many other quality works on political literature and political art in general.
â€œThere is no reason that a painter cannot be politically engaged while doing art that has no political content.â€
And there is no reason why a painter cannot be politically engaged in making great art with much political content.
â€œAnd the painter who believes that art is a formal discipline with little or no room for overt political expression is by no means apolitical.â€
Just as there is no reason why a painter who believes that art is a formal discipline that does have lots of room for overt political expression cannot produce great art in that (political) mode, as in an infinite number of other modes.
â€œThere is something troubling, confoundingâ€”and also wonderfulâ€”about art's resistance to current events.â€
What is â€œtroubling, confoundingâ€”andâ€ far from â€œwonderfulâ€”about art's resistance to current eventsâ€ is that such notions are groundless, based in no reality past or present, in fact, nor in the future, inevitably. Any imagined â€œresistanceâ€ of art to current eventsâ€”or any other phenomena and experienceâ€”can be overcome with aesthetic sensibility and solid technique, as countless great artists have demonstrated in the wonderful and compelling political aspects of their works.
â€œThe freestanding nature of art is art's essential political message.â€
If this were true, what a great loss to art it would be. Startling gaps and giant holes would appear in the novels of the past, present, and future and entire great works and artists would essentially disappear. Obviously certain types of people and institutions wish for a wide split between politics and art, and/or act in such a way as to try to make it so, and always have. Thatâ€™s why plenty of political artists around the world continue to be banned, exiled, executed. In the industrialized countries, they are more often talked down, derided, wished away, ignored, or otherwise blocked from mass exposure. In 1943, George Orwell noted this phenomenon in his suppressed preface to Animal Farm, a phenomenon that still very much exists today:
The sinister fact about literary censorship in
As far back as 1939, in Forces in Literary Criticism, Bernard Smith notes, â€œIt is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work â€˜propagandaâ€™ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the worldâ€™s classics were originally â€˜propagandaâ€™ for something.â€ Nevertheless, choosing to remain oblivious are many in the literary establishment todayâ€”critics, scholars, publishers, and novelists not least, as Andre Vltchek points out in a recent Znet commentary.
Despite significant flaws, Robert Newmanâ€™s (well-earned) achievement in his geo-political epic novel The Fountain at the Center of the World seems to me to be one of the more crucial political and â€œsocially ambitiousâ€ novels of recent timesâ€”a work that is today â€œa rare politically engaged novelâ€¦that isâ€ in large part â€œopenly partisanâ€ (Nicolai Gentchev), that is â€œâ€¦[a] spirited attempt to reconcile the larger forces at work in the world through fictionâ€ (Jean McNeil), that is â€œperhaps the first novel to really explore the human story behind the placard waving and polemics of globalisationâ€ (The Ecologist), that is â€œlike bootleg Chomskyâ€¦a serious and intelligent book. It's a novel thatâ€ to obviously but pointedly exaggerate â€œconfronts everything that is wrong with the world and demands that which is right, and it therefore makes a lot of British fiction seem rather tender-minded in comparisonâ€ (The Guardian)â€”an important novel that major mainstream publishers spurned because, as noted by Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press, the novelâ€™s U.S. publisher, â€œbig corporate publishers [acted] like big corporate publishers,â€ rejecting the novel on ideological grounds, sometimes by way of â€œfive-page, single-spaced screeds about the book's politics,â€ Suzanne CharlÃ© reports in The American Prospect. And so this lively, thoughtful novel has been rejected and largely ignored by the literary establishment, thus significantly blocking much awareness and greater understanding of the work in both educated circles and the broad mainstream.
While James Wood is surely correct that the â€œhysterical realismâ€ of the most highly acclaimed socially ambitious novels does not measure up to the most insightful standards of contemporary thought, experience, intelligence and art in revealing some of the most vital elements of human consciousness and culture, for Wood to agree with Franzen â€œthat bringing â€˜meaningful newsâ€™ [of society and politicsâ€¦â€˜the worldâ€™] is no longer so much a defining function of the novel as an accidental product,â€ is little more than wishful thinking that simply ignores the impressive (if marginalized) history of political art in the novel (and in film and other artistic mediums). Wood and Franzen, in lauding, for whatever reasons, types of art they either prefer or have a talent for, largely dismiss a type of explicit political art that not only has a long distinguished history, it has never been more needed than today, an art with strong â€œsocial, political, and economic aspectsâ€ as Edmund Wilson describes it in â€œThe Historical Interpretation of Literature,â€ art that â€œplays a political roleâ€ and â€œexerts a subversiveâ€ and other constructive â€œinfluence,â€ and â€œmakes life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among themâ€¦â€ since
the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been masteredâ€¦.
As the remarkable critic Edward Said showed in great detail, authors have to be willing to cross certain perhaps difficult borders to attain great insightâ€”national, informational, cultural, political borders put up directly and indirectly by various dominant corporate, academic, governmental, social and cultural ideologies, structures and powers. While exploring â€œthe urgent conjunction of art and politicsâ€ in Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said notes:
It is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual [including artistic] mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarnation today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed â€œcounter, original, spare, strangeâ€ [Gerard Manley Hopkins]. From this perspective also, one can see â€œthe complete consort dancing togetherâ€ contrapuntallyâ€¦
a vital, needed prospect. Said adds that
Much of what was so exciting for four decades about Western modernism and its aftermathâ€”in, say, the elaborate interpretative strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical formsâ€”seems almost quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric today. More reliable now are the reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archeological descriptions, explorations in mixed forms (essay, video or film, photograph, memoir, story, aphorism) of unhoused exilic experiences. The major task, then, is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scaleâ€¦. The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the momentâ€¦[not least in] the urgent conjunction of art and politicsâ€¦.
â€œResistance literature, as this study has attempted to show, has in the past played a vital role in the historical struggle of the resistance movements in the context of which it was written. That same literature continues to enlist readers and critics in the First as in the Third Worlds in the active reconstruction of interrupted histories. Omar Cabezas, former FSLN guerrilla and author of The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green (published in English as Fire from the Mountain), and now head of the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interiorâ€™s Political Section, still maintains that:â€
To have participated as a guerrilla, to have written this book, son of a bitch: itâ€™s dealt a real blow to the enemy. You feel like you could die after something like that. After that book and one more. Or that book and two more. Or that book and five more. Or just that book. What I want to say is itâ€™s dealt a blow to imperialism. I saw a photo, once, of a dead guerrilla in a Latin American country, and they showed everything he had in his knapsack: his plate, his spoon, his bedroll, his change of clothing, and The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green. And I think back to when I was a guerrilla; when a guerrilla carries a book in his knapsack, it really means something.
2Michael Hanne writes in The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change (1994):
â€œCan a novel start a war, free serfs, break up a marriage, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of fiction over the last two hundred years or so. How seriously should we take such claims?
â€œIn their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naÃ¯ve, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to â€˜work in the worldâ€™ and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimedâ€¦â€
â€œStorytelling, it must be recognized from the start, is always associated with the exercise, in one sense or another, of power, of control. This is true of even the commonest and apparently most innocent form of storytelling in which we engage: that almost continuous internal narrative monologue which everyone maintains, sliding from memory, to imaginative reworking of past events, to fantasizing about the future, to daydreamingâ€¦. It is a curious thing that, in the liberal democracies, the word â€˜powerâ€™ is used more frequently than any other by publishers and reviewers to indicate, and invite, approval of a work of narrative fictionâ€¦. This flooding of popular critical discourse with the term â€˜powerâ€™ does not, of course, indicate a widespread belief in the capacity of narrative fiction to â€˜change the world.â€™ The use of â€˜powerâ€™â€¦indicates little more than approval of the novelâ€™s capacity to involve and move the individual reader emotionally. Indeed the term is so devalued as to imply a denial that narrative fiction can exercise power in a wider social and political senseâ€¦. Power, as is usual in a liberal democracy, is treated as individual and unproblematic, rather than collective, structural, and problematic.
â€œTwo important corollaries follow from this: a) there is no public acknowledgement that literature plays a role in the maintenance of existing power structures and b) literature is seen as incapable of playing a seriously disruptive role within such a societyâ€¦. If, in a liberal democracy, a piece of imaginative writing seeks or achieves social or political influence that goes beyond such a limited conception of its proper power, it must either be nonliterature masquerading as literature or a literary work being manipulated and misused for nonliterary, propagandistic purposesâ€¦. In overtly authoritarian states whose form of government does not rely on liberal bourgeois conceptions of constitutionality, such as
â€œTo anyone who is skeptical about the assertion that narrative fiction, in certain circumstances, plays a central role in the lives and political thinking of ordinary people, I recommend the earthy reminder provided in a letter to Solzhenitsyn by a reader of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich living in the Ukraine, who wrote to the author: â€œIn Kharkov I have seen all kinds of queuesâ€”for the film Tarzan, butter, womenâ€™s drawers, chicken giblets and horse-meat sausage. But I cannot remember a queue as long as the one for your book in the libraries.â€
â€œOne of the earliest, and best known, examples of a novel which is claimed to have exercised a massive, direct, social influence is Goetheâ€™s story of hopeless love, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which is said to have so stirred the feelings of a whole generation of young readers all over Western Europe that a number were recorded as committing suicide in imitation of its lovesick hero. Of a very different kind is the impact claimed for the novels of Dickens and Charles Kingsley, which have been credited with contributing, through the exposure of some of the social evils of mid-nineteenth century