Friday, October 8, 2010

Oceania Has Always Been at War with Eurasia

So, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I've only read his historical novel The War of the End of the World (ET 1984), about the rebellion by an apocalyptic movement in Brazil at the end of the nineteenth century. It was readable, but not all that interesting as I remember it; maybe I should reread it, but it's over 500 pages long and I think I'd rather read the contemporary journalist Euclides de Cunha's account Rebellion in the Backlands (originally published in 1902; ET University of Chicago, 1944), if not some of Vargas' other works.

Anyway, my right-wing acquaintance posted a link to an article by Emily Parker in the Wall Street Journal -- hail to the free market, it's behind a subscribers' firewall! -- which trumpets Vargas' work as "a rebuttal to those who believe that fiction exists on the periphery of history and politics."

Now, that's very interesting. Who is Parker referring to? Maybe I will have to go to the library and see if I can find the article in the print edition. (My acquaintance later linked to this article by the senior editor of Reason magazine, a rant on "The Power Politics of the Prize." The writer remarks with unselfconscious irony that "It was unsurprising that in Sweden the choice of Vargas Llosa was viewed through an ideological prism." Not just in Sweden!)

Referring to the general right-wing reaction to the award, Roy Edroso declared:
This is the flip side of the pants-shitting rage that conservatives came out with when Harold Pinter won the Prize in 2005. Everything to them is politics, and for the most part they only get interested in literature when it serves their usual tedious yay-boo.
This is one of those areas where I disagree with Edroso, not just on the nature of art but on conservative attitudes to it. "Conservatives" are as driven by expediency where art is concerned as they are in most matters. It's more like Left-wing art, bad! Right-wing art, good! I suspect that as with C. S. Lewis, whose status as an Oxbridge Professor allowed many fundamentalist Christians to claim that their beliefs were intellectually respectable even though Lewis was not a fundamentalist, and smoked and drank alcohol, American conservatives will bask in Vargas' reflected brilliance even if they couldn't get through one of his books. By the same token, conservatives' contempt for the Swedes and their hateful prize (the communist agitator Martin Luther King! the Kenyan anti-colonialist Obama! the politically correct Toni Morrison!) will be set aside briefly if someone who's supposed to have sound politics wins one.

And let us not forget that one of the foundational complaints of the Culture Wars was that all these Politically Correct Negroes, Women, and Homosexuals were reading politics into the Classics. It's not a specifically right-wing trope: even the very sensible Laura Miller could write in The Magician's Book that
The traditional, reverential study of canonical literature that prevailed in Lewis’s day, and the revolution-mongering of the 1960s and 1970s that supplanted it, gave way to poststructuralist and postmodern theory. Books that past generations regarded as eternal monuments of genius were dragged into the courts of theory and indicted for their ideological inadequacies. Their authors’ personal lives and political beliefs served as evidence against them. Racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia lurked everywhere, often in disguises that required expert decoding.If you wanted to know why the world proved so resistant to the utopian designs of a fading radicalism – and that’s exactly what many academics, having seen such dreams die, wanted to do – you could point to the poisonous bias embodied in even the most celebrated pillars of our culture [170].
I want to talk about this more some other time, but for now it's enough to notice that for conservatives, "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" weren't demerits in art, but desirable and indeed necessary. They weren't so much bothered that people noticed the presence of these complexes in the classics, but that they objected to them. Works that didn't embrace those values had always been subjected to political readings anyhow, and found wanting.

Or something. It's really even harder to sort out than that. In his 1992 book Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values the right-wing commentator Michael Medved argued on the one hand that movies are supposed to be entertainment and shouldn't contain messages -- but on the other, that movies should celebrate America and its values and glories and wonders. But that, I guess, is not a message, just divinely revealed truth.

Gore Vidal wrote years ago of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, "I daresay as an expression of one man's indomitable spirit in a tyrannous society we must honor if not the art the author. Fortunately the Nobel Prize is designed for just such a purpose. Certainly it is seldom bestowed for literary merit; if it were, Nabokov and not the noble engineer Solzhenitsyn would have received it when the Swedes decided it was Holy Russia's turn to be honored" (Matters of Fact and Of Fiction [Random House, 1977], 19).

And speaking of noble engineers, the science-fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein used to claim that he was just an entertainer, an storytelling artisan who wrote to earn a living -- but when his publisher asked him to tone down the militarist preaching in what was supposed to be a juvenile (or young-adult) novel, Starship Troopers, Heinlein was furious: he had every right, and indeed a duty, to educate the young. So he took his book to another publisher. Which, of course, he had a right to do, just as I have a right to laugh derisively at his inconsistency about his role as an author. (And let me stress, I am a fan of Heinlein's, having read most of his books more than once, sometimes several times; I just don't take his politics seriously.)

I think that art (and its less respectable sibling "entertainment") is inescapably political, though the issue is complicated by confusion over what "politics" is. It can be expedient to talk as though "politics" refers only to partisan electoral processes, but I don't think many people do so consistently. I agree with Joanna Russ's definition:
... in fact, it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on. Once fiction gets beyond the level of minimal technical competence, a reviewer must address these judgments of value. Generally readers don't notice the presence of familiar value judgments in stories, but do notice (and object to) unfamiliar ones as "Political". Hence arises the insistence (in itself a very vehement, political judgment) that art and politics have nothing to do with one another, that artists ought to be "above" politics, and that a critic making political comments about fiction is importing something foreign into an essentially neutral area. But if "politics" means the relations of power that obtain between groups of people, and the way these are concretely embodied in personal relations, social institutions, and received ideas (among which is the idea that art ought not to be political), then such neutrality simply doesn't exist. Fiction which isn't openly polemical or didactic is nonetheless chock-full of politics. If beauty in fiction bears any relations to truth (as Matthew Arnold thought) then the human (including social and political) truth of a piece of fiction matters for aesthetic reasons. To apply rigid, stupid, narrow, political standards to fiction is bad because the standards are rigid, stupid, and narrow, not because they are political [originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November 1979, 103; reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (Liverpool University Press, 2007), 165].
But for many American conservatives today, what matters is which team you play on. If one of their guys wins the Nobel, that's one for their team. As Reason editor Michael C. Moynihan concluded, "And this year libertarianism won." Funny, though: aside from a passing reference to Mario Vargas Llosa as "deserving," Moynihan never tries to argue the artistic value of the work, only the author's politics. Maybe he hasn't read him either.