Eunomia · literature


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This is meaningless, but I am glad to find that my favourite novel, Crime and Punishment, is towards the high end of this list.  It doesn’t surprise me that it ranks higher than Anna Karenina, but then I have had an instinctive aversion to Tolstoy’s novels for some time.  Offhand, I would guess that there are more references in a typical Dostoevsky work to Fourier and to problems of theodicy, which might make them more interesting to a certain set than a story about a woman’s love affair.

Via Yglesias

As everyone probably knows by now, Norman Mailer passed away at the age of 84.  TAC interviewed him in one of the magazine’s earliest issues, and he had some very smart things to say back then.  Here is a sample of his remarks on politics:

The notion that man is a rational creature who arrives at reasonable solutions to knotty problems is much in doubt as far as I’m concerned. Liberalism depends all too much on having an optimistic view of human nature. But the history of the 20th century has not exactly fortified that notion. Moreover, liberalism also depends too much upon reason rather than any appreciation of mystery. If you start to talk about God with the average good liberal, he looks at you as if you are more than a little off. In that sense, since I happen to be—I hate to use the word religious, there are so many heavy dull connotations, so many pious self-seeking aspects—but I do believe there is a Creator who is active in human affairs and is endangered. I also believe there is a Devil who is equally active in our existence (and is all too often successful). So, I can hardly be a liberal. God is bad enough for them, but talk about the devil, and the liberal’s mind is blown. He is consorting with a fellow who is irrational if not insane. That is the end of real conversation.

On the other hand, conservatism has its own deep ditches, its unclimbable walls, its immutable old ideas sealed in concrete. But lately, there are two profoundly different kinds of conservatives emerging, as different in their way as the communists and the socialists were before and after 1917, yes, two types of conservatives in America now. What I call “value conservatives” because they believe in what most people think of as the standard conservative values—family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance—dependable human virtues. And then there are what I call “flag conservatives,” of whom obviously the present administration would be the perfect example.

I don’t think flag conservatives give a real damn about conservative values. They use the words. They certainly use the flag. They love words like “evil.” One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric (to dip into that cornucopia) is to use the word “evil” as if it were a button he can touch to increase his power. When people are sick and have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as his hot button for the American public. Any man who can employ that word 15 times in five minutes is not a conservative. Not a value conservative. A flag conservative is another matter. They rely on manipulation. What they want is power. They believe in America. That they do. They believe this country is the only hope of the world and they feel that this country is becoming more and more powerful on the one hand, but on the other, is rapidly growing more dissolute. And so the only solution for it is empire, World Empire.

A friend of mine has just given me a boatload of Armenian books and books about Armenian history and literature, including the Matyan Voghbergutyan (Book of Lamentation), often known simply as Narek after the monastery where its author, the late tenth and early eleventh century churchman Grigor Narekatsi, one of the great Armenian medieval writers, resided.  I also received a copy of the English translation.  Narekatsi’s poem is one of the greatest written works of Armenian Christian spirituality, a work of repentance and profound sorrow over sin.  Consider these lines from the second lament:

I am the forsaken tabernacle on the verge of collapse;
The broken lock on a door;
The voiced edifice soiled anew;
The forlorn fitting inheritance;
The forgotten house built by God,
As foretold by Moses, David and Jeremiah. 

Until now, I had not looked closely at the original.  I will certainly try to make some time to work on this. 

My Scene colleague Cheryl Miller points to these three items.  Despite what seems like a perfectly crafted attempt to bait me into an extremely long response, I would make just a few points.  First, Ms. Grabar’s article was not “preposterous,” though it was weaker than it should have been.  Second, a Jane Austen Christianity is the Christianity of the safe, the unremarkable and the ordinary.  I do not claim that there is no need for such a thing or that it is unimportant, but the idea that it is actually more profound or more powerful than Dostoevsky’s vision seems, well, just silly. Third, no one who understands anything about Dostoevsky would say the following, as Tom West does:

Dostoevsky’s solution, for all its anti-European sentiment, seems to take its departure from the same post-Hegelian premise: only will, and not reason, can guide us.

The principal error of both Peter Verkhovensky (Demons) and Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) is to place their trust in the power of the will and the willingness to overstep the boundaries of the law, both human and divine.  Plainly, for Dostoevsky will alone cannot guide us, and in Dostoevsky’s Orthodoxy–heavily influenced by the Slavophiles and indirectly by the Fathers–there is the understanding that will apart from or in opposition to God is death and isolation.  Willfulness against God is a mark of the demonic; it is at the heart of our ancestors’ rebellion in the Garden.  Further, it is the one-sidedness of reason alone, reason without faith, reason against God, that Dostoevsky, like the Slavophiles, repudiates when he critiques reason.  Likewise, no fair and accurate reading of The Grand Inquisitor could lead anyone to conclude the following about Dostoevsky:

For Dostoevsky, then, either we accept the absolute authority of the father and king and church, or we repudiate human reason and follow nothing but arbitrary will, personal or collective.    

Amazing.  This is totally wrong.  It is entirely backwards.  West claims to be reviewing a work by Joseph Frank, but the Frank works on Dostoevsky I have read would never have made such a claim.  In the story, who represents the (for Dostoevsky) unholy trinity of authority, miracle and bread?  The Grand Inquisitor.  Who represents a religion in harmony with human freedom in this story?  Christ.  Those who have read Dostoevsky’s Writer’s Diary cannot miss his frequent, polemical equations (in which he again echoes the Slavophiles) between socialism, Catholicism and rationalism.  The first two, in Dostoevsky’s view, both share a devotion to authority, miracle and bread.  Dostoevsky’s Christianity, his Orthodoxy, is the Orthodoxy in which Christ did not come down from the Cross because He so respected man’s freedom.  This is the same Dostoevsky who does not have Fr. Zosima’s body exuding the scent of myrrh after his death, because Dostoevsky does not wish to make faith an automatic response to a miracle, but a freely chosen embrace of the Incarnate Truth.  (A good argument can be made that Dostoevsky has gone too far in his opposition to both authority and miracle, since the Orthodox Church acknowledges the importance of both, but that is not at issue here.)  Dostoevsky’s vision is the one in which evil is the proof of human freedom–suffering will exist if man is to be free–and appeal to authority is the mark of a Christianity that seeks to supplant Christ.  His Winter Notes on Summer Impressions is another valuable source for understanding his priorities.  This was someone who did not discard the old scheme of “liberty, equality and fraternity,” but rather refused to let it be defined by liberals and socialists according to their lights.  Setting up Dostoevsky as some embodiment of the most ultra of reactionaries is satisfying to someone already intent on belittling traditionalism (so intent that he misses that Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn hold positions very close to one another in the end), but it does no justice to the complexity of Dostoevsky’s works and the mixture of his liberal background, his later Slavophile-inspired romantic conservative nationalism and renewed acceptance of Orthodoxy.     

It suggests that there aren’t any interesting Republicans in our fiction not because Republicans aren’t interesting, but because our intelligentsia’s political prejudices blind them to the possibility that a Republican might be, well, a complicated human being rather than just the sum of every liberal’s fears. ~Ross Douthat

Ross is right about a certain lack of imagination among liberals when it comes to depicting Republicans.  If there is an audience for what has seemed like 462 books on the imminent onset of theocratic fascism or fascistic theocracy or whichever other contradiction in terms the cunning religious conspirators are developing, this audience is not going to be interested in stories that depict religious conservatives and Republicans as anything but absurd stick-figures.  On the other hand, if you tried to imagine an administration filled with fewer interesting, engaging personalities than the present administration, I don’t think you could do it.  It also doesn’t help encourage the depiction of complex human beings when this administration in particular has seemed to go out of its way to play to every caricature of Republicans that the left has conjured over the years. 

That isn’t to say that the last few years haven’t provided plenty of material for rich, florid, even baroque novels about corruption, fanaticism, pride and failure.  But how to tell the story?  Perhaps only the genre of magical realism could fully capture what seems to be an assembly of stunning mediocrities, the half-mad, the drearily self-important and the embarrassingly venal.  I think we lack the writers we need to tell this story.  They would need to be part Prokopios, part Ortega y Gasset, part Kafka and part Miguel Angel Asturias, but would have to be able to speak in a distinctly American idiom.    

Try to picture a work of contemporary literature that exhibits a faith in the global free market, that understands exurbs as the latest manifestation of the American dream, that exposes wasteful social programs and presents sympathetic Republicans struggling to stand by their principles. Admit it: it’s tantalizing. ~Benjamin Nugent

I shouldn’t have said in the last post that Nugent asked the wrong question or the question that misses the point, but simply that he asked the far less interesting question.  He really is primarily concerned with finding people who will write a specifically Republican novel, to which I would have to reply: “Who cares?”

Ross points us to this interesting Benjamin Nugent article, which asks the question, Why Don’t Republicans Write Fiction?  Of course, as phrased, the question already misses something important, and this is that party men qua party men almost never create anything worth remembering (not even parties).  If I were to write the Great Paleo Novel, for example, it would not be credited to the lists of Republican fiction-writing, since the Great Paleo Novel might very well throw down the idols of Red Republicanism from the high places and, like Phineas, drive a javelin through the bodies of adulterous ideologues.  The real question ought to be why conservatives generally don’t write fiction. 

The answer is actually much more straightforward: the sorts of grand conservative thinkers who were scholars of literature (Weaver, Bradford) and writers of ghost stories (Kirk) are sadly no longer with us, they have not found worthy replacements and the importance of imagination is much, much less in the thinking of most self-styled conservatives than it was in theirs. 

Part of the problem is indeed an excess of optimism, and optimism on the American right is one part Yankee, one part capitalist and one part Reagan.  Whatever else you want to say about these three, they are not generally regarded as the fathers of great writing.  Optimistic people typically are not the best artists, and I don’t just say this because I prefer the pessimists among us.  Their frame of mind does not allow for real tragedy or real failure.  For the optimist failure is not only unlikely, it does not ultimately, truly exist.  The best days are always yet to come!  But without a sense of nostalgia for a lost age or a lament for your people or even a full appreciation for the petty indignities of life combined with reverence for sacred mysteries (and sometimes, if a writer is really wise, he knows how to find the mystery in the petty indignity–see Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn), I think it is very difficult to write really captivating, good fiction.  Just consider how little of the best poetry is an expression of contentment and joy in love compared to dissatisfaction, betrayal, loss and yearning.  Optimistic people can’t even tell the story of that most depressing sci-fi novel, Solarisproperly.  For optimistic people there is always a silver lining, when sometimes there are no silver linings, life is filled with suffering and all that man can do is endure.  This sounds grim, and Americans generally do not like to sound grim and they do not like grim-sounding things.  This is why Americans usually ignore the more serious thinkers who tell them hard truths and embrace the charlatans who fill them with vain hopes. 

Understanding the role of suffering in life and taking it seriously, perhaps almost too seriously, are vital to great literature.  Good literature can probably get by with fine phrases and a nicely-structured story, but the great works capture something more elemental.  This is why the Russians have produced the finest literature on earth, because they have not simply endured suffering (every people in the world has, at some level, endured it), but the best of them have actively embraced it as essential to their cultural worldview.  I do not write off the great accomplishments of other literary cultures, but, in my admittedly limited experience, I am convinced that the Russian achievement is far superior.  Americans either recoil at the sight of this Russian view, or they simply find it depressing, which may again explain why even the figures Nugent cites among Old Right writers come from England and not from here.  The English, Scots and Irish are also all capable of perceiving something about life and the old ways of life that have vanished, as can most any people with a collective memory that extends more than a few centuries, but this was something that we, as Americans, have either not fully inherited or have pretty thoroughly purged from our system–and we tend to be proud of this.  The nation that produces phrases such as “We can do it!” and “We shall overcome” is not a nation that will understand the overwhelming bulk of human history and all of the examples through the ages in which there was failure, defeat and no overcoming anywhere to be seen.  Even American railings against various injustices assume that injustice can be to some large extent ”fixed” and is not built in to the structures of our existence and unavoidable here below.  “We will never forget” and “history is bunk” are mutually exclusive views, and most Americans functionally embrace the latter most of the time (while watching the travesty that is the History Channel and considering themselves amateur historians).  This is also why, I suspect, the greatest efflourescence of worthwhile American literature comes from the South, the only region that has fully known and incorporated the sense of the tragic into its sensibility (a sensibility that the New South has attempted to throw to one side, not entirely successfully, with its internal improvements and progressivism), and why most of the last, greatest right-leaning writers in the English-speaking world come from the pre-WWII period.  The therapeutic has driven out most of whatever remained of the tragic.  The spirit of Atlee has spread like a poisonous cloud over the green fields of Logres, and the purpose-driven life has driven us into Babylon rather than leaving us to remember Jerusalem at the edge of her waters.