Sam Tanenhaus begins his review of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity with a long preamble based on Lionel Trilling’s 1948 prediction that fiction, having exhausted class conflict as a narrative resource, would turn instead to ideology. Ideology, Tanenhaus explains, is meant in the strong modern post-Marxist and post-nationalist sense of “the personal is the political,” where every aspect of daily life, from food consumption to sexual practices, is seen to have a broadly political significance. As Winston Smith laments in the novel Tanenhaus cites as one of the first to exemplify this trend:
In the old days, he thought, a man looked at a girl’s body and saw that it was desirable, and that was the end of the story. But you could not have pure love or pure lust nowadays. No emotion was pure, because everything was mixed up with fear and hatred. Their embrace had been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.
But time has had its revenge on these words, of course. To read this passage and to feel, almost by instinct, by a gut-level spasm, that a “girl” ought not to be passively “looked at” by a “man,” that such a state of affairs is no less political (and really no less dire) than the state of affairs that replaces it in Orwell’s novel, is to dwell in modern ideology.
Anyway, I want to make one small point, only tangentially related to Tanenhaus’s piece and perhaps only as a defense of my own writing, since I see my work as being in line, ultimately, with what Trilling suggests:
The only way to write about ideological conflict today is to write about extremism.
A modern ideologue, whether of the Left or the Right, who is not an extremist is, simply and unavoidably, in a false position, and is therefore material largely for satire. Since I am already quoting Orwell, let me turn now from his most famous novel to his essay on Kipling to explain why this is so:
All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue. A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.
And this is true not only of the radical middle-class Left but also of the radical middle-class Right. Just as the middle-class Leftist’s entire sensibility has been formed within and depends upon the material infrastructure that she ostensibly wants to raze for the sake of justice, so too is the middle-class Rightist every bit as inextricably embedded in the modern culture of individual freedom he objects to in the name of morality. In fact, the conflict between the Left and the Right is, by and large, something like a class conflict passing itself off as an ideological conflict, two competitive wings of the bourgeoisie each presenting itself as more righteous than the other. (Did not Trilling observe of Howards End that the novel’s class conflict takes place within the middle class itself?) And while this culture war is a good basis for a comedy of manners (e.g., and with allowances for its tragic elements, Franzen’s rather undistinguished Freedom), anyone wanting to write a great novel will have to aim a bit higher than this banal stuff you can see in any news story’s comment section.
Hence the literary importance of the extremist to the ideological novel: extremists are those who not only utter ideological phrases to signal superiority over their neighbors, but those who seek (singly or in groups) to transform their own life, the life of the world, or both. An extremist will choose poverty or celibacy or terrorism; an extremist will live in a commune or in isolation or among the poor of another country; an extremist will seek political power to alter social reality or will commit suicide to free social reality of her burdensome existence. Aesthetically, the extremist challenges literary realism because the “everyday,” which is what realism is supposed to represent, appears to the extremist (whether saint or terrorist) as a tormenting plane of illusion. The apparent solidity of the everyday is what the extremist undertakes violence to puncture and, if possible, to destroy; therefore the extremist appears to occupy a different level of representation from the everyday characters—to be something like a king in Shakespeare or an animal in Kafka.
Should novelists themselves be extremists? I suspect not. I am not; in fact, I am largely apolitical these days, having understood the falsity of belief without action (and, needless to say, lacking the will to act). But I also believe we are passing through a period of epochal change at the moment, related to everything from revolutionary discoveries in the biological sciences to the transition from a Western to an Eastern dominated world order. In such transitional moments, extremists flourish and have their greatest effects; their otherworldly will is necessary to destroy old structures and create new ones. Ultimately, I think they fall victim to history, functioning as a kind of vanishing mediator, as our Hegelian friends would say: they do not bring about the utopia they strive for but only the new normal, still another everyday in human history’s long succession thereof. Nevertheless, in their moment of action the extremists burn brightly: they are a human sublime, immolating themselves and the world for the sake of an ideal. The artist (having sacrificed the respect and the rewards of this purely mercenary society for the sake of a different ideal: the immortality of art) recognizes in the extremist kin of a sort (the enemy sibling, perhaps). I certainly do not recommend the artist to be merely superior to the extremist, to mock and jeer with Flaubertian hauteur. Why write a novel if not to immerse yourself in a dangerous sensibility? Nevertheless, it is the artist’s work to capture the extremist’s sublime movement in words and images, not to participate in it; Flaubert’s advice to writers to live like the bourgeois remains sound, and Brecht’s remark that art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer to shape it remains loathsome and foolish. Leaving aside Flaubert, I am well aware of what my preference for Orwell over Brecht signifies. My remarks here are so apolitical, in fact, that they may be taken as little more than a set of notes toward the invention of more exciting stories—nothing more. Nevertheless, the passion to change the world is among the greatest passions, and writers should respect it enough to treat it with the utmost seriousness or literary dignity in their fiction. I think it will only grow in importance to our fiction as this century proceeds.