The Extremist in Literature

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.

6 thoughts on “The Extremist in Literature

  1. That excerpt on Kipling always has me thinking of the last minutes of Aaron Sorkin’s “A Few Good Men”, when Colonel Jessup ends up on the stand:

    “And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the play/film has become catnip to American liberals, even though Sorkin himself is the hypothetical bastard child of Oliver Stone and Frank Capra, taking on the worst traits of both (and Capra’s work had a reactionary streak). And of course, there’s that deus-ex-machina of a happy ending where Jessup proudly confesses to something he wasn’t even accused of (compare that to the ending of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which would likewise fall apart without a convenient confession from the culprit).

    My knowledge of recent film is a bit hazy, but I don’t recall there being anything in recent years to match the downbeat endings of seventies films. Even Alan J. Pakula, arguably one of the masters of the American thriller, spent the last years of his career adapting Grisham potboilers and the like — and even at his best he was nowhere near the level of a Costa-Gavras. Regardless of what one may think of the latter’s politics, he at least understood that in several parts of the world, though probably not in the United States, if you prove too much of a nuisance to the army, you end up with a coup d’état.

    Which reminds me of another essay by Orwell, where he took Auden to task for a line about “necessary murder”, saying that it “could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word” (just as a play such as “A Few Good Men” could only written by a person for whom a military coup is as unlikely as the existence of unicorns). Which also comes to mind every time I come across an article from Jacobin Magazine. Their take on the legacy of the French Revolution is a masterpiece in itself, so much that I’ll sully your comments section with a link:

    Just a sample:

    “it is hard to dispute that the terror emerged in response to the urgent need for political and military defense. The old figureheads of the ancien regime were more than mere symbols of opulence or historical tyranny; many were active antagonists of the revolution, working to dismantle its progress and assassinate its soldiers precisely at the time when the revolutionary transformation was most vulnerable.”

    When I’m reading Jacobin, I’m always wondering: are these guys serious? Do they even understand what they’re advocating? Whereas I’m fairly certain that The New Inquiry, for example, is mostly interested in providing networking opportunities for its social-climbing collaborators (was it you who once wrote that they would turn into neoconservatives before long?), I won’t risk dismissing Jacobin in the same way. I don’t necessarily disagree with some of the problems its writers point out, but their solutions appear as both unrealistic and undesirable. Here again, Orwell was right, about “internationalist aims” of a large part of the left, which in Jacobin’s case seem to materialize as a desire to knock down whatever borders remain to better propagate a reheated Second International that doesn’t appear to have learned any lesson, so confident is the magazine that capitalism does indeed contain the seeds of its own destruction, even as it perpetually goes from hope to disappointment (see the recent articles on Greece for a good example), and even as it realizes that the United States will never veer more to the left than an atavistic New Dealer like Bernie Sanders (who still gets blamed for not talking about race, unlike Hillary Clinton, that True Friend to the Person of Color).

    Orwell’s humanitarian-as-hypocrite, by the way, reminds me of Evgeny Morozov once calling the One Laptop Per Child venture a “mission civilatrice (sic) 2.0”. Or that recent controversy about a deworming initiative that was expected to have miraculous effects such as improving school performance or solving world poverty, because clearly just getting rid of intestinal worms isn’t enough.

    On the literary question: I wonder then who could provide a suitable model if Flaubert is out of the question. Zola, perhaps?

    P.S.: Perhaps you remember a few months ago when we discussed Jon Stewart in passing. Now that the person in question has concluded undoubtedly the first of many farewell tours, it turns out that you weren’t quite alone in disliking him. Camille Paglia said much of what I already thought of him a few days ago at Salon: “he’s certainly a highly successful T.V. personality, but I think he has debased political discourse”. Elsewhere, another author attributed the rise of Stewart to the same causes which enabled the rise of Donald Trump: a profound distrust of the establishment (the media in Stewart’s case; political insiders in Trump’s). To which I’ll also add the distrust of the judicial establishment leading to the kind of lynch-mob mentality displayed by some people on the left (and routinely chronicled by Freddie deBoer).

    Anyway, I hope that what I’ve posted above makes sense. Enjoy this beautiful Thermidor weekend.

    1. Hi Vett!

      Responding to your points in reverse order:

      On literary models: I was thinking mainly of Dostoevsky, for the intense feeling of apocalypse his novels create and his characters’ willingness to go to extremes of degradation or death for their commitments. (To be honest, I have read only one Zola novel, Thérèse Raquin, which is not particularly relevant to the issues at hand. Germinal is on my shelf, though, and I plan to get to it soon!)

      On humanitarians: I am not a historian, but I wonder if it goes too far to say that imperialism is nothing other than the desire to help and uplift people–nothing other than a left-wing initiative of forced modernization/liberalization. I am amused at the permission liberals now feel they’ve been granted by Ta-Nehisi Coates to be very retrospectively bellicose about the Civil War when just ten years ago they were railing against the neoconservatives for naively promoting “democracy at gunpoint” and the forced emancipation of captive populations. It’s as if people lose their memories from year to year.

      On the little leftist magazines: I find Jacobin unreadable (they really have a “talking down to the reader” tonal problem, as in the piece you linked) but I guess I think it’s harmless; they seem like nice social democrats with a weekend habit of cosplaying the revolution. The New Inquiry is just grad student politics. I remain confident they will all be neocons eventually, if they get good jobs anyway. It’s truly impossible to imagine these people in an actual revolution. (Again, I don’t want to be in an actual revolution either; I have simply stopped lying to myself about it. Mostly I’d just like to avoid trouble.)

      On political cinema: I am slightly embarrassed to reveal that A Few Good Men was a formative film for me (I saw it in the movie theater at age 10 and was mesmerized; even now I watch it whenever it’s on TV). I also sincerely love Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Capra means nothing to me; I’ve seen only It’s a Wonderful Life and I wanted to yell at the screen, “Get the hell out of there, George!” For more recent cinema, I think David Fincher’s stuff is good (if really stylized) for downbeat pessimism, albeit more social/metaphysical than political. Also P. T. Anderson–I wasn’t crazy about There Will Be Blood or Inherent Vice but thought The Master was brilliant and had much to say about the way power works in practice, how it organizes the disorganized. About political movies, though, I can’t think of any I’ve seen lately…

      1. On political cinema: No need to be embarrassed over “A Few Good Men”; it’s quite a great film (I have it on DVD), but I’m just thinking there were quite a few tangents the film could have explored and never quite did so — for instance, on the shortcomings of courts-martial, or on whether there was, within the military, wide (if never past tacit) agreement with Jessup’s remarks. Ironically, it might have made it an even more liberal film, but I wonder how it would play out if Sorkin remade it for the post-9/11 world.

        Stone excels at villains and antiheroes. (Disclosure: his most recent work I have seen was “Alexander”, and it’s an experience I’d rather forget.) I doubt anyone remembers the Charlie Sheen character from “Wall Street”, but everyone remembers Gordon Gekko. (Same thing with AFGM: nobody really remembers Tom Cruise, but everyone remembers Nicholson.) Still, what is arguably Stone’s greatest film, “JFK”, is marred by (apart from Costner) its vainglorious insistence that there was a conspiracy, with the outcome of an overall insignificant court battle being offered as a major historiographic paradigm shift just to tack on a happy ending. If you want to see a film on the JFK assassination (in all but name), try finding a copy of Henri Verneuil’s “I… comme Icare” (“I as in Icarus”). It’s less visually accomplished than the Stone film but far more artistically satisfying — in spite of longueurs like a 20-minute detour through the Milgram experiment –, if only because of how it ends.

        And that’s probably when I had in mind when I mentioned Stone-Capra-Sorkin. Their main films are all rendered unsatisfying by happy endings that don’t really justify themselves. If Jessup doesn’t confess, the Cruise character ends up court-martialed, and the only rationale for the fact that he might confess is that he really wants to — which in itself only makes sense within an army culture that could be expected to agree with him; yet this was rarely properly discussed.

        In Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, a governor had to replace a dead senator, and he had to choose between a party hack, pleasing his political boss, a local media baron by the name of Taylor, but alienating the electorate, and a leading reform figure proposed by a local political committee, pleasing his constituents but absolutely out of the question for Taylor. Solution: appoint a completely unknown scout leader who happened to be the hero of the moment (Smith), a malleable idiot whose dead father also happened to have been friends with the other senator (Paine), also a Taylor crony. A few plot holes later, Smith uncovers a graft attempt by Taylor which he tries to expose, only to be cut off before he can, and framed by Paine. About to be expelled from the Senate, Smith seizes the floor and, after several hours of filibustering, collapses. Paine, visibly moved, rushes out of the Senate chamber, attempts suicide, rushes back in and immediately confesses that everything Smith said was true. It’s a little too pat to my liking.

        His next film, “Meet John Doe”, had even more structural problems. (He produced it independently, and it has since lapsed in the public domain, so it’s easy to find.) In a nutshell, a lady journalist is about to be fired, but in her last column she hits on the idea of creating “John Doe”, a plain-talking down-on-his-luck drifter who threatened to jump from the roof of City Hall. Everyone ends up wanting to meet this man, and the journalist has to admit to Norton, her publisher, that he doesn’t exist. Sensing a gold mine, he not only keeps the journalist but hires an ordinary passerby (played by Gary Cooper) to play the part. Norton gives him more and more visibility, newspaper space, radio airtime, public conferences, and ends up building a series of clubs around him. Before long, Norton transforms the clubs into a political party with himself as candidate to the White House.

        There was a famous remark made by Alistair Cooke circa 1936 that “Capra’s is a great talent all right, but I have the uneasy feeling he’s on his way out. He’s starting to make movies about themes instead of about people.” And every film after “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” confirmed it. His characters became archetypes. In this case, for instance, the actor who had played Taylor also played Norton; that was all the character was, another Taylor, with the added flourish that, this being 1941, he also liked to prance around with his very own paramilitary organization. Anyway, Doe finds out, attempts to expose him, gets cut off before he can (sounds familiar?), and Norton, sensing the game is up, or at least that Doe had outlived his usefulness, exposes him as a fraud and disbands the clubs. Leaving Doe to do what? Well, they had been pumping up that Christian allegory for quite a while, so yeah, what else but what the fictional character had meant to do all along: jump from the roof of City Hall?

        Except that Capra couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do that, reportedly because Producer Capra thought “the public wouldn’t want to see Gary Cooper killed off”. This is on the record because he and his screenwriter toyed with several endings, and the only outcome the writer saw possible was suicide. Norton was written as present at the scene, to prevent it (purely out of self-interest) if he could, or destroy any suicide letter if he could not. The version preferred by Capra ended with Norton seeing the error of his ways. He ended up cutting this part out after release, but there are still traces of it in the ending.

        As for Capra’s take on a possible form of American fascism, it’s as unconvincing as Sinclair Lewis’ attempt to shoehorn Huey Long into that mold. To be honest, I think there’s only one film from the period (as far as I know) that depicted a credible form of American fascism, and it’s the only mainstream Hollywood film I know of which overtly espoused it: Gregory La Cava’s “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933). It was mostly known only to film historians until the Jonah Goldberg crowd was made aware of it because Obama. Still, all it makes me think of is Trump saying “you’re fired” to Congress.

        On the little leftist magazines: Jacobin seems to attempt to hide how conventional its thinking really is under a glossy radical cover meant to elicit the frisson of violent revolution. I think it neither wise nor responsible. And since it is Jacobin, it must follow that its readers must be the sans-culottes, meant to be awakened from their slumber of false consciousness. Still, its main contributors appear unwilling to address the contradictions between their fairly conventional progressivism and the implications of their radical posturing.

        There was a Jacobin article about Victor Hugo, where the argument was mostly: “the left can’t rely on liberals because the latter always end up siding with order, and Hugo is a good example of that”. The excerpt below details the aftermath of the creation of the French Second Republic:

        “With its legitimacy challenged, the government quickly decided to crush the resistance. Hugo voted to declare a state of siege and allow General Cavaignac full powers, but his desire for order and decorum would not end there. He actively spent three days (now known as the “June Days”in the fog and fire of war. He directed troops and canon, urged on soldiers, charged barricades and used his oratorical power and determined will to crush the workers’ revolt. Baudelaire of course was fighting from the other side of the barricade, on the right side of history.

        Hugo in June of 1848 made the fatal mistake of most well-meaning liberals. In the heat of revolutionary upheaval, these transcendent types, horrified by the specter of the underclasses taking power into their own hands, decide to restore order at all costs. Accustomed to traditional forms of power and frightened of witnessing the overturning of privilege, the well-meaning liberal decides to stop the slide into deeper revolution at any cost. The problem of course is that once the subaltern have been shot dead, their neighborhoods invaded and triturated and countless others repressed and jailed, there is no social force remaining to fight the forces of looming right-wing reaction.”

        And yet, before the end of the year, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte would be elected, not just by a few partisans of order, but by male universal suffrage, with nearly 75% of the votes, among them undoubtedly many of the sans-culottes of the age. Cavaignac, the candidate of the establishment, finished second with 20%. Socialists finished with less than 6%. The “underclasses” as well as Hugo backed a candidate whose designs for France should have been obvious to anyone who remembered his two failed coups. In fact, the “forces of order” made certain, once the Republic was restored, that no French president would again be elected by direct universal suffrage until de Gaulle.

        As for the “right side of history”, what is it? Baudelaire took part in a doomed revolt against a republic doomed by its own citizens to be succeeded by a Second Empire that would end in the fiasco of war and the Commune, also doomed by the Third Republic (which almost was a constitutional monarchy), and so on, until you get to today where you get what? A three-way race between a party that’s socialist in name only, the liberal right, and the National Front.

        That’s really what I don’t like about this kind of left: positing as inevitable propositions that may not ever happen, or have happened and failed. And should they fail, or fail to materialize, it’s always someone else’s fault. It always pretends to act in the interest of “the people” against the “forces of reaction”, yet dismisses the possibility of “the people” ever taking a decision that goes against its own idea of what is good for the people. (Say what you want against Brecht, “dissolve the people and elect another” is a masterpiece.)

        At some point, Jacobin will have to decide whether it wants to be democratic (which would involve questioning its own positions, without always coming to the conclusion that there was fraud at the polls or that the populace had been brainwashed, and embracing reform that would have been considered an impediment to the inevitable revolution), or anti-democratic and doctrinaire.

        As for The New Inquiry, I remember reading an essay that did a thorough job of demolishing it. What made it interesting was that it had been written by (I’m guessing) an old British Marxist type who accused them of perpetuating “the bourgeois cult of words”. I didn’t agree with much of it, but as an attack from the magazine’s left, it was refreshing. It was especially revealing when he described the backgrounds of the people involved with it. Recently, I looked up the author of one particularly irksome piece published there, Fourth link down is her 2014 marriage notice from The New York Times, complete with correction. Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, met future husband at Harvard, daddy’s a retired tax lawyer, now teaches law, mother into philanthropy, in-laws are Beltway insiders going back to the Carter years, now living in San Francisco.

        If that’s the typical standard-bearer of progressive thought, I’ll pass. Not to mention that their internecine quarrels with similar progressives — but not in quite the same way — never fail to remind me of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the People’s Front of Judea’s most pressing targets are the Judean People’s Front and a few others, not the Romans.

        In case you’re really bored, you could take a look at David Auerbach’s taxonomy of leftism: See if you can avoid reading it in the same spirit as that poetry textbook in “Dead Poets Society” (which I’m very much ashamed of saying was a formative film for me).

        On humanitarians: First, on Coates. Hasn’t the wind begun to shift about him? To wit, a recent profile of him at New York Magazine. And what now, with the Black Lives Matter disruptions of the Sanders campaign dividing progressives.

        And yes, it goes too far to say that of imperialism. The “desire to help and uplift people” seems to me more the pretense than the end in itself. Also, I doubt very much, for instance, that, ten years ago (I’m assuming we’re talking about Iraq), there was any liberal believing that the neoconservatives were serious about promoting democracy, at gunpoint or otherwise, considering how the US had propped up Hussein in the first place and how even the hawks had reduced the question not primarily to one of ideology, but to one of national security (i.e. the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction).

        At this point, neoconservatives have demonstrated time and again that, in international affairs, they’re perfectly fine with reliable strongmen, and would even prefer that to a wishy-washy democratic system that could swing in a way contrary to its interests.

        Only liberals seem to entertain the democratic pretense (e.g. Obama’s telling gaffe in Ethiopia, though it may be excused as intentional diplomatic flattery, and I’m really stretching the word liberal here); whether they believe it is another matter. Ironically, it would make liberals, not neoconservatives, the heirs to the old Cold War rhetoric that offered democracy and the free market as the conjoined twins of American foreign policy, with the second always taking precedence — though never explicitly — in the case of the two being in contradiction. (See, for example, how the National Endowment for Democracy funneled money into that ruthless dictatorship that was France in the early 1980s, only because it had a Socialist government.) In a way, I’m thankful to the neoreactionaries for having made explicit what other supporters of capitalism would have tried to deny: that democracy is not only not a sine qua non of the free market, but can also be a nuisance to it.

        About Zola: I had more in mind his role in the Dreyfus Affair, rather than his literary output, which has been criticized late in life (after the publication of “La Terre”) for having become decadent and commercial, and is criticized now for not being sufficiently progressive (Jacobin: “Zola the social reformer who devoted his career to chronicling the fecund depravity and bestial desires of the underclasses”). Maybe I shouldn’t separate literary output and public activism. But I don’t want to make the kind of convoluted arguments like that time Anis Shivani went on denouncing the fascism of post-9/11 America while praising Ezra Pound as “the most influential cultural translator and communicator of his time”, making inevitable the assertion that “we locked up Pound in a mental asylum, of course, for refusing to go to war”. I don’t mind pungent literature – you’ve convinced me to read Tanizaki, for example – but can we at least acknowledge the smell?

        By the way, are you going to review more of the Tintins?

  2. Thanks for the context on Capra! Maybe I will check out those movies someday…

    On Zola: actually I am the anti-Shivani (though I like a lot of his purely aesthetic judgments): I think writers should avoid all activism. I’d rather they say I was aloof than say that I abetted war, genocide, tyranny, or even just stupidity.

    On A Few Good Men: I suppose I thought Jessup was a sufficiently emblematic figure that we could assume he stood in for the whole officer class. And his wanting to confess is part of his representativeness: he wants to confess because he doesn’t feel he has anything to apologize for. But on the court-martial danger faced by Kaffee for even questioning Jessup over the code red in a court martial, you’re totally right; the film treats that as perfectly normal, whereas it suggests a real flaw in the system from any liberal POV and opened the movie to potentially greater anti-military implications.

    On Oliver Stone: agreed about JFK; I didn’t see Alexander or even W, but I did watch the recent Savages, an entertaining but slight Tarantino/Rodriguez pastiche.

    I respect David Auerbach, but that piece was a smidge over my head and I never finished reading it (though I do appreciate his reference to Habermas’s Philosophical Discourse of Modernity; that is the one book that every single person entering graduate school in the humanities and social sciences should be made to read, not because of Habermas’s politics but because of the clarity with which he explains everybody else’s–of course, I only read it after I got my PhD!). Just looking at Auerbach’s chart, I am just below the republican center of the liberal cluster when I’m thinking about politics; but my general attitude toward life tends to land somewhere beyond the chart’s lower left corner. I mean, it seems to me that Nietzsche and Foucault are basically correct, but so what?–it would still be better to live in a liberal society than not. (That makes me a hypocrite, I suppose–or Richard Rorty.)

    When you explain Jacobin that way, yes, they do seem irresponsible in a very precise sense–as in Orwell’s line about the left playing with fire without knowing that fire is hot. (I feel compelled to confess I’ve never read Victor Hugo beyond whatever poems were in the Norton world lit. anthology.) Your distaste for their old-fashioned historical teleology is well-expressed. Why aren’t intelligent people embarrassed to speak of right/wrong sides of history? I would call it a religious idea but that would be an insult to religion, which often maintains precisely the sacred/profane boundary that is so crassly violated by the myth of progressive history.

    On The New Inquiry, I know just the article you mean–it went into all the details about the prep schools and whatnot those people went to. But does anybody pay any attention to them?

    On imperialism, yes, you are right in general–I was trying to speak only of the liberal cultural realm, where the claims are taken seriously. On Iraq, my memory is a bit different: I remember a lot of anguished liberals (Ian McEwan, for example, as evidenced by his novel Saturday) as well as liberals who were outright bellicose–Paul Berman, Hitchens, etc. Remember Michael Walzer, “Can There Be a Decent Left?”? (When I was a Marxist blogger, we used to call liberal hawks “decents” in anti-tribute to Walzer.) Unless you’re defining “liberal” more narrowly than I am.

    On Tintin–yes, I definitely plan on reviewing more of them. You saw the one on Tintin in the Congo, I trust?

    1. On liberals and Iraq: Thanks for mentioning the Walzer article (I had never heard of it before). Hitchens I remember, but I always thought him a lapsed leftist who had become for all intents and purposes a neocon in all but name. For the most part, though, as I am not American (I’m from Quebec), the debate over the Iraq War in Canada ended up as more or less “to what extent will we alienate the United States by refusing to join?”. The cultural sector, in French Canada anyway, was almost entirely opposed, and the question of the morality of the war, was never at the forefront in comparison to adhering to international law versus trade considerations. In the end, the government decided to defer to the United Nations, and the matter was settled as soon as it became apparent that France would veto any UN-led intervention.

      As for how I define “liberal” — you don’t want to know. Oh well. Since I know you’ve read some of Moldbug’s stuff, perhaps you remember when he talked (drawing from Hayek and others) of he could not really support 19th-century British classical liberalism because it tended to devolve into social liberalism. What I’ve often seen, in recent years, from self-described American liberals (who may or may not have read Dewey, Rawls and the like), is, contra Moldbug, a rightward pull on economic matters, ultimately perhaps leading to neoliberalism, perhaps neoconservatism, the democrat becoming a technocrat in the process, with the imperative of social progress as the main impulse, with technology perhaps being given a spiritual dimension, as in neoreaction. This is, ultimately, what I fear the most: that this rightward-drifting liberalism, dissatisfied with democratic society, might end up supporting some key neoreactionary arguments. (A recent pet theory of mine, that I have yet to properly look into, is that neoreaction is not unlike Saint-Simonianism taken over by a right-winger.) What I can see in the meantime is how easily some of liberalism’s tenets can be co-opted — meritocracy, for instance, with the obsession with privilege as a way to strive for it (at which a neoreactionary just points to dubious scientific theories to demonstrate that to obsess about privilege is a waste of time because those people are where they were meant to be).

      (People I talk to tend to think that I’m nuts for worrying so much about neoreaction, but my response is quite similar to the one Corey Pein offered in an article at The Baffler: it’s not about whether I take it seriously, but about who else might. And it seems to be quite popular among the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. That’s why I worry.)

      For example, Shivani, whose background, if I remember correctly, is in economics. From what I’ve read by him, he has a fairly good understanding of political theory. (I’m not sure I’d call post-9/11 America “fascist”, but he understands fascism — but what does that make of his refusal to call Pound what he was?) Yet he wrote an article at the Huffington Post in 2012 entitled “5 Principles for a 21st-Century Liberalism” that ostensibly opposes neoliberalism and laments the power of corporations, while delivering arguments that could paradoxically have come from Thomas Friedman: And before that, there was his negative review of a book by Chris Hedges:

      “Like other populist-liberal commentators, Hedges lacks a theory of economics. At heart, he’s a nationalist, as is true of our most vocal liberal critics today. They’re uncomfortable with the gains of globalization for the rising economies of the world; they’ve bought into the dogma that advances for other countries necessarily diminish us; they’ve left behind the basic doctrines of comparative advantage and free trade, and become advocates of various forms of barriers and borders. It’s become unfashionable to advocate free movement of labor and capital. While Hedges criticizes Christian fundamentalists for having adopted a fearful mindset, he shows himself no less fearful–toward what globalization portends for American economic dominance.”

      That, to me, is something only a classical liberal — and, within an American context, only a neoliberal — could have written. He doesn’t have much good, indeed, much at all, to say about unions, except to suggest they have outlived their usefulness. From his “5 Principles”, the first is “get past nationalism”:

      “Immigration needs to cease to exist as we know it; people should be able to move around from country to country, speak different languages, and experience different cultures, but the idea of expatriating one’s whole body and soul to a different (generally richer) culture and remaining committed to that new place’s nationalism, memorizing its mythology and shunning links with the old country, ought to become passé. When immigration as a conventional concept ceases to matter, so will its negative political ramifications. The entire world should be a single economic zone. The entire world should be a single human resource zone. Then only can human potential be maximized without friction. Labor will then at last have the chance to seek its highest value.”

      Never mind that his fifth principle is “end money”, or the dim prospects in his liberalism for anyone whose labour is of little value. As a speaker of French on an overwhelmingly English-speaking continent, I detest this type of reasoning, because I know what it will lead to: commerce-enabled cultural homogeneity. (News reports from the latest Cannes festival, for instance, indicated a growing number of foreign filmmakers shooting their films in English.)

      Your point about the right/wrong side of history would fit right here — as a Quebec nationalist, I’d almost certainly be put on the wrong side of it, and indeed it’s the sort of reasoning I’ve often been offered by at least a few self-proclaimed liberals, even when they admitted the English language was “privileged”. We should just get past it, embrace the new reality, and so on. It’s when I really figured out it was all a sham — it costs them nothing to talk of “privilege” when they can’t or won’t even shed their own.

      Paradoxically, Shivani himself decries this cultural homogeneity in a series of articles on the nefarious neoliberal consequences on literature:

      “Regionalism, localism, and place-oriented eccentricity are everywhere being stamped out under neoliberal political economy, and the same is true in literary culture. A uniform figure of the author–who is in fact utterly mediated and devalued by market considerations–reigns supreme, in whose image authors around the world must be made over…. The British or Australian or Canadian–and even, unfortunately, the Indian–novel will come to resemble the American novel more and more.”

      Is Shivani liberal or neoliberal? He would argue the former, and I’d say the latter. And I think it’s a pattern by no means limited to him. I more or less agree with the assertion from that Jacobin article on Hugo that liberals will always reach a point where they will cease to follow the Left. However, what the Jacobin article avoided saying was that the Left is just as obsessed with order as the “forces of reaction” might be.

      On works in translation, especially poetry: I’ve never been sure about how representative of the original one should expect a translated work to be. Out of necessity, one may have to make do with it; but I’m not sure the conflict between form and content may ever be satisfactorily resolved.

      Auerbach’s Cartesian system — I don’t really fit anywhere on this. I am by temperament a conservative, but left-of-centre economically because I’m still a member of the working class, and conservatism in this country is mostly built around free-market economics while pursuing a sort of populism that has an unpalatable petit-bourgeois morality attached to it.

      And yes, I read your “Tintin in the Congo” review. I agree with all your points, but I wonder if the book could not be shown to children not as entertainment but as a way to explain to them racism and imperialism in a simple, easy-to-understand form. (Like that time Disney re-released its wartime propaganda animated shorts with little introductory warnings by Leonard Maltin, if memory serves.)

      1. Well, with Shivani’s prescriptions, I am actually very conflicted and uncertain. His critique of Hedges seems basically right to me: socialism grew within the matrix of nationalism, was hostile to independent civil society, and exerted certain top-down controls on culture that will strike a lot of people as pernicious. When I was educated just 10-15 years ago, the reigning assumption in academia was that the world would move away from nationalism and that individual subjectivity would be modeled on the queer and the migrant, two archetypes (both more similar to the artist than to any other social type [except maybe the priest and the nun!]) who are resistant to rootedness and organic reproduction.

        Shivani is known for his criticism of MFA literary culture, criticisms I largely share (I don’t have an MFA but I do teach creative writing from time to time). But his own “literary culture” is very much academic literary theory circa 1995 translated into the vernacular: all his concepts belong to high-period poststructuralism, and though he doesn’t use the jargon–hybridity, dissemination, rhizome, differance, micropolitics, etc. etc.–he reproduces the ideology, which goes back beyond theory to modernism itself. In this interview, he says:

        But Hejinian is after a different ideal: she is talking about a literary community which it is necessary to be a part of in order to create in the first place. I militantly oppose this particular notion of the literary community. It’s a very different model—a corporate, institutionalized one—than the one I grew up with as a romantic ideal, based on my understanding of writers and their origins and practices from time immemorial until the very recent—only a few decades’ old—assimilation of writing into a hypercapitalist model which concretely manifests itself in the workshop/MFA system, in turn closely tied up with a very constrained, also highly capitalistic, model of publishing.

        If I said that I invented myself, my identity, my origins, my meaning, in the context mainly of the European modernist writers of the twenties, would Hejinian accept this as falling within her definition of literary community? I suspect not, I suspect she means something necessarily more tangible and immediate, something with a transactional element, something with a supervisory and monitory aspect that governs the modern creative writing environment.

        Since this was by and large my own intellectual formation–at least until I encountered old-fashioned Marxists in grad school–I have a knee-jerk sympathy for what he says, for his values, and I am refreshed by his candid admission that this is all a development of liberalism, which it is. But I do see a lot of practical problems with his artist’s utopia that make it unrealizable, even undesirable, in the near future. (As for neoreaction, I believe it is the right-wing version of what Shivani advocates; Nick Land, for instance, could be philosophically described as a right-Deleuzean.)

        For example, your counterargument–that only the market (or the state) will be left if all organic structures are extirpated, and the market will empower the already powerful in economics and pander to the lowest common denominator in culture–is a good reply, of course. But if you are a cultural liberal, then you have to posit a force that, while controlling the market, will also protect the culture-dissolving energies the market unleashes and runs on. That is American liberalism today, as I see it: a belief that government can be used both to restrain capital and to protect the social layers that traditional restraints on capital (e.g., religion, nationalism) have tended to oppress. (That seems like the “spontaneous ideology,” as the Marxists say, of sites like Vox, The Atlantic, the new New Republic, etc.) In theory, this is okay; ten years ago I would have supported it outright. But it’s starting to show its flaws in practice, because what you have is groups arraying themselves in pretty totalitarian (sub-nationalist) ways to petition the state for privileges and protections; and I don’t blame them–they are “responding rationally to incentives”–but political discourse is getting drowned in irrationalism and arts and culture and education are increasingly subject to Maoist-like attack. And, as you say, there is no conflict between this liberalism and neoconservatism in foreign policy–in fact, neocon imperialism fits better with neoliberalism in culture than it ever did with Bush’s religiosity, shown in the Bush administration’s own resort to feminist rhetoric.

        So I think we (“we”=Hedges’s “liberal class” in a cultural sense, not necessarily economic) are at a real impasse; we want conflicting things, things that can’t all be had at once. Europe, I assume, will just go back to nationalism; but that isn’t really an option here in the U.S., the blood and soil thing makes no sense, nobody’s been here long enough. American nationalists want to go “back to the Constitution,” which is a different sort of thing. There’s that saying, something like, “Fascism is always descending on the U.S. and always falls on Europe”–which I suspect will prove true again.

        Back to Shivani. Obviously, a lot of his proposals are impossible, as when he writes, “the poorer parts of the world will have to be elevated, and if states have one important function in the near future, it is to make heavy investments in infrastructure and productivity to bring Africa and the poorer parts of Latin America and Asia to the point where emigration becomes less of a necessity than a choice.” Well, as my mother would say, does he think money grows on trees? Who will do this? Here I must agree with Bernie: “open borders” is neoliberal, and the Old Left’s contingent support for economic nationalism remains viable. The idea of all humanity acting like the model of the artist that developed in 19th-century France is simply not going to be realized anytime soon, even if I myself in most ways try to live according to that model, as does Shivani.

        On your fears as a Francophone Quebec nationalist–my suspicion is that Shivani and those who sympathize with him would say that his way actually does more to protect minoritarian cultures–whether ethnic, linguistic, or cultural–than does crypto-national socialism, which relies on centralizing administrative forces that don’t give minor players a chance in the marketplace because they assimilate them to the national culture. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think the market and the state are two sides of a single problem; I don’t think the one can solve the problems created by the other.

        Finally, on translation–my compromise is to let the translation purists have poetry and admit that I’ll never really understand poetry I can’t read in the original, while insisting that fiction, despite being made wholly of language, involves so much more than language that it can be successfully translated a lot of the time. This is a little bit self-serving on my Anglophone part, because English-language poets from Chaucer to Heaney are so good that you practically don’t need any other (I exaggerate, of course, and I can also make my way–with much effort!–through French, and to a lesser extent Spanish and Italian, poetry), while if you limited yourself to Anglophone novelists, you’d be missing most of the best work in the form, some in languages I will probably never read (Russian above all).

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