Monday, July 26, 2010

Narrative Freedom

After a summertime hiatus, I return to annoy, vex, or stultify.

Having recently seen the new movie Salt, I have been musing lately on stories and narrative, with which we are beset. Virtually all movies tell stories; so do the television shows that we watch every night. And then there are the novels--whether on the page or on the electronic device--which are apparently still thriving. What is thriving most strongly, however, are the popular novels, meant almost purely for entertainment. Literature exists to instruct and delight, Horace said just a few years B.C. in his Ars Poetica; as if to prove his point, Christ often taught in parables, which do just what Horace enjoined--teach by telling an entertaining story. And this is one major reason that popular novels aren't nearly so good as more artistically-designed works of literature, for while novels like Twilight entertain wonderfully, they fail to teach people much. If they teach anything, they simply recycle bromides that any sensitive reader will have known long since. This I take it is the basis for Harold Bloom's critique of the Harry Potter books: while many praise the books because they at least get children to read, Bloom argues that what they prompt children to read is Stephen King.

No, truly good fiction engages the mind and brings it to ideas that it had not previously considered. And herein lies a perennial gift of the truly good novel: that it is often uneasy with the status quo, which is a valuable gift in an authoritarian country. In The Curtain, Milan Kundera makes this point at some length, and it is as sound a point of criticism as one can find. The good and great novel is often at odds with the ruling orthodoxy, and that is usually a very good thing. Obvious examples come readily to mind: it was fiction that began to peel the lid back from the evil Soviet regime, among them Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago, and Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The powerful effect of such work in freeing the mind caught in the totalitarian trap is wonderfully described in Zhengguo Kang's memoir Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China (Norton: 2007), in which one of Kang's great steps toward disillusionment with Mao's regime comes when he is penalized precisely for ordering a copy of Dr. Zhivago from a library in Moscow. And that freedom of mind is a great gift to all of us, for the world is better off with Kang's book than without it; the logical extension of this insight is that the world would be a much, much better place if Mao's 70 million victims had been allowed to live and all Chinese had been free over the past 60 years to pursue medicine, science, and the arts.

It is not entirely clear what lies behind the power of the novel to resist authoritarian regimes. Perhaps it is the way in which, as Aristotle points out, art imitates reality, and the frank discussion of reality is precisely what the authoritarian regime, with its reliance on lies and disinformation, cannot abide. I wonder if its power might also derive from what Ian McEwan's fictional novelist Briony Tallis asserts is the novelist's God-like power to arrange the fictional world as (s)he wishes (though her use of that power in McEwan's Atonementis--on my reading--far from beneficial). And, as God is Truth and authoritarian governments cannot stand Truth, so they have shown over the past century that they also cannot abide God. Inded, as Dostoevski, another revolutionary novelist ill at ease in the society of his day, puts it, "Where there is no God, anything is permitted." The totalitarian state must remove God's presence before it can act on its most inhumane desires.

But the authoritarianism challenged by the novel does not always have to be hard to be threatened by the good work of fiction. One reason (among many) that McEwan is so commanding a writer is that he does not acquiesce easily in the current attitudes of the Western intellectual elite. In his novel Saturday, set in the first third of this decade, the invasion of Iraq has recently occurred, and McEwan allows two of his main characters to make cogent arguments both against the invasion and for it. One can imagine how the evenhandedness of his treatment, so true to the complextity of opinion in a liberal democracy, must have offended the intellectuals most likely to read his book. So also in Atonement, the fact that the great sin of the novel is a false accusation of rape flies in the face of much of the sanctimonious attitudes of the present day, according to which the male is always the aggressor and the female always the victim. In a culture regularly fed such ideas, McEwan's plot serves to remind us that reality is more complex than those in power (whether politically or culturally) find it convenient to say.

This isn't to say that the hostility of the good novel to current assumptions doesn't at times grow tiresome. For one who holds dear much of that attacked so ponderously in Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh, I find the book tiresome in the extreme, though it certainly played a role, as did Strachey's Eminent Victorians in helping modern culture sharply deride a society which, for all its flaws, produced much that was very good indeed. On the other hand, the novels of Dickens generally (and Hard Times and The Old Curiosity Shop particularly) must have been enormously educational for those who read them in the mid-Victorian era and must have helped to further some of the great reform movements of the period. The same is true of a book like Uncle Tom's Cabin here in America. And it certainly is true of such European masterpieces as Gogol's Dead Souls, which movingly ridicules the very corrupt system of serfdom as practiced in nineteenth-century Russia, or Hugo's Les Miserables, which, like all of Hugo's novels, is animated in part by his indignation against accepted social practices of his time.

The cheap, best-selling novels (of which there were plenty when Dickens, Gogol, Stowe, and Hugo were writing) don't engage the mind in this way. They spark the adrenalin, or they address the heart; they do not, however, teach us much about life, and when we put them down, we remain unchanged, except in the most superficial ways. And so I offer as my review of Salt that while it always engages the eyes, which are preoccupied with Angelina Jolie and with Angelina Jolie performing feats of derring do that pin the viewer's eyes to the screen, it doesn't teach us anything that we didn't learn from watching Jason Bourne or James Bond.

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