|Oct/Nov 2019 Salon|
In his essay on Gogol, V. S. Pritchett wrote about "the carelessness, the lethargy, the enormous bad taste of genius, its liability to accident, it's slovenly and majestic conceit that anything will do. Don Quixote falls in half, the Chartreuse and Le Rouge et le Noir go shockingly to pieces, Tolstoy stuffs a history book into War and Peace, Fielding and Dickens pad and Dostoevsky wanders into ideological journalism..." Pritchett contrasted these faults in the great novelists of the 19th century with the modern novel which, he says, "has reached such a pitch of competence and shapeliness that we are shocked at the disorderliness of the masterpieces." But in contrast to the unfinished patchiness of their antecedents, "In the modern novel we are looking at a neatly barbered suburban garden," while in the greats, "We feel the force of a great power which is never entirely spent, but which cannot be bothered to fulfill itself."
Not quite what we were taught in our English lit courses. But, true enough, it seems to me, and even more so since the ascendancy of post-modernism. The conclusion one reaches, or at least the one that has nagged at me for years, is that we who practice the art of fiction in contemporary times do so in a kind of silver or perhaps bronze age, unable to reach the heights of the 24-caret stuff produced by those lazy geniuses of the 18th and 19th centuries. We may write, some of us, with good form in carefully constructed sentences, but we're just not made of the same stuff as a Dostoevsky or a Jane Austen.
For me good fiction is about engaging, memorable characters—anathema to the recent obsession with relativity, subjectivity, and style. I happen to find Jay Gatsby as impressive and memorable as Papa Karamazov. The Great Gatsby doesn't seem to lose anything for being exquisitely crafted. But it's the absence of the Big Questions and the larger-than-life personalities in the literature of the last century that sets it apart, concerns with things like the Existence of God and Social Justice that seem not only dated but downright embarrassing to us post- or post-post-moderns, not to mention the superhuman dialogue in some of those novels. And just as Bach's deeply felt religious faith was the engine that drove his musical genius, those Big Ideas seemed to inspire the pens of those lazy, sloppy geniuses to greatness.
Sometimes I feel like a writer in the early Middle Ages must have when s/he looked back on the towering figures of Latin literature. Surely those past icons were more than mere mortals. The poor pen-pusher of the 10th or 11th centuries must have regarded Cicero and Virgil the way the peasants in the fields looked back, or rather up, at the magnificent aqueducts towering over their heads like our skyscrapers: the beings that constructed such magnificent creations must have been gods.
The subjects of the work I produce, along with that of those more talented than me, can seem pedestrian, even trivial compared with the themes and treatments tackled by authors of the 19th century, while nowadays cleverness, conceits and "tropes" both in form and execution, seem to matter more than substance, at least as those past geniuses understood the word. Never mind that Denis Diderot had a fling at what we might call post-modernism, though since he wrote in mid-18th-century France, I suppose you would have to call his experiments pre-pre-pre-postmodern.
Who in the literature of the past century has conversations like the characters in Jane Eyre or Daniel Deronda or in the other canonical novels of the 19th century? Did any two human beings ever actually discourse at that level? The only 20th-century example of such dialogue I can think of is a few passages in Edith Wharton. The same, of course, can be said for the characters of Shakespeare, his Antony and Cleopatra perhaps setting the standard for the likes of Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot.
Why don't the characters in the modern or post-modern novel talk at that level? Why don't modern authors write with the profound insight of those authors? Is it because today's reading public could not follow dialogue like that, because the observations about character we find in a Persuasion or an Anna Kerenina would come across as pretentious; or is it because our artists are incapable of creating art at that level or because readers would object to a lack of resemblance to real life in such fiction? Should art mimic reality or should it, like Aeschylean drama, present us with a world of super-humans who talk like deities? We accept that characters should appear as larger than life in most Greek tragedy and in Shakespeare, perhaps because both Aeschylus and Shakespeare are safely in the past and, like the characters in the Bible, are expected to rise above the level of mere mortals.
But what about imaginative literature in our own time? What we seem to value even in great literature is not the unfamiliar or the exaggerated but a model of life as we know it in our own unheroic, very normal lives. It's Lear's heartbreak over his selfish daughters that moves us, MacBeth's meek submission to an ambitious wife, Jane Eyre's self-effacing plainness, not a grand philosophical vision or other-worldly dialogue.
Kurt Vonnegut gave a lecture in which with the aid of a blackboard he graphed the conventional story-line we are all familiar with from books and movies. Assigning time to the horizontal axis and action to the vertical, he used "Cinderella" as a typical plot. The chalk line begins in the lower left and continues flat for a while. Then the fairy godmother appears and arranges for her protégée to attend a ball. The line ascends dramatically. Cinderella meets a prince, and he falls for her. The line is now way up toward the top of the graph until she has to leave the ball before her carriage turns back into a pumpkin... Up and down. High drama and deep depression with of course a happy ending that drives the chalk line off the board.
Then Vonnegut graphs the plot of Hamlet. The line starts out below the middle of the graph and pretty much stays there. The hero's uncle has killed his father. What's he going to do about it? Not much. And so the line continues across the graph almost straight from beginning to finish. Yet Hamlet is great drama, while Cinderella is just a fairy tale.
The point Vonnegut is making is that great art isn't about heroic deeds or big ideas. It's about life. The heroic brand of literature, the "Cinderellas" or the typical Hollywood blockbuster, inclines us to believe our own lives are not material worth putting into print or onto a screen for other people to experience because our moments on this planet don't contain high tragedy or major transformation. We mostly live unremarkable lives. We only experience the Olympian vicariously. When we close a book or walk out of a movie theater or turn off the TV, we return to our inferior, short, ordinary existences.
Except that's not true. We may think of our lives as unworthy of notice because we don't slay dragons, lead armies in war, or, more contemporaneously, shoot terrorists or face down angry mobs. But we all live lives full of tragedy and fleeting but profound joys. We don't think of them that way because we don't seem to make the cut that separates ordinary folk from the great talkers and superhuman heroes of literature of the past and their modern cousins in popular media. Maybe we prefer it that way. Maybe we need superheroes in order to avoid recognizing the tragic and profound that is within us. It may require a lot more introspection and self-awareness than we feel comfortable with to confront our inner selves which experience life every bit as deeply as a Karenina or a Hamlet.
Literature is supposed to sensitize us to our deeper selves and to others'. But it also leads us astray when it is simplistic, moralistic, or grandiose. Then it merely distracts us from our humanity, giving us false notions of who we are or should be. Mostly it makes us feel unimportant, though sometimes it does the opposite, encourages us to think we are better than others, assigns us an identity as members of groups who share a common political, religious, or other sacred bond denied to the non-elect. Or it tells us we can understand who we are within the reference points of a few facile psychiatric or other abstract categories. Success in such a world, real or imagined, is not defined by how much we know of our selves but by what labels we can attach to them defined by how much money we earn or how well known we are.
It was Anton Chekhov who gave me a way to see in ordinary lives the drama that, for the most part, had been reserved to the slayers of monsters and the glib salonistas of the 19th century. The usual criticism of Chekhov is that "nothing happens" in his plays and stories. What this means is that his characters don't engage in Olympian dialogue or have newsworthy events occur in their lives. Precisely. And that, along with their creator's unequaled genius, is what make them such a watershed in modern literature. He didn't do away with our need for larger-than-life heroes. We still generate them even when the Hemingways of the world are in short supply. But he showed us that great literature is also to be found in the lives of ordinary people.
It wasn't only Chekhov who wrote about ordinary people. But the fact that so often it was a king or other worthy who spoke the great lines and spoke them with an intelligence and eloquence beyond our simple ways of expressing ourselves that inclined us to believe it was only the great whose thoughts and feelings really matter. Euripides' started the revolution that Chekhov realized more than two thousand years later. Euripides created characters that had both feet on the same ground of the same earth the rest of us inhabit. Out of Euripides we got the novel, a quintessentially democratic form, though long in the thrall of the notion that only the sophisticated and the well-to-do lead lives worthy of artistic representation.
It's true that nothing much happens in Chekhov's stories—except life: a bishop's pain that his mother can no longer show him the affection she once did because he holds such an exalted position in the church; a thrice-married and twice-widowed woman who subsumes her own identity entirely into that of her three spouses', never experiencing herself as a person in her own right; peasants living hand-to-mouth on the steppe who take in a stranger in a howling snowstorm. Chekhov showed, without using high-flown dialogue or mighty deeds (the most "dramatic" event in any of his stories that I can recall is a faux shoot-out) that the interior lives of ordinary people were rich material in the hands of a genius who to this day seems to represent the world we live in better than any writer who has followed him.
For readers who want something more escapist, there are the mysteries and romances that sell the lion's share of books published. Ditto for movies and TV. We still yearn for a good yarn, even those among us who prefer Dostoevsky to James Paterson. But most fiction and films all too often dispense with the soul of a Karamazov and leave us with the titillating shell of murder and sex. As Sol Yurick pointed out at a writers conference I attended many years ago, the heirs of the great 19-century novels are the Danielle Steeles and Tom Clancys, not the Heinrich Boells and Eudora Weltys. Yurick estimated the readership of literary fiction at that time to be about about 40,000 readers in the US. It's larger now, but still a small percentage of total readers who, as always, prefer the Bible first and then shoot-'em-ups and bodice-rippers. Not to mention the uber-blockbusters, not counted by the New York Times Book Review or any other mainstream journal, which account for tens of millions of copies of novels like the apocalyptic Left Behind "Rapture" series.
The world is a product of imagination. I don't mean the word in the narrow sense of "image-maker" or even as a general source of creativity. I would use another word if I knew one because the power I have in mind is at the source of everything we are and do. Imagination in this deeper sense is the generator not only of art but of religion, science, of everything. Each generation adds to the imagining passed on by precious generations. Christianity was imagined by men like Paul of Tarsus, but has been altered and developed by a hundred generations since. The true is same for what we call science, only with the salubrious addition of the experimental counter-check that was missing in the no less ingenious "sciences" that were imagined before our own.
Each of us adds our mite to the deposit of the collectively imagined. For most of us the range of that contribution seems limited to the scope of our individual lives, though its true reach is incalculable. But for some, those who attempt to create new imaginings, public imaginings like novels and new cosmological theories, the influence can be much wider in an obvious way. We authors may appear to write for aesthetic reasons or for no reasons at all, but we are in fact re-imagining a world in the same way Saul/Paul or Newton did. We no longer believe the world is infested with demons and angels as even educated people did in the first century. We worry instead about viruses and free radicals. And we can demonstrate their existence in more compelling ways than could our ancestors when they feared the ugly old woman down the block or thought God inflicted disease on entire populations because he was displeased with their behavior. Many of us still do accept those traditional imaginings, but it is, at least manifestly in the West, Newton's, not the village priest's imagination that we tend to make our own.
Each new poem or short story is an attempt to change the world, not morally, but imaginatively. That's because we live almost exclusively out of our imaginations. We live, in fact, by faith, faith in our senses and our brains which create the models we call reality. Our art-making is just an extension of the process by which we negotiate that reality every minute we are alive, creating personal stories of our own to do so, ordinary narratives about looking both ways when we cross the street or recounting what happened that day at work.
Are the authors of the past who could spin tales of heroes and great rascals that make our hair stand on end or make us think about big social questions while providing deep insights into the human heart gone for good? Are we just petty men and women who must peep about between the legs of those collosi? I don't know. What I do know is that we live in a different time from theirs. The world seems to have changed irrevocably since 1914, as Virginia Woolf points out in A Room of One's Own. We no longer believe in moral absolutes that include the self-indulgence of racist thinking or the comforts of blind religion. We stumble along in a still-forming world, itself on the edge of extinction and marvelous fulfillment, looking for meaning where we can like Chekhov's confused doctors and civil servants, doing our best to represent what we see and feel as truly as we can, and leave the rest to an inscrutable Fate we no longer believe in.