John Gray wrote an essay on Conrad in New Statesman recently. Gray, who is a conservative who has realized that the logic of his position allies him with the forces of the left's anti-globalist wing, is a philosopher for whose writings on John Stuart Mill I have a lot of respect. However, as a literary critic, there are problems with old Gray. He is properly appreciative of Secret Agent -- with which view I wholeheartedly concur -- but his explanation for why Conrad's approach to power -- a form of therapeutic nihilism -- is suddenly looking more sophisticated than that of 20th century writers doesn't seem quite right. "Conrad is our contemporary because, almost alone among 19th-and 20th-century novelists, he writes of the realities in which we live." Almost alone? I don't think so. In fact, I don't think this could be so -- since the way we live now is built on the way we lived then, just like a coral reef is built on succeeding generations of exoskelotal martyrs. Gray has decided to make a decent point -- that Conrad's novel, Secret Agent, is suddenly, through no intention of Conrad's, relevant to today's politics -- through an exaggerated point.
This is a poor way to go about making a point. Here's a quote that shows how off base he is:
"It is no accident that nothing approaching a great political novel appeared in the last decades of the 20th century. The shallow orthodoxies of the time were not propitious. Not only the right, but also the centre left, had made a sacred fetish of science - not, as in The Secret Agent, the science of astronomy, but the decidedly shakier discipline of economics. Practically every part of the political spectrum accepted the ridiculous notion that the secret of unending prosperity had been found. Free markets, balanced budgets, the correct supply of the correctly measured money, a judicious modicum of state spending - with such modest devices, the riddle of history had at last been solved.
The savants who announced the end of history took for granted that the globalisation of markets would lead to peace. They did not notice that savage wars were being fought in many parts of the world. The economists who bored on about a weightless economy, which had dispensed with the need for natural resources, contrived to pass over the 20th century's last big military conflict, the Gulf war, which was fought to protect oil supplies. None of this mattered much so long as the boom continued, and the illusion of peace was preserved. But the price of living on these fictions was a hollowing-out not only of politics, but also of literature. It is a telling fact about the closing decades of the 20th century that the closest approximation to a notable political novel was probably The Bonfire of the Vanities."
Gray also reveals that the political ideologies of the twentieth century were evolutionist, and disbelievers in a predetermined historical path. He includes Marxism in this statement, which shows that he has (perhaps happily) forgotten most Marxist writings from the 20s to the 50s.
So, is there a great political novel that defies Gray's assertion? Problem: what great political novel has been written in the past ten years.
Answer: I immediately think of Nicholas Shakespeare's The Dancer Upstairs.
There is an essay on Bold Type about the initial seed for Shakespeare's novel. Conrad comes to mind because he possessed a (fairly commonplace) writerly contempt for bourgeois rationality, and a (fairly modern) admiration for the heroic act -- that is, as it emerges from the outlier bourgeois character -- and those moods are certainly involved in the novel that Shakespeare wrote, and the real political events -- namely, the rise and fall of the Sendero Luminoso -- that underpin it.
Gray, who is a philosopher and was trained, I suppose, in Britain's analystic tradition -- where the sentence I need my umbrella, it is raining, is subject to book length scrutiny -- must feel that, on the literary front, he can break out. But there's no reason to become sloppy.
Here is the beginning of Shakespeare's essay:
About ten years ago a young boy holding a satchel wandered into Lima's Crillon Hotel and after only a few hesitant steps across the opulent lobby exploded into a thousand bloody pieces. This was not an isolated incident. Already dogs had been strung from the city's lampposts; in a crowded Andean market a donkey blew up, causing appalling wounds to the Indian shoppers; and in Chimbote a terrified duck dragged a home-made bomb into the telephone exchange. But I date the moment of my obsession to that schoolboy suicide. Who had sent him?
The question chafed much more than a piece of grit in the shoe. I wanted to understand the character lurking behind these actions. Yet it was hard to discover anything. An utter secrecy pervaded the revolutionaries--for that is who they turned out to be. When they entered a village to cut the throats of government representatives, they wore balaclavas. But underneath their masks they could be anyone. One man, an American married to a beautiful, carefree model from Cuzco, told me how he had looked up from his dinner plate to see his wife's face on television. "She was listed among the most wanted guerrillas."