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Sunday, November 06, 2005

rabbit's politics

Christopher Lehmann’s essay with the provocative title (Why Americans can’t write Political Fiction) in the Washington Monthly, much mentioned this week among the political blogs, has an honorable intention at heart. Like many political junkies, Lehman thinks that The Gay Place, the novel by LBJ’s one time assistant, Billy Lee Brammer, is the great American political novel. Unfortunately, instead of simply sending a valentine, Lehman takes the big picture approach. The short cut Toynbee approach. This involves him, at the outset, in an unequal struggle with language. Language gets the best of it, the way the boa got the best of the Laocoon boys. Here’s Lehman’s second graf:

“In the ever-accelerating information age, journalism has taken on the role of chronicling both the march of political events and the shifting character of the nation's political imagination. But technology and programming demands have made much political journalism far more shrill, instantaneous, and unreflective, and thus brought into still higher relief the literary virtues—reflection and depth of character chief among them—that our political fiction should be delivering.”

William Hazlitt he ain’t. That ever-accelerating information age is powered, we are pretty sure, by the hot air generated by a million New Economy conferences. As for those political events, we wonder if they marched, tubas and baton twirlers and the lot, into the mysterious programming demands, and if it was covered live, on the news at five, and if anybody was hurt. We imagine that Lehman was envisioning, vaguely, programs on tv, point counterpoint stuff, roundtable stuff, and not computer programmers a-coding. But it is hard to know what he was saying: we only know that, whatever it was, this graf didn’t say it. This is pretty bad for your second graf.

Lehmann goes on to make the following argument (we think): a person who is engaged in some political job has a better chance at representing the march of political events, sugarcoated with literary virtues, than a person who is, say, a proctologist. Lehman uses Orwell as an example.

“[1984’s] continued relevance was more than a function of Orwell's imaginative genius; it flowed at least in part from his service as a British propagandist during World War II, which awakened in him both a reverence for the democratic culture he had worked to save, as well as a nuanced understanding of the corruptions of politics and spirit that occur under totalitarian regimes shoring themselves up with propaganda campaigns.”

There you go. There is nothing like being a propagandist for awakening your dormant reverences. It has happened to so many. In actual fact, Orwell worked to propagandize the British colonies in the Far East, which was guaranteed to reawaken his repulsions about the manifold hypocrisy of British imperial culture. But to hell with it, Lehman’s idea of that famous comedy team, cause and effect, is that they must work if you throw enough clichés at them. And that makes arguing with his thesis difficult – you have to help him to find it, first.

Since I am writing a novel that uses, among other things, politics, I’ve been thinking about the use of politics in fiction myself. Lehmann thinks that political fiction is fiction with a politician in it, just as a wedding cake is a cake topped with little bride and groom figurines. But that’s a narrow view of politics and cakes. In fact, it is a typically D.C., top down view of politics. A broader view would take in, say, Bellows, or Updike’s Rabbit novels.

Which brings us to what we really want to write about.

There is a wonderful instance of the perils of politics for the novelist in Rabbit Redux, Updike’s reckoning with the sixties. Or, rather, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s reckoning with the sixties. It is interesting to me that the overtly political things in that novel – for instance, Rabbit’s argument with his wife Janice’s lover about Vietnam – are oddly clunky, while the social stuff, the medium in which politics lives, is done in a thousand-fold scatter of brilliant nuances. Here is Harry in typical pro-war mode about Vietnam, arguing with his wife’s lover, Stavros:

“We’d turn it into another Japan if they’d let us. That’s all we want to do, make a happy rich country full of highways and gas stations. Poor old LBJ, Jesus with tears in his eyes on television, you must have heard him, he just about offered to make North Vietnam the fifty-first fucking state of the Union if they’d just stop throwing bombs. We’re begging them to rig up some election, any elections, and they’d rather throw bombs. What more can we do? We’re trying to give ourselves away, really, that’s all our foreign policy is, is trying to give ourselves away to make little yellow people happy, and guys like you sit around in restaurants moaning, ‘Jesus, we’re rotten.’
“I thought it was us and not them throwing the bombs.”
“We stopped, we stopped like all you liberals were marching for and what did it get us?” He leans forward to pronounce the answer clearly. “Not shit.”

Eventually, Stavros pronounces his opinion that Harry is “a good hearted imperialist racist.” Stavros, mind you, is a small town, middle aged car dealer. Updike needs a foil for Harry, and Stavros, such as he is, is it.

Granted, this was a hot decade. We’ve discovered a nice library of books about the politics and drugs of the old counterculture era which we are going to put on our links list. If you scan through them, you find a much different vocabulary in place, a rather astonishing one. Here, for instance, is the beginning of the third "communication" from the Weather underground:

"This is the third communication from the Weatherman underground.

With other revolutionaries all over the planet, Weatherman is celebrating the 11th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Today we attack with rocks, riots and bombs the greatest killer‑pig ever known to man—Amerikan imperialism.

Everywhere we see the growth of revolutionary culture and the ways in which every move of the monster‑state tightens the noose around its own neck."

And this is from Kirkpatrick Sale's book on the SDS,from 1970:

"Nothing if not diverse, and even contradictory, but they went to East Lansing [for the 1969 SDS conference] out of the pervading sense that SDS, coming off a triumphant year (its deficiencies unknown or overlooked after the success of Columbia), was the likely organization to be the cutting edge of the second American revolution.

In the year and a half since Greg Calvert first put forth the tentative notion of "revolutionary consciousness" at that Princeton conference, SDS—and with it much of the white Movement—had been heading inexorably toward thinking of itself, and feeling itself, revolutionary. By the middle of 1968 there were many thousands of people who could, with no sense of hyperbole, agree with the SDS convention paper which argued that "our movement is an element of the revolutionary vanguard painfully forming from the innards of America."

By no means a majority of the young shared this attitude, of course, not even all of the politicized young. What is remarkable is that so many did, and many more would come to in the course of the next two years: university students, yes, but dropouts and nonstudents, too, and academics and community organizers, the denizens of the youth ghettos and hippies, kids still in high school and in the community colleges, and Movement alumni and adults along the left as well. The numbers are impossible to reckon, really, though one cautious survey in the fall of 1968 found approximately 368,000 people enrolled in colleges who considered themselves revolutionaries and another in the fall of 1970 counted no fewer than 1,170,000—which suggests, given the character of the left at the time, that there must have been something like twice that many again who thought of themselves as revolutionaries and were to be found not in the colleges but in the Movement organizations, high schools, and the streets."

With 1,170,000 revolutionaries running about on their summer breaks, maybe one ended up a car dealer in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Still, there is a fraudulence about Stavros, a pretence on Updike's part that one makes one feel, beyond the fiction itself, the upsurge of a preemptive need that goes beyond the rules of novel's game. This is not something we feel about his other characters.

Updike is always technically aware of what he is doing. So it is a fair question to ask if the clunkiness of the overt political parts is intentional. In Self-Consciousness, Updike writes about his own obsession with Vietnam (vide this letter, in 1967, to the New York Times, which is echoed in Harry's speeches). The war and the protests against the war made him feel excluded from the club of writers, the majority of whom took an anti-Vietnam war tilt. On Updike’s account, he would go to parties and dominate discussions with defenses of the war. It wasn’t that he planned to dominate the discussion, or knew he was doing it – he simply couldn’t shut up, and he couldn’t sense, while he was speaking, time going by or attention being strained. I’ve known that feeling myself. His wife would point this out to him. Philip Roth once pointed this out to him. But Updike kept doing it.

Updike felt that there was a connection between defending the war and his very language – or rather, the way he spoke. The way he stuttered. The helplessness of knowing he was right and not being able to convince people he was right, not even his wife, reproduced the more intimate feeling of not being able to speak because speech itself is the obstacle. To lie there in the dark coffin, one’s tongue paralyzed, is the writer’s nightmare, maybe the nightmare out of which a certain kind of writer emerges. And we all know that out of this dilemma of being right, of being obviously right, and being surrounded by people who are obviously wrong, and who preen themselves on their erroneous opinions, there arises a familiar pattern: first the feeling of righteousness is coupled with the feeling of impotence, then the feeling that one is being held back, unfairly, generates an image of those enemies all around whose fault it is that one is being unfairly held back, then a politics that is fueled by denunciation of those who are unfairly holding one back becomes wholly shaped by denunciation until denunciation is self-justifying – all of which leads to talk radio politics. Rabbit’s speech about Vietnam, the defensiveness of it, the use of caricatures of the kind of speech he feels is being attributed to him by opponents unknown, those ghost quotes that clog his speech, the talk of the enemy, the snobbishness of the enemy, it eerily echoes the kind of talk radio style that appeared, fifteen years latter. Updike catches a genuine something in the air. The genealogy of this style would take us through Rabbit, through Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh, through the thrombosis of that rotten egg laid by the new left, Identity politics, all the way up to the default political blogger style of perpetual mutually armed destruction, nuclear exchanges every day.

There is a way of talking about fiction that assumes that fiction is just about getting a reflection, that it does not intervene on reality, that it exists in an oddly self-erased space. Myself, I like to think of a comment of Proust’s to the effect that Balzac’s nobility, unreal when he created it, was realized after Balzac died – the sum total of his Human Comedy was to create the template upon which the Second Empire’s nobility modeled itself. Style, in other words, has an effect on history. This is why you have to break the mirror writing fiction, shift the joys of mimesis, realize that description is an act. And a particularly prideful act, too – boosting your world upon the world. Updike is famous for rendering and noticing the stuff that surrounds us. He likes to get things right, he likes to know about the light, about the way eyes shift in a face, about the way a man leans on a bar to drink a beer and how the beer comes out of the can and how blunt fingers can peel off the label while the man struggles with the usual territorial barriers to saying something intimate, about what the obsolescence of a technology does to an industry that makes that technology and the people who work in that industry who make the technology – in the case of Rabbit Redux, the technology is printing, and the obsolescence is in the use of the eye to make printing adjustments, something Harry does expertly, as he once played baseball. And something we know Harry won’t be able to do for much longere. Rather, Harry is going to have to move into the talentless economy of service, of auto sales, to switch positions with Stavros. Harry’s resistance to this makes him conservative, although his actual political position is a product of the culture of the New Deal, the hegemony of the Democratic economy of the fifties and sixties; his real conservatism, though he doesn’t exactly know it, has been bypassed by all sides, including the conservative side. There’s a quiet moment in the novel when Harry is talking with his father-in-law. The guy owns a car lot. He sells cars for a living. And Harry thinks: “How timid, really, people who live by people must be. Earl Angstrom was right about that at least: better make your deals with things.”

Don’t trade the alienation you do know for the one you don’t know. Well, it is already too late in 1969. Harry’s fierce, instinctive loyalty is to Earl’s America, but that country is slipping out from under him. That country was entering the phase of making its deals with deals, making the art of the deal the national pastime and obsession. The politics of making deals with things isn’t just conservative; it is the recipe for downward mobility.

Updike’s problems as a novelist with what to do about politics are interesting because he is torn between the most common solution – the author inserts his own politics in the fiction, devises a hero to represent his opinion, and devises villains to represent the opposite – and the more indirect solutions that respond to, well, the history of the novel as a vehicle for intelligence since James. I’ve reviewed enough of the first solution, and generally dread reading it. I usually share the usually lefty opinions of the author, but I usually do not share the idea that a novel is a clumsy megaphone through which to trumpet irredeemably crude opinions, attaching them to laughably virtuous heroes and heroines.. The most dreadful of this kind of novel usually goes back in time on a life guard’s mission to save this or that character from history, showering the chosen object with a bunch of contemporary biases and feelings: ah, the feminist heroine of the Revolutionary war! The gay black scientist working in New Orleans, circa 1865! In order to give their characters potentia – the ability to act – these novels inevitably operate in a reactionary way, by distorting the real system of production. You can’t have lefty politics, history, and a Hollywood happy end without producing utter pap. I once had to reject the offer to review a novel of this. It was a feminist novel called Ahab’s Wife. It committed every sin: that of attaching itself to a much better work – Moby Dick – as if it was doing that work a favor; that of clearcutting a spot in history for the impossibly virtuous heroine, see above sentences; and that of breathing down the reader’s neck about every fucking event as it showed a woman who fed herself well in the bloody-capitalist-and-slavery system rejoicing in her moral superiority to it. It was the type of novel that made me feel closer to Harry Angstrom. Except that really, it was a hoot, just the sort of novel Updike’s Stavros would approve of, a caricature of a caricature by a caricature, a wet dream as a moral parable.

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