The program era killed the proletarian novel.
Or perhaps, it died when the cold war turned to modernism. Whatever the causes of death, the corpse seems to be largely unmourned. The disorganization of the working class has extended into our multi-media moronosphere – it is rare thing for a sitcom to feature even a lower middle class protagonist. The suburbs and the professional class won. And specialization won – who among us believes that the garbageman may be reading Marx, or even Upton Sinclair, on the side?
This happened in my lifetime. When I was a young sprout, the above scenario would not have been artistically implausible. I myself, working as a janitor at a Sears Warehouse, spent my breaks reading Wittgenstein, as the dock guys played dominoes. To my mind, the slap of dominoes and the Philosophical Investigations still belong together.
I’ve been reading Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy, and as is the way of your wired reader, I have also been reading around the reviews. My review: read this fucking piece of high and glorious art this year, don’t wait, don’t hesitate. I have noticed that the reviews concentrate on the issue of gender in the books, and skip right over class. This makes some sense, given our numbness to class, but to me this is prole literature at its finest. I class the CT with two other novels – Hamsun’s Hunger, and Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children – both, as well, about writers. Writers before the program era. Hunger is an obvious predecessor – Hamsun’s protagonist starves in Copenhagen, living off the paltry sums he earns writing, the whole book a fugue of refusal. The Man who Loved Children is more upscale, the Pollit family being, by ancestry and education, more whitecollar – yet existing on little, as happened in the Great Depression. Stead’s sense of the way a vocation is strangled in youth, and has to strangle back if it is to survive – which is the pattern of Louie Pollit’s childhood – echoes with Tove’s own struggle, against overwhelming odds, to be a poet in a neighborhood where being a steadily employed and unionized factory worker is the ultimate good. The class lines are always blurred when you get down to the details – I think of social categories as more polythetic than absolute, if you know what I mean. What do I mean? I mean, there is a cultural family resemblance between the poorly paid school teacher, the furniture factory worker, and the secretary, even if I could well divide up the labor determinants between productive and non-productive labor.
Typically, the reviews erase the class culture in the Copenhagen Trilogy and impose the neoliberal term: poor. Poverty, as Marx realized early on, is a charity term, not a sociological one. It disguises – as it is meant to – the exploitation of low income labor, dipping it in a vaseline smear of piety and disguised culpability-mongering. Being poor is a pitiable state, as well as one that probably is the individual’s own fault. Being poor is not, and is never, a state created by capitalism in order to exploit labor for profit, that surplus value always being absorbed by the top. When you have the poor and the rich, of course the rich become individuals too – self-made individuals, so smart, so hard working! We all know how the wheels spin on this thing. Hilton Als review in the New Yorker is almost a parody of Clintonism.
“Times are hard. But they’ve always been hard. Tove’s parents met while both were employed at a bakery before the First World War. Ditlev, who was ten years Alfrida’s senior, had been sent to work as a shepherd when he was six. Social advancement was connected to economic advancement, and you couldn’t achieve either without an education.”
Of course, you couldn’t achieve economic advancement without unionism, a big theme in the book, and the connection between education and economic advancement – the era of “human capital” and giving our poors the ability to code! – occurred well after Tove Ditlevsen’s death. Tove’s desire is not really for social advancement in the first two books, it is an actual desire to be a published poet. That one’s passion for art doesn’t translate into economic and social advancement is, for our neolib era, a curious perversion, much less understandable that BDSM.
This isn’t to say that the Copenhagen Trilogy is a leftist tale. The immersion in proletarian culture is shot through with political gestures, but not a lot of political thinking. However, the world here is clearly related to an actually existing class and class consciousness. I find it fascinating that this sign system is so utterly unrecognizable – or at least not very acknowledged – now.