Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mightier than the Sword

Neo-Neocon wonders why, historically, writers so often line up with the useful idiots.

[G]ood writers of fiction — and, to a lesser extent, poetry — need to be keen observers of the human mind and heart. ... But there’s a long history of literary “useful idiots,” people whose critical faculties seem to stop where their art ends. For every Emile Zola, there’s a Harold Pinter.

She takes as a sample for analysis the writers whose lives are described in the book "Partisans," the set "who were connected to the influential journal Partisan Review during its formative decades, the 30s and 40s," and who saw little real difference between Hitler's Reich and the Western democracies that opposed it.

Included were such luminaries as Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Dwight Macdonald, writers who were exceptionally well-known in their day but who are far less famous now.

Ah, well, that might be a "bingo" moment. It takes at least a half century for any given generation of writers to be sorted out into the real craftsmen (and -women) who can use words and ideas to illuminate human experience. And the most popular in any generation rarely make the cut. And it's telling that, before they are even quite cold in the ground, this set of writers is being discussed for its polemics, not its prose.

There are scientists and linguists and politicians who are excellent writers. Perhaps these people were not so much writers as polemicists with sharp quills.

Second, I think there's a particular case to be made that all creative and thoughtful people who came of age in the West just before, during, or just after World War I were, to some degree, shell-shocked and justifiably embittered. Neo describes their naivete:

The idea that our internal enemy — our own government — is more to be feared than any external threat. The idea of the soldier as exploited dupe of evil overlords. And, to a lesser extent, the idea on the part of the most strongly Leftist that a worldwide revolution of the oppressed would be possible, and that what would follow would somehow be better than what preceded it.

But if there was a time when such thought were justified by experience, the 1920s and '30s were it. The agony of it drove some writers to be useful idiots for the right, notably Ezra Pound. (The paradox is, in spite of spinning off in opposite directions, like shards of debris from some cosmic collision, these writers all opposed the Western democracies as they girded to fight Hitler's fascism.) The center had failed in 1914, and the war had scythed through their generation. Pound wrote:

These fought, in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case ...

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later ...

some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some pro patria, non dulce non et decor" ...

walked eye-deep in hell
believing in old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;

usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.


There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

Writers, to the degree they are sensitive to human suffering, always will tend to be reflexively anti-war. They saw libraries bombed and cathedrals burned, saw friends and comrades whom they knew to be geniuses cut off in youth by the wastage of battle. They saw the war end and repression and poverty settle over victors and vanquished alike. Writers after World War I would have been intensely anti-war. If you start from there, you can see where they got the will and ability to delude themselves that the new enemy your government wants you to fight is not worse than the war that would be unleashed.

I think Neo gets her hook into something real when she cites Milan Kundera on the contrast between a creative writer's “imagology” and a non-writer's reality. She writes:

Writers, on the other hand, tend to live very much in their heads—dealing with thoughts, moving words around, creating images.

Yes; in fact, writers have that ability to such a high degree that, I think, they can more easily imagine an entirely different way of human existence in the world that is better than this one. Creating and feeling fictional realities is part of their skill set. How much more appealing must a socialist paradise have seemed to them?

As for the practical aspect of getting from here to there, that would be exactly where a writer would be less capable than the average person. To get the reality he sees into being, he has to sit down and hammer it out on the keyboard -- and that work can make you cry, let me tell you, but it's not quite the same as destroying civilization and human nature and rebuilding both from the mud.

Other insights in her post probably are not keepers. Some are not exclusive to writers ("American writers for the most part have had no real experience of living under other forms of government"), some could as easily be used to argue the opposite point ("[W]riters also put great stock in what they read, which in some cases is more real to them than their actual experience" -- but as writers themselves they ought to be more alert to the limitations and deceits of prose).

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