Monday, May 6, 2013

A Minor Musing On The Politicization And Practicality Of Literature

One of the frequent commentators at the Madville Times is a person who has adopted the pseudonym grudznick. Grudznick assumes the persona of a grumpy old man, but for all I know the commenter may be a pre-teen girl with a crush on Justin Bieber. Grudznick frequently posts comments asserting that things and people must be be useful. A recent example involves the arts: "we all know the arts are a dead end."

I know the arts neither bake bread nor build houses. And yet, as a literature teacher, I'm unwilling to dismiss the arts as useless much less as a "dead end." Greater minds than mine have attempted to defend literature and have punted. Alan Jacobs took up the issue recently; he concludes the task is impossible:

It is not possible to come up with an adequate “defense of literature,” because “literature” doesn’t exist: too many wildly different kinds of plays and stories and poems and songs fall under that useless rubric. Defenses of specific works, or specific authors, or even specific ways of reading specific works or authors, might be possible and useful; but nothing broader than that.
And maybe we should remember also these words from George Orwell: “There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”
Perhaps Jacobs is correct, but grudznick and those who agree the arts are pointless seem to indicate that no poem, story, painting, or sculpture ought to survive. It's as if they feel threatened by the arts. Perhaps those of us who teach literature are to blame; we often force the young'uns to look for symbols and synecdoche to the point that students lose the excitement inherent in the story or the beauty of the poem.

There may be another reason that grudznick and his art-is-useless cronies my dislike literature in particular. Olivia Senior points out that literature is political because "the creators of literature, are political animals; it is part of accepting our responsibility of being human, of being citizens of the world."
Literature is above all, storytelling. And, as Chinua Achebe has said, storytelling is a threat. Storytellers, poets, writers, have always found ways of confronting tyranny, especially in spaces where such actions are dangerous and deadly. Throughout the ages, writers have developed and employed myriad literary devices and explored the fullest limits of language through satire, magical realism, fantasy, fable and so on. Writers over the ages have found ways of talking about issues – like politics – without seeming to talk about them. The function is not to present the world as it is, but to present it in a new light through the narrative power of art. Literature does not ask "What is it about?" It asks "How do we tell it to make it real?"
The idea that subtext, symbol, and satire allow literature to exist as "threat" may be why conservatives dislike it, especially in the age of red meat  talk radio and Fox News. E.D. Kain points out that contemporary conservatives prefer the overt:
And it’s not as though no good conservative art or literature has ever been produced. It’s just that today’s conservatives have lost any sense of proportion or subtext. Everything is so overt and over-stated. I think that The Lord of the Rings is a basically conservative text. It’s just not explicitly conservative and doesn’t say anything nasty about Obama.
Today’s conservative pop culture is reactionary, which is fitting I suppose. There was a mockumentary conservatives made a couple years ago that attempted to not very cleverly spoof Michael Moore. But an attempt to beat Moore at his own game is probably going to fail, if only because it’s little more than preaching to the choir (and this isn’t even to say that Moore isn’t deserving of his own criticism – the left is actually very good at leveling its own critique at Moore.) It’s the same in politics: conservatives aren’t so much interested with their own ideas about governance as they are about responding to and obstructing the ideas of their opponents.
And perhaps that’s the crux of the issue. Conservative art mimics conservative politics rather than the other way around. And so it can never really be art.
The idea of use or that art, especially literature must be as overt as a sermon seems to be an effort to dilute its ability to speak truth to power. Like Senior, I don't want literature to be overtly political, students ought to see the world as political and react to it.
So, since I have to answer the question: "Should literature be political?" I will say, yes, but not in an explicit way. The purpose of literature is not to represent but to re-present, to hold up that mirror in a light that enables us to see reality both reflected and refracted. And that applies to politics or any subject that we choose, or in the best case scenario, in the subject that chooses us. As writers we live lives that are not navel-gazing but conscious, fully engaged with the world.
My favourite quotation is Gauguin's statement: "Art is either plagiarism or revolution." So let me end by taking issue with the title of this debate, especially with the prescriptive should. Should the subject matter of literature be prescribed by anyone? I say no. So let's end by revolting against those who would apply the word "should" to art. Even in a question. 

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