Category: Literary studies

Sentimentality and Apocalypse

Despite the effort of feminist critics, Eve Sedgwick most notable among them, fear of sentimentality (one of the most persistent hallmarks of a modernist mindset) still rules the roost in almost all “serious” fiction.  I remember figuring out around age 14, when I first started reading classics like Hemingway, Joyce, and Hardy, that I could be sure that I was reading the “good stuff” if it all ends badly.  “Poetic justice” and “happy endings” belong to the Victorians and Hollywood.  They were banished in any fiction post 1890 that aspired to “high” status—and such seems to still be the case.  Bad things happening to good people is the rule.

One reason for abandoning sentimentality, one I find myself very much in tune with, is the determination to avoid any hint that suffering pays dividends.  The classic Christian plot, of course, reveals how redemption is won through suffering.  And classic fictional plots offer all kinds of variants on the ways that characters grow in wisdom or strength or sympathy through various trials, physical and/or mental.  Not to mention suffering that serves as atonement for various faults, thus washing them clean and making the character “worthy of” a happy ending.

The modernist sensibility is that suffering is meaningless.  It does not make people better—and it does not make the world better.  Suffering is just outrageous, all too common, and offering nothing but the cup of bitterness.  In fact, there is something obscene about all efforts to turn suffering to account, to make it serve some purpose.  One must resolutely turn one’s back on any sentimental way enlisted to make suffering pay dividends.

The sentimentalist, in other words, lies.  He makes the world out to be better than it really is because he takes suffering, which is inevitable, and makes it palatable.

Anti-sentimentalism, as many have pointed out, comes with a kind of machismo pride: I am man enough to face up to the harsh truth that others try to shirk. My objection is that manning up seems to also entail admitting there is nothing that can be done about it.  It becomes sentimental to think there are ways toward a more just world.

Anti-sentimentalism also alters the form of narratives.  Traditional plots often turn on character development.  To put it most simply: they show characters learning from and being changed by experience.  As Aristotle put it way back when: characters are shown as moving from good fortune to bad, or the reverse.  It doesn’t have to be that schematic, but the point is that experience matters, that neither character nor the world are eternally the same.  Things and people change—and plots are ways of registering and accounting for those changes.  The anti-sentimentalist view tends toward stagnant, determinist, fatalism.  Things are always just about the same: the good suffer, injustice prevails, there is nothing much in the way of improvement to expect or hope for.

It’s this hopelessness that makes me like the John Dewey quote about sentimentalism that I offered a few posts back.  Here it is again:  “Education and morals will begin to find themselves on the same road of advance that say chemical industry and medicine have found for themselves when they too learn fully the lesson of whole-hearted and unremitting attention to means and conditions—that is, to what mankind so long despised as material and mechanical.  When we take means for ends we indeed fall into moral materialism.  But when we take ends without regards to means we degenerate into sentimentalism.  In the name of the ideal we fall back upon mere luck and chance and magic or exhortation and preaching; or else upon a fanaticism that will force the realization of preconceived ends at any cost”(Reconstruction in Philosophy, 73).

No surprise, of course, that Dewey, optimist that he is, believes change for the better is possible.  But I want to take up two different thoughts prompted by his statement.

First, that grand ideals like “justice” and “equality” are sentimental if unmoored from concrete ideas about how to put them into practice.  And such sentimentalism leads directly to preaching and exhortation, along with fuzzy thinking that avoids all consideration of means.  I have no more to say on that score.  If the shoe fits . . .

Second, if one has no concrete steps to be taken, I think the form “magical thinking” takes is apocalyptic.  The writer cannot imagine how to transform the world of injustice and suffering he presents.  But the writer also declares this state of affairs is unsustainable and, therefore, will come down with a crash at some unspecified point in the future through some unspecified chain of events.  This is the dream of revolution, but it has become the garden variety claim that current levels of inequality must lead to drastic political upheavals, that current levels of greenhouse gases must lead to transformative environmental disaster, and (of course) to the well-worn belief that economic crisis must lead to the collapse of capitalism.

Waiting for the apocalypse is not a politics.  “To profess to have an aim and then neglect the means of its execution is self-delusion of the most dangerous sort” (Reconstruction in Philosophy, 72-73).  Kant’s categorical imperative gets all the attention, but I have always preferred the “hypothetical imperative” myself.  Basically, Kant says we fail one test of reason when we don’t will the means toward an end.  As I explain it to my students, if your goal is to pass the test on Friday morning, the hypothetical imperative says you must study on Thursday night.  If you go out to the bars, you are being irrational by Kant’s account.

Now, it is true, neither Kant nor Dewey pay enough attention to the case where one wills the means (after having thought carefully about them) but is powerless to put those means into action.  Apocalyptic thinking is a delightful refuge for the powerless, for those who can’t make their desired courses of action a reality.

But there is no reason for such powerlessness to rule supreme in fiction.  We seem to be suffering from a debilitating case of fatalism (suffering and disaster are inevitable and there is nothing we can do about it) combined with a severe lack of imagination (an inability to entertain, at least in thought, pathways toward a better future).  The only means of transformation we seem currently able to credit is catastrophe.  And Dewey would claim that predilection is every bit as sentimental as an Austen or Dickens novel that offers its characters a happy ending.

Cakes, Ale, and Mellon (2)

My post on the Mellon Foundation’s announcement that it would orient all its future funding decisions toward projects that advance social justice generated a conversation on Facebook.  You can read the give-and-take by going to my FaceBook page.

Here I want to make my position clear (which is hard because I have mixed feelings on the topic)—and elaborate on my rationale for those feelings.

Let me state my opinion at the outset—and then the rest of the post tries to explain that opinion.  Mellon has been the biggest foundation funder (by orders of magnitude) of work in the arts and humanities for many years now.  It was especially important because it funded institutions—museums, theaters, dance companies, learned societies, universities, small presses and the like—as well as individuals.  And (this is my big point) is was one of very few places where people in the arts and humanities did not have to justify their work by reasons external to the work itself.  You certainly had to convince Mellon that the work you were doing was of excellent quality and make a case that it was deemed significant and superb in the relevant field, but you didn’t have to claim external benefits.

Why is that important?  Because the arts and humanities cannot exist in a market society unsubsidized.  The major source of subsidy is the educational system, from kindergarten through to universities.  95% (to pick a plausible number out of thin air) of artists and humanists will make the majority of their income from teaching.  And that means the arts and humanities are continually burdened with making the case that they are pedagogically useful.  The insistence that that case be made—accompanied by an increasing skepticism about that case—is familiar to anyone who works in these fields. So Jessica Berman is absolutely right that we need to be adept at making that case since we will be called on—repeatedly—to make it.

But that need to make the case means the arts and humanities are continually and increasingly on the defensive, trapped within a game they cannot win but must play.  Thus the endless shouting into the wind about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  I am not saying those arguments are untrue.  I am simply saying they never convince the people who demand that we make those arguments even though they have closed their minds to them long ago.  It’s a pointless, frustrating, undermining game.  What a relief it was to not have to play it to secure support from Mellon.

Now let me tell you a true story.  I taught in the Humanities Department of the Eastman School of Music for eight year.  My students were all aspiring musicians.  Because I am deeply committed to the notion of an informed citizenry, my classes there were usually designed to give students an understanding of the state of these United States.  At the end of one semester, a promising young pianist came to tell me he was going to abandon music because the world was in too bad a shape for him to continue in good conscience.  I hope that you would in a similar circumstance be as horrified as I was.

That was not what I meant at all, I hastened to tell him.  I want you to be an informed democratic citizen, but I never intended to make you think you should give up trying to become a concert pianist.  You have an enormous talent and the world needs great pianists.  Your first responsibility to yourself and to the world is the nurturing of your talent.

Here comes the hard part.  I don’t think Beethoven and golf are significantly different as human endeavors.  Both are difficult, intricate, capable of being endlessly fascinating.  To become a master of either you need to be obsessed to the point of being a bit crazy, certainly to the point of neglecting much else that most of us think part and parcel of a well-rounded life.  Both deliver something to the practitioner (discipline, interest, satisfaction/frustration) and to those who enjoy watching/listening to adept practitioners (fandom, pleasure, the joy of watching something very difficult being done superbly well).  I don’t really see (despite the somersaults we go through—and it is always somersaults if Adorno is our guide) that claims about why Beethoven should be in the school curriculum but not golf hold water.  If it’s complexity and mental agility and an ability to pay close attention that we are after, golf could do the trick just as well.

This last point is driven home (admittedly to my despair) by the fact that sports are a much larger presence in our schools than the arts and humanities.  Certainly in terms of money spent, sports (at least from ninth grade on) garner much larger budgets.  And when (as is seldom the case, but not never) sports have to justify their presence in the curriculum, they offer reasons that echo the ones trotted out to justify the liberal arts.  Reasons about mental discipline, learning to work with others etc. (Side note: isn’t it wonderful that Stanford has dropped eleven sports instead of cutting the music department?  Let’s hope other universities follow their lead.)

What about social justice?  I hate to think of the somersaults that are going to be required to demonstrate that work on Beethoven will contribute to social justice.  (As I said in my first post, I predict the route taken will be to make Beethoven more available to audiences traditionally unexposed to him.)  Some authors (Dickens, Carolyn Forché) are going to be much easier to link to a social justice agenda than others (Nabokov, Jorie Graham).

Even with the more obviously politically relevant authors, I think the rationale is often a subterfuge.  I think of all the work in the past thirty years about Melville’s relationship to slavery.  Solid work—but driven, I think, primarily by an interest in Melville not by an interest in slavery.  Melville was not an important figure in abolitionist circles; if you are really interested in the history of slavery in the US, of attitudes toward it, and its practices, Melville is way down the list of places you would go.  He only acquired any significance long after slavery was abolished, and our investment in him now is disciplinary (having to do with the canon) and aesthetic (in the sense that we think him a superb novelist).  Yes, we want to know about his reactions to slavery—but not because they tell us all that much about slavery and abolition efforts, but because they tell us about Melville who we think is significant enough as an artist that knowing more about him is worthwhile.  What drives the scholarship is not the advancement of social justice, but the advancement of our knowledge of Melville.

I know I am going to be misunderstood on this point.  So let me state it in different words.  Literary studies bestows authority on certain figures; it has a canon.  Efforts to break open that canon—and to examine the processes that go into its formation—are (I think) directly political.  But such efforts have been modestly successful.  The undergraduate curriculum, even for majors, remains mostly canonical.  And scholarship, while certainly more historicist over the past forty years, still tends to be anchored by one or two “major” figures even as it explores less honored (or taught) writers.  It is the authority attached to those major figures that still matters greatly—with its assumption that 1) learning more about those writers is a self-justifying scholarly motive in the discipline, and 2) that what those major figures thought and did is significant because of who they are. (The kind of circular reasoning about significance that drove Barbara Herrnstein Smith crazy in her attack on aesthetics, Contingencies of Value.)

To state for about the millionth time in my lifetime, my basic take on this relationship between art/scholarship and politics.  I just don’t buy that writing about social class in Dickens is political, and certainly don’t see it as an advancement of social justice.  Political work engages in changing institutions, in working on facts on the ground.  Scholarly work can change political opinions, just as Dickens’ novels can, but we have a very attenuated sense of the political if we think that our job is done when we teach Bleak House and write an essay about its views of social responsibility.  If, in fact, our reason for being in the classroom and doing our scholarship is political, then we are acting in bad faith.  If you really take politics as your primary motive in life, then making art or writing literary criticism is not what you should be doing.

I don’t think we advance social justice one iota if we confuse direct political action with the indirect attention to political questions that can occur in our classrooms and in our scholarship.  So my fear is that Mellon’s insistence that we tie our work to social justice will just abet this confusion of the direct with the indirect.  It is hard enough to be honest about our motives for what we devote our time and energy to.  And it is equally hard to be realistic about what our work can and cannot accomplish.  I think Mellon’s new orientation will encourage comforting lies we already too often are tempted to tell ourselves.

To be blunt: I hate the gestural politics on display at the Whitney and in the halls of the MLA.  It’s cheap in the sense that it costs its practitioner nothing and seems mostly directed at garnering the approval of his peers.  There are, of course, notable exceptions—Banksy, James Baldwin, and Edward Said come to mind immediately—so I need to be careful not to claim that it is impossible for art and scholarship to be political.  But it is damn difficult.

If our work as artists and teachers is not political, what is it?  I have backed myself into a corner here, pushing me toward an answer I would have scorned most of my (misdirected? misunderstood?) career. (In short, I was as committed, maybe even more so, to literary studies’ efforts to be political–and thus avoided saying, to myself or others, what I was actually practicing everyday as a teacher.) Cultivation of a sensibility of open-ness and appreciation.

Another story to indicate what I mean.  Some years back I discovered that all the students in a class I was teaching had never seen “Casablanca.”  My deepest commitments were brought home to me.  I didn’t deeply care if they never read Pope’s “Epistle to Man,” but to never see “Casablanca” would be to go to the grave without having passed through life.  My goal as a teacher was to open eyes to the richness of the word and the life it was possible to live in that world. To move my students toward the “quickened consciousness” Pater extolled. That goal did mean I wanted them to see how cruel, how unequal, how unjust the contemporary world is, but bringing that point home was part of the larger project of their seeing “life” and “the world” in all its many-sided splendor and squalor.  And it is in the arts that that splendor and squalor are most fully on display.

This last point brings me back to cakes and ale.  William James was interested in what he called “moral holidays.”  He did not mean the term pejoratively.  He knew that everyone of us grants ourselves such holidays.  So how do we justify them?  Peter Singer is the utilitarian philosopher who makes the absolutely stringent case against such holidays.  There is no way, Singer argues, to justify spending $150 to see “Hamilton” when that same sum, given to Oxfam, can feed 40 people.  No cakes and ale without an obligatory side dish of guilt.

Singer’s challenge returns us to my Eastman student’s crisis of conscience about playing the piano.  We can do somersaults to justify our cakes an ale. Even when admitting they are no good for the world or even to ourselves (sugar and alcohol?), we will talk about psychological well-being, letting off steam, all work and no play, etc. etc.  Because, of course, we all do take moral holidays.

My utopia is a world where we are relieved of the felt necessity to justify the holidays.  They are just good in and of themselves.  (Of course, traditional aesthetics keeps returning to this issue of intrinsic value again and again.)  There is nothing wrong about pleasure, about things that fascinate us by their intricacy and difficulty (we can imagine the “holidays whisperer” crooning in our ear.)

Hannah Arendt, with her obsession with amor mundi (love of the world), approached these issues in a somewhat different way.  She talks about the “freedom from politics” as among the freedoms to be protected and cherished.  One hallmark of totalitarianism is that everything becomes political; nothing gets to escape signifying one’s political allegiances, and one is either applauded or persecuted for every single taste or action. We are in a bad way when wearing a mask during a pandemic becomes politicized.  Zones of the non-political are liberating in the way that “moral holidays” are.

Just think of how dreary a world without music, without novels, without holidays would be. That world would certainly be hard to love. That’s all the justification we need.  More importantly, it is all the justification we are going to get.  All the other rationales are threadbare, barely plausible.

Mellon used to be a place where you didn’t have to do lip service by trotting out those all too familiar rationalizations.  Apparently no more.

Cakes and Ale and the Mellon Foundation

Sir Toby:
Dost thou think because thou
art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Twelfth Night Act 2, scene 3, 114–115

The Mellon Foundation has announced that, starting now, all its funding will prioritize work in the arts and humanities that advances “social justice.”  I will admit to very mixed feelings on reading this news.  Here’s a link about the shift:


First, a little bit about Mellon before my reaction.  This year the Foundation will make $500 million worth of grants.  They are the gorilla in the world of funding for the arts and humanities.  Only the NEH and NEA are even remotely comparable in terms of supporting organizations and big collaborative projects.  Individual fellowships are available from the ACLS and places like the National Humanities Center, but Mellon has been the place for infrastructural support of institutions.

Mellon has gone through a sea-change over the past thirty years.  In the 1990s, they were an astoundingly elite organization, with their humanities funding going almost exclusively to private universities with very few exceptions.  In the early 2000s they decided it was time to expand their portfolio and came to the University of North Carolina.  It has always been true that Mellon comes to you; there is no application process, just an invitation from Mellon to submit a proposal. It will be interesting to see if the new emphasis on social justice will be accompanied by a more open application process.  Getting in the door at Mellon has always been extraordinarily difficult, especially for those further down the prestige chain.

UNC’s first proposal was for Mellon to support our fledgling Latino Studies program.  Mellon was not interested in anything so politically fraught; it ended up funding our second proposal instead—for a program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS).  Mellon’s evolution can be charted in the fact that its next two humanities projects it funded at UNC were in the digital humanities and then in the public humanities.  In other words, between 2004 when it funded MEMS and 2016 when it funded the Public Humanities Program, Mellon had moved from focusing on elite traditional scholarship to encouraging emerging humanities practices (digital humanities) and then on to supporting efforts to move the humanities out into public space beyond the university.

I have, over the past ten years or so, taken to asking various people: “do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature in fifty years?”  I take their answer as a litmus test of how far their heads are stuck in the sand.  To me it seems obvious that certain forms of literary scholarship are fast becoming dinosaurs.  And it also seems (to me, at least) incredibly difficult to justify the study of English literature as crucial to just about any good (social or individual) that we can name.  Do we really think our society is going to keep subsidizing the study of Dickens—and keep requiring that students read Dickens?  Only institutional inertia keeps the practice alive.

And yet.  Do we want to live in a world where no one reads Dickens?  In a society that says we can’t afford Dickens?  That we have other more important matters to attend to?  Even when the rationale is “social justice,” not economic viability, the reasoning is still utilitarian.  Activities without an impact, a deliverable, must go by the boards.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations abandoned the arts and humanities some years back.  The Mellon Foundation became the only place to go.  Mellon was a strong supporter of humanities institutes like the one I directed at UNC.  And it was a very generous supporter of arts programming at UNC, most memorably in our extravagant celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—featuring commissioned performances, an academic conference, classes on modernism, and visiting artists.

It is hard to see how that Rite of Spring project could claim to contribute to social justice.  Is every dance company that looks to Mellon for support going to have to show how its choreography contributes to social justice?  Must humanities scholarship claim a social impact to garner Mellon money?

I have said my feelings are mixed.  I understand that Dickens scholarship may be a luxury we cannot afford.  It seems presumptuous to claim one is entitled to make a living teaching and studying Dickens.  For many years, I evaluated proposals for dissertation fellowships from across the university.  It was always difficult to balance a project from Public Health on breast cancer in non-white communities against a thesis on Melville.  The significance and social contribution of the one was obvious, while the work on Melville seemed like fiddling while Rome burned.  But what kind of society do we end up with if we declare non-utilitarian pursuits are a “privilege” that must be renounced?  No cakes and ale for the likes of you.

The arts and humanities in the United States have, to a very large extent, retreated to university campuses. (Outside of two or three big cities, any innovative or “avant-garde” artistic endeavors survive because of university support.)  In the midst of the pandemic, universities are in dire straits—and it doesn’t take a weatherman to see any ill wind as bringing more cuts to arts and humanities programs/departments that were already in a precarious position prior to COVID-19.  Mellon has been an increasingly crucial partner with universities since 2000—and has in the last twenty years extended that partnership far beyond the elite privates and the public flagships.

What is that partnership going to look like under the banner of “social justice”?  Access and affordability are certainly social justice issues—and there is much Mellon can do to further those goals.  So maybe more traditional (or more experimental), less immediately presentist, work will be supported if it has credible plans for reaching formerly unreached audiences.  But just how potentially popular will something have to be to qualify?

It’s ironic that I have these doubts and fears since I spent most of my academic career trying to push my discipline of literary studies and my university’s curriculum toward a more direct engagement with the analysis of contemporary society and its problems (injustices and inequities).  I think my hesitation now has to do with what seems to me an oversimplified vision of the relation of the arts to social issues.  I don’t think—at least in many cases—that there is a direct path from artistic vision or humanities scholarship to social effects.  Reading novels does not guarantee that the reader will care about, much less do anything to promote, social justice.  If Mellon insists on such direct social pay-offs, it will abandon large swathes of work in the arts and the humanities that it has supported in the past.  Such work really has no place else to go for support—and its loss will be felt in an artistic and scholarly world that will be diminished (less diverse) because Mellon has put its thumb on the scale.

Futility and Despair

Like Tristram Shandy, I can’t write fast enough to keep up with all the things swirling in my head.  So much is going in—all the reading I am doing plus the daily gleanings from the web—that I have lots that feels like it needs to go out.  I keep falling behind.

However, it is not the futility of my getting it all down or despair over time’s finitude (and its resultant cruelty) that is my topic today.  The topic is contemporary art.

Nick and I had our second zoom conversation about John Dewey’s Art As Experience on Monday.  Dewey argues (both in that book and in a chapter entitled “Qualitative Thought” in Philosophy and Civilization) that humans intuitively grasp situations in their “qualitative unity” before proceeding to any kind of analysis of the components of the situation.  He also (it seems to me, but Nick would disagree) appears to claim that situations actually possess that qualitative unity.  We have satisfactory or fulfilling experiences when we are best aligned with what the situation affords, or when we can work on what it affords to shape it to better suit our needs.  Art is important because it models this fulfilling alignment; it offers instances of creative interaction that brings “form” to the interaction, crafting the situation’s elements into “equilibrium” or “harmony.”

There are features of this view of what art does which, in fact, I find helpful to my ongoing desire to consider the connection between art and meaning.  But I am going to leave that aside for the moment in order to address a different point here—basically the observation that Dewey’s picture of art as stated in the previous paragraph seems utterly antithetical to much artistic practice since 1910.  (On or around 1910, Virginia Woolf told us, human nature changed.)

Much art—and most “high” or “serious” art—of the past 100 years has displayed the futility of all attempts to apprehend or craft “unity.”  “These fragments I have shored against my ruin” can be written over the portals of modern (and postmodern) art—an updated version of “abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  Dewey looks old-fashioned and naïve with his talk of unity and harmony.  Of course, that Dewey is old-fashioned and naïve is a standard critique.  Like Whitman, he lacks any idea of evil.

Many modern paintings are cluttered.  They are not “composed,” but scattered, with no clear pathway for the eye to follow, no “form” that brings all the elements into order.

But, for my primary example, I will take the contemporary “serious” novel.  Experimental fiction is pretty much dead, but those avant-garde narratives are all about fragmentation.  The same goes for avant-garde poetry.

More “realistic” fiction, it seems to me, comes in primarily two forms.  There are the domestic novels (think Julia Glass, Rachel Cusk, Tessa Hadley, Jonathan Franzen), rooted in upper middle-class life and its romantic and family problems.  Updated Updike and Cheever.

And there are the novels about social injustice.  These novels (interestingly enough) are, more often, than not “historical”—and tell the tale of how the downtrodden are trodden down, with the rich and powerful escaping scot free.  Colson Whitehead (I have pasted at the end of this post the relevant passages from a recent interview with him) sums it up: “the guilty escape punishment, the innocent suffer.”  This glum conclusion fits any number of novels by Toni Morrison, Sebastian Barry, James Welch, Edward P. Jones, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others; these victim tales appear to confirm Whitehead’s glum conclusion about “human nature” and the inevitable (?) “tendency” of the “powerful . . . to tyrannise and bully the weak.”  These novels are committed to witnessing, to telling the tales that the powerful would rather remain untold.  They can hardly be faulted for the desire to bring injustice to the light.  But they have nothing to offer beyond witness, beyond indignation.  They don’t imagine (because, it seems, they don’t believe in) any way to move beyond injustice.  Injustice is an old story that is bound to occur again and again.

I think these novels of despair come close to Nietzschean nihilism.  Nietzsche wants to enlist art in the difficult effort to “affirm” this life, even with all its imperfections.  Finding the grounds for affirmation is hardly easy, but giving into despair is, for Nietszche as much as for Christian orthodoxy, the ultimate sin.  For Nietzsche, the solution was the masochistic embrace of suffering, his amor fati.  But James Baldwin offers a different path; his story “Sonny’s Blues” displays his hope (his reliance) on love (a recurrent term in Baldwin) and on art to allow us to endure, perhaps even rise above, the inevitable suffering that life is going to deal out to us.

When talking about my frustration with these novels, Nick reminds me I am just repeating my desire for “liberal comedies.”  I want plots that move us toward more just, more humane societies.  Plots that imagine reform, melioration, in the right direction.  Steps toward a better world—an idea that fits not only with William James’ “meliorism,” but also with Dewey’s concrete account of adjustments to a situation.  The problem with despair is that it is too abstract; it insists that only a global transformation of the whole system (of “human nature”?) can do the job—and then hasn’t a clue about what steps might even be taken to get you closer to such a transformation.  It’s magical thinking, tied to an all or nothing vision.  Either we are living in hell or in heaven—and since it’s obvious we ain’t in heaven, we are clearly in the other place.

Among the non-realistic novelists the same despair is prevalent.  Salman Rushdie and J. M. Coetzee have an equally bleak view of human nature and certainly don’t offer any vision of more just or desirable social arrangements.   In speculative fiction (David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood), some grand catastrophe does bring about the kind of complete transformation more realistic fictions don’t dare to imagine.  But those transformations only deliver a world even worse than the contemporary one.  When it comes to imagining an alternative society, it seems variants of the one offered by The Lord of the Flies is the best we can do.  Ursula LeGuin’s work offers a welcome exception to this generalization about imagined post-catastrophe futures.

There have been some “serious” realistic novels that have attempted to locate their characters in contemporary political/economic context (unlike the domestic novels I mentioned above).  Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December; Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens; John Lanchester, Capital; Joseph O’Neill, Netherland.  The first three are “ensemble” novels, tracking a variety of characters.  And those characters end up with a variety of outcomes—which does avoid the powerful/victim dichotomy of the witness novels.  These novels seem less driven by a need to indignantly call out injustice and more focused on the multiple ways people survive or fail to survive contemporary conditions.

O’Neill’s novel is interesting because it combines the domestic novels focus on family relations with the more sociological interests that drive its portrait of post-9/11 New York City.  Liberal comedy (from Shakespeare to Anthony Trollope to 1930s screwball films and beyond) often rests on a homology between the central couple whose endangered love relationship is the focus of the plot and a reformed society.  If the couple can successfully consummate their love that is because the society which thwarted them has been reformed in the course of the play/novel/film.  (This is basic C. L. Barber and Northrop Frye on the theory of comedy.)

From the start (as recognized by Walter Scott in his commentary on his own novel Waverly), the great problem faced by the “historical novel” (or by any novel attempting to portray individualized fictional characters caught up in events of historical significance) was to make the connection between the character’s eventual fate and what those events wrought.  That Prince Andrei dies in War and Peace is fitting; to be in the Napoleonic Wars would very likely lead one to death.  That was the impact those wars had on individuals.  But the novelist can hardly just march all his characters off to death.

How, then to align the fate of the characters who survive with the state that society reaches after the events of the novel?  The happy marriage of Pierre and Natasha is discontinuous with the reactionary course followed by the Russian state after 1815.  They escape into a separate peace—and that kind of escape (also enjoyed by Waverly in Scott’s novel) becomes the norm in most realistic novels, even the ones that import historical events and historical figures into their plots.  The battle of Culloden destroys Scottish Highland society, but Waverly gives the battle a miss and his life is not destroyed. In O’Neill’s Netherland, the protagonist saves his marriage precisely by renouncing the public world of New York City’s financial industry.  He can have one or the other, but not both.  The corruption of the financial world makes a genuine and sustainable romantic relationship impossible.  The primary character who remains behind in that world after the protagonist abandons it is doomed.

One way, then, to describe the lack of unity that prevails in “modern” art is precisely the ever-widening gulf between public and private.  We live utterly fragmented lives.  Domestic comedy abounds; we can imagine the joys and tribulations of family life and friendship.  We can even imagine the joys and tribulations of the workplace (Parks and Rec; Thirty Rock; The Office), but we can’t translate the comraderies, the necessary tolerances of how others annoy us, the ability to shrug off (even enjoy) differences and eccentricities, into the public sphere.

We can’t connect, as E. M. Forster urged us to do in Howard’s End.  Forster at least had the country house—a domestic space that carries a larger social import—for his effort to bridge the gap between public and private.  We have no apparent bridges of any sort.  We stand dismayed by the nastiness of our politics and the brutalities of our economic order, even as we carve out loves and friendships we can affirm.  No wonder our art is all about disconnection.

Nick’s way of describing modern art’s lack of unity was very different from mine.  He attributed it to art’s becoming more and more entangled in, focused on, its own institutions.  Going that route also highlights disconnection—but now the alienation of art from the “lifeworld” (to resurrect Habermas’ way of talking about this issue).  The idea in Habermas was that modernity tended to segregate various activities (the scientific/technical; the aesthetic; the economic; the scholarly) into relatively autonomous spheres (we could call them “professions,” although he does not) which end up mostly speaking to themselves—and hence divorced from the “lifeworld” (understood as the daily life of social intercourse and domestic relations).  Certainly, Dewey is all about re-integrating the aesthetic back into the ordinary; he wants the aesthetic and the ordinary to be continuous, even though (the topic for a future post) he still wants the aesthetic to be distinctive.

So what Nick is pointing out is that artists speak more and more only to other artists, other insiders.  The practice of art is increasingly self-referential in the sense that works are best understood in dialogue with previous works, with prevailing discussions in the field. This self-enclosure is mirrored by the creation of institutions specific to the practice, and to a primary desire to impress (communicate with) those positioned within the field.

This development of specific institutions and a set of recognized practitioners fragments art in two ways: one, no work can be a self-sufficient unity because it refers to, stands in relation to, other works.  (Dewey actually seems to accept this fact since he is adamant that the present always stands in relation to the past; but that acceptance does seem a problem for his insistence on the “qualitative unity” of a situation.)

Two, more crucially, the more any pursuit becomes closed off from the comprehension of outsiders (the less it engages in fruitful interchanges with different pursuits), the less likely we are to find bridges across the divides between pursuits—and the divide from the lifeworld.  We get here another version of the old Lukacs and Jameson diagnosis: we (and the fate of the novel since Tolstoy and George Eliot is one symptom of this fact) are less and less able to comprehend totality—where “comprehend” means not just “to understand,” but also to capture or contain within any aesthetic or intellectual form.  Fragmentation is the order of the day because unity is now, quite simply, beyond our capabilities.

I have a bit more to say on this topic.  But will stop here for today.

Here is the interview with Colson Whitehead.  I have given you about half of it—but pretty much all the substantive parts.  But here’s the link to the whole thing.

“It is a story,” says Whitehead, “about how powerful people get away with abusing the powerless and are never called to account.”

He uses the term “human nature” more than once and one senses that the writing of his past couple of books has reinforced his essential belief that, as he says at one point, “people are terrible – we invent all sorts of different reasons to hate people. We always have and we always will.” Does he really believe that? “Well, in terms of human nature, the powerful tend to tyrannise and bully the weak. I really don’t think that will change very much. In fact, I think we will continue to treat each other pretty horribly in the way I described in The Nickel Boys for all eternity.”

For all that, The Nickel Boys, despite passages of dark, almost gothic horror, is a tentatively redemptive fiction, a survivor’s story. I wondered if the creation of the wounded characters in his most recent novel and the tracing of their traumatised lives took a psychological toll on Whitehead.

He tells me that, throughout the writing of the book, he would open a file on his computer every morning and see a note he had posted there when he began. It read: “The guilty escape punishment. The innocent suffer.” He had put it there to remind him what the story he was telling was really about. “And yet,” he says, “the last third of the book is really about all the other stuff that is not in those two lines: what do you do with that? How do you live with that knowledge? And, how do you make a life?”