Liberalism and Literature

A comment left here on Wednesday by Daniel Green led me to his blog, which in turn led me to his wonderful article, “Liberalism and Literature.” A critique of the “academic left” and of ideological criticism, in general, Green’s piece is refreshingly articulate, well-informed, and even-handed. It echoes what I see as a growing dissatisfaction with contemporary, theory-centric literary studies — both within academia and outside of it — a dissatisfaction (political, professional, and aesthetic) that I hope to address in my dissertation (assuming, of course, that I ever get around to finishing the damn thing).

I’m most sympathetic to Green’s argument when he points to the vast divide that separates traditional liberal ideals and the messy details of practical politics from the radical and Utopian ideologies that dominate certain sectors of literary criticism.

This reductive approach, whereby all subjects are political, either inherently so or made to be so, is detrimental to real politics, which can be safely disregarded in favor of the more tidy rhetorical kind.

Green supports his case with a spot-on analysis of America’s current political condition, which, as he points out, is itself a chorus of competing fictions. The “radical worldview” he likens to escapist genre fiction:

an opportunity to leave behind the muddle of ordinary life in exchange for the narrative clarity and enhanced drama stories make available.

Modern conservatism — steeped in its legends of “gun-toting colonials,” “bread-earning” husbands, and “a group of white founding fathers whose supreme wisdom literally cannot be challenged” — is founded, first and foremost, Green argues convincingly, on a belief in free market capitalism, itself a dominant force of liberal progress.

It is impossible any longer to think of the “conservative” — at least in the United States — as one who simply resists impulsive change; instead, the postwar American conservative comes fully possessed of a complete collection of well-made fictions, chief among them the unequivocal faith in the “free market” (taken over, to be sure, from 19th century liberals), a fiction so powerful in its influence that conservatives have almost managed to conflate it with democracy itself.

So what does any of this have to do with “Liberalism and Literature”? Green’s immediate concern here is reminding us that great literature — with its delight in ambiguity, the “universal uncertainty of human life and the agelessly unresolved conflicts stirred up by human aspirations” — is itself a primer for liberal ideals, including, in Tony Kushner’s words, the inevitability of “painful progress.” “I would again maintain,” Green writes:

that my primary interest in literature — my belief in its capacity to sharpen the mind’s apprehension of the shaping patterns at work both in the imaginative creations of poets and novelists and in the imaginary creations many of us attempt to make of the social, political, and cultural arrangements we must unfortunately settle for in lieu of the more vivid if less tangible worlds evoked by the poets — has made me more alert to the many different forms the aestheticizing of mundane reality can take.

That’s a tricky leap he has made there, but one with which I am growing increasingly sympathetic. His critics on the left would likely denounce Green’s argument as fundamentally conservative, claiming that by reducing the value of Art to its “universal” nature, he is ignoring the particular economic and “real” political forces that have shaped the making of the Art and our reception of it, and that he is therefore, by default, supporting those very forces. (I’ve made the same claim against Philip Roth’s recent fiction, actually.) But that critique is too easy, and, as a personal aside, it contradicts my own experience of literature. The years I’ve spent studying literature and film have had one great effect on me: They turned what was once a black and white world into a vast mosaic. And that process does, in fact, make a tremendous impact on “real” politics.

One more note on this article:

Much has been made — especially in recent years and in conservative regions like the American South — of the dominance of leftist or liberal thought in academia. Green offers, I think, the most obvious explanation for that dominance. I’ve thought the same thing for years, but never took the time to write it down:

Considering a whole constellation of facts about contemporary America — among them its now unchallenged position as supreme economic, cultural, and military power, its exaltation of business and commerce as indicators of status and accomplishment, its thoroughgoing utilitarian approach to education and manifest impatience with the cultivation of intellect and sensibility for their own sakes — it is not at all surprising that those who choose what was once called the “life of the mind” at its universities would feel estranged from the official values that seem to animate the political and commercial life of American society. Whether such people would identify themselves as “liberals,” “radicals,” “progressives,” or just as independent thinkers, surely it is at the least unlikely that as a whole they would incline much toward the established conservative view of the way things ought to be.

Good stuff.