Tuesday, February 10, 2009

One last tussle with Mr. AYW

In a series of earlier posts prompted by an email exchange a couple months ago with an acclaimed young writer, I've addressed the hollow bourgeois heart of the assertion, proclaimed always and everywhere by the literary establishment in this country, that art and politics don't mix, that literature cannot succeed as art if it is political. I've noted that this assertion is simply that, with never any proof to back it up. I've argued that the class struggle pervades everything, including art, and that there is no such thing as a neutral stance in literature any more than in any other field of endeavor. I've countered the anti-political-art cant with some examples of highly political work--both reactionary and progressive--that this selfsame literary establishment itself recognizes as fine art, which shows that even they don't believe their own dogma.

What's left are two points, more or less. One is to address the question of why they promulgate this lie despite its so extremely obvious falseness. The other is to counter with some reasoning with which we can once and for all dispose of this whole sad spectacle of artists fronting for the capitalist class's interests.

1. Why? When they themselves love and laud overtly political fiction across the bourgeois spectrum, from Solzhenitsyn to Diaz, why do they claim overtly political fiction can never succeed? Much of it, of course, is unthinking. It's a sort of rote repetition of received wisdom. Its source, however, is no mystery. It is bourgeois ideology, which is the underpinning of all culture under capitalism. I'm not talking conspiracy theories; I'm not saying there are secret meetings where the billionaires hand out envelopes to MFA professors with their marching orders. I'm talking the concrete as well as the subjective workings of class society, in which all norms, culture, beliefs, the whole shebang, arise from and are owned and controlled by the ruling class, either directly or indirectly.

What threatens the rule of the capitalist class? Well, ultimately, revolution of the workers and oppressed. But even before it gets to that point, any expression, artistic or otherwise, that can find its way out into the world and find a way to dissent from bourgeois ideology, that takes the side of the working class, that exposes not only the terrible ills of this racist, exploitive society but, much more important, identifies their cause, that is, capitalism, that espouses overthrowing this horrid system of oppression and exploitation--boy oh boy, anything like that has got to be quashed. That's the why. It's one part of the capitalists' ongoing battle to save their system and thus their riches. It's what motivates the ongoing war against truly political art, even as they champion right-wing and can allow the championing of mildly left-wing political art.

2. Which leads to the how. How do they enforce the almost complete banning of truly revolutionary literature? By spreading the big lie that such cannot be art.

So here's the truth: oh yes it can.

I'm not a literary scholar, so I'm at something of a disadvantage in this polemic, but I do know that nowhere throughout the rest of the world is this literature-can't-be-political nonsense taken seriously. Much, possibly even most, fiction, and even more so poetry, written in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and even to some extent in Europe, has a clear political slant. Much of it espouses revolutionary ideas and ideals. Most of it is never translated into English or published in this country. Hmm. I wonder why.

Except if the author is dead and/or the struggle with which her/his work occupies itself is sufficiently distant in time and geography to pose no threat to U.S. imperialism. I'm thinking of Bolano, whose The Savage Detectives I found utterly unalive, quite inferior to some truly fine fiction about the U.S.-backed Pinochet fascist junta in Chile, and who, guess what, is championed as the great dead Latin American "political" novelist.

Then there are writers whose work is truly radical, Marxist writers even, but whom the U.S. critical establishment manages to at once praise and marginalize as if their work is of only local interest in their own part of the world and of no real relevance or threat here. I'm thinking of, among others, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose marvelous novel Wizard of the Crow I recently read. This book is brilliant on many levels. And it is nothing if not political. My guess is that in this country it is read simplemindedly as a parody of "African corruption," rather than in its true, complete aspect as a head-on, full-throttled, multifaceted expose of British colonialism and U.S. imperialism and what they have wrought in the lands they've ravaged. Or at least that this is how they hope to co-opt it.

Finally, wearily, we come to this. In his email to me, the Acclaimed Young Writer backed up the literature-can't-be-political assertion with this example: debate team captains, he said, can't become novelists because they can't create complex, subtle, literary writing. Well jeez, I've been dying to reply, sez who? Is this truly all you've got? A claim that a debater can't become a novelist, not a good one, anyway? Wouldn't it be fun if someone did some research and found out which novelists did indeed serve on their high school or college debate teams? I'm betting there are plenty. But I shouldn't make fun of his point, because surely he didn't mean to say something as goofy as that debaters can't be good writers. What he meant, I believe, was that writing fiction is different than debating. And of course he's right. Fiction is different than debate. Although of course it's not true that debaters can't also be novelists, debating and fiction writing do require different skill sets. They are, as it were, different arts.

Dig one level deeper, pooped as we are, and we reach his real meaning. A debater should win listeners over to a point of view, a political belief. A novelist should not.

Why not? He does not and cannot say, for it would require acknowledging that his supposedly apolitical position is in fact a political position.

So there you have it. Not a proof that fine fiction cannot be political, for we've already seen there are scads of examples of fine fiction that is indeed politically motivated, politically expressive, and politically oriented. (Okay, I've listed not quite scads, but I could if anyone requires more proof, more lists.) Just a precept. It should not be.

It would not be good for capitalism. Even if he doesn't, won't, can't acknowledge it, this is the crux of Mr. AYW's case.