Against Art in Politics, and Politics in Art

One of the saddest projects of my adult life has been researching the lives of my favorite escapist authors, the people I read in childhood and still return to when I am blue.  I go back to them because they have created for me a world that is orderly, filled with purpose, and ultimately ruled by at least rough justice.  It is a movie world, a grammar school world:  even in the murder mysteries, the good people have a chance at happiness, and evil is always punished or reformed.

Naturally, one tends to imagine that this is the actual interior world of the authors.  But it's not true--in fact, it's almost the opposite of the truth in many cases.  L.M. Montgomery, whose mother died of tuberculosis when she was young, was abandoned to her grandparents by a father who started another family; she only saw him once after that, when she was seven.  She had one semester of college, which seems to have been an unbearable taste of forbidden fruit before she unhappily turned to teaching school, and then, when her grandmother needed her to come home and take care of her, to working in the post office.  She turned down a series of proposals from men she didn't love, and as she approached definite old-maidhood, married a minister who she respected but didn't love.  He turned out to be bipolar, and she spent the next thirty years ever-more desperately supporting the family with her writing, while caring for her unloved melancholic and his parish.  Her eldest son was a thief and a womanizer.  Her journals reveal not Anne's wry patience, but, as one reviewer put it, "a brooding, illness-plagued, mean-spirited, tart-tongued, barbiturate-popping, wine-loving, hissy-fitting snob."  She was phenomenally depressed at the end of her life, and may have committed suicide.

Or take Agatha Christie, who married young and well, only to have her husband leave her for another women as she was approaching middle age; she married again, to a much younger archaeologist who repeatedly cheated on her, including a long term relationship with an older woman who worked on his digs; in both cases, the circumstances suggested not just pathological womanizing but a rejection of Agatha herself, since they formed intimate relationships with women who weren't obviously younger or prettier than the woman they already had; in both cases they married the women (Max Mallowan after Christie died) and stayed married until their own death.  Christie wrote non-mystery novels under the name Mary Westmacott which suggest, obliquely, that she was keenly aware of this rejection. When her first husband's infidelity became clear, she seems to have deliberately disappeared for a weekend with the intent of having Archie investigated for murder, without realizing that there would be publicity; it turned into a humiliating eight-day debacle that she unconvincingly covered up by claiming amnesia.  Terrified of more publicity, she continued supporting Max Mallowan even after he had effectively abandoned her.  In neither case was anything like the justice of her novels done. Her relationship with her daughter was strained by her divorce, and then by their not-very-compatible personalities.  One infers that her relationships with the people around her repeatedly went south because she was a very difficult person to love--somewhat self-absorbed, rigid, and at least once, willing to go to heroic and absurd lengths to spite those she felt had wronged her. But perhaps I overinterpret. For whatever reason, the happy Victorian world that she had been raised to expect--and which always eventually won out in her novels--eluded her.  She died frightened and angry, and mostly alone.

Louisa May Alcott, Francis Hodgson Burnett, Josephine Tey . . .if there's a compelling escapist universe full of happy fantasy, it was almost certainly created by someone bitterly disappointed.  Some of the men seem to have been happier.  But then one reads of the melancholy misery of Mark Twain's last years, with his beloved wife and two out of three of his daughters dead, or Robert Heinlein's broke mid-career desperation as his alcoholic wife descended into madness and he tried to generate copy from an unheated trailer with a bare larder and no money to replenish it.  This while he was writing classic escapist fare like Rocket Ship Galileo, The Green Hills of Earth, and Space Cadet.

The revelation that authors have lives separate from their work, and that their interior lives are often not very like the ones that we would like them to have--or the ones lived in their books--is not exactly novel.  But it comes up over and over, most recently in the discussion Ta-Nehisi and Hilzoy are having about V.S. Naipaul, whose attitude towards women is a mite antediluvian.  Can we enjoy the work, even learn from it, despite his failings?

One answer to that is the one I have outlined above: we get both more and less out of a work than the author intended, and we are never actually getting the author themselves.  They are always hiding some piece of themselves from us, the piece they can't bear for us to know.  Trying to judge a book by an author, or an author by their book, is like trying to judge a glass of milk by looking at the cow.

But there's another reason I do not think that we should reject books because their authors have terrible opinions, which is that virtually all authors have some terrible opinions.  In the case of Naipaul, his, um, intermittent contempt for females shows up pretty clearly if you're looking for it.  Perhaps every writer's worst opinions influence what they write, but that doesn't mean you'll always know about them; H.L. Mencken was smart enough to keep his Nazi sympathies mostly to himself.  You might be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire of even more odious opinions that the author is clever enough to conceal. Or maybe you don't recognize them, because you share them.  Whatever the case, you cannot improve your library by purging all the authors with terrible ideas; you can only empty it.

I reject the unspoken assumption here that art is supposed to make you better--the novel as a sort of secular religious work.  This is a long tradition in American literature, and it goes back to an era when art was supposed to be a sort of religious religious work, and many families shunned books that didn't offer appropriately treacly moral themes.  Most of those novels are now forgotten, and the ones that remain, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, are mostly regarded as historical curiosities, not mighty fine reading.  History has mostly rewarded the ambiguous and the transgressive, not the sermons-with-a-cast.

Art isn't very good stand-in for Sunday School teachers, for all that we repeatedly imbue it with the job of shaping morality--"poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world", said Shelley, and it's a damn good thing he was wrong.  Having a keen eye for detail, a a morose grasp of the tragedy of the human condition, and hypertrophied verbal mental muscles does not make you a good policy analyst. George Orwell, who was more of a gimlet-eyed realist than most ideological writers, nonetheless believed a fair amount of ludicrous nonsense, such as his assertions that collectivism was necessary because a capitalist society could never produce enough to win World War II.   

Of course, talent may give you the ability to construct a convincing alternative universe where all the difficulties are imagined away, and more than one person has confused this with the ability to identify what schemes will work in the real world.  After all socialism was prosperous and peaceful--in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and other novels in the genre.  The novels are often very convincing, and indeed seem to address all possible objections.  Yet in practice, socialism was mostly good for killing unreasonably large numbers of people--30,000 alone building the massive Magnitorsk steelworks that were trumpeted as the sort of thing that could only done by collectivism.  We should thank God that capitalist democracies don't make such appalling waste of human life.

But when art-as-politics airbrushes out the dead people at the steel works, it can be very convincing, which is why advocates like it; Uncle Tom's Cabin did more for the Abolitionist cause than a hundred thousand lectures.  The problem is, it can convince of the bad as easily as the good--Gone With the Wind reached many more people than Uncle Tom's Cabin, in part because--despite its ugly racial politics--it's a much better book with richer characters and more believable action.  There are also the heroic misfires, where the author rouses fierce passions about the wrong issue.  Soviet documentaries about the horridness of American life inspired the audience with subversive thoughts about our prosperous avoirdupois and profusion of consumer goods.  Upton Sinclair envisioned The Jungle as a socialist manifesto which would inspire people to rise up and tear down the system; what he actually wrote was a food-safety tract which inspired massive sanitary regulation of the meatpacking industry.

You see the point: what makes a political narrative convincing is not the correctness of its ideas, but power of the characters and the imagery--the most powerful images in The Jungle are the grotesqueries of mass butchering, and that--not the injustice of capitalism--is what people fastened onto.  Worse, the most convincing feature of all may simply be the author's facility at imagining away the difficulties--and the most successful works are often those where the limits of the author's imagination are closest to those of the imaginations of his audience.  

Because it is the power of the narrative, that we are responding to, not the soundness of the ideas themselves, we have no way of knowing whether we have been convinced of good things or bad.  Policing art so that you only get "good" ideas from it is even more futile--the quest for stirring narratives which reinforce what you already believe is no healthier in a person than in a society. In some sense, we live inside a well-imagined novel, and so it's not exactly surprising that even when we're confronted with new evidence, it's emotionally difficult to discard the "evidence" of our own "experience".  In some fundamental way, great political narrative has the power to make you, not smarter and better, but stupider and more passionate.  Feminists who admire political fiction should think hard about the ways in which women have learned to love their restrictions through the fiction that romanticized them. If you are saying to yourself, "which is why it's so important to combat this with the right sort of moral narratives" then you are simply begging the question.

Arguably authors live in their creations even more deeply than we do--so perhaps that's why, too often, authors have granted the license of their imagination to actual governments with horrible economic and political policies which sounded great on paper; these governments did actual horrible things to actual people that could not be undone with a hasty edit.  Yet the authors proved surprisingly adept at imagining them away.  

Authors aren't good policy architects.  They're also not good moral philosophers--they're good at dramatizing moral conundrums, which is not the same thing as resolving them.  Look at how some major authors resolved relatively simple questions like "should I cheat on my wife with this nubile fan?"  "Would it be a good idea to stick my annoying wife in an asylum for the rest of her life and never visit her?" "Should I use my position as a screenwriter to double as an inept propagandist for the Soviet Union?"  "Might it be a good idea to abandon my children to whoever will care for them?" "Should I stab my wife if I am mad at her?"  "Who should I support in World War II--my own country, or the Nazis?"  "Should I try to get a murderous felon released and feted by the New York literary establishment in the brief time before he kills someone else?" 

This is not to say that all authors are moral midgets. Perhaps they aren't any worse than the rest of us, on average--naturally, the stories we know are the sensational ones, not the lived-with-their-three-boring-kids-and-husband-until-they-died-at-96.  I am not arguing that artists are generally bad people, but merely that we have no evidence that they're better than us--all of them are at least as flawed as we are.  And we're pretty flawed.  

But because we love the worlds they create, we often imagine that we should also love them--that they can finally show us how to live, or at least, how not to live.  But the people in stories never lived; they only struggled with the limited problems that the author gave them, and they only overcame them with the author's help.  This limits how far we can take them as either models or warnings--and limits, too, how worried we should be about the morals of the author.  The problem is not with the author who might be steering us wrong, but with the people who expect that author to somehow help steer them to safety . . . as if we'd allowed someone to show us around New York because they'd once drawn a beautiful map of Chicago.

Talent is not wisdom.  It's not even connected to wisdom.  Art at its best gives us new ways of looking at the world, and this is itself beyond price.  But that doesn't mean that art is Good With a Capital G, much less that artists are.  They are all unreliable narrators.

Yet the glamor of narrative and wordplay are incredibly powerful tools can blind us to their drawbacks. There's evidence that novels and movies activate the parts of our brain dedicated to social learning, and so we internalize the "lessons' of authors as if they'd actually happened (have you ever watched an otherwise intelligent person systematically destroy their relationships because their template was some archetype from a book or a movie?)  Narrative knocks down the defense mechanisms that usually operate when we're reading: the little voice saying "this is just some guy's opinion." 

Obviously, most of us are at least somewhat aware of this, which is why you don't see everyone, say, attempting to attract dates by being offensively prickly and/or mopey.  Most of us learn while still in our teenage years that these tropes are common not because they're so true, but because they're dramatic.  Nonetheless, I think at some level we expect that more compelling narratives should somehow be connected to more compelling ideas, more compelling people.  Obviously, this illusion is reinforced by refusing to read people whose views you find offensive.

But if you wanted to pick a group of people to model your life on, it's hard to think of a less likely group than successful writers.  I opened with the escapist novelists precisely because they don't have the excuse of the "literary novelist"--that the herculean effort required to be a successful literary novelist means one must often be selfish, arrogant, and cruel (you have to be, to truthfully use all the material life gives you).  To write about your parents, your marriage, your friends, your children, you betray them in a way that in any other context would be nearly sociopathic--and the more raw and nasty the emotions they record, the more we applaud their fearlessness.  

But not so the escapist novels, where we generally want them to reinforce some sense that the world is a fundamentally good place.  Still, they weren't happy people, and mostly they weren't even particularly good people.  We look to them for some sort of illumination on moral, social or political questions, and yet the level of effort required to be really successful at anything means that one doesn't have so much time to spend with the spouse and kids.  Writers, especially, spend the bulk of their workday not interacting with other people.  They are people who have in large part dealt with the hardest human question--how do I live with all these difficult people around me?--by escaping into a world where the people are puppets. Why would we expect that they have some sort of special insight into how to be just and good?

Much less from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Virginia Woolf, or the utterly appalling Percy Bysshe Shelley.

So it doesn't surprise me that Naipaul is kind of a jerk about women.  Nor does it really bother me.  There are lots of people out there who are kind of jerks about women, and describing their interior life has value.  The job of literature is to engage us with the world, not to sanitize that world so that we can't think bad thoughts.  Outside of the (imaginary) world of 1984, that doesn't work.

If we're going to reject all the writers who have unlovely, untimely, or unworthy views that inflect their writing, what will be left?  Dale Carnegie and Shel Silverstein?  No, I think we will have to be content with learning from the unworthy.  And often the first thing we will learn is that the universe is not here to please us.  It is unfortunately chock full of people who aren't particularly nice.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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