Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

The continuum of myth, the transcendent universality of profound irony– surely these constitute the DNA and the soul of great writing but isn’t it a little true there’s a peculiar insularity to American writers in direct proportion to our influence in the world, that almost seems to be a knee-jerk negative response to our global involvement as a mega-power, to our extensive hanky-panky and the worst of our well-intentioned meddling and muddling throughout the world? Christopher Lehmann calls this deliberate process of principled non-engagement “a bit like expecting all of Moby Dick to unfold without any mention of the whale.” We avert our eyes with moral fastidiousness from an America set loose on the planet, an America too monolithic and complex and aesthetically impenetrable to serve forth anything more substantive than half-comprehended impressions, an entity too immense to wrap our imaginations around confidently, and so we retreat en bloc back to the landscape and the private interiors where we feel most at ease—the mall, the university, the farm, the small town, the neighborhood, the Upper West Side, the nuclear family—in short, the places that are experientially provincial.

That’s worth thinking about, isn’t it? Certainly we don’t want our body of literature to most reflect the five blind men, each misinterpreting the character of the elephant, not merely physically handicapped, but analytically crippled by their incomplete knowledge of the whole.  Our literature as a corpus must be able to reflect the whole, the totality, of who we are.

“Political situations have always attracted me as a subject,” Robert Stone wrote in his essay “The Reason for Stories: Toward A Moral Fiction,” published in Harper’s in 1988, “and not,” says Stone, “because I believe that political pathology is necessarily more ‘important’ than private suffering. During times of political upheaval, the relationship between external reality and the individual’s interior world is destabilized.”

Stone argues, actually, for the hyper-domesticity of the Literature of the Imperium, “the elements of drama descending on ordinary people and ordinary lives.” A domesticity marinated in external crisis and pressure cooked in the cauldron of history. A domesticity speared by the terrible truth that there’s nothing one man will not do to another. “Things happen ruthlessly, without mercy,” writes Stone. “The elemental force of things bears down upon us. From one moment to the next we hardly know what’s going on, let alone what it all means. Civilization and its attendant morality are not structures, they’re more like notions, and sometimes they can seem very distant notions. They can be blown away in a second.”

And yet at the center of this explosive atmosphere, what do we find, in the work of all of our writers who engage with the political: the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy ... only the stakes have been rendered monumental. The boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the fear, the shrieking, the tearing apart. The blood of the unlimited world, the tissue that pulses with the tension between the intimate and the global, the fiber that registers, to borrow a phrase from Stone, “the random promiscuity of events.” This, too, is one of our central myths, the clash of brutal but profound truths, and a story that must be updated and retold a thousand times. New forms for old misery, indeed.

In the end it’s not the politics, not the doctrine, not the (toxic) agenda that seduces a novelist, it’s the narrative ascent and devolution of power, boundaries once established and meaningful falling away left and right in its relentless pursuit. And what is so fascinating about power? Not the obvious, but its underbelly, its cast of characters, its troupe of players, and what they reveal about humanity unbound. What they reveal about the lies we bind ourselves to, nation and home.

Sooner or later, history will drag us bleeding out of our inwardness and reassert itself into our lives, and thus reassert itself into our creative vision and into the aesthetics of our imagination, as it must and will. And that rendering also gestures toward the last line of one of the greatest novels written in my lifetime—Continental Drift, by Russell Banks—surely a last line that must somehow find its way into your heart as a writer, not a responsibility or a command but an article of Whitmanesque faith:

Go, my book, and destroy the world as it is.

Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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