Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

How to reconcile the two? Back in the ‘80s, the great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, told an interviewer that, “Twenty years ago I was in Africa and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’etat, from one war to another. I witnessed in effect history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history.

“But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or philosopher—even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere. Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories:

“The boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce—in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years ... None of these books had anything to do with our world, our reality—nothing. There was one book about an unwanted child; and another about a boy, a girl, the laughing, the intimacy...”

Certainly it doesn’t matter the nationality of the western literature Kapuscinski is admonishing with, of course, self-serving dismay. But how are we to answer him? American writers are annually bombarded with criticism from our global colleagues for writing fiction in which everyone seems to be middle class, lives in the suburbs, and sees a psychiatrist (forget that these critics don’t always know what they’re talking about—we get their point). American writers: members of a group accused of having a broken vision, no longer able to evoke gutsy passions. Who said these things: a Chinese novelist, a South African poet, an Israeli novelist. Their comments are typical of the point of view shared by foreign writers who customarily attend the International PEN Congress in New York.

But if the story of the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy has been told repeatedly for a thousand years, then most certainly it’s a story humanity cannot afford to lose, a story that reflects our natures too well to ignore, a story of pure merit and fundamental vitality that we can’t cut adrift from our ethos without unmooring our own sensibilities as well, and eroding the meaning of our existence.

Of course there is something unsatisfactory and incomplete about this response, and the issue needs amplification. Isn’t it true that the potency of fiction and poetry derives not from the difference between a lie and the truth (which is the business of journalism, of information, to distinguish one from the other) nor from the friction between illusion and reality (which is the realm of the purely metaphysical disciplines) but rather from the divine cosmic dissonance that rings through the millennium from the clash of profound truths, one slamming against the other?

For instance, everything life gives us, it eventually takes away. For instance, this aphorism from Hemingway: “If two people are truly in love, there’s no way it can all end happily.” For instance, we had to destroy the village to save it.

Indeed, the opposite of a lie is the truth, but the opposite of a profound truth might very well be another profound truth. Yes, this is irony, but not the petty irony of lies and facts, not the trickster irony of reality diddled by illusion. It is the irony of essences, and it is the furnace of meaning where all that we might understand about our existence through the wide open eyes of literature and art is smelted down to its richest and most penetrating form, and the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy are as capable of revealing those essences as anything else. The potential is there, as it is everywhere.

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.”

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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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