Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

Bob Shacochis confronts the tension between exploring the everyday "frivolity" of our private worlds and making broad statements about the one we share.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

Is a writer obligated to address the way that powerful institutions affect how we live and what we feel? Or is it enough to conjure life on the scale of garden, bed, and kitchen table?

Bob Shacochis, author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, is more qualified than most to answer these questions, to sort out the relationship between what he calls “the literature of political experience” versus “the literature of domestic experience.” For years, he wrote the “Dining In” column for GQ—short, wistful celebrations of the meals prepared and shared with a beloved woman. (He collected these essays, which include recipes, in a book aptly titled Domesticity.) But Shacochis’s fiction, and his globe-trotting work as a New Journalism-influenced reporter and war correspondent, focus on the way large political, economic, and social forces can shape human relationships. In a recent interview with NPR, Shacochis said that his primary goal as a novelist—besides writing good sentences—was to “to try to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, Shacochis’s latest novel, does exactly this. Opening in 1990s Haiti—a period he chronicled in The Immaculate Invasion, about the seventh-month American intervention, “Operation Uphold Democracy”—the book traces U.S. operations abroad in the decades leading up to the War on Terror. The novel’s titular (and fallen) heroine is an American spy whose history, a tale of great promise and compromised ideals, reflects the troubled legacy of our country’s operations abroad. Shacochis also authored Easy in the Islands, which won the National Book Award for first fiction, and other books; he teaches in the MFA program at Florida State University.

Shacochis: Except for a few indelible memories, my influences are not on the tip of my tongue–rather, I’m rediscovering them as I move through the process of my own writing and reading. My boyhood fascination with John Le Carré happens to be one of those buried influences. Sometimes the recognition of what inspires us awaits us, an unanticipated gift, a serendipity that resonates backwards and tells us we had once boarded the same train with a mentor, and ridden to the same destination, and roomed at the same lodging, without ever knowing it to be so. Often my influences are recovered, not conscious, attachments, and I nourish only a sensation that they exist, spirits in the room, until they spring forth out of the blue.

Like, for instance, my favorite le Carréism, an aphorism I had forgotten for 20 years, until I found myself half-way through the writing of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, and suddenly recalling the passage held such significance for me that I pasted it into an exchange between two of my own characters:

How’s the future looking these days, she said cheerily.
Much like the past, he said. New forms for old misery.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, she said in a rush, recognizing the quote.

And now doors are opening and it seems inevitable, the next connection I make in my mind’s unwanted nocturnal seminar, a Jim Harrison maxim that I never fail to repeat, emphatically, whenever I teach a writing workshop:

There are no old myths, only new people.

Empires rise, empires fall, the barbarians are at the gates. Toynbee, Santayana, the recycling bin of history, the lessons unlearned, et cetera.

Then there’s Doctorow’s assertion, “The ultimate responsibility of the writer is to witness,” but this duty presents us with a question, not an answer–What is it exactly that the writer is obligated to witness?

Shouldn’t every writer ask herself, Which stories are most worth telling, whether you’re a fiction writer, journalist, essayist, poet, playwright? Which is most worth telling, War and Peace or Anna Karenina? Both, of course. Both define in a singular and enduring fashion a time and a place and a nation and its culture. If you had to exile one from your library shelf, which one would it be? That’s an impossible question, but forced to answer, you’d perhaps answer predictably, based on your own bias toward the Literature of Political Experience (or in the case of Le Carré and myself and all the colonial and post-colonial writers, the Literature of Empire), or the Literature of Domestic Experience. The Napoleonic wars are boring, you might say, or conversely, the melodrama of adultery is so tedious. (Yeah, right.)

These questions about what’s worth writing never seem to have good answers, especially at the cultural moment in the journey of our nation, where the common response seems to be, Who cares? Awhile back, when V.S. Naipaul dismissed literary fiction as inferior to reportage, archaic, irrelevant and unable to engage with the 21st century, Salman Rushdie responded, “The art of the novel, I think, is to open up worlds to you, and it seems to me we live in a time when that’s of desperate importance. So why would that be the time when you declared the novel dead?” Indeed, and amen, and is it too extravagant to suggest that if the novel is dead or dying then the future is dead or dying as well?

Similarly, there’s this fundamental tension between the domestic and the political that I’m always turning back to, this dichotomy of existence, and how we approach it as writers. Listen for a moment to this character in Chilean author Jose Donoso’s novel Curfew:

“I’d like to talk about music,” says the privileged girl turned guerrilla fighter, “but in my heart I’m afraid it would be frivolous.”

Curfew is a story about life in Pinochet’s Chile 12 years after the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. The woman drags her ex-lover through Santiago’s deserted streets after the midnight curfew, searching for the army officer who years ago made her pretend to scream in pain during a mock interrogation, a pretense that ultimately crippled the psyche and self-identity of this woman far more artfully than the rapes inflicted on her revolutionary sisters.

In Chile, Mr. Donoso has said, “all personal pain had to have at least a political subtext,” a sentiment we mostly assign to the fringe in the United States. When I read this character’s chilling remark about the frivolity of music, I was reminded of the first time, back in 1981, that I heard Carolyn Forche read from her book of poetry, The Country Between Us, and withered under her soul-sickening descriptions: the Colonel’s burlap sack of human ears, cut like bullring trophies from the corpses of Salvadoran citizens caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, which often as not was a victim’s own house and own bed, in the middle of the night. I listened to the images of the disappeared, of poetry set to ashes in the public square, and then Forche told the audience what all of us know but so few of us Americans have believed up until 9/11:

There is nothing one man will not do to another.

The burden of that truth, expressed with the force of such simplicity, is crushing, almost guaranteeing a built-in shelf-life to all human endeavor and progress, all noble ideas and grand systems. Beware, warns Forche.  “There is nothing one man will not do to another."

The truth of Forche’s declaration burns our eyes and churns in our guts and still, somehow, we shrug it off and retreat to our cultural swaddle of trivialities, our fatuous romps with celebrities and their apparently delicious transgressions.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, what was the fighting about in Chile, in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, in Argentina and Haiti, in the Philippines, and South Africa, and East Timor? The righteous leaders of each liberation movement were battling, as often as not, and with the blessings of the people, in their own self-interest for their personal access to the dangerous glories, and wealth of possibilities, of power. And as often as not, first came the years of sacrifice in the name of the people, then came the members-only feast at the same table where the old regime of vampires had gorged itself.

Yet what were the people fighting for–the yous and mes, the ordinary lives on the street?

Not for power but for freedom, of course, for liberty, for freedoms long familiar to affluent Americans, freedoms refined (or under W’s administration, eroded) daily in our courts and legislative houses. And how simple and basic they were, these freedoms. Freedom to have a mouth, to use that mouth for eating and speaking. Freedom to possess eyes and ears, to use them without fear. Freedom to follow one’s nose into the kitchens of the State to see what’s cooking.

And freedom most of all to have a mind and to exercise it and, having a mind, freedom to have an imagination obsessed and infatuated with the world and, having an imagination, freedom to be silly or serious, freedom to be entertaining or enlightening, freedom to be dedicated to higher cause or indulgent in lesser pleasure. To be this, or that, or ... frivolous. To be always, and fully, human. To be frivolous then was itself an important political expression, de facto and oblique but nevertheless a reflection of social reality, a statement of high significance. It said: I am free. Free from the terror and hopelessness that would rot my soul. If we shall perish, it will be from our own hands, through our own stupidity, and that is our right as a free people.

Yet even as we recognize the value of frivolity as the reflection of a political state of grace, we understand that as an aesthetic agenda frivolity places us on very thin ice, far away from the metrics of determining which stories are most worth telling.

Here are the atmospheric and genuinely metaphysic poles of creativity then: frivolity and seriousness. If, for the sake of argument, I skew the definition of frivolity to represent inwardness—that is, away from the State and the commonwealth and the wider social fabric—and political apathy, I can tag its traits onto the Literature of Domestic Experience. The Literature of the Uninterrupted Life, where only natural death, inner conflict, or happenstance of undirected fate—a car wreck, for instance, or breast cancer–disturbs the flow of intimacy, or jolts the isolation from intimacy. I am speaking of a self largely untaxed by history, which is also a self that cultivates an ignorance of history, and I am speaking of writers as the purveyors of the myth of American innocence, inhabiting a literary consciousness where one would be sullied and contaminated by contact with politics and power and its endless manifestations of corruption. Spinning at the opposite end of this globe of existence is the Literature of Political Experience.

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.”

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.