Culture Watch

History & lit

For a good half-century most hightoned literary circles have held historical novels in low esteem. Ortega y Gasset singled out the genre for special contempt in a famous denunciation of vulgar realism ( The Dehumanization of Art and Notes on the Novel, 1925), arguing that historical novelists are too preoccupied with matters unconnected with art —factual accuracy, period flavor, and the like. And many critics have echoed this complaint, even when dealing with historical novels by writers impossible to dismiss as hacks—Robert Graves, Robert Penn Warren, others.
Just at the moment, though, the old orthodoxy appears to be wavering. Among avowedly literary authors it’s becoming chic to introduce historical personages and events into works advertised as fiction. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, among the most commercially successful serious novels of the decade, details episodes—some invented, some not —in the lives of Houdini, Freud, and Emma Goldman, while tracing out a family history. Gore Vidal’s Burr, another best seller, restaged Valley Forge and numerous political intrigues of the Founding Fathers, from the perspective of Jefferson’s Vice President. Peter Tauber’s THE LAST BEST HOPE (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $10.95), a new first novel heavily backed by its publishers, brings President Nixon on for a stretch toward its close, to conduct a Medal of Honor ceremony. Half of Robert Coover’s much-heralded THE PUBLIC BURNING (Viking, $12.95), a work billed as a fantasy and centering on the execution in 1953 of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is actually narrated by (a figure called) Richard Nixon.
As might be guessed, infusing history into fiction doesn’t produce a winner every time. True, Richard Nixon’s inward ruminations in Robert Coover’s book offer a view of the then Vice President’s adolescence, college experience, early years, and sex life that’s wholly engrossing. At one level the constructive imagination illuminates neglected relationships among the facts of a private and public life, linking the erratic toughness and sentimentality of the grown man with his awkwardness with girls in youth. And simultaneously there’s a dramatization, at another level, of the processes involved in the creation of a literary character. (More about this, as the former President used to say, in a moment.) But for every page of perception there’s a matching page of rant and anti-American cliché, uttered by a fantastic creation named Uncle Sam Slick, a blend of Jove, the Holy Ghost, Davy Crockett, and Foxy Grandpa, who presides over the action of The Public Burning from beginning to end, and speaks a dreadful idiom drawn from the Down Home American Folk Past—shebang, hodag, etc. (There are precedents for this sort of rant in the Coover oeuvre.) Uncle Sam’s deeds are as boringly predictable as his talk; because of both, The Public Burning seems overschematic and overblown.
Jerome Charyn’s THE FRANKLIN SCARE (Arbor House, $8.95), another work in the “real historical people” genre, is a comic novel, much trimmer than the Coover book, bare of sermons and generally less ambitious. The author’s previous novels were about ethnic enclaves; this one tells the story of Oliver Beebe, a young Navy barber who comes to FDR’s notice toward the end of World War II, earns a bed in the White House attic, rises to intimacy with The Boss (also with “Eleanor”), becomes custodian of Fala, dinner companion of J. Edgar Hoover, and enigma to the press of several nations. The narrative glances, at intervals, at familiar public events of ‘44 and ‘45—the decline in the President’s health, his race against Dewey, failure at Yalta, death at Warm Springs. But Seaman Beebe is ever the focus.
The “scare” of the title occurs when the Secret Service and the FBI learn, at a pivotal hour in the campaign for the fourth term, that the President’s close friend Ollie has an incestuous relationship with his older sister, a member of a gang of lowbrow D. C. fascists. At Yalta FDR’s problems with Uncle Joe about Poland are set at parity with Ollie’s insomnia:
Stalin . . . stopped in front of Ollie with one of the generals, who acted as his interpreter, and asked the boy how he liked the Black Sea. “It’s beautiful,” Ollie said. “But the dolphins make too much noise outside my window. I can’t sleep.” Stalin gave a soft chuckle as Oliver’s words were whispered in his ear. Then he muttered three short sentences that Roosevelt’s interpreter picked out for Ollie.
“The dolphins are party members. I can’t chase them away. But I can tell them to go swim in somebody else’s window.”
The Franklin Scare is more poised in its narrative pacing and more amusing, tonally, than Charyn’s earlier books— but also more complacent about its own silliness, camp, and put-ons, and in time the complacency becomes irksome.
Still, it’s an interesting read and, like The Public Burning, poses more consequential problems than usually appear in contemporary fiction. Why all at once this transition in the relations between history and fiction? What lies behind the trend?
Nothing political, I think. The columnist George F. Will recently described The Public Burning as “literature of hate,” and went on to charge that Coover had dealt with Nixon and others without “respect for their humanity.” But in fact the portrait of the man from Whittier—Coover’s centerpiece—is less marred by malevolence than most Nixon portraits, and, indeed, is often unabashedly sympathetic. The likelier motive for these experiments is, I suspect, aesthetic, having to do in part with certain encroachments and vanities of “new journalism.” During the last two decades the legions led by Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Hunter Thompson—writers who read the facial expressions of the great (Ali, Senator Goldwater, Leonard Bernstein, whomever) and then “report” what’s going on within their minds— have been in the habit of assuring the public that they’re “annexing the methods of the novel.” The claim is as spurious as the notion that a man who plays “The Saints Go Marching In" on a clavichord is “annexing the methods” of Bach—but in a world of hype, who’s to know? It’s the job of fiction to set things straight, and this entails showing forth the difference between a genuinely novelistic vision of a real-life personage and plain, timid, earthbound, new journalistic speculation about what the champ is thinking.
And this setting straight is, in turn, only a phase of a larger project upon which nearly all twentieth-century artists, regardless of medium, have been engaged—that of winning proper attention for the act of creation and transformation itself, and banishing the myth that artists in any respect resemble tape recorders or cameras. Bringing off this larger project means finding forms that press the audience into more conscious confrontation with the aesthetic deed of transformation— rubbing people’s noses from moment to moment in imaginative change. The antihistorical historical novel is indubitably such a form, as even those who despise it sometimes indirectly concede.
George Will, for one. “Novelists who use history for their fiction . . . are less free than other novelists,” Will says. Perfectly true. “Coover’s novel,” he adds, “is merely parasitic upon news.” True again, if “merely” isn’t overstressed. But it’s precisely the lack of freedom and the seeming dependence upon known fact that enable the novelist to separate himself from his own parasites. When a reader has no information about the nature of a fictionist’s so-called raw material (gossip about the folks next door? which door?), the reader’s eye is always where it shouldn’t be—on some nonexistent represented world, instead of on creative energy reshaping common experience, common consciousness, common sense in language. And the result is that the reader doesn’t connect with imaginative writing on its own terms, doesn’t learn how a story or a character is “made up” or how heroicizing works, doesn’t learn any of the truth about the human act of interpretation which (whether performed by writers or by readers) is, finally, what literature uniquely teaches.
At the end of The Public Burning, in an hour of fierce personal need, Coover’s Nixon addresses a Times Square mob of the mighty gathered to witness and cheer an execution—and the hero Storms The Heights. He invents an absolutely loony new chauvinistic obscenity that’s instantly—astonishingly—hailed by the whole monstrous crowd. At this moment Coover is operating amidst a most intense hum and buzz of actuality. His reader knows everything, so it would seem—Nixon’s vulgarity, his obsessive patriotism, his imagination of himself as a late-inning, two-out batter, crisis-master supreme. To write imaginatively in these circumstances, to unmake the President under pressure, without losing touch with the historical given, is to function as an artist (as distinguished from a journalist new or old). To create the terms on which a reader who knows everything, and possesses a hundred grounds for disgust, will find himself nevertheless rooting for a former enemy, rejoicing in “Nixon’s” mad improvisational gifts, relishing the links between those gifts and every other nobly spontaneous spur-of-the-moment con job ever brought off before in letters—this, surely, is to make art visible.
Not everyone will accept or admire the Coover vision. (For my taste, as indicated, it’s too damned Sam Slick.) But because there is a vision as well as a familiar image to hold up against it for size, the reader of The Public Burning—and of The Franklin Scare, too—is especially conscious, while reading, of the authors as active shaping intelligences, creators departing from norms and returning to them, elaborating, modifying, teasing, and replacing our legends, our conventional wisdoms, our media versions. (A gently comic, lightly fanciful Stalin?) And the reader is also aware, assuming he’s alert, that implicit in this sort of writerly obtrusiveness is a query about exactly what character is in the first place. Both writers seem to be saying that stable identity, or unified selves, are modes of description, not states of being. Putting it more simply: character is believing your own notices and trying to act like the person they depict. Or, once more: change the style and you change the character, and, since there’s no limit to styles, there’s no limit to characterological possibility.
In a chapter on Time and Timestyle in The Public Burning, Coover broods on relations between a heroicizing lingo (“jut-jawed sixfooter,” etc.), several popular American concepts of leadership, and the political atmosphere of the fifties. Both he and Charyn seem determined to demonstrate how swiftly a few shifts of perspective and tone, and a readmission of the trivial detail normally excluded—or else rendered heavily symbolical —in ordinary writing about the great can remake any character; not merely bring him down, as people say, but thoroughly reconstitute him as a person. (Adjacent to plucky, incestuous, totally unpretentious Ollie, FDR in The Franklin Scare undergoes a myriad of metamorphoses, each bringing to birth a new and possible FDR. The same happens to Nixon in The Public Burning when he’s exposed to folks in the D. C. streets during demonstrations.)
Be not intimidated by the media, this is surely a piece of the message. We buy our leaders night after night as steady nation-state selves, but really they’re quite as mad in their dreams as the rest of us; nothing but their obligation to perform—to settle into a style of personal presentation, a pattern of speech—enables them (or anyone else) to get an act together even briefly.
If the production of antihistorical novels continues, and if the level of complexity and interest rises, literary historians will reap a whole new crop of intricacies of explication. (For instance: Is it the resemblances—there are many—between the novels in question and eighteenth-century mock heroic works that are crucial, or the differences?) For now, though, it’s enough to note that this emergent, taste for fiction vaguely “about” real-life personages seems wholly continuous with other enterprises in the high literary sector of the midto late twentieth century— continuous, that is, with Beckett, Borges, Butor, Barth, Barthes, Barthelme, et al. The overall aim is to upset old literary fixities like “character,” and the primary subject—here as everywhere nowadays—is language.


“What is language? What is a sign? What is unspoken in the world, in our gestures, in the whole enigmatic heraldry of our behavior, our dreams, our sickness? . . . What is this language that says nothing, is never silent, and is called ‘literature’? . . . The whole curiosity of our thought now resides in the question: What is language, how can we find a way round it in order to make it appear in itself, in all its plenitude?”
— Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (1970)

I won’t be long

THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $8.95), Philip Roth’s tenth book, offers an account of the sexual anguish—from adolescence onward—of David Kepesh, the man who, in Roth’s novella The Breast, was transformed at thirty-eight into a breast. When met in the present work, Kepesh is an English professor in his mid-thirties, preparing to teach a series of novels focused on “the subject of erotic desire” (authors to be read include Genet, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Mann). For the sake of honesty he decides to begin his course with a lecture on his own erotic history—the details of the “professor’s desire” —and this lecture becomes the novel at hand. It’s a completely self-contained book but the major characters are the same as those in The Breast, and few of its other elements will surprise readers who remember Portnoy’s Complaint or Goodbye, Columbus. Those elements include several varieties of kinky sexual experience carefully observed, a rounded portrait of a loving Jewish father, some incidental satirical thrusts at private West Coast universities and public Catskills resorts, and much first-rate commentary on Chekhov’s short stories. As though to mark himself off sharply from novelists who see themselves as writing more directly about linguistic matters than about human beings, Roth has his professor speak out explicitly on the representational powers of literature, and upon his students’ obligation to look through the words on the page into the lives about which they speak.
But, not surprisingly, in light of the physical alteration awaiting its hero, The Professor of Desire turns out to be still another book about the impossibility of a stable self. To repeat, the context for the development of this theme isn’t linguistic-stylistic-theoretical, as it is in Coover and Charyn. And David Kepesh isn’t Golda Meir. He’s presented as a particular, solidly specified, idiosyncratic person, not a legendary character to be rattled in the dice cup of this or that, writing style. But he is fearfully restless, and centerless as well. In his youth he is wracked by multiple desires:
I will go to medical school—and train to be a surgeon. Though perhaps as a psychiatrist I can do even more good for mankind. I will become a lawyer ... a diplomat . . . why not a rabbi, one who is studious, contemplative, deep. . . .
Soon after, he’s transformed from altruism to voyeurism and other less seemly deviancies. Then, in his thirties, after being accused, justly, of “moral delinquency” by his own analyst, he experiences—thanks to the freshness and goodness of a new lover—a sudden rebirth into physical and moral health . . . only to discover that he can’t believe in this transformation as a stopping point, is incapable of accepting any promise of self-permanence for his future. “. . . I pit all my accumulated happiness, and all my hope, against my fear of transformations yet to come”—but there’s no confidence in the wager, only a firm, unalterable assurance that the steady self is an impossibility. There are tonal ambiguities in the work, stemming from its connection with the Kafkaesque fantasy of The Breast. And the force, the unyieldingness, of the insistence upon ceaseless transformation as inevitable lends an air of abstractness to Kepesh’s story. But that same bleak conviction attains striking authority before the end. The claim that one is powerless before one’s own corrupt mercuriality can never be affecting unless scraped absolutely clean of self-pity, but Kepesh seems beyond self-pity, and The Professor of Desire is a suggestive book, stronger by far than the work from which it sprang, worth reading and pondering.

Deep background

Many spirits, greater and lesser, have contributed to contemporary conceptions of characterlessness, or human proteanism, or the nonexistence of human nature—Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Herbert Marcuse, R. D. Laing, Robert Jay Lifton, Ivan Illich, Richard Sennett, Paul Goodman, Percival Goodman . . . but sorting out their contributions hasn’t been easy. The appearance this season of James A. Ogilvy’s MANY DIMENSIONAL MAN: DECENTRALIZING SELF, SOCIETY, AND THE SACRED (Oxford, $14.95) lightens the task. The author (currently visiting associate professor of philosophy at Williams College) assesses the major influences on contemporary theories of character, clarifies relationships both among the theorists themselves and between their ideas and recent social, economic, and political history, and, at the end, in a series of meditations on myths about “selves within selves”—the stories of Aphrodite and Narcissus—puts a positive case for the rejection of personal identity as conventionally conceived.
His starting point is that, in a post-religious period, conceptions of character as immutably stable and integrated depend upon “political monotheism”—belief in a leader whose potency is a function of rock-hard personal identity. Owing partly to a general decline in political power in the contemporary world, that belief has atrophied. (“The presidency is dead,” says Professor Ogilvy—Coover and Charyn might agree—after surveying the present status of trappings of office, including “the pseudoevent of the press conference where a president contrives to appear in command by recalling various briefings.”) Given the weakness of authority and its effort to duck its responsibilities as a centralizing, unifying model, flight is inevitable—flight (like that of Roth’s Professor Kepesh) from the moderate decent center to Dionysiac, discontinuous, pluralistic borderlands. And to survive the flight people need help—new ways of seeing themselves and of being seen. In essence they need a “polytheistic psychology, a model of selfhood in which subjective freedom derives not from a single monotheistic ego but from a pluralized pantheon of selves ... a model of multiple selves within each person.”
Earlier enthusiasts of “disorderly decentralization” such as Illich and Sennett maintained a fairly sober, policyplanning, problem-solving mien throughout their treatises. Professor Ogilvy, at his best in a feverish, sometimes exhilarating exegesis of Thus Spake Zarathustra, draws on their terms of analysis and diagnosis, and upon the relevant abstractions of earlier social and political philosophy—but adds to the equation what might be termed the poetics of self-transformation and pluralization. The result is a rationale for proteanism that is as hectic as it is comprehensive, carrying the wildness of the idea in its very texture, so that there’s no confusing the future it envisages with a speech at a Rotary lunch or a debate in a faculty meeting.
The existence of such a rationale hardly signifies its imminent universal acceptance. (Professor Ogilvy, by turns a blue-skies thinker and a wit, concedes that if the presidency is dead, the IRS isn’t.) In life, single-self-souls continue to multiply. And as for letters . . . “realistic" Washington novels will continue to be written, depicting legislators, jurists, and assistant secretaries moving about in sanitized climates of deference, assured of potency. So too will novels rich in solidities of moral specification, works in which readers know what to expect, precisely as Jane Austen’s readers know that, on each of Mr. Collins’s appearances, they’ll take in an utterly immutable snob. And people who deride such work as Victorian will undoubtedly be self-deceived: the difference between our great-grandfathers and us may be that they pretended to be less self-diversified than they were, while we pretend the opposite.
What chiefly matters about this new fiction and social psychology is the testimony it provides that the endless search for human self-definition isn’t by any means running down. Neither bystation nor by brow (low or high), nor by church affiliation or humors or hobbyhorse, can we place and know ourselves any longer. But, freshened byforces ranging from early retirement to the internal dialectic of letters to anxiety about genetic engineering, the hunt for new categories of self-understanding persists. The oldest question—just what kind of people do we think we are—remains as young as the world.