Sunday, July 26, 2009

The American Novel and American Politics III

Among those lamenting the failure of American novelists to write politically significant works is the author Tom Grimes. Writing “On Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago" in the literary periodical Tin House No. 37 (Volume 10, No. 1, 2008; unfortunately not electronically archived), Grimes notes a common tendency in writers who came of age in the sixties to have moved away from interest in the larger forces that govern American life -- Mailer's forte -- to writers who looked close up, such as Raymond Carver, “whose unadorned prose was, according to literary critics, a reaction to our defeat in Vietnam." As storytellers,” Grimes goes on, “many of my contemporaries had moved from macro to micro, from prophecy to ambiguity, from revolution to revelation, from apocalypse to epiphany. But I didn’t have a choice.” For Grimes, the exception to the rule, what mattered was “ Mailer’s combination of concrete imagery and abstract speculation, his attempt to capture America on a grand scale.” (p. 109)

A novel that would bring American literature back to its heretofore serious engagement with living social and political reality would combine the macro and the micro. Jean-Paul Sartre back in 1947 in his What is Literature claimed that the writer must never lose track of “the importance of economic, religious, metaphysical and political factors in the constitution of the person.” (NY: Harper and Row, 1965), 86. Note this sentence carefully. Sartre is not arguing that we place the figure in his or her historical context; the figure is already constituted by those various axes that make up that context: language, custom, beliefs, etc. are present in the person, even though the decisions that person takes are formed within what the existentialist Sartre called the person's radical freedom. That is, one is not only the product of social forces and facts; one chooses one’s projects autonomously, and thereby transcends that facticity. In short, the macro and the micro are dialectical aspects of the living person. Thus a literature responsive to the age and responsible for clarifying life would be populated with figures who are formed within this dialectic of larger forces and the struggles to harness or oppose those forces.

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