Monday, March 16, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In the past few weeks I’ve come across literary examples of each:

The Ugly

Finding myself recently laid off, I figured now was as good a time as any to leap into a book such as Zygmunt Bauman’s The Art of Life. What a promising title. How upbeat! Well, before Bauman tries to tell us anything about the art of life he should perhaps learn something about the art of writing. He is one of the worst writers you will ever come across. His book an exercise in academic turgidity. Here, for instance, he is attempting to explain the fact that a rise in a nation’s gross domestic product doesn’t always translate into an increase of human happiness:
The sole common denominator of the otherwise variegated products of human bodily and mental labor being the market price they command, the statistics of the ‘gross national product’ aimed at grasping the growth or decline of the products’ availability record the amount of money changing hand in the course of buying and selling transactions.
In plain English, “The GDP only measures economic activity.” At another point he refers to the happiness people get from “gathering around a table laid with food that has been jointly cooked with its sharing in mind,” by which he means a meal with family or friends (two groups which are themselves referred to as “person-who-count to one’s intimate thoughts.”)

Oy vey.

The Bad

No one would doubt that unlike Bauman, Norman Mailer was a very good writer. It was in the art of thinking, though, that he sometimes encountered problems. The New York Review of Books has been publishing some of his letters and the following one, a 1965 missive about Saul Bellow’s Herzog, is a good example of Mailerian imbecility:

What I meant when I said Bellow has no ideas was not that there were no ideas in Herzog to be pondered, but rather that these ideas were not Bellow’s own theses, but rather ideas he had picked up in his reading. His mind is very intelligent, very cultured, very cultivated. He’s read a million books and remembered them, but he is not an original thinker. It’s not that I’m that sure about anything, it’s that I go with the animal part of my brain when I’m encountering an idea I have not met before, and none of the ideas in Herzog were in that sense the least bit fresh.
Well, on that basis, none of us have any original or fresh ideas, least of all Norman Mailer - who, as this letter reveals, is solidly enslaved to the modernist cult of originality (picked up from some book, no doubt). If getting ideas from other people or from books is grounds for dismissing a writer then we might as well throw out Shakespeare, Dante, the ancient Greeks, Milton, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Mann, Balzac – well, everyone actually.

And besides what does it mean to “go with the animal part of your brain” when you encounter new ideas? Does the “animal part” even have the ability to understand “new ideas,” in the sense Mailer means? And how would Mailer have put this into practice? If some scientist was explaining a new and original idea to him (and nowdays only scientists have genuinely new and original ideas) how would the author of Marilyn evaluate it. Would the animal part of his brain tell him to eat the scientist, like a bear’s would? Or would he be like a cat and start purring and rubbing himself against the scientist’s legs?

The Good

Victor Serge’s 1946 novel The Long Dusk is set in Paris in the 1930s. A participant in the Russian Revolution, Serge was an anarchist and novelist who left us excellent accounts of both the nightmare of Stalinism (The Murder of Comrade Tulayev) and the nightmare of the 20th-century in general (Unforgiving Years). His view is apocalyptic; his characters caught in political upheavals which they cannot control or even comprehend. We don’t live under the volcano, Serge seems to say, the volcano is under us – and it is erupting.

How, then, to establish the right tone for the novel? Here are the two opening sentences:
The whole world doesn’t collapse at once. A few little corners of the crumbled ant-hill remain almost intact; and in these corners the ants may think that their peaceful world is still with them.
How beautiful. It immediately sets the tone of foreboding and doom. It also established a certain distance – not a cold or callous one, mind you, but rather a jaded yet sympathetic one. Serge is like an Edward Gibbon who has seen too much. Both men write as dispassionate observers because the scope of their subject requires it but Serge seems to know that there is no safety or comfort in that stance. Both are men of irony – cynics, even - but Serge knows that irony, in the end, will not help you.