Posts Tagged ‘Frank Guan’

Are ideological novels a thing of the past? And is today’s autofiction “an aesthetic edition of careerism”?

Monday, July 2nd, 2018
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Joe is right, as always. The late great Dostoevsky scholar Joseph Frank and his wife, the French mathematician Marguerite Frank. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Useful Idiots,” an essay by  over at The Point starts with Elif Batuman‘s novel The Idiot and then goes everywhere, but the nearly 4,000-word journey makes some interesting roadside stops in its discussion of “autofiction,” fictionalized autobiography of the kind Batuman writes, and “ideological novels,” the kind the author refers to in the title of her own recent novel. Here’s a sort of sampler from the essay.

On Stendhal, Dostoevsky and “novels powered by direct engagement with ideology”:

More than pawnshops and samovars.

Through their idiot protagonists these novelists and their readers became more intimately acquainted with ideology x than any believer: the plot generated by their protagonists’ pursuit of x’s tenets exposed the implications of x to an extent that the political discourse surrounding x, constrained by polemic opposition and assertion, never could. The quantum facts of daily life, the pawnshops, manors, samovars, Thursday evenings and horse-driven cabs, were to this novel what the skin is to the body: a surface of mostly dead matter whose purpose was informing, concealing and protecting all the other vital systems. They were necessary, and they were most of what could be seen, but to reduce the novel to them would be false, incomplete—literally superficial. The “reality” of this ideological realism was not inert material to be quarried and crafted, but animate: a triple collision between the individual conscience, the society in which the idiot operates, and the ideology (conquistador chivalry, Promethean science, Gnostic materialism, Napoleonic romanticism, revolutionary communism, Gatsbian romanticism, revolutionary communism, white supremacy) that would shape conscience and society according to its own dictates.

Where we are today:

Riffing…

To be fair, the horizons of collective belief were particularly unpromising for Batuman and her generation, who came of age and made careers during a period where it was easy to conclude that there was nothing bigger than the self left to believe in. The Cold War’s end coincided with a prolonged devaluation of ideological content. Libertarian logic colonized the cultural sphere. Torrents of on-demand data eroded any vision of the longue durée. As far as government went, expert-guided liberal democracy was the order for the foreseeable future; having taken care of communism, it seemed more than capable of taking care of itself. In literature as in much else, the tenor of the Nineties was set by the New Republic, where James Woods reviews of classic novels consistently dampened their ideological charge even as his reviews of contemporary fiction condemned deviation from a pinched conception of realism.

Wood’s influence was hardly decisive, but given that a similar hostility to ideology in narrative had dominated program fiction since its CIA-funded genesis in the postwar years, there seemed as little alternative to literary fiction sealed purely within the personal and empirical as there was to the flat world dictated by the empire of free markets. In such a self-defined environment, it was no surprise that the era’s modes of entertainment should correspond to its novelistic subgenres: the tourism of historical and overseas fiction, the animated films of magical realism. (The marijuana of standard-issue MFA realism—all forgettable inaction and enhanced tactile sensation.) Autofiction, a sort of aesthetic edition of careerism, was the logical endpoint of realism’s exclusive valorization of individual experience: once all other recreations expose their artifice and exhaust their charm, what is left except to chart one’s own advancement through a world as fixed as it is real?

In conclusion:

Don’t forget the Frenchman!

These are unsettling times. Tensions and pressures formerly pacified by the prospect of endless growth now draw force from a state of permanent stagnation. Established institutions tremble with the resentful energies of dishonored promises; each crisis barely averted sows the seeds for more inevitable confrontation. Yet if literary history is any indication, an era of collapsing order offers fertile ground for novelists. Shaken by events out of inertia and conformity, they waken to a world teeming with open inquiries and untested solutions; whether facing the window, the mirror or the other, certainties dissolve. The pressing question is no longer how to fit in with the given, but how much must be changed. The temptation to wager one’s existence on an unrealized social ideal grows ever more alluring. So, too, grows the inclination to review one’s ideals and imagine their implications writ large. The unique quality of the novel catalyzed by ideology is its range, its capacity to simultaneously circumscribe the horizons of belief, exercise the full freedom to maneuver in society, and gauge its potential to foster individual maturity. It’s the best, if not the only, instrument left to us to understand what we are becoming.

“With an integrity that cannot be too highly praised,” Dostoevsky biographer and intellectual historian Joseph Frank concludes his chapter on The Idiot, “Dostoevsky thus fearlessly submits his own most hallowed convictions to the same test that he had used for the Nihilists—the test of what they would mean for human life if taken seriously and literally, and lived out to their full extent as guides to conduct.” It bears mentioning that the age of Dostoevsky was not an age of brilliant thinkers. The intellectual situation of Petersburg in the 1860s was jammed with third- and fourth-rate seminary dropouts butchering their recitations of second-rate Europeans. Given that the ideological matrix now is no more dismal than in the past; given that the universities, then as now, are turning out a new caste of intellectuals who, indebted and underemployed, have ample cause to rally around visions of a better world; and especially given that literate people today have access to 150 extra years of literary history beginning with Dostoevsky’s novels—given all this, is it really so inconceivable that some millennial author might arrive, like Dostoevsky, at a novel equal in magnitude to the disaster that helped give it form? And in the meantime, why shouldn’t the highly privileged writers of Batuman’s generation be able to afford the most basic, most essential luxury the novel can offer, that of critiquing their own articles of faith? Look closely and you’ll see: the only thing holding them back is their selves.

We miss you, Joe. As always. Read more about him here and here and here. Read the whole Frank Guan discussion here.