The Odyssey of Anti-War Literature

I recently finished re-reading Homer’s The Iliad after many years. I was struck by a number of things, but primarily how Homer depicted war as both brutal and meaningful. Not only did he not sugar-coat bronze-age combat, he actually went into gruesome detail about how spears and swords devastate the human body. His detailed knowledge of combat trauma made me suspect Homer might have been a soldier in his day or perhaps a battle-field doctor.

There is also a heroic aspect to Homer’s depiction of the Trojan War—not surprising since it is a heroic epic after all—but he handles it in a nuanced and complex way: soldiers are courageous, but they are also cowardly and sometimes unsure of the war’s validity. Under the strain of 10 years of combat, Greek and Trojan soldiers grapple with meaningful questions of conscience, self-sacrifice, grief, loyalty and mercy on the battlefield.

With The Iliad in mind, I came across an article in The New Criterion by Thomas Bruscino titled “The New Old Lie.” Bruscino believes that the ongoing effort among artists  “to insist that war is always meaningless, is not art. It is the new old lie, and an ugly one at that.”

Since the end of Word War I, war literature has unquestionably been anti-war in its aims. He finds the roots of this trend in the carnage of the American Civil War. He quotes critic Benjamin Schwarz, who recently wrote of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War writings. Schwarz wrote:

“Emerging from the charnel house, Bierce shunned any effort to invest the butchery with meaning. . . . For him the war was nothing more—could be nothing more—than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose.”

The belief that war is always a meaningless farce is echoed by the great critic Edmund Wilson.

“I am trying to disregard the pretensions of moral superiority with which we have tempted to clothe (World War I). . . . I want to suggest that . . . we ought to stop talking in terms of defending and liberating the victims of ‘oppressors’ and ‘criminals,’ our old patter of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and punishing the guilty party.”

Two of the anti-war books Bruscino alludes to in his article are works I consider modern masterpieces: Dispatches by Michael Herr and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

Bruscino makes it clear his intention is not to discredit the merit of anti-war art, but simply to contest the idea that war can only be depicted as a mindless slaughter, as if there were no legitimate differences between nations, political ideologies or governing systems, and therefore nothing worth fighting for. If this is true, intervening in a country like Syria, for example, and combating a dictatorship would also be meaningless, which is another way of saying it doesn’t matter whether the Syrian regime crushes the civilian opposition or if the regime is toppled—it’s all meaningless. Let’s hope not.

Batuman’s Take Down of MFA Literary Fiction

I’m still on an Elif Batuman kick. I’ve been tracking down her essays online and I’m looking forward to reading The Possessed, which arrived in the mail yesterday. Batuman wrote a funny, blistering and brilliantly-argued essay in the London Review of Books in 2010 titled “Get a Real Degree” where she reviewed Mark McGurl’s history of MFA creative writing programs.

It isn’t entirely surprising that Batuman, who has a PhD from Stanford and is a Russian literature professor, is no cheerleader for programme fiction. What’s surprising is that Batuman writes with a sense of wit and style that must be the envy of many fiction writers.

University of Washington:  Suzzallo Library Reading Room
Creative Commons License photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA

The following provides a sense of her flare as a reviewer as well as her skepticism about programme fiction:

“In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. This reflects, I believe, the counterintuitive but real disjuncture between good writing and good books.”

It is undeniable that contemporary “literary fiction” is now dominated by graduates of MFA programs; Batuman finds these books largely deficient:

“I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skillful storytelling, humor, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction. The juxtaposition of personal narrative with the facts of the world and the facts of literature – the real work of the novel – is taking place today largely in memoirs and essays.”

Her long essay makes a number of interesting points; in no particular order, they are:

  • Programme fiction has little “historical consciousness”
  • Programme writers are obsessed with writing about persecution & the persecuted (sounds similar to Harold Bloom’s complaint about what he termed the “literature of grievance”)
  • She challenges McGurl’s contention that until the advent of the GI Bill in the U.S., writers had generally forgone a university education
  • The whole project of literature as a “means to social change” (à la Dave Eggers) is something she remains suspicious of

Literature with an Agenda

There is an essay on the site Bookslut by Josh Cook that examines “literature with an agenda.” Cook does a good job of defending such books, and faults the influence of MFA programs (which focus strictly on craft) and early 20th Century communist propaganda as reasons why there is resistance today to books with “a message.”

Super Josif
Creative Commons License photo credit: Amio Cajander.

I would also add that many contemporary writers are no longer conversant and/or comfortable with the bedrock works of western civilization: classical Greek and Roman literature and the Bible. This ignorance about the “great conversations” poets and philosophers have been having for 2,500 years is one reason “our national discourse is essentially idea-free” as Cook puts it.

And while I agree with the general direction of Cook’s essay, I disagree with one of his assertions. He writes:

“Literature with an agenda, however, can succeed with sub-par craft, as in much of Philip K. Dick’s work (and even some of Vonnegut’s), if the agenda is compelling, original, and important enough.”

I would argue exactly the opposite. It is writers with poor craft (whether Dick deserves this designation is an entirely different matter) who, by their very nature, write books where artless preaching rudely awakens the reader from the narrative spell.

Cook cites Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a successful work with an agenda; Proust was a student of the French philosopher Henri Bergson and in his monumental novels he incorporated Bergson’s idea of “the subordination of mere reason to the genius of inner inspiration and the consideration of art as the only reality in the world,” as Nabokov wrote (now that’s a big-time agenda!).

While Proust’s ambition was light-years beyond the simplistic-agenda of a Soviet party hack, any writer who wants to work artfully with ideas must possess the skills to make his efforts invisible (as Proust does).

Cook’s essay opens an interesting dialogue. I hope more readers and writers will chime in across the Internet. Read the full essay here.

Criticism As Literature Itself

“One doesn’t have any business writing about literature unless one’s business is literature,” writes William Giraldi in his fascinating treatment of critic Adam Kirsch’s new book on Lionel Trilling, Why Trilling MattersGiraldi notes that Kirsch himself is a throwback to critic-as-intellectual and calls him:

“An Ideal critic of the Coleridgean mold, he possesses a swift command of how history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology inform works of imaginative literature.”

Giraldi references a 1963 essay by critic Stanley Edgar Hyman who believed that a critic must maintain an active engagement with the predecessors of today’s writers. In other words, literature is not simply a product of social inequities or power relationships in the culture, but that writers engage with the great works that came before them; an argument that critic Harold Bloom has been making for years in books like The Western Cannon.

There has been talk for years that Trilling was a frustrated writer. As a professor at Columbia University, Trilling had the young poet Allen Ginsberg in class and was apparently envious of his “Byronic energies” (Giraldi, who is no fan of Ginsberg, asserts he “was start to finish a second-rate poet, his celebrated Howl the sophomoric and technically inept rant of a solipsist.” I’m not sure if it has ever been said better). Kirsch puts an end to speculation that Trilling wanted to be a writer; he accepted in his heart that his métier was commentary, not literary creation.

Allen Ginsberg in 1985.
Giradli writes that for Trilling, reading was everything, and “the literary life was not only an occupation but a way of being in the world, a personal and social commitment to understanding who we are and how we fit.” Indeed a heady and elevated view of literature that should be resuscitated for our own fractured time.

Can Literature Save Us?

As a writer, former editor and lover of books it pains me to admit that literacy (or literature for that matter) doesn’t—and never will—make one a “better person.” Cambridge professor Liz Disley in her Guardian review of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature is equally skeptical that The Enlightenment opened up new vistas of empathy and understanding in the souls of men with a resultant decline in violence since 1700 (Was the wreckage of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao not taken into consideration I wonder?).

New York Public Library
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Disley’s approach to Pinker’s thesis is to label it an “elitist” one. She lays out her charge by citing a familiar analysis: literature in the last 300 years consists primarily of works penned by middle-class European and North American men. These elite individuals, the argument goes, generally ignore worldviews, cultures and classes they are unfamiliar with—therefore, the opportunity for literate Europeans to learn more about the mores of Egyptian women, for example, has been stifled.

When it comes to viewing literature in this light, I cop to being a Vladimir Nabokov disciple. In his lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov notes:

“Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeois. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world…”

Instead of Disley’s approach, I might simply point out that sociopaths like Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were proud “literary men.”

Nazi propagandist Goebbels studied philosophy, history, literature and art and earned a PhD. As a young man he dreamed of being a writer, and he completed an autobiographical novel and two plays. Then there was Hitler, of course, who was the author of an infamous screed that is still in print to this day.

Most recently we have the example of the bard/dictator Saddam Hussein. In a 2003 Atlantic Monthly article Mark Bowden wrote:

“Saddam has literary aspirations himself. He employs ghostwriters to keep up a ceaseless flow of speeches, articles, and books of history and philosophy; his oeuvre includes fiction as well. In recent years he appears to have written and published two romantic fables, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle; a third, as-yet-untitled work of fiction is due out soon.”

To quote Nabokov again: “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction.”