View Full Version : Politics and Fiction

02-16-2014, 10:54 AM
It's college again!

Anyways, I caught this fascinating interview (http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/wheres-the-rage/) with author/critic Pankaj Mishra on the intersection of bad politics and good literature. I think my own views on this problem line up with his and it seemed relevant given some of the recent press surrounding Woody Allen/Bill Cosby/etc. (even though Mishra is going off on a more ethnic and less conceptual angle here):

Kamila Shamsie: Dickens’s infamous line after the 1857 Mutiny or War of Independence was: “I wish I were the Commander in Chief in India… I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested.” As a reader and critic, are you always able to—and do you think it is necessary to—separate literary achievement from political choices? Dickens and Nabokov are very different cases, in that Dickens’s work was so deeply tied up with ideas of injustice and oppression and Nabokov’s wasn’t. If there were a Dickens-like figure today, who railed against social injustice in his own land while wishing he could exterminate an entire race somewhere else—would it be possible for you to keep the knowledge of that double standard outside of the experience of reading the novels, or judging the literary achievement of those novels?

Pankaj Mishra: You open up a Pandora’s box when you wonder about the discrepancy between Dickens’s sensitivity to injustice at home and his advocacy of brutality against Indians. As a reader who loves both Dickens and Nabokov (some of the latter’s work, at least) I am fully prepared to see them upholding the political prejudices and clichés of their time. And I think our conception of literature should accommodate not only apolitical writers but also those whose political opinions we find unpalatable. Fiction after all comes from a different, less rationally manipulable side of the brain. I am personally very attached to reactionary figures like Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, and Céline.

Kamila Shamsie: You say fiction comes from a different side of the brain than politics, but doesn’t the overtly political novel demand we engage both sides of the brain at once?

Pankaj Mishra: I think overtly political novels—those that never transcend or contest their author’s conscious intentions and prejudices—are problematic. This is not just true of the innumerable unread books in the socialist realist tradition, but also of novels that carry the burden of conservative ideologies, like Guerrillas, Naipaul’s worst book, where the author’s disgust for a certain kind of black activist and white liberal is overpowering. It forces him into drawing facile links between the sexual and the revolutionary instinct—which is also the central flaw in much post-9/11 fiction by Anglo-Americans—and a serious imaginative failure occurs. John Banville has written very well about another ideological narrative overdetermined by fear and distaste: Ian McEwan’s Saturday.

On the other hand, it was a self-declared Stalinist—Christina Stead—who wrote the extraordinary The Man Who Loved Children. I think a more complex idea of fiction—and the human self’s relationship with the world—emerges when we abandon this philistine equation between literature and liberalism and human goodness, and pay some attention to the darker, ambiguous, and often muddled energies and motivations that shape a work of art. If we do this, we can appreciate a writer like Céline or Gottfried Benn without worrying whether they conform to existing notions of political incorrectness.

Incidentally, I am intrigued by how many European and Latin American writers expressed their political views in the columns they routinely wrote or write in the popular press, like Saramago, Vargas Llosa, and Eco. This strikes me as one way of avoiding opinionated fiction, and allowing your imagination a broader latitude. Similarly, fiction writers from places like India and Pakistan are commonly expected to provide primers to their country’s histories and present-day conflicts. But we haven’t had that tradition in Anglo-America.