Friday, 23 October 2015 16:17

Writers for Conservatives: 8--Realism and Reality

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Writers for Conservatives: 8--Realism and Reality

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The rationale of these literary essays, appearing in the Review for more than a year now, was explained in "Culture of Conservatives" in the Dec. 2005 issue, and I have alluded to it in some of the essays, but I think there's more to be said on the subject. I wrote that reading literature, good imaginative fiction, "gives us views of the world through others' eyes, widening our horizons, broadening our sympathies," and that it precedes politics, that our opinions are "surface manifestations of a world of thought and feeling" developed by "education, meaning everything we experience," including our reading. The books we read contribute to our culture, which in turn largely determines our politics. As I have said more than once, it is not the ideas in fiction that are so influential, but the writer's vision of the world. It is obvious, for instance, that Evelyn Waugh must have taken great pleasure observing people because it shows up in his characters; we feel his zest for life in his books; it is one of the chief pleasures of reading them. It would be absurd to try to list the "lessons" we learn from reading Waugh, but surely whatever it is, the knowledge gained is funny, not sour, and our outlook has been widened, not narrowed.

Readers will have noticed that the politics of the authors I've written about were various. Waugh was reactionary, Powers liberal, Swift an 18th century Tory, Hemingway radical. Their politics have little to do with their work and nothing to do with their artistry. Some express or imply ideas--Waugh, civilization's decay, Hemingway, stoic nihilism--but they are not nearly so important as the sensory reality of their stories or their general tone. The darkest writer of the group is Hemingway, but he never wrote anything that could be classed with the squalid fiction of today. Artistry has been a major theme in this series, analyzing the art of each writer, showing how it's done, because that's the finest thing we can get from our reading, recognition and understanding of the beauty of a work of art, which is, or should be, an essential part of the conservative outlook: the beauty of artistic form testifies to the greatness of man's spirit.

People have always based their affiliations on their cultural predispositions, just as they have felt that their political allegiances tell important things about them; but there is a difference today: Liberals are far more fiercely committed to the Democratic party and their identity is much more closely bound up with it, hence the term "identity politics." Why is this so? Although modern liberalism (the leftist type, distinct from 19th century liberalism) began as a cultural phenomenon--the literature of the time--in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and got a boost in the 1920s and '30s, it really spread to the political realm in the mid '60s. It is hard to believe today, but I remember the early '60s, when elite colleges were staffed by apoliticals, conservatives (not very many), and liberals of the Adlai Stevenson variety. Passions were cool, belligerence non-existent. Once radicalism moved beyond its subculture, working to take over the Democratic party between 1968 and '72, the temperature of political passions shot up and we were swamped by a culture of alienation and rebellion, sour, nasty, negative. Naturally this bred a strong identity politics, to the extent that where I live yuppies (teenagers in the '60s) shun known Bush voters and are fearful of Christians! This trend was exacerbated by the advent of Reagan and the rise of conservatism: Now liberals, feeling besieged as the cultural control they've exerted for so long is weakening, cling more desperately than ever to their politics. With most aspects of culture behind them for so long, liberals were supremely confident until recently.

The liberal literary culture of the last 100 years is characterized by a dark, negative tone. As one observer notes:

There is in all these works a certain atmosphere of universal doom . . . an impression of hopelessness . . . something confusing, something hazy . . . something hostile to the reality which they represent . . . a turning away from the practical will to live or delight in portraying it under its most brutal forms. There is a hatred of culture and civilization . . . and often a radical and fanatical urge to destroy.

Sometimes the themes are negative, often they are simply incidental, a matter of course: against authority, business, the military, religion, the wealthy--all are portrayed as enemies of compassionate individuals. Understand that this says nothing about the quality of the writing. Dubliners, for instance, a book of stories by James Joyce, is beautifully done, but its point, the reason it was written, is to show nearly every character as contemptible. It's a very hard book to like; it's a typical product of modern literary culture. Remember: It isn't the ideas that influence readers, it's the way the world is seen and portrayed, in this case with contempt. There are contemporary novels that have been praised by conservatives for their ideas, but since their vision of the world is as squalid as any other typical contemporary novel, their ideas mean nothing.

If liberal literary culture is dying, what shall take its place? To try to answer that, I shall turn to Mimesis, The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, a very highly regarded book written by Erich Auerbach over 60 years ago, erudite, fascinating, beautifully written and argued, but dense, often prolix, and linguistically demanding (to fully appreciate his analysis of all the texts requires knowledge of Latin, Italian, French, and German). Not a page-turner for the casual reader. Nevertheless, I think we can winkle from it some ideas useful for our discussion. The basic argument is that Western literature from its beginning in antiquity (he opens with Homer's Odyssey) and onward over the centuries, has grappled with the challenge of representing reality in many different ways, culminating in modern realism, represented first by Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and thereafter by many others, from whom he chooses Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse) as the exemplar. Well aware of the negative aspects of modern realism--he's the "observer" I quoted above--he was more impressed by "something new and elemental . . . nothing less than the wealth of reality and depth of life in every moment to which we surrender ourselves without prejudice." It would take too long to explain here, but if the reader is familiar with the stories of Katherine Mansfield or the genteel writers of The New Yorker school (prior to the mid-'60s), he will be acquainted with the method of concentrating on feelings and perceptions in random revelatory moments.

Whether we agree with Auerbach's characterization of modern realism or not, the thing to see is that he thinks it has solved the problem of representing reality. This is it, the end of the line, the culmination of nearly 3000 years of literary history. I don't think one has to be a conservative to be skeptical of progressive, quasi-teleolgical views of history, even literary history. Realism, in this realm anyway, is a method like any other (expressionism, surrealism, objectivism, etc., etc.); just as there have been others in the past so there will be more in the future. What Auerbach seems to have done here is to conflate the method, realism, with what it's trying to portray, reality. His error may be due to the fact that many modern realists (Woolf and Joyce being prominent examples) try to mimic reality by uttering incoherent thoughts of their characters--stream of consciousness is one form of this--so if the mime succeeds, and he thinks it does, then the method merges with the thing itself. But this is nonsense, if for no other reason than the fact that reality can only be fully and truly known to the mind of God; as individuals we all see it a little differently. For another reason, it is clear now that in the years since Mimesis was written, the method seems to have played itself out.

So we come back to the question of what shall replace liberal literary culture. We may hope for a conservative renaissance, though we cannot know what form it will take (except that it will not be modern realism), but its development will be long delayed unless conservative editors begin to publish fiction. It will be very difficult at first. No one seems to care much about literature anymore, and taste has been debased. But a beginning must be made. Only then, when conservatives feel the weight of their culture behind them, will they have the confidence and spirit to restore America to itself. I hope this series of essays has started readers thinking about these matters, and I also hope I have interested them in some fine writers. There are more to come: Francis Parkman, Arnold Bennett, Thoreau, Henry James, Conrad and more. *

"The first virtue of all really great men is that they are sincere. They eradicate hypocrisy from their hearts." --Anatole France

We would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions in support of this journal (from 1/8/2007 to 3/9/2007): William D. Andrews, Charles A. Bacon, John M. Baker, Reid S. Barker, John G. Barrett, Harry S. Barrows, Gordon D. Batcheller, Arnold Beichman, Bud & Carol Belz, Charles Benscheidt, Ronald Benson, Aleatha W. Berry, Veronica A. Binzley, James B. Black, Erminio Bonacci, C.W. Borklund, I. C. Brent, Priscilla L. Buckley, William G. Buckner, David G. Budinger, D. J. Cahill, George E. Cahill, William C. Campion, Mark T. Cenac, W. Edward Chynoweth, William D. Collingwood, Garry W. Croudis, Nancy W. Davis, Dianne C. DeBoest, Robert W. Demers, Francis. P. Destefano, Linda Driedger, Neil Eckles, Carl W. Edquist, Irene M. Elkins, Nicholas Falco, Nansie Lou Follen, Reubin M. Freitas, Jerome C. Fritz, James R. Gaines, Jane F. Gelderman, Gary D. Gillespie, Lee E. Goewey, Hollis J. Griffin, Alene D. Haines, Daniel J. Haley, Robert C. Hall, Violet H. Hall, Ted L. Harkins, Thomas E. Heately, Bernhard Heersink, Thomas E. Humphreys, Joseph M. Irvin, Burleigh Jacobs, Robert R. Johnson, Steven D. Johnson, Mary A. Kelley, Robert E. Kelly, Walter J. Kenworthy, Robert E. Kersey, Robert M. Kubow, Harvey & Mary Larsen, Robert Leaf, James A. Lee, Herbert London, Ronald B. Maddox, Scott Martin, Verlie Mae Matson, W. K. McLain, David P. & Barbara R. Mitchel, Michael E. Moore, King Odell, Larry A. Olsen, Harold Olson, Frederick D. Pfau, Donald J. Povejsil, Garland L. & Betty Pugh, Jane B. Ramsland, Richard O. Ranheim, Jeanne I. Reisler, Shirley W. Roe, Robert E. Rolwing, Morris R. Scholz, Mr. & Mrs. Richard P. Schonland, Irene L. Schultz, Harry Richard Schumache, Richard L. Sega, William A. Shipley, Joseph M. Simonet, Ben T. Slade, Thomas E. Snee, Carl G. Stevenson, Charles B. Stevenson, Mary H. Sundberg, Elizabeth E. Torrance, Jacke E. Turner, James J. Whelan, Max L. Williamson, Charles W. Wilson, Eric B. Wilson, Robert W. Wilson.

Read 1399 times Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2015 21:17
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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