Friday, June 15, 2018

a piece at The New Yorker on how Orwell supposedly anticipated our cultural moment, another of the magazine's book reports about dead guys who predicted the era of Trump ...

Subtextually this piece in The New Yorker is about how Orwell predicted Trump's America.  Not that surprising as a subtext from a publication that has held forth on how the Frankfurt school predicted Trump.  Eisenhower doesn't seem like he was the next Hitler ... but ... never mind that.

Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.

Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.

He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”

This inevitably reminds me that Ellul wrote that the thing about propaganda is that it is generally meticulously accurate about bare facts and that the big lies are in the interpretations given to facts more than in what facts have been reported.  Propaganda is used to so overwhelm the senses and thought process that people are mentally and socially confined to thinking about whatever is, basically, in the current news cycle. 

But if continuous alteration of our understanding of the past is inherent to totalitarianism it's pretty simple to see how conservative and reactionary groups would insist this is precisely what progressive versions of history do, constantly and contemptuously rewriting and revising the history of the United States to cast it in the grimmest light possible.  That totalitarianism is not necessarily about a specific platform for a left or a right but a methodological range of convictions and practices can be skimmed past by those who would exempt their own respective teams, as seems to be consistently the case at the moment. 

But something about the whole article feels like boilerplate. There seems to be a current of applying these various observations chiefly to political regimes of the most formal sort, political machines of the most obvious variety.  It's still puzzling to consider that the Weinstein moment only emerged in the wake of Clinton's electoral loss in 2016.  Could the Weinstein moment, could #MeToo have happened in an era in which Clinton was president?  Would the news of her advisor Burns Strider's conduct have become headlines in an age of Clinton rather than an age of Trump


But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature? He defined literature as a sort of conversation—“an attempt to influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries by recording experience.” He added that “there is no such thing as a genuinely non-political literature, and least of all in an age like our own, when fears, hatreds, and loyalties of a directly political kind are near the surface of everyone’s consciousness. Even a single taboo can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought. It follows that the atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer.” Note that he is once again talking about the atmosphere of totalitarianism: the lived experience rather than the mechanics of it. It would follow that, as with the perpetual lie, this literature-deadening effect can outlast state terror. Of course, taboos exist everywhere. But Orwell notes that “literature has sometimes flourished under despotic regimes.” It is having to cater to the instability imposed by totalitarianism—having to constantly adjust one’s world view—that is murderous to the writer, or at least to the writing.

Yet in the West a great deal of literature and art amounted to what could be called experimental formalism, far less concerned with message than with the medium.  The 20th century was an era of meta-theoretical musings about art and the nature of art.  The 19th century art religion transubstantiated itself into arts criticism and a kind of meta-literary musing on the ways literature shapes character via education.  The priestcraft shifted a bit but seems to have been retained and in a sense these invocations of Orwell come off like pious boilerplate because the assumption is that no great art or literature emerge from un-free societies. 

Orwell’s assessment is based on his own intuition but also on the observation that little literature of note came out of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. One might reasonably suspect, though, that censorship and fear were to blame, that better writing existed but had to be hidden. Certainly, Orwell could not have been aware of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” a short cycle of poems about her son’s confinement to the Gulag. Or of Vasily Grossman’s Second World War novel “Life and Fate,” whose existence wasn’t exposed until the nineteen-seventies. There was, indeed, a literature in hiding then, including poems whose manuscripts were destroyed almost as soon as they were written, committed to memory until a time when they could be made public.

Some of this work is great, and this greatness might seem, at first glance, to undermine Orwell’s point. But great works of literature are always a miracle, and they are usually dissonant with their environment, which might be what allows them to transcend time and, in translation, space. But I would venture that Orwell is not talking about the unpredictable business of producing masterpieces. What is lost under totalitarianism is good and even good-enough literature. These are the books that may be popular and even win awards before they are quickly forgotten. These are the books that pad the best-seller lists. The books that will seem quaint, outdated, or, at best, like curious documents of a bygone era in just a few decades. These are also the very books that facilitate conversation, that create mental public space, that influence the viewpoint of one’s contemporaries. Without these books, politics—the discussion of how we inhabit a city or a country or a planet together—is impossible.

Ah ... because the greatness happens by accident and despite the totalitarian regime then the totalitarian aspect of the culture can't be credited with catalyzing any great art.  The masterpieces from masters somehow just show up because .... genius ... but ...

Orwell suggests one more way in which totalitarianism kills writing. “Serious prose,” he writes, “has to be composed in solitude.” Totalitarianism, as Arendt famously wrote, eliminates the space between humans, turning them into One Man of gigantic proportions. Separately, she spoke about the peculiar illusion of warmth and closeness that totalitarianism engenders. Totalitarian societies mobilize everyone. Supporters of the regime may be gathered in the big square, chanting their support for the leader, but opponents band together in tiny clumps that are always under siege, always in struggle to hold on to a patch of knowable truth. This is an honorable effort, but it is as far from an imaginative exercise as anything can be. No one can imagine the future—or, for that matter, the present or the past—with their teeth clenched and their minds in singular focus. This leads me to the best-known line from this Orwell essay: “imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”
I want to zoom out a little to provide context for that famous phrase:

“Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes. Not only is it doomed in any country which retains a totalitarian structure; but any writer who adopts the totalitarian outlook, who finds excuses for persecution and the falsification of reality, thereby destroys himself as a writer…. Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another, literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes something totally different from what it is now, we may learn to separate literary creation from intellectual honesty. At present we know only that the imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.”
It's remarkable that Orwell ends the essay on a note of some uncertainty. His lament for the possible—probable—loss of the imagination is itself an exercise in the imagination. That is what makes this essay both a work of literature and a political work.

We live in a time when intentional, systematic, destabilizing lying—totalitarian lying for the sake of lying, lying as a way to assert or capture political power—has become the dominant factor in public life in Russia, the United States, Great Britain, and many other countries in the world. When we engage with the lies—and engaging with these lies is unavoidable and even necessary—we forfeit the imagination. But the imagination is where democracy lives. We imagine the present and the past, and then we imagine the future.

If Orwell was right then the right and the left in the United States and the United Kingdom have damned themselves to embracing totalitarianism while pretending to themselves they are rejecting it.

If I were to hazard an admittedly cranky weekend guess as to how we got to this point in the Anglo-American west it's that a bunch of morons who really believed the libertarian theory of the press could be defended in any post-McCarthy context simply because some meatheads in Silicon Valley with delusions of grandeur assumed it could work "this time" decided that everything was cool and, lo and behold, the libertarian theory of the press still flies as much in the face of reality in a modern technocratic society now as it did half a century ago.  Look, I can get why the likes of Milton would advocate for a libertarian theory of the press centuries ago when it played a different sociological and economic role.  But we don't live in that kind of era.  

Loss of imagination can happen across the conventional left, right and center divides yet we seem to have writers who think that the loss of imagination is more or less only the consequence of thinking within the wrong ideologies.  So there's a lot of the essay that just doesn't seem worth quoting. 

 ... Orwell wrote that, for the fiction writer, subjective feelings were facts; being compelled to falsify those feelings in a “totalitarian atmosphere” amounted to the “prevention of literature.” Orwell’s perceptions of totalitarianism formed the basis for his novels, which, in turn, shaped much of our current understanding of totalitarianism. I am proposing that subjective hopes are also, for the purposes of writing, facts. These are the facts endangered by the fear and despair prevalent in our current politics. If one insists on writing the truth of those hopes—or, rather, if many writers do this—the result may not be great literature, which is always a miracle, but it will exercise the imagination. If it is good, or good enough, it will fuel conversation. And may it be half as prescient as
“Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

This is the kind of boilerplate that makes me grateful Adorno was the endlessly rambling polemicist that he was.  There is some place for using the proverbial left hemisphere of the brain.  Sure, Adorno was an elitist chauvinistic racist sort on a few issues, most of all Afro-American music in all its beauty and glory; sure Adorno was also capable of being virulently anti-Slav and rejecting the very idea that Slavic music could be art, most of all in Soviet contexts; and yet Adorno was trying to formulate theoretical frameworks from which artists could think about the problems of art.  I.e. he had that ultimate egghead notion that a proper theory could somehow liberate artists and art.  Feelings weren't unimportant but his contention was that in the era of capitalism feelings were the most easily reified and commodified things in the human condition and that most of the desires we might feel in such a society would be, so to speak, mimetic desires. 

The subjective hopes of writers have plenty often been precisely what totalitarians have appealed to.  We can never forget that Ezra Pound went in for fascism, or that Stravinsky openly praised Mussolini or that Webern assimilated himself by turns to National Socialism.  The idea that great literature can't emerge from within totalitarian cultures has been completely side-stepped by this article in favor of a claim that the great sea of middling to pretty-good literature is what will be sapped by totalitarian cultural thought.

Well ... if that's really the case then why?  We're supposedly the free world and if the free world has suddenly become not-the-free-world because Trump then what makes this current era totalitarian? Merely the election of Trump by the electoral college?  The assertion inherent in that just doesn't seem to hold up.  I thought it was terrible the guy got the nomination but I'm still not sure that Trump is more or even as virulently racist and adventurist with the military was Woodrow Wilson just yet.  We'll see.  He doesn't even come across as being as hawkish as JFK was at the moment, either.  That he could be a complete idiot about diplomacy and how that actually works seems easy enough to grant without writing of him as if he's already a fascist.  As racist sentiment goes Albert Einstein doesn't come off looking very good  But it's not that Einstein's xenophobia is shocking for his time, it's shocking for ours thanks to the cottage industry of sainting him as a patron saint of science. Science and scientists aren't supposed to be racist, right?  But why wouldn't they?  If there's an ideological commitment to the notion that science and the scientific method can't be racist then that's how the racism dives into the whole process.  A white supremacist armed with the scientific method and scientific processes doesn't see herself or himself as a white supremacist but as a scientist whose conclusions can be validated or disproven by scientific approaches. 

But if Orwell himself did not actually live in a totalitarian regime then maybe there's a point past which trusting his judgments on what constituted totalitarianism is like trusting a vegetarian to instruct us on how to best cook a steak.  Why wouldn't I want rather to read a Wole Soyinka or a Solzhenitsyn for someone who is a writer and has actually been imprisoned than an Orwell?  Not that Orwell's even bad to read, mind you, but I hope you can appreciate the point. 

In the post Weinstein moment and the era of #MeToo surely Orwell's moral point of note would be about Dali's remarkable skill being no excuse with regard to his being a disgusting human being; an exhibitionist and yet not a fraud. But that may not be the point authors at The New Yorker are interested in remembering because, and I'll make my thought simple here, the residue of art religion assumes that the artist should be a purer and better soul than the common rabble who are not artists even if there's no particularly compelling or rational reason this should be the case. 

By article's end we're already past the point of being able to say great literature cannot happen in totalitarian societies because miracles happen in art.  So we're left with a bromide about how the middling to very-good is so much less in so repressive an environment of a totalitarian state.  I'm just not convinced, having seen how things played out in a social media and internet-saturated and internet-saturating culture such as Mars Hill Church once was, that there's anything to this sort of bromide.  Just because there appears to be free communication within an ostensibly free social system is no guarantee of "real" freedom, whatever that means. 

Nor am I certain that we should imagine that "democracy" and "totalitarian" are ever necessarily or inherently opposed.

1 comment:

Cal of Chelcice said...

It's just a shade of that old canard that the Enlightenment means maximal freedom, happiness, and equality for all. Of course, that myth has been exploded a hundred and one ways, though the process of figuring out just what happened is still underway. It's not hard to prove that capitalism worked well in absolutist monarchy, or that it was the aristocrats who generally supported socially libertine policies, or that the middle class was quite comfortable within a strong, centralized state as long as it didn't interfere with their lives and business too much.

And, for our purposes, it's easy to see how the great art and artists were more than at home within brutal, oppressive, rigidly hierarchical regimes; sometimes they even preferred it this way. We forget that the liberal arts and freedom originally meant a class of people who were liberated from the necessities of work, which meant someone else had to do it. The liberality of feudal estates and peasantry was only replaced with chattel and wage slave. Someone has to do with the work, and it's not for nothing many of middle/high tier American literature was created by the equivalent of trust-fund babies.

Which gets me back to one of my main sticking points: the old canard works because it depends upon rhetorical flourish. And that's all that matters. It seems like most chattering classes and intelligentsia, like at most times, only care for superficiality, rhetoric, the things off the surface, and not actual issues or policies. It's more interesting to read a book about how this philosophical or theological concept caused the holocaust, totalitarianism, etc. etc. Like "historical" fiction, it's fun and you feel like you're smart. Just don't let the facts get in the way!