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The Problem isn’t Liberalism, the Problem is “You”

Even if the marriage plot has dissolved, the human drama remains. It just resurfaces in a different context.

In responding to Mark Bauerlein’s Public Discourse article, “Liberalism is Bad for Literature,” I won’t defend Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot. Instead I will spell out the reasons why I believe that Professor Bauerlein’s main point—that liberalism is bad for literature—is not only wrong, but also somewhat dangerous. Dangerous not only because it is unnecessarily discouraging, but also because if a writer chooses to believe it, his next step will have to be (if he is to remain consistent) the abdication of his vocation as a writer.

Liberalism, Bauerlein argues, is an ideology that works to erode the social and religious institutions that are the common touchstones of meaning between the characters in a novel and its readers. Now that we live in a world where “marriage” can mean either a religious sacrament or a purely legal agreement between individuals, the dramatic weight of “the marriage plot” has been lost. The other aspect of liberalism that Bauerlein finds toxic is the relativism that it carries around like a bad smell, a noxious gas that seeps into every corner of the room. The novelist today suffers from a relativistic outlook that keeps him from creating characters with universal appeal, and from making statements that have universal purchase.

Both social disintegration and moral relativism lead to the same sorry conclusion: the liberal novel is a novel in which not much is at stake. And if you don’t have much at stake, you can’t have a good story. Bauerlein’s critique covers both the subject and the object: the subject is deluded by relativism, and can’t say anything truly worth saying; the object—society—is so fragmented that it no longer makes any claim upon individuals, nor does it contain the social markers and rites of passage that make stories possible.

What is interesting about Bauerlein’s argument is that it is the reverse of what one typically finds in a piece of cultural criticism. Usually, a culture critic will scan contemporary novels for the signs of the times, those social factoids and missives of misery that can be gathered up as evidence for a theory about just what is wrong with the world today and why. Instead, his point is the opposite: there is so much wrong with the world today that it is impossible to make up a good novel out of it. Here lies the danger in his position.

Even if Bauerlein is right, the novelist has to do it anyway. And he has to succeed, because the human race depends on it. The novelist cannot print out Bauerlein’s article, tuck it into his Moleskine, and apply for grad school instead. He has to look at the world as it is, come to know the human heart, and make something up anyway. What the writer needs is not a political movement that will reform society; he needs to become a better writer. Even if the ambitious young writer today has a mind warped by individualistic relativism, his ambition is greater than his ideology, because his ambition is to communicate experience in a way that makes sense to his reader. Reader and writer dwell together in the same horizon of meanings.

Bauerlein’s position was already anticipated decades ago by Walker Percy, in his essay “Notes for a Novel about the End of the World,” in which he calls for a new novelist who can confront the ambiguities of life in the twentieth century. We need to quote him at length:

Let me define the sort of novelist I have in mind. I locate him not on a scale of merit—he is not necessarily a good novelist—but in terms of goals. He is…a writer who has an explicitly and ultimate concern with the nature of man and the nature of reality where man finds himself. Instead of constructing a plot and creating a cast of characters from a world familiar to everybody, he is more apt to set form with a stranger in a strange land where the signposts are enigmatic but which he sets out to explore nevertheless. …Such a class might include writers as diverse as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Camus, Sartre, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor… By the same token I would exclude much of the English novel… The nineteenth-century Russian novelists were haunted by God; many of the French existentialists are haunted by his absence. The English novel traditionally takes place in a society as everyone sees it and takes it for granted. If there are vicars and churches prominent in the society, there will be vicars and churches in the novel. If not, not. So much for vicars and churches.

“So much for vicars and churches,” because even when they’re not present, life is still a problem and a question. Even when the marriage plot dissolves, the human drama remains. It resurfaces in a different context.  As far as literature is concerned, the problem is not that liberalism has eroded the materials a writer makes use of. The problem is that no writer has lived up to the challenge of facing his own time, of being a “novelist at the end of the world.” To paraphrase the common piece of advice that conservatives give to radicals: The problem is not the system, man. The problem is you.

And it is not even true that no writer has lived up to the challenge. Modernism was, if nothing else, an attempt to live up to this challenge. I am struck by the confident way that T. S. Eliot uses that very word, “you.” “My words echo/ Thus, in your mind,” in “Burnt Norton,” and “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/ A heap of broken images…” in “The Waste Land.” In fact, even though it is not a novel, “The Waste Land” is perhaps the quintessential example of the type of work we need today: a work that accepts the ambiguities and fragmentation of its time, and still finds the human heart beating within it. He knows who you are.

That “The Waste Land” portrays a world in which the great Western values have been destroyed by war and ideology is only half of the story. The other half lies in the presence of that “you.” Eliot knows that even within our distraction, we weep before the disorder of “a heap of broken images,” and quake before “a handful of dust.” He is able to create something beautiful out of the disorder, and search for someone to share it with, someone to commiserate with: this is the great triumph of “The Waste Land.” Eliot has the conviction that even in a context where social institutions have decayed beyond recognition (“Unreal city”), there are still human beings who recognize what makes life worth living, the foundational aspirations of any human life. So, as long as there is someone to read it, there is hope. But in order to write it, you have to know who “you” are.

The most compelling writers of our time are those who make the Waste Land their starting point, and search for a “you” with whom to make contact. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2007, is literally set in the wasteland left over after a global disaster. It follows the story of a man and his son as they search for some sort of permanent home in a world where the soil can no longer yield crops, animals no longer roam because they are all extinct, the skies are grey in a perennial winter, and humans scavenge around and eat each other. The book is like a hatchet hacking away at every last bit of flesh clinging to a bone. What can we determine to be always true, always beautiful, even in this bleak context? One of the key lines of the novel is something the father says about his son: “If he is not the word of god, then god never spoke.” The “word of god,” in this sense, would be something like an enduring meaning, a surviving value that withstands radiation.

Obviously, no marriage plot is possible in the world of The Road. But the novel does force its characters to ask what it means to be married. Before the father and son begin their search, their wife and mother decides to commit suicide. Her rationale is that “Sooner or later they”—scavengers, thugs, and cannibals—“will catch us and they will kill us.” Husband and wife discuss life and death “with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.” The wife decides to kill herself: “It’s meaningless. You can call me a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.” Her husband responds, “Death is not a lover,” but his true response is continuing to live without her, i.e., finding a reason for living that is truer than his wife’s rejection of life. But the scene would lose its drama if husband and wife were not husband and wife. Even in the wasteland, McCarthy discovers, marriage has dramatic weight. (Does that mean that global catastrophes are good for literature?)

Michel Houellebecq, a French novelist whose latest novel, The Map and the Territory, won the Prix Goncourt (one of the highest literary awards in France) in 2010, also writes from the wasteland, at a time near the end of the world. His novels take place in free-love resorts and sex clubs, and they deal with religious cults and immortal human clones living in the year 4000 AD. (The final section of The Possibility of an Island, his brilliant fourth novel, takes place in a literal wasteland, in a time after the end of the world.) But Houellebecq also often goes on tangents that could easily be mistaken for conservative editorials. About the rise of teen magazines in the 1970s, for example, Houellebecq writes in his most celebrated work, The Elementary Particles (1998): “Although their politics were notionally left-wing, these magazines embraced the ideals of the entertainment industry: the destruction of Judeo-Christian values, the supremacy of youth and individual freedom. Torn between these conflicting pressures, teen magazines hastily cobbled together a compromise…”

Particles is a novel whose characters come of age in a world after the teen magazines have enthroned youth and hyper-individualism; Houellebecq’s passion is to track the lives of men and women who are seeking happiness within this context. Marriage, within this context, is not a social institution that makes claims upon the individual, and forces her to make a choice. The drama of Elizabeth Bennet is no longer possible in a Houellebecq novel. But marriage is still something interesting in Houellebecq’s world: it is a provocation. Houellebecq’s characters wonder—extensively, broodingly—about love and possession, what it means to be married to someone even unto death, the reasons for having children. “It’s a curious idea to reproduce when you don’t even like life,” a character quips in The Elementary Particles. Yet this same character marries his beloved anyway.

Bauerlein concludes that “The dominant venues of our culture empower the personal perspective, a do-whatever-you-want-as-long-as-you-don’t-infringe-on-others outlook, and the contemporary novelist interested in current conditions represents sensibilities that result from it.” Could it really be that our “current conditions” are so uniquely toxic that they compromise a writer’s position even before he sits down to write? Is a novelist living in a liberal society any more helpless than Solzhenitsyn was in a Communist one? It may be that Eugenides’ latest novel is a failure; but there is no reason to extrapolate a rule from one particular failure. “The Waste Land,” The Road, and The Elementary Particles are not failures.

In the mere act of reaching out for that “you,” the writer is already beginning to break with the relativism or narcissism that might be deforming his spirit. The writer, if he is any good, can never only be concerned with articulating his “personal perspective,” but also with setting before you those realities—love, happiness, meaning—which concern everyone, make a claim on everyone, are at stake for everyone.

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