Literature and Violence I: Does Good Fiction Require Violence?

“In a jerky and ferocious style, the essay argued that literature should be written by non-literary types, just as politics should be and indeed was being taken over by non-politicians.”
— Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas, 1996

One of the aims of the post I wrote a little while ago on Donald Trump was to think about why it is that the candidates succeeding in creating excitement in this year’s presidential election are the “outsiders” like Trump, Sanders, and Cruz rather than the career politicians like Clinton, Kasich, and Rubio. The story seems to be that “real Americans” are gravitating away from the “D.C. establishment” towards those who represent something outside politics, like entrepreneurship, faith, or concern for the poor. They prefer candidates who “have blood in them” rather than those who seem scripted or robotic.

I tried to argue that it shouldn’t at all be surprising that our career politicians are stiff, for the American political apparatus was actually designed to suck the energy out of those who enter into it. The Constitution was deliberately meant to be a machine that could allow the country to function in spite of, not because of, the abilities of its constituent members. Our country was thought not to need great leaders animated by grand human passions; narrow self-interest, checked and balanced with that of others, was all it was supposed to take. In fact, many of the passions that run counter to self-interest, like those I mentioned above, were thought to be dangerous in large of doses to the health of our democracy. This is the threat the a young Abraham Lincoln warned of in his Lyceum Address. Specifically, he was concerned with the emergence of a Great Man (or one who thought of himself as a Great Man) who would find the founders’ edifice of checks and balances too restrictive for his personal ambition. The ambition of such a man, Lincoln said, would find no joy “in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others;” rather, it “thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.” In other words, the Great Men care not for doing what’s moral but only what will allow them to rise above others; only the circumstances will determine whether or not their means of doing so will align with the dictates of morality. The speech is of course eerie because 25 years later Lincoln himself would give the decree to emancipate America’s slaves. And so we’re forced to consider whether Lincoln could have just as easily done the opposite; that is, whether had circumstances been different he would have allowed himself to become a tyrant if that was the only way for him to secure his place alongside the likes of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. Alternatively, perhaps he would have had to sacrifice his ambition so as not to cross the line of morality. In either case, we can say that Lincoln needed the crisis of the Civil War in order to be Lincoln. Without the conflict, he couldn’t have won his fame. The turmoil allowed him to have “my shot” (as Alexander Hamilton sings in the appropriately hyped musical appropriately titled Hamilton).

We get another intimate look at the psychology of a modern leader in what Winston Churchill wrote on May 10, 1940 when, at the age of 65, he was finally named Prime Minister of Great Britain:

“I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 A.M., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. … I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it. I thought I knew a good deal about it all, and I was sure I should not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had no need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.”

At the time of this writing, Hitler’s armies had already taken Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. France was on its last throws, and the British Expeditionary Force was being surrounded at Dunkirk. And yet, at least in this moment, Churchill is not thinking about any of that. There’s little hint of horror over Hitler’s evil or the millions who would die in the struggle. There’s only a thought of his own Destiny, of the fact that finally he’d made it to “the room where it happens.” And so he could sleep soundly. Churchill had staked his political career on opposing Fascism, and if Hitler hadn’t turned out to be the horrifying leader that he was, then Churchill would never have been able to be pushed to his personal potential. “I could not be reproached either for making the war or with want of preparation for it.” He’s relieved that he doesn’t have to manufacture a reason for wanting to participate in a war, that he gets to play the part of a liberator and not the enslaver…

This is a cynical way of reading the motivations of these “Great Men,”: i.e. that Churchill was indebted to Hitler, Lincoln needed the South in order to achieve self-aggrandizement. But obviously a more charitable reading would be to say instead that Churchill was needed by the West, that Lincoln was needed by the United States. Probably both lines of thinking are true, and this delicate balance is suggested by the famous irony contained in Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” he remarked, but of course we all remember those lines, and it’s Lincoln’s name more than those who actually fought that get most associated with Gettysburg in the history books. And yet it’s good to remember that history books aren’t the same as history, and that — if not on paper than at least in real life — it’s the combination of Lincoln’s speech and the soldiers’ blood, that deliver to our union a “new birth of freedom.”

Whether you go with the charitable reading or the cynical one, it’s probably not particularly controversial to suggest great political actions seem to require a great deal of violence, whether in the form of conquest or as justification for a defense. And so as long as humans are motivated by the desire to achieve political greatness, then violence, or at least its specter, will be unavoidable. Now let’s pivot to the realm of literature and inquire whether it’s also the case that fiction somehow requires a similar sort of blood sacrifice. Andre Malraux, a French minister who was a captive of the Germans during World War II, wrote that only three books retain their truth for those who had seen prisons and concentration camps: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. What do those authors have in common? They all spent time in prison themselves. It seems unavoidable to conclude that it was only because of the torments they experienced there that they were able to glimpse into a realm of experience that was meaningful to those who too suffered the worst a human could experience. We wonder: while there, did they, like Churchill, in a moment of profound relief, think to themselves “at last, I no longer have needs to flights of inspiration. The horrifying facts of my life are better than dreams, and out of them I can weave immortal stories”? Like hip hop artists with bullet scars, did they value their prison stints as justifications for their artistic output?

“The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness,” says Dostoevsky (says pinterest). It’s not too hard to figure out the source of one’s happiness when one’s unjustly wasting away in prison, is it?

The second-most-famous line in Dostoevsky is Prince Myshkin’s declaration in The Idiot that “Beauty will save the world.” This isn’t so much a statement about the greatness of art as it is about the depravity of the surrounding world. That is, beauty only acquires this redemptive power when all vitality has been drained from all other realms. The prince must believe that beauty will save the world because he knows that he cannot count on the alternatives; the society in which he lives is too corrupt, and so if he gives up on beauty he will be left with nothing. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn (another Russian who did his time in camps) commented in his 1972 Noble Prize acceptance speech, “Perhaps the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply the decorous and antiquated formula it seemed to us at the time of our self-confident materialistic youth. If the tops of these three trees do converge, as thinkers used to claim, and if the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.”

When the yoke of tsarist and later Soviet oppression lopped off the spouts of Truth and Goodness, art was one’s sole vessel of humanity in Russia. One had to believe that “Beauty will save the world” not art for art’s sake but life’s. As Solzhenitsyn said, this wasn’t so much a statement as a prophecy — a belief that ensured the survival of the Russian people, for if they abandoned it, they would have been left with nothing else. When one lives in a totalitarian country, even writing a simple poem is a heroic act, because it is proves that man is capable of more than just suffering and death.

But again, beauty only emerges as the source of redemption in a world in which all other branches have been destroyed by acts of violence. And if one lives elsewhere, in a more wholesome places where the trees of Truth and Goodness are more in tact, beauty-creating activities likely have a more banal meaning. Producing well-wrought rhymes, clever plot devices, interesting philosophic digressions or spicy domestic intrigues now come off less as heroic than leisurely endeavors.

And of course, we don’t have to think hard to come up with environments in which beauty not only doesn’t save the world, but actively contributed to its ruin. This is the premise, for example, of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki’s final movie that bios a brilliant World War II-era Japanese aeronautics engineer who produces beautiful planes that happen to be made with slave labor and happen to be used in the country’s imperialist war effort. And the Bolaño book referenced at the opening of this piece consists of an encyclopedia of artistically accomplished South American novelists and poets who, oh by the way, happen to be Nazis.

Finally, in a context like our own, to be concerned with matters of mere artistic craft at the same time as people elsewhere are continue to deal with the horrors of persecution and genocide appears, though not actively evil, at least like ignorance or indulgence.

Probably for reasons like this, I feel like for a long while I’ve been prejudiced against post-WW II white American fiction writers (it’s this feeling that prompted me down the line of thinking that lead to this piece). Those pre, say, 1960 there’s no trouble reading; Hemingway saw World War I, Heller saw World War II. But after that, the typers didn’t really live through much of anything. Scribblers began getting their education not in the trenches but in the halls of a university. And so literature turns into a mere profession, a way of making money or achieving status or securing sex or whatever. To pick a particular bone: there’s always something that seems phony about the Beats. “Howl”, the anthem of that generation, seems haunted by the inadequacy of its own subjectivity. The “I” that begins the poem immediately disappears and only reappears in the part III’s refrain “I’m with you in Rockland” (Rockland is where the poem’s dedicatee Carl Solomon is undergoing psychological treatment). Having to say “I’m with you in Rockland” betrays the fact that the speaker isn’t, and suggests the speaker feels the need to appropriate his friend’s mental illness in order to justify his own poetic project. “You’re free, why are you complaining to the ‘Moloch’ America that grants you such freedom?” is a question that oppresses the work. Why are you taking up space on the shelf, pushing someone else who needs it more than you do out of the way?

Does one’s subjectivity depend on one’s subjugation?

We’re fortunate to not have to know directly what it’s like to have gone through the prisons, camps, the slave trade, and so on, and so it doesn’t make sense to take Malraux’s literary criteria as our own. But because we have a greater historical and global awareness, we, unlike generations before us, have perhaps greater awareness of the possibilities of human depravity. It seems then that in our context, to write a tale requires one to draw our attention to violence, even if one has not experienced it. What techniques do authors use to successfully explore violence in their work responsibly? This will be the question of Part II of this mini project. (Part III will ask: How do the laws of morality outside fiction apply within it? I.e. is it immoral to kill off a character?).

Thanks for reading, and let me know if there were any important things I overlooked/should address in the next posts.

— jacob