I want to start with an observation made by the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (in his 1920 essay “Epic and Novel”) that fiction “has no canon of its own” but is “plasticity itself …. ever questing, ever examining itself and subjecting its established forms to review” while it turns our imagination into “a zone of direct contact with developing reality”—and I want to add that this reality is something we create as a matter of consensus by just going about our business as we live our lives, and that the contact that matters between fiction and reality within this zone is an encounter of adversaries. I’m going to say what I think this zone is like and talk about a kind of writing that expands it.
In her keynote address at the 2017 Berlin International Literature Festival, Turkish-born novelist Elif Şafak alluded to the Polish-born philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and characterized the times: “Globalization paved the way for two clashing trends: internationalism versus tribalism,” she claimed, “and today we are living in a liquid age in which these tides are pulling humanity in different directions, and we don’t know how to deal with so much complexity and uncertainty.” The currents of our day are indeed complex; and yet generalizing responses, like Şafak’s, are not indecisive, but lax and blasé. These conditions and this type of response make up a reality.
This reality is consistent with itself. Every iota of it is at one with itself and never fuses with or breaks off from any other, but shares its characteristics and changes as it does. This is the world of the monad, the particle that the German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz described: “This interconnection, this adapting of all created things to each one, and of each one to all the others, brings it about that each simple substance has relational properties that express all the others,” he wrote in his 1714 book Monadology, “so that each monad is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.” This reality is self-contained.
This reality is characterized by a peculiar hierarchy. The concept of culture propagated by the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall passed out of the academy and into the parlance of business, popularized by books like Maureen Bridget Rabotin’s Culture Savvy: Working and Collaborating Across the Globe. The trade literature defines communication style as the ratio of stated to unstated content in conversation and writing, categorizing styles according to the society a person comes from and the language predominantly spoken in it. American English, for example, is clear, because its speakers use concise structures and explicit terms to convey information directly, and therefore American English is placed at the extreme “low context” end of the spectrum; while Japanese, at the extreme “high context” end, requires its speakers to read the air, sending and receiving unspoken messages, le second degré. In a global public sphere, among people who don’t know what they have in common besides English and the industry they work in, a system of cultural stereotypes enforces communication standards, via English as a lingua franca, circumscribing free association.
It would take too long to go into the reasons for this development, but it has had an effect on social life comparable to that of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, staking new claims for quantitative analysis and reorienting labor and leisure.
In the domain of culture, suppression is what exerts control over free-association, and we can quote a few writers to get an idea of how this works.
First, the Iraqi-born poet Dunya Mikhail observes of the US in a 2013 interview with Marcia Lynx Qualey that “speech here is usually restricted to what is ‘acceptable.’ Censorship in America is implicit and it precedes speech, as opposed to in Iraq, where censorship is explicit and it follows speech.” Second, in a Dominion Review interview, author Andrej Blatnik, who remained in his native Slovenia after its independence from Yugoslavia, concludes of the new conditions in publishing there that “Our economic censorship is more complex than censorship of the regime.” Third, the Polish-born writer Stanisław Barańczak opines in his 1987 essay “The State Artist” that “Instead of hostility, one should rather speak of a ‘mutual embrace’ of censors and artists.” To sum up, censorship in a pluralist, democratic, open and free society is implicitly concerned with what is acceptable; it is complex and economic in nature; and it is the result of an amicable relationship. In a “mutual embrace” (Barańczak), the artist depicts what is “acceptable” (Mikhail) and the publisher applies “economic censorship” (Blatnik) to the product.
Suppression has a theoretical dimension. For example, in American Culture and the Voice of Poetry, the 2001 Stanford University Tanner Lectures on Human Values, the three-term U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky writes of a poem by American poet E.A. Robinson that “In the poem, the community gains a certain stature from its awareness that in it is one who has wrestled with a god; the individual gains dignity from the witnessing of that struggle;” and American critic Adam Kirsch writes in his 2017 book The Global Novel that “the global novel may be, not the homogenizing and coercive force it has often been called, but the herald and agent of a dawning collective conscience,” adding of this conscience that “Everyone must hasten its approach.” Literature changes the ethical status of persons and communities. Its effect on this status is the measure of its value.
Most fiction published in the United States fits this mold. I’ll describe two of its devices. First, the vicarious experience, in which the emanations of the reader are handled as if they were literature itself; and second, the official zeitgeist, in which the writer voices mass communications as if by ventriloquy. A sophisticated example of the vicarious experience can be found in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, where the reader is conscripted into a first person plural pronoun: “We are invisible, anonymous intruders” into the story, who become “an imaginary camera” to look at a character while she sleeps: “A beautiful girl sleeping on and on in bed. Her straight black hair spreads over the pillow like a deeply meaningful fan.” This is not the fascinating boredom of Warhol’s film Sleep but a peepshow where what is on display is a bout of depression: “Softly pursed lips. Heart and mind at the bottom of the sea.” The official zeitgeist might be exemplified by the novel 10:04 by American author Ben Lerner, in a passage describing the approach of Hurricane Sandy to New York City: “From a million media, most of them handheld, awareness of the storm seeped into the city… I mean the city was becoming one organism, constituting itself in relation to a threat visible from space….” It would be hard to find a finer repetition of the mandated version of that awful event. If you can identify with a personality or perspective, or if you know the signals of group cohesion, then the pleasure of these excerpts is for you.
Here we reach the edge of Bakhtin’s zone of direct contact between fiction and developing reality. But these passages show none of the self-examination or the questing that he argued for. They are not plasticity itself. Before we see what sorts of texts reside across the divide, let’s ask what it’s like in the zone of Bakhtin. There, instead of the monad, we have a particle that can occupy different positions at the same time and share the same position with another particle; and it combines and recombines into simple, compound and complex elements continually—that is, the word itself. The zone is words.
At this boundary we are at the point of shaping into a form the vague, the fugitive, the secret, the glimpsed, the unheard. A complex depiction of reality, fiction does not ignore or attack reality tout court but instead confronts its crudeness. I would like to suggest this range of literary activity with the moment when the uprooted protagonist of Lodovico Pignatti Morano’s 2014 novella Nicola, Milan derives an aesthetic from the haircut and style of dress of the denizen with whom he has become obsessed. The text has a reportorial crassness where a sullen elegance lies in wait:
He, Nicola, is bald-headed, but at thirty or thirty-one, the youngest and obviously most powerful of the three men on the boat. After placing the sunglasses on Danny’s face he walks back and stands near the photographer, a little behind him, pretending to not notice exactly what’s going on though he occasionally, discreetly, checks the screen of the camera to make sure the images are coming out as he wants.
You can imagine it took him awhile to figure out how to style his hair when it started falling out. He was used to being a long-haired student, probably, placing his palm on his temples and burying his fingers in the thick strands near his crown as he studied endlessly in the library—he used to be the kind of student people called a wunderkind—when he thought, he thought feverishly. Those days are brutally long gone now, or so it appears. Now he has learnt how to wear it, the balding scalp, in an almost mildewy not-crewcut version of very short, maybe cut only with scissors to keep the acerbic edge off it, in the art of the nonstatement, or the statement which if you’re good enough at making, can become entirely irrelevant, and so give you the freedom to do whatever you want. He usually dresses the same way, with a kind of snobbism so extreme it can’t manifest itself even in dress, a defeated all-knowingness, an extremely expensive defeat, with a particular expertise in fabrics, in the kind of details that convey nothing to the inexpert eye. But a strange speed-bump remains about Nicola’s hair, as if losing it was disproportionately difficult, completely unlike the ease with which he discredits all but the most cunning logic now. He always has something to say about a friend’s haircut.
“How much do they make you pay for a job like that?”
“€20? You can get sucked off for that money.”
“Yeah and I can jerk myself off for free.”
The hair on his face, though, is still spiky and razored, and his chest is hairy, from one end to the other. There is not much he can do about that.
That night at his party in Venice, he looks at his absolute best.
He’s wearing a white suit, it probably cost a million euros. It’s the only one he has and he wears it every time he feels it’s a special occasion. At least that’s the impression it gives. Underneath he’s wearing a sheer white t-shirt with a watercolor-like pattern across it, cut very deep down the chest … something designer, innocuous, expensive, unreal, inasmuch as it’s the kind of thing you’d only buy for a night like this and nights like this are barely known to exist.
The narrator’s identity shatters against the other man’s, and he dissolves terrified into a fascination that mixes philia and eros. But his personality turns into a seed that will bear fruit as the book.
In the zone of Bakhtin, fiction is to reality as the line about the art of the nonstatement is to the rest of this quotation. We might call this zone the human cosmos. It flourishes in a hostile climate. If I may misquote Stendhal, art is the dream of the concert and of the pistol shots. Its characteristic devices are epigram, paradox, digression, discontinuity, discreteness, ambiguity, hermeticism, the shaggy and sleek words of Dante, Woolf’s authorial androgyny, Adorno’s negative dialectic, and so on.
Contradicting the people who want literature to grant dignity and stature, we can say instead with the Hungarian academic László F. Földényi, in his 1984 book Melancholy, that “The less a society occupies itself with art, the more viable it will be.” This is another way to describe the human cosmos. Földényi explains: “Art is ‘dangerous,’ at least in the modern age, when one of its main tasks is to smuggle solitude, and the ultimate silence summoned by Hamlet’s last words, into the world of others.” This solitude and silence open the horizon of the human cosmos. The danger is what may come when we begin from the premise that not everyone must hasten the approach of a collective conscience—that some must question, challenge, or even oppose it.
In conclusion I would like to magnify what I have been advancing, by way of addressing the foreseeable objection that the specter of conformity isn’t real. A journal editor declining to publish this essay, for example, might respond:
The chief point seems to be that the novel must be elastic and exploratory and free not to support “collective conscience.” A problem here is: who is saying that it shouldn’t be, apart from dictators? The fiction that stands out and wins esteem from intellectual readers is what counts, surely, and it is far from being a chorus of monads, as you know.
The point is that the mechanics of control produce their effects independent of individual people’s intentions, and even independent of their consciousness. There is little awareness of the suppression because the entire culture is suppression. No one says a novel shouldn’t be free, and yet few free novels are written, and I think the reason for this is that intellectual readers grant their esteem to unfree novels, because intellectual readers are mostly not free, in the ways I have hoped to outline.
The danger, and the courage necessary to face it, may be dramatized by a reference to a moment in the life of Palestinian-born writer Dr. Edward W. Said. When Said was diagnosed with leukemia, as he writes in his 1998 essay “Between Worlds,” the reality of his own death made it impossible for him to go on avoiding an overdue realignment of his academic career with his private history. Prior to the diagnosis, he writes, Said had driven from his mind all thoughts of his place in the universe, so as not to succumb to what he calls “a terminal depression.” It would be hard to say which is more admirable in Said, his determination before that danger—even as he received death threats for engaging in pro-Palestinian activism—or his honesty in writing down the experience. To this recurring moment in the great scholar’s life—his turning away from death—we owe not only Orientalism, but also the 1997 essay “On Lost Causes,” with its depiction of reality and justice in a single thought. It would be wrong to wish that he had obeyed the earlier dictates of mortality to his imagination—instead of dismissing them as depressing—rather than the later ones to his intellect. But this is the choice we would expect to have been made by Said the novelist, the dramatist, the poet. The acceptance of disintegration and annihilation into the center of the effort is where creation begins.
Talk given at “Cosmopolitanisms From Below,” American Comparative Literature Association, UCLA, 30 Mar. 2018.