Colin Brown, over at Signpostings, a Walker Percy-esque blog, offers five questions to muse on. Two of them caught my attention. Here’s the first:
To what extent does the culture of Russian aristocracy contribute to the imaginations of authors like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy?
I don’t know enough about Russian literature to answer this question — if you do, please feel free to discuss it in the comboxes — but the larger question it raises has to do with the connection between culture and creativity that we’ve been talking about on this blog the past few days. You might also ask a parallel question: To what extent does the culture of the American South contribute to the imaginations of authors like Faulkner, O’Connor, Welty, and Percy? I could be wrong — what I know about literature is not much — but it seems to me that the common elements of both Southern lit and 19th-c. Russian lit are that both emerge out of cultures that have a strong sense of hierarchy, both social and moral, and that the moral hierarchy is sustained by a religious sense.
Last night I began a project I’ve been intending for a long time: reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. I finished last night’s reading at the end of Canto III, which is Dante’s entry into the outer borders of Hell. There suffer the lukewarm, those who in life wouldn’t take a side for Good or for Evil, and who spend eternity chasing after banners, tormented by their guilty consciences (in the form of stinging wasps). I know something about the structure and themes of the Divine Comedy, and how it reflects a medieval Catholic idea of an ordered universe. This is the first encounter the reader has with it. Part of what makes this so compelling is that one is confronted by Dante’s imaginative construct of the hierarchy of sin. The least bad sin, in Dante’s telling, is indifference to Good or Evil — but it is still enough to keep one out of Paradise, though one is also spared Hell. Part of what draws the reader on is exploring this imaginative moral hierarchy, which is vivid enough to us today, but must have been much more so to readers whose culture had imparted to them a real sense of sin.
It seems to me that good storytelling comes out of a culture that has an implicit sense of order, both visible and invisible, against which characters can clash. Drama emerges from this. I had the odd experience a few years ago of reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which was quite good as a diagnostic novel, but failed miserably as a novel of prescription. I mean, its exploration of how its characters founder in a culture of radical freedom is spot on. Lacking any direction in life, or standards around which to orient themselves, to judge themselves, to give them an idea about which choices are worthy and which are not, they do not know what to do with themselves, and make a mess of it. Well and good. But the conclusion of the book is extremely unsatisfying, precisely because Franzen himself appears to lack any sense of transcendent order that could offer a sense of meaning, of resolution. There is nothing for these characters lost in a dark wood to discover, no way out, no Virgil who will come to guide them, because Virgil cannot exist, and there is no set path. In this way, Freedom may be representative of its time, but it’s deeply frustrating as a story.
Maybe the culture of democracy and egalitarianism — social, moral — and secularism make it harder (though not impossible) for great literature to emerge because they offer no compelling vision of order. Maybe the extent to which great literature does emerge from this culture is the extent to which it rejects that egalitarianism. I’m not sure. What do you think?
Colin Brown’s second question:
How would Berry-ite conservatives react to a “conservative” novel that rejected the rural homestead?
Well, I would hope their reaction depended on how good the story was, but I see Brown’s point. What he’s asking is how much the Berryite conservative’s vision of the Good depends on holding out country life as an ideal. Notice, though, that he doesn’t ask how would BCs react to a novel that is not set in the rural homestead, but one that actually rejects it. Is it possible for one to reject the rural homestead and still be true to Berryite values? Put another way, can the things that matter most to Berry be instantiated in a locale and social milieu that is not the country? It’s not only a good question, but an important one, because relatively few young people today live rurally, or will have a realistic opportunity to make the choice to do so. So where does that leave them — or, I should say, where does it leave us, because I’m one of them. I could not make my living on a rural farmstead, not only because it is hard to do so nowadays, but also — but moreso — because I lack the skills, the knowledge, and the stamina to make that kind of life work. Most people today are like this, and I don’t think it’s fair or useful to judge ourselves as morally unworthy because we don’t live in a rural Arcadia. Similarly, I’ve told readers of my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming that the wrong lesson to derive from it is that we should all move to small towns. Rather, the idea is that we should put down roots somewhere, and work to build friendships and relationships with our neighbors. If you are born in a city, or called to live in a city or a suburb, or thrown into city life by hard economic reality, your challenge is to figure out how to take what is best about Wendell Berry’s moral vision and live it out where you are. It may be easier to do that in a rural environment, but we have to live in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. I don’t say this to put down Wendell Berry’s novels; he is illuminating a world he knows intimately. The challenge for novelists of younger generations who are inspired by Berry’s moral vision is to write about that moral vision in settings where most people live today. Writing about the difficulty of living the Berryite vision out in a city or suburb is a worthwhile subject, but I think would make for a more vivid Berryite literature than young Berry admirers imitating the master by writing novels and short stories about country life. I’m not ruling that out, I should say, but simply saying that if Berryites should be able to accommodate a Berryite novel that rejects the rural homestead — and if not, that raises serious questions about the viability of Berry’s moral vision. If it cannot thrive outside of the countryside without losing its core integrity, what is it worth?
Anyway, there is coming up an empirical way to investigate how Berryites of all kinds think about this question. Front Porch Republic is having its 2013 gathering in the Los Angeles area, at Pomona College, on September 20? Read all about it here, and learn how to get tickets. You are invited. The topic this year: “City People, Country People: Being A Localist In The Megalopolis.” TAC is co-sponsoring the event. In addition to the usual gang of Porchers (Deneen, Beer, Mitchell, Polet, Peters, McWilliams), speakers include Dana Gioia and Bill Kauffman.