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Politics and Literature

Conservatives should reinvest in art for its own sake, not to win a culture war.
T.S. Eliot

I’ve been busy teaching summer school at HBU and trying to get into shape for a bike ride across Iowa that I’m doing with my daughter next week, so I am a bit late in responding to Adam Bellow’s essay in The National Review in which he laments the lack of conservative fiction and calls on well-heeled donors to support the coming conservative “countercultural” revolution. You’ve probably already read it, but if not, here’s the key passage:

For years conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced — hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.

We need to invest in the conservative right brain. A well-developed feeder system exists to identify and promote mainstream fiction writers, including MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics. Nothing like that exists on the right.

This is a major oversight that must be urgently addressed. We need our own writing programs, fellowships, prizes, and so forth. We need to build a feeder system so that the cream can rise to the top, and also to make an end run around the gatekeepers of the liberal establishment.

Bellow makes some good observations. Generally speaking, conservatives have ignored the arts and popular culture over the past fifty years or so. Those in positions of power in America’s publishing houses, museums, arts centers, university MFA programs, and so forth, are overwhelming liberal. Politics is “downstream” from culture. And I’m mostly for conservatives with cash funding prizes, small presses, and so forth, so that “the cream can rise to the top,” as Bellow puts it.

It’s the overemphasis on the political value of supporting popular culture and the arts that sticks in my craw.

The general gist of Bellow’s piece, despite his remark that he is against “cause fiction,” is that conservatives should fund these things because liberals have a monopoly on culture and because popular culture and the arts are more effective at changing people’s values than straight argument.

Calling on conservatives to write fiction in order to regain power by shaping the moral imagination, as Bellow seems to claim, would, in my view, repeat the errors of the later avant-garde and progressives who came to view art as a weapon in class struggle. This attitude toward art always leads to art becoming a mere tool, a mere means to an end, rather than an end in itself. Bellow tries to distinguish between the “the original counterculture” and a counterculture that “was hijacked and turned into a vehicle for progressive politics,” but I don’t buy this.

The problem with Bellow’s approach, as Rod remarked two weeks ago, is that it would most likely lead to ideologically “pure” but bad work:

[…] art and culture should not be approached from an instrumental point of view. This is why, for example, so much contemporary Christian filmmaking is so bad: it’s designed to culminate in an altar call. It’s about sending a message, not telling a story. I’m personally aware of a conservative donor and investor who poured millions into an independent film because he thought it was wholesome, and would improve the character of its viewers. I watched the movie in a private screening, and it was terrible. A total waste of money.

Adam Kirsch makes a similar point over at Tablet and argues that Bellow’s narrow definition of conservatism causes him to miss a number of conservative novels that don’t fit his “brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia”:

 Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved. Defined in this way, conservatism is in fact a major strain in contemporary American literature. David Foster Wallace, the leading novelist of his generation, was a champion of earnestness, reverence, self-discipline, and work—never more so than in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, whose heroes are hard-working accountants. Dave Eggers made his name with a memoir about raising his younger brother after his parents died, a hip but deeply earnest hymn to family values. Zadie Smith excels at the conservatism of comedy, which resolves differences in laughter and exposes human follies with an indulgent understanding.

In Jewish American literature, too, the conservative temperament has always been central, as Jewish writers struggle to remain attached to the past even as they negotiate their place in the future. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant more or less explicitly identifies Jewishness with the values of honesty, hard work, and family loyalty, and dramatizes a willful young man’s submission to those values. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most celebrated and decorated books of the last 20 years, is also one of the most explicitly conservative; it is a long shudder of horror at the radicalism of the 1960s, and it is filled with hymns to the small businessman that any Republican could love. And of course Adam Bellow’s father, Saul, wrote one of the first and most powerful anti-Sixties novels in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, inveighing against the sexual and racial liberations of that decade, which he contrasted with the old-world moral earnestness of the Jewish Artur Sammler.

For Kirsch, Bellow fails to see that literature is “broader, deeper, and truer than political convictions…that politics must be corrected by literature, and not vice versa. If most writers are liberal, perhaps it’s because they instinctively understand this principle.”

How Kirsch divined that Bellow’s conservatism is motivated by “wounded male pride,” apparently based on Bellow’s opening anecdote alone, is beyond me, but Kirsch is right that conservatism is much more than patriotism or a defense of individual freedom, even if he also overestimates how many “conservative” works of fiction are published today (only two of the novelists he cites are actively writing; Wallace, Malamud, and Bellow are dead, of course), and even if has a rather rose-colored view of the commitment of liberal writers to art above politics. (No doubt a number of liberal writers are committed to literature first and politics second, but not all. In fact, a number who view/have viewed literature as a form of political activism are regularly published, given prizes, and generally taken seriously (though, let me add, not by Kirsch to my knowledge.) Susan Sontag’s tangled fiction won her a National Book Award, and June Jordan’s hate-filled prose-poetry did not prevent her from keeping a distinguished lectureship at Berkeley and earning a PEN award. There are also the occasional politically informed stories of Joyce Carol Oates and formal experiments of Charles Bernstein, among many others.)

I’d like to see more conservatives write good fiction and poetry, not in order to win the culture war, but in order to have better fiction and poetry. There are number of conservative positions that are true and that are often ignored in fiction and poetry today. In Rod’s article last year on conservatives and storytelling, I noted one of these: The belief that evil is rooted in individuals and not in the structures of society (the church, schools, property ownership). But let me suggest a few others, culled from various thinkers (Burke, Eliot, Kirk):

-A high view of craft—that is, a combination of clarity and complexity of style that shows a knowledge and appreciation of past masters without merely repeating their successes.

-A belief in the inescapability of hierarchy (in the work of art and in society) and the importance of religion and family in informing our roles in society (as opposed to mere “power relations”).

-A belief that we are more than matter and that there is some higher, immaterial force at work in the universe.

Conservatives, of course, don’t have a monopoly on these beliefs, and not all conservatives would ascribe to them, but these are things that most conservatives over the years have supported in one way or another.

What conservatives with cash need to do is support writers, critics, literary magazines and organizations that share these values, whatever their individual political affiliation (though if they also happen to be conservative, great), as a way of reinvigorating literature, not conservatism, and whatever follows from that, follows.

After all, conservatives are supposed to be committed to certain things because they are true or good, and not simply because they are useful.



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