Tigerpapers

Pondering the palimpsest and panoply of the planet.

My 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Every year around this time the Nobel Prizes are awarded, but as my readers are no doubt aware the 2018 Literature award was cancelled due to a nasty scandal within the Swedish Academy. That opened the doors for a makeshift “New Academy” to award their own alternative literature prize for 2018: a writer named Maryse Conde from the French Caribbean territory of Guadalupe. I have never heard of her but I’m sure she is more than deserving of the unofficial honor. However, given the conspicuous absence of the world’s oldest and most important literary prize this year, no one is stopping me from naming the official  “Tigerpapers Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature” for 2018: the multifaceted Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

It is no secret that while the Nobel Committee often seeks out writers who are less than well-known in popular western culture, it is still a heavily European prize. There have been eight winners from host nation Sweden, and a combined four from sparsely populated Norway and Iceland. Compare that to a total of four from the entire continent of Africa in the 117-year history of the prize. Two of those Africans are actually white South Africans who would readily admit to being European culturally, linguistically, and ethnically: Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. I love both those writers and have written an extensive essay on Coetzee’s career. Another winner was the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, whom I have yet to read personally, but who is certainly a deserving representative of Arabic letters and culture. There remains only one actual winner to represent all of sub-Saharan Africa: the Nigerian Wole Soyinka. His countryman Chinua Achebe, who died in 2013, was another of the Academy’s many incredible omissions. It is time to recognize another giant of post-colonial African letters: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Admittedly, Ngũgĩ has been cited as one of the “favorites” to win since at least 2010, but this doesn’t mean much except that there are many readers and critics around the world who also feel him to merit the award. For me personally, it is a choice that reflects my growing awareness of and enthusiasm for African literature in general over the last few years. I started to reflect on this in my 2015 essay Why Black Literature Matters. As I write this I am listening to Bob Dylan, whose unlikely but somehow satisfying award I wrote about in my 2016 essay The Apotheosis of Bob Dylan. As an avid reader I have always had interest in the Nobel Prize in general as a flawed but valuable source of information on what counts as canonical or worthy literature. In my very first post on this blog in 2011, I mentioned and genially mocked the bestowal of that year’s award on the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, who I’m sure must be a great poet (Teju Cole, for example, is a big fan) but yet another example of the Academy’s European and Scandinavian leanings. As a rapidly growing and vibrant region, sub-Saharan Africa deserves to have more seats at the table of what has been until now a European-American monopoly on who and what counts as culturally important. As one of the most important living standard-bearers of the African fight for post-colonial cultural and linguistic independence, and a powerful writer of diverse genres, it is time to give Ngũgĩ his due, and to perhaps give a “Nobel bump” to interested western readers.

Ngũgĩ’s most recent novel is 2004’s Wizard of the Crow, a lengthy tour de force satire on a corrupt dictatorship that I mentioned in my essay The Dictator Novel in the Age of Trump. He is probably most famous for his first three novels, a trilogy that is required reading in Kenyan schools and western post-colonial departments: Weep Not, Child (1964), The River Between (1965), and A Grain of Wheat (1967). These novels provide a portrait of the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, and are comparable to Achebe’s African trilogy written a half decade earlier. In fact, Achebe was an early editor and instrumental to getting Ngũgĩ’s first novel published. All three novels portray the violence and burgeoning local political movements in 1950s and 60s Kenya.

Like Nobel laureate Soyinka, who was imprisoned and exiled by Nigeria’s military regime, Ngũgĩ was exiled by the Kenyan dictator-president Daniel Arap Moi for 22 years. After his first three novels, all written in English, he has published everything in his native tongue of Kikuyu and been a proponent of celebrating local African languages and culture over the universalizing of English and French. He has written much about his theory of language and identity, especially in the 1986 essay collection Decolonising the Mind. He has written at least four memoirs, of which I’ve read part of one so far: 2012’s In the House of the Interpreter. He has also written plays, short stories, and children’s books. I have yet to read all of his work (so little time, so many books), but in the meantime I am certain that he is a worthy recipient of the first and only “Tigerpapers Alternative Nobel.”

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No, Nazis were Not Leftists: Or, How to Debunk Right-Wing Propaganda

It is generally considered good practice not to “feed the trolls”— that is, not to engage in commentary with strangers on the internet who thrive on aggressive verbal hate and cruelty. But when the president himself is little more than a troll and the entire right-wing media apparatus increasingly relies on weaponized trolling (as well as the overwhelming spread of misinformation) as a primary means of producing propaganda, it becomes necessary to occasionally step up and defend ideas and history from the perversion of alternate realities. 

That brings us to the inspiration for this piece: a recent article in the right-wing website The Federalist titled “Read a Pile of Top Nazis Talking about How they Love Leftist Marxism” by Paul Jossey. The subtitle is “From the moment they enter the political fray, young right-wingers are told, ‘You own the Nazis.’ Much of the historical record says exactly the opposite.” The article begins with this in-your-face provocation: “The Nazis were leftists.” I hope that most of our readers will instantly recognize the absurdity of the article from those few lines, but it warrants examining in closer detail to understand exactly what the author is trying to do and why.

First of all, what is The Federalist? It is clearly a right-wing website whose main driving force is to oppose gay marriage and whose main contributors are connected to those ubiquitous right-wing plutocrats, The Koch Brothers. The website itself strangely provides no information or mission statement in the form of an “About” page, but they do use this uncredited line as a footer: “Be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray,” a quote that apparently comes from a 1918 speech by Calvin Coolidge, of all people. The Nazi article in question is categorized as “History,” and the author’s past publications all seem to be revolve around fake free speech grievances. 

The introduction concludes by stating “But evidence Adolf Hitler’s gang were men of the left, while debatable, is compelling.” It is interesting to note that the author does not go so far as to apologize directly for the Nazis, or to explain why they “weren’t really so bad.” Let’s stop for a moment and at least recognize and praise this author for not supporting or praising the Nazis. The fact that this has to be emphasized says something revealing about the toxic state of political discourse in this country.

Everything else the author does in his article, however, is part of a cynical ploy to rewrite history by cherry-picking isolated facts and fitting them into a false context. The author claims that his thesis, that the Nazis were actually Leftists, is debatable, but compelling. It is actually neither. No actual historian or political scientist maintains has gone on the record to claim that Nazis were Leftists. Accordingly, there is no citation given of any such person in the article because they don’t exist. This means that the author’s thesis is not actually debatable. It is settled history. I am not personally an academic specialist in the Nazi party, but I am an amateur historian with two history degrees who has read and thought much about World War Two over the course of my life. A very quick bit of research has led me to conclude with a high degree of certainty that there is basically universal consensus by scholars that the Nazis occupied territory on the far-right of the political spectrum. The few skeptics to the “far-right-wing Nazi consensus” seem to place more emphasis on the sui generis nature of the Nazi political beast by charaterizing it as neither right nor left, but a unique populist syncretic movement. Even such a rare opinion does not go so far as to characterize the Nazis as unequivocal members of “the Left”. That is because it is by definition an absurd and offensive statement. That is like saying that Nazis were secretly communists because of a short-lived and cynical peace treaty with Josef Stalin (Actually, the author does make that ridiculous point in the article). There is no new history to be written on the main, big picture history of World War Two and the Nazi party. There is no hitherto secret knowledge or conspiracy that the author has just revealed despite decades of settled history determining what everyone knew at the time and until now: the Nazis were a far-right party—as far right as a party could conceivably be on the political spectrum. Everything else in the article is merely lies and propaganda (which are usually the same thing) to further his own right-wing views.

It is not hard to imagine why one wouldn’t want to share ideological real estate with the Nazis, and once again I do in fact applaud the author for not wanting to admit such. The fact remains though, that they were a hyper-right-wing party, and he is an ideologue in the far-right-wing American conservative movement. That is why he attempts to portray the Nazis as a Leftist party—to make himself and his likeminded peers feel better about themselves while simultaneously making the other guys look bad. He might as well just wave his arms and shout at the top of his lungs “I’m not a Nazi! You’re the Nazi!” This playground tactic is actually a well-known and useful tool of propaganda called “transference” or “projection.” It is one of the many techniques of propaganda I mentioned in my article of the same name (The Techniques of Propaganda). The current president famously does it nearly everytime he speaks, most famously in a debate with Hillary Clinton when he screamed “No Puppet! No Puppet! You’re the puppet!” The fact that he is, in fact, a puppet is secondary to the strategy of constantly maintaining a consistently aggressive and mendacious stance towards political foes in an attempt to smear them with your own crimes and faults. This is also a type of “whataboutism” which has long been used by Trump’s mentor, Putin. It’s like saying “Yeah, the Nazis were bad, but what about Stalin and Mao?! (or Native American genocide or slavery?!)” It shouldn’t be too hard to understand that such statements are intentionally intellectually dishonest distractions from the point, but the fact remains that for a lot of people, especially ones primed to follow right-wing talking points and emotionally based arguments, such propaganda is often quite effective.

The second paragraph of the article continues by citing the infamous right-wing polemicist and fake historian Dinesh D’Souza as one of the sources of recent alternative histories. The author then claims that “the vitriol and lack of candor [such “alternative histories] produces from supposedly fact-driven academics and media is disturbing, if unsurprising. They stifle dissent on touchy subjects to maintain their narrative and enforce cultural hegemony.” Lots of big words and academic-sounding language here, all in an effort to say “why do experts call us out when we make shit up?” D’Souza is a convicted felon, provocateur, and far-right hack who is popular with theocratic crowds for writing a ton of “history” books that completely make shit up and basically blame “liberals” for everything from slavery to 9/11. The fact that D’Souza is the only person cited in the article regarding such “alternative histories” is telling. He even appears to have written a trashy “history” book in 2017 called The Big Lie claiming contrary to all evidence that Hitler and his coterie were “secret leftists,” a dog-eared copy of which is no doubt on the author’s shelf. For real historians, fact-checking D’Souza is like playing Super Mario Brothers with the cheat codes on, and luckily for us there is a tireless history professor named Kevin Kruse who has taken up this challenge.

The author continues by saying that “alternative views of the Third Reich exist and were written by the finest minds of their time,” and claims that such opinions “perhaps carry more weight because they are unburdened by the aftermath of the uniquely heinous Nazi crimes.” Once again, props to the author for having the courage to admit that Nazi crimes were heinous, something becoming more difficult by the day for many of his fellow travelers. Even the president, famously even-minded and hesitant to draw hasty conclusions, wouldn’t want to go so far because there were probably many “good people” on the Nazi side. Anyway, the only “finest mind” that the author cites in the entire article is a certain Austrian economist, F.A. Hayek. Hayek does have the benefit of having actually rejected and fled the Nazi regime in real-time, which not every German-speaking intellectual could claim (looking at you, Martin Heidegger). He was also a life-long friend of liberal philosopher Karl Popper despite their many political differences, which reflects well on Hayek in my book (Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies was written in 1944, the same year as Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published. Here is my article on Popper explaining why I find him more convincing than Hayek). He has also been basically the main, and the only, inspiration for that always dubious and now-extinct animal known as the “reasonable, principled right-wing intellectual.” 

If we are to be generous and fair to Hayek, we must admit that he was apparently a relatively honorable person with some nuanced and well-considered positions on politics and economics. For the purposes of right-wing politicians, it has long been enough to cite him as the simplified intellectual basis for their dogma that free markets must always be unfettered and wealth must never be distributed by the government (by which they mean of course that it should never be distributed downwards; they have always been happy to distribute it upwards). This was the dogma of the Thatcher-Reagan axis, but it could have just as easily been Ayn Rand rather than Hayek providing the “philosophy.” In any case, the author here has used a few throwaway, out-of-context phrases from early Hayek to make his entire case that the Nazis were leftists. In addition, Hayek loved dictators and somehow made the case that authoritarianism (which he supported!) was different than totalitarianism (which he was against). He personally supported and sometimes collaborated and befriended right-wing dictators and war criminals like Pinochet (he claimed that Allende was totalitarian!) and Salazar (maybe let’s reconsider that thing I said about his being “honorable”). So that is a summary of the most intellectually important right-wing thinker of the century.

The official name of the Nazis was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. They didn’t like to be called Nazis. If you look carefully, you will even find the word “Socialist” (not to mention “Workers”) in the name of party. This must mean they were Socialist, and, tout court, Leftist. Case closed. I guess all this actually proves is that political parties choose names that do not always signify their actual ideology. This is more common outside of America, with the Polish Law and Justice party, the Brazilian Social Liberal Party, the French Socialist party, and the Australian Liberal party coming immediately to mind (not to mention the Russian United Russia party). The author goes on to give example after cherry-picked example of actual Nazis making quotes that make them appear friendly to what we think of as Socialism, or of denigrating the “western capitalists” of the time. He says, for example, “Hayek describes Nazism as a ‘genuine socialist movement’ and thus left-wing by modern American standards.” That’s a pretty big red herring, oversimplification, and non sequitur all in one short phrase (three techniques of propaganda! Go read my previous essay and learn them all by name). He goes on to say, “British elites regarded Nazism as a virulent capitalist reaction against enlightened socialism–a view that persists today.” Yeah, it persists because it’s the historical truth. By the way, that’s actually being far too gentle with Nazism—calling it a “virulent capitalist reaction” is probably the most unsuperlative thing you could truthfully say about it—and “British elites” (many of whom actually supported Hitler up to and, in some cases, during the war).

As the article continues, the author gives some ad hoc definitions of “right” and “left”, and their sloppiness illuminates the ways he probably thinks his is a logically sound argument. He says the “right” consists of “free-market capitalists, who think the individual is the primary political unit, believes in property rights, and are generally distrustful of government by unaccountable agencies and government solutions to social problems. They view family and civil institutions, such as church, as needed checks on state power.” He says the “left” consists of people who “distrust the excesses and inequality capitalism produces. They give primacy to group rights and identity. They believe factors like race, ethnicity, and sex compose the primary political unit. They don’t believe in strong property rights…They believe the free market has failed to solve issues like campaign finance, income inequality, minimum wage, access to health care, and righting past injustices. These people talk about ‘democracy’—the method of collective decisions.” He then claims that these definitions prove somehow that the Nazis were Leftists.

The only thing he didn’t say about the “left” is that they have a penchant for human sacrifice and cannibalism. If you think there is something just a bit made up, just a bit Fox-Newsy about his definitions, you are not wrong. Obviously it is not easy to portray all the nuance of the variagated “right-left” political spectrum with such facile definitions, especially considering the disconnect between economic and cultural perspectives. There is a convincing case to be made that from the “right” perspective, everything that they think is wrong with the world is de facto part of the “left.” If you define everything not you as bad, and everything bad as “left,” Nazis will by necessity become leftists. Much of today’s “right” also thinks of the “left” exclusively in terms of identity, as opposed to other political ideology. Thus, anything in history that used identity in bad, or deviant ways was therefore part of a leftist plot or conspiracy. It would be easier to list the key words and ideas generally associated with each camp. In political science, it is generally accepted that the “left” tends to emphasize ideas like freedom (!), equality, fraternity, rights, progress, reform, and internationalism, while the “right” tends to emphasize ideas like authority (!), hierarchy, order, duty, tradition, reaction, and nationalism. Any disputes here? I didn’t think so.

You might have noticed those key words of freedom, and authority. Despite the American right-wing appropriation of the word, they misunderstand and detest real freedom and always tend towards authority over liberty. Usually what they mean when they talk about freedom is that they support the freedom to think and act just like they do, which is obviously no kind of freedom at all. The centrality of sexual and religious politics in American right-wing ideology is enough to illustrate their primacy of authority over freedom. Some theorists maintain that there is a natural authoritarianism and oppression of the lower orders in conservatism in general; Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind says that “Though it is often claimed that the left stands for equality while the right stands for freedom, this notion misstates the actual disagreement between right and left. Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension. For in that extension, he sees a loss of his own freedom.” Authority is the main hallmark of not only authoritarian (obviously) and totalitarian systems, but also conservatism writ large. Jeffrey Herf in his book Reactionary Modernism: Technology, Culture, and Politics in Weimar and the Third Reich, argues that the Nazis mixed enthusiam for technology with a total rejection of Enlightenment values as a radical alternative to liberal and socialist visions of modernity. Umberto Eco’s tour de force essay “Ur-Fascism” gives 14 characteristics of Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” that can be found in all forms of fascism. Nowhere in this exhaustive list can you find anything remotely “leftist.” Basically, the Nazi regime was reptilian, terroristic, totalitarian, and extremely right-wing.

For those who shout “What about Stalin?!”, the answer is that the Soviet Union, especially under Stalin, was also a right-wing terroristic totalitarian regime, despite the supposed “leftism” of Communist ideology that could be traced back to said Enlightenment values. The Soviet Union was never really Communist in anything but name, but from the beginning governed as just another kleptocratic oligarachy much more authoritarian than any Tsar ever dreamed of. Vladimir Nabokov, in his memoirs, calls the Bolsheviks (who assassinated his father, by the way) “fascists.” So the answer is that the Nazis weren’t “leftist,” but that the Soviet Union was actually “rightist.” You might ask if I’m being serious here or just engaging in my own propagandistic sophistry, a la the author of that hideous article. Reader, do you own research and make up your own mind. Don’t believe anything you read on the internet. Especially on websites like The Federalist. Read history.

How does Politics affect Writing, and Vice Versa?

I recently attended the 15th International Conference on the Short Story in Lisbon, where I met many interesting writers, read from my own work, and participated in a panel that discussed the question in the title. I would like to thank my fellow panelists, all wonderful people and writers: Garry Craig Powell, Sandra Jensen, Rebekah Clarkson, and Robin McLean. In this essay I will expand on some thoughts from before and during the discussion.

What is considered ‘political’ in fiction writing, and how far can the definition be stretched? Is it merely engagé works dealing with topics war, oppression, instability, or injustice? Or is it also anything regarding social identity and issues like race, gender, and economic class? Likewise, creating feelings of empathy is often cited as one of the greatest roles or benefits of reading fiction: is this itself a political end, for example is belief that empathy is good or that there is such a thing as shared humanity a political belief? What about writers and readers who appear to fall short of that ideal? Is it true that reading, especially of the “great books”, is educative and character- and society-improving? I always wonder about Stalin, for example-a voracious reader of literature and history, and a loving family man to boot, who was still one of modern history’s biggest monsters.

Is there a duty (or responsibility) of writers (and all artists) to take a stand against injustice or make political statements in their work? If so, does this risk the work becoming too didactic or heavy-handed, possibly subtracting from its aesthetic appeal? If not, does the writer risk accusations of withdrawal, ignorance, or cowardice, especially if they should somehow ‘know better’ based on their time and place (something akin to a writer’s version of the ‘Good German’)? 

Is a writer’s attempt to avoid anything remotely related to politics itself a privilege?

Or, in times of political danger or instability (which is really all the time), is there value in creating fiction that allows the writer and her readers an escape from this reality, however brief or superficial? Is all fiction therefore escapist in some sense, or is that modifier appropriate only to popular “genre” fiction?

Regarding so-called “genre” fiction, is it possible to read mystery, romance, thriller, or fantasy novels as apolitical? It is possible, but it would be missing the point that the stories that a writer chooses to tell or not to tell is itself a political expression. For example, the paradigmatic version of the romance is often an affirmation of the status quo, and thus on the side of the patriarchy or other oppressors.

Is it fair to say that the “best” works of fiction combine a sense of personal, individual, or particular aesthetic quality with something “bigger” than the particular story-a sense of collective, universal human solidarity, or a longing for justice, for example?

How important is the author’s identity itself in how she is read? And how important is the reader’s identity in how she interprets a work? How does this dynamic change in the case of pseudonymous or unknown writers? For example, the Torah is considered an archetypal text of patriarchy, but Harold Bloom reimagined it in The Book of J as a highly subversive and satirical work of a female courtesan in the Solomonic court.

Accordingly, how does the reader’s knowledge of (or assumptions about) a writer’s identity and biography either facilitate or preempt charges of cultural appropriation? Is such a charge only accessible to various minorities, or only against, for example, the typical Western (especially Anglo-American) white male who has long dominated our politics and cultural output? If there is some truth to this, how careful does a white male need to be when making characters and plots? Are there stories, characters, and words that can be used by one writer to great power, but used by a different writer to great insensitivity?

I have myself never been to Southeast Asia, and am ignorant of much of the literature and culture of that part of the world. As it stands, I would never even attempt to write characters or plots that involve, say, Vietnam, without the relevant knowledge and experience; to do so would be doomed to failure and rightly prompt accusations of cultural appropriation. There are many white male American writers who have written about Vietnam very powerfully and convincingly, however; veterans Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) and Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain), for example, or David Joiner (Lotusland), an American who lived in Vietnam for years. Even such examples must be compared with someone like Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer), a Vietnamese-American writer who is obviously even more well-placed to write about his own country than the knowledgeable outsiders listed above. I think that charges of cultural appropriation can fairly easily be avoided by a sensitive writer carefully choosing only things that she can write about from experience or extensive knowledge.

Cynthia Ozick, an American writer most famous for The Shawl, has been primarily a writer of the Holocaust and its aftermath. She appears to refute Theodor Adorno’s famous (and probably misunderstood) quote that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In Quarrel and Quandary, there are several essays that deal directly with the issue of politics and fiction. In fact, just quoting some of her lines would be much more effective than anything I could come up with. For example:

George Orwell, in “Why I Write,” asserts that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” There are times when one is tempted to agree with him… Yet inserting politics into literature has, as we have seen, led to the extremist (or absurdist) notion that Jane Austen, for instance, is tainted with colonialism and slave-holding because Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park owns plantations in eighteenth-century Antigua.

As would be supposed, she holds that not only do politics and writing mix, but it is necessary that they do so. All of the writers I heard from at the conference would readily agree. Despite this, the apolitical writer is not a mere straw man. At one point she also mentions a speech E.M. Forster gave in 1941 arguing for “Art for Art’s Sake”, even at a time when evil was spreading across the continent. Here is the crux of Ozick’s essay:

Art may well be the most worthy of all human enterprises; that is why it needs to be defended; and in crisis, in a barbarous time, even the artists must be visible among the defending spear-carriers. Art at its crux—certainly the “Antigone”!—doesn’t fastidiously separate itself from the human roil; neither should artists. I like to imagine a conversation between Forster and Isaac Babel—let us say in 1939, the year Babel was arrested and tortured, or early in 1940, when he was sentenced to death at a mock trial. History isn’t only what we inherit, safe and sound and after the fact; it is also what we are ourselves obliged to endure…

There are those—human beings both like and unlike ourselves—who relish evil joy, and pursue it, and make it their cause; who despise compromise, reason, negotiation; who, in Forster’s words, do evil that evil may come—and then the possibility of aesthetic order fails to answer. It stands only as a beautiful thought, and it is not sufficient to have beautiful thoughts while the barbarians rage on. The best ideal then becomes the worst ideal, and the worst ideal, however comely, is that there are no barbarians; or that the barbarians will be so impressed by your beautiful thoughts that they too will begin thinking beautiful thoughts; or that in actuality the barbarians are no different from you and me, with our beautiful thoughts; and that therefore loyalty belongs to the barbarians’ cause as much as it belongs to our own…

The responsibility of intellectuals includes also the recognition that we cannot live above or apart from our own time and what it imposes on us; that willy-nilly we breathe inside the cage of our generation, and must perform within it. Thinkers—whether they count as public intellectuals or the more reticent and less visible sort—are obliged above all to make distinctions, particularly in an age of mindlessly spreading moral equivalence.

She mentions how Forster ends his speech with Shelley’s well-known quote that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, and notes the irony that Forster took this as a dictum from Mt. Olympus even while Panzers were running roughshod over Europe and the camps were already operating. I like the quote myself, but I would certainly not interpret it to mean that poets (or all writers) should withdraw from the world in the hope that the aesthetic beauty of their work alone is enough to improve the world. Ozick’s comments above demonstrate why that will never be realistic.

Richard Rorty in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity rejected the possibility that there was a single “aim of the writer” or “nature of literature”. He compared writers who pursued private, aesthetic perfection, like Proust and Nabokov, with those seeking human liberty, like Dickens and Orwell. He says “There is no point in trying to grade these different pursuits on a single scale by setting up factitious kinds called “literature” or “art” or “writing”; nor is there any point in trying to synthesize them.” In response to this, I have heard it said that even aesthetic pleasure is political. If this is true than all the admirers of Lolita will surely perceive the political foundation underlying that aesthetically pleasing novel, even if not overtly present in the plot.

J.M. Coetzee is a white South African who was opposed to the Apartheid regime, but chose to avoid overt politics or write about it obliquely, almost in the form of Platonic ideas. Here is his quote explaining his method:

In times of intense ideological pressure like the present when the space in which the novel and history normally coexist like two cows on the same pasture, each minding its own business, is squeezed to almost nothing, the novel, it seems to me, has only two options: supplementarity or rivalry.

On the other hand, Nadine Gordimer, another white South African writer and life-long opponent of Apartheid, chose to deal head-on with political issues, or to supplement history, in her works. They both won the Nobel Prize, and both showed how writing about politics can still be done in many and various ways, including supplementing it, à la Gordimer, or rivaling it, à la Coetzee.

Social reform has been a goal of certain types of literature (and art) at least since the 19th century. Dickens comes to mind as one example among many. It has always been hard to pinpoint concrete effects literature may have had on politics, beyond vaguely influencing readers to feel empathy for people unlike them. One notable exception is the much-anthologized short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story tells of a woman oppressed and driven mad by her doctor husband’s “rest cure”, a real-life treatment popularized by a doctor named Weir Mitchell. After the story was published, Mitchell read it and actually retracted this psychologically destructive treatment method. Other real-world political effects came from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the muck-rakers, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, to name two more examples.

Could Kafka be considered a political writer? Is there a spectrum of how political aa writer is, or how political certain literary themes are? For example, alienation and outsiderness play a big part in Kafka’s work, but is this because of his identity as a hated minority living among another group of oppressed minorities, or because he held views against the imperial and royal Hapsburg authorities? On the other hand, is there anything political that could be found in Borges’ stories? He seems to stick rigorously to theme of intellectual escapism in the form of his unique literary metaphysics. What about Chekhov, whose incredibly deft, character-driven portraits seem, on the surface, to be apolitical? Or Zweig, who tried to be apolitical in all his fiction even while he was working to build a more cultured and cosmopolitan Europe in real-life (and who killed himself in Nazi-induced despair in 1942)? The answer is that, obviously, all these writers were/are very political.

And all art, including fiction, is political. That holds true even if the author herself denies it or tries to avoid it. We have been told to never trust the writer but to trust the work; this seems a bit of academic sophistry, but in the case of a politics-denying writer we may do well to keep it in mind. The fact is that art production can only happen when the artist is free. Freedom of speech is central to the artist just as it is for the survival of a free society. There is no escape from politics for a writer or for anybody. We are all bound to the systems of power and human behavior that surround us. To not see or to deny this only reveals one’s privilege.

My own biographical information, if relevant: I was an officer in the US Army for over four years and spent two years in Afghanistan. This has obviously had a big effect on my character and political development, but in the 10 years since I have been out of the army, I have mostly had no desire to write or create fiction dealing with military themes. The exception so far is my story in The Road Ahead, a 2017 anthology featuring writers who are all veterans of the American wars. My other stories and the novel I’m working on were not apparently motivated by any explicit political stance and are more like historical fiction. After this panel, however, I have realized that I was rather naive and that all of my fiction and ideas are very clearly based on political realities.

Recently, like many Americans, I feel that the gravity of the political situation demands of all of us to do more. I know other American writers who have told me that they are not able to work lately because of the weight of the 24/7 news cycle. I know others who are trying to produce art or poetry specifically engaging political issues (like gun violence, for example). As a white male from the global hegemonic power, who has participated personally, if incidentally, in the ongoing state-sponsored violence, do I now have a duty to anyone other than myself, to fight for justice or against oppression? Would it be considered insensitive or even unethical of me to write only for myself? There are probably no absolute answers to any of these questions, but most of their utility comes from their very formulation and expression. In the end, there is probably no absolute duty of a writer to bring politics into their works, but it will still always be a good idea, and probably the best thing we can do.

Trump, Too, Had a Mother: On the Limits of Empathy

I, like a majority of Americans, am deeply disturbed by every aspect of the ongoing catastrophe that is the “Trump Presidency”. I am strongly opposed to everything Trump and the Republican Party stand for politically, but the most important issues we are now facing go beyond mere politics and policy. The issues that must be resolved one way or the other are no less than the biggest questions of philosophy come to life: What is truth? What is the good life? What does it mean to be good? What kind of society is best for humans? How should we act towards our fellow humans?

There is a deep political divide in America, the deepest since the Civil War, between factions called “conservatives” and “liberals”. Each has a set of policy positions that are now diametrically opposed, and which are all very important to the lives of real people. The biggest of these issues include foreign relations, immigration, tax policy, government regulations, environmental protections, educational funding, and very personal choices surrounding drugs, sexual orientation, and abortion. The problem we are facing does not revolve around any of these issues or the rival party platforms as a whole. The problem is that each faction views the other as a mortal enemy to be defeated rather than fellow citizens and humans to debate and ultimately compromise with. I do not like moral equivalence, so it needs to be said that while both parties contributed to this sad state of affairs, it is the Republican Party, a totally corrupt cesspool of hatred, bigotry, and spite, which bears most of the blame. This has not (yet) led to much actual violence, but a tragic, violent conflict to decide who holds power is becoming more and more plausible. Trump resembles a dictator in his authoritarian methods (as I have written extensively), and it is obvious at first glance that his preferred system of government would be a hereditary absolute monarchy (the type of government that the first Americans were fleeing and which the Founders sought to prevent). Ultimately, Trump is too inept and ineffective for anything like this to actually occur under his watch, but what he has done is made America a crueler place for a majority of its citizens.

While I have long been interested in history (past politics) and politics (present history), I have recently been converted to a more biological and scientific world view thanks to E.O. Wilson (whose books I reviewed here). Wilson convincingly explains the paradoxical dichotomy of human evolution that led to our survival and success. The two rival instincts at work were tribalism and altruism. The first is the older, more primitive instinct that is present in all primates. The second is a later and rarer development that arose only in Homo sapiens and explains how our species came to dominate the planet while every other is either on our menu or on the way to extinction (except the ants). Because of this deeply embedded tribalistic instinct, most humans in most communities are and have always been inherently conservative. This is a conservatism based on fear of outsiders and fear of change. Much less frequently have visionary leaders and relatively progressive communities been able to appeal to our less engrained but just as emotional altruistic instinct. While fear is the dominant conservative emotion, empathy is the dominant progressive one. Fear leads to cruelty, while empathy leads to kindness. Two opposing human behaviors that lead to two different views of human society.

Political theorist Judith Shklar defined liberals as “people who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” Richard Rorty seconded this remark, adding humiliation as a subset of cruelty. Indeed, cruelty and humiliation are gratuitous acts of violence towards other humans, or even to other living beings (animals are always forgotten in the litanies of human violence). Those who engage in such behavior make it hard for other humans to sympathize with them, but it is still important to try.

Sympathy is sharing feelings with someone. Empathy is feeling as another person. Both are important steps towards building better communities and healthier lives. I am the first to admit that it is hard to even imagine finding empathy for someone like Trump, a cruel narcissist and sociopath. A man who does not even care about his own children except insofar as they reflect well on his own image (or, with the daughters, in an almost unspeakably disturbing sexual banter). Yet, as a writer, a philosopher, and a self-improvement-seeking human, I can attempt to feel empathy for Donald Trump. Yes, he, too, had a mother. He even had a father (albeit one who was just as cruel and bigoted as his son became). 

If I can feel empathy for Trump, if I can imagine the environment he grew up in, the regressive ideology he imbibed his whole life, the feelings of inadequacy he felt towards his father, and the possible love he may have felt for his mother, I can help understand people better in general, and thus help to make the world a slightly better place. I will not personally change any of Trump’s cruel and bigoted pathologies, and as an individual citizen I will not make much of a difference on my own. What I can do is to seek understanding, even and especially in the most unlikely and difficult to comprehend places, like Trump’s heart (which must be like the Grinch’s–two sizes too small). If I can get somewhat of a grasp on that, it will be all the easier to extend understanding to people who are similar to Trump in their behavior (boorish, aggressive, or violent) or ideology (racist, sexist, or fascist). I am aware that those types of people do not often display their own empathy unless it is someone who is already very close to them. But the whole point of this exercise is that my behavior will be different from theirs, and based on Peter Singer’s idea of expanding the circle of altruism. This should be a peaceful protest, or mindful resistance, and, to my mind, a better strategy than stooping to the level of vulgar insult and ad hominem attacks. I will certainly continue to oppose everything Trump stands for and do my part to fight for his imminent downfall, but that does not mean that I will dehumanize him. He is, if anything, very human. All too human, as Nietzsche might say.

In my essay Why Black Literature Matters, I quoted an Egyptian writer commenting on the use of empathy in Dostoyevsky’s fiction. The key example was a single sentence, describing an otherwise unsympathetic character: “He, too, had a mother.” It is the job of a writer to imagine and enter the mind of any possible character, good or bad. Many people have also held that it is a role (or the role) of literature to build empathy in readers. This is a laudable objective, but I remain skeptical. After all, Hitler and Stalin were not altogether uneducated or uncultured, and the latter was astonishingly well-read. Reading is not a panacea, and it will not improve the world on its own. We take into what we read what we already believe or feel. In some cases literature does change us, but probably just as often it has no moral effect whatsoever. What most certainly has a real impact, however, are real-life interactions with other human beings. Despite the apparent rise of cruelty, humiliation, and tribalism in the USA, the best way to fight back is to do it with understanding, empathy, and kindness. But reading more couldn’t hurt either.

What I Read in 2017: 115 Books

This is the fourth edition in what has now become my annual tradition of recording and reflecting on my yearly reading list. I have increased my reading output each year since I started this project, and this year’s 115 titles surpasses even 2016’s (approximately) 100 titles in quantity and possibly in quality as well. I should also mention that this year’s list also comes from only 10 months of reading, as I hardly opened a book for the last two months of the year (firstly because of final prepartions for the Cambridge Delta Exam, secondly to give my overheated brain a break and to do more rock climbing). Over the last four years I have read over 300 books total, including a whole lifetime’s worth of great literature. I’m happy with this, even if I found this article about a woman who read over 500 novels in one year! My future goals are for expanding more into unfamiliar literary territories, rereading more (which I have rarely done until now), and writing more. Without further ado, here’s the conspectus (unfinished marked with *):

Books (76):

The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

In the Heart of the Country by J.M. Coetzee

Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee

Youth by J.M. Coetzee

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee

Here and Now by J.M. Coetzee

Three Stories by J.M. Coetzee

My essay on Coetzee’s works here.

G by John Berger

To the Wedding by John Berger

Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

The Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger

Selected Essays by John Berger

Austerlitz by Max Sebald

Vertigo by Max Sebald

The Emigrants by Max Sebald

The Rings of Saturn by Max Sebald

Everyday if for the Thief by Teju Cole

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

My essay on Berger, Sebald, and Cole here.

Jazz by Toni Morrison

A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe

Anthills of the Savanna* by Chinua Achebe

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahisi Coates

The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

My essay on dictator novels here.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

On Writing by Stephen King

England England by Julian Barnes

The Porcupine by Julian Barnes

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

Working on completing all his works.

Solar by Ian McEwan

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

I’ve now read everything by this author.

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid

My essay on Hamid, Ackerman, and refugee novels here.

A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished reading everything by Ishiguro a few months before the Nobel was announced.

Radetsky March by Joseph Roth

The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth

Job by Joseph Roth

The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil

Five Women by Robert Musil

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (1130 pages!)

Two great Austrian writers I will say more about later.

Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte

The Skin by Curzio Malaparte

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis

His version of the Iliad. My essay on Kazantzikis here.

Under the Volcano* by Malcolm Lowry

The Power and the Glory* by Graham Greene

These two well-regarded novels of drunkards in Mexico just didn’t hold my interest; I’ll come back to them (maybe)

Zone by Mathias Enard

Street of Thieves by Mathias Enard

Excellent French author.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

I finished her dytopian trilogy this year. Never has Atwood been more relevant.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

My essay on Stalin here.

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

A Palace in the Old Village by Ben Tahar Jelloun

The Marquise of O and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist

Complete Stories and Parables by Franz Kafka

Deliver Us* by Luigi Meneghello

The author writes about growing up during the war in Malo, a small town where I live now. Too boring for me to finish, alas.

Audio books (39):

My goal was to start with as many Greek/Roman works as possible to reread or fill in some gaps (Cicero, for example, whom I’d never studied). All of the free audiobooks at Librivox are by definition older works out of copyright.

The Iliad by Homer

The Odyssey by Homer

The Aeneid by Virgil

The Oresteia by Aeschylus

The Works of Aeschylus

History of the Peloponesian War by Thucydides

The History of Rome from the Founding of the City by Livy

Agricola by Tacitus

Germania by Tacitus

On Duties by Cicero

Moralia by Cicero

On the Laws by Cicero

Tusculan Disputations by Cicero

Philippics by Cicero

The Life of Cicero by Anthony Trollope

Parallel Lives by Plutarch

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The Works of Hesiod

Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto

Garibaldi and the Making of Italy by George Trevelyan

The Bhagavad Gita by Unknown Author(s)

Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey

Under the Shadow of Etna by Giovanni Verga

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Phaedra by Jean Racine

The Bourguoisie Gentleman by Moliere

The Imaginary Invalid by Moliere

The Miser by Moliere

The Misanthrope by Moliere

The Autobiography of Goethe* by Goethe

Unfortunately, much more boring than I’d hoped.

Faust by Goethe

The Volsungasaga by Unknown Author(s)

The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist

The Tale of Genji (abridged) by Lady Murasaki Shikabu

Felix Holt: The Radical by George Eliot

Romola by George Eliot

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

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