THE Tiny Truths of little things

  (The subject of this presentation at the Iowa City Book Fair panel

was Prose and Politics)

Substitute “novel” for “prose,” and we can say that a good novel echoes the spirit of the age and place in which it was written to a readership that may be contemporary to or distant from it in time and location.  Stendhal’s Charter House of Parma, Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary grant us greater access to the 19th century than any historical account for being works imagined, reasoned, and felt--not just recorded. Neither numbers, nor data can convey the moral bankruptcy of the Vietnam War as surely as Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American. The novel’s veracity exceeds that of any documentary or work of non-fiction for being embedded with characters that draw empathy from the reader to give life to the text.

Why do we judge Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens greater writer than Zola, despite similarity of the worlds they describe? Germinal and Nana are great novels, but flawed by Zola’s Social Darwinism and pseudo-scientific ideas on human nature. His theories intrude and distort his perception. His witness is tainted. We mistrust him and his characters because we feel manipulated by him to make a point. And so, at times, he reads as false, maybe even dishonest, whereas the more raggedy Dostoevsky, for all his characters’ confusions and muddles, reads true. Though Dostoevsky’s redemptive Christianity does intrude to provide his characters with moments of epiphany, this usually only occurs at the end of the novels and in the form of a crisis leading to greater self-awareness.  Clumsily constructed on occasions, rarely do they seem extraneous to the character’s development.

So what then of Prose and Politics?

If writers are witnesses, answerable to future generations, as they are to their own, this implies a moral standpoint. Not the dead hand of codified lists of thou shalt this and not that on stone tablets issued from on-high, but a living morality that evaluates the hurt and damage in the hearts and minds of others:  a morality of compassion— “passion” from the Latin “to suffer,” and so, compassion meaning to share the suffering of others through understanding and empathy.

In every great novel from Don Quixote to the present day, empathy is the path into the world of a novel. Empathy permits the reader to infuse characters with imagined life, to inhabit characters to such a degree that they can be understand and loved despite their flaws.

The twentieth century is replete with examples of the price paid by humanity for its propensity for self-delusion under the influence of triumphant notions of class and race now monumentalised by the ruins of gulags, and concentration camps, as well as the images of mounds of skulls in Rwanda and Kampuchea. In place of the last century’s utopian nightmares of grandeur, whether of the right or the left, politics in this century has become a matter of expediency, of group management, of people as numbers that momentarily gain a voice and a face, as cases and clients, with the occasional right to mark a cross on a ballot paper.

These remain the two poles of our current politics: an irrational enthusiasm for dubious principle in the guise, most often, of racial superiority or religious righteousness, versus a numbing mass management by a bureaucracy of accountants.  Both alternatives are toxic to a writer.

The best corrective to both is the compassion exercised by the writer, as a free witness, and shared by the reader through their engagement with a text. It is in literary texts that our humanity resides, awakened through the act of reading. To witness so as to write is a skill bred of experience and practice that requires engagement with the world uncompromised by the myopia of politics. It demands integrity, without which our humanity can only be diminished. 

A writer’s obligation, if obligation they have, is not to the big truths, if truths there are, of class conflict or Good versus Evil, but to the truths of the situations they write about, the tiny truths of small things— a fidelity to detail, as though seeing for the first time with the innocence of a child, as Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina or slightly askew, as Flaubert in Madam Bovary— then let the reader draw conclusions that may lead to any greater truths that may be there.

When it comes to writing fiction, as much as writers should care about the world and engage with it on as many levels as possible, if the alternative is myopia, it is better they remain unencumbered by political loyalties and unconstrained by political expediency. A writer’s obligation is to witness the world with a clear eye and present a story that engages the reader that can live in memory— nothing less and nothing more. 

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