Tuesday, 06 March 2007

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Why Republicans Don't Write [Literary] Fiction; or, Mark Helprin and Sky-Gazing Over at n+1, Benjamin Nugent wonders "Why Don't Republicans Write Fiction?" There must, he writes, be somebody who can write a decent character-driven short story who also thinks George W. Bush is a good president. I wanted to find these conservative somebodies: I wanted to talk to them, to find out what they thought of their minority status—whether they thought the publishing world was arrayed against them, or had other explanations for the apparent predominance of their liberal counterparts. And I wanted to read their work, to see whether it could illuminate the contemporary conservative experience in ways that Republican-penned potboilers and political columns just don’t. But I couldn't find them. With the smug air of someone who's spent five hours reading bad literary criticism, I let loose an exaggerated sigh punctuated by Mark Helprin's name. Somehow anticipating this reaction, Nugent proceeds to spend the rest of the essay discussing Helprin's most popular novel, Winter's Tale (1983). He convincingly argues that reading it provides "a sense for how being a conservative feels." Convincing, but not entirely correct. Winter's Tale is one of those books adolescents on the cusp of protraction clutch to their chests while mumbling gushing words about the beauty of its prose and its purity of spirit. The novel appeals to those blessed (or cursed) with the conviction that the world is meaningful but ultimately unknowable—everything has its place so everything will work out in the end. Cosmic justice works so long as the technocrats keep their compassionate corruption to themselves. Nugent is absolutely correct to invoke Sean McCann and Michael Szalay's "Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking and the New Left." But the invocation of my co-blogger and my advisor in an article about my favorite novel from 1991 until my sophomore year of college points to the other source of Helprin's appeal: an implicit faith in order. Gravity's Rainbow might never offer a full account of who They are, but people who spend years trying to decipher Their Plan believe in its existence. It can be understood, we only lack the tools or vision to do so. Helprin approaches the same problem from a different angle: he convinces readers that order reins but will always be ineffable. It is a magic realism based on a naive notion of karma. Call it "folk karma" if you will—and Rich will—but I think it (or something like it) is largely responsible for the appeal of both Winter's Tale and Gravity's Rainbow. Readers of both feel connections impervious to rational explanation. Is this what being a conservative feels like? I honestly don't know. However, not only do I frequently feel like this, I do so at the urging of someone not usually listed among the great conservative thinkers: Walter Benjamin. I'm thinking of his seventeenth thesis on the philosophy of history here: Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration...

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