I’m in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It’s an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: “The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes.” Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like “profiting from the hiatus.” The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene‘s, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the “civilized” is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can’t comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I’m only a little ways into the book, it doesn’t seem like this is a bad thing.
It may seem that we have drifted toward dragons when a satirist sits at a senator’s desk (Al Franken) and a comedian’s criticisms land so dry they are mistaken for affirmation (Stephen Colbert). Actually we’re repeating a journey traveled by Sir Thomas More exactly five-hundred years ago.
In 1509, Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus was struck by inspiration while horseback on his way to visit More. The two friends had translated Lucian’s satires together. Once installed in More’s home, Erasmus penned In Praise of Folly, an attack on the rampant stoicism of the age (think Dick Cheney) and a defense of More’s famous wit. More was fond of bawdy jokes and puns, and reportedly proud of the fact that his humor was sometimes so arid many didn’t even perceive it.
In 1516, More produced the short novel Utopia, a portrait of a happy island nation whose benevolent ruler advocates communal property, religious freedom, and marital separation. Utopia spawned an entire genre of literature, and apart from the Bible it’s hard to imagine a book that has proven to be so influential. Utopia borrows heavily from both Lucian and In Praise of Folly, which makes our current moment the quincentennial of the gestation period (1509-1516) of what is perhaps the most important novel in the history of mankind.
Oddly, the book succeeded only because most people misunderstood it.
More wrote Utopia as a young man. Erasmus published it, and as he prepared it for press More hustled after blurbs like any budding author. But even he would have admitted that the initial rollout didn’t go quite as planned. He had hoped to appeal to an audience that would understand the book’s classical puns as invitation to an ironic interpretation. (Greek: “Utopia” = “no place.”) In other words, he wanted to criticize everything to book seemed to stand for. In actuality, More was a monarchist who defended private property, participated in Lutheran-burning, and later lost his head because he refused to sanction his king’s divorce.
His arid wit backfired this time. Within More’s lifetime, Utopia was cited as justification for communal property in the Peasant War, and was used as a blueprint for civic organization in towns in southern Mexico.
“This fellow is so grim that he will not hear of a joke,” he complained. “That fellow is so insipid that he cannot endure wit.” Once officially a member of the court of Henry VIII, More suggested Utopia be burned.
It was too late. And given the impact of utopian thought since then – the basic tenets of communism, capitalism, fascism, and socialism all trace back to utopian texts – it’s fair to characterize the last five hundred years of human civilization as a history of not-getting-the-joke of Utopia. That history will repeat if the next five hundred years are best characterized by an affectless viewing of “The Colbert Report.” The evidence that our world too suffers from a kind of “irony-deficiency” doesn’t stop with satiric news. The mantra of Oliver Stone’s Gordon Gekko (“Greed is good”) is a witless business plan for many, and mocking recitals of dirty limericks by Andrew Dice Clay (a Jewish comedian) became revival for Italian misogynists who took them for rhyming mission statements.
Of course, the politics now are all reversed. The funny guys are all on the left; somber cowboys brood stage right. Were he alive today, Thomas More might feel most at home among neo-Stoics who under the guise of a “real America” plan to secede, plot for overthrow, or hope to coronate Sarah Palin.
Utopia – the un-ironic version of it that proved fruitful in shaping modern democracy – is the victim of all this. It’s now largely a pejorative term. Propagandists who currently target “hope” have already succeeded in making “utopia” synonymous with socialist idealism. They forget that free markets, mutually assured destruction, and peace through superior firepower are each just as easy to link back to utopian tracts. Utopia is the scope of the plan, not the nature of the product.
In America, it’s particularly tough to escape the influence of that un-got joke. President Obama offers frequent reminders that the United States is an ongoing experiment. Our goal, in our founding documents, is to become a “more perfect” union. Only tin ears remain deaf to the utopian echo. When our politicians deride one another’s plans as utopian, they forget that plans can be made and criticisms leveled only because we all live in a version of More’s joke. The far right thinks its views are those of the Founding Fathers, and that the country’s enemies are crazy utopians who would undo democracy. But the Founding Fathers were utopians to a man. They railed not against taxes, but against taxes without representation. Today’s conservative spirit applied to the late eighteenth century would have resisted even those changes. George W. Bush once described the benevolent dictator as the best form of government, and Cheney’s quest to expand executive power betrayed nostalgia for monarchy. Conservatives long for a despot like More’s ironically-intended “King Utopus.”
Yet it’s not just irony deficiency that links us to the past. We’re also becoming more bawdy. And in this regard, it doesn’t matter whether you’re Dick Cheney on the floor of Congress or Joe Biden at a presidential press conference.
The only thing that perhaps explains why viewers today prefer “The Daily Show” to CNN or Fox is that the same cultural mood that produced In Praise of Folly has come around again. But now that the politics have reversed we must ensure that the humor is not so subtle it becomes its opposite. In this regard there is, I dare say, hope.
Not long ago, Jon Stewart conducted a (mostly) sober debate on the financial crisis with a CNBC analyst (and admitted clown). It was a riveting interview – one in which an absence of artificial poise and stoicism appeared to enable a further depth of insight.
But when the CNBC clown dodged a question with banter, Stewart called him out on it: “This isn’t a fucking joke.”
And no one laughed.
When I started a book blog two and half years ago, I had no idea I would be paying such close attention to the activities of Oprah Winfrey, but here I am, again. The truth is, when I worked at a book store a few years ago (and not a very Oprah-friendly one, mind you) her influence on book sales and mainstream book culture in America was evident on a daily basis. With a few reservations, I applauded Oprah’s decision to highlight “classic” novels, because it put these essential books into the hands of readers who might not otherwise be drawn to them. Now it appears as though this phase of Oprah’s club has ended, and her gaze (which can bestow millions upon an unsuspecting author) has fallen once again upon the living. She says that she was “moved” by a letter signed by various living authors asking her to consider contemporary books once again, but perhaps, with the Summer of Faulkner, the “classics” experiment had simply run its course.Even if it hadn’t been preceded by the Faulkner books, the current selection, James Frey’s addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces would be a disappointment. While entertaining (I’m told), it’s the switch to non-fiction, and more importantly, confessional memoir, that bothers me. Oprah’s entire show is a confessional memoir. Her guests are invited on the show to pour out their souls so that viewers can cry along with them, and Oprah joins in. While previous picks, classic or otherwise, take us out of Oprah’s world and into a narrative created by the author, books like A Million Little Pieces are indistinguishable from the content of her show, all of which makes this choice seem incredibly self-serving. Perhaps she’ll get everyone to read a self-help book next.Several other bloggers have already weighed in: Scott, Annie, Authorstore
At the Happy Booker, Wendi points to a New York Daily News article which mentions that Oprah has been recommending Edward P. Jones’ 2003 novel The Known World to book clubs, leading to speculation that her own book club will return to contemporary fiction, and Jones’ book will be her choice.Great news for Jones, but I see no reason why Oprah can’t have both contemporary and classic picks at the same time. She only selects three or four books a year, so double that wouldn’t be a big deal, and getting millions of people to read books like East of Eden and Anna Karenina isn’t a bad thing.
Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.