Thursday, May 31, 2018

Humanism and Liberalism -- A Pair of Definitions

I can agree with Clive James' general definition of humanism while disagreeing with the fogeyish particulars of his argument in Cultural Amnesia:

Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it.

Note how this chimes with Lionel Trilling's definition of liberalism in The Liberal Imagination (in a fragment from a 1974 lecture printed as a foreword to the 1976 edition): "...liberalism was...a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." He goes on to identify literature, "especially the novel," as "the human activity which takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, complexity, difficulty--and possibility."

We can thus understand the novel as the artistic expression of liberalism, and liberalism itself as the political expression of humanism. But all three constructs also point toward an even more fundamental idea that grounds them all: pluralism. Pluralism is the fertile soil in which these ideas grow, the garden where humanism bequeaths liberalism which begets Middlemarch and Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow and Howard's End.

It is tragically telling that both these definitions are matters of "was," past tense epitaphs for ideas gone. In a fascisizing, Trumped-out America that neither writer could have predicted (imagine how it would've horrified Trilling), the past tense seems especially disheartening. For pluralism, humanism, liberalism are exactly the medicines America needs today. We need them in gigantic surreal syringes out of William Burroughs' wettest dreams. We need megadoses to flush this fascist psychosis out of our country and make America recognizable again. For in America in the middle of 2018, the yes-or-no question many African-Americans are asking themselves--"Have white people lost their damn minds?"--solicits one obvious answer--and it's not the comforting one.

Against Literary Eulogies

Damn it. I just did it again.

As is my wont, after telling myself not to do something (in this case, writing yet another "brief eulogy" for Philip Roth), I immediately did it.

As one of my personal mottoes is "Fuck Death" (It currently stands right behind "Fuck Trump" on my hit parade.), I refuse to turn Mindful Pleasures into a literary graveyard. This blog was intended to focus on works of art, not deaths of artists. So I hereby refuse to publicly mourn the passing of any more writers. (And a great many will be passing soon: check out the ages of most of the world's greats; they're a coterie of septuas, octos and nonas. That grating sound you hear is the literary reaper sharpening his scythe.) In lieu of eulogies, in place of pathetic "thoughts and prayers"--a phrase that needs to be expunged from American English--let's resolve to remember the writers by reading the books.

I vaguely recall a passage in Amos Oz's autobiography where he recounts a childhood wish to achieve immortality by physically becoming a book. This is exactly the Ovidian transformation every great writer pulls off. So in a sense, the writer's cadaver is the corpse least in need of eulogy. When the last breath leaves his body, he metamorphoses into text: wild whirling words, worlds of words, better than yours or mine.

The rest is reading...

On Roth

In Claudia Roth Pierpont's lucid, informative and sympathetic Roth Unbound, the titular boundless one is quoted as saying that if he were dying and had time to read one last thing, he would choose Thomas Mann's "Mario and the Magician." This is a wonderfully weird little parable of fascism from 1929, an example of Mann at his most Stephen King-like. (I hope that comparison doesn't give Harold Bloom a coronary; we've already lost too many literary figures in the past year.) And as a German literary-political allegory involving a magical hunchback, the tale must have influenced the young Gunter Grass. I don't know if Roth was able to re-read it before his death last week, but giving it a read this week would be a good and original way to remember him.

Sam Shepard, Denis Johnson, William H. Gass, John Ashbery, Ursula K. Le Guin, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth--the big dominoes are tumbling now; great and good American writers are falling faster than courtiers in the last act of a Jacobean tragedy. Time, as it periodically does, is wiping out a literary generation. The best of them will, hopefully, die into their books; the rest will rest deservedly unread and unremembered. (Time's blade is cruel, its judgment harsh, and it spares no one--just ask Booth Tarkington.) Roth understood this process well, and he was surely the person least surprised by his demise. Shostakovich once said, "All my symphonies are tombstones," and Roth could've said the same of his later novels. Every one of them, from Sabbath's Theater through Nemesis, is written in and around the prospect of death. If the contemporaneous novels of W. G. Sebald (a decade younger than Roth, he somehow seems older...) body forth what Susan Sontag called "a mind in mourning," the best of Roth's late works, equally mortality-soaked, equally death-haunted, play a similar theme in a jazzier tempo and a spikier key, creating a sound so different from Sebald's that few readers would consider the two men kindred. Roth was facilely compared to Lenny Bruce at the beginning of his prominence and to Woody Allen a few years later, but I prefer to see late Roth as a Robin Williams figure, his marvelously manic improvisations a tightrope walk over the inevitable abyss. Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, The Dying Animal are marvelous examples of a good, concise general definition of art: Art is life punching back at death. Late Roth is like Ali coming back after a long rope-a-dope to deliver a single, crushing, downing blow--and he does it while dancing as smoothly as Astaire.

He's been dead for over a week and I can't write about him in the past tense. The perpetual present ineluctably intrudes. I hope it always will. His books will always be alive, ferociously alive. We should all live so wildly.