Tuesday, July 24, 2018

LOVE AND DEATH after all these years; or, A Fiddle for Fiedler

Here's the question (or one of them, at least) begged by the central thesis of Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel: Did classic American writers, as Fiedler contends, flee from Freudianly 'mature' adult heterosexuality into dreams of queerness, or was a more primal queerness, a polymorphous perversity of the American psyche, rather the cause of such a flight from 'civilization'?

I lean toward the latter idea, the queer 'vice' of Fiedler's 'versa.' Fiedler's idea is married (gay-married?) to a moralistic Freudian concept of sexual development that commonly led American literary critics astray in the 1950s and early 1960s (cf. Steven Marcus, The Other Victorians), so we probably shouldn't hammer the Fiddler too hard for playing a zeitgeisty tune. But it's fair to point out that instead of being 'too Freudian,' L.A.F. (what a laf!) was not nearly Freudian enough. A shift of emphasis to Freud's ideas of polymorphous perversity and originary bisexuality, would've flipped his book into a less moralistic, more radical, and probably more correct direction. If Love and Death had been, that is to say, influenced by Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (published, unfortunately for Fiedler, the same year), he might've written a book still provocative 60 years later. As it stands, Fiedler's once cutting-edge work now seems a curiously conformist and surprisingly crabby performance. It's a book rendered obsolete by the subsequent half-century of American novels and hobbled by a rather weakly argued case overall. That said, Love and Death remains valuable for its critical insights into specific texts, and for the intelligent epigrams Fiedler throws off along his highly questionable way. A good example of the latter is this sentence from early in the book, an indictment Love and Death itself does not escape:

"American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon--and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact."

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