They say that to be a great writer, you have to kill your liver. Or, preferably, yourself. To paraphrase Tolstoy’s old saw: happiness is banal; misery, unique. But do you really have to feel at odds with the world to write? Last month Benjamin Nugent took up a similar, but more narrowly defined question in an essay on the n+1 website: are only the politically frustrated artists? Do you have to be a Democrat to write fiction? Of course, there are the exceptions that prove the rule. We do have those novels that creep out ever so often from the natural law-addled id of the sex-obsessed religious right, viz, Lynne Cheney’s lascivious lesbians and Scooter Libby’s bear-on-girl romps (where was Santorum when we needed him?). Oh, and Mark Helprin. But, Nugent concludes, by and large, these days the Republic of Letters is a blue state.
My question is not so specifically political. Must writers be fundamentally disenchanted from the society they inhabit, and disturbed by the direction their society is headed in? Is there no place for enthusiastic art? I went to school near the Norman Rockwell Museum. Poor Norman Rockwell. How do sophisticates hate thee? Let me count the ways…. your failure to even attempt irony, your hopelessly unhip patriotism, your sappy lionizing of family life and tradition. In “the culture” we put the preps, the squares, the eager, the happy, and the unselfconscious suburbs up against the artists, the Village, the Beats, the ironically detached, the people who wear ruined clothing on purpose. The bohemians versus the bourgeois. And woe to the artist who sits at the wrong table in the cafeteria.
The irony is that while many (but, I should add, not all) writers run around playing Henny-penny, peddling PoMo Luddism, penning ever more “bracing indictments of late capitalism,” or worse, the data accumulate suggesting that life is slowly, painfully slowly, getting better. Despite our lingering suspicion that the West has ruined the world, signs point to—dare I use the word?—progress. I know it’s unforgivably passé to believe in the perfectibility of man, but what about some tentative hope for at least the improvability of man? By this point, the dirty laundry of our intellectual heritage has been sufficiently aired. Thanks to Popper, Paglia, and countless hundreds of others, the old naïve optimism of Western Idealism will never be possible again. We know we gave ourselves Stalin, Hitler, Torquemada, Jackson and the atom bomb. But hasn’t the vogue of guilt, with its attendant wallowing in despair and relativism, become a fetish? I’m certainly not immune to it. I remember how depressed I was, finishing Gatsby for the first time. What a terrible feeling for a young person! I remember my enervation, convinced that each day plunged us further into the red, that the entire enterprise of American civilization was an irredeemable sham. It seemed Fitzgerald couldn’t have been speaking any more clearly to me: among the Dutch pioneers on that famous last page, arriving upon the green breast of the new world, was the man who delivered the strange surname you see on this article’s byline out of the nightmare of the Thirty Years War. God!—the lassitude that overcame me as I realized how inseparable I was from the corruption of it all. It’s the feeling that makes you want to join up with a gang of galvanized dead-enders, as many of my generation have—something with one of those delightfully hyphenated names: anarcho-syndicalism, say. Why not? Fuck plastics, get on that bus to nowhere, smash up the suits at Seattle, self-immolate in Seoul. It only got worse when I discovered Waugh. Brideshead Revisited makes my list of indispensable novels, no question. I know much of it by heart. But even more overwhelming than its beauty was the painful possibility that Waugh had it right that all beauty is behind us; each day takes us farther into an increasingly ugly and degraded future. When I came to his conclusion that Brideshead, and all it represents, had been sacrificed and despoiled “so that things might be safe for the traveling salesman, with his polygonal pince-nez, his fat, wet handshake, his grinning dentures,”—that is, for us—it was all I could do to keep myself from slitting my wrists then and there. Peter Sellers’ iconic arm-clamping at the end of Strangelove makes an adequate visual. But I’m older now. And I wonder: how does the fetishized despair that I fell prey to stand against the mounting empirical evidence that things are improving? That we have grounds for cautious belief that progress—will it always be a four-letter word?—is being made. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all looking at the same statistics. The ones that I read tell me that people are living longer, healthier, richer, freer, and more literate lives than ever before—and that advances continue to be made at staggering pace. Am I the only soi-disant litterato who literally celebrated when Vietnam acceded to the WTO, or when Grigori Perelman proved the Poincaré Conjecture? Is it really so hard to believe that the modern globalist worldview—for all its shortcomings and historical sins—might actually be a good idea? It seems writers have either rejected or ignored the end Fukayama has posited for history. I know artists have never been that market-savvy, but it’s starting to really annoy me how the literate (liberal?) elite treat capitalism like some long nightmare whose crashing downfall could come any day now. Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, for example, couldn’t hit harder. And yet I wonder if writers realize how unironically beloved Patrick Bateman is. If they realize how hard billions of people around the world are working every day, not for lives of smug, altermondialiste virtue, but to become American Psychos themselves. Granted, I, too, would want to kill people if my parents had sent me to Exeter—but that’s beside the point. The highest standard of living our species has ever known is nothing to sneeze at.
Where’s the enthusiasm in good books these days? Why have we left the task of belief in and optimistic imagination of our future to science fiction writers? I’m not taking a polyannaish view of history. We will always have dramas to write. Human life will continue to be transient, bewildering, cruel, and tragically short. Even in some hypothetical, ideal future, the novel will remain right where it began with Lady Murasaki, a thousand years ago: entranced by life’s complex fragility. Beauty will be, as ever, predicated on impermanence. But there is a crucial difference between the aesthetics of loss and the aesthetics of despair.