Friday, April 29, 2011

Why Literature Is Impossible in the Post-West

Mark T. Mitchell notes that "in no way are the differences between [Jane] Austen’s world and ours more manifest than in the area of sex" — Pride and Prejudice and Porn. He contrasts today's world in which "anonymous sex is not a scandal but, it would seem, the ideal," with Miss Austin's "comedy of manners, especially manners governing the relationships between men and women," continuing:
    [T]he cultural whiplash one feels when moving from the world of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy to our world of hook-ups and porn is disconcerting. Try, for instance, to imagine Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Lizzy and Fitz no doubt) hooking up. It is impossible. Given who they are and the value they place on propriety, constancy, amiability, and marriage, to imagine them participating in the hook-up culture is to debase them. It is to seriously damage their integrity as persons. How could it do anything less?

    We must, at the same time, acknowledge that sexual rogues were not invented in our day. Mr. Wickham lurks in the pages of the novel, yet social conventions weigh heavily upon him and while he seems quite willing to accept the sexual favors of the foolish Lydia, forces are quickly arrayed to compel them to marry. Mr. Collins, himself, is convinced that when a woman says no, she really means yes and therefore continues to ply is modest charms on Elizabeth who refuses him in the most strenuous terms. Yet Mr. Collins, to his credit, is appealing for Elizabeth’s hand and not attempting to intimidate her with the threat of sexual brutality as was clearly the case recently at Yale University where a group of frat boys gathered near the dorm where most of the freshmen women live and chanted “no means yes” and added an obscenity that would make the vilest of Austen’s characters look like choirboys by comparison.
I suffered the same "cultural whiplash" recently reading Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's War and Peace, as I read with horror as the innocent and pure Natasha Rostova was duped by the blackguard Anatol Vasilyevich Kuragin into throwing away her engagement to Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky. Today, Prince Andrei would be the villain for expecting not only chastity (a given) but loyalty, the rake Anatol would be a hero and would not have had to resort to a sham wedding to seduce Natasha, who would be cheered as she explored her sexuality. Of course, she never did so in the novel, but the mere fact that she was almost duped into doing so ruined her in the eyes of society.

But of course, we have no society today. There are no norms than can be transgressed. We have no culture, and it goes without saying that we have no literature. (Attempting to read Don DeLillo's White Noise, considered a "classic," was for me one of the biggest wastes of time of the past fifteen years.) There was no literature in Brave New World, and there is none in ours.

There are places where society, culture, and norms still exist, though, and thus so does literature, where, as George Packer, explains, we can still find "the individual caught in an encompassing social web" — Dickens in Lagos. This explains why so many Indians have won the Man Booker Prize, and why the only good modern novels in English I've read were written in India or Africa.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Last year, I wrote a post about Jane Eyre's decision to leave Mr. Rochester, tying it to the Catholic idea of free will (which is not the license to do whatever one wants, but the freedom to choose the good). I got a couple of commenters who argued that Jane was just being a child of her time--that indeed, there would have been nothing wrong in it, had she "taken the man and run."

And it's unfortunately true that, by the standards of our own age, adultery is considered perfectly acceptable as long as the man and his inamorata love each other, and the wife is a b****.

I think the only thing everyone agreed on was that it is getting harder and harder these days to appreciate the great classics, even for people who love to read. It kind of reminds me of Ray Bradbury's observation that one doesn't actually have to burn books (as the firemen do in his Fahrenheit 451), as long as one can keep people from reading them. Well, let's check back in about ten years and see the state of reading, shall we?

11:12 PM  
Blogger Mark in Spokane said...

Of course, the destruction of the social norms you mention here is due in no small part to social liberalism, aided an abetted on the Right by libertarianism.

12:35 AM  
OpenID nothinghypothetical.com said...

Indeed, as we live in the Brave New World, we must share its illiterate fate.

Excellent, as always.

12:45 AM  

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