Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Captive Mind, by Czeslaw Milosz

I wonder how many books got sold or thrown out the year after the Soviet Union collapsed. My friend told me that his public library had shelves and shelves of books for sale written by political scientists during the Cold War, all trying to puzzle out what the Soviets were thinking. Most of them are temporary in the way that all such books are temporary, but I’m sure there is a great deal of intelligence there that is perhaps never going to see the light of day again, except by the occasional historian.

Among the books that have already started to gather dust are the most distinguished works related to communism. I doubt many people will read Koestler in another fifty years. I don’t know a single person that’s read John Reed, or Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky (unless you count Tony Blair; it’s apparently one of his favorites). All those novels about nuclear anxiety will probably soon be forgotten too: On the Beach, etc. Even Faulkner’s famous Nobel lecture seems so dated. None of my friends who studied philosophy care much about Karl Popper or Alexander Herzen.

The obvious exception is 1984, which survives even as Animal Farm, deservedly, disappears along with the memory of its historical originals. Another book that deserves to survive, and I fear will not, is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I am a little embarrassed about why I picked it up. The book is a study of the capitulation of artists to the demands of Communism, and I was looking for some insight into the bad state of political affairs in this country—the fact that so many people who seem bright enough are willing to accept what they must know are lies for the sake of their political affiliation.

The book’s epigram appeared to prepare me for getting what I wanted; it is a quote from “an old Jew of Galicia”:
When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever say he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
Hooray, I thought! Take that, Dubya! Because what I wanted out of this book was to be told things I already knew, with a dash of wit, from someone with some moral authority. Basically, I was looking for another one of the political cheerleading books that work their way, within a year, from the central display case to the $1 section at the back of the store. I was a symptom of the bad situation I was describing.

In any case, as I started reading, I realized I wasn’t going to get what I was looking for. Milosz describes the attractions of Communism; the hard questions that any all-embracing philosophy spares a person from answering for herself; and the strange sort of dissembling life produced in a society of informants. There were oblique analogies here to American life, but nothing direct. Everything was beautifully written, and clearly the product of an incisive mind, but it felt like a book that no one would much care to read fifty years from now.

And then, a few chapters in, Milosz starts writing a different sort of book. He produces four character sketches of artists known to him who, in some form of another, decided to bend their art to the demands of the state. He doesn’t name any of these people, but each can be said to conform to a certain artistic type; the names of the chapters are Alpha, the Moralist; Beta, the Disappointed Lover, and so on. Each one is enthralling. It is one of the most beautiful acts of identification I have ever come across. Novelists are continually writing about artists – painters, musicians, other writers – but I have never come across another book that I felt had such insight into the different varieties of the artistic temperament.

Milosz does not attempt any generalizations; the sketches, in addition to being a history of life in Poland during the Nazi years, are attempts to see what made these specific writers decide to alter their art to the dictates of socialist realism. Milosz describes their life and temperament, he reads everything they have written; and slowly, he brings out some element of their outlook that keeps emerging through their life and work, something that makes them willing to settle, in the end, for untruth.

Most Western artists no longer have to worry about the demands of the state, but the traits that make a person susceptible to one capitulation will always leave him open to others, and modern society has no end of compromises that it encourages artists to make. Forget modern society—life encourages compromises. It is always easier to take your cues from convention, give up before something is quite right—or, for that matter, just leave the damn page blank and go to bed.

There are a few books that I feel like I need to read every few years to steady myself somehow. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion is one; I think this will become another. I encourage everyone to read it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A Revaluation (The Great Gatsby)

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and don’t remember thinking anything in particular about it. I went to Fitzgerald’s grave around then (it was just across from my high school); the book’s lovely last sentence is carved on his tombstone, and I’ve never forgotten it. During college, I would occasionally come across passages from Gatsby quoted in other books to make various points about America and the American dream; the scene with Daisy and the shirts was quoted in a book about consumerism. The green light and the ash heap showed up in various essays.

Eventually, the consensus about the profundity of this book – along with, I’m sure, an attraction to Fitzgerald’s life – started to make me think that I must have missed something in high school (god knows I missed plenty) and just needed to pick the book up again. A professor of mine recommended Babylon Revisited, which was supposed to be Fitzgerald’s best short story. I finished it and remember thinking, a little puzzled, Wow, this is bad.

Well, no matter, I thought: his masterpiece is Gatsby, and his almost-masterpiece (as everyone knows) is Tender is the Night. The latter was assigned for another class college, and I was a little shocked to find myself thinking, after the first twenty pages or so, Wow, this is actually awful. Then it got a little better, and ended so beautifully that I forgot about how lame so much of it was. It might not even have been the entire ending; I remember being extraordinarily moved by just the last paragraph. I don’t much remember the rest.

So now, after all these years, I decided it was time to take up Gatsby again. The only serious candidate for the great American novel other than Moby Dick, right? Glorious prose? Trenchant insights into America, money, love, and how they are all wrapped up together? I was excited. Pretty soon – I would say again within twenty pages – I started to get worried. The book begins well enough, but as soon as the first chapter ends, there is a huge, dry stretch: predictable, toothless satire; stilted dialogue based purely on one or two catch phrases; and characters that are basically patched together from one personality trait and a physical feature.

Even the famous passages that would show up now and then – Daisy’s voice that sounds like money, the shirts on the bed – seemed false and unconvincing in context. The premise of the novel is a great one, but the actual plot is so full of ludicrous coincidences and melodrama that it’s hard to remember how moving the central situation is. Again, the book ends well, but the rest was so mediocre that it didn’t change my basic disappointment.

Fitzgerald’s limitations as a writer are never clearer than the section when he assumes the voice of Jordan Baker, the young “cool, insolent” lady golfer. Here’s a piece of his attempt, as she narrates a story to Nick: “I was walking along from one place to another half on the sidewalks and half on the lawns. I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground.”

“Bit into the soft ground.” A better writer would have passed on that phrase if he had any interest in plausibility -- which is closely related to respect for a character. But Fitzgerald is incapable of capturing another person’s voice; when he tries, the person sounds exactly like him. So he has to give people little tics to animate them somehow: Gatsby with his “old sport,” Meyer Rothstein with his inability to pronounced the letter x. He describes a person’s personality instead of capturing it on the page; he has no knack for creating interesting people, so his usual method is just to insist that they are very special indeed. Occasionally it works. Here’s my favorite passage in the book, about Gatsby’s smile:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
The book never gets this good again. In addition to the things I mentioned above, the actual prose takes a nosedive too. For someone known for the quality of his sentences, it is astonishing how unedited most of the book seems. Fitzgerald is continually using words whose meaning he appears to only half-understand. His sentences are full of redundancies (“clever, shrewd men”) and he is a master of the ill-considered adverb (“he found her excitingly desirable”). Edmund Wilson wrote an essay about him where he pretty much took his measure. Wilson is writing about This Side of Paradise, which Fitzgerald is supposed to have transcended completely in writing Gatsby, but I think this passage could easily apply to every work of his I’ve read:
The story itself, furthermore, is very immaturely imaged: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, This Side of Paradise is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published (a fault which the publisher’s proofreader seems to have made no effort to remedy.) Not only is it ornamented with bogus ideas and faked literary references, but it is full of literary words tossed about with the most reckless inaccuracy.
Wilson goes on to say that Fitzgerald does not commit the unpardonable sin for a novelist; that is, his book does not fail to live. And it’s true, several scenes from Gatsby do stay alive in the mind, and appear to have worked their way into the American literary consciousness. However, as “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” proves, simply being memorable is not necessary a sign of any deeper merit. In any case, something bothers me more than everything I’ve mentioned so far, and that is that there is something very phony about a lot of Fitzgerald’s writing. Even in his most beautiful passages, there is some element of false bombast -— some disastrous faux-poetic choice, usually -- that continually makes me think: He’s lying.

Let me give you an example. This passage ends the chapter when Gatsby tells Nick about kissing Daisy. “Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.”

Something important has apparently happened here; Nick has grazed the edge of a profound mystery. And I don’t believe it; I don’t believe that a man feeling anything deeply is going to write something like “wisp of startled air.” Because that is nonsense.

I always feel like Fitzgerald is wrapping his phrases around unfelt emotions. Even that famous last passage—read the sentence before it, the one everyone forgets: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” There it is again in “orgastic future,” a little voice that says (to me at least) “bullshit.”

Compare the end of My Àntonia to The Great Gatsby. The two books are written just a few years apart; both end on the same word—“past”—both have the same elegiac tone. But there is nothing false about Cather’s last passage. Every word is written with sincerity and authority. It is the work of an artist. Fitzgerald’s is the work of a good writer who has struck upon a pretty phrase.

I suppose Fitzgerald’s life has something to do with this book’s popularity, along with the fact that it deals with the big American themes, and is therefore suitable for classroom discussion and scholarly analysis. But it also isn’t that great, and it’s odd that America – which has produced so many genuine works of genius – has decided to hold it up as one of the premier achievements of its culture.