14 April 2004

Political? Art?

Mark Sarvas considers the topic of "political art" at The Elegant Variation, and though every other month or so I tell myself I will never even think about this subject ever again, having survived far too many pretentious arguments about it, I'm drawn to the topic like a moth to a bug zapper.

Sarvas wonders where America's great contemporary political artists are and why more U.S. writers, specifically, aren't "chroniclers of this time which, in many ways, is as divisive and radicalized as any period in American history".

I'm one of those people who thinks all writing is political, because all life is political, but Sarvas is seeking, I think, a kind of writing that is more overt -- he mentions The Grapes of Wrath, and he could probably have mentioned writers such as Arthur Miller. I've never been much of a Steinbeck fan, though I'd happily read everything he wrote if it would save me from having to encounter Arthur Miller's name ever again in my life, because, though I hear he's a very nice man, and I tend to agree with his politics, Miller is to playwrighting what Pauley Shore is to acting.

The problem with Sarvas's argument (or plea) is that it misses an entire type of writing, a kind of writing that various sorts of speculative fiction do remarkably well: stories which utilize the structure of parables, fables, and allegories (sometimes all mixed together) to offer insight into everyday life. (This is not the only technique SF has to offer in terms of political art -- Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here", which I wrote about in January, is the best story I've read about the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and though it contains some clear hints of fantasy, it doesn't seem based on a parable/fable/allegory-type structure.)

From Carol Emshwiller's The Mount to Eleanor Arnason's "Potter of Bones", many of the most memorable recent SF novels and stories have created imaginary worlds which the reader can't help but feel comment on aspects of our own. This technique is neither new nor surprising -- indeed, its history is much older than that of the "realistic" presentation of The Way We Live Now. Often, the greatest art seizes on the human hunger for metaphor, allowing the reader or viewer to connect the dots between the world presented by the artist and the world of consensus reality.

Think of Bertolt Brecht, whose greatest and most powerful plays offer stinging commentary on events during the time Brecht was writing by using historical characters and settings (the plays he set in his own time period are remembered now only by scholars). Think of Camus and his Plague, of Orwell's most famous novels, of Fahrenheit 451. Two of the most vivid, gut-wrenching novels I've ever read are both deeply (and broadly) political and allegorical: Blindness by Jose Saramago and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee.

Or consider the work of the Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli, who has written a magnificent memoir about her life, particularly before and after the revolution, which shows how much truth lay beneath the fantastical/fabulist elements of her first novel, The Inhabited Woman (the only one of her novels translated into English, alas, though she has written others, including a utopian fable [as far as I can tell from my very bad Spanish], Waslala). Belli is a writer deeply concerned with contemporary reality, but she conveys her ideas about that reality through fiction that is imbued with tremendous imagination.

It seems to me that books such as The Grapes of Wrath are anomalies in the history of fiction, and that the majority of political art -- political art that lasts more than a few weeks, that is -- has utilized imagination and fantasy to explore truths which lie beneath the surface of the morning paper's headlines.

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