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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Books Without Redemption

Howard Jacobson has written an excellent review in the Guardian entitled In Praise of Bad Boy’s Books (10.5.12) and in it celebrates the authors who have written characters without redemption – a seeming requirement in today’s literature. Yet life itself is so little filled with redemptive qualities, why should literature be a moral guide, a spiritual path, or a progressive avenue to a better society?
We read to extend our sympathies, to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, to educate our imaginations, to find liberation from the prison of the self, to be made whole where we are broken, to be reconciled to the absurdity of existence, in short to be redeemed from flesh, the ego and despair.
In fact, many of the great novels of the world are not only about redemption, but just the opposite – a celebration of the individual in a harsh and uncompromising world:
Whence redemption as a measure of literature's worth, and how to justify it given how little in the way of atonement on the Christian model, i.e.,deliverance from sin; and how little in the way of intelligibility on the rationalist model, ie deliverance from fragmentation, so many of the world's great novels countenance?
Yet, the pressure whether direct or indirect (Jacobson’s agent told him that his latest book was good, but “lacked redemption”) is persistent.  The prevailing culture of Political Correctness adds to the demands for a ‘good’ book:
A novel should be fair and well-balanced, a mirror of the likeable and acceptable, committing none of the attitudinal sins we refuse to tolerate on campus or in the progressive workplace, or in the marriage bed.
The ‘bad boy’ novel does not celebrate diversity, harmony, social progress, or spiritual enlightenment – it sees life in the raw, and if it celebrates anything, it is man’s heroic struggle to accept Fate against all instincts to the contrary; or to fight it win or lose. The Greek tragedies were the prototypes for many such novels.  King Lear is perhaps the best example of this.  There is no redemption whatsoever at the end of the play – everyone who matters is dead. There is no final reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia who dies in his arms, and Lear’s madness (or arrogance, or both) opens the blackest box of humanity’s worst sins.  Yet, the play is one of the greatest ever written because it is about the ragged edges of human nature and the inimical forces which continually drive human history.

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Shakespeare never wrote about redemption, but about characters following their primal and primordial instincts for power, territory, and wealth.  There is no redemption at the end of Hamlet where everyone lies dead or dying on the floor.  In his dying breaths Hamlet only thinks of posterity and asks Horatio to tell the world his story.  He feels no remorse for creating the carnage around him (by decisively killing Claudius, all the spilled blood would have been unnecessary and avoided).  Macbeth, Titus, and Coriolanus show no contrition for their bloody actions, arrogance, and desire for power.  The Comedies all end not in redemption, but reconciliation; but we feel at the end of the plays that the lovers united in marriage will soon get divorced.

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Shylock in The Merchant of Venice says “I am content” with the harsh terms of his conviction; but is never repentant.  One expects that he, after the play ends, will become a Christian in name only and will feel his hatred for Christians and the Venetian well-to-do only increased. 

Nietzsche who in his celebration of the will and of the Supermen who exerted it, was THE ‘bad boy’ of literature. Shakespeare was very pre-Nietzschean and Machiavellian in his characterizations of villains – Iago, Edmund, Aaron the Moor especially  - who exult and delight in the sheer perversity of their willful quests:
Nietzsche is the usual starting place for discussions of this sort, but I think Roth lays it on the line provocatively enough in Sabbath's Theater when he has his effrontery, and indecorous, needling hero Mickey Sabbath express an "uncontrollable tenderness for his own shit-filled life". "More defeat. More disappointment! More deceit! More loneliness! More arthritis ... God willing, more cunt!" A list, if it is not to go on into indefinite provocation, as shit-filled lives do, that concludes with a self-congratulatory reflection. "For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence."
Mickey Sabbath is a pure reprobate in society’s eyes, but a hero without knowing it:
Mickey Sabbath being the greediest and most fuck-you of the lot. Sabbath hurtles from low place to still lower like a Satan who has no power or influence to lose, and we are lying to ourselves, or we are over-guarded against unholy pleasure, if we don't admit we are made giddy by the descent. For that pure sense of being riotously alive – the invocation of "purity" in such a context is of course a spiky joke at the expense of purists of every sort – it's Sabbath we turn to.
Roth was very much impressed and influenced by Céline, who also celebrated the dark side:
Céline's writings are examples of black comedy, where unfortunate and often terrible things are described humorously. While his writing is often hyper-real and its polemic qualities can often be startling, his main strength lies in his ability to discredit almost everything and yet not lose a sense of enraged humanity. (Wikipedia)
Céline was an anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator and Roth admitted that he left his Jewish sensibilities aside when he read the author, something that modern writers and readers alike seem to unable to do.  Given the Political Correctness of the era, certain authors are dismissed by many – like H.L.Mencken or Ezra Pound – because of their supposed anti-Semitism.  We are unable, it seems, to hold in abeyance a political or social criticism while we appreciate the larger philosophy or world-view of the author.  Worse, according to Jacobson, we are unable to appreciate the very vital, life-affirming quality of the ‘bad boy’.

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"Men, days, things," writes Céline [Journey to the End of the Night] of a tropical hell in which Bardamu finds himself, "they passed before you knew it in this hotbed of vegetation, heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Everything passed, disgustingly, in little pieces, in phrases, particles of flesh and bone, in regrets and corpuscles; demolished by the sun, they melted away in a torrent of light and colors, and taste and time went with them, everything went. Nothing remained but shimmering dread."
Shakespeare showed his Nietzschean side when he wrote Titus Andronicus, a play in which, as the critic Harold Bloom has noted, he finally rids his psyche of Christopher Marlowe and Tamburlaine.  In that play Marlowe writes of the leader of the Mongol hordes who, like Genghis Khan, slaughtered, raped, and pillaged his way from the steppes to Japan on the east to Europe on the west.

Rabelais, de Sade, and Henry Miller were also famous ‘bad boys’ who were exuberant about life without a sentimental, redemptive bone in their literary bodies.

While Shakespeare was a cynic, who wrote neither of redemption, nor spirituality, nor hope, Tennessee Williams always did.  Maggie the Cat (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) was certainly trying to redeem her failed husband Brick, and not simply to rehabilitate him to inherit the family fortune.  Val, in Orpheus Descending is a Christ figure who offers redemption to Lady, but who is crucified. 

Despite the tragic endings of Streetcar, Summer and Smoke, and The Glass Menagerie, Williams was writing about human adaptability and a quality of hope.  Alma becomes a prostitute at the end of the play, but she has redeemed and saved herself from a life of failed illusion.  Blanche goes mad, but the play’s ending is hopeful because she has fought and struggled her way against all convention and the stifling of her romantic spirit.  Laura goes back to her glass menagerie after having heroically – for one so fragile – tried the real world.

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There is much to admire in Williams’ lyricism and poetry; and his depiction of heroic, but fragile characters in a threatening world.  However, Shakespeare's vision is more satisfying.  It is more realistic, more objective in its understanding of the immutability of the implacably greedy self-protective nature of Man.  He is not afraid to create characters like Aaron, Iago, and Edmund – unrepentant characters who revel in their power.  One of the most chilling lines in Shakespeare is Iago’s, “I will never speak again”.  He knows what he has done, accepts it, for it is part of him and was an expression of his will.

Jacobson concludes:
People would rather have their porn soft – synthetic fur handcuffs, jiggle balls and smiles all round after – than face that tumble into exquisite death that writers such as De Sade and Bataille know to be eroticism's true consummation. In the same way they would rather hear Anne Frank aver that "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart" than read Primo Levi's gathering despair or the survivor Jean Améry refusing forgiveness and redemption. "Nothing has healed," he wrote towards the end of his life. And elsewhere: "Home is the land of one's childhood and youth. Whoever has lost it, remains lost himself."
I, like Jacobson, will always prefer ‘bad boys’.

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