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Understanding a Country through Its Literary Greats


In Foreign Policy, Thomas de Waal explains that people would have a greater understanding of the current political state of Russia, and the 15 other "new states" that were created after the fall of the Iron Curtain, if they'd read its great authors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The article provides a brief but helpful look at why those eastern countries continue to be mired in corruption and misery.

I wonder, what literature should Americans read that would help us understand the growing quagmire in which we find ourselves?

Comments:

The point about sci-fi was that there seems to be a feeling that our modern world really isn't very interesting and in fact it seems to be getting less interesting rather then more. That is why it is surprisingly nostalgic. Sci-fi has wonderful gadgets because the type of people who read sci-fis are the ones who like gadgets even more then the opposite sex. But Sci-fis also have hierarchies, tribes, intrigue, battles with worthy opponents, and most important, forbidding and dangerous places where man cannot count his power supreme enough to invite complacency. They have things that no longer exist on Earth for a lot of readers, at least not in the same form.

The reason of course is drama. But it is also that man has an innate need to achieve. Our psychology has been formed to fit a world where the dangers and hardships are more obvious, and dealing with the subtle dangers of prosperity feels meaningless. Sci-fi readers in a way give the feeling of being a well-fed lion in his cage at the zoo, pacing around menacingly.
Jason, You've made an interesting point. For all their technological gadgetry, beaming here and there, they ultimately need something else from the past.
What the Thunder Said
.
Understanding the growing quagmire:

“The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed”

-- T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
I was speaking of the genre, Kim. Most of the most memorable sci-fi in the past demi-century has not been about technology representing progress in the
Jules Verne manner. It was about technology making it possible to return to a pre-modern world. The Federation was progressive, sophisticated and enlightened. But what we remember is Kirks gunboat diplomacy, and it is Klingons that have a new translation of the Bible made for them.

Almost any of the sci-fi writers I have mentioned in various places could be an example of this.

The point is interesting, because it brings up the question of why, in the genre that one would expect to glorify modernity most is there so much nostalgia?
"House of Mirth" is a great choice for Wharton. (My favorite novel of hers.) Also, I think, "The Custom of the Country."

I actually own "My Antonia" but haven't yet read it. My reading list runneth over!
Maya Angelou: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Edith Wharton: House of Mirth
Willa Cather
H.L. Mencken, of all people said something to the effect that "No American has written a book half so romantic as MY ANTONIA."
I recommended it to a German grad student, and she liked it so much she bought it in translation to send to her mom. I recommended it to a scientist from Taiwan, and she liked it so much she read 3 other books by Cather.
I have [sadly] never been to the Great Plains, but this book is almost breathtaking in how she paints the portrait.
In addition, it is a beautiful picture of a male-female friendship, with no hints of anything more. Remarkable characters, remarkable descriptions, remarkable scenes.
Is Crichton not a Christian? I wasn't quite sure on that point.

Speaking of visionaries with religious and political differences from us, I think Dorothy Parker would have understood the nuclear wasteland that is today's singles scene better than most of us who actually are living in it.

Kim, Cather's "Neighbor Rosicky" is one of my favorite short stories. I recommend keeping tissues close by.
I concur with Gina. Our great authors certainly don't have to be Christian to identify the problems.

Jason, what American sci-fi writers would you recommend regarding these issues?

Lee, we'll have to encourage you to read a few fiction along with your non-fiction books.

Kevin, good choice, I've not read anything by Willa Cather though. I'll put it on my list.
You're right, Gina; Nietzsche said the 20th century would be bloodier than all the ones that went before it, and he was dead on. (Sorry.) Unfortunately, his own writings were a primary cause.

So if Kim wants apocalyptic visions as well as prescriptive ones, then that broadens the field considerably. The ones that describe the future correctly are those that don't paint a rosy picture of the future by forgetting sin. Michael Chrichton attacked the "Science über alles" mentality in almost every book, as I previously said. He's unusual because visionary works by nonChristians tend to be utopian, or else wretchedly dystopian, rather than a mixture.
But a writer need not necessarily be a Christian to be a visionary about certain things, don't you think?

(She said controversially. ;-) )
I was being sneaky, Kim, when I named British authors. Gina's right, except that America is a much younger nation than Russia - so maybe Brits would still be valid, for us...?

As a reader of mostly nonfiction, I can't really help. I just got an ebook copy of Gulliver, and will re-read it. I was only thinking of Swift as an acerbic social critic, and Gulliver as one of his most sweeping works.

Twain sprang to mind for me, but I think of his work as firmly rooted in his time. And I am wary of his politics and his religious beliefs. In fact, I'm having trouble thinking of any American author who was a visionary.

Hmmm... maybe Michael Chrichton. We believe so much in ourselves and our technology that we forget we're fallible and sinful. "Jurassic Park", where all but the virtuous become prey due to hubris and greed. Yup, fits the headlines.
I'm not sure about literature that would help explain the current quagmire, but when I recommend classic American literature to foreign nationals here, books which I think show a lot about the greatness of the country, I recommend Willa Cather's "My Ántonia" and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Neither one, though, is especially urban, so they're missing a significant part of what America is about.
"Despite the name, sci-fi is not really about science primarily. It is really about the effects of technology on science"

Misprint. I meant to say it is about the effect of technology on LIFE not on science.
The late great Flannery O'Connor, of course! What book or short story from each author best illustrates today's problems?
Go through traditional sci-fi also and note that despite the name, most of the best known sci-fis(especially the space opera subgenre) is really pre-modern in outlook. The technology, when it's not there for color is often there simply to make credible a world in which people have to think and act like their ancestors and equally to the point, how they wanted to be. When the tripods take over the Earth you instinctively know what people thought when the tribe next door started moving into the area. And when you experience Paul Atreides world you understand how religious wars really come about. And so on.

When sci-fi, instead of being about Farm Boys saving Princesses, is about following trends of modern society it is also like that; it tends to follow a trend to it's reductio ad absurdum and then be repulsed.

Despite the name, sci-fi is not really about science primarily. It is really about the effects of technology on science. Dystopian fiction reflects our fears. More traditional modes like Space Opera and Planetary Invasion oddly enough reflect our hopes; they posit technology causing a shift in society to something more familiar; in the case of Space Opera, by positing the opening of a frontier so vast that it can only be coped with by retribalization. Man has an urge to be a hero. He can't be a hero in a universe with no room for heroics.
Read Civilization and Its Enemies by Lee Harris to focus on one problem with modern life, that we are being spoiled by being cut off from the experience of those who had to count survival as a real priority, and more to the point, not taking the time to imagine what it was like.

Read Hero With A Thousand Faces, the Golden Bough, and several Lewis works to understand the need for myth, and to compare it with the prosaicizing of society.

The two ideas are not separate. In fact they work together. How many of the ills of the Earth are as much because we are bored as anything else? Or because we have a distinct sense that the modern way of organizing society is incomplete but that to many treat it as if it was complete(I doubt I am the only one who has heard people say,"Of course it's right, it's legal: way to many times).

A remarkable amount of the ills of the modern world can be traced to a sense that liberal society is claiming to be more then it can be; the feeling that it is saying that because it cannot satisfy the soul then therefore there is no soul. Just to start with, comes political religion. It sounds simplistic but a lot of people do seem to have become Nazis because they were bored. Or rather because they felt incomplete. How much of all the pomp and bravado was there because all the Germans in Grey Flannel Suits wanted to convince themselves that they were part of an epic? Looking back, it seems like that was one of the main things that drew people to Naziism.
For a true parallel with de Waal, we'd need American novelists from the 19th and 20th centuries. So . . . Nathaniel Hawthorne? Mark Twain? Edith Wharton? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Ernest Hemingway? Flannery O'Connor?
Lee, I did have fictional literature in mind when I wrote it. Which characters from Gulliver's Travels?

I'm still thinking, but shouldn't the fiction be something that an American wrote, say like Tom Wolfe? I'm not saying he writes great literature. After the first third, I found his novel *I Am Charlotte Simpson* became tedious. Maybe he needed a better editor. I digress. However, I'd say that his book illustrated the depth to which a large segment of our society has become mired in avarice and lasciviousness.
Kim, I'd love to know how you do it ;-) , but almost precisely at the time you were posting this entry, I was trying to find George Orwell's "Animal Farm" as an e-book.

Since this is a website affiliated with Chuck Colson, Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" springs to mind. ;-)

And Benjamin Wilkers's "10 Books That Screwed Up The World" and "10 Books Every Conservative Must Read" would supply at least 20 more. ;-) ;-)

The Minor Prophets of the Old Testament would be definitively authoritative, and would be sufficient if we read nothing else. Maybe toss in Proverbs.

But I suspect you had in mind fictional literature, rather than non-fiction. Hmmm - "Gulliver's Travels", perhaps?