By Eugène E.
Why read good literature? For the increasing number of people shunning high-quality prose, the answer is easy enough: they simply don’t read. For others, it depends. The question itself is not of strictly academic interest. There’s no denying that literature is in crisis. Reading serious books has never been a mainstream habit to begin with, but the pace of our society and the variegated forms of entertainment that it offers have truly pushed literature towards obsoleteness. We’re getting to a point, if we’re not there already, where literature will become the preserve of escapists, diehard aesthetes, and the academe. At that point, Philip Roth’s prophecy about readers of literature becoming a sect will have been fulfilled.
Why would anyone read highbrow literature these days? Literature enthusiasts will give you a host of reasons. To varying degrees, all of them will come down to more or less the same thing – the power of literature to illumine the human condition, or something equally lofty. True enough. But why do we need the human condition to be illuminated for us – aside from the need to exercise those faculties that set us apart from the animal world, that is? According to my somewhat sloppy but workable definition, the human condition is the journey an individual undertakes from birth to death. Understanding the difference between good and bad will shape much of that journey; a sense of ethics is therefore indispensable. This is where literature comes to our aid. It not only tells us something about our world; by creating an ethical framework, it gives the reader a certain idea of how one is to live in this world.
And indeed, such didactics was often a raison d’être of literature, particularly in countries where a strong literary tradition met a strict censorship. Tsarist Russia was a case in point. As the eminent scholar Yuri Lotman describes in one of his works, members of the Russian aristocracy of the early 19th century often relied on literature to inform their own comportment. A gesture that might strike the modern reader as a pose was actually an earnest attempt to imitate the actions of protagonists as described in the novels that were read. Readers applied to literature for ethical guidance, looking up to characters in novels to decide how they were to act (and react) in different situations. For example, the wives of some Decembrists – those who participated in the Decembrist Revolt against Nicholas I – accompanied their husbands to their exile in Siberia. Used to the imperial glitter of Saint Petersburg, these Decembrist wives may well have chosen to travel to hell. But, as Lotman shows, the women were inspired by literary examples. This was what a wife was supposed to do, after all. And so that’s what many wives did. Years later, Lenin was to praise Rakhmetov, a character in Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?, as the ideal revolutionary, an example to all those who wanted to steel themselves for the fight against the oppressors. And, on a personal note, I grew up wanting to emulate one of the three musketeers in Dumas’s novel of that name; leaving its peculiar historicity aside, the novel, along with a number of other books, gave me a sense of what was right and honorable, reaffirming the argument that arming youngsters with the right novels at a young age is generally not a bad idea.
What does today’s literature tell us about right and wrong? What literary heroes can we look up to today? Generalizations are unhelpful, but some trends are evident. One of these trends, possibly the most significant one, is the very ultraliberal effort to present the abnormal as the new normal. The ugly, the dysfunctional, and the pathological are equated with the beautiful, the healthy, and the normal. European civilization (“pale, male and stale”, as it is dismissively referred to by those who don’t know any better) is typically relegated to the latter; everything that is considered to have been oppressed by European civilization, to the former. Ultraliberals in literature need to celebrate what might invite sympathy and understanding, but certainly not admiration.
I recently came across a review of a new book, History of Violence, by the French writer Édouard Louis. This is the apparently autobiographical story of a homosexual Frenchman, Édouard, who is picked up by a Kabyle man in the streets of Paris. The two go to Édouard’s place, where they enjoy sexual congress; however, something goes wrong between the two men (Édouard’s phone goes missing, if memory serves), and Édouard ends up getting threatened and raped by his newly acquired partner. Reading the review, I could hardly believe my eyes: one could not have found a better caricature of modern European society if one had tried. Perhaps the review contained a mistake or, more likely, I may have misunderstood a thing or two. Yet leafing through a copy of the novel during a subsequent visit to a local bookstore, my incredulity was dispelled. The review was accurate, and I had misunderstood nothing.
Are these people, the Édouard Louises of the world, the heroes of today? If so, this helps explain the mess we’re in. What can one say of a society that exults in such literature (the reviews seem to be positive, for the most part)? The idea of a white European male getting violated by another male of North African origin somewhere in Paris is pregnant with symbolism; and the fact that the victim here is male only underscores the unhealthy state of European society. In a different age, European men sailed the world and created empires; today they’re being violated in their own homes. We’ve come a long way since then, as the appearance of this novel so amply demonstrates, though it’s safe to assume the writer had different intentions in mind.
The novel doesn’t show us a hero, for a man who lets himself get raped by another man and then writes a novel about it to fetishize his experience and attendant feelings is no hero. I don’t wish to make light of sexual violence, and that applies to those situations in which the victim is a male. It’s the mode and narrative in which the victim in question chooses to cast his experience that raises some questions. Louis’s novel does not even seem to be a form of protest along the lines of “look at what this son of a bitch did to me”. Au contraire, the reader is urged to embrace the exhibitionist aestheticism of Édouard’s experience. In a passage I seem to recall as I skimmed through the book, Édouard fulminates about the casual racism he sees in the police dealing with his complaint – they dared to identify the rapist as an “Arab male” or something to that effect, therefore highlighting the assailant’s ethnic origin and, in the victim’s view, manifesting xenophobic sentiment. How dare they! Here’s a homosexual who has just been assaulted by another man, and what’s troubling his mind at the moment? The fact that the police are not showing the politically correct attitude that, as the victim feels, is due to his assailant. If this is not perverse, I am not sure what is.
Édouard is no hero; what’s more, he’s not even an anti-hero. He belongs to a different category altogether. He’s a pathetic creature, a man of very small stature; and this smallness is a symptom of decay, a symbol of decadence. Certainly the small, pathetic man is nothing new in the history of European literature. There was Rousseau revealing (and, some might say, reveling in) his doubting, insecure self in the Confessions. There was Gogol’s hapless clerk in “The Overcoat”. There was the pathological aesthete in À Rebours, Huysman’s mono-character novel. There was Chekhov and his “little man”, a staple of many a short story. The list is rather long. But a wide chasm separates these writers from Édouard Louis and his confreres. The literary titans of yesteryear had to work with a set of standards; they were bound by a sense of decorum. They were generally not obscene; and when they chose to be obscene, they were still much more than just that. Rousseau was practically one of the founding fathers of a new literary genre. Gogol satirized the rigid hierarchy of tsarist Russia. Huysman’s À Rebours, an exercise in indulgence in itself, can be interpreted as a satire of decadence; at any rate, it is hardly a novel to help mold one’s ethical sensibilities. Finally, Chekhov, when he wasn’t brilliantly comical, depicted the harshness of his society as a call to reform. All of these writers were compelled to deal with a moral straitjacket imposed by society, whether they wanted to be swaddled in it or not. That straitjacket spawned inhibitions, but it also reinforced a sense of propriety. I cannot imagine any of these writers going through the kind of experience depicted by Édouard Louis, let alone making literature out of it.
Writers such as Édouard Louis don’t invent anything new. Nor do they satirize the old. They can’t do satire, for satire requires levity. Levity is impossible here. That’s just the problem. These writers must be taken seriously, on their own terms; and the layout of an anything-goes society encourages them to pace the hallways of contemporary literature like strutting peacocks. These writers are moved to present a canvas populated by grotesque characters that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bosch painting, and they invite their audiences to participate in this bacchanalian orgy, in this rebellion against decency, in this revolt against aesthetics. They avidly capture and portray the carnival of freakishness that is modern society, which they then celebrate, demanding that this world be embraced by the rest of us. Those courageous (or foolish) enough to point out that the direction in which we’re beckoned is little more than a cul-de-sac are branded as fascists, reactionaries, and enemies of freedom.
History of Violence is Louis’s second novel. His debut one was En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule; the translated English title is The End of Eddy, which gets us rather close to It’s Me, Eddie, a famous (and, by all accounts, strongly autobiographical) novel by Eduard Limonov, Russia’s enfant terrible. The exhibitionistically inclined Limonov is no prude, and his famous work contains scenes that depict casual sex, among other things; but, as far as I know, even Limonov’s Eddie does not seem to have been subjected to anything carnal against his will, though his sexual exploration, in all the wrong places, brought him rather close. But then some four decades have passed since the publication of It’s Me, Eddie, and Édouard Louis’s Eddy attests to the kind of progress that has been made. Bearing in mind that literature is something of a mirror held up to society to admire itself, History of Violence is very much a novel for our epoch, an epoch that makes it possible for women to get sexually assaulted en masse by men of non-European origin in European cities, as was the case in Cologne during New Year’s Eve celebrations a few years ago, without much vigorous protest on the part of those who have welcomed these elements and allowed them to make themselves at home in their midst on European soil.
Where do we go from here? No one knows for sure. As a patient’s card describing a schizophrenic patient in a Fitzgerald novel says, “the prognosis must be reserved”. If works such as History of Violence are any guide, though, the prognosis that is being reserved here is not especially reassuring.