Departments

Modern letters

I.
What is considered serious in modern letters is what it is impossible to disagree with and take seriously. Most of what we read from the best modern essayists and critics, and in the best modern forums, is assembled from parting and passing shots, from the revelations of the esprit d'escalier. Everything shows the guerilla spirit of political pamphleteering; and if we view each camp from its opposite, the world seems made up of monsters and fools.

II.
It is not principally the pamphleteer's spirit which subverts modern letters; it is the missionary's. In place of scriptural or ritual religion, our secular sermonists preach according to the unspoken but sovran idea of the historical revelation—some moving catastrophe which (like a sacred book) delimits the permissible range of serious controversy. Beyond lies irrelevancy (or heresy).

WWI was such a revelation for Europe—a message of horror and futility Europe found more powerful than the Gospel. That revelation has been superseded for them by the Holocaust. Even of a Christian, one may ask which is the more meaningful image: the Man of Sorrows or the men of Dachau? Until 9/11 the principle revelation of American history was Vietnam—either as a betrayal of the people by an overreaching government, or the betrayal of victory by a weak people.

Where religion has disappeared from state liturgy and private conscience, it has been replaced with the cults and rites of the day or deed of infamy. The world of letters, and the world at large, is divided into factions, each with some actuating atrocity for which it works to broaden the basis of outrage. Fanaticisms, nationalisms, and ideologies are secondary factors. It is faction which drives events. It is impossible to explain the world today in terms of beliefs and loyalties. Everyone sees how strange are the alliances behind the forces of our time; it is common outrage which brings and ties them together. Terrorism takes its strength from the outrage of Palestine. The two wings of American politics and thought are not left and right; but outrage over 9/11, and outrage over the mirage of WMDs.

The religious can, in principle, extend tolerance and decent behavior to members of other religions. Worship, where it does not become fanaticism, leaves room in the mind for other feelings. But outrage is not a moderable or containable passion. Once undertaken, it subordinates every other feeling, crooks every observation, breaks into every chain of thought. These factions are fully as mutually deaf and mute as the most extreme fanaticisms of religon as such.

Outrage drives out justice. The blindfolded statue of justice must puzzle moderns; our goddess of punishment has her eyes taped open. Factions cannot weigh the crime, the violation, and the loss, to calculate justice; they must parade grief and trauma, talk of closure or taking action as if these were answers. But grief has no closing, and there is no satiety in extracting satisfaction, nor revenge sweet enough to mask bitterness.

Factions so conceived cannot be satisfied with the fulfillment of finite goals. Outrage substitutes for religion like drugs substitute for achievement; outrage beguiles uncertainty like a hit or a high beguiles boredom or frustration. Both being poor substitutes, both tend to subvert and consume: as drugs subvert and consume one's life, outrage subverts and consumes one's voice.

But history as such contains no revelations. It has no pivots, no keys and no locks. The lessons of history regarding humanity are only of human weakness, human fragility, and human folly. Religion can embrace history; but history can be made to yield only perishable religions—their saints, made only once, all die in time and cannot be renewed. Looking at the Somme or Cu Chi, at Auschwitz or Ground Zero, some are driven to invent something analogous to Providence; they find a meaning commensurate with the loss; they contrive to be inspired where they cannot bear despair. But history is truth, not mythos; and things happen because of what went before them, not in order to change the world afterward. No one can speak for the dead, nor do the dead speak.

III.
Our serious writing is reducible to the devotional and the penitential. What does one learn from our periodicals? How is one illuminated by them? No distinctions are introduced, no arguments are undertaken; we are expected to bow to the alternations of authoritative pronouncement and sly derision, or to be dazed by a handful of shiny statistics. The actual reading is redundant; from the forum and the subtitle you can usually deduce the contents of the article or essay in advance. You could write it yourself.

The professions of writing and reviewing seem increasingly to attract the ascetic or masochistic. Entry to the fellowship of enlightened readers is conditional to willingness to mortify one's mind with the literary equivalents of the scourge (the short story, the indigestible slice of alien life), the hair shirt (the clinically detailed novel, telling more than an analyst or confessor would dare ask), and the fast (lazy criticism, the pillow-fights of the tenured).

IV.
I cannot believe that our descendants will read our literature. Will even scholars delve it comfortably? A hundred years hence, I imagine, our literature will feel to our descendants like an old book of earnest and censorious sermons feels to us: claustrophobic and inhuman.