Sunday, October 01, 2006

LRB on literary biography and neo-cons

My second subscription to the London Review of Books has begun (the first was in 1987, I think, beginning with an issue with a photograph on the cover of John Ruskin arm-in-arm with Dante Gabriel Rossetti). This cover has a painting of a model sailboat and a shell, yet I'm impressed. It's good to read such concise good sense about literary biography in Colin Burrow's review of John Stubbs' new life of John Donne:
[Literary biography] gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism. But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life. Wordsworth? Well, that stuff about Lucy is really all about his affair with Annette Vallon. Byron? Just remember he loved his sister. Shakespeare? Didn’t you realise he was the Earl of Oxford? The other problem is that even the best examples can't entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom.
No doubt Nick Hornby will detect the heresy of standards here. And he'd be right. It's pernicious because it regularly misunderstands and misrepresents literature:
The energy of [Donne's] poems comes from the kinds of non-understanding they generate: you get one strand, start to be convinced, and then another cuts across and pulls you in a new direction. When those poems are solemnly presented as evidence or symptoms of a life one's immediate reaction is to protest that their vitality, which depends on a plurality of disintegrating perspectives, might be a bit like life as it might feel to live it [...] but it is not at all the matter of a biography.
I was also impressed by Stephen Holmes' discussion of Fukuyama's After the Neocons and that movement's most publically-expressed theory:
Tacitly, the neo-con advocates of Middle Eastern democracy are siding with the young men who might be tempted to join terrorist conspiracies against their clientalistic, kleptocratic and non-democratic governments, which are officially allied with the US. Al-Qaida is less like the KGB than the KGB’s implacable foe, the Afghan mujahidin, ‘freedom fighters’ supported by Ronald Reagan, among others. Today’s neo-cons no longer want to imitate Reagan by helping resentful young Muslim men regain their dignity through violent insurgency. Instead, they want to give them an alternative path to dignity: namely, liberal democracy. But the basic reason for supporting frustrated Muslim youth, that they deserve American support in their noble search for liberation, is the same.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on this massive contradiction. Although obvious in a way, it is seldom discussed; Fukuyama doesn’t seem to notice it. The neo-cons defend two diametrically opposed propositions: that the jihadists hate freedom at the same time as hating their own lack of it. On the one hand, neo-cons assert that Islamic radicals hate American values, not American policies, and deny that America’s past behaviour has in any way provoked anti-American violence. On the other hand, they imply that the 9/11 plot was inspired and implemented by terrorists radicalised by Arab autocracies allied with or sponsored by the US. This suggests that 9/11-style terrorists hate American policies, not American values. They hate not the principles of American liberty but, rather, America’s unprincipled support for tyranny. To promote democracy in the Middle East is to imply that such hatred is in part justified.

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