Among other disasters, Neville Chamberlain is famous for a particularly ill-chosen quotation from Shakespeare. In September 1938, he announced his Munich conference with Hitler, saying, “out of this nettle danger we pluck this flower safety.” He should have read better. These words are Hotspur’s, the battle-eager rebel of Henry IV, Part 1, spoken in defense of going to war. In titling my essay “A little more than kin and less than kind” I risk a similar gaffe. Hamlet here is speaking to his detested uncle Claudius, drawing attention to the uncle’s incestuous relation with Hamlet’s mother. Changing the meaning somewhat, I use the phrase to suggest that literature and politics are closely related, but not, as is fashionably held, identical. I hope this is a pardonable dislocation of the passage from its context; it sets us on the way to uncovering, beyond the obvious political elements of this or that text, the deeper principles that give politics and literature their peculiar affinity.
That politics is often a prominent component of literature, probably everyone agrees. Anyone who actually cracks a book soon discovers an array of political ideas, events, theories, presumptions, and follies in every literary form. Shrouded in its religious, ceremonial garb, Greek drama shows itself immediately political in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Much later, Shakespeare is, as always, colossal. Plays such as Macbeth, King Lear, or the sublime Tempest treat with unequaled penetration the nature of authority, the value of civil order, the so-called “natural man,” and public justice. Students of non-dramatic poetry bemoan that they must learn the details of thirteenth-century Florentine politics when studying Dante, and classes in English Restoration literature find themselves watching seventeenth-century political ideas and events played out in classical and biblical allegories. And as for that “mother of all prose fiction,” the novel, why, it is sometimes difficult to tell if novels are political, or whether politics is fictional. The works of Defoe, like Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders, and the works of Richardson, like Pamela or Clarissa, are driven by meditations on man as a social animal or the constraints imposed by social privilege. Later, the Palliser novels of Anthony Trollope employ a political backdrop before which to play out their action, and a novel like Dickens’ Bleak House is famous for its excruciating depiction of clogged and lethal legal systems. Melville can by dizzyingly political, and Twain himself would be bereft of much material were it not for politics. The political danse macabre of the twentieth century enjoys its own novelistic accompaniment. In all its forms, a prominent relation of literature to politics is the direct one of theme and subject matter. I hope to show that there are deeper relations as well, but this immediate relation is so prominent that it has led to a grave subversion of literature today, at least in idea.
The political potency of literature is seductive. So seductive that an influential school of thought maintains that literature is, in essence, a political enterprise. All so-called literature is, in fact, ideologically driven propaganda, which seeks to maintain or to subvert an existing hegemony. Literature is therefore entirely rhetorical, as it both depicts negotiations of power relations and is, in itself, an article of such negotiations. An author may believe he is writing a “boy meets girl” narrative, but he is in fact engaged in a subtle, politically driven perpetuation of his culture’s “boy subjugates girl” hegemony. Or, to put the rhetorical pen in the other ideological hand, marginalized voices may employ literature to carve out some autonomy, power, or liberation from traditional hegemonies. It is all, after all, ideological—all conflict and tension centered around appropriations of power and supremacy. Romeo did not fall in love with Juliet; he either liberated her patriarchally suppressed libido, or, if we prefer, he re-marginalized her voice through his own disempowering appropriation of her person. In any event, the idea is simple enough: Literature is primarily propaganda. The difficulty here is that literature has been reduced to a tool; it has become a rhetorical means to an ideological end. While this is a deeply destructive error, it is understandable. Literature is so adept at handling ideas, and can make ideas so compellingly attractive, that it has often been used as a tool. But if we are to see the real affinity of literature and politics, we must see first that literature is not, in essence, political. This is no paradox. Socrates was right; we must first see what a thing is if we are to properly understand what it does, and in this case, literature is not a tool. It is an end. Properly speaking, the essence of literary art is the intentional experience of beauty through language. Literature aims, qua literature, as the philosophers say, at beauty, not persuasion. It is precisely in literature’s orientation toward beauty that it enters into its genuine relation to politics. Lest one think this some kind of romantic drivel, consider for a moment the medieval idea of the “transcendentals.” The “good,” the “true,” and the “beautiful” are three terms that summarize in an ultimate way how anything desirable or self-justified may be described. Generally speaking, the good pertains to acts, the true pertains to knowledge, and the beautiful pertains to formal perfection. Now, these things obviously are distinct ideas, but not so distinct in particular things. The good, the true, and the beautiful are often different facets of the same thing. For example, when Portia pleads for mercy in the Merchant of Venice, the beauty of this masterful speech is inextricably bound to the virtue it pursues and the insights it reveals about justice and mercy. Ultimately, the good, the true, and the beautiful are inextricably interpenetrating. You can’t really have one without the other. Thus, mathematicians describe equations using aesthetic terms like “elegant” or even “charming.” A virtuous man is described as “true.” A beautiful painting will be called “noble” or “revealing.” Given the interrelation of the good, the true, and the beautiful, it is easy to see how literature, in pursuit of the beautiful, cannot help but be involved in those things pertaining to the good: specifically, ethics and politics.
Literary art captures beauty not in the abstract, but embedded in concrete particulars. “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare,” said Edna St. Vincent Millay, and this is why Euclid was not a poet. Literary art takes human experience in all its splendid messiness and finds therein the beauty that reveals to us what that experience is for and why it is good. In seeking this beauty in particulars, literature does something rather remarkable. We recall that Aristotle (and subsequently most sane thinkers) pointed to the imitative or mimetic nature of art. Literature not only imitates human experience—represents it, as it were—but it often does so by imitating the way the human mind works. Our intelligence is discursive; it moves by steps, seeing things in relation to other things. We lack the intelligence of the angels, who apprehend things in their entirety, instantly. We move along more like the turtle than the gazelle. In literature, this discursive intellect is figured forth in narrative, or stories. It is no mere coincidence that we speak of “lines of thought” and “story lines.” Both are, metaphorically, linear. And in narrative, we see an immense political affinity. Not only can we have narratives about politics, but politics and narratives both deal with contingency. That is, the entire science or art of politics, while driven by immutable principles rooted in human nature, is immersed in the contingent, the changeable, matters of likelihood and probability. That is why politics is a deliberative activity. Because circumstances change, the means we select to pursue ends—no matter how permanent—will change. Narratives also deal with man immersed in contingent circumstances, a world of changes, surprises, the losing and finding of bearings. In pursuit of beauty, narrative, like politics, must work through probability. It may be tempting to view a world of contingency as a chaotic flux of incalculables, but such a view is false. Our experience reveals probabilities, patterns, likelihoods and unlikelihoods, things that tend to happen together and things that are generally causes of other things. That is the way the world is. King Lear, in a moment of awful political and literary irony, says to the blinded Gloucester, “Yet you see how this world goes.” And Gloucester replies, “I see it feelingly.” This is the place and role of probability in literature and politics. In both, we aim to see how this world goes, and in both we do so better if we see it feelingly.
These patterns and probabilities signify more than we think; they reveal that, indeed, there is such a thing as a constant human nature before which contingencies play out. Both politics and literature presuppose a foundational constant in experience—human nature—and the patterns we discover in probabilities bear out the reality of this constant. This is why we can still learn from ancient Greek political thought or enter into the world of Odysseus, or Beowulf, or more foreign yet, Dickens’ Aunt Betsey Trotwood. This is what allows us to appreciate the wisdom in the ending of Beowulf, where Beowulf’s success as a warrior and king has produced a paradoxical result: an enervated people. A generation has flourished in peace but has also forgotten the valor necessary to preserve it. The lesson: There is a risk in success. The political relevance is obvious. To rest on one’s laurels is to lose them. Thus, patterns and probabilities in human experience, vividly presented in literature, transcend time precisely because our common human nature does too.
It is a commonplace that literature can teach, as Beowulf does. This is what the ideologue mistakes for propaganda. In pursuing beauty embedded in concrete experience, literature provides a vicarious experience that Gloucester’s “seeing feelingly” perfectly describes. We learn best by experience, which is why Aesop may more effectively, if less precisely, communicate the threat of collectivized political authority than does many a political treatise. Literature can tell us what is significant, meaningful, dreadful, valuable, tragic, and of course comical about life, and it does so by giving us this life to experience ourselves. Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi says “life means intensely, and it means good.” The peculiar thing about people is that we apparently recognize this meaning best only vicariously or “second hand.” If we don’t see it in literature, we may well miss it in our own lives. This truth is what Oscar Wilde twisted when he said that life imitates art. Often we need to see what is real by first seeing it in art. Ever since Homer poets have said they draw attention to missed meaning. If Odysseus had to leave home to fully understand its value, we must leave our own lives (temporarily, at least) in order to see their significance. The concreteness of that secondhand experience is essential and gives to literature its didactic power. It is one thing to be told an abstraction: “Romantic passions can be exhilarating, yet dangerous.” It is another to swoon with Dante upon hearing about Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno. So literature as a didactic force is immensely needful and powerful, and one of the “political” things we learn from it is that man is morally charged. His actions and choices matter—sometimes, all too much.
King Lear wants to “crawl towards death,” and indeed he does, though not in the manner he anticipates. Thinking that he can, in modern terms, retire, buy a Winnebago and spend the winters camping in Arizona, he divests himself of the “cares of state.” His would-be administrative bivouac has disastrous consequences in part because he is trying to keep privilege while abandoning responsibility. This cannot be done. For us, as for Lear, the fact is that much of what we would like to think of as inconsequential is often hugely consequential. Just ask Oedipus. Politics and literature both agonize over and contemplate choices, for in our choices is our moral significance, not to mention untold consequences. It is no coincidence that Aristotle makes this point in both the Poetics and the Ethics.
This is the first essay in a two-part series. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2001).