Once More to the Orthodox
The literature establishment is constantly grasping for some standout voice or another to cover up its too often eviscerated and eviscerating core. In his recent New Yorker commentary “Zadie Smith Reports from Dream City,” Hendrick Hertzberg urges: “Please, I beg you: drop whatever you’re doing and read Zadie Smith’s brilliant meditation on Barack Obama…” ‘Speaking In Tongues,’ in the New York Review of Books “….a wonderful essay” of “sparkling words” that is “so absorbring…an exhilarating slalom” that shows “how well [President] Obama is positioned…to summon us so thrillingly to a vision of ‘the United States of America’ and a belief, as he said in his Inaugural, ‘that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve’….” Apparently, the master state(s) will remain.
Smith’s lecture gives grand voice to the establishment, for it is a voice rich and eloquent, however antique, not least in its ideological orthodoxy. Per usual, the speech borders on parody at its most ideological moments in familiar guise of aestheticism denouncing ideology, a would be post-ideological stance.
Ms. Smith acknowledges that she has been well trained. She states her “regret” at losing her Willesden voice the voice of her youth that “was a big, colorful, working-class sea” for her college voice, her Cambridge voice, acquired in:
“a smaller, posher pond, and almost univocal; the literary world is a puddle. This voice I picked up along the way is no longer an exotic garment I put on like a college gown whenever I choose—now it is my only voice, whether I want it or not. I regret it; I should have kept both voices alive in my mouth. They were both a part of me. But how the culture warns against it!”
Despite Smith’s being trained into a “puddle,” and her stated regret, she finds that all is not lost, and of course it is not. Unfortunately, the intellectual or literary recompense she hails is her adoption or assumption of the standard line of the status quo that not only declaims it prizes no ideology at all but (equally false) that ideology in literature functions as a lesser thing, a devaluation of literature, a betrayer of literary ideals and life. She believes literature can be ideology free – a belief that only the privileged puddle can afford to float (and even then only in the short term). Dream City indeed. It is the dream of a both servile and ruling status quo ideology:
“…the final stage, which I [Smith] think of as the mark of a certain kind of genius: the voice relinquishes ownership of itself, develops a creative sense of disassociation in which the claims that are particular to it seem no stronger than anyone else’s. There it is, my little theory—I’d rather call it a story.”
Such a theory, which is part of an ideology, is certainly a story – one that is happily ensconced in the status quo and especially in this formulation perpetuating of it. The resultant loss is great to both art and life beyond.
Liberatory partisan art, on the other hand, purposefully intends that “the claims that are particular to it” are “stronger” – that is, more liberating – than oppressive, ignorant, or deceitful claims and other forces. Such progressive or liberatory revolutionary art is in many ways no story to which Smith and the establishment can commit, or even refrain from decrying. Any “apparent didactic moral of…story” must be “undercut by the fact of the play itself” – an establishment valuation of art. No matter that Jonathan Swift’s great short story “A Modest Proposal” fundamentally disproves such a binding view. Swift’s central and even secondary points are apparent and clear, far from “undercut” or slighted, while quite ironically, aesthetically, artfully presented. A number of liberatory, explicit, and overt points are emphasized and liberatory effects generated all the more by the art. The same goes for great novels such as Les Misérables and Wizard of the Crow, a couple prime examples.
The point cannot be repeated enough: great art can do everything Smith and the establishment claim it cannot do along these lines, just as well as it can attend to and achieve their very status quo preferences, beliefs, and ideologies in denial. Highly accomplished art can certainly be rendered oppressive, blinkered, and of very confused or regrettable ideology and effect. Or it can be rendered quite clearly and extensively liberatory. It’s a choice, not something inevitably inherent. Smith shares quite a number of thoughtful observations and perceptions in her essay, so it’s too bad and more damaging that she also stands upon establishment bankruptcies.
Little to nothing is unorthodox about anything Smith says in regard to literature, and yet Smith laments the current state of literature in some of her contemporary articles. At what point might one feel compelled to break with at least some part of the underlying orthodoxy, i.e., the ideology? Granted it may not be easy given that a central tenet of much status quo orthodoxy is that it does not exist. This very prominent author has at least felt compelled to question in print something of what she perceives as dysfunctional orthodoxy (in “Two Paths for the Novel“). Even though the article crashed and burned, it was at least a step, if only sideways, like this one “Speaking in Tongues” which in any event covers more ground, possibly more fertile but it seems to me just as orthodox, well trod.
Liberatory critique and art do not destroy quality or exceptionally accomplished art that may be more or less establishment: Shakespeare, for example, but liberatory work can help put the bard’s work in more clear perspective – bring out faults, flaws, and weaknesses of all variety, as well as highlight countervailing strengths. Failure to see that the works of Shakespeare and the works of all other artists contain ideological lines “particular to it” is failure on behalf of critics, not an absence of strong or pointed ideological reality and effect in and around the work, whatever the artists’ intentions, or however well carried out.
No bread for the people? Let them eat cake! But of course people need nutritional bread, they need it available, they can help make it and in various ways need to, the vital stuff rather than the many mounds of cake and moldy crusts and worse.
They as in we, “claiming” for movement forward, progress, and critiquing thought and work that holds people back. Plurality of voices? Yes, of course. It’s called real democracy. Or libertarian socialism. And so on. And that’s a kind of ideology, a kind of principle, a kind of ideal. To not eviscerate at the core we need to understand and be open about the realities and possibilities of art, the far more full liberatory potential in our time and many another.