Unable as usual to resist the absurd, the New York Times recently attempted to find and certify the best work of American fiction that appeared in the last quarter-century, and perhaps to dilute their unconscious embarrassment published a list of the runners-up. Asked to serve on the enormous panel of solons they had assembled for the purpose, I declined on the grounds that neither I nor just about anyone else has a sufficiently wide or deep knowledge of all that has been written in the period, and that even if we had, such a determination is impossible, especially at the hands of literary people who have intellectual debtors and creditors, protégés, and favorites (including, not least, themselves).
But suppose for a moment that reality is suspended and the perfectly disinterested judges, after considering various worthies, were left to decide which of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare would fill the last slot in their list. Though they might make the choice, it would be meaningless. A meaningless decision, however, would be easy in the literary tenor of these times, which makes itself known not so much in works of fiction but in the vast apparatus that contains and to an alarming extent directs them.
One would have to have spent the last 40 years in a bathyscaphe to be unaware of the conventions, requirements, strictures, and demands that aggressively have (almost) monopolized the field. To anyone who reads, writes, or publishes, they are inescapable, the senseless, destructive, and cruel companions to a suicidal slide of culture, remarkable for the degree to which they are taken as palliatives and correctives rather than the acid that eats away the bone. After all, the addict views narcotics, the criminal his next score, and the lemming the open air beyond the cliff edge—as salvation.
And thus the literary tenor of the times is saturated above all with nihilism and its outrider, contempt; followed by politicization and its outrider, conformity. The first pair of abominations serves to dissolve the supple, living flesh of civilization—whether in blunt Leninist political combat hidden in the folds of academic relativism, or in the unbridled Satanic ravings of popular culture that society has lost the courage to dismiss outright. And the second pair of abominations serves to cast what remains after the dissolution into a slipshod orthodoxy as gray, hard, and dead as concrete.
Strangely enough, the enforcers and beneficiaries of this orthodoxy, which in spirit goes far beyond even the standard obeisances to race, sex, class, economics, and selected dogma in international relations and meteorology, think they are beleaguered revolutionaries. For example, in affirming his courage, Norman Mailer—everything he has done has been to affirm his courage, which perhaps one should not condemn in a man who bears such a strong physical resemblance to Mamie Eisenhower—pronounces that he has been a leftist all his life, something that in Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights may not be quite as dangerous as he hallucinates.
And yet politics themselves, of whatever coloration, are less damaging an intrusion upon the literary enterprise than the now deeply engraved notion that literature cannot escape them. Political discourse can be literature, as Pericles, Lincoln, and Churchill prove, but literature that is political discourse destroys itself, as history proves (pace the febrile tracts of tenured lunatics: Disguised Vaginal Narratives of the French & Indian War: The Hidden Meanings of Bernard de Con's Account of the Assault on Fort Ticonderoga—A Novel). Whereas great political writing, always primarily literary, is equipped to transcend the causes and contentions of the day, a literary work that rests upon a political cause will follow it into oblivion. Lincoln and Churchill infused politics with the higher truths to which literature is the handmaiden, but the modern convention excludes these truths by subordinating literature to politics.
One seldom encounters pure nihilism, for just as anarchists are usually very well-organized, most of what passes for nihilism is a compromise with advocacy. Present literary forms may spurn the individual, emotion, beauty, sacrifice, love, and truth, but they energetically embrace the collective, coldness of feeling, ugliness, self-assertion, contempt, and disbelief. And why? Simply because the acolytes of modernism are terribly and justly afraid. They fear that if they do not display their cynicism they will be taken for fools. They fear that if they commit to and uphold something outside the puppet channels of orthodoxy they will be mocked, that if they are open they will be attacked, that if they appreciate that which is simple and good they will foolishly have overlooked its occult corruptions, that if they stand they will be struck down, that if they love they will lose, and that if they live they will die.
As surely they will. And others of their fears are legitimate as well, so they withdraw from engagement and risk into what they believe is the safety of cynicism and mockery. The sum of their engagement is to show that they are disengaged, and they have built an elaborate edifice, which now casts a shadow over every facet of civilization, for the purpose of representing their cowardice as wisdom. Mainly to protect themselves, they write coldly, cruelly, and as if nothing matters.
But life is short, and things do matter, often more than the human heart can bear. This is an elemental truth that neither temporarily victorious nihilism, nor fashion, nor cowardice can long suppress, which is why the literary tenor of the times cannot and will not last. And which is one reason among many why one must not accept its dictates or write according to its conventions. These must and will fall, for they are subject to constant pressure as generation after generation rises in unprompted affirmation of human nature. And though perhaps none living may see the change, it is an honor to predict and await it.