30 March 2008

The reversal of alienation

Last Thursday, Maud brought up a telling issue:
American creative writing instruction, in my experience, tends to discourage would-be novelists from working with philosophical concepts. Large, abstract ideas are seen as the province of scientists and Nobel laureates. Everyone else, the thinking goes, should stay squarely in the realm of concrete troubles like adultery or thievery or murder.

But don’t the best novels — Crime and Punishment, for instance, or The Sea, The Sea or Disgraceblend the two? Aren’t we interested in the reasons for and implications of characters’ predicaments and actions?
She went on to cite an interview of Walker Percy's where he explained how Kierkegaard had already laid the philosophical foundation for what he wanted to do in The Moviegoer.

Paul Elie's group biography, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, takes a good, long look at the abstract ideas behind Percy's fiction (as well as the work of Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day).

In his essay, "The Man on the Train," (republished in The Message in the Bottle), Percy begins by explaining,
There is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation. In the re-presenting of alienation the category is reversed and becomes something entirely different. There is a great deal of difference between an alienated commuter riding a train and this same commuter reading a book about an alienated commuter riding a train. (On the other hand, Huck Finn's drifting down the river is somewhat the same as a reader's reading about Huck Finn drifting down the river.) The nonreading commuter exists in true alienation, which is unspeakable; the reading commuter rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character and the author.
Elie further explains the difference (using Percy's essay):
Put a novel in the commuter’s hand and things get more complicated. The train rounds a bend. Sunlight glints off the glass. There is a pretty girl waiting to board on the platform up ahead. Still, the novel is absorbing. This is what art does: it lets us escape our alienation temporarily. But some works of art do this better than others. Some banish our alienation; others distract us from it; some show it to us without offering any consolation. Whether they do so is a matter not only of quality, but of kind.

Making these distinctions, Percy is oddly assured: he seems to be writing from experience, even though [at this point] he has never completed a novel to his satisfaction. Repetition, he declares, is usually diminished in a work of art; as the hero goes home again his passionate quest for the meaning of his life will strike the reader as interesting at best, because the reader wasn’t there the first time. Alienation, in a novel, becomes something else: the novel of alienation, like a symbol, re-presents alienation, and so will dispel it in the reader, and as the alienated reader recognizes his condition in the text, the book "heals the very wound it re-presents."

This achievement, Percy says, "is an aesthetic victory of comradeliness, a recognition of plight in common. Its motto is not 'I despair and do not know that I despair' but 'At least we know that we are lost to ourselves'--which is very great knowledge indeed." Whereas "the nonreading commuter exists in true alienation, which is unspeakable," Percy goes on to explain, "the reading commuter rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character, and the author. His mood is affirmatory and glad: Yes! That’s how it is!"

That is ecstatically said, and for a moment the insight banishes alienation in just the way Percy claims it does. It also suggests that Percy is celebrating the novel of alienation. After all, he says the reversal of alienation is "the supreme intersubjective achievement of art," which is to "set forth the truth of it: how it stands with both of us."

No comments: