The Book Club

Onward, Culture Warriors

Dear Sarah,

You’re absolutely right about Wood. Several times he invokes Keats’ idea of “negative capability,” that bane of grad-school oral exams. What he takes it to mean (more or less) is the ability to imagine people whose ideas and ways of thinking are utterly different from, even repellent to, one’s own, sympathetically and from the inside. He likes novelists who possess it–Dostoevsky, Philip Roth–and condemns those who don’t–for example, John Updike. “I am not requesting that Updike be an atheistic novelist,” he scolds at the end of a chapter I suspect started life as a review of In the Beauty of the Lilies, “nor even a Melvillean doubter, merely that he be a novelist.”

Say what? Now Updike might not be your cup of tea (according to David Foster Wallace, no male under 40 can admit to a female under 40 that he likes Updike without being seen to endorse Updike’s suspect sexual politics), but if your theory of the novel leads you to declare that Updike is not a novelist, then perhaps you should consider getting a new theory of the novel. The irony, of course (and I’m only repeating what you’ve already said), is that Wood is the one who seems incapable of imagining that people might have different beliefs, unbeliefs, and metaphysical experiences than he. He blames Updike for being unable to imagine the tremors and terrors of true faith or true unbelief but is utterly unwilling to consider that Updike’s relationship to religion, now anxious, now complacent, always complex and interesting, might be rooted in personal and historical realities, and that Updike’s engagement with these realities, through the medium of an incomparably sensual prose style, might yield some novels worth reading.

But I have to say in Wood’s defense that the intensity of opinion, even the dogmatism, that we’ve been complaining about is also part of what makes him worth reading. One of his epigraphs is from the great Hungarian Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, on whom Thomas Mann supposedly modeled Naphtha, the fanatical Jesuit in The Magic Mountain. That Wood should declare an affinity with Lukacs is interesting, and quite revealing. Both of them try to pass the fat, burdened camel of literature through the eye of an ideological needle–both insist that the moral and aesthetic purpose of the novel is to represent reality, that reality consists of just what they say it consists of, and that there are right ways and wrong ways to go about representing it. But what saves them from being party hacks (though Lukacs came awfully close sometimes) or moralizing scolds (which Wood sometimes is) is that you don’t have to buy into their systems to find their arguments productive. I simply can’t read novels the way Wood does–I don’t have a metaphysical bone in my body. But by reconsidering familiar books in the light of his strange temperament I can learn something new about them, and about (forgive me) myself. But of course that’s precisely the kind of genteel, wishy-washy, pluralistic view of things that Wood, it sometimes seems, wants to wipe off the face of the earth.

Genteel, wishy-washy pluralism, the last best hope for mankind, survives on the strengths of its enemies. Two cheers for James “Jeremiah” Wood! The danger to liberal culture is not conflict, but consensus: The only way to have culture is to have culture wars. “War,” said Bismarck (I think), “is the health of the state.” And criticism–corrosive, intolerant, and negative, if need be–is the health of the arts. What’s the contemporary critic to do? Prescribe. Proscribe. Bite hard. Draw blood. If life hands you peas, make split-pea soup.

Actually, I feel anything but bellicose at the end of this invigorating week. My relation to the universe is much improved, thanks to your spirit and intelligence. I’m sorry we never got around to Virginia Woolf. Another time.