High Concept

Great Awful Books

Literature isn’t about bad books, but history frequently is.

Great books went on video parade last month: The Learning Channel devoted a round-the-clock weekend of programming to 13 works, ranging from The Odyssey to Catch-22, that the shows suggested have not only resonated through time, but, in many cases, have changed history. Given that the culture of reading appears increasingly marginalized, expressive books and their authors need whatever pop support they can get; two cheers, then, for such cable salons.

One cheer has been deducted for leaving out the important trash. Sure, such TLC-spotlighted thinkers as Machiavelli and Freud have obviously influenced history. And yes indeed, Ralph Ellison’s InvisibleMan and Richard Wright’s NativeSon helped prepare the way for the civil-rights struggle, just as was suggested at the Library of Congress reception for the series, and reported in the WashingtonPost.

But this sort of “Great Books” focus on literature and history misses much of the point of how culture works; it distorts the past by elevating aesthetics over history. At its worst, canonization can become highbrow kitsch by conflating history with taste.

Great writers have certainly enlightened their readership with their eloquence and insight, and set mankind on a better path. More glory to them; let’s read their stuff. But we are just as much the intellectual and cultural heirs of authors we’ve forgotten about and probably wouldn’t be caught dead reading. As a public service, we offer a handful of these, should anyone wish to counter-program the Western Canon, on cable or elsewhere.

What I Believe and The Forged Coupon, by Leo Tolstoy

Yes, Tolstoy. Not, certainly, the Tolstoy of AnnaKarenina and War and Peace; those works, for all their power, represent a prelude to the later Tolstoy, who actually changed history. Depending on your point of view, the “mature” Tolstoy was either a saint or a crank; his family leaned toward the latter opinion, especially after the count renounced his royalties. This Tolstoy reinterpreted the Bible, postured as a peasant, sought to dissuade people from having sex, supported nudist cults, denounced high literary activity, and wrote such things as The Kingdom of God Is Within You and Why Men Stupefy Themselves, works that today would be found on the self-help shelves, if they could be found at all.

But Tolstoy’s reinvention of morality was to have a huge impact. For example, he propounded the concept of nonresistance to evil (discovering it in the work of a Massachusetts utopian), which deeply impressed his numerous followers. Among the texts that teach this lesson are What I Believe and the artful–if slight–posthumous novella The Forged Coupon, in which Tolstoy dramatizes how small acts of evil must lead eventually to ever-greater evil by others. These are “minor” works in the Tolstoy canon, to put it mildly, and certainly not to be compared to the man’s great romans-fleuves.

Still, his doctrines drew converts–they actually made him a presence in the fiction of other Russian authors–and have survived him. Among the readers who have given them careful thought was the young Mohandas Gandhi. Indeed, literary historian Martin Green has argued persuasively that in a number of significant ways, Gandhi turned his life into an imitation of Tolstoy’s. Gandhi, of course, has had his own intellectual heirs, among them the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Insisting on a connection between great events and great literature not only obscures the truth of who is influenced by whom, but it also illustrates a fallacy: that great effects must require great causes.

Biarritz, by Sir John Retcliffe (Hermann Goedsche)

If the problem with canonization lay merely in underestimating “minor” works, we wouldn’t have much of a problem at all: It is a pleasure to discover that ever more hands have helped shape mankind’s better moments. The larger truth is that awful writers have shaped history, too; that to the degree that history is a nightmare, many of our worst dreams have been induced by literature.

Take the ineradicable notion that Jews are conspiring to control the world. The basic text of this charge, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, was long ago demonstrated to be a hoax, but the idea lives on vampirishly (as, indeed, do the Protocols themselves; they are reprinted in their entirety in one currently “hot” underground best seller about UFOs).

Whence does this idea derive? From a novel. Norman Cohn, the major historian of the Protocols, has demonstrated that while the concept of Jewish conspiracy had been rumbling around since the French Revolution, it was to find its first popular expression–and broad circulation–in the 1868 novel Biarritz, by German author Hermann Goedsche, writing under the unlikely name of Sir John Retcliffe.

One of the book’s chapters describes a midnight meeting in Prague’s Jewish cemetery, where Jewish leaders deliver long speeches about their emerging control of everything. This chapter was to have a long life apart from the rest of the book, and was to end up distributed as the report of an actual meeting of conniving Jews, just what the later Protocols pretend to be. (A lot of anti-Semitic paranoia derives from fiction: The novels of Benjamin Disraeli, especially Coningsby, have often been plumbed for their supposed conspiratorial indiscretions.)

The Flame of Life (and other works), by Gabriele D’Annunzio

Or take the development of Fascism. How did Italy move so quickly from the late 19th-century idealism of Mazzini to the blockheaded authoritarianism of Mussolini? According to biographer Anthony Rhodes, the answer, to a surprising degree, is the influence of the poet and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio.

No one reads D’Annunzio today; the only English versions of his work popularly available are in a British series celebrating decadence. But in the decades before World War I, he was hugely popular. Perceived as a Byronic figure who combined art, eroticism, and action, D’Annunzio produced a body of work mixing nationalism, sensualism, and the evocation of the Superman. In such overwrought novels as The Flame of Life (which exploited his affair with actress Eleonora Duse), D’Annunzio considers at length the rhetorical manipulation of the masses. As biographer Rhodes points out, it is D’Annunzio who, in his poetry, introduced his readership to such concepts as “MareNostrum,” (“Our Mediterranean”) and “duce.”

But D’Annunzio did much more than that. When Italy was not given control of the Istrian coast after World War I, D’Annunzio brought his work to life: He marched on the town of Fiume and occupied it with a small force for 16 months. D’Annunzio cannot be called a Fascist, but in Fiume, he created what was to become the Fascist political style. As Michael Ledeen points out in The First Duce: D’Annunzio at Fiume, the balcony address, the “Roman” salute, the dialogue with the crowd, and the political manipulation of religious symbols and “martyrs” are all D’Annunzio’s inventions. Mussolini, then floundering politically, was paying close attention; without D’Annunzio, there may not have been a Mussolini.

What Is to Be Done?, by Nikolay Chernyshevsky

Communism, too, owes much to bad writing. As Russian studies scholar Joseph Frank has argued, the most consequential Russian novel of the 19th century was not written by Dostoyevsky or Turgenev or Tolstoy; it was written by a critic and journalist named Nikolay Chernyshevsky. What Is to Be Done? is a famously bad book, so big and so wooden that you could build a frigate out of it. One of the legendary explanations of how it got past the czarist censors is that they felt it was so dreadful that it would discredit the revolutionary views it espoused.

If the story is true, they miscalculated. The novel (centering on a woman’s emotional and social development) made an overwhelming impression on its many readers, inflaming debate over the role of women, the idea of progress, and the future of the country. Everyone argued about it–in fact, much of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground is an argument with it–and many readers among Russia’s so-called Nihilist generation of rejectionists sought to pattern their lives after those of its characters.

That may well include Vladimir Lenin. He is known to have been enraptured by the book all his life, rereading it every few years; a fascination his own wife found inexplicable. Of course, Lenin was to adopt the title for one of his own books. An interesting question is whether he also adopted one of its characters–the dry revolutionary Rakhmetov, who lives only to achieve his political goals–as a personal model.

Sethos, by Jean Terrasson

The influence of ideas derived from literature, whether forgotten, disreputable, or plain bad, is not only a matter of historical interest. One of the tenets of Afrocentric revisionism now in widening circulation is that Western civilization derives from an Egyptian mystery system, and that Greek philosophy is a plagiarism of it. But as classicist Mary Lefkowitz has been pointing out for years, the idea of Egyptian mysteries is a literary invention; it comes from an entirely forgotten French novel, Sethos, written by Jean Terrasson in 1731.

This once-popular novel appears to have influenced the Masons of the period, who absorbed some of its descriptions into their rites. These then became evidence for Afrocentric writers such as George G. M. James, author of the well-known Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy Is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, of a speculative tradition extending back to a black ancient Egypt. (They have also become the core of a durable conspiracy underground that posits an organized pagan subculture devoted to the overthrow of Christianity through Freemasonry, Satanism, and environmentalism.)

In fact, there are numerous contemporary works of fiction putting some striking ideas into circulation. The Turner Diaries has finally received some general notice (and, as a result, better distribution). Notable as well are the xenophobic classic The Camp of the Saints; the racialist utopia Serpent’s Walk; and the neo-Luddite fantasy The Monkey Wrench Gang. There’s even a political “thriller,” Treason in the White House, kicking around about a draft-dodging American student at Oxford who becomes president and is eventually hanged on the Mall.

Good books matter. But, so do bad ones–though it seems to be beneath our dignity to notice them. Literature, we believe, isn’t about bad books. That’s so, but history frequently is.