But what difference does history—and more specifically, American history—make to Dylan’s work? Dylan has long populated his songs with historical characters, as well as characters from the territory where history shades into legend, and his work is never too far from the larger American mythos emanating from its rough and rowdy past, with its gamblers, prophets, false prophets, and outlaws, from Billy the Kid to Lenny Bruce. In his 2004 memoir Chronicles, Dylan writes, convincingly, of reading deeply in history books once he’d reached Greenwich Village, and of how figures such as the antislavery and civil rights congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who had “a clubfoot like Byron,” made a deep and lasting impression on him.
Dylan has also often seemed to depart from the mental clatter of the present, by living according to a time-warped calendar, in which the Galveston flood or the great Mississippi flood or the sinking of the Titanic have only just happened. Long ago, he has said, he discovered in folk songs a parallel universe of old-fashioned virtues and actions; and in time, that universe became real, so that if someone asked what was happening, the answer was (to take another assassination) that President Garfield had been shot down and there was nothing anybody could do, just as Bascom Lamar Lunsford sang it. “All of this was current, played out and in the open,” Dylan writes, of his Village days. “This was the news that I considered, followed and kept tabs on.” It’s hard to listen to the last two decades of Dylan’s compositions especially and not hear him living in some version of that time warp and pulling his listeners into it, too.
How does he go about it? Well, for one thing, he studies. For a historian, it was fascinating, even thrilling to read, in Dylan’s memoir, of the young rising artist’s visiting the New York Public Library and researching in American newspapers from the Civil War era on microfilm to help calm his mind. Of course, it may never have happened: although I can attest to the book’s spiritual accuracy about the Village in the early Sixties, the author of Chronicles also fabricates, which tells you something about Dylan and his relationship with history. (Indeed, I’m not entirely certain whether he really first encountered Thaddeus Stevens in the early Sixties, when most historians portrayed Stevens as a deformed, vindictive radical, or if he only discovered him later.)
But the creators of the myth of progress also created a politics and a rhetoric of progress which defined progress as material abundance, as an ever-increasing autonomy of the individual from society, and as a license to transgress the limits of human nature. They impregnated history with a “narrative” in the sense used by modern political journalists: a tendentious reading of the past designed to influence the actions of citizens and politicians. The Enlightenment narrative undermined the ability of our common traditions to perform their proper functions: to anchor us in the past, to provide us with a noble ancestry, and to foster in us reverence for our forebears and for established authorities—many of which, after all, deserve reverence. The myth of progress with its attendant urge always to be “on the right side of history” in the end enabled that great naïveté of progressive elites: that good intentions and scientific models are enough to bring us into a more desirable future. It also sanctioned their authoritarian urges, for it is their narrative of progress that justifies the enlightened in sweeping aside any obstacles—legal, moral or constitutional—that stand in their way. As modern history has proven over and over again, real progress occurs in an environment of ordered liberty; authoritarian societies are stagnant societies.
As the French philosopher Rémi Brague once put it, intellectuals formed by the Enlightenment are like the ancient Christians who embraced the Marcionite heresy: they reject the authority of the Old Testament and see our ancestors who lived before the Enlightenment as deluded servants of an evil demiurge. Only the New Testament of modernity offers them truth and salvation. Modernity, however, is a process, not a state, and it is hard to inculcate loyalty or reverence towards a process. Yet loyalty to and reverence for its past is the principal basis of harmony and cohesion in any society. In this respect the legacy of the Enlightenment must still be questioned. Can any society survive that belittles its past and regards the present state of affairs, the lives and fortunes of its people, as nothing but a corpus vile for ever more radical social experiments? Can we raise our children to be relentless critics of tradition and still expect them to participate constructively in civil society? Do we want the arts, literature and philosophy of the past to nurture the next generation or merely serve as targets of their indignation? Ritchie Robertson would surely protest that such was never the intention of any Enlightener, and he would be right. But the unintended consequences of our acts, when they turn out badly, still constitute an indictment of our practical reason.
As a consequence of progressive hypervigilance against the faintest whiff of appropriation, Tyree asserts, “[t]he novel has become a branch of nonfiction, either biography or autobiography.” Call it the new orthodoxy of the digital middlebrow, “the rise of safely empowering stories with likeable protagonists who move through short sentence after short sentence towards uplifting conclusions in which virtue is rewarded.” The laudable goal of increasing the diversity of literary voices has somehow morphed into a series of purity tests designed to ensure that any artistic representation ticks the same boxes as its ostensible author. “On this,” Tyree writes, “conservative religious evangelicals secretly agree with their puritanical secularist enemies on a censorious attitude and checklist approach to art as either ‘acceptable’ or ‘offensive’ to whatever program one happens to prefer for cleansing all vileness from the world.” The result?
"[A]rt is increasingly viewed by both the right and the left as a sub-branch of medicine, therapy, hygiene, or good manners. Art is no longer that which tells us the truth but rather that which makes us feel better — a deflated ideology that is spawning a sort of unofficial school of palatability."
And this, I fear, is what’s afflicting many of my students. They don’t find postmodern fiction palatable. They’re offended by its lowbrow humor, its willingness to subvert even sanctioned causes, its tortuous sentences, its cringeworthy sex scenes, its refusal of closure, and the demands it places on its readers. “Difficulty is elitist,” one told me recently. And then there’s the problem of Pynchon’s biography: despite decades of secrecy, he hasn’t managed to hide his Ivy League education or his blue-blood pedigree. What business does he have, they ask, advocating for the marginalized or downtrodden? Shouldn’t we be reading something by someone less privileged? Isn’t he just taking up space that ought to be reallocated? Somewhere along the way these students acquired a fabulous set of tools but few ideas on how to use them. Instead, they follow scripts, never the wiser that their pursuit of intersectional justice has congealed into something dubiously illiberal.
Tyree’s answer to our present dilemma is weirdness, “cultivated eccentricity as an antidote to a world gone mad.” He proposes a Pynchonian counterforce, a ragged band of outsiders and misfits to resist all the orthodoxies of the day. Despite the polarization of the moment, both the left and the right feverishly engage in what Tyree terms timewashing: “[O]ur era’s signature creation of fake pasts that purport to cleanse history of its deep stains and recurring nightmares with the scented spray of propaganda.” Our “incapacity to live with the past in all its troubling complexity” poses a grave danger, he argues, and better fiction could be our salvation.
Indeed the debate about critical race theory is filled with the Selfish Fallacy. CRT is now a completely floating signifier thanks to the motivated reasoning of those who defend it. Conventional center-left liberals feel compelled to defend CRT because conservatives attack it, but some aspects of that academic field are sufficiently extreme to make advocacy for them unpalatable, so the definition of CRT simply morphs to fit their boundaries for legitimate opinion. For many or most of the people defending critical race theory today, the tradition is just a vague assertion of the prevalence of racism, dressed up in a little academic jargon - because this conception is far more convenient for them than grappling with what CRT actually is.
Which is funny because these liberal defenders act like they alone know what critical race theory really means. A lot of liberals suddenly find themselves not just defending CRT and pretending that they have read deeply in the field but also pretending that they always have known what it means. (This stems from one of the most deeply-ingrained aspects of progressive culture, the addiction to knowingness - the imperative to not only have an opinion on everything but to act like you have always had this opinion because everything is obvious and banal to you.) You can study people’s records on social media or in their written work and find that they never referenced critical race theory before it became an important social signifier in liberal spaces, but that’s easily waved away. In any event, it has become a cultural and professional imperative that good liberals embrace CRT, so they have embraced it.
But as Yglesias points out here, a big part of CRT involves a skepticism towards, or an out-and-out rejection of, some elementary aspects of liberal society. This is part of a broader academic left tendency; certainly when I was in academia in the humanities a half-decade ago it was considered terribly embarrassing to believe in individual rights and the Enlightenment etc. But a lot of ordinary everyday progressives still embrace that tradition. Rather than let their social need to defend CRT conflict with that attachment, they simply invent an imaginary CRT in their heads so there’s no conflict. And this is the Selfish Fallacy.
Hickey abandoned his book in 2015, a year that saw “cancel culture” pass from fandoms, via social media, into the mainstream of our civic life. What Oppenheimer calls the “blob,” the set of cultural institutions that Hickey denounced, appears ever more indifferent to beauty and ever more willing to submit art to demands for censorship, which often issue from just the sort of communities of shared enjoyment that Hickey imagined as the “pagan” basis of our democratic politics. It is regrettably no longer the case—if it ever was—that the democratic potential of our ordinary life of private and social enjoyments is primarily menaced from the outside by moralizing institutions and the persecutions of the state. Rather, the affordances of private life seem to be increasingly eroded from within, thinned out into intolerant, pleasureless resentments. It will be for a new generation of critics and creators to imagine, if it can still be imagined, how to restore a capacity for intense but tolerant pursuits of pleasure, and make America pagan again.
From a certain angle, Donald Trump’s presidency may not have moved the United States in entirely the wrong direction. One of the few areas to benefit from his stewardship, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen suggested in a New York Times op-ed last December, was American literature. Prior to 2016, he argued, Barack Obama’s “warmth” had lulled the literary world into a deep quiescence that amounted to imperial complicity. “It took Mr. Trump,” he wrote, “to awaken it to politics.”
As epoch-defining generalizations go, this is about as accurate as the solemn proclamations about the end of irony after September 11. The George W. Bush years, after all, gave us a crop of novels attempting, however awkwardly, to wring meaning from the catastrophe in lower Manhattan, to say nothing of the numerous Obama-era fictions marked by years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are ambitious and profound writers such as Phil Klay, whose debut story collection, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award, apolitical? Nguyen casts him as a “veteran writer” distant from most Americans, who “are insulated from the deployment of the war machine and prefer not to think about their implication in it.” What about pressing existential questions such as climate change, environmental degradation, and the unsustainability of industrial agriculture? These subjects have been taken up by Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Dave Eggers, and Jenny Offill, but he shrugs off such concerns too, as “targets . . . acceptable to white liberal interests.” What about riveting, humorous depictions of evolving sexual manners and power dynamics such as Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.? He is silent on this score. In one way or another, none of this work qualifies as genuinely political writing, because what Nguyen is really talking about is racial and ethnic identity.
Narratives of oppression, he insists, are missing from today’s “poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged.” Though some literature by immigrants and minorities also remains too accommodating for his taste in its failure to “rip off” the “mask” of American inequity, “explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.” Therefore, if the cruelty and ineptitude of the Trump Administration is to have a silver lining, all writers will have to take up overt activism.
This isn’t just a matter of questionable history, but of bad aesthetics. Nguyen would have every author become a strident advocate on and off the page. In recent years, “many writers, like me, texted voters, donated to activist causes, got into bitter fights on social media and wrote Op-Eds attacking the Trump administration,” he declares with perplexing satisfaction, as if texting and posting were the moral equivalent of marching through billy clubs and snarling dogs in Selma. Of his similarly engagé peers, he cautions, “Their political fervor impressed me. But if these writers retreat to their pre-Trump selves, then the lessons of this era will have not been learned at all.”
With that said, it’s still important to remember that this is a work of literature that implores us to act. In Book X, Section 16, Aurelius writes, “No more abstract discussion about what a good man is like: just be one!” Which returns us to the giant column in the Piazza Colonna. You come away from reading Meditations: The Annotated Edition with the sense that the column was just the sort of thing the philosophical emperor would have disdained. Flattery and adulation. Cartoonish veneration of power and luck. What might a more appropriate monument to the values of Aurelius be? A couple thousand years after the erection of the Aurelian column, Navy pilot and student of Stoicism James Bond Stockdale was being regularly tortured in a Hanoi POW camp. In the process of taking a final stand against the torture of his fellow prisoners, he nearly died in a rather theatrical suicide attempt. “After a couple of months in a tiny isolated cell we called Calcutta to let my arms heal,” Stockdale writes in Courage Under Fire, “they blindfolded me and walked me right into the … cell block. The isolation and special surveillance were over.” The more brutal forms of torture, too. For everyone. After Stockdale’s return to the block, a fellow prisoner slipped him a note written with a rat turd on a piece of toilet paper. It was the last verse of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:
It matters not how straight the gate
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Stockdale’s bravery, inspired in large part by his study of Stoicism, and the response of his fellow prisoner, are more appropriate memorials to Marcus Aurelius than a column of marble photographed by tourists in a sunny Roman plaza.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor