In a sadly comic story from 1968, Donald Barthelme presents The Police Band, whose function is to play music wherever there is a disturbance, in order to defuse the situation: ‘Our emotion stronger than their emotion,’ he explains. ‘A triumph of art over good sense.” The experiment is a failure. The band are never used. Their romantic idea is ‘not adequate to the rage currently around in the world.’ Barthelme was being uncharacteristically pessimistic in this tale: in the 1960s art did, indeed, play a role in shaping society, through a counter-culture that provoked, enraged and engaged. Ultimately, this counter-culture did not prevail but, in the act of trying, it still changed the world.
Move forward forty years and Barthelme’s words seem prophetic. ‘Rage must be met with rage,’ could act as a credo for the Bush administration. ‘We’re still here,’ say the artists, but they are otherwise mute. In a recent article, Marxist critic Terry Eagleton declared: 'I have no idea why we should listen to novelists on these [cultural] matters any more than we should listen to window cleaners.’ Since September 11, 2001, the world has been in turmoil, but where has been the voice of the writer?
The felling of the Twin Towers was an event of historic magnitude but, while many novels, stories and films have appropriated that day as a setting, none has dared probe its political and cultural complexity. Even Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, the best known fictional portrayal, is essentially a psychological study of an individual’s response to being involved. When it tries to enter the head of a terrorist it is far less assured. Martin Amis, likewise, has struggled to understand the mentality of suicide bomber, Mohammed Atta. Claire Messud uses 9/11 as a concluding backdrop to a story of infidelity in a way that, no matter how well written, feels vaguely gratuitous. Jonathan Safran Foer uses it as a study of childhood grief. Jay McInerney focuses on adultery among the rich set and Ken Kalfus on marital breakdown. These stories are domestic dramas and could just as easily have been written without reference to 9/11. They add little to our understanding of events. Essentially, the world according to these writers is unchanged, comprising a tide of human activity with the familiar gamut of grief and turpitude. It is as though twenty-first century writers are able only to reflect on inner turmoil: wider political, social, cultural concerns do not impinge. Even those well-regarded films based on 9/11, Paul Greengrass’s United 93 and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, focus on character and are almost at pains to avoid the political context.
Looking wider than 9/11, where is the literary debate on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, seven years on? It is too early for the great novels of the conflict to appear: those of the Vietnam War – Ron Kovic, Michael Herr et al – were not published until five years or so after the American withdrawal, but Vietnam was parodied and satirised in everything from Slaughterhouse-Five (about the Second World War but written during Vietnam) to films like M*A*S*H (set in Korea) and Alice’s Restaurant. Poets such as Denise Levertov and Robert Bly produced anti-war collections. In the ultimate show of outrage, anti-war protesters set fire to themselves. Demonstrations became more frequent, larger and, increasingly, more violent. Protest against the war was a major part of the counter-culture. After the Tet Offensive Robert F. Kennedy declared himself in the race for the American Presidency on an anti-war ticket. He was assassinated three months later. In all of this tumult, writers, musicians and artists were at the forefront of debate.
The Iraq and Afghan wars are now similarly divisive, but where is the literary world’s response? In 2008, one of the first books to feature the Afghan War is James Meek’s We are now beginning our descent. But, although critical of the war, rather than focusing on its politics, the novel relays the various personal crises of a war reporter. His love life features more prominently than his inner struggle with the ethics of the War on Terror. It is the emotions of the main characters which matter, not the motivations of governments. Other than this novel and some execrable and didactic poetry by the likes of Harold Pinter and Michael Rosen, the literary world – as opposed to journalism and the blogosphere – has been largely silent on the wars. Given such narrowness of focus, surely Eagleton is right to say that writers have nothing to impart?
1960s counter-culture focused on civil rights, politics, freedom, the Vietnam war and, in later years, feminism. These issues combined to form a crucible in which a generation created a response to the society in which they found themselves. It was a highly literate response: writers, as well as musicians and artists, were at the forefront, starting with the Beat writers inspired by Jack Kerouac and including eclectic and eccentric individuals as varied as Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs, Ken Kesey et al. Bob Dylan wrote songs like poems. Rod McKuen wrote poems like songs. These artists said important things. They changed events.
Twenty-first century culture has changed. The imperatives are different. The environment has become a global issue (although Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from 1962, is arguably the wellspring of the movement). War remains, but otherwise our preoccupations are not the same as those of the sixties. We may be witnessing a clash of civilizations: certainly, many vested interests are trying to ensure we are, from the American Christian right to Osama Bin Laden. Religion, more than politics, is the faultline in society – from Islamic fundamentalism to neoconservative evangelism to the increasingly aggressive debate between Christians and atheists. Heated discussions are being held on these matters, ones which could change the way we live forever, but these discussions are being held in the provinces of philosophers and political commentators. While Huntington, Krauthammer and Nussbaum debate whether civilizational separatism, American hegemony or cosmopolitan utopianism is the best way to ensure global peace, while Dawkins and Cornwell argue over the validity of atheism, while Lovelock warns of the imminent demise of humankind because of environmental mismanagement of the planet, our literary writers appear trapped inside the heads of their characters. They are thinking small, they are obsessed with feelings and emotions, they appear unconcerned by the damage that is being wrought around them. It is the ultimate Oprahfication of our culture: solipsism is king and the narcissists are too busy comforting themselves to understand the dangers abroad. The question is: does this merely reflect society’s new preoccupations or are writers abdicating their responsibility to chronicle their times? What do we expect of, and need from, our writers?
Certainly, as society in general has changed, there has been a concomitant change in individuals’ outlooks. There is a marked pessimism which was not so apparent in the sixties. Those novels which do essay a broader perspective are notably gloomy: Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse, for example, chronicles the travails of a post-apocalyptic community, while Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is bleaker still, depicting a nightmare world where everything has been destroyed and the few, starving survivors are pitched in deadly combat for the remaining scraps of sustenance. It is hard not to see this strand of literature as a reaction to the fear instilled in the West, and in America in particular, since the events of 9/11.
The converse response, of course, is to look backwards, and this trend can be seen, too. It is clear that the sixties still hold an almost mesmeric influence over us. In the void where writers should be covering contemporary events, they are retreating to the past. Denis Johnson has recently published a new novel on the Vietnam War. Two high-profile books published in February 2008 deal with the sixties: Hari Kunzru’s Underground man and Zachary Lazar’s Sway. Even the venerable Tom Stoppard has turned back to the sixties with Rock’n’roll.
In the meantime, political debate continues unabated. In the American primaries, John McCain declared: “I will never surrender,” on the War on Terror, promising business as usual. President Obama began bravely with his words on Guantanamo, but we wait to see if he acts . In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, as Matthew Sharpe noted, ‘exercise of doubt was curtailed.’ Anyone who dared criticise was ‘thinking like terrorists.’ Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher and acute observer of modern political culture, suggests America is separated from the Real world by a ‘fantasmatic screen’, the result of which is that it is unable to empathise with the rest of the world or understand the impact its behaviour has on the world. Even eight years after 9/11, those who venture into the debate, like Martin Amis, are rounded on by critics on right and left.
How has this come about? Why is there not the strong, literary counter-culture that we saw in the sixties? Partly, it is that society has changed, become more insular, less communitarian. We have the rise of the blogosphere, where everyone is an instant cultural pundit and, it seems, the whole world is writing but no-one is reading. Protest, once the initiator of mass rallies and demonstrations, is now a solitary pursuit before a computer screen.
There is, too, as Zizek notes, a modern culture of tolerance. Liberals emphasise cultural differences, which cannot be overcome but must simply be ‘tolerated.’ The corollary is clear: there is no need for dissent, everything can be accommodated. In Zizek’s terms, we are living in a ‘post-political liberal project.’ The result of this, it may be argued, is a high degree of cynicism. This is not the same cynicism that fuelled the satirists of the sixties but a duller, blunted weariness which suggests that there is no point engaging with political debate because they’ll do what they want, anyway. Where, in the sixties, this disenchantment led to an outpouring of creative anger, in the twenty-first century it seems to breed nothing more constructive than resentment.
Satire is all but dead. Consider Michel Houellebecq, one of the primary controversialists of our age. In The Possibility of an island he attacks, amongst other targets, religion in general and Islam in particular. He invents a religious movement, the Elohimites, whose raison d’etre is to ensure eternal life. This could easily be seen as the literary offspring of Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokononism, the religion he created in Cat’s Cradle; but, if so, it is a bastardised, vulgarised child. Where Vonnegut’s novel had a warm, humanist underbelly, Houellebecq’s work is characterised by greed and narcissism and hate. Vonnegut, a survivor of the Dresden bombings, understood evil. In comparison, Houellebecq is like an excitable teenager, in thrall to it.
There is a danger, however, of painting the picture too simplistically, or of glorifying the sixties and calumniating the present day. Nothing is as straightforward as it seems. In remembering the heady liberalism of the sixties, we forget that it, too, had reactionary moments. These, as Rick Perlstein notes, have been all but airbrushed out of the history, but they happened. Equally, there is a danger of underestimating the potential power of all those bloggers quietly chronicling their impressions of the age. Their time may yet come.
What is undoubtedly missing, however, is the writer’s response. Despite Eagleton’s dismissive reproach, it is the role of the writer to reflect and to lead the cultural debate in a society. Retreating to the past or envisaging a dystopian future will not suffice. Writers must engage with the current day, with current fears and concerns. There is a rage in the world and, in the manner of Barthelme, writers should be countering it. They should be offering an alternative vision, the opportunity for debate, the prospect of choice. They should create excitement. As Vonnegut says, ‘ they should be – and biologically have to be – agents of change.’ Philip Roth wrote in 1961: ‘the actuality is continually outdoing our talents [as writers].’ He was wrong then, as a new generation of writers proved. He can still be wrong now, if writers take up the challenge