On the need for heroes

Hugh Iglarsh reflects here upon the damaged literary careers of two iconic American novelists, Herman Melville and Nelson Algren, novelists who outlived their careers as novelists. They had enduring literary after-lives because they had lost the faith they once had in a reasonable and democratic public, a living institution capable of reasoned deliberation and rational action. They had, in a word, lost the audience they expected and needed to have. They replaced their putatively rational faith in a democratic public with personal resignation and bitterness. The world they contested proved stronger than their imaginations and wills.

Iglarsh, having identified the personal costs of their resignation and bitterness, concludes by asking:

How can we prevent such tragedies in the future? One thing that’s certain is that good writers require good readers. And to be a good reader in America today — or a functioning citizen — calls for more commitment than one might expect. It means arming oneself against the hype machine and being willing to take chances, to wander freely, and to cultivate qualities of attention, discrimination and engagement that are not rewarded or encouraged by the larger culture. It means an ability to slow down, listen, absorb, reflect — basic concentration skills endangered in a world ruled by speed and sensory overload.

When Melville and Algren quit writing novels, they were giving up on not only their chief art form, but also their concept of democracy — as a living public consciousness that could be moved to indignation and action. The best way to vindicate and honor these artists and the vision they stood for is to become the kind of reader that they deserve.

In my reading of his essay, Iglash tells us that America is not in need of heroic and brilliant novelists as much as it is in need of an educated, critical and reflective public capable of rational collective action. The audience, he suggests, helps to make the writer great by enabling him or her, by providing a writer with readers equipped to learn and act on what they learned through their engagement with writer. On the one hand, a democratic public would sponsor critical writers like Melville and Algren; a manipulated and passive public, such as we have today and have had for generations, would enable Hollywood to produce mindless epics, cable news to obsess over Anthony Weiner’s penis and Casey Anthony’s psychopathy and a news media that willingly affirms governmental power. Bertolt Brecht addressed this matter when he had a disgraced Galileo defend his public recantation by pointing out that “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” The very social and political need for a hero, Brecht suggests, makes the appearance of such a person unlikely and, when he or she happens to appear, a target for the cynics and grifters he or she confronts. Their short-term social function seems limited to bearing the stigma of their failure — losers according to Iglarsh appreciation of Algren’s shame.

They are, then, the Miner’s Canaries for a public sphere that is not wholly democratic or wholly manipulated. Their death is a mere sign of our collective incapacity and of our shame.

This post also appears on Fire Dog Lake

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