Sunday, October 23, 2005

Latin Conservatism

Michael Lennon: Are there any Latin American writers you are familiar with?
Norman Mailer: Well, I think Borges and Márquez are the two most important writers in the world today.
Lennon: Why Borges? In political terms he is a reactionary, is he not?
Mailer: Well, he is a conservative, but . . . I detest having to think of a writer by his politics first. It's like thinking of people by way of their anus.

(From Jeffrey Van Davis' documentary
Norman Mailer: The Sanction to Write
transcription excerpted in
Pieces & Pontifications, p. 157)

I don't know whether this is an elegant or crass analogy (writers are to their politics as people are to their anuses in the way we think of them). But I like it. I supply it, first of all, as a contribution to Jonathan Mayhew's discussion about the possible conservative function of literature as such.

Grammar was once taught by immersion in the literature of a culture; it included both the parts and the figures of speech, and prosody as well. It also included the whole range of canonical allusions and orthodox metaphors. Mastering a language was understood (that is, not, as today, misunderstood) as something that went well beyond the conjugation of verbs.

(Pangrammaticism, then, is remarkably conservative even about the concept of grammar.)

And grammar is also profoundly ambiguous about the progressive/conservative distinction. On the one hand, grammarians are famously conservative, preferring to stick with forms that are understood by the majority over allowing new forms that violate this understanding. On the other hand, nothing is more conservative (in the pejorative sense) than a language that is so vague and unruly that only platitudes can be articulated in it. Teaching people to be articulate, even by orthodox standards, makes them better able to engage with the power that governs through discourse. Turning it back around again, it may be argued that such people also become less likely to use this ability to challenge that power.

I think Borges' writing, like all good writing, conserves qualities of language that progressives will find useful in their political projects. By a similar token, linguistic progress can be very useful to conservatives. I think activists and reactionaries, however, who really (and, for their purposes, perhaps rightly) distrust language as a cultural force have very little use for literature, which occupies so much of our time with harmless chatter.

1 comment:

Raúl Alberto Lilloy said...

I write about borges in my blog.