Friday, 13 June 2008

Didactic Prophylactic

New Canadian Rawi Hage has just won the Big One of literary prizes, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, bringing the quondam cabbie a paltry C$160,000. Nothing to sneeze at, perhaps, but nothing to swoon over either. Literature, thy name is parsimony. 
      As usual the award for DeNiro's Game comes with a pile of verbiage about the novel's meaning, i.e., its uplift and politically correct message, in this case the provocative insight that war is bad. According to the author now turned oracle, borders are also bad. He claims to be someone "evolving into 'a creature who loathed borders.'" What a prize fiction we have here! When he fled faith-riven Lebanon way back when, I dare say he was nothing loth to cross that border into the U.S.A. and all it stood for: life, liberty and the separation of church and state. Get real, Mr. Hage!
       None of the literary awards pay much attention to the area of style, that is to say, art. Art, which by definition transcends politics, has always been suspect in the eyes of "progressives." Hage invoked Joyce at his acceptance, with a nod to the award's locale. On another level the reference seems a bit incongruous, given that Joyce was the consummate artist whose works were routinely attacked for being "about nothing." (Needless to say, Joyce remains scandalously undertaught in today's universities. I think it was Vidal (or was it his formalist alter ego Nabakov?) who liked to remind us that literature is the only art taught in university. In my four-plus-some years at SFU not a single instructor offered so much as a classroom aside -let alone a credited course- on Ulysses. You know, Ulysses, once extolled as the "richest example of fiction in history." But not extolled, not even read at SFU where making a virtue of one's ignorance was and likely still is the only art on offer, and where I can bet DeNiro's Game is already making its way onto some earnest boob's politically correct syllabus.) As in the Nobel prize, what you are saying trumps how you say it every time. "Sometimes beautifully written" is as far as the award went in praising the man's style. The question arises, what about the other times? Given that English is his third language we may infer that the man is hardly another Joyce, or another Conrad for that matter. which our staid and stalwart dons doubtlessly find most reassuring.
      No, politically correct, "civilizationally exhausted" (Steyn) Europe doesn't have much regard for style and form these days. Increasingly they look to immigrants to tell their story for them and to them, a story that is simple and reassuringly inoffensive. In Europe, as increasingly in Canada, "moral" equals "safe." War is bad, borders are bad and what does it matter if the writing is bad, too? Long before it stopped producing children Europe stopped producing works of art. Great art always implies a great tradition in which to root itself. That is why almost without exception all the first tier artists, the ones signalized in Leavis's "Great Tradition" have been conservative in temperament and tenor. When we lost those roots, we lost the capacity to flourish, to flower. The immigrant can sire our citizens for us, but when it comes to fathering works of the imagination he, too, prefers the safe.

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