Response to Mitchelmore: The Guilt of Modernism

by Daniel Hartley

It is only after a third, close reading of Steve Mitchelmore’s recent essay (see yesterday’s post) that I have come to appreciate how profoundly interesting and problematic what he is saying really is. The best way to begin my response might be to recapitulate what I take to be his principal points.

Essentially, he is making a case against those who argue that recent ‘creative non-fiction’ (mainly war-reportage) is usurping contemporary fiction. First of all, he rejects the criteria by which new non-fiction is judged to be superior: excitement, intensity and cultural relevance. These factors already presuppose a definition of what literature is, does and should be with which he cannot concur. Mitchelmore points out that the likes of Dyer and Siegel are essentially after good old storytellers, someone who can tell a rip-roaring yarn about ‘the big stories of our time’ (9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan). These books may well irradiate an ‘existential urgency and intensity’, but, as Mitchelmore rightly argues, this is more a result of their subject matter and severely limited perspective than of any more profound self-probing. Ultimately, then, Dyer and Siegel may well be right on their own terms, but these very terms of debate mask the larger existential issues at stake.

At this point, he offers the alternative of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Because of the story’s structure, in which the governess’ letter intervenes between the narration and the events, ‘the plot…becomes the lucidity and obscurity of the governess’ experience. James uses the distance between the real words and the real world to create the ambiguity of the children’s innocence’. And here is where I find his essay takes its most impressive turn:

The complexity of this ambiguity may be easily correlated to the narration of writers embedded in an occupying army among the ghostly, recalcitrant servants of Afghanistan. The governess becomes the imperial force invading an alien land, seeing danger and evil everywhere except in itself. In fiction, however, the reader is astute enough to recognise the governess may not be reliable.

Henry James between light and shade

What he does here, though without using these terms, is to draw a parallel between traditional, non-self-conscious story-telling techniques, whereby the narrator simply gets on with telling it how it was, and empire. Or, to put it differently, between empire and empirical observation. That there is no apparent moral vision at work in such war reportage is, so Mitchelmore tells us, precisely the moral vision itself: ‘Their evasion is as necessary to the books as it is to the military action itself. In their forensic attention to detail and narrative drive, they match the military’s unflinching prosecution of executive orders’.

Far better, then, to follow the likes of James and Kafka. James, as Blanchot tells us in a fine phrase, was a master of ‘the art of stalking a secret which, as in so many of his books, the narration creates’. In other words, the very inner structures of these works tend towards a realm of absolute moral and existential ambiguity, a realm of which Mallarmé might be said to be the dubious guardian. It is a place (again, the phrasing is mine) of paradoxical identity of opposites: there where Kafka’s innocence was at its most absolute was precisely there where the shadow of his guilt was darkest. It is a place of ‘pure indeterminacy’, where the very act of writing itself casts its own shadow, and it is precisely this intense doubt that the likes of Dyer and Siegel have ignored and shunned at their peril.

Now, a simple way of summarising Mitchelmore’s view might be that ‘creative non-fiction’ isn’t as good as modernism. Judging from the examples he cites, it is clearly those texts (James, Kafka, Proust) which lend themselves to different types of self-referentiality that appeal to him. He reads this self-consciousness on the part of the text – one severely lacking in the new non-fiction – as the locus of whatever morality might still be possible today: not an absolute moral judgement, nor an ‘infinite meaninglessness’, but a ‘nagging ambiguity’.

by Francis Bacon

This is fine as far as it goes, but one can’t help but think that Mitchelmore’s determinedly modernist tastes are in themselves rather limiting. It is difficult to tell whether his argument is simply that non-fiction war reportage is incapable of this sort of ambiguity, or whether such ambiguity should be an aim for any fiction worth the name. In other words, is he offering a description of non-fiction or a prescription for fiction? If the former, then one is inclined to agree with him since it is merely an important and interesting observation; if the latter, then one would surely have to disagree and point out the complex origins of literary modernism and their being bound up with various historical pressures, such that to continue writing in such a way might be politically and morally dubious.

‘Point of view’ in the novel, for example, (of which James was perhaps the master), marks what Bachelard would have called a coupure épistemologique: the substitution of the unity of psychology for the unity of action. For Fredric Jameson, point of view ‘is something a little more than sheer technique and expresses the increasing atomization of our societies, in which the privileged meeting places of collective life and of the intertwining of collective destinies – the tavern, the marketplace, the high road, the court, the paseo, the cathedral, yes, and even the city itself – have decayed, and with them, the vital sources of the anecdote.’ The novel of ‘point of view’ is a literary expression of a historical problem (namely, bourgeois individualism, Weberian rationalisation, social atomization). If it enables James to edge towards a morality of absolute ambiguity, this is only because the form itself is already engaged in the politics and morality of a wider history. So, whilst Mitchelmore is quite right to suggest the inadequacies of the non-fiction war reportage, it must not be assumed that their rectification, especially their moral rectification, can be found in literary forms which are themselves in a sense already guilty.

In other words, unless we can achieve a more nuanced conceptualisation of the mediation between historical guilt, literary-formal guilt and existential guilt, we risk falling into the trap of subsuming all three beneath the same rubric and then passing it off as ‘human nature’.