There’s a thought-provoking response at Arabic Literature (in English) to Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (or, more precisely, to an excerpt from this book recently posted at the Guardian). On the general question of how fiction influences us, an interesting site to explore is OnFiction, where you will found a range of posts, articles, and academic papers on research into fiction’s psychological, social, and emotional effects. The post at ALiE raises questions specifically about whether “reading Arabic literature in translation” will make someone a better person. This made me think about my own motives for (and responses to) some of the reading I have done over the past few years, one aspect of which I explored in a 2009 post about Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil. It would be nice if it were as simple as knowing that reading was morally improving, but as the post at ALiE makes clear, it’s important not to be complacent about this idea. On the other hand, in the same essay by Anthony Appiah from which I took the phrase “moral tourism” there are also some comments that ring true about the value of reading novels that stretch our attention and our empathy into less familiar territory:
What is necessary to read novels across gaps of space, time, and experience is the capacity to follow a narrative and conjure a world: and that, it turns out, there are people everywhere more than willing to do. . . . For we do learn something about humanity in responding to the worlds people conjure with words in the narrative framework of the novel: we learn about the extraordinary diversity of human responses to our world and the myriad points of intersection of those various responses.
I recently finished reading Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil. It is a remarkable novel, equal parts beauty and brutality; as its parts accumulate it does an elegant job of evoking through its literary form some of its central motifs and symbols, such as the images gradually revealed, restored, or repaired from the walls of the house decorated originally to celebrate all the delights of the senses. The fallen Buddha that bleeds gold when assaulted by the Taliban’s bullets, the lingering fragrance from the perfume factory, the books nailed to the ceiling and gradually reclaimed but irreparably scarred, the canoe that becomes an unlikely symbol for a desirable but tragically impossible collaboration–the novel is full of rich but delicate details that can make you catch your breath with their unexpected eloquence about the damage, tangible and intangible, inflicted by the conflicts that generate its plot. It is a novel, too, that hums with nuance and yet somehow refuses to judge those on whom such ambiguities are lost: many of its characters themselves hold to intractable, unforgiving, unforgivable absolutes, but the novel often seems to be asking us how they could have done otherwise, with the result that the tragedy of the novel (and it is extraordinarily, lyrically tragic throughout) feels inevitable, which is the saddest thing of all. Like Bel Canto, though also very differently, The Wasted Vigil holds up against brutality an ideal of aesthetic, rather than political, commitment; in fact, at times it seems as if the greatest evil of the Taliban is less their physical violence (which many other factions in the novel are also shown to be capable of, after all) but their violence towards art and the beautiful. When we see a glimmer of hope, it comes from quiet moments of aesthetic appreciation; violence is, ultimately, vandalism.
I was moved and impressed by this novel. But I also became uneasy about it in ways that I did not feel uneasy about Bel Canto, I think because Aslam’s novel is much more directly intervening in our discourse about particular historical and political events. It is at times an exceptionally, horribly, violent novel, but my unease was not queasiness about the violence as such but rather about the kind of aesthetic experience the novel itself was offering me (including through that violence) and how my pleasure in the novel as a whole thus reflects on me as a reader. What does it mean to enjoy, or at any rate to appreciate aesthetically, a novel in which a captive soldier is literally pulled to pieces as sport, a wife is forced to amputate her husband’s hand, a young man’s eye is burned with a blow torch, a suicide bomb is detonated next to a school?
Puzzling over this question made me think more generally about the purpose of such a book and about my own purposes in seeking it out. The aesthetics-of-suffering issue is not uncommon (Holocaust literature seems the obvious example) and has certainly been analyzed and theorized–I’ve looked into this a little as part of preparation for teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night, for instance. There’s something a bit different about the recent wave of high-profile titles about the Middle East or the Arab or Islamic world, though, including Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul and The Attack, to name a very few–and that’s not even touching on the many non-fiction titles, from memoirs to histories to political analyses.
It’s possible, of course, that what seems like a trend is actually just the result of my taking note of them as the circle of my own reading interests becomes less parochial, but my sense is that what has happened is that since 9/11, not only is the so-called “clash of civilizations” big news, but there is an interest, an appetite, among western literary audiences for stories that help them see different perspectives on current and historical events in a part of the world which, previously, they might have considered only glancingly, or with the reductive and limited insights available from following headlines and TV reports. The back cover of The Wasted Vigil quotes a reviewer suggesting as much–Peter Parker of The Sunday Times says that the novel “reminds us that fiction can do things that mere reportage can’t.”
One of the purposes of such novels, then, or at any rate one of their uses or effects, is revelation, maybe even instruction or pedagogy. That’s certainly one of the reasons I have been reading them: to the hoped-for satisfaction of a rewarding literary experience I can add the desire to learn more about these worlds that seem so other, to be in my reading life a better-informed citizen of the world and then perhaps, as a result, also to be a better-informed participant in real-world events–though I think there is also the temptation, the risk, to feel as if reading about, say, Afghanistan, is an actual substitute for trying to do anything about Afghanistan (would the money I spent on A Thousand Splendid Suns have been better spent as a donation to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan?). But if reading leads to understanding, especially appreciation for nuance and complexity, isn’t reading a kind of doing? Isn’t it a good thing to do? And wouldn’t the world be a better place if more people (former world leaders, even) perhaps read such novels?
And yet at the same time, fiction is not (quite) fact; anecdote, especially imagined anecdote, is not a reliable substitute for aggregate data and rigorous contextualization; impressions, however beautiful, are not analysis; and, finally, contemplation is not action, and actions must sometimes be reductive–nuance and complexity are, perhaps, luxuries permitted to those who need not make decisions. In Saturday, Ian McEwan actually makes a similar point about ambivalence, depicting it (or so I read the novel) as a luxury, even a self-indulgence, when decisive action is required; in the more theoretical realm, Geoffrey Harpham notes that “without action, ethics is condemned to dithering,” and perhaps novels feel ethically more satisfactory sometimes than real life precisely because they need not take a singular position. Ethical critics have often pointed to this “negative capability” as a strength of the novel form, but it is also a crucial aspect of its artifice.
While I was thinking these things I came across an phrase in an essay by K. Anthony Appiah that struck me as suggestive in this context. In the essay, “Cosmopolitan Reading,” Appiah is discussing Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions; he is thinking about the question of the novel’s implied audience, “the ‘you’ addressed in the first paragraph of the novel”:
The usual answer, of course, is that the postcolonial African novel is addressed to a Western reader. Here, that is, according to the usual narrative, is a safari moment: an Africa constructed exactly for the moral tourist.
Appiah goes on to argue against reading Nervous Conditions in this way, but my interest is in the model he outlines of literature as a kind of “safari,” “constructed … for the moral tourist,” which seems at some level an apt characterization of the experience of reading something like A Thousand Splendid Suns or The Wasted Vigil (though the specific experience offered by each is, of course, quite different). I hear Appiah’s tone here as dismissive of that “moral tourist,” the reader seeking only an exotic experience, like a “safari,” rather than … I’m not sure what, actually. Is the alternative to being a “tourist” somehow “going native”? Is that any less problematic? Perhaps it is the author addressing the “Western reader” who is being faulted for offering up marketable, consumable, safe (fenced?) stories to suit the tourist’s taste. In her talk on representations of Arabs in western literature, Ahdaf Soueif points to some versions of this effect in recent novels; I’ve read some commentaries that object to the western fixation on veiling or stories of women’s oppression along similar lines. And yet … shouldn’t the story of women’s suffering be known, even if their victimization is not the whole story? Isn’t there something more substantial than “tourism,” than gawking, involved in seeking to know it? And, to come back to my opening comments on The Wasted Vigil, isn’t the aesthetic experience itself a kind of response, however inadequate, to the denial of their humanity?
[originally posted July 26, 2009]