I am an over-the-hill American bureaucrat living in Germany. I spend most of my time working, raising kids, washing the dishes, learning how to live as a foreign guest among Germans, that sort of thing. I also make time for trail running occasionally. Like the billion other people in the developed world, I am rich. Nice people come take my trash away every week, and my kids bathe in clear, drinking-quality water. Personal relations are good too. I find that I love my wife more each year, a stroke of the best kind of luck one can have. The whole setup is deeply, immensely pleasurable. I could just sit back and take it all in.
But, for reasons I do not fully understand, I also need to write. I wake up at four o’clock in the morning to do it. I am nagged by certain failures of the human spirit–religion, war, politics–and entranced by certain tools for improving our lot–reason, imagination, better politics–and these irritations find a natural outlet in writing. I also feel a debt to the authors of the books I have read. Their art has cost them something dear, paid out in discipline. I am drawn to some of their ideas like lights; I shudder at others. This blog is my attempt to discharge my debt to them for helping locate humanity on the map of the cosmos. Even for the best, the job is one of trial and error.
I do not have a religion, but I have an ideology. I believe in the power of the novel to ennoble the individual human life. I stole this idea from Milan Kundera, one of my favorite authors. Kundera believes the novel, by putting existential mysteries in the context of social change, is the best medium we have through which to meditate on life’s meaning. From Don Quixote onward, the novel shows us ourselves. This proposition is what this blog will defend. Although I will also write about poetry, psychology, history, philosophy, politics, and in a very limited way, natural science, the novel is what you will find in the Ark of my Covenant.
It was the third time I read George Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens” that I discovered, to my great satisfaction, what I was in my heart: a failed literary critic. Discussing Dickens, Orwell so strongly evinced passions and idiosycracies that I felt stirring in my own life, and well worth having–, mainly the idea that one could deepen one’s self-respect through literature–that I decided to follow Orwell as best I could despite my life being half over.
What gripped me about Orwell’s treatment of Dickens? Why did I feel I wanted to make his way of being a critic my own? The first impression Orwell gives in the essay is of deep devotion to all of English literature. He shows he has taken the time to master a vastly prolific author whose work matters only tangentially to his own. How much more closely he must have read the hundred other authors closer to his ideas! I wanted to be like this. I wanted to read far beyond the handful of authors–Kundera, Wittgenstein, Kafka, Pamuk–who fixed my attention and staked out my worldview.
Second, Orwell showed great generosity, which seemed well worth copying. As a radical leftist, Orwell could have simply cut short his musings on Dickens after establishing he was a blind traditionalist and a mere caricaturist of the burgeois. But ignoring the ideological divide, Orwell homed straight in on what really mattered in Dickens: the call to widen the human moral imagination. Dickens may have never proposed a concrete solution to a single social problem (a failure Orwell points out), but he did teach the reader to pity social “types” that were once considered nuisances–orphans, the ignorant, the working poor. The sentimental education Dickens offers is one that is capable of reframing the reader’s entire moral outlook and sense of obligation to others. For Orwell, this was potentially the first step in a welcome revolution, the ability to take the individual consequences of our collective economic behavior morally seriously. A more shuttered mind than Orwell’s would have simply stopped reading Dickens at the first signs of burgeois sentimentality.
Finally, Orwell showed that it was possible to be a literary critic in one’s spare time. As a starving journalist and occasionally militant socialist radical, Orwell was occupied most of the time traveling, meeting deadlines, protesting against authoritarianism, and, I presume, tending to his meager bank account, even if just to deposit the small checks he earned. These considerations in mind, it is credible to think that Orwell had little time left for reading and reviewing novels after his primary work was done and pecuniary needs attended to. “Charles Dickens” is a monument to the depth of analysis a literary mind can achieve on the side. Read it twice and see if you are not hooked.
Since I have no choice but to hold down my day job, this last point was a great salve to me. My work is very comfortable, and I would not wish to give it up to try to scratch a living out of writing. I think the experience would quickly sour, and it could even endanger my desire to write altogether. But since I don’t want money from writing, the compromise I make is a happy one: I do my job, but I also have my life, which I refuse to surrender to the creeping poison of TV or other kinds of lethal mush. I am a “failed” literary critic only in the sense that I discovered the passion too late in life to try to earn a living at it. But what I get to keep is well worth the effort of scribbling the occasional essay at four o’clock in the morning: the idea my own life–brief, scattershot, already full of experience as it is–can be made more worthy of self-respect through disciplined attention to the written word.