Where's Mark Twain When We Need Him?
Monday has never been so hard. As we step into Nobel week, we Americans find ourselves scrambling to keep up in the most surprising areas. We knew that our economy, which used to be our ace, is in the tank. But the highest member of the Nobel Prize jury has now proclaimed us cultural Philistines. We're too insular and ignorant to produce great literature, says Horace Engdahl, whose name we'd never heard of before last Wednesday.
And, not only that, but Europe's nattering classes have been laughing outright at the podium vernacular of a certain Alaskan vice presidential candidate. We're crass, vulgar and dumb, they say. Hootenany navel-gazers. Incapable of making art, brokering the peace, even maintaining our vaunted prosperity. No matter what laurels will be handed to us in chemistry, physics, or medicine this week, we'll feel it where it hurts: in the cultural department. We're like the fool who's expected to pay for dinner, but whose conversation only draws sneers.
It set me to thinking of Mark Twain, who once wondered what we'd think of the French, if all we ever saw of them was the Can-Can.
So I picked up a book on Twain and read this in one of his letters: "I have never tried, in even one single little instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game -- the masses. I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but I have done my best to entertain them, for they can get instruction elsewhere."
It strikes me as apt wisdom for a Monday morning.
Does a great novelist strike out to instruct? Did Dickens and Dostoevsky and Balzac really think they were instructing when they were writing novels feverishly on deadline in serial installments? Perhaps great literature, particularly as perceived by "the cultivated classes," strives to do more than what Twain calls "entertain" -- other apt verbs might be "distract," "enlighten," "reflect," "fathom," or "imagine" -- but it can hardly strive to, as Engdahl put it: "participate in the big dialogue of literature." Which would mean what? Participate in dissent? Angst? Malaise? Abstraction? Perhaps that's exactly what he thinks. These are qualities the Nobel seems to honor.
My favorite authors never won the Nobel. Let me list a few here in no particular order: Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Anton Chekhov, Fernando Pessoa, Julio Cortazar, Milan Kundera, Isaac Babel, E.M. Forster, Machado de Assis, Leo Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Iris Murdoch, Marguerite Duras. And even a few Americans: Ralph Ellison, Flannery O'Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, Cormac McCarthy, Stanley Elkin, Don DeLillo, Marilynne Robinson, Robert Hass.
And, of course, Mark Twain.
As Twain once said: "On the whole, it is better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them." Watching the Nobel's track record in literature in these past years, I'd say there's a gaping ravine between the having and the deserving. Mr. Engdahl can keep his prize.
Let me know what you think.
-- Marie Arana
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