Saturday, July 24, 2010

Uneasiness With Right-Wing Writers

The kid has been re-reading Jack London again.

Specifically, Call of the Wild and White Fang.

Call of the Wild has been one of her favorites since she stumbled upon it in her school library when she was six; White Fang she scarfed up a few years later.  Just a year ago, she located a fat book at the public library which had, along with Call of the Wild, about fifteen short stories by Jack London.

Well, you know, I'm not opposed to this, exactly.  I mean, it's not like she's reading Atlas Shrugged, is it?  Or Orson Scott Card?  How much harm can a little violence porn/Social Darwinism actually do?  I read them when I was a kid and I'm (mostly) okay...

When she was six I said nothing.

When she was ten, she had to do a report on an author for school.  She had been re-reading Call of Wild at that point too, and beginning to notice London wasn't exactly accurate on wolf or dog behavior.  WTF, she asked, though not exactly in that language.  I explained a bit about what London was up to.  I explained a bit about Social Darwinism.  Racism, I said.  Politics of the time he lived in, I explained.  Eugenics movement, I explained.  Not the brightest man who ever walked the earth, I explained, although clearly....

Moo, she said, which has evolved to be our code word for when she has had enough of this particular lecture, Professor Mama, please.

So when it came time to do a report on some author, I ever so casually suggested, hey, why not do Jack London?  Then I fiendishly found a couple of excellent (leftist, or as leftist as were available in Pork Smith, Arkansas) kid's biographies for her.

Then I did my best to drop hints while she was writing the report: "Did you read this part in the book?" I would ask.  "Did you see this section?  What do you think this means?"

So she's reading the books and stories again.  And she's asking me questions.  

One of the questions she's asked twice now:  "Is it okay for me to read Jack London even though he believes racist things?  Even though he's writing about eugenics and Social Darwinism?"

"Yeah," I tell her.  "Yeah, you can read him.  You should read him, in fact.  You need to know what he's saying.  But you shouldn't forget what he's trying to do to you.  And you shouldn't forget he's wrong."

After a moment, she says, "He's wrong about wolves.  That part really bothers me.  Wolves don't act that way."

"Well, what does that tell you?  If he'll misrepresent those facts, what does that mean?"

"Maybe he thought that was how wolves acted.  Maybe they didn't know any better back then."

"Maybe.  He misrepresents how dogs act too, though, you said.  Right?"

She frowns.

"Which he's doing to make his points about Social Darwinism and Eugenics and which race is superior and how breeding between the races is doomed.  He's ignoring facts to score his points," I said.  "That's what it should tell you.  So, well.  You can read the books because they're fun.  Just don't forget they're also lies."

Which, well, that's the harm of all porn, I guess: it's based on lies, in order to promulgate some whacked theory, some alternate reality its creator wants to exist.  And if he can get enough people to believe it with him -- as the Social Darwinist/Eugenics people did for awhile, as these Teabaggers are doing now -- well, you've got trouble.


Bardiac said...

Sidney (I think it was Sidney) said literature was lying to tell the truth. London thought he was telling the truth. :(

I love that you talk to your daughter this way about literature. I wish every kid had people talking to them like you do about all sorts of things!

(I haven't read London since I was about your daughter's age, and didn't realize he was racist and into eugenics and such. Ugh.)

delagar said...

"London thought he was telling the truth" <-- Yes! That's what I was trying to get at, I think. That's the real danger, even more than that they're misrepresenting reality. Writers who write this way, take reality and distort it, as Ayn Rand did, as OSC is doing in his fiction now, as London did, are most dangerous when they think they're telling the truth. OSC, I think, for instance, believes (really believes) he has God's sanction to write what he has writing. Well, that makes it okay to warp whatever data into whatever shape he wants to, in order to create the world as he thinks (God thinks) it should be.

delagar said...

Though Sidney was right, of course. All writers do lie to tell the truth. But you can't lie about reality. You can't misrepresent the way the world actually works. When it comes to the way wolves act, for instance, and women and men, the way a six year old will act when separated from its mother, the nature of the heart, these are the things the artist is called to tell the truth about: not what some political agenda or religious agenda or any other agenda wants to be the truth.

Vance Maverick said...

Some people would say that there's a kind of message that isn't suitable for literature -- that London erred aesthetically by trying to persuade the reader of any sort of propositions, as well as intellectually or politically in the propositions he tried to put across. In fact, I used to say that myself, but now I think it's evasive.

Gray's Elegy (see Empson) aims to convince the reader that we must resign ourselves to the inequalities and hierarchies of society. If we like the poem otherwise but don't agree with this message, we can decide (a) that it's a bad poem, (b) that it's a good poem despite bearing a message, or (c) that it's good despite bearing the wrong message. These days I'm on (c) for Gray -- with London I'd probably make a different judgment.

Have you read Martin Eden? The protagonist of Per Petterson's In the Wake, an ex-lefty, calls it his favorite. (Writing lefty under the sign of Hamsun might do things to your sense of literature and politics.)