Political Extremism and Literary Classics

Spacey, Lemon in “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Do an author’s extremist political views diminish his or her work? The question arose for me last year when I read a Slate interview with rightwing playwright David Mamet, and I found myself addressing it again this week when I learned about the Tea Party views of Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday. Back in 2005 when Harold Pinter won the Nobel prize, I choked when I learned about his extreme leftwing opinions.

The conventional answer to my question is no, the author’s work is wiser than he or she is. I think there’s a lot of truth in this. But in the case of Mamet and Bradbury, learning about their politics has crystallized for me reservations I have always had about their work. (I’ll leave Pinter for another day when I’ve had a chance to familiarize myself with his plays.)

When I first read Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, I felt my head explode.  The play is about testosterone-driven realtors who would cut their grandmother’s throat to make a sale, and I had never seen the f-word thrown around so powerfully. Mamet has a kind of genius in the way that he is able to capture the rhythms of office obscenities.

Mamet loves going for the gut in his politics as well. That’s why his favorite politicians are not those who engage in the often tedious act of governing but . . . Sarah Palin. Here’s what he said about Obama and Palin in an interview last year. I assume that I don’t need to add that his comments about Obama, although common Fox News talking points, have all been debunked:

What does he think of Barack Obama? “The question is can he run on his record in 2012 and the answer is no, because it’s abysmal. He took a trillion dollars and where it went, nobody knows. He dismantled health care, he weakened America around the world, he sold out the state of Israel. All he’s got to run on is being a Democrat and indicting the other fellow.”

So who would he prefer as president? He replies that he is “not current” with the Republican contenders until I mention Sarah Palin. “I am crazy about her,” he answers immediately. “Would she make a good candidate for president? I don’t know but she seems to have succeeded at everything she put her hand to.”

Palin has a knack for making guys feel virile, and in his plays Mamet is very good at plugging into and dramatizing male fears of emasculation. He therefore gives us a very powerful window into the frightened white male psyche, which has become a key force in contemporary American politics. His political comments show that he does not merely record those anxieties but experiences them himself.

What is missing from Mamet is any mention of love or kindness. He creates a landscape where nothing healthy can grow, where there are only volcanic eruptions of fear. He does a good job of describing a psychic prison but gives no sense that there is a world beyond that prison. Therefore, although I was initially impressed by Glengarry Glen Ross, I have come to see it as shallow and sterile venting.

I find this even truer of Oleanna, which my student Jonathan Abrams produced this past year. A pretentious and self-absorbed professor is taken for a ride by a student who claims he harassed her, and while I didn’t mind Mamet’s satire on professors—people in my profession can indeed be too full of themselves—I found myself violently reacting against the play’s handling of gender. I saw Oleanna as a misogynist scream.

Nor does Oleanna understand how sexual harassment cases work in this country. As a former department chair, I know there have to be multiple complaints and warnings before action is taken against someone.

Marx once wrote that he learned more about capitalism by reading the novels of the royalist Balzac than he did by reading economists, and I could see a similar case made for Mamet.  If you want to understand irrational Obama hatred, read Mamet as he taps into the id of a certain American demographic. But if you want to understand people when they are not in the grip of fear, look elsewhere. And you really don’t want someone like Mamet guiding the government.

Same with Ray Bradbury, whose Fahrenheit 451 was read by liberals in 1953 as an attack on Joseph McCarthy’s censorship. So what are we to make of the fact that, in his last years, Bradbury sounded like a card-carrying member of the Tea Party. Here is Slate’s Dave Weigel:

“President Reagan was our greatest president. He lowered the taxes and he gave the money back to the people,” Bradbury told a Comic-Con panel in 2010. “The next election, [the] November [2010 midterms], and two years from now, we’ll take the government back and give it to the people.”

At one point or another, Bradbury called former NRA president Charlton Heston an “intellectual,” and Bill Clinton a “shithead,” and Michael Moore a “screwed a–hole.” Shortly before 9/11, he said President Bush was “wonderful” and that the country “needed him.”

Prior to the 2010 midterms he even used the inflammatory language of the Tea Party in calling for a new American revolution. “I hope that sometime this fall, we can destroy part of our government, and next year destroy even more of it,” Bradbury said in one of his final interviews with Time magazine.

Learning about Brandbury’s politics validates qualms I have always had with Fahrenheit 451. Even as a college student I thought it was simplistic and paranoid. It lumped all the literary canon together without any regard for particular content, turning capital-L Literature into a shrine to be worshipped rather than a living engagement with readers. Just as Bardolatry does a disservice to Shakespeare, prompting thousands of high school students to hate him every year, so does putting classics on a pedestal suck the blood out of them. Literature is meant to speak to readers, and to deify is to reify–which means turning living relations into things.

In short, Fahrenheit 451 is not about literature but about paranoia, and leftwing paranoia can easily morph into rightwing paranoia. So if Bradbury indulged in superficial apocalyptic rants in his old age—well, he had been doing so as a young man as well.

Best selling authors are good at tapping into the nation’s psyche. To be great, however, they must be more than reactive.  They must give us a vision of the three-dimensional people that we can grow into. Just as the politics of Mamet and Bradbury won’t turn us into a big-hearted nation, so their works don’t move us past our fears.

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  • Sue

    Good post. It makes me think that great works of literature, like masterpieces of art, have a certain completeness to them. Not only technique and theme, but something deeper. Lesser writers may do something well, and we can learn from them about parts of the human condition, perhaps they may even help us over a certain problem, but the truly great literature goes beneath, or beyond, to touch at the core of humanness. And I believe that what truly touches us has to be infused with hope, because we yearn for hope. To believe in the possibility of moving forward is what makes us more human, and allows us to participate in divine re-creation of our world. We see ourselves and those around us for who we are, but also who we were meant to be. In that sense, I think the best literature encourages us – gives us courage – to imagine the world a better place, and show us steps forward.

  • Good Morning Mr. Bates,

    Love this post, full of great information. I love how you put on the flood lights to see.
    Hope your day is well… Thanks, much appreciated…

  • Carl Rosin

    Enjoyed this post and Sue’s comment. This is exactly why I’m not a fan of biography-based criticism, which blurs the art and the artist (I suppose some would say that it reveals more of the artist, clarifying the work with intent). I don’t care what the artist was thinking except to the extent that it ends up on the page; for example, I was pleased to know that Twain and his wife were not racists, but that is not what makes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an anti-racist book. Your New Critic-style maxim about the wisdom of the work resonates with me.

    I do find genetic criticism enlightening; what is your take on that?

  • Robin Bates

    I don’t think one should ever reduce a work to biography, Carl. It may be, in the case of Mamet, that even though he himself has narrow views, he is able to get a kind of objective distance on them in the process of writing the play, in which case he is to be applauded for giving us a dispassionate and accurate vision of those views and their consequences, which I think he arguably does in Glengarry Glen Ross. (I’m less sure that he succeeds in Oleanna.) And of course, by taking the male melodrama form, he plugs into some of the wisdom of the genre. So I don’t want to dismiss biography altogether but, you’re right, it can get used as a kind of ad hominem attack if one is not careful. In defense of biographical criticism, I posted a while back on a Robert Scholes book that argues that biography can be used to engage students with a work and that we miss out on an important resource when we ignore it altogether. How would you, an award-winning teacher, respond to that?

    I’m embarrassed to say that I know little about genetic criticism, which encourages us to look at the process by which a work came into being. Insofar as I see works as emerging out of a dialogue between author and reader, I imagine I would be open to aspects of it. But I think there are leaps of genius which can’t be tracked. I try to be humble with whichever approach to literature I take: I know that the literature is always bigger than the theories that try to determine its significance.

  • Rachel Kranz

    SO sorry to find out that Ray Bradbury, whom I’ve gotten so much from over the years, turned into such a right-winger–and, from the sound of it, such an un-thoughtful one.

    I have a somewhat different perspective on biographical criticism, and I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m a writer who aspires to produce literature or for some other reason (is that AUTO-biographical criticism? 😉 ). I do agree whole-heartedly that what matters is what’s on the page–for good or ill. You can want to be anti-racist, for example, and still produce a racist book–a possibility that haunts me as I write about race. But you should be judged not by what you thought you were doing, but by what you actually did. That’s what makes writing so scary, at least for me. You can’t just have an idea–you have to actually be up to the job of expressing it. And in a world where many ideas are difficult to fully express–where the gravitational power of race and gender and class and capital and received wisdom and popular culture “make” us think in certain ways that are hard to see past and even harder to transcend–it’s hard to know how to write something true that gets us past those “manacles of the mind” (that has to be a quote from someone, but I”m not sure whom).

    BUT, having said that, I also think that knowing what a writer was trying to do, or thought he/she was trying to do, and then seeing where he/she fell short or did something different can be very useful. And knowing what experiences shaped the author, and therefore the work, also seems illuminating. I find it fascinating, for example, that Harriet Beecher Stowe received significant criticism from Black intellectuals for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” especially for her views on colonization (that Black people should go back to Africa, since they could never be fully participatory U.S. citizens). She took those criticisms to heart and produced “Dred,” about a Nat Turner-style revolutionary. I like reading “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as part of her engagement with an issue, rather than seeing it as a fixed work, just as I like seeing Jane Austen struggle with marriage and women’s options throughout her canon, or as I like seeing Ibsen wrestle with the virtues of truth (say, in “Ghosts”) versus the virtues of illusion (say, in “The Wild Duck”). I don’t know if that’s just something I like because I am an author, or if it’s genuinely useful as criticism, but I’ve always felt that it was useful, especially for writers who are writing from an oppositional or minority viewpoint (e.g., women) and struggling to make space for their own stories or visions in forms and plots that often work to suppress them. Seeing what they attempted, where they failed, where they succeeded, seems useful as a dynamic, rather than reifying a work as standing apart from the people and the society who created it–even though that other view is ALSO true.

    Of course, the author is not an authority on his/her own work–I certainly am not on mine! But knowing what the author wanted to do and what influences perhaps shaped him/her still seems relevant to me.

  • Robin Bates

    Jonathan Wagner, the student I mention who directed an inspired version of Oleanna, saw this post and wrote me an e-mail message, which he said I could run in the comments section. Jonathan won one of our major English awards this year this year and is one of those dream students who is throws himself fully into every class and every project (including the Master of Ceremonies in our college’s production of Cabaret, where he stole the show). Luckily for us all, he is planning on becoming a high school teacher and will be earning his M.A.T. this coming fall.

    I have been using the morning to do some typical internet perusing (as I rarely get a chance to during the school year) and (of course) made a stop by your blog. I wanted to say – great post on Mamet and Oleanna. I think your ideas about Mamet’s political gestures and evidence are dead on, and think that there is a clear reflection of his political ignorance reflected in the lines of some of his more recent pays (everything past 1990, including the 1992 Oleanna).

    The other illusion that your could have mentioned is that Mamet’s ignorance stems (I think) less from a pure-blooded political right-winged extremist agenda and more from a deep paranoia: perhaps one akin to Bradbury’s. Don’t get me wrong–the manifestation of his ideas is definitely extremist and far beyond most conservative political venting than I have ever heard. This issue (often overlooked by people viewing Mamet) is that he isn’t an uninformed redneck camping up in Vermont spewing misinformed political anger; Mamet is a pretty smart guy. In effect this makes his misguided extreme conservatism even worse – he is informed enough to have a well-rounded opinion but chooses not to.

    So the question really becomes what in the world he is thinking that leads to these ideas. That is why I point to paranoia. You talk about how “what is missing from Mamet is any mention of love or kindness. He creates a landscape where nothing healthy can grow, where there are only volcanic eruptions of fear” – true. However, the further question is does that mean that Mamet is lacking love and kindness (which all roads seem to say that he is). I would look, however, to Mamet’s construction of the American dream for why this happens in his plays (a topic I couldn’t stop talking about in my SMP). Mamet feels that our country was born and raised on the idea that you work hard, provide for your family, find autonomy and independence, and continue to work hard to climb the ladder and win. The issue with this, as described by Mamet in the 80’s, is that it breeds a battleground where in order to succeed you need to push other people down: Mamet says the only way towards success is through other people’s failure. If that doesn’t describe Glengarry, nothing does.

    Perhaps the real brain death for Mamet, and also the real element that is missing (rather than love or kindness), is an awareness that people can be happy by supporting themselves and others. It seems that Mamet has prescribed to a Walter E. Williams philosophy of success through greed for a bit too long to realize that happiness isn’t dependent on victory, nor is it on success.

    So what does this do in the literature? I would argue that Glengarry and Oleanna are slightly less comparable than what you are asserting – primarily because Glengarry was written at a time (if I have my facts straight) when Mamet was a bit closer to a liberal agenda. Mamet wrote Glengarry trying to say that this kind of manipulation and fighting to get ahead is what is wrong with America. I think when he looks back now he would say that that is what we need to return to. Not so true, Mamet.

    By Oleanna, Mamet has settled into more of the conservative agenda we identify today. Certainly this shows in the misogyny, ignorance of sexual harassment processes and accusations for the sake of dramatic effect, and other elements (all of which I tried to combat with what I hope was good directing and an oppositional directorial concept in my production).

    Something happens to Mamet’s writing around 1988. His earlier work is a bit more alive for me – with Speed-the-plow Mamet starts to get more… cognitive and confusing. He gets in this own way. By 1995 with The Crytogram he is incoherent and dull, and somehow manages in the present (with more contemporary work like Race) to be confused yet still remarkably potent. The issue is that while a play like Race is sharp and aggressive, it still lacks the effortless power of something like American Buffalo or Glengarry. I am not sure if it is the politics or the writing, but Mamet after 1990 is not the same Mamet.

    I, of course, would argue that Oleanna is at least intelligent and deep enough to overcome this problem, and is despite its political issues a very well written play. But then again… I have a sort of attachment to it you could say after a certain number of hours in Montgomery Hall crying over the work on it!


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