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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