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Politics in Literature:
Word and Deed

by Don Webb

“Politics in a novel is like a pistol shot in a concert.” — Stendhal

It’s obvious what Stendhal was talking about: political moralizing or propaganda. Why is it so discordant in fiction? The reason is simple: politics is very “here and now,” hence Tip O’Neill’s famous adage: “All politics is local.” And Stendhal’s caution is summed up in the Valley Girl dismissal of styles: “That’s so fifteen minutes ago.”

Who knows today what the 19th-century American political slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight” meant? Who cares? Any writer who refers to it will have to explain in some way what it meant or leave the readers mystified.

Politics becomes quaint sooner rather than later at the shallow end: commonly understood assumptions soon become dated. And there’s worse: cultural references are necessarily expressed in shorthand such as names, slogans and figurative language. Over time, the cultural references become arcane, encoded... and lost. What are writers and readers to do?

Stendhal, a great novelist in a century full of them, wished he might be read in 1935, a hundred years after his time. His wish has been amply fulfilled: indeed, what writer today would dare begin writing a novel without having read The Red and the Black? And yet that novel is very political. Is there a contradiction?

Stendhal gives very few details about French politics under the restoration of the monarchy after Napoleon. Rather, he depicts the career of Julien Sorel, an ambitious young man who comes from a humble background and rises through the ranks of society on sheer ability and opportunism. We don’t need details: Stendhal shows us the society of the time in action, and we understand its politics from the inside.

Let’s consider a far more difficult case. The imagery in the Bible is that of a distant time and a strange place, and we’re not always sure what it really means. Most of the time we don’t know whether we’re dealing with real or fictional events or with literal or figurative language. What can a foreigner do but take all events and idiomatic expressions literally, by default?

How are we to interpret something as simple as:

“And as ye go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils; freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:7-8).

Apply an acid test: if we suddenly materialized on the scene and heard and understood the words as we do now, would we know exactly what we were supposed to do? Even if we saw the disciples in action, would we understand what they were doing? I rather suspect we know less than we think we do. A lack of cultural context caused confusion to set in very early; as a consequence, the words have been taken literally ever since in places that do not have the same language and customs.

We cannot blithely assume, then, that we understand even familiar-looking words. What does the expression “at hand” mean? “Coming soon”? Or “Has arrived”? Or “You can reach out and take it”? Raising the dead is one task among many and seems to be almost routine. Is resurrection then a literal fact or is it a rite that was taken for granted then but that we are now unaware of? And what does that imply about the other activities?

But the pool has a deep end as well as a shallow one, and in the deep end the gist is very clear: “People feel helpless and condemned by God because they get sick, and they die. Convince them that such guilt is unearned, that they are accepted and can take their lives into their own hands. And by the way, do not charge admission: I’ll brook no ‘come to Jesus’ scams.” The charge to the disciples enables us to see what the original language implies about the culture of the time and how it uses concrete, forceful terms to launch a social and even political revolution.

Any work of literature exists within an external political and social context. Let the details remain in history, where they belong. A story’s real “politics” is expressed by what is internal, namely the decisions that people make.

Copyright © 2006, 2020 by Don Webb

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