The Politics of “Without Understanding”
by Lewayne L. White and Don Webb
[Lewayne] Given the recent BwS discussions about the limited relevance of “political” fiction, I’m curious about the response to “Without Understanding.”
[Don] My point in the earlier discussion was not that politics was irrelevant, quite the contrary. Rather, cultural references are likely to become obscure with time.
[Lewayne] “Without Understanding” was admittedly inspired by the recent political climate: both the (mis)behavior of the current U.S. administration, and the perception of general incompetence and/or ethically questionable behavior of the legislature. As such, it may have limited shelf life.
[Don] I wouldn’t worry about that. I’ll give it a good fifty years or more (grin). The point is that the senator is caught in the trap of his own hypocrisy: he can take the medical treatment only by recanting everything he’s said against it.
[Lewayne] Of course, 1984, Animal Farm, and Fahrenheit 451 are “political” and have lasted fairly well. (I’m not comparing my story to any of them, by the way.)
[Don] 1984 and Animal Farm last because of their internal cohesiveness. The reader doesn’t have to know that they’re a satire of Stalin’s regime. And Fahrenheit 451 applies to any culture dominated by conformity and anti-intellectualism. That was a major theme in U.S. science fiction in the 1950’s.
[Lewayne] Then you have something like Gulliver’s Travels which apparently has specific “political” criticisms but for the most part is viewed as “just” an adventure story. The book still exists, and is read by a given audience, but has lost some of its original purpose.
[Don] Swift’s audience would have gotten the joke, but who knows now who or what he was poking fun at? And more to the point: who cares? The politics has to be in the story itself.
There’s a lot of cultural tension in Cyrano’s The Other World. Even if we don’t know exactly what it is, we can easily imagine it. His primary target was the same as Voltaire’s: l’infâme, namely religious obscurantism.
Was he also a political dissident? That’s very doubtful, although he had no brief for war, understandably. However, he was a consistent free-thinker. Cyrano’s audience would have known all the allusions to ancient history in “A Secret Agent in a Radical Cause” and could have come to the right conclusions by reading between the lines. Does that make it bad writing? Not for Cyrano’s time, but it is a little obscure to us in places. Consider how circumspect Cyrano had to be in the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV; the title I gave the episode refers to both the Sun-being and Cyrano himself.