The Count of Monte Cristo Was Not Fiction

As someone who received her PhD in Comparative Literature just months before Bush was selected and who has read maybe ten fictional books since I stopped teaching fiction, I feel obliged to point to–and comment on–Chris Bowers’ post on "The Rise of the Non-Fictional Aesthetic."

This decade seems to have brought on a broad shift in the leftist aesthetic in America. Although the dates are not exact, the shift I sense is from an inward-looking, confessional, disengaged, self-reflexive aesthetic of depression of the previous decade, toward an outward-looking, highly engaged, self-creating, activism-oriented, reality based aesthetic of determination. The newfound popularity of the political documentary, and the declining popularity of self-reflexive, retro-cool films in the style of Quentin Tarantino is but one cultural example of this. The vast increase in electoral related activism is another, more obvious example. It is possible that I am just talking out of my butt on this one, and describing a personal shift in aesthetic rather than something more broadly based. Still, I think that the rise of a more pluralistic America, combined with the vastly reduced cost of information brought on by recent technological developments, and topped off with a truly reactionary regime seizing power in America against the wishes of the American populace, really did change our cultural predilections quite profoundly.

Jennifer argues that we have lost something as progressives in this shift, and that we need to find a way to re-incorporate the fictional narrative back into our lives. While I admit that this is a sense I have often had during my five years in professional politics, I also don’t think that there is any going back at this point. Some really bad shit happened–bad shit that will stay with us all and make the future difficult for a long time to come. I don’t think that there is any returning to the old aesthetic until our problems of war, unsustainable and corporatized economics have been truly mitigated, and that the forces waging a war of civilizations have suffered multiple, severe setbacks. The self-reflexive, fictional, depressed aesthetic just doesn’t seem relevant anymore, or at least right now. We are way past Kurt Cobain at this point. The rise of a non-fictional, engaged aesthetic probably coincides with the rise of the long, global emergency. Until that emergency has been either downgraded or deemed hopeless, I don’t expect the inward-looking, the disengaged-cool, and the fictional to come back anytime soon. There is no way to ignore reality anymore, and that which shows us a way out of our problems will be very similar to that which is beautiful for a long time to come.

I don’t so much disagree with what Chris has to say, except to object to his characterization of this aesthetic–non-fiction versus fiction. Human beings construct narratives. All narratives–whether they tell a story about an uppity black man running for President or about a prisoner who exacts the ultimate revenge–involve a great deal of artifice and and linguistic craft. Further, the book Factual Fictions makes a compelling argument that the Anglo concept of "fiction" is a culturally contingent concept that arose out of a need to distinguish between "news"–that was subject to libel laws–and "fiction"–that could say whatever it wanted about people in power, so long as those people in power were not "real." Similar legally driven formulations of "fiction" exist in other cultures, and not every culture makes the distinction between "non-fiction" and "fiction." In other words, the terms "fiction" and "non-fiction" are really just convenient classifications for stories that helps people sort out library shelves and legal battles. Fundamentally, narratives are still narratives, which are necessary tools for the human creature to make sense of and interact with her world.

And I mean it when I say, "the Count of Monte Cristo was not fiction"–even though it’s one of the most compelling stories of all time and even though it gets stored in the juvenile fiction shelf of most libraries. "It’s a book you read when you’re fourteen," Slavoj Zizek scoffed to me once.

But the narrative was published in a newspaper. Not the kind of literary journal you think of when you thin of Dickens’ serialized novels, but an honest to god daily newspaper, with each installment beginning on the bottom of the front page, just under the reports from Parliament. This story, about a guy imprisoned at least partly because he once met with Napoleon, who then goes on to become a Napoleonic figure plunked down in "modern" Paris, appeared at a time when censorship laws dictated that you couldn’t use the words "Bourbon" or "Republique" if you were writing things critical of the government. Dumas wrote the story after having met Louis-Napoleon, who was sitting in prison for one of his early unsuccessful coup attempts. But he wasn’t the only one writing these Napoleonic narratives. Every single major daily in Paris–every one–was printing some kind of narrative about Napoleon in this period, whether they were "fictions," memoirs from Napoleon’s brothers, race track reports using a horse named "Napoleon" as an allegory for speed and skill. These stories were all different conceptualizations of a certain kind of power that exerted tremendous influence in Paris at the time. All these narratives about Napoleon usually get described as the cultural phenomenon that was the "cult of Napoleon" but, as events would later prove, that cultural phenomenon was in no way fictional.

In a world in which Jack Bauer has greater influence over our detainee policies than all the FBI’s best experts on interrogation methods, we would do well to avoid the trap of "fiction" and "non-fiction."

So I would describe what has happened somewhat differently than Chris. If the Clinton wars and the Iraq War did anything, they demonstrated that the Right had a sophisticated and effective narrative industry, one that was having a dramatic effect on our governance. While we leftists were all playing with a-utilitarian postmodernism in the academy and fiction workshops, the Right was implementing a philosophy of utilitarian postmodernism–deliberately mobilizing narratives to accrue power into the hands of corporations and those who guard them. So it’s not so much our aesthetic that has changed, I think, as our understanding of the battlefield.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a place for narratives that focus on emotion and personal relationships and everyday life. What it means is that we have to–and should always have been–engaging actively in the contest over dominant narratives. The Left has long had an abundance of people skilled in the construction of narratives–it’s just we didn’t see the need to mobilize those skills on a large scale, or at least not outside of the realm deemed "fiction." Once we recognize that narratives have the same power, whether they’re labeled "fiction" or "non-fiction," those of us trained in the field can better use our skills to good end.

  1. brendanx says:

    Speaking of Napoleons, Louis Napoleon has often reminded me of Bush (seeing Obama under that Bismarck statue set off the train of thought): lesser scion of a previous leader, founder of a plebiscitary dictatorship, loser of a war he instigated. Except Bush lacks all the compensatory virtues of Frenchness.

  2. WilliamOckham says:

    This is point I find applicable in every facet of my life (computer nerd, Adult Sunday School teacher, father, etc.). If you want to change the world, you have to tell a powerful story. The fiction/non-fiction distinction is a fairly late, very Western innovation. You can’t understand Shakespeare, the New Testament, Dante, Plutarch, or Dumas (just to name a few significant parts of our cultural heritage) within the context of fiction/non-fiction.

    A writer who instinctively understood the power of narrative, Barbara Tuchman, pointed out:

    The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold.

    At one level, that’s a truism for the historian, but it has major implications for our political discourse. As Atrios is fond of pointing out, the 9/11 obsession and the disappearing of the anthrax attacks was fundamentally important to our recent history.

    • klynn says:

      Totally agree.

      When I worked in DC heading up and educational, cross-cultural non-profit which delivered services to at-risk neighborhoods, my funding from donors was influenced greatly by the use of narrative. The better the narrative, the better the funding…

      As correctly stated, it’s not a context of fiction/non-fiction…when addressing personal understanding.

    • readerOfTeaLeaves says:

      And yes, telling stories sure beats the heck out of trying to change the world with guns, knives, and nukes IMHO.

      But why they’re so critical to healthy social development (which directly impacts human and environmental health) is one of my main guiding questions.

      And FWIW, my major charitable contributions (such as they are) to each year to two different Hospice budgets, and the third goes to a group that specifically helps women (and therefore, their children) and is INCREDIBLY accountable for every single project they focus on, every client, every family they help.

      The most powerful stories that I hear each year are at those three fundraising luncheons, because they ALWAYS focus on the linkages between supporting people through wrenching challenges in their lives, and they avoid Disneyfied sweetness and happily-ever-after idiocy. They make clear how hard, but how necessary, it is for people to grow and change; in every single story, the challenges that families grapple with, and the things that people are capable of fill me with wonder. In every single success, the key element is social support and compassion.

      Anyway, sorry if I’m OT. I’ll look forward to getting back to this much later in the day.

  3. JThomason says:

    Not on “apophasis” as such but clearly in the ball park.

    Alas fiction in fact is not dead!:

    The problem: Anyone with even a vague sense of pop culture knows that Britney and Paris are yesterday’s news. Here’s a link [link available through the link below] to Forbes’ Celebrity 100. Paris and Britney don’t even make the list any more.

    Instead, the top 10, in order: Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Angelina Jolie, Beyonce Knowles, David Beckham, Johnny Depp, Jay-Z, The Police, JK Rowling, Brad Pitt.

    Spin Cycle via TPM. I do think the Obama camp however should be commended for showing the self discipline to not ask McCain about when he stopped beating his wife or why McCain has not mentioned an addiction to pain killers because of his POW injuries. The books written by the folks in the Swift Boaters on Kerry camp are already on the shelf portraying the Obama run as a phenomenon in the cult of personality. The cover is graphically designed in a style analogous to that of the cover design of The Audacity of Hope and a Hastings Bookstore has created a poster hasthat markets the two side by side as if they were part of a series.

  4. DeadLast says:

    Have you heard the one about the “New Compassionate Conservative?”

    I think this narrative is ripe for the McCain campaign. It is a great label for him. It can link him to Bush in a way he can’t undo: he can’t deny being compassionate or conservative. Then we can go through the litany of Bush crimes and brand them as compassionately conservative. Ergo, McCain is velcroed to Bush, wrapped in duct tape.

    Thanks for this post. It is one of your most important because it pulls back the veil.

  5. noncooperator says:

    I read Dumas’ Three Musketeers in french while in france several years ago. The preface was written by a literary historian who said that Dumas never received acclaim by literary critics during his lifetime because his books were too popular. Kinda reminds me of many movie critics.

    • emptywheel says:

      I actually don’t buy that. Not about the acclaim, but about the critical response.

      A useful comparison (one I’ve made) is with Eugene Sue, who was actually more popular face to face with Dumas (his Mysteries of Paris appeared in the same newspaper in the years before Count did, similar kind of book, more lasting politically). Saint Beuve actually said Sue was the par of Balzac (who was a relative failure at serialized form, largely because he didn’t get it).

      However, as a result of 48/51, Saint Beuve decided this serialized noval stuff was dangerous and started talking about disciplining the literary sphere (kid you not) which led to new taxes on serialized newspapers and the like. ANd that’s when both Dumas and Sue came to be treated differently than, say, Balzac.

      So you need to look at critical analysis during the early 1840s, not the stuff post 1851, to get a sense of critical acceptance.

  6. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Oh…. can’t wait to read this in full, along with all comments, later today.

    Meanwhile, at the risk of tipping off any GOPer shills who may traipse on along here today, those interested in the general topic of storytelling might enjoy this recent article:…..orytelling

  7. 4jkb4ia says:

    One thing fictional narratives can do perhaps better than nonfictional narratives is to give people a sense of empathy. The kinds of books which are translated in this country may serve our sense of the national interest, but following the characters through two or three hundred pages gives a sense of human depth and authenticity to the political conflicts they are engaged in. I am thinking of Snow.

  8. Rayne says:

    If consciousness is defined as one’s perception of reality — and we all know that we can change our perceptions — then we can change our state of awareness at will. What is fiction if it is defined by one’s perception? It’s all very fluid. Art — a fiction and not the thing itself — imitates the thing itself. Are there not points at which art is become that thing?

    Which leads me to think of that unnamed member of the administration that said they created reality and the rest of us (on the left) could only study it. Which side of that equation is fiction?

    The change in our collective progressive consciousness over the last eight years has been one of resetting and reframing our perception; we are making conscious decisions as to what has really happened, and we hash them out in many forms. Some of us did so in non-fiction media, some of us did so in fiction (i.e. The Dark Knight, as one more recent pop culture example, or Pan’s Labyrinth of a few years ago).

    Many of us did so through blogging, trying to sort out truth from non-truth (and finding towards the end of this debacle that are the Bush years that there was little to sort, all swine and no pearls.)

    We didn’t abandon fiction; in some ways it abandoned us. We couldn’t imagine this weird, that such monsters would not only steal elections but take over our government and commit such war crimes. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “When things get weird, the weird turn pro,” and we’ve apparently struggled with maintaining our amateur status, writing tome after tome of non-fiction to retain a grasp on lucidity as reality fully merges with a fiction we couldn’t cook up in our worst nightmares.

    Perhaps that Chris had to write about this at all is a sign of regret over leaving behind the innocence one must have to appreciate fiction as something separate from nonfiction, innocence broken by the utter collapse of reality in fiction, into seeming insanity, now beyond the immunity from pain that cognitive dissonance once offered us. Fiction not only abandoned us, it got strung out on the meth and crack of neo-conservatism and died a gruesome violent bloody death, and now we are tasked with finding people who can not only help us navigate through these stages of grief and move on, but help us build a safer nonfiction world to follow. Only in a stable, happier, saner nonfiction world can we rebuild even happier fictions, where the nightmarish only happens in our dreams and on the screen and between the covers of books. In this respect, I think Chris is on the money.

  9. SparklestheIguana says:

    My concern with this supposed disappearance of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, subsumed under the idea of narrative in general, is that we not get confused about truth and nontruth. From the perspective of someone who studied history more than literature, I think we ought to be concerned about pursuing truth, getting our history and our narratives right. Constructing pleasing progressive narratives that trump the right’s narratives is all well and good, as long as we also have the goal of being accurate.

      • racymind says:

        I think it is fundamental to remember here what we have already seen countless times with various narratives; it doesn’t matter if narratives are true are not, as long as people are talking about it the desired effects of the narrative’s creator are served.

        The Left hasn’t been successful enough with the “everything they say is bullshit” narrative. And I guess I am drifting too far into the realm of a “corporate media power and consolidation” discussion.

  10. earlofhuntingdon says:

    No coinkydink that this theme is a variation on the slogan of the authoritarian Party in George Orwell’s 1984: ”Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

    Control the narrative, regardless of fact or fancy, and you control today how we envision the past. That informs our choices about how we anticipate or prepare for the future. Which is what creates our future: choosing to take action to reduce the effects of global warming; choosing diplomacy over brute force; or choosing to renew vital infrastructure instead of allowing it to decay.

    George Bush may be carelessly selfish and ruthless, but he isn’t stupid. And the people behind him very much know what they want and how to get it. If you’re among the 98% of Americans for whom that doesn’t work out so well, the mismatch that EW highlights over who controls the narrative ought to be of concern.

  11. masaccio says:

    The work world, the legal system, has been undergoing changes from the right for 30 years or more. Much of the ground for my comprehension of the order of that world has shifted, much as EW and commenters describe of their own worlds. Where once we understood the practice of law as a matter of judgment, practiced by experienced people who trained themselves in the art of judgment, we now are a field full of people who think that if words can be twisted to support the position they want, then that position is supported.

    Reading Balkanization is a trip down memory lane for me. The academic lawyers argue about ideas that are foreign, ideas like originalism, and linguistic jurisprudence. The field has shrunk, all under the influence of the federalist society and the scalia’s of the world, who use the words of our ancestors to create a world our ancestors would understand in the 21st Century. It is painful for me to contemplate.

    This change was well underway, and my kids were getting older, so I started reading old philosophy books from College days, starting with Camus, and followed them to newer stuff. I loathed Sartre, but The Rebel seemed completely different to me. Even my underlinings from so many years ago seemed totally wrong.

    Eventually I found Achieving Our Country, by Richard Rorty, and then Philosophy and Social Hope. I realize he is iconoclastic, but it completely reshaped my thinking about the nature of truth and the use of the intellect in the real world.

    But even so I am stunned by the ability of the conservatives to move the discourse so far from my training and roots. I hope EW is right and we will be able to seize control over the narrative.

  12. KenMuldrew says:

    As Pat Buchanan once said of Hunter S. Thompson, “he was the least factual but the most accurate reporter to cover the Nixon Campaign”.

  13. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    Engaging — and critically important! — topic.

    Random thoughts:
    I was prompted to think about the power of storytelling — and the incredible costs of bad, false, deceitful stories late one night when I stumbled onto a post by CHS at FDL. I’d been on the computer for about 16 hours trying to ferret out some godawful problem and I was sick, and exhausted.
    I was a fairly new FDL reader, and had no clue that L’Affair Plame represented an attempt to keep the lid on a group of nuclear Mafiosa; I was pretty much a citizen bugged by Plame because it simply did not make sense. None of it made sense, and every time that swine GWB opened his yap, it only became more baffling.

    So I clicked to FDL in my exhausted state, and CHS had a post up (I think the image was a “Can of Worms“) and the post was about a woman named Barbara Comstock, whom I’d never heard of. She was somehow linked to Swift Boat, or to the Libby Legal Defense.

    And two things set me on fire:
    1. That someone that highly paid and ideological was so able to construct the narratives that drive policy, and
    2. That the damn, weenie, feckless Dems were such a bunch of pissy whiners they couldn’t stand up to an obvious hack like Barbara Comstock made me so angry I swear my body temperature could have set the roof afire.

    I read CHS’s post, and I swear to God smoke started pouring out of my ears. I was absolutely furious.

    And I was so righteously p*ssed at the Democrats I probably could have started a house fire with my own breath. I was so angry that a so-called political party (the Dems) were letting such depraved, pathetically lame people call the shots that I swear it’s a wonder my keyboard didn’t melt down.

    My comments at FDL were later srcubbed as ‘troll’, so either came off like a total head case, or else someone at FDL was kind enough to save my sorry ass.

    But here’s what led me to that moment of foaming wrath:
    Having been in villages where the people’s own sense of their own history is completely jumbled, mixed-up, and (in some cases) no longer even coherent, it’s clear to me that stories have some kind of ‘mystic power’ in this world. Those villages where they don’t even remember the stories of their elders also exhibit high suicide rates, high mortality rates, high rates of alcoholism… lots of social pathologies. That suggests to me that there is come connection between healthy humans, healthy communities, and healthy lives.

    Like others here, I’ve sat through my share of navel-gazing bullshit in a university setting about ‘deconstruction’. My personal take is kind of summarized thus: new technologies in the late 19th c changed human experience; that showed up as pointiellism, French realism, Cubism, Stravinsky, Gershwin, cinema,… yadda yadda. Deconstruction strikes me as the literary corollary to Cubist art.

    That was all the rage during the period when Strauss would have been writing.

    But as near as I can tell, Strauss was fundamentally clueless about very significant factors that affect how people read and interpret information.

    He didn’t have access to neurological research on reading, and on how it reshapes the brain. He also doesn’t seem to have given enough heft to anthoropology.

    He believed that authors were intentional, and ‘hid’ meanings in their texts.
    Hmmm… interesting. That notion goes back before 1200 BC, to an era where craft knowledge (particularly metalurgy, which was tightly linked to military power) was protected and ‘hidden’ in hard to read texts that were ideosyncratic, and written by individuals in ways that were — literally — for their eyes ONLY. Because the reason for writing was to be able to cue their own memories later, while ensuring that no one else could figure out their ‘codes’.

    It seems quite likely, FWIW, that some early Semites with valuable craft knowledge of metallurgy had a lot of influence on the Jewish ‘Kabbalah’, from which the word ‘cabal’ is said to derive. It was quite common in tribal cultures to have ‘craft knowledge’ shared ONLY with ‘initiates’, and writing would have offered an ideal way to hide the valuable knowledge.

    But with that stated, once literacy rates began to rise, the emphasis shifted to writing in forms that EVERYONE could read easily. Writing was MORE valuable if MORE people could read it. (The Bible is a good example.)

    Strauss doesn’t seem to have any real grasp (at least, not from my cursory overview of his work) of the fundamental social and psychological shifts that occur as a group moves from oral culture to literate culture. He is missing huge pieces of human experience, and that’s dangerous. So he arrives at wrong conclusions. And that means anyone who is a ‘Straussian’ is going to be functioning with a bogus set of assumptions.

    I’m not sure whether fiction or non-fiction is the key divide.
    I think the thing that we have to tell stories about is changing.

    We have to tell stories about global warming and pollution; if we’d lived in 8,000 BC, we could tell stories about Dangerous Mammoths and Wild Bulls, because those would have been the dangers we faced.

    Today, we face dangers related to pollutants and climate change.
    Those stories are grounded in reality: pH levels, temperature readings, molecules in ppm. Those stories don’t make any sense when they’re falsified — or even if they did, ‘reality’ will bite you in the ass if you’re not accurately describing its measurements.

    I don’t think it’s an issue of fiction or non-fiction.
    I suspect that it’s more closely related to the topics that most need storytelling in order to be placed in a context where people feel they can get a handle on the problem(s).

    The reason that McSame is floundering is that he’s talking about things that don’t matter. He’s talking about trivia. And people are pissed at being fed trivia when things are in a mess.

    That’s why IMHO, Howard Dean is in the same tradition of storytelling as Rachel Carson; I’d be willing to bet that her books are selling at least as well today as they did 40 years ago. She only gets better over time. But people understand that the stories she tells apply to their own lives, their own health. Ditto Dr. Dean.

    The people who tell the best stories win.
    But I have a hunch that in order to tell those stories, the people have had to do some soul-searching, and be focused on WHY their stories matter.

    Once Al Gore could talk about Global Warming with deep conviction, deep passion, and tell that story in a beautiful way, he started to inspire people in a way that hadn’t seemed possible for him as a political candidate. He has become one of the most important storytellers of our time.

    But the biggest surprise to me has been Scott McClellan, and I think it’s because its so surprising to see the changes in him, and his couching his story in terms of ‘political hazing’ — which many people can surely understand — probably resonates with many, many people. Maybe not the ‘political’ part, but surely the ‘hazing’ part. Once they grasp ‘hazing’ the ‘political’ part comes along very easily.

    in both cases, the storytellers seem to have a real desire and need to tell those stories FOR THEIR OWN SAKE. It’s not about Al. And it’s not about Scotty. In both cases, they’re trying to change things that they believe are deeply and profoundly dangerous.

    When people do that, they create powerful magnets.
    And there’s something mysterious and magical about it that I don’t think either the deconstructionists or the Straussians ever fully grasped.