Some truths are for a time and some truths are for all time. In terms of the former, we read editorials and blogs that speak of facts and ideas whose dilatory relevance is overwhelmed by the passage of time. Impressions and cultural stereotypes also come to mind. They occur in discourse and are useful for a time, but they don’t help us peel away the layers of noise, media, and culture that obscure the fundamentals of human nature — though, naturally, they themselves arise from these fundamentals.
The discipline that peels away these layers is economics. Far more than the study of how production is organized, or the methods by which an economy may be managed, economics is the study of human behavior. It concerns itself, at root and through its most robust microeconomics, with the inner core of the human being. From these truths, all other elements of the human condition emerge. This includes art. While art, especially contemporary art, is generally considered well beyond the domain of economics (mostly by those involved in the arts community since they know nothing of economics), it is only by the grace of its truths a constant in our consciousness.
In this post, I illustrate this concept through works by the renowned literary critic Frank Kermode and famed author Mario Vargas Llosa, who is, incidentally, father of libertarian commentator Alvaro Vargas Llosa.
In The Sense of an Ending, which memorializes the author’s lectures delivered at Bryn Mawr in late 1965, Kermode concerns himself with fictions of “the End.” In his words, “ways in which, under varying existential pressures, we have imagined the ends of the world.” But his effort is not only to chronicle the way these narratives have changed through time as it might be for most other literary critics, though he does do this. Rather, his aim is far more ambitious. He seeks to “help us to make sense of our lives.” In his highly alluring argument, he states that:
The great majority of interpretations of Apocalypse assume that the End is pretty near. Consequently the historical allegory is always having to be revised; time discredits it. And this is important. Apocalypse can be disconfirmed without being discredited. This is part of its extraordinary resilience. It can also absorb changing interests, rival apocalypses…. It allows itself to be diffused, blended with other varieties of fiction– tragedy, for example, myths of Empire and of Decadence– and yet it can survive in very naive forms. Probably the most sophisticated of us is capable at times of naive reactions to the End. […] Given this freedom, this power to manipulate data in order to achieve the desired consonance, you can of course arrange for the End to occur at pretty well any desired date.
Your first thoughts surely turn to the Global Warming Apocalypse now unleashed on the West — but the point is that this is a very powerful cultural meme that will likely always be with us. There are times when Apocalypse is not so much on our minds, and it is not very much on our minds now, though in the mid-1960s many feared a nuclear holocaust. This possibility could still very well come to pass, of course, and movies portending our end won’t be going away any time soon. So it’s one thing to describe its presence. It seems fairly obvious. But really, why are we so preoccupied with Apocalypse? Ends? Kermode does not give any answers. But he does give us some hints:
It is worth remembering that the rise of what we call literary fictions happened at a time when the revealed, authenticated account of the beginning was losing its authority. Now that changes in things as they are change beginnings to make them fit, beginnings have lost their mythical rigidity. There are, it is true, modern attempts to restore this rigidity. But on the whole there is a correlation between subtlety and variety in our fictions and remoteness and doubtfulness about ends and origins. There is a necessary relation between the fictions by which we order our world and the increasing complexity of what we take to be the ‘real’ history of the world. […]
Emphasis mine! Kermode alludes to the increasingly discordant and fractured narratives that purport to be histories of the world, but he means it to pertain to more than just history a la “Nero was a Roman Emperor,” “MacArthur waded ashore at Leyte Gulf, then soon delivered a rousing speech to the Filipinos,” and “Swahili used to be a tonal language.” He’s saying that something is going on with how we view the world and our relations to each other, as a result of our re-evaluation of the beginning and our relationship to the End. Soon, in my view, he alludes to Spenser and Shakespeare as prime movers in examining these frayed ends in the human conscious:
The discords of our experience–delight in change, fear of change; the death of the individual and the survival of the species, the pains and pleasures of love, the knowledge of light and dark, the extinction and the perpetuity of empires–these were Spenser’s subject; they could not be treated without this third thing, a kind of time between time and eternity. […]
Now Macbeth is above all others a play of prohecy; it not only enacts prophecies, it is obsessed by them. It is concerned with the desire to feel the future in the instant, to be transported beyond the ignorant present. […] Macbeth is saying that if an act could be without succession, without temporal consequence, one would welcome it out of a possible future into actuality; it would be like having hurly without having burly. […] Nothing in time can, in that sense be done, freed of consequence or equivocal aspects. Prophecy by its very forms admits this, and so do plots. It is a truism confirmed later by Lady Macbeth: ‘What’s done cannot be undone.’ The act is not an end. […] But only angels make their choices in non-successive time, and ‘be’ and ‘end’ are one only in God.
Emphasis mine. Kermode shows that there’s something in the human condition vitally concerned with time. An obsession with Apocalypse becomes only a part of something even more fundamental. Somewhere, bound up in this obsession, are concerns with memory, angst, second chances, patience, waiting, hope, and identity. But why?
Enter Mario Vargas Llosa, an author of whom I have written on this blog. He has several books of essays out and once made a valiant run for President of Peru. In the compilation of essays known as Making Waves, he writes of lost friends, Sandinistas, Thatcher (he loves her!), Botero, and feminism. These books of essays are like printed blogs, really. In any event, I quite like his writing, and in one essay, he has something that approaches an answer to the question that vexes us. From “The Truth of Lies”:
Ever since I wrote my first story, people have asked me if what I write is ‘true’. Although my replies sometimes satisfy the questioners, every time that I answer that particular enquiry, however sincerely, I am left with the uncomfortable feeling of having said something that never gets to the heart of the matter. […]
In effect, novels lie — they can do nothing else — but that is only part of the story. The other part is that, by lying, they express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, disguised as something that it is not. […] Men are not content with their lot and almost all of the — rich and poor, brilliant and ordinary, famous and unknown — would like a life different from the one that they are leading. Novels were born to placate this hunger, albeit in a distorted way. They are written and read so that human beings may have the lives that they are not prepared to do without. Within each novel, there stirs a rebellion, there beats a desire.
Let’s stop for a second and make something clear. The author is essentially calling all texts lies. How can this be? Well, let’s consider what truth is. You could read a passage that states nothing but simple facts about MacArthur being relieved of duty by President Truman in 1951. The passage could state, with simplicity and clarity, that MacArthur sent letters to Republican congressmen that infuriated the President. You could state that MacArthur hated Truman’s orders regarding the restraint to be exercised in attacking the North Korean and Chinese forces. It would all be true, and yet, by virtue of leaving so much out, it is a lie. It could be a lie because of the way the events are told, or restructured, but without every possible bit of information, they are lies. This is what Vargas Llosa is saying anyway. He is not alone in thinking this way. I am reminded of Nobel-winning author Czeslaw Milosz, who wrote one of my favorite books, The Captive Mind (an absolute must-read for any conservative, including the libertarian strains). Milosz writes:
Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own…. They are false because their
individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.
Now we are getting somewhere. Vargas Llosa writes that novels and fiction are supplying a demand in us, that we always want more. We are not content with our own lot. This does not necessarily mean we are unhappy. It means that we always think we can do better, or do something else. One may be perfectly content with one’s lot in life. Perhaps a man has retired to a small cottage in the countryside with his wife, his children are all successful, and this is all he thinks he desires. This is true to a point. But I bet he would desire the state to last, no? And then for a state of happiness to last for his children? He may desire a swift death– and this is still something to desire. So let us not challenge Vargas Llosa on this point, though it is something that I think may go unappreciated by many modern economists. However, it is given its due by the Austrians, for it is one of the most fundamental assumptions of Ludwig von Mises’ economics. His magnum opus, Human Action, is predicated upon it. (An implication of mine is that economics, at its most powerful, will one day more formally assimilate this blending of literature and psychology. It hasn’t happened yet.)
And so Vargas Llosa is not being too general when he writes that fiction is preoccupied with giving us the lives we are not prepared to do without. Surely, these narratives have kept the flames of our intellects alive since time immemorial. One need only think of the epic poems once memorized by men, now forgotten due to the ineluctable pull of marginal utility and the wiles of other fictions to satisfy our hunger. Vargas Llosa continues:
The fantasy that we are endowed with is a demonic gift. It is continually opening up a gulf between what we are and what we would like to be, between what we have and what we desire. But the imagination has conceived of a clever and subtle palliative for this inevitable divorce between our limited reality and our boundless desires: fiction. Thanks to fiction we are more and we are others without ceasing to be the same. In it we can lose ourselves and multiply, living many more lives than the ones we have and could live if we were confined to the truth, without escaping from the prison of history.
Men do not live by truth alone; they also need lies: those that they invent freely, not those that are imposed on them; those that appear as they are, not smuggled in beneath the clothes of history. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is their lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.
When it freely produces its alternative life, without any other constraint than that of the limitations of its own creator, literature extends human life, adding the dimension that fuels the life deep within us — that impalpable and fleeting, but precious life that we only live through lies.
What possibilities have we dreamed! It seems so difficult to make sense, from the rich wonders we have imagined, both beautiful and terrible, light and dark, gray and grayer, of how all our fiction relates to our fundamental human desires. It’s still not even clear what the demand really is: just to live another life? To get ideas? To compare one’s self to an ideal and get ideas? I think it’s something akin to the latter. Vargas Llosa beautifuly portrays fiction as the enemy of the totalitarian state, and to those who would attempt to impose a narrative on others. One wonders how long such a narrative may persist…
And what of our preoccupation with time? In relation to our consideration of fiction, does it act like a companion that guides us, as Jean-Luc Picard wondered, or is it the fire in which we burn, as Dr. Soran believed? (Video of the battle here.) Whatever the case, Kermode believed that our relationship to time is complex, still best expressed in paradoxes but in fiction:
In apocalypse there are two orders of time, and the earthly runs to a stop; the cry of woe to the inhabitants of the earth means the end of their time; henceforth ‘time shall be no more.’ In tragedy the cry of woe does not end succession; the great crises and ends of human life do not stop time. And if we want them to serve our needs as we stand in the middest we must give them patterns, understood relations as Macbeth calls them, that defytime. The concords of past, present, and future towards which the soul extends itself are out of time, and belong to the duration which was invented for angels when it seemed difficult to deny that the world in which men suffer their ends is dissonant in being eternal. To close that great gap we use fictions of complementarity. They may now be novels or philosophical poems, as they once were tragedies, and before that, angels.
In the next post, “The Death of Angels,” I propose examine how the modern age may be changing the epiphenomena of our human condition through fiction.
Post-Script: If any of this is interesting to you, I strongly encourage you to look at Kermode and Vargas Llosa’s work. I’m just trying to string some concepts together, so with these excerpts I give them unjustifiably short thrift, but there’s so much in their works to sit and enjoy.