1. The context of literary fiction
1.1 Pragmatism (vs. romanticism)
1.2 Literature in the context
1.3 The gatekeepers (or censors) – propaganda (for pragmatism)
2. Writers’ relationship to the context
2.1 Tolstoy – authenticity and infection
2.2 Sartre – literary revolt
2.3 John Updike, Russell Banks, Paul Auster, et al.
3. Case studies of contemporary vetted authors
3.1 Gary Shteyngart – sympathetic blundering pragmatists and implausible hopeless romantics
3.2 Min Jin Lee – the propaganda novel: attractive pragmatists and marginalized romantics
3.3 Colson Whitehead – coopting the counterculture: materialist romantics
3.4 The fortress of pragmatism – American literature
4. Robert Pirsig – Aesthetics or Quality as Oneness
5. Case studies of contemporary unvetted authors – the perypatetik project
5.1 Life as process – accept fate – spiritual/metaphysical – freedom
5.2 Humor – process – disdain success – work – spiritual/metaphysical
5.3 Example: freedom vs. obligation
6. What should the purpose of literature be?
6.1 Authentically representing dissidents to infect readers
6.2 Means of infection
A piece of literary fiction can be interpreted in light of philosophical questions such as our understanding of being and/or have a concrete function such as entertainment or indirect commentary. The metaphysical character of such fiction might, for example, engage in the pursuit of universal or conditional truths. The functional conception is aimed at the contemporary environment of its emergence, serving as both documentation and probably at least hinting at a view the author thinks readers should share (commentary).
This essay on the purpose of literary fiction will primarily focus on the functional aspect of literary works since this has been unclearly formulated in our work to date. There is a certain contemporary problem that, even under the prerequisites of good health and stable financial circumstances, is plaguing the modern-day middle and upper class. So far, this issue has been primarily embedded in the depths of perypatetik texts like Peripatetic Alterity or the introductions to the preceding volumes of transadaptations, but not stated explicitly: the disease producing the deadeye or glazed-over eye syndrome – the brain fog. This symptom is a reflection of an individual’s disengagement. That disengagement, also to be understood as a disconnect between the subject (individual) and whatever object (surroundings, life, another person), is found in people of all backgrounds, but it is astonishingly widespread among the people who are ostensibly most in harmony with the dominant ideology of our time in the West: pragmatists in the world of pragmatism.
There are issues with the distribution of wealth. We certainly have inequality, discrimination, mistreatment, exploitation of women and children as well as the lower classes. War, education, political policy, migration, climate change are issues that should be taken seriously. But first it is the disease producing the symptoms that must be cured in order to then properly grasp the macroissues. This disease is attacking everyone, albeit pragmatists for different reasons than romantics.
The deadeye syndrome is that blank look people have on their face at the checkout line in the grocery store, on the subway or in the car, after watching motion picture or reading the internet. The person’s eyes are open too wide. They are not thinking. A portion of their brain required for processing input and producing output in the form of a coherent response has been shut down. It is exactly the same expression you see on many uneducated or downtrodden members of the precariat, only in this case we are talking about the educated middle and upper class as well as children, young adults and people in their alleged prime. Obviously, it takes forms other than large dead eyes. At times it is just silence; at others talk resembling babble; further possible symptoms are too short sentences, statements shot as if out of a canon or responses that are at best tangentially related to what the speaker is talking about. Headaches, migraines – if you believe in a difference between them –, insomnia, waking up for hours at night, inability to breathe through your nose, jiggling legs are all additional symptoms. But most of all it is our own honest self-assessment.
Many of us, especially in the literary or artistic sphere, can probably recall the dissenting origins of our interest. We were children in a familial or social environment that annoyed or repulsed us. At that time, we could not put our finger on the issue. We pointed to idiosyncrasies in our parents or their/our milieu, but now that we are older, those annoyances seem persnickety and would be applied by younger generations to us. Yet we still sense that rebellion. We still recall something that ate at us back then and still does today. Most of us have not figured it out, as we shall see in the case studies here: Eventually we accept the leitculture, can’t conceive of a better alternative, don’t see any options in the world that are better, and develop the disease reflected in those dead eyes.
In the West at least, this framework fosters moderation. Writers do not produce treatises on art and literature today, but rather scribble a few words on why they write, if that. And their reasons for writing are exactly what we would expect: self-interest, personal development, improvement. But not improvement directed at society 🙂 No. Improvement of their craft is what they pursue. And then they celebrate this as the essence of being human.1
It used to be different. When writers identified debilitating structures, the reasons for writing were more ambitious and relevant to readers. Tolstoy penned a theory of art. Sartre did a deep dive into literature. Literary scholars at the beginning of the century embraced definitions of literature. Even our independent, translation-funded perypatetik project has a vision because of a universal or at least widespread imbalance accounting for the disconnect we see in all these deadeye people around us.
The foreword to this collection of transadapted short stories on youth (ages 15-35) will begin, in chapter one, with some remarks on the general context in which literature has appeared over time and the context today. It will focus on what we refer to as pragmatism, the leitculture of our age in the West, and discuss literature’s relationship to this context along with how stakeholders and the public influence writers and the interpretation of works of literature. It summarily recounts the fundamental dichotomy between pragmatism and romanticism, as we define these terms in Peripatetic Alterity.
The three parts of chapter two look at writers’ relationship to their given context. It begins with glosses of Tolstoy’s and Sartre’s philosophies of art to compare dissenting writers in a given context with complicit ones. The latter is then explained in an elucidation of remarks by John Updike, Russell Banks and Paul Auster on why they write.
In chapter three, we review some contemporary authors whose work is ideally positioned to serve as the basis for dissent a la Tolstoy or Sartre, but whose fiction ultimately aligns with the agenda of pragmatists.
Chapter four discusses the philosophy of Robert Pirsig, the author of the cult classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The point of this digression is threefold: (i) to elucidate how the disconnect observed in mankind can be overcome, (ii) to highlight the contiguous relationship between Pirsig’s resolution of subject-object dualism with Aesthetics (Quality) and the pragmatic-romantic dichotomy, and (iii) to clarify why romantics – the discriminated, silenced mass in the leitculture of pragmatism – will ultimately lead the way to the next revival of Western civilization, which in turn will cure the deadeye syndrome in both pragmatists and romantics.
Romantics and romanticism as depicted in the perypatetik project are examined in chapter five. A few authors and texts are interpreted to showcase the widespread presence and appeal of ignored romanticism.
The philosophy of Pirsig is then collated with literary fiction in the documentation of romanticism on its Tolstoian and Sartrean march to overcome the dogma of pragmatism in chapter six. This does not just result in the resolution of the current disconnect, but also provides a template for future cases where a unipolar ideology asserts itself: Literary fiction must document the poetry and potential of the discriminated in any given time to foment regeneration.
To conclude, we elaborate on the potential that romantic renewal would harbor for areas ranging from economics and education to social work and literary philosophy.
1. The context of literary fiction
To understand the positions that authors can adopt in our contemporary Western culture, it is important to grasp the context in which literature is appearing.
It is generally assumed that Western culture is defined by democracy, capitalism, humanity and human rights, freedom (of speech, movement, choice), progress (social, economic, political), proselytization (in our own countries and internationally) – to name some of the more prominent values.
Writers, like all citizens, are expected at the very least not to oppose the accepted ideology. After all, as Russell Banks writes, who wouldn’t choose the side of humanity?2
Under the fundamental assumption of this support, authors, like institutions, are allowed to voice limited, usually targeted criticism. It is welcomed in the name of progress and improvement.
There are, however, certain tenets of Western civilization that should not be questioned. The previously mentioned ones are among them. No writer or institution is taken seriously, let alone given a platform, if they espouse anti-democratic views or are opposed to human rights or freedom. Some tenets such as capitalism or the benefits of progress may be criticized in the name of greater equality or preservation of existing livelihood, but extreme positions like advocating socialism with public sector control of industry or a return to an early nineteenth century Agrarian economy will be dismissed.
Western countries have gradually come to adopt a value and normative system that is also left unquestioned. We call this taken-for-granted ideology pragmatism and the dismissed counterculture romanticism.3 By all accounts, writers and institutions also propagate the ideological agenda of pragmatism, either consciously or unconsciously.
1.1 Pragmatism (vs. romanticism)
In Peripatetic Alterity we discuss the dominance of pragmatism in the contemporary Western world. To date, we have identified 16 prominent characteristics that define its values and norms: materialism, consumption, self-determination, focus on ends/ goals, positive/optimistic mindset, importance of education, success/ achievements, networking, morality, constant work, slow and consistent, relaxation in activity, obligations, management, tough love.4 Each characteristic in this set of values and norms is viewed in contrast to pendants for romantics, creating the following dichotomies:
Materialism vs. the metaphysical
Consumption vs. production/living
Determining vs. accepting fate
The end vs. the process
Positive vs. negative attitude toward the future
Education: Critical vs. inessential
Success: Critical vs. inessential
Networking vs. attending to inner circle
Laughter: Sententious vs. pointless humor
Work vs. relaxation
Mental agility: Slow vs. fast
Relaxation in activity vs. polarized minds
Obligations vs. freedom
Manage vs. work
Love: Tough vs. compassionate5
These characteristics of pragmatism and romanticism can be roughly divided into two groups: values and norms.
The values are what is considered important. For pragmatists, they consist of the accumulation of material, (self) determining your future, focusing on the end of a process, holding education to be important and success as a desirable objective.
The norms are common “cultural” practices. Pragmatists, for example, consume, network, laugh or make jokes to demonstrate or affirm their affiliation to an agenda, work constantly and do not like to relax, resulting in slow thinking, but consistent conduct; their lives are full of obligations; they prefer management to labor or aspire to management positions; love is something to be earned.
These seemingly innocuous characteristics have far-reaching consequences. At first glance, you probably do not notice anything particularly objectionable in these values and norms of pragmatists. Some will perhaps quibble that the accumulation of material (houses, cars, luxury objects) is unappealing. The related consumption may also meet with a condescending gaze, but the rest of the values with the exception of success will be unequivocally supported by most readers, and the pursuit of success will not be frowned upon as long as it is kept within reasonable bounds. In regards to the norms, a sensitive person might have an issue with being described as slow-thinking, but much of the other characteristics of conduct are probably given little thought, dismissed as trivial or regarded as advantageous.
It is exactly the seemingly harmless nature of pragmatism coupled with its contribution to the astonishing material improvement in humankind’s standard of living in at least the West over the last 200 years that accounts for its nearly universal, unquestioned dominance in the cultural landscape of the Occident, especially America. This is all the more the case against the backdrop of the previously mentioned big ticket items like democracy, capitalism, human rights and so on. After all, who cares about whether an individual seeks the achievement of a result at the end of a process or embraces the process independently of the result? Why should we trouble ourselves with whether somebody chooses to pursue a position in management rather than repeatedly repair and install telephone lines? People are dying of starvation; girls are being trafficked around the world; dissidents are being executed in authoritarian countries. The values and norms of pragmatists and romantics are powerless to do anything about this.
These arguments, however, are confusing the institutional and the individual. And because ultimately the individuals make up the institutions, the grassroots level of pragmatism and, in the West, the counterculture of romanticism are critical for determining the makeup of the institutions that address the macro-issues. When the foundation is crumbling, the house will eventually collapse.
The current widespread mental, physical and emotional state of pragmatists belies the desirability of pragmatism. Two hundred years ago, no person could fathom that such a level of prosperity would lead to what we have described as the deadeye syndrome. Even more astonishing is that this condition is found most frequently in those who enjoy or can enjoy the advantages of democracy, capitalism, humanity, human rights, freedom of speech, movement, choice and progress. Additionally, the disconnect between individuals and their surroundings (people and objects) is felt most intensely in pragmatists, not romantics, although the pragmatists ostensibly live in harmony with the prevailing culture of pragmatism. They are not the discriminated minority. Or if they are the minority, they are certainly not discriminated in a leitculture consistent with their own belief system.
How is this possible?
There are a number of reasons why the values and norms of pragmatists lead to the deadeye syndrome or disconnect. They are discussed at length in Peripatetic Alterity, but we will outline a few here because it is important to have a picture of the pragmatic leitculture in order to understand how contemporary writers act to support it.
At the core of the disconnect among pragmatists is the unsustainability of pragmatic values for an individual over the long term. We cannot constantly have success. We cannot repeatedly embark on new projects and bring them ever more quickly to an end (for the next kick from feeling success). There are limits to materialism and consumption: We can only buy so many houses, cars and luxury products. We can only self-determine our fate for so long (eventually we either reach the top, say of an institution, or we hit a glass ceiling).
The norms of pragmatists compound the frustration felt when the inevitable value wall is hit. We have sacrificed close old friends irrelevant for our career by networking to make professionally advantageous connections, so when social interaction both privately and publicly collapses in our fifties (at the latest), we have nobody left, possibly not even a partner. Working all the time and striving for positions in management also feeds our isolation. The frustrations of management, a topic we discuss at length in Peripatetic Alterity, primarily the inability to personally produce results and the need to coordinate and extract labor from many different people, is draining. This isolation is then in turn reinforced by the values above, especially materialism, since pragmatists have at least relative affluence, which cuts them off from the less affluent majority, but since it is never enough for most of them, they are also jealous, nervous and uncomfortable in their own circle.
So it is fair to ask: If the situation is so bleak, how have we gotten here? Why is pragmatism so dominant? Why is it accepted as the leitculture?
There are two primary reasons for this, one personal, the other economic/political: the first is that the house of pragmatism does not collapse for most pragmatists until they reach their forties or fifties, and until then it is a very exciting path to go down – you prepare (in school) and then execute over many years, progressing step by step, earning the acknowledgement, respect and attention of peers and seniors; people gravitate towards you, give you the impression you are important. Furthermore, even if an individual on this track is not fulfilled or feels like they have not achieved self-actualization, there is always the promise that this will be achieved after a slight tweak or in the near future with the next development.
The second is that pragmatism is vastly superior to romanticism for a flourishing economy and the social stability tied to this. The commitment and effort required for companies to achieve profitability is so extensive that the economy desperately needs to encourage as many people as possible to adopt in particular pragmatic norms to ensure a sufficient supply of labor, especially in skilled professions and management. The material incentives (high salaries, bonuses, stock options), the non-material rewards (acknowledgement), the propaganda behind pragmatism are all part of this furious effort by the business community, primarily the finance industry, and the state to cultivate a sufficiently large workforce to drive economic growth. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the materialist success of the West, especially America, over the last 400+ years has been achieved on the basis of this foundation.
The remarks on the culture of pragmatism above can be understood even better when we juxtapose them to romanticism.
There is little drama in romanticism. If the distinctive values of pragmatists are the achievement of material gains, the anchor of romanticism is the process of living. Material objects like houses and cars are viewed as products of fate rather than self-determination. Their possession is not demeaned or objected to, but it is not worth making major sacrifices in their norms to acquire. And the preoccupation in these norms is to remain in harmony with nature. Education and success are only desirable if they come easily. The inner circle of family, friends and immediate community take precedence over making connections to further a career. Laughter in the form of silly jokes, especially among men, and self-presentation as beautiful, primarily among women, are critical for affirming the communal bonds. The strain of work and other hardships requires relaxation, which in turn allows life to be experienced more intensely, creates access to the metaphysical and, more banally, speeds up their thought process, a characteristic that circles back to an ability to reduce working hours and increase freedom. Rather than filling their leisure time with clubs, social gatherings, volunteering or other obligations, they prefer the absolute freedom of no commitments. This desire also influences their preference for specific tasks that they can execute, jobs where they are responsible for the production of the work – when it is done and done right, they are absolved, they are free – the powerline has been connected, whether electricity actually flows to the customer, how much it costs, why this or that still needs to be handled – is left to the manager and other people.
A romantic does not experience the excitement of the rapid ascension during their twenties and thirties, but also avoids the gnawing expectation of some kind of unfulfilled fulfillment during it and, above all, the epic crash of a pragmatist when they hit the ceiling in their forties or fifties, realizing that there will be no self-actualization or that the self-actualization is as unfulfilling as the state before it.
Hopefully, this has given you a rough picture of pragmatists and romantics. As we will see below, this entirely unacknowledged duality in Western countries has effectively set a trap for authors and creators, making them inevitable accomplices, even in cases of criticism, to the ideology of pragmatism. But before we get to that, it is important to note one more thing: People fall on a spectrum both in regards to each individual point and as a whole. In other words, nobody is a pure pragmatist or romantic, furthermore we often change. The individual’s identity is fluid, often shifting over time. There is also no political affiliation associated with one or the other. Likewise, ethnicity, gender, class, religion and other common categories do not determine association. Even family and genes are non-factors because of the tendency of children to rebel and be different from their parents.
One thing does not change much, however.
Authors of contemporary literature in the West, especially America, almost universally compose work with character development, plot and an overall message that supports the agenda of pragmatism.
First, however, let us look at the role of literature over time.
1.2 Literature in the context
Almost per se, literature comments on the time in which it is written. Even when an author sets their story in the past or projected future, their intention will be to draw an analogy to the present day or reveal the differences between their current age and the fictional one. In this case, they are similar to a historian recasting past events for the ex-post purpose of encouraging readers to adopt a certain position in the current socio-political context.
In America, for example, we see an endless stream of books on democracy to remind readers of its superiority over other forms of governance. This may be the explicit objective of the work or an indirect, implied conclusion drawn. An academic writing about Nazi Germany will inevitably correlate authoritarianism with the Holocaust and world war. In the recent renewed efforts to encourage the participation of all nationalities in German and American society, especially Afro-Americans6 in the United States, we have encountered creative and very welcome work on the multicultural contributions of diverse ethnic groups to the founding statutes, institutions and idea(l)s in these countries.
We also find this function of literature at a time when its primary purposes were entertainment and morality.
In the evening, after eating supper, the family members in a nineteenth-century middle class home would recede to the drawing room. In Jane Austen’s novels, the characters are found knitting, sewing, playing the piano, talking and, of course, reading. One of the main sources of entertainment was a novel or book of some type or other. Reading aloud was also common.
Books, of course, were not just a source of entertaining pleasure. Embedded in the literary fiction of the time was often a more or less explicit moral message. In some cases, it was voiced by an omniscient narrator, in others induced from the actual plot. Further common roles for novels were instruction (coming-of-age novel; Bildungsroman), social critique (Realism, e.g., Hoffmann, Hauptmann, Dostoevsky), satire/humor (another form of social critique), experiments in representation first in romanticism, then in modernist novels (Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolfe, Alfred Döblin) and, not to be forgotten in this thoroughly inexhaustive list, propaganda.
Over the last 70 years, fiction has met readers in quite a different context than prior to World War Two. Motion picture has increasingly assumed the role of presenting stories to the public for the sake of entertainment. Fiction itself has been divided up into numerous genres. Pulp fiction, romance novels, young adult fiction, science fiction and other genres cater to specific audiences looking for certain types of entertainment. Literary fiction has become the home of readers and writers with an intellectual, moral, philosophic bent.
Authors of literary fiction may and do come from all walks of life. They may produce and publish work, now, in the age of easy self-publishing, without any input or participation by outsiders, as we do. Readers obviously enjoy equal freedom of choice in what they read.
At least since the advent of Realism in the nineteenth century, writers’ documentation of and commentary on their context has gravitated toward (implied or explicit) criticism of or support for the given context. For example, Leo Tolstoy’s representation of idealized peasant life in comparison to the depravity of the upper classes could be read as criticism of society, while Jane Austen’s novels about love and relationships prior to Realism imply a lack of concern for the context, even in cases where slavery in the Caribbean or war are encountered at the periphery of her stories.
Often, especially in modernism and postmodernism, the commentary in literary fiction is merely embedded in the plot of the novel and open to interpretation. This is partly due to the nearly complete disappearance of an omniscient narrator acting as a sort of moral compass. This figure has been dying for almost two hundred years and can now be officially declared dead. Besides making it harder to interpret the message(s) conveyed by the author, the disappearance of the all-knowing narrator also increases the likelihood that readers will interpret a novel in a manner consistent with the leitculture or preferred ideology of their time. Consequently, an author could easily compose a deafening critique of pragmatism in our contemporary context without readers grasping it, not just because they are unaware of the pragmatic-romantic framework for interpreting texts, but, even if they were, because in our pragmatic leitculture readers are conditioned to interpret such a critique as an isolated case without further ramifications or, more likely, as a misguided character with an unfortunate fate.
More common, however, is for the stakeholders to simply censor work or ensure that only approved authors are promoted. Censoring does not take place in the manner it used to. An author is not told that they cannot write this or that. The editors at major publishing houses also do not have strict guidelines for what is allowed or to be censored. Rather, censorship today takes the form of encouragement, suggestions, feed-back. If these prompts are ignored, then the next instance steps up: no awards, no positive reviews, little promotion, criticism. The consequence of this is naturally also financially punitive: fewer sales due to readers influenced by negative reviews, and then the future difficulties surrounding the next book, the pitch to the editor and publishing house, the negotiations, etc.
1.3 The gatekeepers (or censors) – propaganda (for pragmatism)
The position of editors, publishing houses and the critically-acclaimed establishment writers in our neobaroque age7 mirrors the one Sartre attributes to them in the baroque – guardians of the dogma of the elite. However, the dogma is not democracy, capitalism, et al. It is the shibboleths of pragmatism.
Ideally, according to the Western intelligence community, pun intended, literary fiction eulogizes pragmatism directly or by denigrating alternatives. The eulogy should be subtle, however, especially in literary fiction. This is virtually inevitable due to the lack of awareness of categories such as pragmatism and romanticism, but some of the values in pragmatism are also associated with democracy, capitalism, freedom, etc. Success is an example. The blatant depiction and feting of a success story as the main theme of a literary novel is unheard of. Since intellectuals often have reservations about two other defining characteristics, materialism and consumption, the most common practice in the age of postmodernism and the neo-baroque has been to let authors tell stories about losers, failures and outsiders who are empathetically depicted and, critically, also do not figure out an alternative.8 Another common approach encouraged, especially in postcolonial literature, is to tie the problems, malaise, frustration in protagonists to their oppressive background, which makes it impossible for them to achieve spiritual and emotional self-actualization in their new pragmatic society. This plot line implies that the character would be fine in the “new” society, i.e., Western pragmatism, if only they had been born into it. The Western model is judged to be good by the negative proposition associated with the other.
The stakeholders of these pragmatic values and norms do not have any qualms about their agenda. As we pointed out in the introduction, Western countries have been driven by materialism for well over a century and arguably much longer. It has guided the introduction of pensions (first introduced in Germany under Bismarck), taxation, labor unions, welfare programs, and more recently stimulus measures. The global division between capitalist and socialist countries in the 20th century was merely a testament to the all-pervasiveness of materialism – the conflict was simply which ideology fostered greater material wealth. Today, institutions from school and academia to corporations and the government do not question the objective of material improvement, but solely how to achieve it. The political parties that attempt to account for ideological differences all agree that greater affluence is better.
Every channel of media is used to spread this message – in all its diverse forms. By repeating the message ad nauseum, the establishment shapes public opinion. If the public is repeatedly exposed to a message like “for all you time-strapped shoppers, we now have curbside pickup…”, and the message corresponds to what they see in their everyday lives (they do not have enough time), and nothing stands in the way of agreeing with the message (e.g., no additional costs), they will come to think that message is good over time. They will agree with the stakeholder, the supermarket voice in our example or the defenders of pragmatism in the context of movies, television, journalism, radio and publications.
Furthermore, it is not enough for the stakeholders to shape the work published and how it is received today. They also intervene in what we read from the past. For example, we do not read Socialist Realist novels in the West because the ideology of socialism should not be given a platform. Thomas Hardy’s novels depicting the unfair treatment of manual laborers should be left to gather dust on the shelf. By contrast, we read novels about the oppression of women (e.g., Madame Bovary, Moll Flanders, Anna Karenina) because we want to encourage and preserve the emancipated position of women. The works or classics chosen from the past are like the topics elucidated in history books – they should have a constructive relevance to the present day.
As is always the case in direct or indirect regimes of censorship, the preferential treatment given to one ideological orientation eventually both prevents the stakeholders from gauging the contemporary mood accurately and causes frustrated members of society to seek more radical solutions.
The message for time-strapped shoppers might be innocuous and easily dismissed by customers who have enough time and like to roam through the supermarket. It is different for the public receiving the values of pragmatism, inculcating them, failing to achieve the results and never seeing any positive representation of the world of failure, just seeing the postmodern novel, with its loser, outsider or failure, close at best without an end, often in a story without any authentic representation of the many beautiful moments that the failing reader experiences in their life despite their ex-ante exclusion from the possibility of social acceptance in the leitculture of pragmatism.
The dynamics of the current repressive constellation are not particularly new. What might be, is the voluntary nature of collaboration by intellectuals, especially authors. Next, we will compare the approach of some past and present writers to their vocation.
First, we will look at former radicals to grasp the potential inspiration of work relevant to life. Then we will see how their view contrasts to sycophants.
2. Writers’ relationship to the context
Even if major stakeholders attempt and actually succeed in dictating the ideological framework for literary fiction, writers are still free to choose their orientation in the given context.
In contemporary American literature, which will be the focus of the discussion on modern-day literature here, prominent writers under the aegis of major publishing houses logically do not actively foster dissent. For the most part, as we will see below, they tend to shy away from adopting the bold artistic, social or political positions of extremists like Leo Tolstoy or John Paul Sartre. Many profess to have very limited aims in their work, ranging from the desire to see your writing in print (John Updike), to affirm the transcendental value of the individual (Russell Banks) or none at all (Paul Auster).
A 2012 collection of essays was published on the topic of the purpose of writing. The essays were culled from previous publications by American and international authors. After reading hundreds of pages by Tolstoy and hundreds more by Sartre on their philosophy of art, we were surprised to receive a volume with eleven essays on just over one hundred pages in total!?!?9 Suffice it to say, these writers did not feel the need to elaborate on the hypotheses, theories, logic or other aspects of their work.
In addition to the implicit constraints imposed by their publishers and social circles indoctrinated by stakeholders of pragmatism and all but demanding at least perfunctory complicity, the authors start with the assumption that their role as writers is either unimportant or largely tied to the shared interests of pragmatists. Similar to the situation we find ourselves in when we talk about a consensus view, it is possible to skip over details, to rely on other interlocutors to fill in gaps and regurgitate cliches and dogma heard ad nauseum over every channel and virtually internalized. It is much harder and requires substantially more explanation to summarize and expose the oppression of accepted beliefs, as Tolstoy and Sartre did, and draft a counterideology that their literary fiction bears out.
2.1 Tolstoy – authenticity and infection
In What Is Art? Leo Tolstoy posits that art is necessary to mankind because it is found throughout the world, similar to religion. He assumes that religion is accessible, meaning understandable or possible to relate to, so art must share this characteristic to function as “communion among people.”10 11 Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century, the art of the people was lost to the art of the masters.12 The latter produced their work for the upper classes,13 which meant that art lost some of its most constituent elements: (i) religious/spiritual content, (ii) beauty of form, (iii) sincerity/authenticity and naturalness.14 Instead, art aimed to “afford the greatest pleasure to a certain group of people” (upper class), becoming artificial and cerebral15 to fulfill this desire of the upper class. Four methods characterized this modern counterfeit art: borrowing, imitation, effectfulness and diversion.16 And such art fails because the wholeness, organicness in which form and content constitute an inseparable whole expressing the feeling experienced by the artist is missing.17 The feelings expressed by art cannot be divorced from the object of art itself,18 similar to the concept of Aesthetics (Quality) in Robert Pirsig, which we will get to later. Furthermore, these feelings must be new because “the only true work of art is one that conveys a new feeling not experienced by people before. As a product of thinking is only a product of thinking when it conveys new observations and thoughts, and does not repeat what is already known, in exactly the same way a work of art is only a work of art when it introduces a new feeling (however insignificant) into the general usage of human life. The only reason why children and adolescents experience works of art so strongly is that they convey to them for the first time feelings that they have not experienced before.”19 This authentically experienced and shared new thing is communicated to readers through art and these readers grasp it thanks to the infectiousness of the content and form of the feeling.20 The infectiousness of the new feeling then facilitates communion among people.21
2.2 Sartre – literary revolt
As parasites of the parasitic class, writers of fiction usher in the increasingly widespread form of print media in the baroque, Sartre argues in What Is Literature?22 The collection consists primarily of three interrogative parts: what is writing?, why write?, and for whom does one write?
In discussing what writing is, Sartre explains that language is used to communicate. If you have observed something and do not just want to contemplate it, then you can go to the trouble of communicating it through writing. Very similar to Tolstoy’s unique experience infecting readers, Sartre’s writer communicates what they have seen to disclose an aspect of the world, only in Sartre it is something to be changed. This is the ‘committed’ writer, whose words are action,23 and, by virtue of this, they contest the established values of the regime:24 “the writer gives society a guilty conscience, he is thereby in a state of perpetual antagonism towards the conservative forces which are maintaining the balance he tends to upset. For the transition to the mediate which can be brought about only by a negation of the immediate is a perpetual revolution.”25
You can think of this along the lines of what we are pursuing in this perypatetik project. The pragmatic way of life defined primarily by materialism, consumption, self-determination, the achievement of ends, success… is unquestioned by pragmatists.26 A writer exposing any of these values “names the behavior of an individual, [reveals] it to them, or they see themselves. And since you [as writer] are at the same time naming it to all others, they know that they are seen at the moment they see themselves. The furtive gesture, which they forgot while making it, begins to exist enormously, to exist for everybody.”27 This “gesture” – say, overly large, round, dead eyes – might take the form of attention to material objects, e.g., a character repeatedly paying attention to nice apartments, a new air conditioner, to reveal their materialist orientation. By contrast, the “gesture” could be a positively portrayed act or activity that is vastly at odds with pragmatic conceptions such as mowing grass in a field. Either which way, the act revealed becomes the subject of analysis.
The question of why an author writes is answered by what Sartre calls the appeal to the freedom of readers.28 Harking back on the mind-body or subject-object dualism of metaphysics, Sartre argues that the work produced by the author, especially the relations, images, connections in it, is neither a physical object like a rock nor a purely mental or subjective conception such as beauty or quality or moral values such as good, bad, etc. The world called to life in the book, e.g., the azure sea lapping at the cliffs, does not exist outside of the pages of the book, so it is not an object or part of the “body” (objective external world). At the same time, if the author, the original “mind,” ceases to exist as all authors do, it is still possible for readers to conceptualize the azure sea lapping at the cliffs. So the work of literature does not reside purely in the mind or subject.29 This is the basis for Sartre’s view that the writer appeals to the freedom of the reader. Both are free in fact. The writer is free to conjure up the work produced. And the reader is free to collaborate in the production30 by parsing out the relations, images and connections it establishes.
In chapter three, “For Whom Does One Write?” Sartre describes the evolution of the writer from a parasite guarding the dogma of the aristocracy in 17th century Europe to a critic supporting the oppressed bourgeoisie in the 18th century (“the bad conscience of the privileged”31) and then a service provider for the newly empowered bourgeoisie in the 19th century (“the good conscience of the oppressing class”32). There is also an actual audience as well as a hypothetical one. Early on, when writers were supported by the elite and only the elite could read, the writer wrote what readers wanted in part because they wanted to be feted.33 At this time, the writer was also in harmony with the prevailing ideology.34 That changed with the rise of the (educated) bourgeoisie, especially when they began to purchase the works of novelists criticizing the aristocratic elite.35
Literary fiction for Sartre should, however, adopt social or political agency. In “Pricking Us into Revolt?” Damon Boria sums up the social functions it is potentially endowed with: “giving society a guilty conscience by demanding it assume or change itself, facilitating class consciousness, challenging the alienation of work and showing the human person as creative action, awakening oppressors to the fact that they are oppressed, militating in favor of the individual and the socialist revolution, reestablishing the dignity of language, speaking aloud the opinions of the citizenry, and, in response to the circumstances of one’s age, arouse anger, discomfort, shame, hatred and love.”36 37
Broadly speaking, Tolstoy and Sartre furnish templates for a writer’s relationship to their work. Their philosophies of art outline approaches to dissent. Even if their philosophies have no scholarly value, they give us a framework for grasping a countercultural literary mindset and reveal its implementation in their work.
The relationship to writing is quite different with the contemporary authors’ positions collected in Burn This Book.
2.3 John Updike, Russell Banks, Paul Auster, et al.
At the beginning of his essay titled “Notes on Literature and Engagement,” Russell Banks utters the soothing words that the stakeholders of pragmatism want to hear: “Novelists, story writers, and poets have nearly always positioned themselves in support of justice, human rights, and equality. As individuals, that is. As citizens of a particular nation or even of the world. And why not? For who would position himself against justice, human rights, and equality?”38 (author’s emphasis) And then he discounts a political role for writers, explaining that “in the nearly three-hundred-year history of American literature, so very few novels have managed to be significant forces for social change.”39
The conclusion immediately drawn here is that novelists are humanists who are either apolitical or in an American society so humanist that there is no need for social change literature a la Sartre. If writers are either apolitical or their society is flourishing on such a scale that writing for social change is fruitless, then authors will certainly not be any threat to incite or infect readers with a dissenting message. They may not necessarily be supportive, but there is no concern about opposition.
These remarks by Banks support, on the surface, the status quo by focusing on private issues. He argues that an author should describe himself to both himself and others, dramatize what being human is in our time and for all time and share “a vision of the supreme worth of one’s secret, private consciousness.”40 Against the apolitical backdrop Banks has laid out, we can be confident that the dramatization will not be too dramatic, quite along the lines of John Updike and Paul Auster.
In “Why Write?” John Updike lists off his concerns as: “to survive, to improve, to make my microcosms amusing to me and then to others, to fail, if fail I must, through neither artistic cowardice nor laziness, to catch all the typographical errors in my proofs, to see that my books appear in jackets both striking and fairly representative of the contents, to arrange words and spaces and imagined realities in patterns never exactly achieved before, to be able to defend any sentence I publish.”41 It goes without saying that Updike is writing for himself and for art’s sake. He reiterates this by stating that readers who expect something else do not comprehend the vocation of novel writing. These remarks mirror one of the worst contributions to the collection, Paul Auster’s roughly one thousand (!) words on writing “because you have to, because you have no choice.”42 By comparison to a plumber or a doctor, furthermore, it is useless43 (amusingly, as Tolstoy argued about counterfeit art).
Both Updike and Auster explain the reason not just for their writing, but also for not reading literary fiction. Their remarks serve as justification for readers’ increasing dismissal of literary fiction. Why am I as a reader so interested in Updike or Auster as to spend days reading a book about them with no relevance to me personally? To the extent that Russell Banks shares this solipsistic perspective, why should a teacher – i.e., a worker, who leads a humble life in a small apartment unable to afford most luxuries, forced to improvise for fun by going to neighborhood parks being ruined by trustfunders letting their dogs run wild or pedestrian zones along above-ground subways on the fringe of a metropolis – delve into the work of a writer who is simply concerned with themselves and their own craft? How will they help her? What insights do they have? Especially if the teacher barely making ends meet does not perceive themselves to be even remotely satisfied as the writer presumably is or particularly interested in the humanity that the writer celebrates. Not even most movies or television series (like reality TV) or even soap operas are per se as irrelevant to her as a writer with the mentioned philosophies. She wants to understand why she is in her situation, what possible alternatives are, how she can cure the disease causing her eyes to glaze over. The NY Times doesn’t answer her questions, social media doesn’t either, television is hopeless – but a writer describing “himself to himself and others” – give me a break. Spare me.
It is possible that some writers mix a “politically” acceptable statement in writing with more radical positions bunkered in the text body. Russell Banks, for example, at least blatantly contradicts himself (or interprets social and political change too directly). Unlike Updike and Auster, after describing an equally egoistic purpose for authors, Banks states unequivocally that a writer of literary fiction is “committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom and disregarding the official version of everything… For the novelist does not speak in his books for others; the novelist listens to others. Especially to those who otherwise would go unheard.”44 The same can be said for those unseen.
It is unclear whether Banks initially writes about authors’ task being apolitical and aimed at describing us to ourselves and others45 to assuage the implicit censors (i.e., publishing houses and stakeholders) before shifting to a Sartrean agenda of opposition to power and revealing the presumably “supreme worth” of the unheard and unseen, who in turn are – by all accounts – the opposition, challengers of received wisdom, people disregarding the “official version of everything.” Or, more likely, he does not grasp the stages of social or political change, which do not come about by publication of a book followed by immediate action, as his disparaged examples of The Jungle and Uncle Tom’s Cabin suggest (publication was followed by nearly immediate social change/legislation). In this case, he also does not understand the role of the author in social developments. As we are doing in the perypatetik project, the place of authors, editors and publications related to literary fiction is to raise awareness among readers of something they would not perceive without its representation in fiction. For example, we have written essays, papers and have a website dedicated to the topic of pragmatists and romantics, but until fundamental values held by pragmatists are shown to pale in comparison to romantics in multiple non-material regards, it will remain difficult for readers to develop the perception required for social change that is then pursued through institutions other than literary fiction. This takes time. A lot of time.
In contemporary literary fiction, however, we largely see the conservative side of Banks or the approaches of Updike and Auster. A reader will not encounter credible dissent. The shibboleths of pragmatism indisputably prevail, even if their espousers are flawed.
3. Case studies of contemporary vetted authors
These case studies were chosen basically at random. As should be or will be apparent, we need authors representing critically acclaimed writers of literary fiction. Because we are based in New York, we opted to kill two birds with one stone by analyzing three books with plots set in the city – learn a little more about the city and criticize contemporary literary fiction. Most importantly, however, we looked for establishment authors whose work at least theoretically has the potential to represent romantics fairly and to implicitly, yet sharply criticize aspects of contemporary culture (and pragmatists by association). Gary Shteyngart’s novel Lake Success is about a hedge fund manager on a trip to become reacquainted with ordinary America, as he puts it. In Min Jin Lee’s novel Free Food for Millionaires, the child of Korean immigrants grows up in a borough similar to ours and becomes exposed to the finance industry as a young adult. Finally, Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead must almost by nature confront the tragic issue of race relations in America.
All three works of literary fiction share inherent potential to juxtapose on the one hand a certain group inclined to be pragmatists (bankers or managers) with a group considered to be romantics (immigrants or workers and criminals). Short synopses of these novels, the context, the authors’ backgrounds between two cultures and (at least past) criticism of the finance industry by intellectuals suggest that these novels were most likely to refute our hypotheses. It turns out that the ideology of pragmatism has a long reach.
3.1 Gary Shteyngart – sympathetic blundering pragmatists and implausible hopeless romantics
First off. Gary Shteyngart is an extraordinarily talented writer who mixes a creative use of language with an ironic sense of humor to infect his readers, prompting laughter both at Americans Americaning in general and at individuals misconceiving in specific contexts.46 That said, Shteyngart is a writing and walking billboard for pragmatism. A perfect example is his novel Lake Success, a comedy tracking the adventure of a hedge fund titan. He has obviously studied the language of finance, similar to what Min Jin Lee does in Free Food for Millionaires: AUM, price point, premarket, etc. are littered throughout the text. Some parts are hilarious, like the main character describing himself as a moderate Republican and his father as a moderate Nazi: “We are a family of moderates,” he states.
At a book reading for his latest novel My Country Friends, Shteyngart described his aim for students in his creative writing classes: to ensure that their lives are as much of a mess as mine is. And that is the impression we get from the novels: Everybody’s life is a mess, so I’m not alone. It may be consoling and have some cathartic effect, but we can find this commiseration a lot more efficiently by watching a movie or TV show in one evening rather than spending multiple hours over multiple days reading a book.
In What is Art? Tolstoy recounts his negative experience at a staging of Wagner’s Ring in Moscow, which he describes as Act II and would be the Valkyrie, but sounds like Act III Siegfried from his description of the plot. Nonetheless, his commentary is apropos: “Listening to this opera, I could not help thinking of a respectable, intelligent, literate village labourer – one of those intelligent, truly religious men whom I know among the people – and imagining the terrible perplexity of such a man if he were to be shown what I had seen that evening.” 47
Unfortunately, this statement could be made even more broadly for readers of Shteyngart’s work. Tolstoy calls Wagner’s production “very skilfully employed […] methods of falsification worked out in the long practice of counterfeiting art […] – borrowing, imitation, effectfulness and diversion.”48 Unless it is a satire on the publishing industry and what it is willing to promote, Lake Success cannot be described as much more than borderline mediocre pulp fiction with some social critique, as usual with the best frontloaded to the first 50 or so pages (in the spirit of Moon Palace by Paul Auster, which takes the cake for great intros followed by mediocre bodies and conclusions). The main characters are a husband and wife, both of whose lives are a mess – unhappy marriage, autistic child, husband’s hedge fund losing money – at the start and get messier as the story unfolds. The plot satirizes the classic journey motif; the language often borrowed from finance is turned on itself (e.g., profit and loss statement for assessing a person’s current state); there is implausible drama like encounters with a drug dealer or hooking up with a college graduate as well as a critique of disgusting practices in rural America; and, above all, the syntax and language combined with indifference to one implausibility after another to ensure diversion. Constantly.
After Barry Cohen nearly kills his autistic son in a drunken rage, he goes on a road trip by Greyhound bus with only his watch collection, wallet and clothes on his back. No, the plot is not set in the thirties or fifties or even the seventies. In the late teens of the twenty-first century, a hedge fund titan managing $2.4 trillion in assets gets on a bus(!) that should ultimately bring him to his college ex-girlfriend who broke up with him over 20 years ago (needless to say, we do not recall On the Road here, which is probably why this and other potential intertextual references to journey – The Odyssey 🙂 –, are not mentioned). He does not even have his smartphone with him. At the first stop in Baltimore, he withdraws $1,200 and then throws his credit cards in the garbage can so he can’t be tracked. After hanging out with a drug dealer in Baltimore, Maryland, he visits his ex-girlfriend’s parents in Richmond, Virginia. Then stops at a former fired employee’s place in Atlanta, Georgia, for a few days on his way to El Paso, Texas (where his ex-girlfriend now lives). On the bus from Atlanta to Jackson, Mississippi, the 43-year-old Euro-American hedge fund wizard meets an Afro-American girl who has just graduated from college and has a one-night stand with her. When he returns to the city, he fails to woo back his former wife; she marries a professor and he withdraws to upstate New York after a couple more hedge funds fail…
Most of the plot twists, except for some isolated aspects of the reunion with his ex-girlfriend’s parents, are highly implausible or utterly pointless or both relative to the stated aim: Barry explains repeatedly that he is taking a trip to become reacquainted with the ordinary people of America. The potential here is almost unlimited, as we show weekly in stories published in our perypatetik project. Shteyngart may capture a redeeming feature here and there, like the kindness and goodwill of the drug dealer, his fired employee or the girl on the bus, but he utterly fails to represent these or other characters, independent of Barry’s jaded and warped perspective, in a positive and authentic light that almost certainly exists in the reality of them all. The young drug dealer will have friends (completely contrary to his representation in the book) and be integrated in some type of community, even if it is risky and based on superficial relationships; his ex-girlfriend’s parents come away best of all in the book, but have no real identity although their academic milieu should be easy for a writer teaching at Columbia to reconstruct; the ex-employee is not representative of ordinary Americans as a Ferrari-driving trader; worst of all, the one positively described Afro-American with a college education allows a twenty-year-older man to kiss and finger her immediately after meeting on a bus.
Despite the personal narrator telling from Barry’s point of view, each of these everyday Americans could be depicted in a dignified manner that would enhance the artistry of Shteyngart’s work by increasing the gap between Cohen’s distorted perception and the reality of middle- or lower-class life. It can be a cold, brutal take of this reality – and be just as effective. And this is exactly what constitutes one of the main issues of our time – the chasm between the elite’s perception of life and middle-class reality. What’s more, in a satirical novel in part describing the personal dystopia of the hedge fund manager, Shteyngart misses a perfect opportunity to make the story even funnier by allowing the reader to recognize this absurd rift between the distorted pathetic financial elite and the struggling yet defiant and proud people. Instead, Barry’s critique of, e.g., the drug dealer, his ex-employee or the girl on the bus, is not entirely off-base. The reader is therefore confused: They say, yes, that is true, when Barry talks about the need to mentor the one or the other so they are pointed in the right direction, even if Barry’s ideas on how to go about this are ridiculous. But the reader doesn’t really want to agree with a condescending elitist who doesn’t respect anyone. The problem is compounded by Barry being relatively nice (he refuses to sleep with a prostitute in a rub and tug; he decides early in his career to reject the hedge fund manager model of four wives; he finds his father’s racism despicable; he helps socialize his ex-girlfriend’s child, etc.). The reader is repeatedly caught between empathy for Barry and dismissal of him. It may be an effective representation of character, but it attenuates the juxtaposition of the elite and ordinary. It encourages readers to view pragmatists like Barry as imperfect, but nice guys working to improve life and certainly superior to the hopeless romantics.
If we don’t belong to Barry’s circle, we are left perplexed like the village laborer Tolstoy imagines at a Wagner production. It documents our time to some extent, it has funny social critique in parts, the use of language is creative, but we can get most of that from the movies in a couple hours. The literary text has little value for us outside of mediocre entertainment, so we put it aside. A few pages have made it clear what we have in our hands – after all, we’ve been reading all day, and at least what we have been reading at work should engender something of reasonable value for us (pride, joy, various stages of being) and possibly for others. Shteyngart’s primary achievement is to humanize a banker, the hedge fund manager Barry Cohen. The stakeholders at his publishing house couldn’t be happier.
3.2 Min Jin Lee – the propaganda novel: attractive pragmatists and marginalized romantics
Similar to Shteyngart, Min Jin Lee’s background and novel furnish an ideal context for revealing at least the equality of romantics’ lives. According to publicly available information, the author immigrated with her parents from Korea to New York in early childhood. If a reader anticipates that she had exposure to Korean traditions and practices at home and in family social circles, while immersed in American society through school, the ridiculously titled novel Free Food for Millionaires49 confirms this inkling.
In the novel, the lead protagonist is a Korean girl who has grown up in Elmhurst, Queens, New York City (like the author) and just graduated from college. Her parents are represented as hardworking immigrants in stereotypical roles – an authoritarian husband with traditional values and an obedient wife who serves him. Of their two kids, the lead protagonist, Casey, is a rebel who smokes, drinks, has a Euro-American boyfriend (her father expects her to marry a Korean) and no exact career plans. In this constellation, we have the perfect potential setup for a novel mediating between the world of romanticism represented by the immigrant parents and their social circles on the one hand and the world of pragmatism that Casey has entered through school, friends and then work on the other. Furthermore, after Princeton, she ultimately gets a job working in the finance industry in New York, cementing her immersion in pragmatic culture and a nice potential contrast to her parents’ jobs as workers at a drycleaner.
Unfortunately, the potential lying in this approach does not materialize. In fact, it is sabotaged almost on page one. The story begins with a family dinner where pragmatic Casey is pitted against her romantic father who ultimately punches her in the face. Naturally, this inexcusable and unjustifiable act prevents the reader from identifying or sympathizing with this romantic figure and anything or anyone associated with him. The representation of his wife offers better grounds for understanding romantic norms and results in the best passage of the book, but ultimately disintegrates into a thoroughly implausible rape scene. Finally, the author wastes the potential to positively juxtapose the down-to-earth production, acceptance of fate, religion, community, humor, existentialism and compassion of working-class romantics to the crude materialism, inhumanity, didacticism, self-determination and ruthlessness of hyperpragmatists in the finance industry. Instead, most of the characters – the overwhelming majority in the book – working in finance may have affairs, divorce or deceive their friends, but not one goes as far as to physically assault or commit any other act that cannot be condoned.
In this context, it is not surprising to find a hymn to characteristics of pragmatism. The narrator starts by explaining that Casey is at odds with her romantic origins, that is, her family’s traditional values (brought from abroad). After marginalizing romantics through violence, the father’s general poor treatment of women in his family, their unemancipated position and a slew of other descriptions that bear negative connotations for pragmatic readers, the narrator has assured sympathy for their protagonist.
The reader is then effectively taken on a journey to discover the merits of:
- materialism – the themes of consumption and money problems, especially credit card debt, are all-pervasive; with negative developments, we look forward to the surmounting of the problem;
- self-determination – Casey wants to figure out her own path to success);
- ends – Casey is annoyed by almost everyone and everything throughout the novel (her parents, first boyfriend, mentor/employer Sabine, second boyfriend, friend Ella, Ella’s husband, investment banker lover, money problems/credit card debt, spending, job), yet the implication is that she will figure it out, will get to the end and achieve happiness; even if the open conclusion to the book leaves this issue unanswered, her inability to enjoy almost any event or circumstance over 500 pages shows that she is definitively not embracing the process of living like romantics; she is seeking an end;
- higher education – Casey went to Princeton and begins Business School at NYU in the novel;
- networking – the jobs Casey gets and her boyfriends and lovers are all a result of social circles and connections.
Casey is the propagator of these values, which is all the more effective by Casey being a flawed person. By identification, the reader is encouraged to look at their own presumably flawed position and say to themselves that they can improve by embracing the pragmatic way. In the absence of identification, you can argue that her background in romanticism is at fault.
Supporting these values is also a pragmatist, Casey, with a mindset and behavioral patterns shared by pragmatists in general. Casey does not have any sense of humor whatsoever. She never tells jokes; I don’t believe she is described as laughing or even genuinely smiling over the course of 250,000+ words; she also doesn’t view people, places or situations with a humorous bent like Shteyngart. She is constantly active. The scenes where she sits in a place for an extended period of time all end in chaos: the opening family dinner scene ends with her being punched in the face; a wedding of her friend ends with her dad shoving her boyfriend; a dinner with her mentor cum employer also ends in a ruckus. Whenever circumstances bring an end to work or activity, offering the potential for Casey to relax, rest, enjoy her life, the narrator prevents this from occurring, either through the protagonist’s personality or events imposed on the protagonist. Finally, in terms of the normative traits we cover in Peripatetic Alterity, Casey is a consumer, embraces consumption and is surrounded by it. From men to money and living beyond her means, her journey is in part simply an odyssey through this. Book Two can serve as an example, although any part would surely proffer sufficient evidence of this claim: Chapter one (of book two) is about getting more money; chapter two is framed in the context of a new house bought (by Casey’s friend and her husband); chapter three relates Casey’s mentor, a retail entrepreneur, guiding her to a successful (materialist) future; chapter five begins with her investment banker friend saying “you’re wasting your life.” Fitting with the leitmotif of the novel, the narrator informs us: “Knowing how broke she was, he had decided that the solution was for her to make more money.”50 The rest details the beginning of her relationship with another banker at a golf course, with betting, and in a restaurant. When the plot returns to Casey in chapter 7, we encounter one of the more interesting aspects of pragmatic consumption: the consumption of people, metaphorically. One form this takes in general is a pragmatist’s tendency to have friends or a social circle for only a short time before moving on to a new set or circle.51 This practice is implied in the novel, as Casey replaces old friends (Virginia) or an existing boyfriend (Jay) with new ones (Ella and Unu). But the new form is her attitude toward relationships – they become something divorced from emotion or spirituality; they are to be consumed like a pizza and enjoyed for purely physical reasons.52 As if to underscore the materialist agenda, Casey’s consumption of Unu is followed almost immediately by the purchase of Chinese takeout, discussion of credit card debt (twenty-three thousand), gambling debts, savings in the bank, purchases of clothes.
While Lee spends five hundred pages exploring the vicissitudes of pragmatism, mostly from the perspective of Casey, she can’t entirely deny a poetic representation of romantic life on occasion. Mostly, this transpires with Casey’s mother. While her childhood reveals the polarization of romantics later on,53 the most eloquent expression of the poetry in romanticism is found when Leah goes in search of her daughter many months after the assault. Ultimately, she ends up in the apartment of Casey’s friend Ella. Yet Ella, the other partially romantic character (often marginalized as well), initially refuses to tell her where Casey is actually staying. Perhaps in a certainly unintentional acknowledgement of the communal nature of suffering and endless compassion among romantics, Ella relents after Leah, uncomfortable and out of place in a fancy Manhattan high-rise, brings her face-to-face with a reality she has probably lost sight of in her daily routine:
“During the week, I…,” Leah stammered. “My husband doesn’t know I’m here. He thinks I’m getting a haircut. On Saturday mornings, he can work without me for a while, so I can run errands,” she explained hurriedly in Korean, thinking that a young American girl like Ella couldn’t possibly understand the details that made up her life: sorting dirty shirts, darning missing buttons, and taking up hems of designer jeans for teenage customers whom she addressed as “miss”; trying to find the best cut of meat that was on special at the Key Food for dinner, scrubbing toilets on Saturday nights, cooking her husband’s dinner at a set hour and making sure there was always enough beer and whiskey in the house for him; and lastly, all the places a woman like her didn’t enter.54
Casey’s mother doesn’t say it directly, but this passage reveals one unsaid thing about her: Her daughters are the meaning in her life. The marriage, life at home, work are duly tolerated. She doesn’t complain about all the constraints. But she can’t bear to have lost one of her daughters, the two beings who have at least the potential to bring joy. Ella must grasp this position of Leah. She must understand either through the tone of voice or the graphic description of her confined and constrained existence that the moments of joy, love, the sublime or nirvana are so rare that she cannot refuse to give this romantic a chance for one here: “‘She’s staying with a friend. Three blocks from here’, Ella said… She jotted down the address.”55
3.3 Colson Whitehead – coopting the counterculture: pragmatic romantics
One of the incredible achievements of pragmatists over the last forty to fifty years has been their ability to coopt groups that are perfectly positioned to act as a counterweight to pragmatic materialism. Writers, intellectuals, nearly every employed person outside the laptop class and managers, a majority of Euro-Americans, Afro-Americans, Latinos and immigrants as well as women have all been drawn into the fold with the usual tactics: removing barriers to materialist success, making a few high-profile individuals very wealthy and using these individual megaphones to propagate the pragmatic message. This recipe, in addition to the universally (including us) undisputed recognition of the necessary dismantling of (discriminating) barriers, resonates alongside the greater equalization in standards of living. Yet it lumbers these potential highly functional dissidents with an identity at odds with the constructive role they could play in our unipolar world.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead dramatizes the ordinary life of a (managerial) entrepreneur named Raymond Carney who is the first in his family to get a university degree. The triptych novel effectively starts by making this association of education with upward (material) mobility. In the second panel of the triptych, networking is tied to upward mobility – Carney is encouraged to join a club with affluent members, which will circumscribe his freedom by imposing another obligation. So embedded within a novel of criminal acts that repeatedly rope in the lead protagonist, Whitehead blatantly foists on readers the pragmatic values of materialism, consumption, success, self-determination and education as well as the norms of networking, management and obligations.
In the first triptych, The Truck, the lead protagonist, Ray Carney ends a slow day selling furniture at his store, by taking a walk through his dream neighborhood with apartments outside his family’s reach and then deciding to pursue one at any cost.56 No mention is made of such thoughts in this sequence of events, but the immediate relationship between “lack of material gain” on the day in question, followed by a desired material object (the apartment), lays groundwork similar to what we all experience in everyday life – not possessing enough right now to purchase a desirable material object. Carney desires more. It flits through his consciousness initially. Then it becomes unconscious as he half-joins the group of criminals around Miami Joe who want to use him and his furniture store as a fence, a type of middleman between the actual thieves and the buyers of the stolen goods. This general context serves as the backdrop for book two, Dorvay, in which Carney seeks revenge for being ripped off by a banker at a networking event. In book three we find out that Carney and his family have now succeeded in moving to their better apartment on Riverside Drive, the self-made man having achieved the end that he had been relentlessly saving up for in the first two books. Yet even that is not enough. This book closes with him going to an open house on the best block in Harlem, Strivers’ Row, because… well… “Riverside Drive was nice, but it was hard to turn down a chance at Strivers’ Row. If you could swing it.”57
It is not Ray Carney’s profession as a small business owner that reveals his pragmatic bent. Being an entrepreneur does not necessarily entail affiliation with pragmatism or romanticism. However, the constant desire for more and his sole interest in this suggests that Carney is a classic pragmatist.
The novel as a whole reinforces this orientation. The universality of the theme of gain, the leitmotif of “everybody had a hand out for the envelope” [with cash in it],58 causes the theme to extend beyond an individual character as well. Carney is the main protagonist and dominant figure surrounded mostly by criminals. Nobody acts as a serious foil or alternative point of reference. There is also no omniscient narrator speaking as a moral instance guiding the reader’s interpretation. In book two, Dorvay, Whitehead describes multiple dichotomies in the Harlem world of 1961: strivers born on one block (Strivers’ Row) and crooks just a few blocks away (Crooked Way), daytime and nighttime work, legal and illegal activities, all boiling down to the desire for more money. Carney, for example, is an admirable testament to the “bootstrap spirit that delivered [their] ancestors from bondage,”59 as a speaker at the local club of strivers says, but he has no other side to him. His family is barely acknowledged; his daytime self is preoccupied with the legal business of selling home furnishings from his story, and his dorvay self, after his first sleep as in the Middle Ages, handles the fence activities such as ferrying stolen goods brought to him from his store to a trader in midtown. The narrator does not judge Carney’s actions. Similar to pragmatists like Casey, Carney is also unable to relax and enjoy communal gatherings without a purpose. Most of these are in the context of his in-laws, with him fighting them, feeling uncomfortable or leaving. His social activity and meetings with others are always aimed at achieving some end, effectively, networking. Yet his down-to-earth character, good reputation as the “biggest nobody in Harlem,”60 his fair treatment of a “working lady” used to set up the banker he wants to get revenge on – the overall impression made – causes him to act as a type of role model, for the pragmatist agenda.
3.4 The fortress of pragmatism – American literature
What we do not find in Shteyngart, Lee and Whitehead is almost as telling as the patterns identified above.
Institutional religion, belief in any form of spirituality or other forms of metaphysical influence are not alluded to by any of the protagonists outside of an occasional reference to indeterminate phrases like “it had to be that way.” Lee alone has characters, Casey’s parents, who are regular, active members of their religious community, but their marginalized position in the novel colors the readers interpretation of their life.
The omission of fate or determinism is both logical and surprising. It follows that a pragmatic culture does not ascribe to the idea of fate determining the success of rags-to-riches heroes such as Barry, Casey and Raymond. The individual themselves must be responsible for their happy end, according to the dictates of the leitculture, but the indications in the backgrounds of all these authors suggest widespread exposure to romanticism, so they must be very familiar with the superstition attached to the careers of people like Barry, Casey and Raymond. To what extent,
editors censors remove references or plot twists with determined results must be left to future research.
If you were to (mis)take these narratives for an accurate representation of reality, even for pragmatists, it would be fair to ask why we waste our time going through the process of life. Apart from sex scenes, the protagonists (Barry, Casey, Raymond) hardly enjoy a single moment. Barry has a couple of experiences – with his ex-employee in Atlanta and especially the partially autistic son of his ex-girlfriend in El Paso; Casey has a semi-enjoyable exchange with a bookstore owner (albeit attenuated by the leitmotif of her credit card debt); and Raymond comments matter-of-factly, yet positively on activities with his family, like taking a family photo or going to the park. In roughly a thousand pages and over five hundred thousand words, these protagonists’ ability to enjoy moments in the course of life are few and far between, to say the least. And it is not as if secondary characters or foils are acting in this capacity. Barry’s wife Seema, Casey’s friend Ella and Raymond’s cousin Freddie do not contrast materially from the main characters in terms of seeking a happy end and not enjoying the process of life: Seema wants sex; Ella seeks love; and Freddie serves to advance the plot. There is one important difference between Whitehead on the one hand and Shteyngart and Lee on the other in the representation of the process: Raymond is fundamentally content with his life; Barry and Casey are definitively not.
Now that we have examined the representation of pragmatism in literature supporting the status quo, let us turn to the potential that can be unleashed by uniting pragmatism and romanticism.
4. Robert Pirsig – Aesthetics or Quality as oneness
Behind the barn stretches an undulating hill running towards the grove of trees at the bottom. A few years ago, the area was a swamp, entirely impenetrable. The swath of grass, moss and weeds mixed with gravel here and there is a far cry from a smooth green sloping to the hole. It isn’t even on par with the rough of a golf course – not natural, not professionally landscaped. Compounding this picture of inferiority, to the left, is a row of – for the most part – poorly placed boulders lining the seasonal creek for the runoff from the pond. To the right, behind the barn, a couple of crumbling stone walls abruptly culminate at the incline to the grove. Stalks, weeds and invasive vines that strangle trees protrude from between the stones paralleling and intersecting the path. In autumn, a massive bed of leaves covers the ground of the grove and hill estuary. In summer, the grass and some weeds need to be cut every couple weeks.
The landscape, even on its best days – grass cut, leaved raked – is viewed differently by the person who sculpted it into its current state and the passive viewer, whether or not the latter has witnessed the transformation. The producer will always regard this mediocre landscape as far more beautiful than the consumer because the producer themselves is an integral part of the production, whereas the consumer stands in relation to it as an outsider. For the sculptor or producer, the subject-object dualism has been eliminated – the landscape is not in the producer’s head – the consumer sees it as well, yet the object is not entirely separate from the subject because the producer created it, knows what can’t be seen in its current static state (e.g., the movement of stones, the covering of embedded boulders, the previous swamp). It is entirely separate from the subject for the consumer. That is why they both regard the same landscape differently. The producer sees their own work in it – the clearing, digging, excavating, planting, mowing, blowing and raking of leaves – they see on the one hand two landscapes – the previously existing facts and current one molded out of some vision – as well as their own contribution to this object, entering into the oneness of the Sophists that Pirsig describes as Quality.
Before we discuss Robert Pirsig’s classic inquiry Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, let us lament the obvious weakness. From a literary standpoint, especially in terms of poetry or even acceptably creative writing, the novelistic parts of this inquiry are amongst the worst you will ever encounter in a text aspiring to be a type of novel. Some effort was made in the first half. It completely vanishes in the second.
Pirsig’s book is a masterpiece for the philosophical plot and innovative, colloquial telling of this story – the narrator’s journey to the Sophists’ oneness. The journey begins with the first-person narrator’s observation that many people like his cross-country tripmates “can’t take,” i.e., reject all technology.61 Their paintings exclude it; if something goes wrong with their motorcycle, they take it straight to the repair shop. Yet even professionals in the sphere of technology are resistant to it: He recalls a mechanic who once carelessly tried to repair tappets on his bike multiple times. Beatniks and hippies serve as additional examples of the antitechnology group.
He identifies the problem as a disconnect between the individual (subject, mind) and the technology (object, body). The narrator recounts the attempt of Phaedrus, his previous self before going insane, to bridge the division between the classical and romantic worlds. The classical is understood basically as science with its rules, structures, underlying forms, reason, laws, science, sorting and interrelating, while the romantic is appearances, art; its mode is inspirational, imaginative, creative; it proceeds by feeling, intuition, aesthetic conscience; it regards something before the sorting and interrelating begins.62 These two endeavors are tied to the same goal of figuring out how to perceive the world without doing violence to either pole and uniting them into one.63 He realizes that the quest to resolve the disconnect must pass through the concept of Quality, i.e., Aesthetics.64 The way for Phaedrus is to view Aesthetics (Quality) as not objective: It doesn’t reside in the material world like a rock or a building or other physical objects. But it is also not subjective: It doesn’t reside merely in the mind.65 If human minds cease to exist, the concept of Aesthetics (Quality) will manifest itself just as the Kantian examples of the a priori in time and space are neither present in the physical world like a rock nor would they entirely disappear with the vanishing of mankind: A tree would still age; there would still be space between two different trees. Time and space, among others, are neither part of the mind nor part of matter, but with Aesthetics (Quality) it is not a priori in the sense of something that already “exists.” Aesthetics or Quality is a third entity that lies in the novelty of creativity or production, the emergence of the new out of the old, which is both connected to mankind and independent of it.
This is the climax. The narrator hypothesizes that the problem of individuals being disconnected from technology, their surroundings, the world is classicists’ insistence on a division between subject and object.66 Aesthetics (Quality) can return indifferent technological work from noncaring subject-object dualism back to craftsmanlike self-involved reality.67 As an analogy, he envisions a railroad train called “Knowledge” and subdivides it into “Classic Knowledge” and “Romantic Knowledge.” Classic Knowledge is the engine and all the boxcars. If you subdivide the train into parts, you will find no Romantic Knowledge because so far the train is static and purposeless. Romantic Knowledge68 isn’t any “part” of the train.69 It is the leading edge of the engine, a two-dimensional surface of no real significance unless you understand that the train isn’t a static entity because a train must go somewhere.70 When we examine the train and break it up into its components along the lines of Classical Knowledge, we lose sight of the fact that the actual train is always going to a place where the track of Aesthetics (Quality) takes it. Romantic Knowledge is leading the engine into the unknown future creatively determined (by the mind or nature):
“Romantic reality is the cutting edge of experience. It’s the leading edge of the train of knowledge that keeps the whole train on the track. Traditional knowledge is only the collective memory of where that leading edge has been. At the leading edge there are no subjects, no objects, only the track of Quality ahead, and if you have no formal way of evaluating, no way of acknowledging this Quality, then the entire train has no way of knowing where to go. You don’t have pure reason – you have pure confusion. The leading edge contains all the infinite possibilities of the future. It contains all the history of the past.”71
Aesthetics (Quality) is the production or creation arising from the synthesis of past knowledge and present hypotheses and resonating with some public, even just a public of one individual who grasps the Aesthetics (Quality) that others do not yet understand. It situates contemporary innovation of all kinds at any given time as oneness. Established knowledge meets hypotheses; ossified realities such as pragmatism are received by romantics leading mankind into an unknown future (exactly the opposite of what is perceived). It is the authentic, committed work of literary fiction infecting mankind and leading us out of the current stagnation.
5. Case studies of contemporary unvetted authors – the perypatetik project
In chapter one, we laid out the framework for the romantic-pragmatic spectrum of being, with a focus on pragmatism. Chapter three showed how the values and norms of pragmatism have permeated contemporary (Western/American) literature. Now in chapter five we can explore the values and norms of romanticism in (mostly) non-Western literature in the perypatetik project.
At first glance, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the perypatetik stories published online and collected annually at the end of the year in the florilegia In the Middle, Conceived, and, here, Evanescent. They mirror the lives of romantics: seeming not to furnish material ripe for interpretation and analysis. Tolstoy and Goncharov disagreed about whether there was more meaning in the extended hand of an aristocratic woman or a peasant’s gruff hello. It would even be possible to misinterpret these stories along pragmatic lines. It is literary fiction, after all.
Nonetheless, in the perypatetik project, the field has been levelled. This is partly due to the international orientation with writers from all over the world (not immigrants to America, but writers actually living abroad). It helps that their native languages are generally not English. They are almost all professional translators or work in a sphere outside of literature and publishing. The editors in the project do not make content decisions. The texts are published largely without requests for content-based edits, which inevitably impose a publishing entity’s values, presumably pragmatic, on the diverse body of what might be called reality fiction – to borrow from a genre popular on television today. This approach naturally leads to extensive work by romantics, especially since they are often more prominently represented outside of the West and also the literary establishment.
5.1 Life as process – accept fate – spiritual/metaphysical – freedom
A more abstract side of materialism’s scope can be seen in numerous perypatetik stories. By extension or application in literary fiction, materialism entails a focus on the material. Shteyngart, Lee and Whitehead describe the details of their characters’ lives. For example, “The Cadillac turned east. Carney waited for it to disappear. Then he cut over to Amsterdam and walked up to 171st.”72 The narration of all three authors sticks closely to this descriptive function, completely and universally avoiding sweeping generalizations, philosophizing or induction. Narrators and even characters in discourse do not attempt to expand the reach beyond the specific situation or individual.73
How different it is with writers from romantic cultures. In the short story A Girl Pedaling by Marilin Guerrero Casas, the narrator sums up the essence of what we encounter in such reality fiction depicting defining values and norms of romantics – the process, fate, living – in a philosophizing framework entirely foreign to the case studies of pragmatism. The story begins:
Life is like a rollercoaster.
There are rises, falls, twists, and turns we cannot always anticipar. There are people who are constantly getting on and off and there are also others who stay to enjoy the whole ride. Fortunately, I’ve been surrounded by familia and friends my entire life so I consider myself to be a very lucky persona.
Perhaps it’s the way I am, so amazingly friendly that I’m likely to fit in everywhere I go. I can easily adaptar to any environment, situación, and even people – which sometimes works in my favor. I’m always seeking a way through when that seems imposible for others. And the truth is that I believe – no matter the hardships I have faced along the way. Because we cannot escapar de los problemas, we are doomed to fall at times; there are battles we are forced to fight; there are failures we are designed to learn from and sometimes there’s no other alterna¬tive than to start over. I remember someone telling me once that “no one starts off being excelente.” So in the end, the roller coaster will rise again, and this time the ride could be even more enjoyable.
So far, my ride has been pretty interesante. I’m thrilled by the many people who keep arriving and making a big impacto on my life. Every time I start afresh somewhere I’m easily liked. But work is definitely something new for me and my girlfriends who recently graduated from college and all became profesionales. For some of them the change is going to be very dramatic because somehow they are not used to making a living by working. We were always the bebés in our familias, some with better incomes than others, but all spoiled in our own way. As for me, it was clear from the very beginning that my parents couldn’t afford all the things I needed or wanted. That’s why I started to earn some money when I was still in college and somehow I enjoyed that kind of independencia económica. It’s something my girlfriends haven’t experienced yet. Anyway, expectativas are really high in the workplace. A new period has begun for us, although we are all aware of the poor salario we will receive. I know it’s going to be hard for us and finally we are going to be in our parent’s shoes and understand their wise mensajes about saving money. I never had a clue before and neither did my friends.74
Aside from the narrator’s willingness to eschew (materialist and objective) narration for sweeping (metaphysical and subjective) hypotheses, this passage contains a slew of romantic themes: first, intense awareness of the cyclical nature or process (as opposed to end): The first sentence is “life is a rollercoaster.” The theme is returned to above in the transitions from periods of falling and battling to learning, starting over/afresh and rising again. No less important is fate. The narrator describes the protagonist’s circumstances as fortunate,75 lucky,76 doomed,77 designed.78 We are also immersed in the desire to live (rather than consume). Aside from reflecting this in her energetic, up-tempo style, Casas describes Pat’s thrill of meeting new people, joining the workforce (she has just graduated) and enjoying independence (primarily from her parents). Despite constraints, especially financial, personal and health ones recounted in the story, Pat affirms the will to live in the metaphor of pedaling the bicycle and bluntly stating: “I come from a familia of fighters so I’m not going to give up so easily.”79
Contrary to pragmatic writers, we see a character not orienting on the values of materialism, consumption, success, the achievement of ends. Unlike middle-class Raymond in Harlem Shuffle, who is also in his twenties, Pat is not preoccupied with upward (materialist) mobility. Unlike Casey in Free Food for Millionaires, she almost certainly, in the context of Cuba, does not have the burden of debt constantly gnawing at her mind. Pat’s primary materialist concern is the poor salary for her position as translator and the difficulty of affording a place of her own on it, but she does not wander the streets fantasizing about moving to a grandiose apartment or buying thousands of dollars of clothing on a credit card to satisfy some need. She makes do with what she has, focusing on her personal wellbeing, her friends and helping them. Life, especially the social aspect, occupies her attention.
This communal side of Pat should be viewed in sharp contrast to her twenty-year-old counterparts Casey and Raymond.80 As we explained above, neither appears in a socially pleasant and relaxed group environment in over 800 pages of narrative. Casas manages to describe multiple group scenes and gatherings such as the celebration for Pat’s friend’s unexpected pregnancy and girls nights out in less than a hundred pages. These fun or at least constructive communal events are also found in many other stories in the perypatetik project, among others, in Bondarenko’s work.
5.2 Humor – process – disdain success – work – spiritual/metaphysical
Ukrainian writer and contributor Gennady Bondarenko deftly meshes work and humor to engender characters who appeal to readers, in part because of their disregard for pragmatic values and norms. In House with a Stucco Ship, Every Little Thing and Evening with Jackie Chan, his protagonists venture through their lives with a feel for the irony and humor of human existence. The tedium of vacation, work and school, aspects of life shared by everyone of all types, is countered by Bondarenko’s romantics through laughter.
In House with a Stucco Ship, Igor decides to break the routine of vacation in Sevastopol by asking a random woman to marry him. The car she drives, the gifts she receives, the plans she has all seem unrealistic for a man of his means – a translator by profession.81 Similar to Pat in A Girl Pedaling, he brushes this material impediment aside, cracking jokes about it instead. Even losing his wallet with nine hundred dollars only phases him because it abruptly spoils his mood on vacation. These (materialist) concerns are raised in passing, mere facts no more or less important than the laidback coast, the beautiful views, the eccentric prospective wife. Despite the lack of any prospects for success, he just has fun and goes with the flow, wherever it takes him within his means: when his desired wife plans to have him act as a faux buyer offering a hundred thousand dollars for her grandfather’s house to foil another person, for example, he has no reservations, but laughs about the idea that he has such money.82
In Conceived, the collection of transadaptations of childhood, Bondarenko’s narrator in Every Little Thing depicts amusement in the tedium of the school context of still socialist Ukraine. The official music programs are circumvented by underground bands,83 ordinary names and traditions replaced by comical ones derived from pranks.84 The story primarily recounts a joke played on the teacher85 and a mysterious letter received from the UK on the “magical mystery” first day of school in tenth grade.86 In classic romantic fashion, the characters here switch up the ordinary routine, as in House with a Stucco Ship, by creatively resorting to simple, non-sententious humor. The representation is especially powerful against the backdrop of education. Its importance is a bastion of pragmatism, yet here it is satirized by pupils in Advanced English class with almost no ability to speak the language and a teacher giving a top grade to a student reciting Penny Lane instead of speaking in English about their Ukrainian city.
Bondarenko’s story in this year’s edition, Evening with Jackie Chan, written prior to the war, shows a romantic mentality in the young adult journalist and photographer on assignments. One of the propaganda channels of pragmatism – journalism – becomes the target of satire here. However, the characters, naturally, do not lament the worthlessness and absurdity of their job, as pragmatists would with their moral attitude. Rather, consistent with their existential identity, they simply amuse themselves.
The divergence between romantics and pragmatists is made more palpable by contrast. Typical of pragmatists, the lead editor expects success in the assignments; the journalists should achieve results; there is a moral agenda (first, to show the demilitarization of the country after the cold war; second, to demonstrate the constructive work of the police force; third, to show the global appeal of their city by reporting on the filming of a Jackie Chan movie). By nature, the lead editor is a manager directing his workers (the journalists) and is focused on the end (the publication) rather than the process.
These characteristics of the lead editor are in stark contrast to the journalists. As is common with the actual producers of whatever the given work is, the journalists are less concerned with the success and results, do not care about any moral message to be extrapolated from their work and attempt to derive as much pleasure from the work process as possible. Their failure to obtain any publication-worthy photos from the first job, when a minesweeper is unintentionally blown to smithereens, is dismissed by them. They have the same reaction to their documentation of the police force’s crackdown on drunk driving when the accolades and promises of a bonus vanish as it turns out that they photographed the mayor’s daughter drunk behind the wheel.87 Finally, when they spend the evening tourguiding and partying with Jackie Chan, only to learn at the very end that the person they have assumed to be him is actually his assistant, they just laugh and publish the photos and story anyway. In the three sub-stories, the journalists have effectively no success, no achievements, basically satirize the moral messages, but it doesn’t sway them: “Kolya gave me a pensive look, then smiled.” And following this smile, they easily agree to simply fake it all: Pretend that their experience had been real, breathe real life into the imaginary – yet another fundamental characteristic of romantics.
5.3 Example: freedom vs. obligation
The works of both Casas and Bondarenko showcase a laundry list of romantic values and norms subtly embedded in seemingly ordinary reality fiction. Similar to most of the other stories in each collection, a reader might easily overlook the dissenting portrayal of the characters.
Instead of romantic characters being regarded as people in need of mentoring (Lake Success) or greater material wealth (Harlem Shuffle) or completely dismissed (Free Food for Millionaires), these non-establishment authors, probably romantics themselves, first of all depict what is the vast majority of mankind as living not just normally, but in an enviable manner. They don’t take any given development too seriously; they embrace the process of living rather than seeking some achievement or success; they work (rather than manage); they gather with their friends for fun; and, above all, they treasure freedom – freedom from any obligations that can be avoided.
Pat, Igor and the other protagonists explicitly and implicitly worship whatever degree of freedom they have. It may be freedom from parents or the freedom of childhood that Casas describes as epic in Spring.88 Or the creative license of Bondarenko’s journalists. Although the theme extends to many characters depicted by authors in the perypatetik project, its treatment differs. Another contributor, Armine Asryan, attaches tremendous importance to absolute freedom unconstrained by any worldly constraints. In Unreal Reality, a story in the first collection of transadaptations, Julie’s depression, illnesses and misery are only rarely interrupted by periods of health until she meets her metaphysical self Nare. Her alter ego, Nare, “opened up a world of unlimited possibilities.”89 This freedom is unambigu¬ously attached to the metaphysical: “It was not real…”90 In the context of Armenia, Asryan suggests an even more absolute freedom than what we find in Casas and Bondarenko.
Further evidence that the cultural context seems to affect the interpretation of freedom, as we have discussed in Perypatetik Alterity, can be found in Talia Stott’s work. The theoretical pendulum swings between freedom and obligation. It is not absolute as in digital 1s and 0s. An oscillating wave conveys a better picture. Romantics dominate Ukrainian and Armenian culture, so it is not surprising that their understanding of freedom is extreme. An overwhelming pragmatic leitculture will entail misgivings about such absoluteness. In this year’s collection, Talia Stott’s story 5–4–3–2–1 shows the relative freedom of the childless school counsellor Dr. Rose, but in the American context, where perception is dominated by pragmatism and the value attached to obligations, it is attenuated by Dr. Rose herself: “There’s a certain freedom that not having kids gives me – like impromptu meditation sessions in the park after a particularly hard day – I can’t deny that. And they may not be my own flesh and blood, but my students are my kids.”91 This creeping desire for obligations is completely absent from the journalists and exactly the opposite of what Julie wants in Unreal Reality.
It can therefore be argued that the literary fiction in the perypatetik project is largely romantic due to the inclusion of work by writers coming from a non-pragmatic culture. Future analyses are necessary to determine whether these authors’ perspective as outsiders (in the field of literature) also contributes to this orientation (which we suspect). This can be done by comparing perypatetik work in translated literary fiction under the auspices of establishment publishing houses. Irrespective of such further studies, we have seen here that constructive dissent is possible.
6. What should the purpose of literature be?
The incipient documentation of and commentary on society today will ultimately be revised. No longer will authors serving the dominant regime of pragmatism be read, but, as in all oppressive cultural environments where literary parasites serve the interests of a parasitic elite, the documentation of dissenting authors with their rebel characters and countercultural vision will infect readers and become the basis for the next hegemonic leitculture to be questioned – romanticism or the synthesis of pragmatism and romanticism.
Perhaps this is why the literary sophisticraty ignore romanticism, while the public pleads for it. The rebels, although often unaware themselves, bear an idealistic vision and distill the type of disconnect we continue to see in the deadeye syndrome. They offer a track out of the frustration, rejection, feelings of unworthiness.
Their often very modest existence reflects the essence of the best parts of Western culture – innovativeness in overcoming problems and even an explanation of innovativeness itself: overcoming the opposing duality of science and art by embracing the pure confusion and anarchy of the cutting edge, the avant-garde, the infinite possibility when one pole is not sidelined, dismissed, ignored, mocked, rejected.
That pole today is romantics, as we define them, and their art – in Pirsig or our terms. It is not just their inclusion in the community, but also pragmatists’ willingness to replace or balance out their own values and norms with those of romantics to gain access to the oneness of aesthetics and enjoy the opportunity to be involved in determining where we are headed. Those who refuse will be left in the past like Classical Knowledge.
6.1 Authentically representing dissidents to infect readers
In the documentation of the romantic revolution, writers keep an eye on authenticity, infection and models for change to ultimately strive for diverse oneness in the spirit of Pirsig. The work of literary fiction should itself be a template for a niche of society by telling about instances of Aesthetics emerging from romanticism or a synthesis of pragmatism and romanticism. This end can be achieved by many means.
Any author adopting a personal narrator (rather than an omniscient one) for the narration of the story can justify, e.g., a stereotypical, weak representation of other characters, places or events by claiming that the portrayal is consistent with the limited understanding of the character functioning as personal narrator. Shteyngart can argue that his schematic and oversimplified depiction of the drug dealer, the ex-employee, the girl on the bus and even the self-conception of the main character himself are reflective of Barry Cohen’s misinterpretation, i.e., the personal narrator’s poor grasp of the life ordinary Americans lead. This line of reasoning is also absolutely legitimate if readers view the personal narrator as authentic. A convincing protagonist will allow the reader to identify the gap between the protagonist’s perception and the reader’s understanding of reality. This is the basis of some of the best irony and satire. It also defines perypatetik work that evinces the aforesaid characteristics. In Shteyngart, however, the lead protagonist lacks authenticity – he is sort of sympathetic, kind of pathetic, a bit ruthless, somewhat exploitative, but never anything definite. The same goes for his representation of the bus trip across America – sometimes the reader is inclined to agree with his statements (the drug dealer needed retraining); at others his interpretation is bonkers and causes the reader to laugh at his misunderstanding.
An authentic representation of romantic characters, as in the perypatetik project, would infect readers in roughly similar positions, inspire pragmatists to make adjustments and contribute to the collective renewal, motivate romantics to assert themselves despite the oppressive leitculture. They might apply the mindset of Bondarenko’s journalists or Casas’ friends or Asryan’s double – laughing off mishaps, sharing experience with friends, immersing in the otherworldly – to keep living, producing, engaging.
This is what literature should be documenting – the outsiders left behind, excluded, ignored by the leitculture and its propaganda. At the present time, these people can be defined as romantics in the West. In a different place or at a different time, the balance may or will be different or the dichotomies shifted. In that time and/or place, the writers of literary fiction, even if they are subject to direct or indirect censorship as today, must find means to authentically represent the future or other excluded groups. They must evade censors, not act as parasites of the establishment or service providers for them. Their work should succeed in infecting their readers so that both individuals themselves and society as a whole can regenerate, create a new synthesis or probe a novel Oneness.
6.2 Means of infection
To achieve literary fiction’s foremost objective of personal and social rejuvenation of mankind, writers have almost infinite means at their disposal.
Today, the aim is not for such literature in the West to serve as a tendentious guide for making people materially better or improving the material conditions of peoplekind. Everyone cannot be rich. It must prioritize non-material possibilities.
Authentic depictions of characters and their lives should foster understanding, while some characters should be endowed with a model function. In the classics, this approach is standard fare: Levin in Anna Karenina, Jude in Jude the Obscure, Anne and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Prince Mishkin in The Idiot, to name but a few examples. Fundamentally, in the spirit of diversity and universal acceptance, protagonists dissenting from the prevailing ideology of the time then serve as guides for readers, enabling them to apply the new knowledge in their own professional sphere. This approach is especially fruitful in times like ours where the pervasive ideology of materialism and consumption is so insidious.
In reading a novel, we should experience a convincing portrayal of the dissenting life and grasp the appeal. This should be compounded by contrast. Foils representative of the status quo must reveal the dismal path to the end so desired – either implicitly through the plot or explicitly by a narrator or prominent character not because any type of person is unwelcome, but because such characters already have a media support network in the mainstream. Model characters should not be flawless. In fact, it is ideal if a misguided – meaning ideologically misled – reader does not even recognize the model function of such characters without external input (say, commentary by the authorial/omniscient narrator) or by reading the end (this would return the reason for reading a whole book). Yet another constructive artistic approach is to have the context hint at the correct interpretation, similar to our assumptions in choosing Shteyngart, Lee and Whitehead, but actually bearing out the assumptions we made. This is analogous to the two people viewing the undulating hill running past the barn to the grove: As the producer and consumer regard the hill divergently, so too will readers grasp the flawed model in such a work of art.
Fundamentally, authors need to frame the weaknesses of a model character and/or foil along with their mistakes, pernicious thoughts, inadequacies and so on as consequences of the deleterious environment. In the perypatetik aesthetic, the 16 shibboleths of the contemporary leitculture are not per se negative, but support pragmatism either directly or indirectly. These values are leveraged by stakeholders and institutions throughout society to guide especially children and youth in a certain direction and keep adults on the straight and narrow – that is, indoctrinated. The cultural and institutional support for pragmatism should account for the ruin readers see in their own lives and fictional novels.
Literary fiction must take the baton of documentation from the pragmatists and shatter it at their feet by showing and, yes, explaining how the ideology they advocate accounts for the personal and social dysphoria that flawed characters experience. It needs to examine groups and individuals that gravitate toward dissent, grappling with the origins of their counterculture, their ability to resist, the pleasure and pain of the struggle, the potential they hold for the future.
Innovation is readily acknowledged as one of the greatest strengths and a backbone of Western culture. Relatively recently, the internet, digitization, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, electric vehicles, etc. have emerged from the culture of innovation. These developments lead to disruption. Disruption is celebrated in the name of competition and progress. As we saw in Pirsig, there are also grounds for viewing innovation as a form of Aesthetics or Quality, a oneness resolving the dualism plaguing mankind. Literary fiction should embrace disruption not for the innovation in the economic sphere, but in society as a whole – the disruption of getting everyone included so the values we hold dear are established by all participants. And, to be fair and correctly document the age, it must show how romantics regularly rise up out of their discriminated position, adopt or feign to adopt pragmatic values and norms to produce something that ushers in fundamental change by using their romantic creativity to guide the train of knowledge with its pragmatic component to unknown territory.
If the moral authority of the omniscient narrator is not going to return, then characters/narrators – or characterators as we call both protagonists and their personal narrators – should in part exemplify a path out of the quagmire. Motion picture has coopted the drama in art – it is also better suited for drama by combining word, image and music into a Gesamtkunstwerk. Literary fiction should not attempt to emulate the role of motion picture by shortening sentences, streamlining them (subject-predicate-object ad infiniti) or adopting schematic plots. Motion picture has strengths and weaknesses that come with this expectation of a fast-paced, exciting movie. If there must be a written equivalent, then the genres of romance or pulp fiction can satisfy this need. Of course, literary fiction should have some plot to act as a framework for the characterators’ revelations, that is in the sense of what they reveal to readers. These revelations should be embedded in the plot and in the intellectual environment, just as we see in our everyday lives and their plots. There are myriad options for achieving this end: discussion, setting with a description of a certain concern (e.g., education, well-being, health, spirituality, success, etc.), expository narration, to name a few approaches. Yet the narrator in some form should digress, generalize or otherwise elaborate on aspects of the plot that have philosophical relevance. The other arts cannot embed the explanatory or philosophical digression as smoothly as literary fiction. The contemplative medium of literary fiction is perfectly suited for this role and must embrace it as the only medium with the authority (authors are respected) and form (the written word) to seamlessly integrate guidance for adults.
In the perypatetik project, the representation cuts against the grain of pragmatism in the plot, charactorial commentary and the protagonists and foils themselves. A plastic example of this is in Angelika Friedrich’s forthcoming novel Shambolic. Interludes – called intermezzos – as well as narration and the setting frame the story in the world of pragmatists and their values and norms (materialism, consumption, self-determination, success, education, tough love, etc.). The pragmatists in the novel are juxtaposed (implicitly) to the romantics, although most characters are on a sliding scale of pragmatism-romanticism, as in real life. Similar to the situation in the contemporary West, the pragmatists dominate our perception of values. The reader of Friedrich’s novel will be drawn to the pragmatic characters initially, even if their dismal fate is alluded to. They will like Cesca’s efforts to change the world; they will root for Locine to succeed in her career; they want the best for Marina and commend her intelligent choice to become a dentist. And these same readers, just like actual consumers running their everyday errands, will view the grocery store associate Preyanka with sympathy and condescension. Niceness, the hallmark of condescension will define their attitude toward her – she’s nice – and because she is an immigrant – in the story and often in life – with a thick accent, they will say she is really nice. Another way of saying she is definitively inferior to the speaker and affirming the sanctity and benevolence of the native. It is all depicted along the same lines in the story. However, Preyanka, the stoic and eternal romantic, ultimately guides Locine, back to romanticism. Locine has transitioned from her romantic childhood to the pragmatism defining the professional sphere in the city. She enjoys it for a time, especially the stimulus of success and seeming power. Eventually, however, she breaks down. It is at this moment that her friendship with Preyanka flips, with Preyanka becoming the mentor, assuming a superior or equal position to her friend Locine and advising her effectively to return to romanticism. The successful, feted (by readers) pragmatist who used to give the immigrant Preyanka tips in response to questions about life in the city has now been rescued by someone who is ignored for having never chased the illusory glory of pragmatism, who knows by nature that no end will be superior to the process of living and doing something productive.
By contrast, Colson Whitehead allows the college-educated entrepreneur Ray to live and consider buying a home on the most affluent street in Harlem while his best friend from childhood, his unsuccessful, uneducated cousin, succumbs, in his thirties, to a coma resulting from torture after a crime. Likewise, Shteyngart’s novel Lake Success, similar to Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires, is in part such a disappointment for its exact failure to intellectually disrupt the status quo in any capacity. Never does any single character representing ordinary Americans communicate a message that causes Barry (or the reader) to consider their view as superior to his own. In Free Food for Millionaires, the romantic mother lets herself be raped (totally implausibly) and the semiromantic friend is repeatedly criticized (“Casey didn’t want to hear this pious fluff”). The ordinary characters are all blatantly inferior, not even equals. Although Barry and Casey, quintessential pragmatists, are a mess almost throughout the novels, the possibility of being “corrected” or at least grasping the mistakes they have made as a result of allowing pragmatism to guide them is completely missing. Nobody like Preyanka, the supermarket associate, emerges when the pragmatic worldview crumbles in its unsustainability: Success is not constantly possible; achievements become few and far between; there are limits to buying happiness. The collapse, like the confidence of a spoiled child facing adversity, is stemmed by the romantic Preyanka who is able to explain the problem to her friend and help her recover because she has remained in the fold. Nothing remotely of this sort happens in Shteyngart, Lee or Whitehead.
As the constructive counterweight to the consumptive deadeye syndrome, the oneness of production or creation is the essence misunderstood. We are stuck in Pirsig’s Classical Knowledge. Romantics and literary fiction’s representation of them are the best chance we have to extract ourselves from personal and societal stagnation in the West.
To the extent that the purpose of literature is committed to its contemporary social circumstances, its role is limited to making the reader aware of attractive alternatives to the prevailing leitculture. If readers of a given age reject the appeal to an alternative, then the writer and the work of literary fiction preserve the literary culture of authenticity, infection and dissent for a future audience ready to reactivate the cycle of perpetual renewal through the chaos of creative oneness.
If the writer succeeds and readers embrace the revolutionary vision encapsulated in the literary text, then it is the responsibility of those readers to quietly and systematically adopt a lifestyle capable of serving as a model and facilitating a different future. First and foremost in our present time, this means turning our back on materialism and consumption. In the absence of those values, we will be left with only the metaphysical and, in the need and desire to do something, production. The ensuing production will and must not lead back to materialism and consumption.
In the economy and society, it will consist of small businesses run with low overhead and employing staff at wages permitting them to enjoy a respectable standard of living. The group or “company” will feel like a mini-community. When private equity firms and external investors notice the success of the business, the owners will dismiss their flashy powerpoint presentations, white papers and pie-in-the-sky
promises lies of alleged riches awaiting with connected power brokers and massive quantities of debt, rapid growth and prestige. They will laugh and say politely, “Even if it works, I don’t need it: I have everything I want.” And those who are unable or uninterested in running a company, shall go work for these small businesses or become civil servants in the regulatory agencies. They won’t let themselves be divided by fake political differences meant to keep the masses perpetually at each other’s throats to prevent any meaningful change. They won’t quietly quit or become discouraged because they think someone somewhere else is earning more and living better. Private sector employees will focus on details; officials will break up monopolies and oligopolies, adopt regulation to prevent their formation, and crack down on fraud. They will not move between the private and public sector, never be lured by the fake promises of massive bonuses if (impossible) targets are reached. They will laugh at such offers and say politely, “but I have everything I want,” and go out with their small group of friends they have known for over twenty years, shared various stages of life with, gone through good and bad times, while the materialists sit alone in a penthouse watching television and wondering what went wrong as disease spreads through their body, unchecked by their spirit, widening their eyes.
In education, the stakeholders (instructors, teachers, professors, guidance counselors, administrators) will share the attitude of employees and civil servants in regards to wealth. The disappearance of dissatisfaction and envy will give them the mental and spiritual capacity to instill more meaning into their profession and forego energy-sapping diversions. Their return to harmony with nature, the increase in rest and relaxation will simultaneously intensify their dedication to the job of educating. They will no longer encourage children to reach for the stars. Sports will be virtually abolished, replaced by activities aimed at sustainably increasing the amount of oxygen passing through their nose and into their brain. Curriculum, culture wars, content as a whole will take a backseat, cease to be a flashpoint, as the stakeholders aim to ensure adequate form and structure: the ability to sit still, concentrate, memorize, retain read information and repeat it. Children won’t be geniuses or potential geniuses. They will simply be regarded as innocent human beings being prepared to live a life in Aesthetics, Oneness, harmony with nature – whatever that holds.
In social work, the participants (counselors and case workers, trainers and field staff) will understand that there is no future in pharmaceutical solutions, service jobs unrelated to production and the immediate satisfaction of personal needs. The lost souls in need of this assistance will be guided – like pupils and students in educational institutions – toward the forms and structures that allow for Aesthetic production. In our day, social workers will strive to explain the misguided ideology of pragmatism and the path to the cutting edge of the track of Aesthetics by drawing on examples of their trainees’ own lives, highlighting what is missing to achieve a rebalancing.
This is not some idealistic future. The presence and potential of it exists more or less, on a small scale, in large parts of the population throughout the world today, even in Western countries gripped by pragmatism. The foundation for this is perhaps most widespread in rural and suburban Western Europe, especially Germany, but it is also found in areas of North and South America, above all, in places far removed from urban centers. Romanticism thrives among Euro-Americans, Afro-Americans, Latinos and many immigrants; it knows no political party, nor any religion, encompassing wide swaths of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and Muslims; social class also tells us little, with lucky entrepreneurs at the top and unlucky members of the precariat at the bottom equally likely to share the values and norms of romanticism, especially, on a modest scale – living, production, creation, labor, freedom. Furthermore, people change over the course of their lives. In the West, it can be argued that these romantics are the silent majority discriminated by the laptop class, which itself, absurdly, isn’t benefiting from the discrimination.
Today, these forgotten and discriminated romantics are the basis for the next social change whenever pragmatic readers get around to figuring it out. Embracing their lifestyle or using it as a counterweight will act as a springboard for re-establishing the connection between the subject and object, mind and body. No longer will pragmatists seek an escape from their daily lives but immerse themselves even more deeply in detail. For romantics, it will foster their reintegration into society; and extreme romantics may also benefit from counterbalancing with pragmatic values and norms, which will be more palatable on account of romantics’ general acceptance in society.
The inversion of the current structures or a synthesis will place people gravitating toward either ideological persuasion in a position to live, produce, create, engender at the front of humanity’s train racing into the unknown future. Whether their production shapes the future or falls by the wayside, is irrelevant. They will have broken the disconnect of subject-object dualism and live in the metaphysical Oneness – in harmony with being itself. The brain fog will lift – for romantics through participation; for pragmatists in the adoption of romantic values and norms.
Exposure to romanticism would not actually dismantle Western culture. It would not cause a destructive revolution. It would allow readers unclear about their own dissatisfaction to grasp the roots of it and make the changes necessary to become productive members of society. It might motivate the failing reader or encourage them to engage in outreach, helping other failures by referencing not only their own circumstance, but also the representation in works of art with a likeminded approach.
If we transpose the words “humiliated and insulted” and “poor people” to “romantics” as well as “Christian teachings” and “forgiveness” to “creation/production,” “living” and/or the “process,” we can see how literary fiction today can preserve the tradition of dissent established long ago, here in Dostoevsky:
The novel is imbued with the idea that in a world dominated by the power of money, cruelty and oppression, ruled by proud and evil egoists, the only protection for the “humiliated and insulted” from all the misfortunes of life is brotherly help to each other, love and compassion. The writer calls on the “poor people” not to fight social evil, but to withdraw from participation in unrighteous living, to withdraw into their own closed world, and believes that they should be guided by the Christian teachings of love for one’s neighbor and forgiveness.92
In this next collection of perypatetik stories, you can see the ordinariness and Tolstoian newness expressed through the romantic Weltanschauung. It is not dramatic on the face of it. But behind that face are lives to transform you and us. Here you can indulge in a panoply of stories with youth transadapated across the world.
Auster, Paul. “Talking to Strangers.” Burn This Book. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012: 66-68.
Asryan, Armine. “Unreal Reality.” In the Middle: Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2020: 1-13.
Banks, Russell. “Notes on Literature and Engagement.” Burn This Book. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012: 51-65.
Bondarenko, Gennady. “House with a Stucco Ship.” In the Middle: Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2020: 101-119.
Bondarenko, Gennady. “Every Little Thing.” Conceived: Childhood Transadapted. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2020: 103-140.
Bondarenko, Gennady. “Evening with Jackie Chan.” Evanescent: Childhood Transadapted. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2021: 1-33.
Boria, Damon. “Pricking Us into Revolt?: Vonnegut, DeLillo and Sartre’s Hope for Literature.” Sartre Studies International. Vol. 19, No. 2, 2013: 45-60.
Casas, Marilin Guerrero. “A Girl Pedaling.” In the Middle: Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2020: 89-101.
Casas, Marilin Guerrero. “Spring.” Conceived: Childhood Transadapted. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2021: 209-229.
Friedrich, Angelika; Smirnov, Yuri; Whittlesey, Henry (Eds.) Peripatetic Alterity – A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being: Romantics and Pragmatists. New York: Perypatetik, 2019.
Lee, Min Jin. Free Food for Millionaires. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2008.
Long, Todd R., “A Selective Defence of Tolstoy’s What Is Art”, Philosophical Writings. No. 8, Summer 1998. 16-25.
Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.
Sartre, Jean Paul. “What Is Literature” and Other Essays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Shteyngart, Gary. Lake Success. New York: Random House, 2018.
Stotts, Talia. “5-4-3-2-1.” Evanescent. Ed. Angelika Friedrich et al. New York: perypatetik, 2022: 33-54.
Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Updike, John. “Why Write?” Burn This Book. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012: 5-21.
Whitehead, Colson. Harlem Shuffle. New York: Anchor Books, 2021.
Якушин, Н.И. Ф.М. Достоевский: в жизни и творчестве. Москва: Русское слово, 1998.
1. Paul Auster: “In other words, art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer… But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, what defines us as human beings.” (Auster, “Talking to Strangers”, in Burn this Book, 67).
2. Russell Banks: “Novelists, story writers, and poets have nearly always positioned themselves in support of justice, human rights, and equality… Why not?” (Banks, “Notes on Literature and Engagement,” in: Burn this Book, 51).
3. See Friedrich, Angelika et al., Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists.
4. Cf. Peripatetic Alterity, pp. 17-58, 160-187.
5. Cf. Peripatetic Alterity, pp. 17-58, 59-92, 160-187.
6. We use Orlando Patterson’s terminology (Afro-American) to differentiate descendants of Africans brought to America against their will from voluntary immigrants from Africa (African-Americans). For the sake of equality and appropriate academic language, descendants of colonists are referred to as Euro-Americans, while more recent immigrants from Europe are European-Americans.
7. End of second millennium and beginning of third.
8. This was critical during the Cold War when socialism was viewed by the establishment as an undesirable alternative. Over the last thirty years, the breakdown of the capitalist-socialist duality has not entailed a proliferation of alternatives. This is certainly due in part to the gatekeepers ensuring support of the existing regime.
9. Barely longer than our introduction here. 🙂
10. Tolstoy, 37, 113.
11. Cf. Ibid., 57: “So if art is as necessary to us as religion, then it must be equally accessible.”
12. Cf. Ibid., 54.
13. Cf. Ibid., 58.
14. Cf. Ibid., 59.
15. Cf. Ibid., 58f.
16. Cf. Ibid., 84.
17. Cf. Ibid., 88.
18. Cf. Long, 24.
19. Tolstoy, 59.
20 Cf. Long, 23f.
21. Cf. Tolstoy, 37, 113.
22. Cf. Sartre, 87.
23 Cf. Ibid., 36f.
24. Cf. Ibid., 81.
25. Ibid., 81.
26. Cf. Friedrich, Smirnov, et al., 17-58, 160-186.
27. Sartre, 36f.
28. Cf. Ibid., 54, 58.
29. Cf. Ibid., 58.
30. Cf. Ibid., 54.
31. Ibid., 104.
32. Ibid., 104.
33. Cf. Ibid., 70.
34. Cf. Ibid., 93.
35. Cf. Ibid., 100-105.
36. Boria, 46.
37. Boria’s footnote on this summary cites the pages 81,96, 192, 196, 223, 228, 230, 245 in the version of What Is Literature? And Other Essays cited here.
38. Banks, 51.
39. Ibid., 52.
40. Ibid., 58f.
41. Updike, 11.
42. Auster, 66.
43. Cf. Ibid., 65.
44. Banks, 59.
45. Cf. Ibid., 58.
46. There is an odd relationship to be pictured something like a convex, splintered mirror between Gary Shteyngart and our editor Henry Whittlesey: They both grew up in New York; they have both lived in Russia for multiple years (Shteyngart until the age of 7; Whittlesey from 2002 to 2008); and live in New York now, at least part time; they both went to public school in New York (Stuyvesant and Bronx Science); they both speak Russian, Shteyngart as a native speaker with Russian parents; Whittlesey as a 20+ year student of Russian who speaks it at home; they both spend part of their time in the country side (one in upstate New York; the other in southern Vermont), although Shteyngart owns his places and Whittlesey stays at his parent’s house; Shteyngart is acquainted with one of Whittlesey’s good friends from high school (you know, a girl he kissed more than once) and he teaches creative writing at Columbia where Whittlesey’s wife teaches German. Shteyngart, obviously, writes books for the most part, while Whittlesey translates on the whole. So they circle around each other, but have never met. It is a relationship of pure art.
47. Tolstoy, 109.
48. Ibid., 110.
49. The title is derived from one entirely insignificant scene where Casey learns that her investment banking division will enjoy free lunch because of some successful deal. The irony of “freebies” for millionaires is not even a theme in the novel, although this topic would be highly relevant and could be developed in many ways, as one of the absurdities in modern-day, finance-based capitalism is indeed that the wealthiest do receive literal and metaphorical freebies on a regular basis. That type of implied criticism is to be found nowhere in Lee’s novel. Nor, obviously, is overt criticism.
50. Lee 210.
51. Cf. Friedrich, Smirnov, et al., 50, 181.
52. Cf. Lee, 246. “Casey enjoyed having sex with Unu… It wasn’t making love. Something happened after Jay and the two girls where Casey learned that she could climax without having affection for a man at that present moment. This was what men could do – make sex a physical sensation, not always emotional – and somewhere along the line, Casey realized that she could do it, too.”
53. Cf. Ibid., 517.
54. Ibid., 119.
55. Ibid., 119.
56. Cf. Whitehead, 21-26.
57. Ibid., 318.
58. Cf. Ibid., 105: Reference to “the envelope” is also made in the citation under the title to book two.
59. Ibid., 114.
60. Ibid., 223.
61. Cf. Pirsig, 15ff.
62. Cf. Ibid., 70ff, 80, 224ff.
63. Cf. Ibid., 80.
64. Cf. Ibid., 214, 224 ff.
65. Cf. Ibid., 240f.
66. Cf. Ibid., 288.
67. Cf. Ibid., 288.
68. He writes “Romantic Quality” here, but almost certainly means “Romantic Knowledge.” The duality he is discussing is between these two types of knowledge and, as we see below, the “track” represents “Quality” or “Aesthetics” as we put it.
69. Cf. 289.
70. Cf. 289.
71. Ibid., 289.
72. Whitehead, 229.
73. This practice is obviously drawn from contemporary discourse among pragmatists where such statements are taboo, in complete contrast to the widespread appeal of generalizations and universals among romantics.
74. Casas, A Girl Pedaling, 89f.
75. “Fortunately, I’ve been surrounded…”
76. “I consider myself to be a very lucky persona”
77. “we are doomed to fall at times”
78. “we are designed”
79. Ibid., 100.
80. Barry Cohen in Shteyngart’s novel is 43.
81. Cf. Bondarenko, House with a Stucco Ship, 103, 104, 108.
82. Cf. Ibid., 108: “For you – for your eyes only, as they say – I’ll agree to be an emissary of UNESCO or even MAGATE, if you wish so. And a house in Sevastopol would be useful to me as well. But there’s a little mismatch that ruins that beautiful picture – I don’t have those hundred thousand…”
83. Cf. Bondarenko, Every Little Thing, 103ff.
84. Cf. Ibid., 110f.
85. Cf. Ibid., 113f.
86. Cf. Ibid., 120ff.
87. The chief of police was pleased and personally called the editor, thanking the journalists for their good work. Our editor-in-chief liked this reaction from the chief of police. He shook hands with us and promised hefty bonuses, but very soon he got a call from the city government inquiring if it was really necessary to publish a photo of the governor’s daughter. Kolya and I tried as best as we could to convince him that it was neither his nor my fault. Who could have known that she got married and changed her last name? As for those bonuses, well, we never received them.
88. Cf. Casas, Spring, 226: “Being a kid is something epic: no worries, no doubts, no important issues to reflect on, no health problemas, no love matters.”
89. Cf. Asryan, 6f. There are many possible citations. Here is one: “Julie did not know where to settle – in the world of Nare or in the real world. She felt self-realization only with Nare, but these were only fantasies. After some days and weeks of traveling with Nare, she would come back and see the same faces that were full of hatred and humiliation. She would come back to the real world.
Nare was not only a friend. She was a teacher. She wanted Julie to have the same charm in the real world. But there were so many forces that did not allow the magic to happen. Nare wanted to revive Julie. She wanted Julie to become Nare and settle on this planet and enjoy the charm that they experienced when they were together. Nare wanted to rejuvenate Julie, and there was a fight inside Julie. Julie saw the world full of hatred and could not understand how that god-like being could live in the real world. She could not understand how she could help Nare to become a member of this planet. And she was sad. She was sad because she disappointed her friend. Because Nare wanted a world where there were no limitations, a world of absolute freedom and respect inside Julie. Only then could Nare settle in Julie. Only then could they become one.”
90. Ibid., 6.
91. Stotts, 39.
92. Cf. Nikolai Ivanovich Yakushin, 56: “Через весь роман проходит мысль о том, что в мире, где господствует власть денег; жестокость и угнетение, где правят гордые и злые эгоисты, единственной защитой «униженных и оскорбленных» от всех жезненных невзгод является братская помощ друг другу, любовь и сострадание. Писатель призывает «бедных людей» не к борьбе с социальным злом, а к отстранению от учасия в неправедной жизни, к уходу в свой замкнутый мир, считает, что им нужно руководствоваться христианским учением о любви к ближнему и всепрощении.”
Series – Evanescent
January: If Something Can Go Wrong…It Will – Jonay Quintero Hernández (Spain)
February: The Planet of Pleasure – Nane Sevunts (Armine Asryan) (Armenia)
March: Evening with Jackie Chan – Gennady Bondarenko (Ukraine)
April: Vuvuzelas, Walkie-Talkies and Madiba Magic – Sarah-Leah Pimentel (South Africa)
May: Remembering – Seyit Ali Dastan (Turkey)
June: 5-4-3-2-1 – Talia Stotts (America)
July: Getting Ready for Newborns – Marilin Guerrero Casas (Cuba)
August: Regrets – Kate Korneeva (Russia)
September: A Hollow Pursuit – Diana Haidar (Syria)
October: The Test – Alejandra Baccino (Uruguay)
November: A Life Rekindled – Lauren Voaden (United Kingdom)
December: Wanderlust – Ina Maria Vogel (Germany)
Background – Context
Transadaptation Volume 2: Conceived – Childhood Transadapted, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2021)
Transadaptation Volume 1: In the Middle – Prelude to a Contemporary Transadaptation, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2020)
Peripatetic Alterity: A Philosophical Treatise on the Spectrum of Being – Romantics and Pragmatists by Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)
La Syncrétion of Polarization and Extremes Transposée, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2019)
The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2018)
L’anthologie of Global Instability Transpuesta, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2017)
From Wahnsinnig to the Loony Bin: German and Russian Stories Transposed to Modern-day America, (eds.) Angelika Friedrich, Yuri Smirnov and Henry Whittlesey (2013)
Emblems and stories on the international community
Perception by country – Transposing emblems, articles, short stories and reports from around the world
Cover photo: Shadows – Tom Barrett (Unsplash)
Source: The Codex of Uncertainty Transposed