Sunday, April 16, 2017

"That factory of characters and protagonists"

I'm currently reading Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey by Elena Ferrante. I'm finding much in it interesting, even as I'm thinking that a few of its pieces hold only mild interest for me. But I know very well that some readers will find the bits I'd happily dispense with the best parts. Obviously a book with a broader variety of pieces will have wider appeal. (I know that my own taste is always far from the mainstream.) In any case, Ferrante's thinking is incisive and thought-provoking, though her orientation to Italian "difference feminism" (as she identifies it) is at an angle to my own feminism. (Which is nothing new for me. As a publisher, I try to pay respect to a wide spectrum of feminisms, some of which with I take serious issue.)

Ferrante's struggles writing consciously political fiction particularly interests me. The 2002 letter titled "Suspension of Disbelief," written to her book editors, who had solicited a short story to be published in an anthology of stories "on conflict of interest" by the publisher's Italian authors. "It depresses me," she says, "that the truth of an abuse of power [the subject of her own story] seems an effect of rhetoric." (97) Ferrante muses on her sense that such stories constitute "a rehtorically complicit nudge given to a public that is already convinced, already in agreement, and whose agreement, beyond a guarantee of success, is also one of the many safeguards against harassment, retaliation, insults, lawsuits, work restrictions, and other common misfortunes that those who express themselves in black and white against the opposing party are exposed to." (91) She writes of posing questions to herself that made her uncomfortable. Then, she says, "to get out of these self-critical convulsions I write the name of Silvio Berlusconi at the end of the story"--with the idea that doing so could bring the anti-Berloscuoni-ism of her story into the open.

Beware, though, I did not do it to say that a political story, in the current portrait of our civil society, has the duty to emerge from metaphor (literature, good or bad, is always metaphor) but, rather, to indicate that narratives that can state more directly even if through literature, the reasons for our repugnance as citizens are necessary. In other words, blunt questions of the following type should be transformed into novels: Is it true Berlusconi can be a great statesman because he is a great entrepreneur? How did we become convinced that there is a connection between the two things? Was it the great and good works of that grand entrepreneur that convinces us? What are those works? What is the meritorious work that persuaded us of his capacities as a great statesman? Maybe it's his bad television empire, created by his highly prized and highly paid employees? Hence, does one become a great statesman by being the great entrepreneur of a bad television company that has vulgarized all the other television companies and also, out of a crossover attraction, cinema, newspapers, supplements, publicity, the supporting literature, the entire Italy of TV ratings? Is it possible? If the great work of the entrepreneur Berlusconi is what we have before our eyes every evening, how could it happen that half of Italy believed that he really could, as he says, fix the nation? And besides, what Italy does this man want to fix, if he governs alongside someone who would rather dismantle Italy, in the name of a good and very pure geographical area that he has christened Padania?

It's this credulity not of citizens but of the audience that I find narratively interesting. If I were capable of writing about our Berlusconian Italy not through allegories, parables, and satires, I would like to find a plot and characters that could represent the mythology within which the symbol of Berlusconi is dangerously encysted. I say symbol because the man will disappear, his personal troubles and those of his management have their power, one way or another the political struggle will remove him from the scene, but his ascent as supreme leader within democratic institutions, the construction of his figure as a democratically elected economic-political-television duce, will remain a perfectible, repeatable model.(90-91)
Obviously, this articulation of "a dangerously encysted" symbol strikes me powerfully at this moment of US history. Clownish and perilously simple-minded as I found Dubya and his venal, villainous minions, I could not imagine him as a powerful symbol encysted with a toxic mythology spawned by the vilest desires and most self-serving, privileged ignorance that has dogged US culture and values for all the US's history. Ferrante, confronting Berlusconi, puts her finger on why our current Megalomaniac-in-Chief, regardless of which minions he chooses to keep around him, is different.

Here's more from Ferrante:
Berlusconi, for me, is the most garish expression (for now) of the traditional illusionism of politicians, of their capacity to pretend, even within the democratic institutions of which they should be the willing servants, that they are benevolent divinities on some Olympus from which they govern the fates of wretched mortals. That illusionism...unfortunately for us has been definitively welded, thanks to a bold proprietary relationship, to the fictions of what is today the most powerful means of mass communication: television, that factory of characters and protagonists, as the media call them, justly adopting the terminology of products of the imagination. And the characters, the protagonists of social-television mythology, are experienced by the audience just as characters are in novels, by suspending disbelief, accepting, that is, an agreement on the basis of which you are wiling to take as true everything you are told. (91)

She notes that this suspension of disbelief has transformed "citizens into an audience," and that it is "for now the most unprincipled exponent of the reduction of democracy to imaginary participation in an imaginary game." (92) In our personal shorthand, Tom and I have long referred to political news reports and shows as "gossip." For a brief moment after the election I actually hoped that confronted with a new set of outrages that prodded commentators to declare they wouldn't "normalize" the new regime that the news media would decide to focus on the complex consequences and implications of the Republican-controlled government's decrees and actions rather than on the melodramas of the invented "characters and protagonists" (as Ferrnate calls them) of the game as imagined by the US's dominant political culture. At almost 100 days in, the reality of the policies being rammed through without discussion (much less serious consideration) has apparently become too boring for the news media to bother with. Politics as soap opera and political reportage as gossip* is back with a vengeance. If I never read another article about which minions are in favor and which are out of favor, it will be too soon.
*And of course, United Airlines' thuggish assault on a seated, nonviolent passenger resulting in the passenger's concussion, broken nose, and loss of two teeth has also been turned into a tidbit of gossip, rather than a broad demand for regulation of an industry that routinely abuses its customers with impunity in a variety of once unimaginable ways. If every news story must necessarily be reduced to a carefully framed drama with characters and protagonists set apart from the complexities of the large systems within which most people must negotiate, if, that is to say, everything must always be cast in mythological terms (which render hard facts both irrelevant and contestable), we're on our way to species extinction. Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement notes that the refusal to construct or attend to narratives that don't valorize instrumental individualism make it almost impossible to talk about global warming in any useful or meaningful way. And global warming is only one of the serious challenges besetting us.   

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