Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The better part of valor

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This morning, I published an essay in The Daily Beast on Karl Rove’s curious affection for the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, a connection that I’ve found intriguing ever since Rove mentioned it two years ago in a Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair. Borges, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of my favorite writers, and it’s surprising, to say the least, to find myself agreeing with Rove on something so fundamental. It’s also hard to imagine two men who have less in common. While Rove jumped with both feet into a political career, and was cheerfully engaging in dirty tricks before he was out of college, Borges survived the Peron regime largely by keeping his head down, and in later years seemed pointedly detached from events in Argentina. It’s a mistake to think of him as an entirely apolitical writer—few authors of his time wrote more eloquently against the rise of Nazism—but it’s clear that for much of his life, he just wanted to be left alone. As a result, he’s been criticized, and not without reason, for literally turning a blind eye on the atrocities of the Dirty War, claiming that his loss of eyesight made it impossible to read the newspapers.

This policy of avoidance is one that we often see in the greatest writers, who prudently decline to engage in politics, often for reasons of survival. Shakespeare was more than willing, when the occasion demanded it, to serve as the master of revels for the crown, but as Harold Bloom points out, he carefully avoided any treatment of the political controversies of his time, perhaps mindful of the cautionary fate of Christopher Marlowe. Discretion, as Falstaff advises us, is the better part of valor, and also of poetry, at least if the poet wants to settle into a comfortable retirement in Stratford. Dante, Shakespeare’s only peer among Western poets, might seem like an exception to the rule—he certainly didn’t shy away from political attacks—but his most passionate jeremiads were composed far from Florence. “Beyond a doubt he was the wisest, most resolute man of his time,” Erich Auerbach writes. “According to the Platonic principle which is still valid whenever a man is manifestly endowed with the gift of leadership, he was born to rule; however, he did not rule, but led a life of solitary poverty.”

Borges, too, chose exile, spending his declining years overseas, and finally died in Geneva. It’s a pattern that we see repeatedly in the lives of major poets and artists, especially those who emerge from nations with a history of political strife. The great works of encyclopedic fiction, as Edward Mendelson reminds us, tend to be written beyond the borders of the countries they document so vividly: the closing words of Ulysses, the encyclopedia of Dublin, are “Trieste-Zurich-Paris.” This is partly the product of sensible caution, but it’s also a professional necessity. Most creative work is founded on solitude, quiet, and a prudent detachment from the world, and any degree of immersion in politics tends to destroy the delicate thread of thought necessary for artistic production. Even when writers are tempted by worldly power, they’re usually well aware of the consequences. Norman Mailer, writing of his doomed run for mayor of New York, observes of himself, in the third person: “He would never write again if he were Mayor (the job would doubtless strain his talent to extinction) but he would have his hand on the rump of History, and Norman was not without such lust.”

In the end, as Mailer notes acidly, “He came in fourth in a field of five, and politics was behind him.” Which is all for the best—otherwise, we never would have gotten The Executioner’s Song or Of a Fire on the Moon, not to mention Ancient Evenings, which is the sort of foolhardy masterpiece, written over the course of a decade, that could only be written by a man whose political ambitions have been otherwise frustrated. Besides, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, novelists don’t make good politicians. And their work is often the better for it. In the case of Borges, there’s no question that much of what makes him great—his obsession with ideas, his receptivity to the structures of speculative fiction, his lifelong dialogue with all of world literature—arose from this tactical refusal to engage in politics. Unable or unwilling to criticize the government, he turned instead to a life of ideas, leaving behind a body of extraordinary fiction defined as much by what it leaves out as by what it includes. And I don’t think any sympathetic reader would want it any other way.

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