Sunday, July 02, 2006

A Short Commercial Break

Robert Frost allegedly said that

a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.

There's a knowing affection to that jibe, a kind of admiration to the insult. The fault it finds, for all the weaknesses it implies follow from it, is after all hardly a vice, in the same category as cruelty or vindictiveness, but something admirable, if perhaps hardly pragmatic. What the half-jest admires, I think, is the willingness to admit to the tensions of the awkward resting place between the private and the public, to try to tease out mutually acceptable norms of interaction in an arena where personal and political purposes are inevitably intertwined. That willingness is, of course, what Frost sees, perhaps sometimes fairly, as hamstringing the liberal: too concerned to ensure that their opponent is treated reasonably, they prevent themselves from engaging in the business at hand, a quarrel, in which winning is often at least as important as not denying your opponents a fair hearing.

There is a further stage to this though. It does not take long to see that occupying that space between the perfectly private, out of the eyes and reach of the world at large, and the perfectly public, which erases the idea that there is anywhere in particular for the eyes and reach of the world to look for, easily and quickly generates conflicts both within and across those two often amorphously-separated realms. The difficulty thus quickly becomes clear. We,then, might amend Frost:

a liberal is a man who knows he is too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.

That awareness, of course, then almost instantly becomes almost infinitely self-reflective, opening itself up to a whole series of further refinements, where the questions of ever more meta-level conflicts reach back, in a kind of eternal reccurrence, towards the original question of balancing codes of public justifications and proclamations and private tolerances and elidings. The problems posed by this question are necessarily most obvious in situations where the stakes are higher, where the prospects of exploitation of or indifference to the agonised ethical scruples of liberalism are greater.

Both Nicholas Shakespeare's 'The Dancer Upstairs' and Orhan Pamuk's 'Snow', in their way, address, without really trying to solve, those problems. They both take place in what would once been described as second-world countries: poor enough that there is grindingly miserable poverty, and plenty of it, but wealthy enough that there is an independent middle class, a class from which the protagonist is drawn, so that the plot doesn't simply involve the relentless suppression of one political faction by the other, that there's confusion, that the spaces of loss, as well as wrong, are opened up. Both use the narrative device of the protagonist retelling the story, after the event, to another individual whose concerns then intrude into the plot, distancing themselves further and further from the actions they describe, casting more and more doubt on the ability to the narrative to avoid comprising itself. In both, the protagonist, seeking escape from the political preoccupations they find shaping their lives despite their guilty attempts to avoid them, fall in love with women who both betray and are betrayed by them. In both, this seems somewhat inevitable.

Pamuk is more open about his uncertainty, plays with it more, mocking the foolish infatuations of his lovestruck poet, his desperation, his inability to live outside the political conflicts which appear to have shaped him. Shakespeare, having the luxury of not actually living in the kind of situation he describes, has a kind of Greeneian resignation, a faith in the possibility of small, and only small, miracles, in the triumph, however limited, of the personal over the political. Both, however, are excellent.


Milan said...

This is a really interesting post.

dearieme said...

You are discussing the American sense of "liberal". Their British equivalent tends to be recognised by his propensity to advocate comprehensive school for your children, while using private school for his own.

Tom said...

"[...] his propensity to advocate comprehensive school for your children, while using private school for his own."

Or her:,,-4,00.html.

I thought it was time she crossed the floor.

dearieme said...

I do remember D Abbott for one woderful outburst while the OJ Simpson trial was running: "Everyone knows two things about OJ. One: he did it. Two: he'll get off."