Friday, September 14, 2007

Moralism, Nihilism, Whatever.

I just read the Bret Easton Ellis book The Informers. It's pretty good, not, it seems to me, one of his best, but I like some of the other ones a lot. Like his other books, it presents a dark sort of picture of the world we're living in.

It was written in 1994, but I'm just getting around to reading it now, in the middle of a mini-obsession with Ellis. This started when I read Lunar Park last summer and felt inexplicably connected to the narrator (as I mentioned in my previous post, Dear X: U R My Favrite Riter).

As the Wikipedia page on Ellis says concisely and correctly, "He has called himself a moralist, although he has often been pegged as a nihilist. His characters are young, generally vacuous people, who are aware of their depravity but choose to enjoy it."

I see how Ellis might think of himself as a moralist: he is depicting what is obviously a fucked-up world, and saying how fucked-up it is.

But it's easy to see, too, why some readers aren't quite buying it, and insist on calling him a nihilist. Yes, the characters "choose to enjoy it." But it seems that the author chooses for the reader to enjoy it, too. The author himself seems to be enjoying it, kind of a lot.

The descriptions of violence, of drug-induced euphorias, of sexual cravings, of empty-minded sexual satisfactions are lovingly rendered and seductive. They're exciting, and written so intimately they make you feel you're right there feeling the same things.

It seems readers are enoying it. It would be hard to believe that these books are so popular in spite of the lovingly-rendered violence and depravity rather than because of it. And of course, Ellis is most popular not with moralizers but with those skating on the edge of the very world he describes.

I must confess: I kind of love it. Even as I'm appreciating the moralizing. I'm having just the reaction I figure is intended.

Even granting the seriousness of the moralizing, ambiguity like this is common: some art experience meant to comment critically on X presents X in such a way as to suck us into a kind of involvement. We wallow in it even as we appreciate the commentary. We're complicitous.

There are obvious reasons to worry that there's something bad about this, especially in straightforward cases like violence or cruelty. Feeding even a minimal appetite for these things seems wrong. Some readers may have more than a minimal appetite, which may be awakened and encouraged. Popularity lends a kind of legitimacy to what is depicted. And, as is often suggested (and was suggested in the digital-unicorn-rape discussion), there's always the possibility that participating in various pleasures in the imagination will make one more likely to participate in them for real.

But this isn't the whole story, and I think there are reasons to tolerate and even encourage such ambiguous artisitic experience.

First, people are really really easily bored. Pretty much all serious thinking has to be dressed up for excitement in some way if more than ten people are going to participate.

Second, people do have mixed impulses, and part of why we love art is for the way it reveals us to ourselves. Expressing and encountering dangerous aspects of human nature in literature is a way of domesticating it, bringing it into the realm of things we think and talk about rather than the dark realm of impulses no one ever acknowledges.

But mostly, in the literature case, depravity in a novel clearly need not function to represent depravity in real life in any literal way. It can mean anything. It can be better than literal representation. Let me explain.

In an August 5th New York Times interview (now behind the pay wall, damn!), the novelist Mary Gordon says of the current literary scene, "I think coldness is chic among writers, and particularly ironic coldness. What is absolutely not allowable is sadness. People will do anything rather than acknowledge that they are sad."

She may be right that more sadness in novels would be somehow better. But personally, I can hardly bear to read a sad novel. It's not about acknowledging; sad books just make me too fucking sad.

One time I read a George Eliot novel, I think it was The Mill on the Floss, and I felt like killing myself.

For people like me, anger, vitriol, even cruelty, can be ways of engaging with the dark unhappy parts of life without being overwhelmed with sadness. And if a book is funny, this is especially true. You can experience what is scary, horrible, depressing, and feel angry, outraged, puzzled, amused, and generally life-affirmed, rather than life-defeated.

I actually felt totally life-affirmed reading Lunar Park, even though it's an absurdly bleak portrait of modern life. Even at the time, I thought, "how strange." But it has something to do with what I have described here: the presentation of what is awful in a seductive and complex way.

Maybe. Or maybe I'm just an unusually fucked-up person.


Captain Colossal said...

I just read Less Than Zero, which, with American Psycho, brings my total of Brett Easton Ellis books up to two.

I always assumed he was a nihilist, just because I never got the sense, in either of those books, that there was some kind of viable alternative way of life out there. It seemed to me like he was saying here it is, it's sucky and a little dull, but that's what you've got.

It's funny because I really disliked American Psycho when I first read it; it made the world seem like an unhappy dull violent place. But it kind of grew on me; I may have just adopted your opinion of it. And it stayed with me. So I like that.

His books do always give me this creepy sense that a) their world is nothing like the world I live in and b) the grounds for the difference probably lies in my inadequacies, either of money and style or of perception. Like maybe that is the world I live in, I just refuse to see it.

Noko Marie said...

I know what you mean: the world depicted both is and isn't the one we live in. I think that's kind of cool... and nicely novelistic.

With respect to inadequacy: I am very susceptible to being influenced by novels -- by media of all kinds, probably. Reading Glamorama, which is about models, I kept thinking, Oh No! I have to get to the gym! Lose some weight! Buy some fancier clothes! Reading The Count of Monte Cristo made me want to buy gems. Totally absurd and funny.