It’s Sunday morning in London. The Sunday Times is here. (Yes, we too have a Sunday Times.) The “Week in Review” section is nice and fat. (Yes, it’s nice and fat here, too.) Headline: “End Game: Why the Soviets are pulling out of Afghanistan.” Photo of Najibullah, photo of Gorbachev, photo of two smiling soldiers. Read-out, in bold: “After eight years tied down to a futile war in Afghanistan, Russia is pulling out.” Sample paragraph: “Gorbachev’s personal intervention has underlined his conviction that his own prestige, and hence the fate of his glasnost and perestroika policies, is at stake.”
Yes, it’s Sunday morning in London. Reading the “Report by Askold Krushelnycky, with Stephen Milligan in Washington and Angus Roxburgh in Moscow,” fills one with the numb certainty of being in the West. Does truth matter, especially on a Sunday? Is the war futile? Is Russia pulling out? What are Gorbachev’s convictions? Who is Gorbachev? What is “prestige”? What are “policies”? Where is the “Travel” section?
Ah, here’s the “Travel” section. Let’s see. Headline: “USA: Taking a small bite out of the Big Apple.” Photo caption: “Central Park: host to wide open spaces, deck chairs and baseball games in a noisy, humorous city where everyone seems to be acting a movie part.” Photo of two black men watching a baseball game from folding chairs, with New York’s skyline in the background. Read-out, in bold: “What could be more romantic than a weekend in Manhattan, sampling exotic cuisine in Greenwich Village, before flexing your sterling muscles in Bloomingdales? Or how about a movie and basketball in Boston? The strong pound and airline rivalry mean a US weekend makes financial sense—if you can stand the pace.”
At this moment, one becomes aware of the fantastic, improbable truth that the author of the travel article is the very man who wrote the report on Afghanistan. No, not figuratively speaking. Literally: both articles have issued from the pen of Askold Krushelnycky, whoever he is, to appear side by side on the same Sunday in the same newspaper. Let us take a closer look at the author’s Manhattan odyssey.
I took a yellow cab to my friend’s apartment on West 119th Street near Colombia University and we later took the subway into Manhattan. . . . On Friday I took the subway into Madison Avenue. I knew from the movies that it was the proper time to have coffee and a doughnut in one of the hundreds of little eateries where people dive in for breakfast and the newspapers. . . . Next day, catching up on the cultural programme, I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
And so on. It’s all here, isn’t it: “yellow cab” (local color), “apartment” (rather than “flat,” since it’s important to use some quaint local expressions), “Colombia” (well, what’s the difference, ultimately?), the subway ride from West II9th Street in Manhattan “into” the magical, distant “Manhattan” (it could be a figure of speech, after all), “hundreds of little eateries” (not on Madison, perhaps, but on some other street), the “Metropolitan Museum” (not that far, really, from the Museum of Modern Art, especially by taxi) . . . Take a deep breath. Think of some universal application of this twaddle. There must be a column in this.
A recent novel, described by reviewers here as “exciting,” “extraordinary,” and “remarkable,” is set in Moscow. “Does this come off?” the hero is asked about the hair on his chest in a moment of playful passion. “His voice was muffled. ‘Does it unzip, you mean—like a gorilla suit?'” Now, the truth is that nobody in Russia has ever seen such a suit. Centuries ago, when educated Europeans knew nothing of Russia except its mica and leather, “a Muscovian duke” named Astolfo was credible in a Calderon play. Beyond the limits of Europe, in the words of a Shakespearean scholar, “monsters dwelt and miracles were common.” Yet such nescience was hardly an impediment to the writers of the day, Shakespeare among them, for even when they borrowed a character, or a setting, from that distant wonderland, it was invariably their own world they aimed to describe, and describe truthfully.
The world in which we live has witnessed a metamorphosis of imaginative thinking in our literature that parallels the ethical collapse of Dostoyevsky’s nihilist heroes a century ago. If man can become cockroach (since everything is allowed), if waiting for Godot is life (since anything is possible), if all things are equally likely (except for nuclear holocaust, which is inevitable), why should a writer bother with the “truth”? “What’s gotten into you today, I don’t understand,” says a character in a 1930’s Russian play. “The truth, the truth! I’ve been telling myself the truth for so long that I’ve forgotten what the damn thing looks like!”
Indeed, any “fiction” will do—the more absurd, the better. A gorilla suit in Moscow? Well, it cannot be claimed with absolute certainty that one has never found its way there. A cannibal in Manhattan? Surely stranger things have happened. The fate of glasnost and perestroika is at stake? Who is to say it isn’t?
Mass culture conforms to the highbrow. A “soap” heroine, abducted by the exigencies of plot and contract, disappears in a flying saucer. A travel writer for a national newspaper tells of his journey from West 119th Street “into Manhattan.” If life is absurd, why should it matter that there are no Martians, or that 119th Street is in Manhattan?
The tabloid mind is no longer a thing to conceal. Magazines, from Newsweek to Town & Country, proudly fabricate social phenomena. Kremlinologists, astrologers, and just plain liars are in demand at the White House. Corporate tycoons openly believe in cryonic resurrection.
One begins to understand Tom Wolfe’s passion for exactitude, even if it means knowing a character by the price of his suit. Whatever its other merits, The Bonfire of the Vanities is a rare event on the literary scene because it is accurate. Yet what a storm of critical controversy have Wolfe’s price lists unleashed! Brand names, dialects, prices are too close to the truth, and do not belong in good “fiction.” Once a journalist, always a journalist (as a Russian emigre grande dame once said of Dostoyevsky). By contrast, a novel about a dinner party that ends with the guests eating each other is literature. Chekhov, by whose prose world culture is to be measured, never wrote a single line of “fiction.” Nor did he ever attempt to write a novel: too artificial, too contrived, too pretentious. The Russian language has no word for “fiction”—only “prose”—and a quick look in the Oxford dictionary confirms that the English word has an appallingly undistinguished pedigree. (“Books,” Emerson wrote in his Journal, “are the destruction of literature.”)
What would Chekhov (or Emerson) think of our best-seller lists, divided into “fiction” and “nonfiction”? The division is spurious, not because every writer must be like Chekhov and describe life as truthfully as he can, but because the spiritual relativism of contemporary Western literature obliterates all such distinctions. Like Socialist Realism in post-1917 Russia, it devalues honesty, imagination, and style, replacing them with an inflated currency of sterile, conformist inventions, eagerly published, promptly reviewed, and quickly forgotten. Shall we call it Capitalist Surrealism? Or is “fiction” banal enough?
Literature is not everything. But it is a symptom, and those who care about literature can extrapolate the point to comprehend the cultural crisis as a whole. Are not the dominant trends of Western foreign policy (e.g., Kissinger’s detente), or psychology (e.g., Freudian psychoanalysis), or journalism (e.g., Krushelnycky’s reporting) based on the same disregard for the truth that distinguishes our literature? Something to think about.