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Paul Theroux on the Truth of Art.

This post continues the theme in this one, where a propagandist is quoted glorying in the fact that (as she tells it) many young women today don’t read our greatest modern fiction writers because they’re sexist pigs. UD doesn’t think we should pause too long in that woman’s world; on the other hand, it’s good to remind ourselves about art vs. propaganda — a distinction you’d think would be insanely easy to grasp, but maybe not.

Here’s Paul Theroux, reviewing his life as he turns eighty.

In my youth, Henry Miller’s novels “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” were banned; so were D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” and Edmund Wilson’s “Memoirs of Hecate County.” “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was a problem at the time of its publication, in 1885, and, by the way, it is still a problem. Because some books were viewed as vicious or vulgar, writers were suspect, potential corrupters, and consequently they were, to my mind, figures of transformative power… I was at a lunch, as an invited guest, a few years ago in a university setting when I mentioned that “Heart of Darkness” was a favorite book of mine. A young Nigerian student across the table, an aspiring writer, howled, “I hate this book!” The teachers equivocated in discomfort, but one of them spoke up on behalf of the student, agreeing that it was a flawed book and that Conrad’s ethics were questionable. Another teacher there told me that she was teaching “Moby-Dick” as a travel book. I found myself staring wildly at my plate of quiche…

You either care about transformative subversion in the name of human truths… you either care about beautiful, packed-with-life prose … or you don’t. Don’t rely on your literature professor to get you there; as Theroux notes, you might get a propagandist. And anyway, you’re supposed to have cottoned to the scandal of great fiction a good many years before you get to college.

Many of the palm trees, their fat roots undercut, have fallen into the sea, and the beach is now crowded, and stonier, in places bleak and gravelly—the visible effects of time passing and a reminder that I am doomed, too.

Theroux gazes at the Hawaiian beach where he’s writing and… and for goodness sake — don’t just read the words! He’s a stylist, okay, like all great writers! Propagandists don’t give a shit about style, but as a thoughtful human being who cares about art, you should. You should notice the poetry of this sentence, the many hard alliterative Ts (trees, fat, roots, undercut, stonier, time) balanced by the calm ah softness of palm and fallen — and how poets love words like palm and fallen because their brevity and their long ah-A is so lyrical placid and wise… UD thinks the most beautiful English word is: All. Listen to her beloved Purcell do a riff on all. Art is everything; don’t piss your life away failing to take on board as much of reality as you possibly can.

Margaret Soltan, April 6, 2021 9:11AM
Posted in: great writing

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4 Responses to “Paul Theroux on the Truth of Art.”

  1. Matthew McKeon Says:

    I love the Heart of Darkness. But if you are going to read one book about Africa, maybe the vision of a European colonialist is not the go to. The whole continent doesn’t exist to corrupt one white man.

    I suppose the solution is to read a lot of books.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Matthew: Agreed – if faced with the unlikely situation of wanting to read a book based in Africa and only being able to read one, Heart of Darkness shouldn’t be your first choice, since the particularity of its colonialist world view would skew your sense of the reality of the continent. But reading merely any one novel about Africa will skew you badly in any case.

    More importantly, being a professor who publicly “hates” this great, canonical work of art because of its colonialist assumptions is profoundly irresponsible in regard to the students you will encounter. The reason Heart of Darkness, despite its assumptions, is one of the greatest novels ever written, has to do with its moral/philosophical seriousness, with its stunning quality of prose, and with the brilliance of its shifting point of views and narrative arc. If a professor lacks the aesthetic generosity to see and convey that to literature students, if his political rage flattens all of that to nothing… well, one pities his students.

  3. Matthew McKeon Says:

    I believe Theroux is quoting a “Nigerian student,” not a professor. To have someone passionate about literature, even if its outrage would be invaluable in a class.

  4. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Thanks for the correction – a student, and aspiring writer, yes. As for passionate outrage being of value – can’t agree with you. The worst are full of passionate intensity. And in the context of a classroom, it tends to bully other students into submission. Dispassionate analysis of something — molecules, poems — is what you want if the setting is intellectual.

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