Thu, Aug 18, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Valuing complexity in the war against mendacious simplicity

By Norman Manea

It is said that Americans have a genius for simplification. Gradually, however, the quest for it has become a global trend, one that continues to conquer new territories, just as blue jeans once did.

The speed of our daily life is visibly increased — and not for the better — by this unstoppable evolution. The tyranny of pragmatism seems to mark all of the complex dilemmas of our time. Too many valid choices are ignored or skirted through the routine of short-cuts.

Nowhere is this trend more damaging than in today’s mercantile approach to art. Even the much-praised notion of competition seems fake and cynically manipulated by the “corporate” mentality that now pervades the world of culture — by the financial pre-selection that determines what publishers, producers and other impresarios will support. Just imagine what might have happened with the works of, say, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, or Jorge Luis Borges had they been subjected to mass-market competition like shoes or cosmetics.

Culture is a necessary pause from the daily rat race, from our chaotic and often vulgar political surroundings, and it is a chance to recover our spiritual energy. Great books, music and paintings are not only an extraordinary school of beauty, truth and good, but also a way of discovering our own beauty, truth, and good — the potential for change, of bettering ourselves and even some of our interlocutors.

If this respite and refuge is gradually narrowed and invaded by the same kind of “products” as those that dominate the mass market, we are condemned to be perpetual captives of the same stunted universe of “practicalities,” the ordinary agglomeration of cliches packaged in advertisements.

I was thinking again about these old and seemingly unsolvable questions during my re-reading of a quite challenging novel by a close friend and a great writer, not very present in the vivid landscape of US letters of today. The theme, style, and echo of his work says a lot, I think, about our simplified world.

The novel is Blinding, by Claudio Magris. Hailed in Europe as one of the great novels of the 20th century, Blinding arrived in the US only after a great delay, and never received the attention that it deserved. Unfortunately, that is no surprise. The number of literary translations done nowadays in the US is, according to a UN report, equal to that of Greece, a country one-tenth the size. Imported books are thought to be too “complicated,” which is another way of saying that literature should deal with simple issues in a simple way, obeying the rules of the mass market, with its tricks of packaging, accessibility, advertisement, and comfort.

At the core of Magris’ book is the destiny of a group of Italian communists who travel to Yugoslavia after World War II to contribute to the construction of a socialist society, only to be caught in the conflict between former Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin and former Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito.

They are imprisoned for their Stalinist allegiance and when they are finally allowed to return to Italy, their old comrades refuse to accept them.

The book’s plot spans two centuries of revolution. Then, suddenly, “the party vanished, overnight, as if all of a sudden a giant sponge had drained the entire sea, Adriatic and Austral, leaving litter and clots of mud, and all the boats stranded. How can you go home again if the sea has been sucked down a vast drain that opened up beneath it, emptying it who knows where, into a void? The earth is arid and dead, but there won’t be another one, nor another heaven.”

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