I’ve been reading an awful lot about England in the twenties. Part of this is to feed the elephant child, who, for the time being, is fascinated with the period between the wars and then World War II.
Part of this is that I’m working – at last – fairly steadily on the overdue novel, which means I don’t have emotional space left for fiction. No, I can’t explain it, but fiction demands from me a level of emotional engagement, both to write and read, that non-fiction doesn’t. So when I’m working on fiction, particularly when I reach the stage where I’m pulling everything together, I simply don’t have emotional space left to read fiction. This is when I read non fiction as it falls under the hand, or according to some craving. (And when I’m emotionally exhausted, I default to reading ONLY about dinosaurs.)
The current craving is England mostly between the wars (though some WWI also, and eventually WWII.) If this works, once the long overdue novel is done and Through Fire – the sequel to A Few Good Men, from the POV of Zenobia (Zen) Siena – also, I intend to run a kickstarter for an historical mystery project.
As I’ve said before I’d like to write… Agatha Christie fan fiction. I have sort of a character at the back of my mind, and a setting – right after armistice. In fact, the first book would be called A Death In Victory.
Agatha Christie fanfic is not exactly what it is, of course – for one most of her novels remain under copyright.. I don’t intend to use her characters or her settings – exactly – simply to set the characters in the same time period, in the same general middle/upper-middle class and to – and this is very important, because none of the books currently doing this dares do such a thing (and though they’re somewhat successful on Agatha-Christie-fandom-fumes, none of them has been as successful as she was, either)– have her snide solidity of common sense behind the character’s motivations.
What do I mean by snide common sense? How can common sense be snide for heaven’s sake?
In our current day and age, common sense can be almost startlingly subversive. Agatha Christie, possibly the best selling author over the longest time period ever, is derided by the bien pensants just like Heinlein is, although their politics, their way of life and the feeling of their works are almost – note the almost – completely different.
Sometime ago I read an article by one of the literati lamenting his tendency while drunk to order Agatha Christie books which he called “drunk dialing Agatha Christie.” I confess that I thought better of his drunk self than his sober one, who referred to Agatha Christie’s “hackneyed plots and wooden characters” making this compulsive mystery reader wonder if he’d read any of the more recent “wonders of the age” and acclaimed darlings.
But of course he wouldn’t recognize today’s hackneyed plots because he would consider them daring.
And here we come to what’s bothering me this morning.
I’ve come to the conclusion what annoys today’s critics and fashionable readers about both Christie and Heinlein is the same thing. Though they bought, somewhat into the ethos of their time, both of them were stubborn enough or talented enough to make good members of the choir.
Oh, please don’t misunderstand me. Christie was in many ways a thoroughly conventional woman. All you have to do is read her thrillers, in which the political understanding sounds like undigested drawing room conversation, or even the treatment of communists in her books, who are viewed as something only idiots are scared of. She was, in many ways, an echo of the bien-pensant of her day. But with that, she had a certain amount of horse sense. Perhaps she got it from her grandmother who, in my reading of Christie’s autobiography, left a very Miss-Marplish impression.
In her own space, among her own people, of her own class, she could make her own observations. And the observations she made are not the kind of thing the bien pensant like to believe. Take some of the current mysteries set in her time: every woman longs for liberation; every young man was made a pacifist by the war, or else suffers from a retro-projected Vietnam Vet syndrome as portrayed in movies of the seventies and eighties (and apparently exceedingly rare in reality.)
This allows Christie to look at the fashionable nightclub crawling women and divine beneath the fashionable dissipation a longing for domesticity. It allows her to treat the upper class communists as poseurs. And it reaches beneath to show that the bright young things were much like everyone else since the beginning of time: they wanted to partner, succeed and reproduce.
This is Christie’s unforgivable crime as far as todays cognoscenti are concerned. Had she spent her time bemoaning the horribleness of proletarian living, the oppression of women, the unique racism and evilness of western culture, she’d be required reading in schools today. (And not nearly as popular, but that’s something else.)
Heinlein’s crime is to an extent similar. No one could accuse Heinlein of being conventional—but a lot of what he did then has become conventional wisdom now, from self-consciously having varied ethnicities in his books, to tweaking conventional morality and religion. His goal was – I think – to make people uncomfortable and to make them think.
But like Agatha Christie he had a certain practical horse sense, come, I think, from growing up in a family that lived, financially, close to the bone.
He might enjoy goring sacred cows, but like Christie he had no doubt that sacred cows or not, Western culture (and in his case American culture in particular) was the most prosperous and advanced in existence, the one that had the best chance of propelling man forward to a destiny among the stars. He also dared have women who liked men and wanted to have children (in his defense, at the time that didn’t even rise to the level of a sacred cow, it was simply an observation of human nature and biological fact.) He also had the nerve to claim that Western Culture was worth fighting for.
So, despite everything they would otherwise agree with him on, the cognoscenti rage at Heinlein as they rage at Christie and call him names and more or less shame people into not reading him – because if they did read him, they might find out that he’s none of those things and find within his writings that thing that intellectuals today can’t face: hope for the future and a belief in the basic ability of the individual to live his own life within Western Culture.
Because I’ve been reading about the twenties, and about what was going on culturally then, I’ve come to the conclusion the reason that people who want to appear educated and “smart” object so much to authors like this is that these authors pull you out of the recursive loop that has caught Western society “high brow culture” for almost a hundred years.
Look – we do know that cultures are like individuals in one thing: they can get shocked and fall into neurotic behaviors. Only the culture is not a very bright individual. In fact, in perception of where it came from and where it’s going it’s probably comparable to a six year old child, misinformed, confused, and horribly emotional. This is true – particularly these days, when we are so widespread our information gathering is done by a very few people, and when we are largely illiterate (look, our level of people who read for pleasure is exactly the same as in Shakespeare’s day) and so most of our entertainment – in movies and games – forms our view of history and where we came from. And those are controlled by a view of history that has been disproven, is a-historical, and is in fact formed by the shock-reaction to World War I.
World War I was terrible, and for many reasons, including the prevalence of pictures and news, the fratricide/civil-war quality of it, the massive number of casualties. It shocked an entire generation into … writing an awful lot about it, and into trying to tear down the pillars of civilization, believing that Western Civilization (and not human nature, itself) was what had brought about the carnage and the waste.
Do I need to tell you they were wrong? That they were wrong in turning against Judeo Christianity and Western civ, and capitalism, and industrialization?
Yes, to an extent those, by bringing about an affluent and organized society made it possible for the carnage to reach the levels it did. BUT it didn’t create the conditions that brought the carnage about. And tearing it down certainly doesn’t stop that type of carnage. In fact, the horrors of World War One have been bested man on man, terror on terror, shock on shock, by China’s Cultural revolution, Stalin’s purges and the soggy blood-soaked piles of corpses from the societies who rejected Judeo-Christianity (it has become fashionable to ignore the fact that Hitler was, in fact, a pagan, who promoted a pagan ethos with a vengeance. Just as it’s become fashionable to ignore that he was a socialist) and western civilization (no, worshipping mythical Arians or “the proletariat” is no part of western civilization. It is part of the tear down) and family structures (have you read The Communist Manifesto?)
None of this has penetrated our cultural/literary/thought scene, though. There all of this is still counter-cultural and a little shocking. If you mention Stalin’s purges, they’re tell you capitalism is worse, man, because it kills your soul… or something.
The idea of tearing down Western Civ continues, even though there is remarkably little to tear down. The “speaking truth to power” still fits the 20s definition of being sexually daring, verbally shocking, and saying bad things about the west… even though everyone in power now are people who believe and say exactly the same things.
Like a child shocked by WWI and having both externalized the blame – Listen to a six year old, sometime “I didn’t break the vase. It was the cat.” Same thing “I didn’t cause death and carnage. It was capitalism and old white men.” – and misattributed it – states looking for resources and expanding their power through bureaucratic means was more important than competition for raw materials, whatever you heard in school – the idiot child that is Western civ continues rampaging through her room, tearing everything that made it comfortable and useful and a good place, and throwing it out the window.
No, of course I’m not saying everything about the early twentieth century was perfect. Yes, of course greater participation of women in both politics and work, a break down of social barriers and greater racial integration are a good thing. They’re also unique in the world today. Other than Western civilization and countries influenced by it, the evils of racism, sexism and rigid class (and tribe) structure are, if anything even more hardened than they were before.
That I’m saying is that Western civilization AND capitalism (particularly the greater affluence created by it) are what brought about the erosion of those ancient evils to which ALL OF HUMANITY is prey.
Blaming Capitalism or affluence or industrialization for those evils is like blaming the cat for removing the scones from the oven and eating them – with jam and cream, mind you. (Yes, younger kid did that. He seemed absolutely convinced it was true, too. He was four.)
And invoking to resist these evils the untamed primitive (No? “Smash capitalism” and well… OWS in general) which IS the found of these evils is not only insane, it is counterproductive.
It is also where our culture has been for the last twenty years, caught in a recursive loop where everything – such as the collectivist massacres and poverty around the world – that doesn’t fit the narrative is swept under the rug, and “shocking” things that shock no one are continuously hurled Tourette’s-like at the one civilization that COULD have been shocked by WWI or seen anything wrong with death on that scale. (Hint, other cultures BRAG of how many they kill/how many of them are killed in war.)
Which is why people like Christie and Heinlein are reviled. Because if you read them you might get the idea that well… there were people wanting to smash capitalism back in the twenties, and that they were poseurs and a little ridiculous. Or that women CAN be competent, brilliant and still wish to create a new generation of humans.
And then, where would we be?
I’m not a psychiatrist, but I looked up what to do for someone who is caught in a neurotic recursive loop of counterproductive behaviors. Apparently one of the ways to fix this is to correct the misapprehension and projection at the heart of the loop.
So, I say – break the cycle. Speak real truth to power. Write of war and evil, sure, but as human ills, and not as the result of the unique badness of Western Civilization (or civilization) or capitalism, or affluence, or industrialization. Dare point out that while humanity has had savages aplenty, few of them were noble. Dare point out that while civilized man can be conventional, conventional behavior is often decent and moral and better for everyone.
Smash fake intellectualism. Speak truth to power. Dare write of individuals who can and do control their destiny and make things better (or at least try to.)
Administer shock therapy.
Write Human Wave.
If you’re good at it, soon all the “right thinking people” will hate you. What more could you want?
Update: Welcome Instapundit readers and thank you to Glenn Reynolds for the link.