The Intellectual at Play in the Wider World

Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times Book Review:

02mishra-articleInline I don’t think of myself as a literary critic. I write about novels and short stories. But I am reluctant to describe what I do as “literary criticism,” as I like to move quickly beyond the literariness of a text — whether narrative techniques or quality of prose — and its aesthetic pleasures, to engage with the author’s worldview, implied or otherwise, and his or her location in history (of nation-states and empires, as well as of literary forms).

This kind of reading came naturally to me in the new, very poor and relatively inchoate Asian society in which I grew up. When I first began to read literary fiction I could assume neither a clear backdrop of political and social stability, nor a confident knowledge of the world and assumptions of national power. Everything had to be figured out, and literature was the primary means of clarifying a bewilderingly large universe of meanings and contexts.

Much of my self-education was assisted by American writers like Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee and Irving Howe. Some of these were literary critics, but they were, above all, public intellectuals (a species whose irrelevance and powerlessness Alfred Kazin seems to be mourning — rather more than the demise of a critical genre — when he writes, “We are rushing into our future so fast that no one can say who is making it, or what is being made; all we know is that we are not making it, and there is no one, no matter what his age is, who does not in his heart feel that events have been taken out of his hands”).

Coming of age during and after the progressive era, when intellectual argument and political activism promised to reshape America’s future, these critics took it for granted that literature was among the main signs of the times, and subject to the inquiring gaze of history and politics.

In this presumption, they were supported not so much by the Marxian ideologues of the 1930s as by the great realist novelists, from Stendhal to Tolstoy and Mann, who could not have written their most mature works without grappling with the political and moral challenges of their day.

More here.