Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Political Estrangement and the Novel

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Political Estrangement and the Novel

Article excerpt

The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Twentieth Century

by Stuart A. Scheingold

New York: Continuum, 2010. 262 pages

Critics have long debated the complex relationship between politics and literature, with positions ranging from New Criticism's idealized apolitical literary aesthetic to arguments, such as Fredric Jameson's, that in fact all literature is "in the last analysis" (5) political. Stuart A. Scheingold situates himself between these two poles in his impressive and highly readable interdisciplinary study The Political Novel: Re-Imagining the Tiventieth Century. Arguing that the political novel is inextricably related to modernism, Scheingold proposes a new species of political fiction: the novel of political estrangement. He asserts that this genre emerges first in the ashes of World War I, though it does not fully develop until the post-World War II era. In The Political Novel, Scheingold uses the novel of political estrangement as a fresh means by which to understand the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century.

Specifically, Scheingold explores the ways the literary imagination has grappled with the failures of "the terrible twentieth century" (1). Historians and social theorists--Scheingold among them--have long looked at the ways faith in modernity was shaken by the past century's "[contamination] by total war, the destabilization of democracy and the emergence of totalitarian regimes." In The Political Novel, the political scientist Scheingold shifts his method from the empirical social sciences to literary criticism in order to discover "a counterpart, a complement. perhaps a corrective to these other forms of scholarly inquiry" (2). Scheingold argues that novels of political estrangement

  constitute a new genre that resonates with
  the mournful legacy of the twentieth
  century--that is, with the futility of
  political struggle. [They] shift attention
  from political actors and institutions to
  the general public--ordinary people whose
  agency has been appropriated by autocratic
  regimes, by bureaucratic institutions
  and by professionals with the expertise
  to colonize consciousness. (2)

By presenting politics and political actors as an "absent presence," such novels direct attention to "consumers and casualties" (19) of the political.

Scheingold uses novels of political estrangement as a means to better understand the twentieth century's legacy of catastrophe and disillusionment, and to refine our sense of what is to come in the twenty-first. As Scheingold puts it, The Political Novel "is an interdisciplinary inquiry refracted through political, cultural, historical and literary prisms. [Ultimately], however, politics drives this research and literature is deployed to tell a political, not a literary, story" (3). Despite this thrust--literature used as a vehicle for understanding politics--The Political Novel is truly interdisciplinary, with illuminating readings of over two dozen important novels that will be germane to those interested in literature, politics, history, and social theory.

Scheingold grounds his readings with an introductory discussion of what he deems "the modern project" (3). He defines "modernity" as "an intellectual construct that is deployed by a variety of disciplines to make sense out of the relentless sea changes in societies at the close of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century." Scheingold acknowledges that the many disciplines using modernity as an "intellectual construct" have produced countless iterations of the concept. Despite this range of definitions, Scheingold cites "broad agreement among modernists that the origins of the modern project can be traced to the culture of rationality associated with the eighteenth-century Enlightenment" (3) and that progress as a human endeavor is its animating ideal. Scheingold references Anthony Giddens in order to name "the nation-state system, the world capitalist economy, the world military order and the division of labor" (4) as the dominant modern institutions operating alongside modernist cultural values such as secularism, materialism, individualism, rationalism, and the separation of private and public spheres. …

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