The Inner Lives of Conservatives in Literature

When Mitt Romney loses the election today (as he almost certainly will), where in literature, aside from the Bible, might conservatives go to process that loss?

James McGirk sees that processing coming most characteristically from Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957). More pulp fiction than literature, he summarizes her novel as follows:

The book presents a nightmare: socialists have taken over, and they keep anyone the least bit creative hamstrung with regulations. America is drooping into decrepitude, so the world’s most brilliant industrialists are going underground in protest. Plutocrat sweethearts Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden join the movement as the masses clamor for revolution. Will the natural aristocracy assume its rightful place? The message is simple: the world is filled with jealous mediocrities. Be your selfish self and ignore them.

Beyond that, he asserts, there is a paucity of the conservative inner life (rendered sympathetically) in literature:

The shelves of America’s bookstores do not accurately represent the inner life of their customers. Where are the Tea Partiers dreaming of libertarian utopias? Whence the poets who howl for the rights of the unborn? The Mormon missionary comedies of manners? American literature seems to want for authors of a Republican slant.

As partial remedy, McGirk makes some suggestions, such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine:

They might consider Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, published in 1932. John Banville declared it “the finest novel ever written by a far-right sympathizer,” and he also wrote the foreword to its new edition. In the book, one Ferdinand Bardamu volunteers to go to war. But he isn’t much of a soldier, let alone a patriot, and he leaves horrified. His impression of the French colonial empire is no better, nor is he fond of Detroit, then a thriving center of industrial capitalism. (Remember those days?) He doesn’t like Paris. He doesn’t like being a doctor. Bardamu doesn’t like much of anything. Though there is nothing especially political about the book, reading it is like experiencing an allergic reaction to modernity. Journey to the End of the Night does not offer readers much more than nihilism as a response to a detestable world. It reads like the caffeinated grousing of a shell-shocked veteran whose ideas are bankrupt yet still has the power of style, the weapon of language and rhetoric. It is hard not be swept up in the intensity of Bardamu’s feelings.

I’m not sure conservatives would actually like this. McGirk’s second suggestion, however, is more plausible:

Flannery O’Connor’s short story “The Lame Shall Enter First” uses the idea of an omniscient, judging God to justify intricate shifts of perspective and steep the atmosphere in religious dread. An atheist father invites a troubled teenager into his home to spite his grieving son, and he is punished for it. O’Connor doesn’t waggle Catholicism in her readers’ faces, but she does seem to say, “Believe what you want, but don’t say I never warned you.”

McGirk makes other suggestions, but avoids some obvious ones (Orwell’s 1984; and in pulp fiction, Tim LaHaye’s rapture novels). And he doesn’t recommend it, but mentions a Mitt Romney fiction favorite: L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth.

As for poems, I’ll suggest one: Galway Kinnell’s “Shelley” (2005).

When I was twenty the one true
free spirit I had heard of was Shelley,
Shelley, who wrote tracts advocating
atheism, free love, the emancipation
of women, the abolition of wealth and class,
and poems on the bliss of romantic love,
Shelley, who I learned later, perhaps
almost too late, remarried Harriet,
then pregnant with their second child,
and a few months later ran off with Mary,
with them Mary’s stepsister Claire,
who very likely also became his lover,

and in this malaise a’ trois, which Shelley
had imagined would be “a paradise of exiles,”
they lived, along with the spectre of Harriet,
who drowned herself in the Serpentine,
and of Mary’s half sister Fanny,
who killed herself, maybe for unrequited
love of Shelley, and with the spirits
of adored but often neglected
children conceived incidentally
in the pursuit of Eros – Harriet’s
Ianthe and Charles, denied to Shelley
and consigned to foster parents; Mary’s
Clara, dead at one; her Willmouse,
Shelley’s favorite, dead at three; Elena,
the baby in Naples, almost surely
Shelley’s own, whom he “adopted”
and then left behind, dead and one and a half;
Allegra, Claire’s daughter by Byron,
whom Byron sent off to the convent
at Bagnacavallo at four, dead at five —

and in those days, before I knew
any of this, I thought I followed Shelley,
who thought he was following radiant desire.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to The Inner Lives of Conservatives in Literature

  1. Staffan says:

    The idea of referring to traditional conservatives and brutal capitalists as basically the same is so silly. By that logic I guess the conservatives could console themselves with a bit of Rand or Yeats depending on their mood.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I think there are a lot of conservatives that alternate emotionally between their inner Jesus and their inner Nietzsche. You don’t?

      Isn’t Paul Ryan an obvious instance?

      –Santi

  2. Staffan says:

    No, I really don’t. I think these are completely different temperaments. Paul Ryan is just an ordinary politician. He is now up on a level in politics where Rand is no longer useful so he dislodges her and moves on. They have no ideology. You can see this when you look at new parties in Europe. They start out with ideologists but as they are voted into parliament all those people just disappear and are replaced by the charismatic communicators – with Romneys and Obamas.

  3. Staffan says:

    Few vote for ideas these days; they vote for the person. So he has something. He certainly projects more strength than Obama.

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