Anna's No and the Conservative Imagination

In one of Paul Fussell's many great books (he writes so many it's hard to keep up), The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism, he defends the school of poetry and prose sometimes called neo-classic (Swift to Pope to Johnson to Gibbon to Burke) & finds in them a consistent and brilliant and still relevant interpretatation of the human condition which can be identified with what is traditionally called conservative politics (these terms are very slippery and changing every day). If we oppose this to the "liberal" way of interpreting literature found let's say in Irving Howe (I don't much remember Lionel Trilling's book, except the stuff about the hum & buzz which I have never forgotten as exceptionally true), we can place Richardson squarely with Swift.

This would not make him happy though. An important difference in Richardson's mind would be the Christian emphasis in Clarissa; as Fussell himself elaborates "humanism" from the Renaissance through Burke it is rooted in the classics and a classical vision of what is good in life.

These terms and views have though little to do with fascism or communism as we have thus known them in this century. Both were based on massive standing armies, on denying the individual all rights including that of life vis-a-vis the state. Horrible as are all such states (and I will say there are movements in today's America which show us going in this direction in some areas), and all slave and extermination camps (the slave camps are still going today in China), I agree with Primo Levi that there was something of another order of sickness in nazism. When Bosnian Serbs murder Bosnian muslims, they want their land; once they've got that, they turn away. The ruthless logistical wholesale extermination of peoples for its own sake, which was accompanied by murdering the disabled in hospitals, deliberate creation of "blonde blue-eyed" children, an insane educational program, was actually an expensive thing to do--which can be seen because it created jobs, always expensive creating jobs you know. The people in the Chinese establishment save money with their slave camps. But such a horror as nazism grows out of a mindset which is still with us, and I guess what I was trying to do was show where I see peering out pieces of this mindset in Clarissa, and that when this button is hit, I react, an in the reinterated incantation of obedience to authority in the family (make family=state and you're on the road there).

That Richardson hits such buttons does him credit; Clarissa may have silly moments, but it's not a silly book. In fact, it's a tragic novel, and I see no contradiction when I complain about a system which privileges some individuals against the others & yet can think certain specific individuals are finer than others. The complaint is lodged against denying individuals basic necessities (people shouldn't starve, people shouldn't be put in holes filled with feces, people have the right, I think, to basic health care, people should have roofs over their heads, I could go on...); the idea that certain individuals may be admired has to do with their inner qualities which enable them to lead a different level of imaginative life and to understand and embody meanings which are subtle and may have deep emotional significance for some individuals but not understood by others. These others still ought not to be ground down in a sponging house; their lives ought not to be taken by the state &c. It's when Richardson presents Clarissa as a category of person who must not be ground down, that I draw that line. I am one of those who find Willie Loman a tragic hero, which doesn't make Miller's play as equivalent in insight to the human condition as Hamlet; but you don't have to be a prince.

You can be a 19 year old girl who was raped. You can be a half-crazy poor Italian workman, not very admirable at all, Jewish, in a concentration camp. When Richardson says that Clary held out superhumanly is what singles her out as tragedy, he ruins his text. That point is not that Clary is upper class, or in white, or superhumanly held out; the point is she considered this act a violation of her integrity, and he violated her because she considered it so, so as to abase and humilate and make her his toy. And, as in today's letter to Anna, Sunday July 23rd, she is so right not to marry him, so right, how, indeed, could she lay down next to this man?


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