Thursday, August 25, 2005

Literary Warrior

There is a wonderful piece on Mark Helpring in Harvard magazine online. Described accurately as a "literary warrior," Helprin is one of the best living writers. That he isn't as well known as literary hacks like Toni "everyone is racist" Morrison and John "I love abortion" Irving says volumes about the state of literary culture in our society. In short, Helprin is living proof that literary prizes are, for the most part, a joke. And a very partisan joke at that.

Here's a taste:

Helprin is a classicist. He believes in history, tradition, and eternal verities. He values aesthetic symmetries and the literary forms the centuries have passed down to us. To Helprin, the principles of modernism are fatal to art, and he has no truck with the avant-garde. “The avant-garde are frauds,” he bluntly declares. “Modern literature is all cool and detached, even though a lot of modern writers are passionate about their politics. To me, passion should be for literature, and reason and detachment for politics.

“A lot of people hate heroes,” he continues. “I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.”

Despite his literary reputation, Helprin is probably better known as huge supporter of the War on Terrorism, albeit a fairly stringent critic (from the right) of the Bush administration.

Helprin believes (as I do) that we as a nation are still not sufficiently committed to doing whatever is necessary to win the war against radical Islam. Our compromises and hesitations, Helprin argues, not only embolden our enemies, but put our fine young men and women in the armed services in added danger.

"We do not and, according to some, cannot or should not control our borders, because it, too, is expensive. Humvees have gone without armor, baggage without inspection, epidemic diseases without immunizations, chemical agents without antidotes, radiation without detection, and so on and so forth across the spectrum of our vulnerabilities."

We're a long way from Tony Kushner or Norman Mailer here.

To understand Helprin's POV, read Let US Count the Ways from the Claremont Review. Here Helprin outlines his views on how to best conduct the War on Terrorism. He explores means and ends, the aims of war and the costs of war. Well worth reading.

Then, pick up Helprin's novel A Winter's Tale and introduce yourself to the man who is probably the greatest living fiction writer.


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