Engdahl, progressive theater, and Melvillean sword-points

mytwocentsNobel judge Horace Engdahl, while echoing some of my concerns about creative writing programs, had this to say about transgressive fiction:

Engdahl slammed novels which “pretend to be transgressive”, but which are not. “One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,” he said. “These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.”

As fans know, I’m not a big fan of consciously transgressive art, either.

I suspect Engdahl and I might disagree about which transgressions are fake and which limits don’t really exist, or (I would qualify it) which ones exist mostly as traumatic memories rather than overwhelming current realities. But the issue he’s raising is an important one. How transgressive can institutionalized writers really be?

In my experience, they usually are not very transgressive at all, instead cleaving to the cultural norms of a well-established in-group that has been styling itself as a counter-culture since its adolescence began over half a century ago. Most of the norms and privileges it conceives of as “unexamined” have been exhaustively examined or confronted (and often exaggerated and outright falsified) over the intervening decades to the point of nausea.

Echoing the “security theater” critique of fake safety measures, I like to think of this as “progressive theater,” cultural activity designed to appear liberal, justice-seeking, or enlightened but which is really none of those things.

Even so, the traditional non-counter-culture still has its own enclaves and mental militias (alongside its actual militias), meaning we’re stuck in a world of two competing, essentially conservative norm-sets … against which nobody is really transgressing. Or, against the dumbed-down dichotomy of which, genuine transgression has to be so subtle as to pass unmolested under the primitive cultural radars of the two partisan combatants.

Which is probably for the better. To quote Melville, who was speaking of an equally intractable 19th century cultural divide:

Who desires to be impartially just in the expression of his views, moves as among swordpoints presented on every side.


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