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THE MARRIAGE PLOT/ The Problem isn’t Liberalism, the Problem is “You”

June Tue 12, 2012

Jeffrey Eugenides' novel  Jeffrey Eugenides' novel

In responding to Mark Bauerlein’s Public Discourse article, “Liberalism is Bad for Literature,” I won’t defend Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot. Instead I will spell out the reasons why I believe that Professor Bauerlein’s main point—that liberalism is bad for literature—is not only wrong, but also somewhat dangerous. Dangerous not only because it is unnecessarily discouraging, but also because if a writer chooses to believe it, his next step will have to be (if he is to remain consistent) the abdication of his vocation as a writer.

Liberalism, Bauerlein argues, is an ideology that works to erode the social and religious institutions that are the common touchstones of meaning between the characters in a novel and its readers. Now that we live in a world where “marriage” can mean either a religious sacrament or a purely legal agreement between individuals, the dramatic weight of “the marriage plot” has been lost. The other aspect of liberalism that Bauerlein finds toxic is the relativism that it carries around like a bad smell, a noxious gas that seeps into every corner of the room. The novelist today suffers from a relativistic outlook that keeps him from creating characters with universal appeal, and from making statements that have universal purchase.

Both social disintegration and moral relativism lead to the same sorry conclusion: the liberal novel is a novel in which not much is at stake. And if you don’t have much at stake, you can’t have a good story. Bauerlein’s critique covers both the subject and the object: the subject is deluded by relativism, and can’t say anything truly worth saying; the object—society—is so fragmented that it no longer makes any claim upon individuals, nor does it contain the social markers and rites of passage that make stories possible.

What is interesting about Bauerlein’s argument is that it is the reverse of what one typically finds in a piece of cultural criticism. Usually, a culture critic will scan contemporary novels for the signs of the times, those social factoids and missives of misery that can be gathered up as evidence for a theory about just what is wrong with the world today and why. Instead, his point is the opposite: there is so much wrong with the world today that it is impossible to make up a good novel out of it. Here lies the danger in his position.

Even if Bauerlein is right, the novelist has to do it anyway. And he has to succeed, because the human race depends on it. The novelist cannot print out Bauerlein’s article, tuck it into his Moleskine, and apply for grad school instead. He has to look at the world as it is, come to know the human heart, and make something up anyway. What the writer needs is not a political movement that will reform society; he needs to become a better writer. Even if the ambitious young writer today has a mind warped by individualistic relativism, his ambition is greater than his ideology, because his ambition is to communicate experience in a way that makes sense to his reader. Reader and writer dwell together in the same horizon of meanings.



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