Literary Distinctions


BRENDAN: I understand, Neal, that you are of the opinion that a novelist isn't necessarily an artist, these days, just because he writes novels, but can be one of three things.

NEAL: That is correct.  He can be an artist, an anti-artist, or a philosopher, using the latter term in the contemporary sense as applying, in the main, to metaphysical writers, or men who identify more with essence than appearance.

BRENDAN: How, then, do you distinguish between novelists as artists and novelists as anti-artists?

NEAL: Very simply!  Between those who write in an illusory vein, intimating of truth or envisaging a future society in an expressive style, and those, on the contrary, who specialize in writings of an autobiographical character, making the crux of their novels hinge on the story of their lives.

BRENDAN: Thus you are distinguishing, I take it, between novelists like George Orwell on the one hand, and Henry Miller on the other.

NEAL: Yes, between those who indirectly extend literature towards objective truth, and those who directly indulge in subjective fact - a distinction, in effect, between bound-electron equivalents and pseudo-electron equivalents, bearing in mind that we are discussing the novelist, within the broader framework of bourgeois/proletarian civilization, in relation to petty-bourgeois culture, as relative to contemporary Western society, with particular reference to the United States.

BRENDAN: So we are not referring the novelist-as-artist to bourgeois criteria, which would presumably be to discuss the novel in traditional fictional terms.

NEAL: No, the story-teller of old is precisely the kind of artist that the anti-artist is in rebellion against in his 'romantic' fixation on autobiography.  The modern novelistic anti-artist is anti-fiction, fiction being the traditional preserve of the artist, who abstracts fictions from external facts and thus creates a story.  The modern novelistic artist, on the other hand, is pro-truth, truth being the goal of evolution in pure spirit, the approach to this goal in literary terms necessarily requiring of the artist either fidelity to illusion, i.e. anticipations or intimations of truth, which is a quasi-philosophical approach, or (assuming he is more of a pure artist) an extension of abstract technical procedures in his work towards some consciously- or unconsciously-envisaged future literary goal of a totally non-expressive art, an art reflecting the post-atomic status of a free-electron age, in which only pure poetry would be produced.  This artist takes the direct route to truth by approximating literature to a free-electron status whereby words, the electron equivalents, are freed from the proton/neutron constraint of emotions/meanings, about which, in atomic writings, they invariably revolve.  The artist who intimates of truth, however, takes the indirect route to it, since his use of illusion requires fidelity to grammatical conventions in the interests of a meaningful expression of this intimation.  He approximates more closely to the modern philosopher, who also approaches truth indirectly ... through the medium of expression, albeit in a more intensively non-literary way than the artist.

BRENDAN: You are distinguishing, I presume, between a kind of lesser modern artist and a greater modern artist, as applying to the indirect and direct approaches to truth, conceived in literary terms.

NEAL: I am!  And while the lesser artist approximates to the metaphysical philosopher, the greater artist approaches, in his predominantly abstract prose, the pure poet of the future absolute civilization, a civilization in which all forms of relative literature, including the most poetic of petty-bourgeois novels, would be taboo.  Generally speaking, these two types of modern artist are relative to the distinction, within the wider parameters of bourgeois/proletarian civilization, between what I call mainstream petty-bourgeois culture on the one hand, and subsidiary petty-bourgeois culture on the other hand, so that, as a rule, the greater artist will be indigenous to the United States, the lesser one to Western Europe, with particular reference to Britain and France, which are fundamentally bourgeois nations influenced by, though not pioneering, petty-bourgeois trends.

BRENDAN: So you would contend that while the predominantly abstract tradition especially appertains to the United States, the illusory, or indirect, route to truth appertains more to the United Kingdom and France, thereby enabling us to distinguish between novelists, on the one hand, like William Burroughs, particularly with regard to works such as The Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine, and novelists, on the other hand, like George Orwell, whose 1984 must rank as one of the best examples of a novel's intimating, for its time, of what were then future trends, and thereby approaching truth indirectly - through the medium of literary expression.

NEAL: Yes, such a distinction is certainly apposite, although it will usually be found, with the British, that the intimation of future trends, as you put it, is less than objective, falling woefully short of optimism, as can also be borne out by such an illusory novel as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, with its nightmare projection of an envisaged artificial society of the future.

BRENDAN: Would you describe Huxley as generally a lesser artist?

NEAL: No, for apart from the above-mentioned work the only novel I can think of which entails an illusory projection of characters into a futuristic setting is Ape and Essence, which focuses on the aftermath of a nuclear war, as affecting California.  And, again, I would describe the work as woefully pessimistic, shot through with a grotesque subjectivity.  Generally speaking, however, Huxley wasn't a lesser artist but a petty-bourgeois philosopher, a man who used the novel genre as a framework for philosophical discussion, speculation, and the expounding of religious views, with particular reference to oriental theology.  You can always tell the difference between an illusory novel and a philosophical novel, since whereas the former is futuristic and largely descriptive, the latter is contemporary and mostly discursive, concerned more with instruction than narration.  Thus while Brave New World and Ape and Essence may fall into the first category, the bulk of Huxley's output, including Point Counter Point, After Many a Summer ..., Time Must Have a Stop, and Island, falls into the second.  Of course, no work, no matter how biased one way or the other, can ever be entirely consistent in this respect, least of all in a relative civilization.  Even the most intensely philosophical novel may embrace illusory and/or autobiographical tendencies from time to time, thus involving the author in a variety of contexts which accompany, though rarely dominate, his essential literary predilection.  Now what is true of the philosophical novelist is no less true of the illusory lesser artist or of the non-expressive greater artist, not to mention the traditional bourgeois artist and rebellious anti-artist as well.  Even Huxley's predominantly philosophical novels contain autobiographical and fictional stretches, just as Orwell's illusory novels, of which Animal Farm may be accounted a further example, contain both philosophical and fictional ingredients.  Now who can argue that Henry Miller's predominantly autobiographical novels do not contain philosophical and experimental ingredients?  No, while we may generalize a given writer into one or more of our principal categories, we cannot expect him to be absolute.  Besides, absolutism isn't congruous with petty-bourgeois culture, not even in its mainstream manifestation, where an experimentalist like William Burroughs can sustain a predominantly abstract or non-expressive prose style over long stretches of the novel at a time, but makes no claims to be totally non-expressive.  For a totally non-expressive style would not only be incompatible with extreme relativistic criteria, as applying to petty-bourgeois culture; it would be incompatible with the novel genre, being germane to poetry and, more especially, to the highest poetry alone, which could only be produced and properly appreciated in an absolute civilization, such as should follow on the heels of the relative ones, once the proletariat become eligible for upgrading to a civilized status.  A novelist who wrote in an entirely poetic manner would be a contradiction in terms, an impossible designation.  Only the pure poet of the future will create works that are totally non-expressive and which thus approximate literature, in its highest manifestation, to the free-electron status of a genuine impression.  Such absolutely free-electron poetry will be morally superior to the relatively free-electron poetry as currently practised by the leading poets of the West, of whom we may consider Allen Ginsberg a good example.  And it will be even more morally superior to the pseudo-electron prose of the experimental novelists, to whose status as greater artists we have already alluded.  The continuity of literary progress is not from the predominantly non-expressive novel to pure poetry, but from the pure poetry of the extreme relativistic post-atomic civilization to the pure poetry of the absolute post-atomic civilization of the future - a poetry with no expressive metaphysical overtones because completely impressive in its identification with free-electron criteria.  Thus the light of poetical evolution will pass from the petty bourgeoisie to the proletariat, as a new civilization, hopefully rooted in Ireland, takes over from the extreme relativistic civilization of the USA.  At that juncture in time there will be neither traditional artists nor rebellious anti-artists, neither lesser contemporary artists nor greater contemporary artists, neither traditional philosophers nor metaphysical philosophers, still less metaphysical/impressive relatively pure magazine poets, but only the absolutely pure computer poets of the transcendental civilization.  Freedom with a capital 'F' will have come to literature, and it will intimate of the ultimate freedom of pure spirit in the future Beyond - the goal of all evolutionary striving.