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Hard Times, Good Books

October 25, 1987|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

The four apocalyptic horsemen, dear to editorial cartoonists because they draw so well, have done considerable stirring-about lately. They are not exactly sweeping through the land, but they are putting their mounts through some strenuous morning workouts.

For war, the attacks and reprisals in the Persian Gulf come close enough. For pestilence, AIDS will do; not only for its mysterious, unstoppable quality, but for its whiff of judgment on our lives. Famine is a lot to claim for the stock market crash--it's not even clear that people will have to cut down on high-priced diet programs--but a gnawing sense of neediness has been going around these past few 5 a.m.'s. For death, the Richter-8 earthquake that may come at any hour will do nicely.

It would be in rotten taste, amid so much apprehensive rehearsing, to argue cheerfulness for any particular sector or activity. Writers and readers have pockets and stomachs too, not to mention lives that they would just as soon keep going. But if you look at literature over the long haul, it does have a way of flourishing when other things are going down.

(It's not quite proof to assert that "Hard Times" is Dickens' best book, though I find it suggestive. Most people would dispute the assertion, of course; you'd have to place "Great Expectations" alongside and call them his two best books in order to get out much of a vote. But that doesn't cancel the point or the suggestiveness. Great expectations, ideally at least, fit right in with hard times.)

I'm not really referring to the high sales of various panic and disaster books, such as Ravi Batra's "The Great Depression of 1990." Those did their business during the recent good times; and for all I know, Batra or a colleague is now at work on "The Great Boom of 2000," which, if anyone has any money left, should sell like Wall Street apples.

But go back to the twin pillars of Western literature: the Bible and the Greek tragedies. In the first, humanity starts right off being stripped bare and goes on through successive falls. It is the falls that give energy. The Book of Job and Ecclesiastes are the poetic summits of the Old Testament; the Passion--total loss--is the wellspring of the New.

States of prosperity, or seeming prosperity, form the nightmare landscape of the Greek drama--a sleep tormented by too many blankets--and deliverance comes only with destruction. Granted, Sophocles and Euripides lived during the height of Athenian prosperity, but there were holes in the prosperity big enough to sail ships or march armies through, and, eventually, the ships did sail and the armies did march.

I don't mean to pursue a case for the personal disaster of great writers or for disaster in the world around them. Nor is it true, of course, that the subject matter of great writing necessarily or even preferentially deals with hard times or hard states.

At most, I would argue the clear suitability of hard times for the production and consumption of writing, and a hazy suggestion that good times may have their drawbacks. Trollope, though eventually growing darker, bobbed along comfortably in high Victorian assurance; but to find scope for his greater artistry, Dickens sought out the black holes that, until then, writers were content not to notice.

There is no point belaboring Dostoevsky, Conrad, Kafka, Mann, Brecht, Orwell, Pirandello, Unamuno, Faulkner and O'Neill and others who spanned the breaking of nations, societies and individual consciousnesses from the latter part of the 19th Century up to the last world war.

In the 40 years since, the relative peace, prosperity and political stability of the West has provided much less of a theme or an impetus to writers than the defects of those virtues. Even John Updike, who wrote so well and so exceptionally about contentment, writes more and more about its loss. And the giants--Solzhenitsyn, Calvino, Levi, Grass, Kundera--have largely emerged from national defeat or totalitarian oppression.

Probably, there will never be a society so prosperous and just, or an individual state so stable and merry as to lack hand-grips for the writer. We can rely on the doughnut for its hole or, at the very least, for its ability to give us heartburn.

But in literature--as in theater or music or painting--there is not only the state of the art; there is what I once called the state of the need. Ultimately, art needs resonance; it needs the hunger of those who received it. What happens when there is no hunger? Again, you could argue that this can never happen; that the need for the artist's message--which is to liberate us from the constriction of the Spanish saying: "I am I and my circumstances"--will always exist. But there has been over the last decade or two a certain sense of overstuffing; what with prosperity, self-fulfillment, home entertainment and lots of equipment.

The constrictions of subject matter in our artful and affectless school of fiction of the '60s and '70s--perhaps already giving way to more vociferousness--and the sheer torpor of the younger McInerney-Janowitz-Easton Ellis marketables, may be a matter of glutted response estranging one generation of writers and corrupting the next.

Well, back to the horsemen. If literature flourishes when the power fails, perhaps writers, once again buttonholed by needy readers, will find a different kind of power. Not the kind that runs word processors. This is being written by pen, but then it is 5 in the morning, and too early to go to the office.

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