December 17, 2010 | Categories: The Literary Doctor, The Value of Fiction | Tags: Alexis de Tocquevile, Chinese dissidents, communism, democracy, Democracy in America, human rights abuse, literature and democracy, Liu Xiaobo, National Book Award, Nobel Peace Prize, Parrot and Olivier in America, tyranny
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Most often, this space is devoted to the nexus of literature and medicine, but on occasion, it is about only one or the other. This is one of those occasions.
Two recent events have captured my attention: the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, and this year’s National Book Awards.
First, Liu Xiaobo.
The Chinese government’s response to Liu’s Nobel made it abundantly clear that the greatest threat to the world’s rising superpower, China, is not the world’s reigning superpower, the United States, but rather a fifty-five-year-old professor of literature who is currently serving an eleven-year prison sentence (for signing a manifesto of democratic values called Charter 08). How can this be? American complaints about Chinese currency manipulation and intellectual piracy barely elicit a fillip from Beijing, yet a Chinese citizen winning the Noble Peace Prize results in one of the greatest governmental overreactions since the Gulf oil spill. (Where did all that all oil go to, anyway? Apocalypse Not.)
By preventing Liu or his wife from journeying to Oslo to accept the award (the first time in 74 years the prize winner went unrepresented), the ChiComs have fatefully ushered their bête noir—public doubts about their legitimacy—onto a brightly lit international stage. The empty chair in Oslo is a lasting and damaging image, imprinted not only onto the minds of hundreds of millions of Chinese, but onto the minds of the rest of the world, as well. Even President Obama—no great champion of democracy and human rights when it comes to the Chinese, not with all those devalued dollars he wants them to sop up—seems bolstered by the incident, calling for Liu’s release “as soon as possible.”
It is no coincidence that Liu is a professor of literature. For literature—and in particular, literary fiction—has always challenged tyranny. Consider One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the landmark 1962 novel of Stalinist repression by Nobel Prize winner—in Literature, of course—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His 158-page indictment of the Soviet Gulag is credited with fundamentally and forever changing the West’s perception of the U.S.S.R. And then there’s the book recently released by Charles Hill, entitled Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order, which explores literature’s influence through the ages on politics and government through the works of 70 poets and novelists.
“Statecraft cannot be practiced in the absence of literature,” Hill writes. “Literature lives in the realm grand strategy requires, beyond rational calculation, in acts of the imagination.” (Precisely the argument for studying the nexus of medicine and literature: to wit, literary fiction accesses the meaning of illness in ways scientific method—logic and reason—cannot.)
Hill argues, as do I, that only fiction can reveal the truth. “Literature’s freedom to explore endless or exquisite details, portray the thoughts of imaginary characters, and dramatize large themes through intricate plots brings it closest to the reality of ‘how the world really works.’”
Which brings me to this year’s National Book Awards, held November 17 in New York. The winner in Fiction—Lord of Misrule—however, is not the novel that interests me: one of the other finalists, Parrot and Olivier in America, is the one I was rooting for. Not because it was the best novel—though imaginative and forceful and beautiful in style and prose, it loses focus and lacks unity at times—but because of what it is about: Democracy in America, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s brilliant chronicle of the American experiment. Written by an expatriate Australian, Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America is a re-imagining of the life of de Tocqueville and his study of the phenomenon of American democracy, this time as seen through the eyes of a disaffected, voluble French lawyer and his spunky English factotum. Any novel attempting to plow the hallowed ground of de Tocqueville’s classic treatise—in many ways the most profound analysis of American democracy I have ever read—is thumbs up with me. That it was written by a foreigner—as was the original—only adds to its appeal.
So there you have it, an Australian novelist re-discovering the treasure of American democracy, and a Chinese professor of literature with the courage to speak truth to power about democracy, as he did in the December 1988 Hong Kong Liberty Monthly, and has done ever since: “Westernization is not a choice of a nation, but a choice for the human race.” No wonder they’re afraid of him.
All in all, a very good month for literature and democracy.