Have you ever experienced the strange feeling you get when two people from totally different aspects of your life are introduced to each other in your presence? I got that feeling when I walked into the Asian Bond Markets Summit and heard my beloved Sigur Ros playing as background music (and not even their pop-oriented music, the more avant garde stuff.) I heard people telling the DJ to turn it down, whereas I wanted it to be much louder.
I also got that feeling when reading this strange article on the connection between Jorge Luis Borges and Karl Rove by Alec Nevala-Lee. It’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar people.
Yet it isn’t hard to see why Rove is drawn to his work. The great theme in Borges, among all those labyrinths and mirrors, is how the world can be shaped, and even physically transformed, by the intellectual structures we impose on it. In his story “The Secret Miracle,” a man waiting to be executed pictures all the possible forms that his death might take, as if by imagining the worst, he can prevent it from happening—an attitude that many Democrats assumed before the recent election. “The Lottery in Babylon” describes a government so powerful that its actions can no longer be distinguished from the operations of the universe, which seems like a conservative’s nightmare of Obamacare, but which might also appeal to a man who once dreamed of a permanent Republican majority. (On his website, Rove refers to this story as involving “a lottery in Baghdad,” a Freudian slip of epic proportions.)
These ideas find their fullest expression in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” In the fictional world invented by Borges’s army of scholars, the only science is psychology, and an idea, or even a physical object, can become real if enough people believe it exists. Rove has put this principle into action more aggressively than any other political figure in recent memory. It lurks behind the push polls in the South Carolina primary calculated to plant the rumor that John McCain had fathered a black child, and in the White House Iraq Group, chaired by Rove, designed to sell the public on the supposed threat of Saddam Hussein—a more targeted version of Orbis Tertius, with its secret group of intellectuals “directed by an obscure man of genius.”
The essay is quite good; I recommend you read the whole piece. But as is often the case with progressives, he overreaches:
And then there’s Fox News, for which Rove has long served as a sort of spiritual godfather. Borges notes that mankind was seduced by the fictional universe of Tlön because its rules were more elegant than reality itself, which is precisely what Fox News provides. Its vision of the world is compellingly clear: it’s easier to believe that the president is a Muslim socialist who secretly wants to take our guns away than to understand the perplexing truth, which even many observers on the left have trouble accepting, that he’s a political moderate who draws much of his policy from the conservative playbook of the past. And unlike the shadowy cabal of Orbis Tertius, this systematic reordering and simplification of reality has taken place in plain sight.
I’m sure that most liberals who never watch Fox News actually believe this stuff. Yep, Brit Hume warns the viewers each night that the President is a muslim socialist. And if Obama’s a “moderate,” then so was George Bush. (All Presidents must compromise, that’s not the same as being a moderate.) I guess we all live in our own “fictional universes.”
And was Rove actually behind those push polls? I have no idea, but here’s the very liberal Vanity Fair:
Nothing has ever been turned up, however, tying the Bush team to an underground-smear “master plan.” Identifying who ordered push-polling in a campaign “is like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” as Howard Kurtz put it.
Speaking of fiction, the author is on much stronger ground here:
Rove’s love of Borges has gone mostly unremarked, perhaps because it seems so incongruous. In general, members of the conservative establishment aren’t known for their taste in literature. Mitt Romney once acknowledged, in what is probably his second-most embarrassing online video, that his favorite novel is L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, and the identity of Paul Ryan’s novelist of choice is a matter of record. As a result, it’s surprising, and superficially encouraging, to find a prominent figure on the right who openly admires a writer numbered among Joyce and Kafka as one of the essential authors of the modern age.
I shouldn’t criticize a novel I’ve never read, so let me just pass along an anecdote about HP Lovecraft. I recall he once wrote that under no circumstances should a story ever be entitled “The White Ape” unless it contains no apes at all, white or otherwise. So if the Hubbard novel contains a battle for Earth, then I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t care for it. If it’s about the dissolution of a marriage . . . then maybe.
But enough snobbery–is there a more serious point here? Here’s Milan Kundera:
Suspending moral judgment is not the immorality of the novel; it is its morality. The morality that stands against the ineradicable human habit of judging instantly, ceaselessly, and everyone; of judging before, and in the absence of, understanding. From the viewpoint of the novel’s wisdom, that fervid readiness to judge is the most detestable stupidity, the most pernicious evil. Not that the novelist utterly denies that moral judgment is legitimate, but that he refuses it a place in the novel. If you like, you can accuse Panurge of cowardice; accuse Emma Bovary, accuse Rastignac—that’s your business; the novelist has nothing to do with it. Creating the imaginary terrain where moral judgment is suspended was a move of enormous significance: only there could novelistic characters develop—that is, individuals conceived not as a function of some preexistent truth, as examples of good or evil, or as representations of objective laws in conflict, but as autonomous beings grounded in their own morality, in their own laws. Western society habitually presents itself as the society of the rights of man, but before a man could have rights, he had to constitute himself as an individual, to consider himself such and to be considered such; that could not happen without the long experience of the European arts and particularly of the art of the novel, which teaches the reader to be curious about others and to try to comprehend truths that differ from his own. In this sense E. M. Cioran is right to call European society “the society of the novel” and to speak of Europeans as “the children of the novel.
It would be interesting to know whether liberals are more likely to read complex literature, and whether conservatives are more likely to read books that emphasize good vs. evil. Jonathan Haidt has argued that liberals hold more utilitarian values, whereas conservatives also focus on values like authority, purity, sanctity, honor, patriotism, religion, etc. Of course there are conservatives who are very well read, but many of them are better thought of as right wing liberals (favoring capitalism for utilitarian reasons) not as true conservatives. (Here’s a test–do they favor legalizing marijuana, more immigration, and gay marriage. If so, then they obviously aren’t conservatives, they are libertarians or classical liberals or neoliberals or some other L-word.) I’d be interested if anyone knows of any systematic studies of the reading habits of liberal and conservative politicians.
PS. Are there any economists who love literature who don’t like Borges? I’ve never asked Tyler Cowen if he likes Borges—why would I bother when the answer is obvious?
PPS. Please don’t buy Sigur Ros on my recommendation. I have terrible taste in music—for all I know they’ll sound like The Moody Blues in 20 years.
PPPS. Don’t take this as a defense of Rove—I was astounded by his embarrassing performance on election night.
PPPPS. Hah! When I google “Milan Kundera” I get Miles Kimball’s blog—not an English professor!