Reading a fiction author’s mind could lead us to a new dark age
WASHINGTON — Even though the elections are finally behind us, something happened this season that deserves a second look.
I’m talking about the tactics of Sen. George Allen of Virginia, whose campaign tried to cast his opponent, Jim Webb, as unsuitable because of his fiction writing.
As was widely discussed at the time, the Allen camp issued a press release with carefully selected passages from novels Webb wrote based on his experiences during the Vietnam War. Some of the passages are, indeed, unseemly and disturbing, including one suggestive of incest.
Others, apparently selected to demonstrate the author’s sexist attitudes, described women in sex-related activities, including some unusual stage acts best left to the imagination.
I have no interest in defending Webb’s writing, though his work has been lavishly praised by writers such as Tom Wolfe. But we all have an interest in defending literature and art against the kind of literal-mindedness that undergirds this sort of political tactic.
For the benefit of those who require some assurance of verisimilitude, much of what Webb wrote is not unfamiliar to Vietnam vets. Family and friends returning from Southeast Asia following the war recounted similar tales, some of which I heard myself. Webb said during a radio interview that he personally witnessed what he described.
It’s usually interesting to hear an author discuss his work but, in this case, I don’t care. More troubling than anything Webb wrote is the idea that a novelist aiming for public office — or any occupation — should have to explain what he had in mind while writing fiction.
And far more perverse than a staged sex act in a wartime novel is our incremental trending toward literalness at a time when literal-mindedness is the blunt instrument of those trying to drag Western civilization into a new dark age.
We should all wreathe ourselves in garlands of garlic before accepting Allen’s premise that examining fiction for insights into a writer’s character is fair game in an ideologically inflamed world. Didn’t Torquemada exhaust the market for this sort of thing?
Lest the literalists protest, no, I’m not comparing George Allen to Spain’s Grand Inquisitor. And, no, I’m not comparing America’s political strategists to Osama bin Laden.
But there’s not much distance between the sort of attitude that instigates offense from a literal reading of fiction and that which justifies death to infidels in a literal reading of scripture. We’ve witnessed where this kind of moral mind-reading leads.
The riots and death threats that evolved last year from publication of a series of Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad were the result of such literal-mindedness. True believers saw blasphemy and, based on a literal interpretation of received dogma, set loose the dogs of Allah.
In fact, there is no injunction in the Koran against images of Muhammad. The alleged prohibition is merely a popular consensus handed down from early Muslim theologians who embraced the Jewish prohibition against graven images.
What distinguishes Western culture from the fanaticism of the Muslim world — at least on our good days — is our evolution away from such literal-mindedness. We may still have literal-minded contingents among certain religious strains, but at least we’re free to identify them as such.
Otherwise, we no longer banish infidels, burn witches or mount inquisitions against nonbelievers.
That said, civilization is a fragile affair. It is not so difficult to move populations from the sublime to the hideous when emotions can be exploited with scripture — or fiction — to justify our worst impulses.
The literal mind led to the fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie, as well as to the murder of Danish filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The literal mind envisioned and executed 9/11.
We can confidently assume that Allen had no sinister intentions when he urged constituents to treat Webb’s fiction as a literal indictment of his character. He was just playing good ol’ boy politics, after all.
But the impulse that invites such a witless interpretation of fiction comes from the same dark ignorance that fuels the self-ratifying fanaticism of radical Islam.
Literalism is the enemy of civilization, and that is no fiction.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.