Truth and Lies in Literature, by Stephen Vizinczey, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 339 pages, $16.95
Often, those who would seek enlightenment about the nature of man and the state turn to formal tracts on political philosophy, where they end their search. Here they will find some brilliant insights, but they will miss the rich contributions of literature. Literature, after all, "depicts how things fit together in the world." That is Stephen Vizinczey's underlying thesis in Truth and Lies in Literature, and it is against this yardstick that he measures the works of Stendhal, Balzac, Rousseau, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Melville, and others.
The result is stunning. In drawing out the truths (and lies) about reality set forth in literature (he tackles some nonfiction in the process), Vizinczey, himself a novelist, imparts more about man and state than a library of scholarly tomes. What's more, he says it well. When he is repulsed by a deceitful, nasty novel, the reader too feels repugnance. And when he passionately praises an author, the reader wants to read the source of Vizinczey's inspiration.
Vizinczey, a Hungarian émigré, left his country in 1956 when it became clear that the Soviet Union would not tolerate a recalcitrant satellite. No stranger to the tyrannies of political authority, he early on discovered that Communist Party functionaries had little taste for truth in literature.
Western critics of communism don't hesitate to underline this point, often with a great deal of self-righteousness. But Vizinczey learned something more subtle, and ultimately more important. "We had," he writes, "outright political censorship but at least there was no pretence that literature only had to do with literature." This insight is largely behind his persistent search for political and social truths in literature. It also inspires his ire when he spots literature's lies.
The lies that most enrage Vizinczey are those that depict people as unaccountable for their actions, victims of circumstances who have no choice. "Such falsehoods are tranquillizers that deaden the spirit. This is proved by the depressing books which are based on the notion of victimized humanity, even if they are written by such gifted writers as Kafka. Kafka's K (in The Trial) has no choice but to submit to his executioners and hand them back the knife to kill him with; his spirit has been destroyed by the system. But such images are the daydreams of would-be Hitlers and the nightmares of the weak, and have very little to do with real life. In real life there is no power which could inescapably prevail over our vitality and love.…We are not master of our fate, but we are free to choose what meaning we give to our life and our death."
Exemplary of the lie that people are not responsible for their actions, says Vizinczey, is The Death of My Brother Abel, by Gregor von Rezzori. In this modern, highly praised German novel on the Holocaust, Rezzori writes that the crimes of the Nazi regime "put an end to any further attempts at distinguishing between good and evil.…There were no murderers any more and no victims."
Vizinczey lashes out against this clever attempt to do away with individual responsibility for the Holocaust. "Rezzori's novel is both mindless and devious," he observes, "as indeed it has to be in order to persuade his readers that there is no way to tell the difference between good and evil. This is the ultimate defense of all evil acts, but the truth is that we not only can tell the difference, we do so instinctively."
Just as lies in literature are the foundations of tyranny, truths in literature are liberating. Heinrich Kleist, seeming on the surface to depict a world as tragic as Kafka's, in fact is not depressing because, notes Vizinczey, "his works are lit up by choices." In Shakespeare, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy, and even Sartre (notwithstanding his socialist rhetoric), Vizinczey identifies the source of their genius flowing from their depictions of people in action, making choices, suffering consequences.
Vizinczey is not caught up in an ideological web. Thus he sees that Sartre, although a collectivist in politics, nonetheless unveiled in his literature a world steeped in individual choice. Indeed, his existentialism rests on the notion that "we are free to change ourselves even if we cannot change our circumstances." Writes Vizinczey, "You can't read Sartre and believe in determinism, which is the foundation of communist ideology and all totalitarian regimes. Tyranny feeds on the notion that you have no choice and must act the way you have to." By contrast, Vizinczey annihilates the work of Andre Malraux, author of Man's Fate, not for his espousal of leftist political views but for his horror of individuality—even his own: "this persistent flight from the self destroys a man, leaving him nothing but the craving to be loved and the worship of power."
Implicit in this comment about Malraux lies one of Vizinczey's most penetrating reflections, on the way emotions and intellect interact one upon the other. He probes the limits of cognitive rationalism, both as a means of influence on others and as a wellspring of knowledge. "We all remake the world in the image of our feelings," he remarks. "Facts are rarely obscure; our problem is to detect their relevance; their meaning."
For Vizinczey, Stendhal epitomizes this appreciation of the emotional dimension of our ideas. He "analyzes how our beliefs and opinions are formed by our psychological needs, how we reason to distort reality by accepting, rejecting, or trusting the facts of life to fit our inclinations."
Vizinczey's own clarity on the interrelationship of feelings and ideas leads him to insights about others' actions. Reviewing a book on Robert Kennedy, he describes Kennedy's upbringing in a puritanical Catholic family "opposed to emotionalism" and with a rigid code of justice. Patriarch Joseph Kennedy, writes Vizinczey, "emerges from this book as a loving bully…who had made it and thought he had the answers to all the problems of life." Under this regime, Vizinczey concludes, capturing the essence of modern welfare liberalism: "It becomes obvious how both John and Robert Kennedy came to react passionately against misery, oppression and corruption while at the same time remaining strangely insensitive to the rights and feelings of individuals. Indeed, how could Rose's children learn anything much about personal liberty under the rule of Joseph Kennedy."
The ultrarationalist view of man such as that advanced by the architects of the French Revolution and rejected by Vizinczey lies at the root of the modern fascination with planning. Of this fascination with planning he writes: "As both capitalist and communist states—not to mention the technological world—have evolved under the illusion that man purposefully built them, ideological optimism seeps into every niche of our lives.…Mass culture [fosters] the belief that…if we only calculate things correctly, if we only do the right thing, then the future must yield the desired results."
Vizinczey here illuminates essentially the same fallacies about planning plumbed by F.A. Hayek in his celebrated discussions of the limits of knowledge and the rise of spontaneous order. Vizinczey repeatedly explores this theme. Kleist shows "the ultimate incomprehensibility of things, or rather, the deficiency of human understanding." Dostoevsky's ministerial bureaucrats "in all their well-intentioned plans for Russia…fail to take into account the incapacities and personal ambitions of the subordinates on whom they depend for the execution of their orders, and expect millions of people with independent wills to pay more attention to decrees and regulations than to their own needs." In Tolstoy's works, "men who try to shape society appear as absurd as if they were trying to shape the waves of the sea."
A hundred years before Nobel laureate James Buchanan won acclaim for his public-choice theories, Stendhal was describing how personal interests shaped the actions of bureaucrats. Nowhere is Stendhal's thesis more evident than in his character Lucien Leuwen. Vizinczey comments, "Having found that 'men nearly always lie when they talk about the motives of their actions,' [Leuwen] does not accept the most boring and widely shared pretence about public affairs: namely, that political acts are committed for political reasons—in the public interest."
Individualist to the core, Vizinczey denounces those who would presume to know his and others' interests. He rails against dictatorship as "a constant lecture instructing you that your feelings, your thoughts and desires are of no account, that you are a nobody and must live as you are told by other people who desire and think for you."
Truth and Lies in Literature transports the reader on an intellectual and emotional odyssey. The gut and grit of individualism springs forth lustily. Vizinczey does not see the world through rose-colored glasses, yet his world is one of optimism. It is optimistic because his world is peopled with individuals whose intrinsic worth does matter. He shows that even in the most vicious circumstances we do have choices—choices that mold our character, and ultimately, "we're rich or poor, defeated or victorious only in the way we feel about ourselves, and therefore nothing is worth so much as this feeling, the only thing we truly possess."
Lynn Scarlett is REASON's book review editor.