Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Eternal Vigilance

Was Anita Brookner an Existentialist? As a young woman in Paris in the 1950s she must often have seen the principle actors. In her fiction she takes Existentialist positions, more than once adapting for her own purposes a famous proto-Existentialist line from the nineteenth century: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.' 'And my own recovery? That, I feared, would have to be postponed indefinitely. It would be safer, and wiser, to assume an endless vigilance,' says Zoe in The Bay of Angels at one of her lowest points.

Providence is the novel that explores Existentialism most blatantly. Brookner discusses the novel and the movement at length in the Paris Review interview:
INTERVIEWER
All your heroines follow 'an inexorable progress toward further loneliness,' as you say of Kitty Maule in Providence. It seems to me very deterministic. Is there nothing we can do to alter our fate?
BROOKNER
I think one’s character and predisposition determine one’s fate, I’m afraid. But Providence seems deterministic because it is a novel, and a novel follows its own organic structure.
INTERVIEWER
At the same time you say that existentialism is the only philosophy you can endorse. Now existentialism with its emphasis on personal freedom seems the opposite of determinism.
BROOKNER
I don’t believe that anyone is free. What I meant was that existentialism is about being a saint without God: being your own hero, without all the sanction and support of religion or society. Freedom in existentialist terms breeds anxiety, and you have to accept that anxiety as the price to pay. I think choice is a luxury most people can’t afford. I mean when you make a break for freedom you don’t necessarily find company on the way, you find loneliness. Life is a pilgrimage and if you don’t play by the rules you don’t find the Road to Damascus, you find the Crown of Thorns. In Hotel du Lac the heroine, Edith Hope, twice nearly marries. She balks at the last minute and decides to stay in a hopeless relationship with a married man. As I wrote it I felt very sorry for her and at the same time very angry: she should have married one of them - they were interchangeable anyway - and at least gained some worldly success, some social respectability. I have a good mind to let her do it in some other novel and see how she will cope!
INTERVIEWER
You also said that existentialism is a romantic creed. How so?
BROOKNER
Because romanticism doesn’t make sense unless you realize that it grew out of the French Revolution in which human behavior sank to such terrible depths that it became obvious no supernatural power, if it existed, could possibly countenance it. For the first time Europeans felt that God was dead. Since then we have had Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, whose activities make the French Revolution seem like a picnic. The Romantics tried to compensate the absence of God with furious creative activity. If you do not have the gift of faith, which wraps everything up in a foolproof system and which is predicated on the belief that there is a loving Father who will do the best for you, then, as Sartre said, you have to live out of that system completely, and become your own father. This is a terrible decision, and, as I said, in existential terms freedom is not desirable, it is a woeful curse. You have to live with absence. Nowadays I wonder if it is really possible to live without God, maybe we should dare to hope... I don’t know. I’m not there yet.
Brookner was plainly enamoured of Existentialism, inasmuch as it captured, perhaps, many of her themes. When writing of Camus, in an extended Spectator article, her words take flight:
Beached in a bar in Amsterdam, he regales his listeners with a sort of moral striptease, in which he sets out to prove that no one is innocent. Even Jesus, he says, was not innocent: was he not implicated in that earlier massacre of those earlier innocents? Was he not indulging in irony when he said of the vacillating Peter that on that rock he would build his church? We are thus without exception participators in the fallen condition. This is a persuasive intellectual argument which reveals its emotional roots: rage, disappointment, despair. It is an argument which delivers an authentic existential hit: 'O mon ami, savez-vous qu'est la créature solitaire, errant dans les grandes villes?' Here there is a plangent, even Baudelairian undertone which is at odds with the narrator's uncompromising monologue and the simplicity of its style. Gone are the stark phrases: this is writing of prizewinning standard. 
As ever, in writing of her literary heroes - those saints for the godless - Brookner is, one senses, also writing about herself.

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