"Art renders the sight of life bearable by laying over it the gauze of impure thinking." -Friedrich Nietzsche
I don't often disagree with Fritz and I don't plan on starting here. What I can say is that I think people read entirely too much nonfiction and not nearly enough fiction. What Kurt Vonnegut does with Slaughterhouse Five is show exactly why it is the case that fiction is so important, and why Mann has dubbed it "the humanistic science."
I didn't read this book in high school because I didn't really read any of the required reading in high school. If it was required then I thought that it sucked and was probably shitty. Obviously that is not the case with Slaughterhouse Five, but I'm glad that I read it simply because I wanted to and not because I was going to have a pop quiz on what Bertram Copeland Rumfoord thought of the bombing of Dresden. I've been reading it again at the request of a friend who was reading it as well, so there can be a sort of sounding board for thoughts about it.
One thought that I had when reading this again (and actually one which has remained since reading it the first time) is the question of why Louis-Ferdinand Cèline is not read, discussed, or even acknowledged more. He gets name dropped about ten pages into this, one of the most read books in America. I think. Maybe what used to be the most read book in America, replaced now by the works of the esteemed Stephanie Mayer, Janet Evanovich and Chuck Palahniuk. Anyone who has read Journey to the End of the Night, Death on the Installment Plan, or Guignol's Band seems unable to remove themselves from the experience. Cèline's writing is tremendously powerful, bold, revealing and filled with care. That last one may be disputed but I believe that he has great care for his terrible thoughts. The only reason I can see that he is not read is because it is problematic to say that someone who came out as an anti-semite can write good things. Is that what we've come down to, though? Heidegger was a cowardly nazi stooge and an adulterer to boot, but he is often (rightly) considered to be one of the, if not the, most important philosopher of the 20th century. Ezra Pound was a fascist asshole but poetry geeks love him. Burroughs was a drug addict and a pederast but you can't deny his writing. James Joyce, John Cheever, Robert Lowell, Raymond Carver, and Shane McGowan all either were or are alcoholics--and in the case of Raymond Carver he didn't even write half the shit that gets slapped with the tag "by Raymond Carver"--but people still love them. And Alan Moore worships a snake. So people have problems, is what I'm saying, whether or not they write. Yet everyone else seems to have been given a pass, leaving Cèline out in the cold. There still needs to be a stronger push for the disconflation of the author and the work, because people seem to be having a very hard time with this. Perhaps this is exactly why people have such an unfortunate tendency towards non-fiction and easy lit: because it doesn't raise the question in their minds that maybe bad people are capable of great things, and maybe great people are capable of bad things. Reading non-fiction one is only associated with events, they aren't traversing the locale of someone who may or may not be a good guy. But you aren't racist for reading Huckleberry Finn--that's something all high school teachers seem obsessed with belaboring--so why can't we accept that you don't have to be anti-semitical to read Cèline? Cèline himself was, paradoxically, a pacifist and after having been released from prison and repatrioted stated, "On the subject of Jews, I grew to like them a long time ago." Its hard to tell whether this is subterfuge or what, but he is not one to cover for himself, so I highly doubt that he is saying it as lip service. So at that point is it even still useful to blacklist him as anti-semetic? If all it does is mean that good books are not being read?
Vonnegut wrote an introduction which was published in every edition I've seen of Cèline's last three novels. In it, he describes Louis-Ferdinand Destouches (Cèline's real name) as a great man who did terrible things. A doctor who often treated the poor--accepting nothing in return when that was all they had--and a brilliant writer, as well as an anti-semite and more often than not a raving lunatic. For the sheer impentrability of his persona alone I think he should be examined more, as it takes bravery to look into something which simply destroys the line between beautiful and hideous. The section which follows the earlier Nietzsche quote in Human, All Too Human articulates it better than I ever could:
One is limiting art much too severely when one demands that only the composed soul, suspended in moral balance, may express itself there. As in the plastic arts, there is in music and poetry an art of the ugly soul, as well as an art of the beautiful soul; and in achieving art's mightiest effects—breaking souls, moving stones, and humanizing animals—-perhaps that very art has been most successful.
Often it has been the ugly soul (or at least the pretty fucking weird one) which has created the greatest things. But what is most important of all is that fiction continue to be read because its effects simply cannot be emulated. In a poetry class I once took (bad idea) a guy claimed that the difference between poetry and prose is that poetry wasn't bound by logical progression from beginning to end. That guy was a moron. Fiction, and novels in particular, are pretty much capable of anything when someone approaches them creatively. Vonnegut did that in Slaughterhouse. He eviscerated the difference between fact and fiction, as well as the idea that prose must move like a person--starting somewhere and ending somewhere, but seeing it all in a straight line. Cèline did the same thing, bringing the novel as close as it can get to having some bat-shit crazy French guy yelling at you for a couple hundred pages. I, for one, appreciate that opportunity. Non-fiction can be fun and informative and provoke many "oh that's interesting" moments, but it isn't art. And I think Cèline was right when he said "without incessant artistic creation by everyone, there can be no society."