The Choice Between Politics and Art Is a False One

Living a political life and an artistic one has long been considered mutually exclusive. Artists are looked down upon as frivolous by those engaged in political organizing; activists are perceived as single-minded philistines with poor taste.

Here at Jacobin, for example, we are frequently criticized by angry commenters whenever we publish on popular culture. “Why are you writing about this?” these frustrated readers ask. “What does this have to do with socialism?”

But there is a world of wonder and delight — and meaning and political engagement — in finding ways to bridge the gap between the two.

Elif Batuman, author of the semiautobiographical 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Idiot, ponders the relationship between art and politics in her new sequel, Either/Or. She looks back to a time in her life when she felt the need to choose between being “a literature person” and “a politics person” — and the events portrayed in the book function as a warning about the dark places we can go to when we try to segment and restrict our lives so neatly.

The cover of Elif Batuman’s new book, Either/Or. (Penguin Press)

Batuman is a witty and empathetic writer, and Either/Or is well paced and traditional in its chronology, with a narrative structure that evokes a board game or Dorothy’s journey down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. The reader follows Selin, the protagonist, through her second undergraduate year at Harvard in the 1990s, encountering new people and new texts along the way.

The book reads like a refreshing antidote to the sometimes tired and tortured autofiction of Rachel Cusk, Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, and Karl Ove Knausgård flooding the market these days — even though it is autobiographical fiction itself. Batuman’s Selin is a Batuman-like character reliving the experiences of her own youth.

Selin writes about trying to avoid such an approach to writing for some time — but she will eventually embrace it, presumably, as the reader can see Batuman has done. “To be obsessed by your own life experience was childish, egotistical, unartistic, and worthy of contempt,” she had learned in high school.

In the novel, she ultimately concludes that self-examination is a noble pursuit — one that will lead her to new and uncharted territory in the world and within herself.

Having attended not Harvard in the ’90s but a liberal arts college in the late aughts, I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxing and nostalgic it felt to read about the mundane details of choosing classes, running into boring acquaintances in the dining hall and being forced to share a meal with them, and the alienation and resentment that arise when your closest friend starts dating someone and you never see them alone anymore. This sort of “college experience” is mostly limited to children of affluence in the United States, and Batuman devotes more than a few pages in this book to anxiety and guilt about the privilege of being a Harvard student. But living on a college campus can be a delightful formative experience, and everyone should be able to do it if they want to.

In one of her regular moments of Harvard-related guilt, Selin refers to meeting Ivan, her love interest from The Idiot, as “another experience [my parents] had paid for me to have.” Selin spent much of The Idiot corresponding by email with Ivan, a Hungarian senior math major whom she met in Russian class. Their relationship culminated in Selin teaching English in Hungary for the summer and (mostly not) meeting up with Ivan. Where The Idiot was largely defined by Ivan’s presence, Either/Or is defined by his absence. In her sophomore year, Selin writes to Ivan sometimes but spends more time thinking about him, talking about him with everyone else, and trying to move on. Specifically, she is trying to have sex for the first time — and she has convinced herself that doing so is integral to becoming both an adult and a writer.

Like The Idiot, Either/Or shares a title with a famous work of literature. It’s named after Søren Kierkegaard’s first published work, an “exploration of the conflict between the aesthetic and the ethical.” Selin, after pondering this conflict herself in adolescence and through discussions with her Harvard classmate Svetlana, discovers Kierkegaard’s book and feels that she can finally put words to an existential question that’s long bothered her.

An aesthetic life, according to this definition, is a life dedicated to pleasure, to embracing all the experiences one encounters and all the lessons they might offer. An ethical life, on the other hand, is a life lived with purpose, pursuing particular goals (goals that Selin believes are usually just “making money and having kids”) and trying to be a good person.

Selin — who, if she knows one thing, knows that she wants to be a writer — believes that she must live an aesthetic life to do it. “It was time to become a writer, and understand the human condition,” she tells herself. This leads her to somewhat passively pursue “interesting” experiences that she feels will inform her personal development and her ability to become the writer she is meant to be.

The approach culminates in a disturbing scene near the end of the book where Selin is essentially abducted and sexually assaulted by a young man she meets in Antalya while traveling through Turkey on behalf of Let’s Go, a travel guide series written and published by Harvard students. Her captor, Koray, is a charismatic and good-looking but unpredictable and perhaps mentally disabled teenager who picked up Selin’s bags at the bus station and carried them to his cousin’s hostel, returning to take her on a date in the evening.

The encounter takes them from a bar to a club to an ATM to a pharmacy to a hotel, with wavering consent from Selin nearly the entire time. She vacillates between the urge to escape him and the feeling that this will be yet another interesting experience worth having. It’s as though she thinks whatever happens is equally valuable and morally neutral to her, contributing as it does to the development of a broad range of experiences to write about. She asks herself:

Why did I insist on blocking myself against the marrow of life? Wasn’t this — this, being outside, here, negotiating with a handsome, possibly disabled mugger — wasn’t this, the cigarette butts and melon guts in the gutter, the faint smell of horses, the sickening pulse of bass from the clubs — wasn’t this what life was?

In an earlier run-in while traveling, Selin describes being driven to a deserted beach and propositioned for sex. She expresses no desire in either direction, but says, “It was weird that there were only two options: yes or no. Which was active, which was passive? What would I want to happen in a book?”

This guy, Volkan, follows her from town to town for several days in which they have “screaming arguments in the street” and Selin unsuccessfully tries to evade and escape him. It sounds awful, but all she says about it are things like, “At least I had tried hitchhiking,” and “It was a relief to feel that I wasn’t leading a sterile, life-denying existence,” and “It felt somehow important and universal to be arguing in such a way with a man.”

Batuman has mentioned in several places, including her “notes on sources” in the back of the book, how heteronormative expectations shaped her understanding of the world and of herself in the 1990s, when she was young. It is sometimes exasperating to read the reflections of a nineteen-year-old who is so convinced that heterosexual sex functions in a particular way and that nothing else is quite real, but it’s also humbling to be reminded of the errors and misconceptions of one’s own youth.

In writing about these memories and experiences without shame or self-recrimination, Batuman is bravely demonstrating for the reader the perils of trying to adhere too strictly to an idea of what life is supposed to be like. Like a classic bildungsroman, it’s all part of Selin’s process of maturation.

During her travels through Turkey, Selin experiences a coming of age that moves her decidedly from the realm of childhood to one of adulthood, just as she intended. (She had previously understood that she would need to leave the United States to do so, drawing a direct line between having money, traveling internationally, and living an aesthetic life, as well as between having sex, falling in love, and ending your childhood.) She has sex, not just once but many times, developing a tender intimacy with one person and a tense and conflict-ridden involvement with another. And she becomes jaded as she develops competence as an independent traveler.

At the very end of the book, through reading Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, Selin realizes that you don’t need to doggedly pursue diverse experiences without any sense of care or self-worth in order to be a writer. “I was going to do the subtle, monstrous thing where you figured out what you were doing, and why,” she tells herself.

Later, she recalls the satisfaction that comes from the process of reflection and self-examination that is central to her writing process: “Some pieces of the larger story that I could barely make out were flying into new positions, and I was remembering things I had forgotten, and putting them together differently, and all while I was sitting still and not going anywhere or doing anything.”

The book ends with her arrival in Russia, the first place she’s ever traveled wholly of her own desire and volition and where she has “a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

I can certainly identify with the feeling that life events should ideally tie together neatly in a narrative sense — that life is more valuable if it resembles the structure of a novel, that narrativizing your own experiences is a surefire path to greater understanding, that the secret to living a meaningful life lies in making your own resemble a story. I can also remember a time when I felt like the divergence between art and politics was insurmountable, and that it would be impossible to find people who understood and cared about both.

I felt that I, too, had to choose between an aesthetic and an ethical life. Caring about art and literature seemed meaningless when considered in the face of all the suffering and inequality in the world. But life, too, seemed dry and colorless when I tried to focus strictly on what I took to be material subjects.

Last weekend, I went to a performance of works by the experimental composer George Lewis. In his remarks at the beginning of the concert, he said something like, “I hope you like these, but if you don’t, I promise they aren’t very long. And maybe you’ll look back this week and think to yourself, ‘That was different.’ And then maybe you’ll start thinking about how other things could be different, too.”

It was the simplest and most compelling thing I’ve heard an artist say about how the avant-garde can be political — and not just for the sake of making a political point but in making art that can stand on its own. It reminded me that we needn’t create binary oppositions between literature and politics, between art and life, between the aesthetic and the ethical. Like Selin in Either/Or, our greater challenge is to understand the connections among all these things — so that we can more effectively change them.

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