Governance and the novel

John Power

There is a fair measure of guilt underlying this brief piece.  For a political scientist to admit that he has been finding more and more satisfaction in novels, and less and-less in contemporary writings in his own discipline, clearly calls for some justification, if not outright expiation..  At the very least, it is incumbent on him squarely to address the question: what value may be added to our understanding of governance by a close reading of modern novels?  It is not enough to assert something which is undoubtedly true – that novelists often provide us with insights into the nature of civil societies that have not been provided by social scientists.  We need to go on to examine just what there is specifically in fiction that adds value to our understanding of these societies and their governance.

Theorising politics in the novel

There are several ways in which this question may be approached; I here identify three:

  • In his stimulating essay, Politics and the Novel, Irving Howe begins by advancing an observation with which many leading novelists would agree: that which makes the writing of a political novel so extremely difficult – some novelists like D.H. Lawrence would probably say impossible – is the lumpy and abstract nature of modern ideologies.
    However, Howe goes on to recognise that some novelists have succeeded in overcoming this problem by focussing their attention on the practices of political activity.  In other words, they treat political phenomena as social interactions.  Howe’s theorisation of this success is intriguing: he advances an important ideal-typical  distinction between social and political novels and identifies the novelist who in his opinion more effectively than others straddles the two types and  thus is of particular interests to the student of governance:  George Eliot in Middlemarch. It would certainly be worthwhile to appraise the ways in which Eliot illuminates the conduct of governance at the local level in Victorian England.  But she is far from being the only novelist to have straddled Howe’s types.
  • Another novelist who does so in interesting ways is Thomas Mann.  Not only is he a superb observer of social and political life, but during the First World War he also wrote a series of highly political essays, under the deliberately misleading title,  Reflections of a Non political Man.
    Is it pushing things too far to try to draw some lessons from a contrast between Mann  the novelist, and  Mann the essayist?  Is the essayist all that different from the historian?  Both strive to tell stories but both are much more heavily constrained than the novelist in the ways in which they tell their stories.
  • If Mann the essayist is deemed insufficiently academic for the purposes of this project, another German case has recently become available: the governance of the Third Reich.  We now have two outstanding recent works which cry out for systematic comparison, for they cover very similar territory:  the historian Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (2008), and the novelist Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2010, in English translation from the French). Mazower and Littell may be fruitfully contrasted in several areas, but in the present context I can  mention only one: the political advantages that can flow from vagueness in the policy directives of the leader.

Each of these approaches has its attractions – not the least of which is the availability of authoritative academic texts which would readily support endeavours to establish systematically the values that could be added by novelists.

The work of Eliot is a useful way into the much broader topic of the treatment of governance in Britain in the Nineteenth Century, discussed perceptively by William Myers, in his essay in the volume edited by John Lucas, Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century and more recently in his The Teaching of George Eliot.. What is impressive about the argument of Myers is that he differentiates Eliot in a theoretically interesting way  from other distinguished ‘straddlers’ of her time, such as Dickens and Trollope.

On the second front, there is much to be gleaned from the ironies of Mann.  Indeed, the philosopher Erich Heller subtitled his study of the novelist ‘the Ironic German’.  And the source of this heightened irony is that Mann used the methods of the 19th Century novelist to explore the concerns of a 20th Century sensibility.

Mann is  thus potentially of great value to the student of governance, for no one has better explored the particularities of ‘burgherly’ political culture, most notably in one of his lesser-known novels, Royal Highness. This culture has underpinned the contemporary German governance regime, which is in my opinion functioning better than any other in the modern world.

As for the third way, considerable use could readily be made of the theoretically  important book of an  historian much  more sensitive than Mazower to the work of social scientists: Jane Caplan Government Without Administration:  State and Civil Society in Weimar and Nazi Germany.

So, at this point, I invite some suggestions from readers of  JONTIPPA. It is my intention  to develop the argument here outlined in a paper to the next Conference of the Public Policy Network. I would be particularly interested to learn about themes that have cut across the three approaches that I have here identified. To give just one example of a cross-cuttting theme that I have just discovered.  I have for long  had an interest in fictional treatments of governance in Renaissance Florence, going back to a discussion in a 1980s paper of Balchin’s Agapito  – an interest which I now find has been shared with both Eliot and Mann. Any other such paths worth exploring?

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