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:
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?