Saturday, December 15, 2012

Perpetual Inventiveness

Saul Bellow has been the wondrous discovery of the year. (I confess I got to him by stalking Martin Amis.)  I've just finished reading Herzog -- my second Bellow after The Adventures of Augie March. In Herzog, more than in Augie March, one feels the weight of history bearing upon the shoulders of Moses Herzog, the protagonist, a divorced academic dealing with his dissolution. We're all positioned at the intersection of past and future, but in Herzog, we feel this keenly: he wrestles with familial, personal history -- his father as role model; he wrestles with the European intellectual tradition; the American experiment; and the Jewish story. Caught in the confluence of all these forces, Herzog struggles to make sure these lines coincide to form a regular polygon of a man. At the same time, like us all, Herzog is trying to fashion something new. In this struggle, history can often become nightmare. Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel laureate, contended that Mexicans are obsessed with Form, with limiting expression in traditional ways. Paz writes that 'Order ... brings security and stability, and a person has only to adjust to the models and principles that regulate life; he can express himself without resorting to the perpetual inventiveness demanded by a free society.' Whether we see these forms as established, reassuring models of excellence, giving direction to the young or as tyrannical molds of social reproduction will depend on context, politics and change. 

It has struck me, however, that my particular situation is of newness and possibility. In the political systems of the medieval and early modern West, there was a well-established culture of complaint about 'new men': lubricious social climbers seeking to upset the order, chipping at the sturdy edifices of hierarchy and custom. In reality, of course, nobility was often a house of cards, rebuilt every generation. In the words of the historian K. B. McFarlane, writing about the late medieval English aristocracy, the 'turnover was always rapid, the eminence short-lived, the survivors invariably few'. But, in this new world, I am a new man, like (I hope) nearly every other Singaporean.  I am the first person in my extended family to go to university; I am a citizen of a very young nation, now allegedly functioning in a new paradigm of politics. In this state, there are very few old forms, and most of them are obsolete. The burdens on me are lighter than on most -- but this can also be seen as an unbearable lightness. Should one embrace 'perpetual inventiveness'? The tension seems to be between relief at the lack of historical baggage to shoulder and an uneasy seasick sense of being adrift. One way out is to undertake the recovery of history in personal, familial and national terms: a task that is at once historical and creative. It is what I am trying to do in writing, thinking and interrogating -- though I am still unsure where it's all heading. 

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