Where are the great popular novels, plays and films that grapple with today’s major political and ideological issues? It’s a question that occurred to me while watching a talkfest on ABC TV last night, where assorted pundits mused about a list of the ten most influential books of the last 50 years or so (I think – I only tuned in towards the end of it). Orwell’s 1984 predictably got a guernsey, and Animal Farm also apparently figured in the top 100. Of course there were more contemporary nominations, like Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but no clearly political works as far as I could see.
I’ve also been reading the autobiography of American playwright Arthur Miller, almost all of whose works (not just iconic ones like The Crucible and Death of a Salesman) dealt in one way or another with great political issues of the mid twentieth century.
The 1940s and 50s were times of enormous political and ideological ferment, with the contest between fascism/nazism, communism and western liberal democratic capitalism succeeded by the Cold War between the latter two ideologies, not to mention the breakup of the European colonial empires. Those times gave rise to great political works of fiction by authors like (inter alia) Orwell and Miller, and in Britain by John Osborne and others.
And yet the world in this first decade of the twenty-first century is every bit as confused and ideologically conflicted. Neocon triumphalists like Francis Fukuyama were wrong: history hasn’t ended. Liberal democracy jousts with external threats from Islamo-fascism and internal ones from the neocons themselves and their fellow travellers from the Christian Right, while increasingly beleaguered advocates of neoliberalism still do battle with social democrats.
But these great ideological conflicts don’t seem to have given rise to a flowering of ideological literary or dramatic works to compare with those of Orwell, Miller et al, at least not ones that have imprinted themselves indelibly on the popular consciousness. Plays and art-house cinema attended by a tiny handful of latte-drinking cognoscenti don’t count. Nor do cartoon-like, simplistic cinema propaganda documentaries like Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. Arguably (and certainly in my view), great drama and literature help us to absorb, make sense of and psychically deal with major social and political change in a deeper and fuller way than the documentary format or the even shallower genre of TV current affairs. Oliver Stone frequently attempts political themes in contemporary Hollywood movies, but you’d hardly class him with Orwell or Miller, let alone compare his works with cinematic masterpieces like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.
So why hasn’t this current era of political ferment summoned forth great literary and dramatic works that tackle and synthesise contemporary political and ideological movements in a creative and imaginative way? Is the world too confused and fragmented for even great creative imaginations to be able to draw inspiration, synthesise and make sense of it? Have the audience’s attention spans been rendered too short for great polemical fiction by computer games and MTV? Have we all subconsciously absorbed post-modern relativism to such an extent that we really don’t think any coherent answers actually exist; just ephemeral, historically-contingent (and usually cynical and world-weary) vignettes? Or maybe the great contemporary works are out there but I’ve just been too busy to notice them. But even if they are, why haven’t they impacted the popular consciousness in the way Orwell or Miller or Steinbeck or Mailer or Hemingway managed to achieve? Or am I just showing my age and spewing forth a variation on the age-old codger’s lament that “things were much better in the good old days”?