“Different times demand different actions. Had I been born in Ancient Egypt I may well have advocated for change, even radical change. But modern times require shoring up the Old Moral Order.”– Russell Kirk
If you can, for just a moment pull your mind from Pharaoh Kirkses II and his sartorial choices, and contemplate his point. When asked to consider the conservative novelist, we normally choose from a set cast of characters; Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, Allen Drury, G.K. Chesterton, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. They represent the bulwark, the voice that stands loudly astride history yelling stop and portrays old values and mores with humanity and passion. Rarely do we stop to consider the novelist that finds those values buried beneath the deep layers of their own modernity, and by showing only faint glimmers argues for their modified return. Two novelists separated by birth and an ocean, Ma Jian and Walker Percy, provide powerful examples of the adapted conservative novelist and his worth.
“The carbine lies across my lap. Just below the cloverleaf, in the ruined motel, the three girls are waiting for me.” Dr. Thomas More, the narrator of Love in the Ruins, is not a well man. He drinks too much, wanders in the dead of night through malarial swamps, and lusts after every woman he can find, just for a moment without his dead daughter and gnostic spouse. In Dr. More there is none of the saintly debauchery of Sebastian Flyte or even the simple sinfulness of Wormwood’s ward, he is a funny and fallen man fully conscious of the beauty he is slowly losing a drunken grip on. Unlike the more famous Thanatos Syndrome, which has been accused even by Percy fans of being preachy, Love in the Ruins thrives on its subtlety, on the guilty pleasure that is watching the moral deterioration of Dr. More which expresses itself in jabs at Commonweal, George Wallace, and the prosperity gospel. Dr. More wishes, it grows clear as the novel goes on, to be faced with the simpler choice of Thomas More, to sacrifice himself to martyrdom and be done with a society that refused to allow old values to adapt or even exist.
Walker Percy, in Love in the Ruins, has become the conservative reformer, almost the conservative radical. There was, it is obvious in his interactions with the half-dead Father Rinaldo Smith (that wonderful allusion to America’s vast diversity) and memories of his mad father, once a moral foundation to the Doctor’s America. It was not perfect, but it had unifying principles and a spirituality to accompany its prosperity. Now, Republicans (Knotheads) and Democrats alike have fallen prey to various sideshows, and what remains of genuine religion is met with hostility, “a remnant of a remnant.” Percy’s answer, through Dr. More, is not to start a government program for the revivification of morals, or to follow a new great prophetic hope, but to transform his own family and community. He becomes a radical in his own life in order to preserve the remaining beauty.
Ma Jian emerges from a similar perspective of dissatisfaction, but his protagonist has none of More’s mordant charm. The Noodle Maker’s novelist, the reflecting the darker cast of that book, is a man who has sacrificed his mind to the CCP, and writes stories based on the lives of the people that he observes in his small city only in his head. None of them are nice or pleasant stories.* Born in 1953, Ma never knew a China that wasn’t the PRC, but his novel hints at scraps of what was left even after decades of purges and isolation. The odd smuggled cassette and a book for missionaries, published when Chiang Kai-shek was still on his first national government, offering a moment to consider what China was when it was open, or when it was ancient. In The Noodle Maker, the grotesque most often manifests itself through actions that would, to put it mildly, violate traditional Chinese values, and especially the blended culture which Frank Dikotter celebrated in The Age of Openness.
For more obvious reasons, Ma is also a revolutionary. But unlike Mao Zedong, he is not a revolutionary that wants to rescue his ‘backwards’ country, or even to restore it to a mythical past ideal of fellowship and rigid conformity. The China that The Noodle Maker mourns will exist when the Novelist writes down his stories, and his friend the Blood Donor refuses to any longer turn a blind eye to the fact that he is selling his soul for fish head soup. It is a call for small revolutions, which, unlike Beijing Coma, doesn’t come from the perspective of a distant martyr, but from a sordid, half-hearted apparatchik who stumbles upon the old China on his way towards ever greater sins. It is this smallness, these characters of human proportion, which keep Ma’s (rightfully) radical sentiments grounded.
So, what is the lesson from week 1 of 138 days? Quite simply, that the true, the transcendent, and the beautiful belong exclusively to no culture, and that they are as artfully revealed, and as eloquently advocated for, by the conservative who has adapted against his situation as he who celebrates their triumph. Also, who can resist a novelist that says, “Karl Marx [is the most overrated deceased author]. It is hard to believe that in 2018 a British politician can stand before a crowd and declare, without a trace of irony, that “Marxism is about the freedom of spirit, the development of life chances, the enhancement of democracy.”
* In fact, I would recommend that you read this book in private; a woman sitting next to me on an eight-hour airplane ride became convinced, I could tell from her scandalized expression, that I was reading the world’s longest adult novel.Published in