Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Benjamin Kerstein, a Tel Aviv-based writer who is the author of new dystopian satire, The Mighty Quinn.
FP: Benjamin Kerstein, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Tell us about your new novel and what inspired you to write it.
Kerstein: Thanks Jamie.
As in all things, there are long and short answers to that one. The short answer is the joke I told people the whole time I was writing the book: It’s Moby Dick in reverse, with Ahab hunting the whalers instead of the whale.
The long answer is that it’s a dystopian satire of environmentalism and just about everything that goes along with it. The story involves a legendary eco-terrorist (the Quinn of the title) who takes a bunch of young activists down to the Antarctica to disrupt the activities of Japanese whaling vessels (this is one of the only things in the book I didn’t make up, such voyages actually happen). Among the passengers is the book’s narrator, who hopes that the trip will give his life some transcendent meaning. Along the way, it becomes clear that Quinn is not only a charismatic and inspiring idealist but also a megalomaniacal psychopath. Ultimately, this leads to a horrendous and violent tragedy. To say a great deal more would give away too much of the story, but suffice it to say that by the end of the story the narrator rebels against Quinn and things get very ugly indeed.
I agree with Orwell’s observation that “all writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery.” So all I can really say as to my motivation for writing the book is that I felt there were things that needed to be said that no one else seemed to be saying.
There was also the simple fact that I felt I had a good idea on my hands. Those are few and far between and you can’t afford to give them up.
FP: Share your thoughts with us on the Left’s stranglehold on our culture. What effect has it had on English-language literature and film?
Kerstein: Enormously detrimental and getting worse all the time. For me, the worst aspect of it is not political, but aesthetic. It’s led to a lot of extremely bad books and movies and to a general malaise of Anglo-American art, especially literature.
In a sense, the cinema has it a bit easier, because there is always the popular audience to appeal to, so films that the establishment hates can still become a success. 300 is a terrific example of that. There you had a flawed but nonetheless powerful and original work of cinema—particularly on the purely visual level, which is what cinema is all about, after all—and the critics absolutely loathed it.
At the same time, films like American Beauty, which aren’t really movies at all but illustrated teach-ins, garner acclaim and Academy Awards. What this leads to is that more serious-minded English-language films have become basically unwatchable, and the most interesting and exciting movies today tend to be populist entertainments. Personally, I don’t think this is a good thing. There should be a place for serious cinema in the United States and there isn’t one right now.
In literature, however, the effect has been absolutely devastating. Literature is much more of an elite interest, and the critical establishment holds immense influence not only over what gets read but also what gets published in the first place. Quite frankly, American literature today is a wasteland. The only serious “literary” writer worth reading is Bret Easton Ellis, and even he is on a bit of a downward slide. There are some interesting things going on in genre literature (William Gibson, for example) and in non-fiction, but in mainstream literature there’s nothing. If you look at who the revered writers are today, it’s quite disturbing. Writers like Thomas Pynchon, Don DiLillo, and Jonathan Franzen aren’t just bad writers, they’re unreadable. Franzen in particular is just horrendous. His prose physically hurts me. I suppose David Foster Wallace was the great white hope before his suicide, but frankly his non-fiction was far superior to his fiction and I think he knew it.
There is a political aspect to this, obviously, in that the writers the establishment champions tend to be quite politically correct. But really it comes down to the fact that very liberal politics are part and parcel of an entire culture that also includes aesthetic and cultural elements. This isn’t to say that everything the establishment does is bad. It did give the Anglophone world the gift of Roberto Bolano, after all. But for the most part the critical establishment has made a desert and called it literature.
FP: Any literature circulating out there right now posing a threat to the assumptions of the leftist cultural establishment?
Kerstein: I think there is. It isn’t a movement per se, but there are various writers around the world who are producing extraordinary work, and work that is very much about the world as it is right now, which is really the only fit subject for literature. I think the great advantage literature has over cinema is its immediacy. A film takes years to make, but a novel can be written in a matter of months, if the writer is of a mind to do it.
I’ve mentioned Bret Easton Ellis already, and I think American Psycho is probably the best American novel of the last thirty years (and it’s not a coincidence that it almost wasn’t published), but there are others like the late J.G. Ballard in England, Michel Houellebecq in France, or Victor Pelevin in Russia, who is part of an entire tend of Russian post-modernists who are trying to wrap their heads around the fall of communism and the upheavals of post-Cold War Russia. I would have said Chuck Palahniuk as well, and Fight Club is an extraordinary novel, far superior to the film, but I think he’s unfortunately descended into being purely a shock writer without a great deal of insight.
I think this does add up to a kind of shadow literature because all of these writers share one thing of immense importance: A critical attitude toward establishment assumptions about the world we live in today.
Houellebecq, for example, writes a great deal about how the sexual revolution, rather than making everybody happier, has actually increased the amount of loneliness and dislocation in modern society. Now, Houellebecq may have just won the Prix Goncourt, but when he first emerged the critics treated him like the antichrist.
Ballard, who goes back the farthest, was writing about the intersection of media, technology, and the darker impulses and desires of human beings decades before anyone had imagined things like ubiquitous pornography, 24-hour-a-day news coverage, or the Internet. The critical establishment is just now starting to accept him; mainly, I imagine, because of his recent death. He’s safe for them now. No more unpleasant surprises.
Fortunately, I think this shadow literature is expanding. A novel was just published in Israel called Safari that is much in the tradition of Ellis and Houellebecq, and while it isn’t quite up to that level, it is a bracing piece of work and totally unlike anything else in Hebrew-language literature today, which tends to be really quite maudlin and politically correct.
FP: Tell us a bit about the French literary trend called Depressionism.
Kerstein: Depressionism is a semi-organized artistic movement that tries to critique modern life—or post-modern life, if you like—by pointing out and accentuating its most depressing aspects: loneliness, dislocation, the loss of identity and social bonds, etc. I think Houellebecq described it best, without really meaning to, when he said that in his work he tries to question “the official version” of life, which tells us “that everything is fine, that things are getting better and better and that the only people who deny this are a bunch of neurotic nihilists.”
To an extent, this isn’t at all political, but it does eviscerate the most basic assumptions and assertions of the post-‘60s cultural establishment, which is that once upon a time everything was horrible, but then we liberated ourselves intellectually, culturally, and sexually, and now we live in a modern world that is either the best of all possible worlds or a world that is flawed but whose flaws can be fixed by through more liberation.
Depressionism, on the other hand, says that the modern world is pretty bad all round and we might as well at least be honest about it. In a certain sense, that’s the most subversive thing you can say in the West today. We’re all supposed to be smiling and happy all the time—Oprah told us so, after all—and if we aren’t happy it’s because we’re hung up on our old attachments and beliefs and simply have to open our mind to new possibilities and adopt a positive attitude. Depressionism tends to see this kind of thinking as, at best, a self-destructive delusion. As Houellebecq wrote of H.P. Lovecraft, “he saw no reason to believe that by looking at things better they might appear differently.”
That is not to say that Depressionism is necessarily a gift to the Right, either. Conservatism generally tries to preserve traditional things and even return to them after they’ve been abandoned. Depressionism more or less holds that there is no way back, the “storm called progress,” as Walter Benjamin called it, has come and it can’t be stopped or even slowed down.
This appears to be completely despairing attitude, but I’m not sure it is. Any artistic movement is looking for some sort of connection, so perhaps within Depressionism there is the hope that, by sharing our sense of sadness, loneliness, or dissatisfaction with the modern world, we can retrieve some of the sense of human empathy that’s been lost in the upheavals of modernity.
FP: What is your own political and intellectual journey? How come you are not a leftist?
Kerstein: Again, there are long and short answers. The short answer is anti-Semitism. The long answer is that I grew up in a very leftwing environment and eventually found it so suffocating and oppressive that I simply had to break out of it. I’ve actually come to view it, especially in terms of institutional education, as a form of psychological abuse. When you tell children that everyone is racist, sexist, and homophobic and you’d better keep a close eye on yourself and make sure you aren’t racist, sexist, or homophobic, you’ve essentially created a totalitarian state of being. But the worst thing is that it’s an auto-totalitarianism. It’s something they convince you to do to yourself. Personally, I think this type of thing is utterly monstrous and if it were undertaken by, say, a religious cult, it would be universally—and quite rightly—condemned.
I think there’s a great deal of that in my novel, actually, especially in the character of Quinn himself, who’s essentially a ferociously moralistic person who uses that moralism to control people. Rightwingers make a terrible mistake when they see Leftwingers as nihilists. They’re violently moral people. That’s what makes them capable of some really quite appalling things.
There was a specifically Jewish aspect to this as well, in that I think we were also taught to be essentially self-hating. If we didn’t hate ourselves and hate Israel, we were told that we were racist and in that world “racist” is just another word for “pure evil.” I came to feel that these people who claimed to be so anti-racist actually loathed the Jews and that this was particularly dangerous because they considered themselves incapable of loathing the Jews. I think I left all that for good when the second intifada broke out. I thought, and I still think, that a great many people on the left—whether conscious of it or not—are of the opinion that the Arabs have earned the right to murder Jews. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to stick around to see how that particular psychosis played itself out.
FP: Benjamin Kerstein, thank you for joining us today and sharing your profound work and journey with us.
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