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GIVEN THE reality of God's non-existence," Jim Sloan was explaining, "there are basically three choices. One can become a cabbage, eschewing questions and remaining uninvolved in the search for answers. One can subscribe to an organized illusion, such as Marxism or Christianity. Most courageous, however, is to simply acknowledge the fact and proceed to give form to the chaos." Thus bringing us to the notion of "stoicism", the "courage to be" in the face of this anomie, and the focus of his second novel, The Case History of Comrade V.
We met for lunch last Saturday to talk about his work, and it quickly became apparent that James Park Sloan, like his newest book, is exceedingly deceptive in appearance. The volume, a slim work, is a structural gem, finely conceived, and aptly polished. Likewise, the author's unhurried, Southern manner conceals a dynamic intellectual personality and an impassioned conversationalist.
Sloan describes his latest work as an attempt to explore the "question of connection between planes of reality"--an experiment in the non-linear story popularized by John Barth. In fact, the book is nothing less than a thorough annihilation of the concept of rationality, a "stoic" work in the very audicity with which it posits the insanity of normalcy.
The novel is divided into three parts, the first of which is a third-person expository account of Comrade V.'s opprobrious persecution at the hands of a nameless fatherland. A celebrated mathematician, by dint of his liberal political positivism, V. is incarcerated in an obscure "large building, a few versts east of the capital." Seated in his sterile cubicle V. watches a diffraction of his own life-history pass by on a computer print-out sheet which appraises us of his peculiar character. A child mathematics prodigy, he had successfully voided people from his world-scheme by age ten, at which time he sat at his father's funeral, calculating the seating frequency of the mourners and concluding that they made up a bimodal distribution. He thrives at the local university and his personality reaches its logical conclusion some years later when he patiently explained to his young wife and daughters, that having studied the loss of work time resulting from the marriage, and with the knowledge that "the whole of my life work under the married condition must be less than half that of myself single...I have searched my heart carefully to assure this conclusion is not affected by emotional bias...and am asking for a divorce."
V. watches his life punch past, conscious of the State's distortions. Through his own reflections, we have a compelling portrait of a dissenting spirit, menaced by the claims of political conformity. V. strives desparately to maintain a pose of "lucidity," haunted by the certain knowledge that "the man who directly claims to be sane is, in every case, revealed in his lunacy."
THE SECOND part of the work records the personal diary of Comrade V., precisely chronicling the assault on his sense of stability and detailing his daily encounters with the only arm of the State which directly confronts him--the psychiatrist. The war described in these harassed jottings is one of attrition, and we are privy to the unravelling of "the fragile thread that sustains lucidity" in V.
The concluding section is a droll qualification of the first two. It contains the text of the psychiatrist's report on the case--an exploration of the problem of "schizoid monomamania" which not only undermines the credibility of the foregoing account, but leaves in doubt the very existence of this mathematician Comrade V. A melange of philosophic sallies, this third part of the novel features essays on the history of the stoic movement and the creation cum Laung of an unreal universe in response to an insane environment. In a penetrating investigation of changing criterion of artistic excellence. Park perceptively notes that ordinary craftsmen have forsaken objective standards of proficiency, "in the face of the bewildering criterion of genius"--very directly echoed by Norman Mailer's recent suggestion that the problem with this country is that everyone fancies himself a genius of one form or another.
Sloan sees a continuity between the narrative philosophy of Comrade V., and his first highly successful effort War Games. That book, published in 1971, has already earned significant critical acclaim, most recently netting its young author the Ellen McPhaul Prize. War Games is the tale of a quixotic young gentleman who leaves Harvard for the fields of Viet Nam to take "the military interlude required of every complete and cultured man." The bizarre ontological exploration of Comrade V. is thus, in a sense, an extension of the disillusionment of the protagonist of the first novel.
The author himself entered Harvard in 1961, a self-styled intellectual prodigy (he was quite firmly convinced) from Clinton, South Carolina. His father happens to be mayor of the town and a singularly reactionary political soul. Sloan conceeds that his inquiries with respect to God and the implications of his non-existence might be seen in light of his struggle to come to terms with his family and regional background.
After two and a half years at odds with what he perceived as the rigid values and structure of the University, he took a leave and did a tour of service in Viet Nam. Thus his first fictional effort was partially autobiographical--the synthesis of his combat experience in Southeast Asia and subsequent exposure to the politics of protest upon returning to Cambridge in 1967. According to Sloan, the nameless hero of his first book does not choose to take up the family tradition and enter politics upon his return from Viet Nam, nor does he completely eschew identification with issues of social concern. Above all, he turns inward for significance.
IN SLOANS estimation, a similar triple-aspect is present in his own nature. He is, most superficially, an anarchist who revels in the atheistic void, confidently asserting that society has never been able to provide anyone with answers (assuming, of course, that one asks the questions) and decrying institutions as superfluous.
Next, he is the responsible citizen, involved in the democratic process, devoting what he labels his two "conscience" hours a day to the presidential campaign of Senator McGovern and Dan Walker's gubernatorial campaign in Illinois. Something can be said in defense of the system, he concedes, when one considers it as a vehicle for the orderly distribution of goods and services.
The secretest and most potent self, he suggests, is the stoic--living and creating an evolving set of values and facing the cosmos with the resolve of Sisyphus. Sloan states that his own growth in this direction is rooted in the work of theologican Paul Tillich, whose work The Courage to Be is footnoted in Comrade V.. He was further influenced by the writing of Borghes and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. A Stoic, according to Sloan, is one who "seeks assiduously for answers, knowing that they're not there, but hoping that he'll find them."
Indeed, these three sides of the man are reflected in Comrade V. The liberal idealist, of course, in the elusive character of V. himself, that would-be reformer in a state without conscience. The anarchist holds sway over the psychiatric demolition of V.'s identity as well as any basis for rational reconstruction of the situation. Finally, the stoic is suggested by the very concept and assembly of this creative, witty fiction, which in commendable contrast to the exiguity of much of contemporary fiction, deserves, if not demands, not only a first but a second reading.
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