A Reservoir of Freedom
We have come to the end of one of the most illustrious, unruly, and eventful congresses in the history of International PEN. Have so many brilliant writers ever gathered in the same place? One might well ask. Some of them have felt themselves misunderstood. Insults have been hurled. Sensibilities have been hurt, great spirits being sometimes big babies. Many excellent speeches have been made, and I do hope for a volume of them to read in the ivory tower some of us long for by now.
Every new meeting brings new problems, new faces, and the world rolls on—so the agenda looks the same only on the surface. The Writers in Prison lists change as well, but, alas, do not shrink in size. But there are also faces that remain and problems that are the same: for instance, that books from small languages do not reach out into the world. Most of us would like to see PEN as a club for literary discussions and the exchange of good books over the frontiers. Unfortunately, it cannot, in terms of the charter, be merely that, as long as most political leaders on this globe insist on defining the writers’ freedom and the value of our books in less generous terms than we do ourselves. “You may think what you like, only don’t write it down,” said the prison warden to Breyten Breytenbach. But what you may not write you cease even to think of, so you become impoverished and out of touch with your own possibilities. The frail beauty of this world, as well as its horrors, requires articulation. Different language experiences rub against each other in our lives: First friction, then reality is unmasked and one’s eyes are opened. New linguistic habits make room for new discoveries, and the world begins to sparkle and whisper again. The breakdown of communication is the real threat to peace, not the fight against censorship.
The centers of PEN form an archipelago. We are all floating islands, with our books the water joining one islet to the other. The transnational solidarity is our goal in PEN. We defend our authenticity and integrity, our liberty to write awful things, far from the eerie pronouncements of congresses. What a writer writes is scathing, unforeseen, unpredictable. The writer may obey democratic rules; his books do not. The writer, said György Konrád here, “is an antisoldier, for unlike the soldier he cannot shift his responsibility to any other, he has no superior and no one to account to him.” The uncensored imagination is an uncomfortable territory with land mines hidden. Therefore, as a customs officer told Konrád, “It is in our common interest not to be allowed to read everything we are interested in.” But sane writers persist, for their own sakes and ours, that there are things we must know, and get immersed in, in order not to become petrified by the trivialities of life.
There is information, there is propaganda, and there is deformation. It could be argued that a constructive kind of deformation is the artist’s counterweapon against the onslaught of trivia, of official communiqués and mind-bending persuasion from advertising. To deform means, then, to make new cracks in the walls surrounding us, to make us see, for instance, the slow but obvious corruption of language everywhere—when death is called the terminal stage and to learn is to accumulate credits and when art, literature, imagination are dealt with in terms of distribution and consumption and cultural output and input instead of being seen as a dialogue between two equals, namely writer and reader together creating something that did not quite exist before they met. A task more necessary than ever is to give young people a language that is innovative, unfrozen, and sensual, vaccinating them against despair, routine, and authoritarian tendencies. “Literature does not need freedom, it is freedom,” said Heinrich Böll.
No government or community can claim to give literature what it has by nature. A writer has to go far across invisible borders to know how far he can go. Nobody could really tell beforehand. Therefore literature cannot provide law and order, because it is dynamic, a process without an end, not a function or an institution. It is an unruly child whom nobody can keep quiet. Literature points toward experiences that cannot be reassured and weighed. It says that man can never be entirely defined and thus not used as a tool by others. No geometry, no government or computer, can chart the needs of man. Every work of art liberates. Therefore, it has the censor at its heels. Therefore, so much energy is devoted to prevent and destroy fragile things like imaginations, thoughts, and their creators.
While science normally makes hypotheses based on observation or probability, art deals also with what has never been observed, or observed only peripherally. The artist’s imagination or the world it builds is the laboratory of the inexperienced, both the heroic and the unspeakable. “Art,” said John Gardner at the PEN Congress in Stockholm some years ago, “is as original and important as it is precisely because it does not start out with clear knowledge of what it means to say.” Love, hate, dreams, wounds—not the world seen directly, but what swims close to his net—are the writer’s raw material. Through a process of blind experiments and ruthless selectivity, the artist discovers what he has to say, but only then. That is the risk the artist takes, and in this lies his morality, his attempt to give life to the unexpected and revealing, not to the trivial and false, the didactic and conformist. The artist knows what to say only in the process of saying it.
The Nigerian minister of information some years ago called a press conference and said, “I have a piece of extraordinary good news for you. Censorship is abolished. You are free to write whatever you like.” Jubilation. Then the minister added, “Except for one thing—you are forbidden to write that censorship has ended because officially it has never existed. So do not write a word about censorship unless you would like it reintroduced.” The Cuban writer Jorge Valls, here with us at this congress, free after twenty years, smuggled out a message from his cell in Bonito: “I need you, though I do not see you. Perhaps everything could begin again…. Eight swallows are courting me now….” On the road to the labor camp and the prison cell, we recognize the anxiety leading to self-censorship, the invisible violence against oneself that is not merely restraining literary creation as censorship does, but prevents it from seeing the light at all. Literature is on a collision course with the authorities, not because writers always speak for freedom—they do not—but because they create in their world people who could observe, reason, and make essential choices between themselves. Autocrats wish their people to feel unworthy of justice, private life, and independent thinking. The valuable literature tries to counteract people’s belittling and despising of themselves, and that means trouble.
A task for literature is to make people realize they are not powerless. Therefore censorship hits not only writers but readers most of all. When a reader is denied access to a book, his freedom is menaced, his possibility to glimpse truth diminished. Just as one can store nuclear weapons, one can, by silencing truth, store hypocrisy, stupidity, immorality, so that they are glued together into a wall hard to penetrate. And that creates endless individual suffering. The censor fears the unconventional and divergent even when it is not politically charged: thus the mistrust of the kind of literature that tries to break new ground. Perhaps true works of art are always critical and attack what openly or unconsciously is taboo in society. Art has become a reservoir for freedom in a time more and more unfree. Unfree not in a purely physical but in a spiritual sense, because so much is explained as socially or genetically given patterns of behavior. Thus it becomes more difficult to have a relation to one’s environment that is at once private and responsible. Existence becomes a cage. Then art is a breathing space for the individual, for within that sphere man is still magnificent, enigmatic, and inexhaustible.