NEW YORK – As the ultimate guardians of language and its complexity, writers have always felt the need to deal with the great crises of their time. In those troubled moments in history when the old ways are dying and the new words with which men and women try to make sense of the world have not yet been born, literature can be a beacon.
Imagine the dark days of fascism in Europe without Brecht, Eluard and Auden. Or the long nights of resistance to dictatorship in my own Chile without the radiant poems smuggled out of our concentration camps. How would we remember the Depression if not for Steinbeck and his chronicles of destitution and hope, or the 1960s without James Baldwin?
In the aftermath of the criminal attacks of Sept. 11, writers have again been rising to the occasion as writers do: insolently, vehemently, lucidly, defiantly. Susan Sontag and Joan Didion come to mind, demanding that their nation look critically at itself in order to emerge from the waters of the present catastrophe.
Early this month, some of the nation’s leading literary figures met in New York City to add their voices to this quest for understanding. At an event organized by the PEN American Center, 15 writers brandished the brave words of today and yesterday in defense of the core freedoms that have defined this nation and are threatened by the current administration’s attempt to curtail liberties in the name of security and the fight against terrorism.
These weren’t their own words: The coordinators of the well-attended event – thousands of spectators lined up for hours to enter Cooper Union’s Great Hall were turned away for lack of space – had asked the writers to choose others’ passages to suit the precarious moment. Except for one writer, who flung President Bush’s words back at him, these writers chose untainted sources, texts from which to gather strength in a time when words are increasingly under siege and being stripped of their deeper meanings.
The enthusiastic audience might have been witnessing a night in a Latin American city, where writers are habitually incendiary and committed. But the evening was most definitely American, an X-ray of the hidden apprehensions and hopes of the United States today.
Many of the authors dug deep into their country’s past for the profound roots of today’s struggle for liberty. Paul Auster read from Thoreau’s 1854 retort to the Fugitive Slave Act, which ordered that slaves who had escaped north from the plantations be sent back to their masters in the South. Thoreau’s words were an excoriation of the government and above all of the subservient American press. Russell Banks used Mark Twain to oppose American imperial expansion – yesterday in the Philippines, today in Iraq – pointing out the madness and death that are perpetrated in the name of what passes for civilization. Margo Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator for the New York Times, echoed the voices of suppressed African American writers.
The talented Edward Jones chilled the audience with the words of Dalton Trumbo’s amputated protagonist in “Johnny Got His Gun,” and Laurie Anderson quoted from Dave Hickey’s “Air Guitar.” A.M. Homes channeled Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and her fellow novelist Barbara Goldsmith recalled the 1873 trial of Susan B. Anthony for flouting the law that prohibited women from voting. Voices plucked from the past, all with the same message: Do not be intimidated by power, do not be afraid.
Liberty is not, of course, a purely American struggle. If some writers found comfort in their countrymen and women, others claimed the writers of other lands and languages, perhaps as a way of answering Bush’s arrogant unilateralism. Eve Ensler, known for her “Vagina Monologues,” read from Nawal El Saadawi’s notes from an Egyptian prison, and both Don DeLillo and Francine Prose summoned the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. The two writers at the event who were U.S. residents but not citizens, Salman Rushdie and me, did something similar. Rushdie, who knows something about persecution, spoke of a great test of civilization: how to fight the terrorists without becoming their mirror image. He quoted from John Locke, the Englishman who had, more than two centuries before, inspired the founders of the United States to revolt against their colonial masters and build a nation where the pursuit of happiness was the primary goal of existence.
I reached out to “Don Quixote,” the book that has always given me consolation and joy in my most dismal times. And I read both in English and in Spanish to emphasize that there are many in today’s United States who are suspect merely because they speak a foreign language, Arabic or Persian or even French, and to recognize that of the wonders of this country, what has always attracted people like me and Rushdie to its shores is its capacity to welcome what seems alien and celebrate its strangeness.
And yet, this evening of defiance ended on a somber note. Rushdie read a concluding communication from Norman Mailer, who offered up a mere seven words from John Dos Passos: “All right, then, we are two nations.” That 1936 denouncement of the split between the very rich and the very poor resonated ominously, almost sorrowfully, on the eve of the most fateful election in the history of the nation. And it recalled Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 speech against slavery in this same place, words that were soon to propel him to the presidency of the United States. It was from the very podium from which we were speaking that Lincoln had set out to save the Union, preparing himself for a civil war that would sunder the republic a bit over a year later.
Lincoln, the most eloquent of American presidents, trusted meticulous and lyrical language as an instrument of gentle persuasion, and he accepted contradiction as a necessary condition for truth. He proclaimed his conviction that it was not might that makes right but, rather, it is striving to be right that makes one mighty. “Let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it,” Lincoln said. The writers that evening joined his unquiet ghost in hoping that words still have the power to change the world.
And is this not, like then, an occasion for alarm and articulation, a time for writers in this imperiled land of Lincoln and Whitman, of Faulkner and Alan Ginsberg and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to plunge into the abyss of the human heart and bring courage to a country divided by terror and deceit and perhaps, who knows, also bring light to a planet torn by war and grief?