Literature & Power: Writing about Politics, with John Ralston Saul, Oksana Zabuzhko, Shashi Tharoor, Tomás Eloy Martinez, Francine Prose, and Bernard-Henri Levy
JOHN RALSTON SAUL: The question we’ll consider today has three parts. Does the history of the last century offer much support for the view that the literary imagination has any special purchase on political wisdom? Can literature mitigate the pressures of ideology and nationalism, or is it destined to be their servant? Do writers have any special responsibilities beyond those of other citizens? Since it’s my job to set the tone, my answer would be that there are no answers to these questions. That’s particularly apparent to those of us who come from the twenty-odd supposed Western democracies, because we have by far, I think, the largest literary class in the history of the West. It has more freedom, even though we are unhappy, to express itself. And yet it seems that we have no effect, almost no influence, on the broad reality out there. Why is this the case?
Actually, it seems to me that there are three possibilities for writers. You can throw yourself in at a key moment and give language to people when they need it. Or you can be stubborn: Even though you know language won’t change anything, you just want to be counted on for having assumed the obligation and occupied the public space. In a sense, what we’re doing is providing signposts on the “darkling plain,” if I’m allowed to quote a very romantic poem. And the third possibility is to attack the language in place, whether it’s through fiction, or poetry, or essays: to say that the language in place is in effect an ideology, and we have to find some new form of language that can break down the language in place and make it possible for people to feel that they can change things.
We have with us today Tomás Eloy Martínez, who felt the obligation to go into exile, to stay in exile from Argentina, and to create a literature that would allow people in Argentina—and then around the world—to understand better what had gone wrong. We have Oksana Zabuzhko, who has just lived through a remarkable opportunity in Ukraine to be part of the Orange Revolution, in which language and stubbornness combined played a major role. Shashi Tharoor is a writer, biographer, and Undersecretary-General of the United Nations, and therefore lives on that undefinable line, or tension, that joins literature to power. Francine Prose, who of course is American and writes from within the American experience about much more than the American experience, writes to change the understanding of this civilization, to understand not just what’s happening but what it actually means. And Bernard-Henri Lévy set about breaking up the patterns of thought and language in France. He was pretty successful—which is why people were enraged. And then he felt the obligation to go outside his own society and speak out about Bosnia, Sarajevo, Iraq, Pakistan.