Literature & Power: Writing about Politics, with John Ralston Saul, Oksana Zabuzhko, Shashi Tharoor, Tomás Eloy Martinez, Francine Prose, and Bernard-Henri Levy
OKSANA ZABUZHKO: When I first read the title of our panel, what immediately came to mind was an episode from the last day of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Those of you who watched TV reports during those days might try to picture this scene: late night, in the city’s downtown, on the seventeenth day of the uprising, some two million people around, exhausted yet intoxicated with a sense of victory, with the results of the fraudulent election. And on the stage in the middle of the square, Yulia Tymoshenko, now the country’s prime minister, addressing the crowd with tears in her eyes: “The days of the revolution will forever stay in our history, we will cherish them in our hearts,” and this striking phrase: “We’ll do a book about it!” A strange statement for a politician, and sort of naïve: What kind of a book? Who was going to write it? The days of the uprising are shortly going to produce tens if not hundreds of books of different genres, so why single out a particular one?
The message was clear. Ms. Tymoshenko was promising to turn the seventeen-day personal experience of love and faith into a story, a narrative to be memorized and told possibly for generations. A good politician never fails to tell people exactly what they want to hear. True. What bigger prize can you offer those who have been challenged by the severest of threats and have overcome them than to make a story out of his or her experience? People want their lives to make a story. Every human being has this need, if only to make sure that his or her life makes sense. Long before the appearance of writing, a story told then disseminated has been taken as indisputable proof that the events in the narrative were worth living through. “I’ll make out of your life a narrative which gives you meaning.” This sentence has an allure which, for the nonreligious mind, verges on the promise of salvation.
This thought occurred to me some nine years ago when I published my first novel—a confessional story about a broken relationship, about a woman intellectual with an identity crisis—which turned into the biggest literary scandal of the ’90s in Ukraine. My greatest shock came not from critics proclaiming me a witch who deserved to be burned were it not for our civilized times, but from crowds of enthusiastic female readers, ranging in age from their early twenties to their early sixties. They responded with the same exclamations: “This is my story. I feel as though I wrote it.”
Their response was something I would never have predicted, if only because the narrator’s story was anything but typical. What made it so intimately recognizable for so many were the feelings. That’s where the true power of literature lies. That’s what makes literature irreplaceable by any other human activity, even in our visual age. Once you buy feelings depicted in a book as yours, you are trapped. You trust the author, as he or she has provided you with invaluable testimony that you are not alone in this world. You let the author into your inner life. You accept his or her way of seeing things as yours, and without noticing, you get a ready-made mold for your feelings—words, ideas, dramatic collisions, language, which you appropriated on some subliminal level to shape your own life so that it too would be worth telling.
This is where the power of literature collides with that of politicians: Ms. Tymoshenko assumed that one book documenting the events would do as a narrative for hundreds of thousands of individuals. Authors are interested, or at least are supposed to be interested, in individuals. No political power in its extreme absolutistic version ever extends further than making people believe they feel what they really don’t. The target is attainable, as we all know only too well, both from the twentieth-century history and from the present. By spending billions on the media, you can instill fear and anxiety. You can make people believe their lives are not full until they buy a Ferrari, or will be all messed up until they vote for Mr. So-and-So, to skip more gruesome examples. What you can never do, though, is endow a person with a sense that he or she authors his or her life as the protagonist of a story worth being shared with other people.
In a Persian fairy tale, a king addresses a foreigner with a remarkable demand: “I give you a year to tell me a story, but you should only tell what happened to you, and if you tell me what you heard from someone else, I’ll cut your head off.” I find this a fascinating requirement—a dream of a privilege never granted to a living human being. None of us has a year to turn our whole life into a narrated story, and no devoted listener, not even our dearest ones, would agree to spend that much time to help us make sense of our lives. This fairy tale presents the most perfect image of the benevolent, ideal power, as perceived from the standpoint of an individual. Power as it should be: a ruler who not just allows but orders you on pain of capital punishment to be your own author.
In real life kings act exactly the opposite. It’s in literature alone that we can still find the remote reverberation of ideal power cherishing and celebrating an individual self. Literature tells us what happened to someone else so that we are able to understand what’s happening to us. The trouble starts when writers try to play earthly kings and talk to the masses. The tempting advantage of such a politically powerful position is that it always implies immediate gratification, while the power of literature has a long-term effect and may not become visible until after the writer’s death. Writers and politicians live in different time modes—an extra reason not to confuse the two parallel circuits, which by definition should stay apart. If Ms. Tymoshenko asks me to write the book that she has so precariously promised to the crowd, my obligation would be to say “No, thank you.”