Literature & Power: Writing about Politics, with John Ralston Saul, Oksana Zabuzhko, Shashi Tharoor, Tomás Eloy Martinez, Francine Prose, and Bernard-Henri Levy
TOMÁS ELOY MARTÍNEZ: Michel Foucault says that power is a relationship of forces, or, more precisely, that all relationships of forces are relationships of power. He makes it quite clear that “force” here is plural. Foucault says that the set of factions permits the construction of a list in which there is neither oppression nor possession, but rather modifications in values. Everything acts upon everything, everything shifts. Literature is particularly unstable. It is that which is unstable, uncertain, which we don’t know how to label. Literary criticism can classify certain texts, but what the work of the imagination is for one reader today will not be the same in two hours or tomorrow. Neither is a text the same for one who reads it in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, or New York at this very moment. It is possible to classify a literary work, stratify it, reduce it to a mere story. But any such operation will always be provisional because the work is a relationship in itself. It is an occurrence and constant mutation. It is transfigured every time it is seen, and it affects us in a different way every time we look at it. William Faulkner said that he used to read Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha once every two years because he always encountered a different book.
In the last quarter century, must has changed: the failure of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the atomization of the Soviet Union, the destruction of the Twin Towers, and such lamentable consequences as the invasion of privacy under the pretext of terrorism and the abominable torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. From the sexual liberation of the ’60s, we have entered into an era of repression, control of action with actions upon actions. These are times in which reality is read as it is not. Saddam Hussein appears in the place where Osama bin Laden should be. And the empty arsenals of Iraq appear where it was said there were arms of mass destruction. Reality is slippery, mercurial. It is no longer possible to speak of fighting political power because power also moves from the army to corporations to drug dealers to money-lenders to weapons traffickers to politicians who build fortunes at an impressive speed in order to eventually return them to the army, to weapons traffickers, and so forth.
Today, perhaps, we must go in the direction of reconstruction, and by this I mean the attempt to recover the imaginary and the cultural traditions of a community. Once appropriated by the novel, it is given a different context, a new life. One of the secret forces of culture is its capacity to strengthen itself with adversity, to elude censorship, to tell its truths and continue incorruptible and disobedient when all those around remain silent or submit. The diverse strategies have attempted to silence culture’s uncomfortable voice. Makers of culture have been repressed by imprisonment, the stocks, by burnings at the stake, with false confessions like those of Galileo before the inquisition and those of Sergei Eisenstein or Isaac Babel before Stalin.
One of the latest strategies of political power has been to simulate indifference. Each time culture raised its voice, power did not hear it. When power declares itself illiterate, when power does not read, writing does not harm it. Some neo-liberal democracies have assimilated that lesson. The philosopher Baruch Spinoza was asked, “How much can a body do?” Now we ask, “How much can a text do?” Novels do not change the world overnight, but they can recover the needs of the community, not to invalidate them or to idealize them, but to recognize them as a tradition, as a force leaving its sediment on the collective imagination.