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.
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.”
SHASHI THAROOR: Oksana reminds me that the relationship of literature to power was brought to light most famously in the election of that longtime dissident Václav Havel to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. Words, he said at the time, can prove mightier than ten military divisions. The word “solidarity,” Havel said, was capable of shaking an entire power bloc. Words have the power to change history. That was an interesting thought, and he certainly was an extraordinary example of it, but it didn’t work like that half a world away in Peru where Mario Vargas Llosa, the eminent novelist, believed that as an author, he had a “unique understanding of the people, their needs, their concerns, their spirit.” So he ran for president, and lost. Though other writers have assumed positions of power in their countries, and many have demonstrated the power of words to shake governments, serious novelists and poets have generally been unsuccessful in determining their readers’ political destinies. After all, the only president who can lay claim to a best-selling novel is Saddam Hussein.
As an Indian novelist, I find that literature’s relationship to power is particularly complex in countries like mine. Most developing countries are also formerly colonized countries, and one of the realities of colonialism is that it appropriated the cultural definition of its subject peoples. Writing about India in English, I could not but be aware of those who have done the same before me, others with a greater claim to the language but a lesser claim to the land. To think of India in the English-speaking world even today–and despite the exception of Salman Rushdie and others who followed him–is to still think in images conditioned by Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster. But their stories are not my stories. Their heroes are not mine. And my fiction, rather consciously—perhaps self-consciously—seeks to reclaim an aspect of my country’s heritage for itself, to tell in an Indian voice a story of India. And let me stress: a story of India, for there are always other stories and other Indians to tell them.
How important is such a literary reassertion in the face of the enormous challenges confronting a developing country? What does it have to do with power? Can literature matter in a land of poverty and suffering? I believe it does. We’re all familiar with the notion that man does not live by bread alone. In India and elsewhere, I’d argue that literature and the telling of stories are indispensable to our ability to cope with that mighty construct we call the human condition. After all, why does man need bread? To survive, but why survive if it’s only to eat more bread? To live is more than just a sustained life; it is to enrich and be enriched by life. Our poorest men and women in the developing world feel the throb of literature in their pulse. They tell stories to their children under the starlit skies, stories of their land and its heroes, stories of the earth and its mysteries, stories that have gone into making them into what they are. One responsibility of literature in a developing country must be to contribute toward, to help articulate, and to give expression to the cultural identity of the postcolonial society. Both colonialism then, and arguably globalization today, have fractured and distorted cultural self-perceptions. Development will not occur without a reassertion of identity: This is who we are; this is what we are proud of; this is what we want to be.
But those who have taken political roles in many developing societies also seek to seize this process by controlling the form, the shape, and the content of that identity. They seek to use their power to define the identity of their society or their culture in terms acceptable to the state. Now the task of the writer is to find new ways and provide old ones of expressing his culture, just as his society strives in the process of development to find new ways of being and becoming. This involves, in India’s case, resisting the notion that Indian identity can be narrowly defined in any one set of terms. My own novels speak of an India of multiple realities, and of multiple interpretations of reality. I once said that if we had to do an Indian version of the American slogan E pluribus unum, it would have to be E pluribus pluribum. Throughout my fiction runs an acknowledgment of the multiplicity of truth and a consciousness of the many truths that have helped give shape and substance to the idea of India. So in speaking of a cultural reassertion of identity, I do not want to defend a closed construct. I believe Indians would not become any less Indian if, in Mahatma Gandhi’s metaphor, we opened the doors and windows of our country and let foreign winds blow through our house.
My compatriots in India and I have been fortunate in having been free to express ourselves, but we cannot forget that the developing world is full of writers who have to function in societies that do not grant them this freedom. Writers in some developing countries have to cope with the perception that development and creative freedom are incompatible—that literature, for instance, must serve only the ends of a society as defined by the government, or operate only within the boundaries of the permissible as defined by the social or religious authorities. For such writers, the function of literature becomes much more than the creative rendering of social observations. In societies where truth is what the government or religious establishment says is true, literature must depict alternative truths that the culture needs to accommodate in order to survive. The paradox of the power of literature is that only when it is persecuted does it show its true colors. So it’s probably no accident that some of the world’s most remarkable literature in recent years has been introduced by writers who are either in exile from oppressive political systems—Gabriel García Márquez, Milan Kundera, Breyten Breytenbach—or struggling to hold up a mirror to the oppressive societies within which they live—Nadine Gordimer in South Africa, Neruda in Chile, Havel himself. Literature has always had the potential to raise the awkward question, to awaken the dormant consciousness, and therefore to subvert the established order, which may explain, despite the quote from Havel with which I began, why good writers rarely have the opportunity to make effective presidents. They are better at revealing than at ruling.
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.
FRANCINE PROSE: I think the question of what the writer can and should do about politics and power and the power of the state has entirely to do with what kind of writer one is. The essayist or polemicist has one kind of responsibility, and when I write essays now, as an American I feel that my responsibility is to say I live in a house in which a crime has been committed, and further crimes are being planned. I don’t for one moment imagine that I can stop these further crimes from happening by saying it, but I do so partly to preserve my own sanity, to preserve the sanity of others who are noticing what’s going on, and also to try and keep what tiny shreds of credibility our culture and our country have in the rest of the world.
I write for papers in this country and abroad. Earlier in Iraq war, I was living in Italy, and a newspaper in the United States in New York asked me to write an essay about what it was like to be an American in Europe during the war. And I said, among other things, that I felt that the Italians treated us the way you would treat someone you basically liked, but who you knew had a serial killer in the family. And I didn’t mean just George Bush, I should point out. The newspaper said, “We can’t run that line.” And I said, “Yeah, I knew that was going to happen.” And then later they said, “Actually, we can’t run the essay.” And I kind of knew that was going to happen too. I feel that I have a responsibility to let people here and abroad know and to get things right.
When I’m writing novels, I feel a different kind of responsibility. As we all know, polemic is the enemy of literature because the polemicist feels the need to distort language and character for a particular agenda instead of writing the most beautiful language or the character that’s most true to human nature, regardless of whether this truth goes against that particular agenda. Consequently, people say there’s no such thing as great political art. But of course that’s not true. Recently I saw the new production, the new translation of The Threepenny Opera on Broadway, and I was shocked and terrified. What made the play so exhilarating and so terrifying was how modern it seemed, how topical it seemed; it could have been written yesterday. As most of you know, Hitler shut down production on The Threepenny Opera, and everyone connected with the new has been joking that if it gets shut down, we might choose to leave the country the way Brecht and his associates did.
The novelist, the realistic novelist, wants to write about what we call human nature and society, and I think it’s impossible to write realistic fiction without talking about those two things. I also think that literature of the past says as much about politics as the most polemic fiction. I think that if you read enough Balzac you can pretty much figure out how Dick Cheney’s mind works. I think if you read Moby-Dick and think for a moment of Captain Ahab as our current administration, you can kind of tell where the ship of state is headed. And if you read something like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, you begin to realize that your most paranoid fantasy will turn out to be the truth.
Lately, when I read literary journals or magazines, or even live in this culture, I feel as if we’re involved in a plane crash—a big plane crash—and all the other passengers are aeronautics engineers. They’re saying, “You know, I don’t really like that little whistle I’m hearing,” or “The engine sounds funny to me.” But still, we don’t have any choice. We can’t actually get off the plane; we can only stay on the plane. The hope is that what we write during this particular journey, if that’s what it happens to be, will survive the crash, will outlive us, and will be useful to future generations and to people in other countries.
I’ve been reading more history than I have fiction, and I’ve been reading in particular books about Hitler, books about Stalin, and books about the dirty war in Argentina. I’ve been reading them the way a hypochondriac reads health newsletters, looking for the warning signs of what could go wrong. One of the books about Argentina describes the way in which the generals perverted the language, and that it’s extremely important to listen to the language we’re hearing and to listen to the way our government is using the language, and to pay attention. At the same time, what I want my own children to read, what I want all young people to read, is great literature—and also, for example, books about Vietnam, because those are books about ways in which writers in particular and a population in general did alter government policy and did make a difference.
BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY: I know that French writers are supposed to speak too long, so I will try to be short. I don’t think that the power of literature has to do, first of all, in any sense with identity, and with national identity. We know, from the origins of literature, that literature, when it is good literature, has nothing to do with identity. The great writer Joyce said that he wrote in Unglish, not in English. Dante said that he did not write in Italian, did not write in French; he invented it. I don’t think that the responsibility of literature has anything to do with national belonging. Milan Kundera makes a distinction for every writer between the little context and the grand context: the little context of the national environment, which does not say anything, which is the worst advisor of the writer, and the grand context, which has nothing to do with national identity.
I don’t think that literature and its power have anything to do with humanism or even with good feelings. I know that we are in a country where there is sometimes a tendency to drive the writer into political correctness, to practice a sort of ethical cleansing, to oblige the writers to be good guys. The best American writers—Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor—are not good guys.
I don’t think that literature has anything to do with positive thinking. As everybody knows, Céline, one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, was one of the most infamous Nazi collaborationists. How did the first Céline become the second one? He became the second one at the very moment when he became a positive thinker. The first Céline that there is no solution, that the human being was a failed species, condemned to radical evil, that there was no exit, and that role of the writer was to explore this no-exit road. Then came another Céline who remembered that in a former life he was a doctor, and that the job of the doctor is to cure the illnesses of his brothers in life. He said, “Let’s be positive. Humanity is ill. I’m going to identify the illness. I’m going to find the good medicine and I’m going to impose the good medicine on the ill patient.” And the way to do that was to exterminate. The bad virus was the Jews.
This does not mean of course that literature has no responsibility and no power. There is an important distinction between the power of literature and the power of writers, which are two very different things.
MARTÍNEZ: I have a comment and a question. We, most of us, talk about power as a political problem, power as a political force. But power is a relationship. We can find power in love, power between father and son, power between boss and employees. We can see sexual abuses as a derivation of the problem. Literature may have nothing to do with power, as Bernard-Henri said, but power has a lot to do with literature. Power silences it, and censors it. At the same time, Borges supposed that censorship is good for literature, because literature is like water that finds a way to escape the power and, finding a way, comes to the real literature—not the photography of reality, but a different kind of reality.
And the question is for Francine: How does power use the language? A teacher of Simón Bolívar discovered that the use of some words in the wrong way perverts the words: Using “democracy” is different if Nelson Mandela uses it than if a person in the Bush Administration uses that same word. “Freedom” was different when Reagan used it than when someone else uses it. Power moves the meanings of the words.
PROSE: One of the ways that happens, as you said, is distortion and euphemism. I’ve been reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s great memoir of the Stalin years, and one of the things she says that seems so modern and up to the moment is that people stopped using the word “conscience” and only used the word “patriotism.” Now we’re hearing “patriotic” and this hideous misuse of “freedom.” But the word “conscience” is almost never used in political discourse; it just doesn’t seem to be relevant.