Literature & Power: Writing About Politics
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.