Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Nadine Gordimer, Salman Rushdie & Others
SAUL BELLOW: The founders of democracy succeeded very well, especially in our own case here in the United States. They gave us exactly what they promised: freedom, equality, liberty, food, clothing, shelter, and miraculous machines. There has never been much rapport between government and art in the United States. The thing was set up only, on the political level, to create a kind of democratic society in which we might do as we pleased. But there is absolutely nothing about the setup of American society which obliges the government to us in any sense in this respect.
GÜNTER GRASS: I have a question. When you explain that democracy gave people in this country not only freedom, but also shelter and food, I think, “Where am I?” Three years ago, I was in the South Bronx. I would like to hear the echo of your words in the South Bronx. And I can tell of other places in the United States where people don’t have shelter, don’t have food, or the possibility to live in the freedom you have or some have in this country. Perhaps I misunderstood what you explained.
BELLOW: It’s very possible that you misunderstood. First of all, I have views on all these matters. I was talking of the majority situation in the country. I was not trying to include every exception that one can think of. I was simply saying that the philosophers of freedom of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided a structure which created a society by and large free, by and large of unexampled prosperity. I didn’t say that there were no pockets of poverty, and I didn’t say that this was a land of full justice, and I didn’t try to justify America as a superpower. I didn’t do any of those things. I was simply saying that there was no particular concern in the foundation of the country with the higher life of the country. That was my statement.
GRASS: That was not the voice of the majority. But I was thinking about the 30 percent who don’t live—
BELLOW: Well, that’s very commendable. I think of them, too, very often. I write about them.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: May I add something, Mr. Bellow, in agreement with what Günter Grass just suggested? This is not the question he raised, but it’s something that was said this morning by Salman Rushdie—that this freedom and prosperity of the United States of America are posited on the unfreedom and the poverty and the exploitation of large parts of the world, including South Africa. If one were to ask a South African black what he thought of the American constitution, I think one would get a very bitter answer indeed.
BELLOW: Better or bitter?
BREYTENBACH: Bitter, bitter.
BELLOW: Oh, I see.
ADAM ZAGAJEWSKI: I’d like to express my gratitude to Saul Bellow. I liked his statement. We cannot limit ourselves to social problems, which are terrible. There are also spiritual problems, and Saul Bellow has mentioned one of the major spiritual problems. So why shouldn’t we discuss it?
VASSILY AKSYONOV: When I listen to German writers, I always wonder why they are so eager to criticize the United States. Why are they not criticizing their own Bundesrepublik? I would love German writers to think twice before making parallels between the USSR and USA.
ALLEN GINSBERG: As the poet Gregory Corso says, when you have a choice of two things, take both. Much as I hate the Soviet bureaucracy, and the totalitarian grip that it has taken on its client states, as members of the so-called free world, prosperous ones, I wonder to what extent American freedom and prosperity does depend on the exploitation of other nations. Isn’t some of the political aspect of this discussion embodied very perfectly in the situation of Nicaragua now, where doubtless there is a Marxist government? Democracy is not guaranteed by the Sandinistas. On the other hand, the entire situation has been created by American power over the last hundred years. So I wonder if the question then is: To what extent can we as Americans take part in one side or another of the Cold War, affirming American freedom as against Soviet slavery, without at the same time having to search deeply into our own conscience and act according to our own sympathies to correct the devastation that we have wrought?
NADINE GORDIMER: An idea seems to have emerged from today’s discussion that the spiritual concerns of the writer are divorced from the political and social influences. I’d like to ask the panel whether they really see a great abyss between these two aspects of the writer’s life. Hearing Günter Grass speak, I was reminded of the effort that he made after the war in Germany—not in his public speeches, but in his imaginative writing—to reestablish the honesty of the German language, to clear it of the garbage that came up. Was this not part of his spirituality as a writer? Was this not part of his creative task—to cleanse the language? And I think the same thing would apply to Breyten Breytenbach, who, too, has seen it necessary to act politically, and has seen this as part of his spiritual development as a writer.
BREYTENBACH: Thank you, Nadine. I agree with you one hundred percent. Writing—for me at least—is a struggle for authenticity. It is as much an ethical concern as it is an aesthetic concern, most definitely. I cannot conceive of how one can be involved in a process of growing awareness without drawing the conclusions that that awareness must bring one to. And if I’m serious about what I am deeply concerned about—such as my relationship to myself, to my values, to other people, to my environment, to other peoples—if I’m serious about what may be hackneyed phrases like “generosity” and “tolerance” and “antiracism” and “respecting the humanity of the other,” then the writing must reflect that deep core of what I am concerned about. Now, in South Africa we may be luckier than other people are, in the sense that we have our noses rubbed in it—we do not have an alternative. But I’m sure that the same thing can be said anywhere in the world. It just presents itself perhaps in slightly more complex forms.
BELLOW: Well, I suppose the ball is in my court. I started out by giving a historical sketch of what accounts for the cultural situation that characterizes life in America. I find myself put in a position as a defender of the establishment and status quo, its politics and all the rest of that—and I think it’s unfortunate that there should be that sort of stampeding of people into political boxes. No intelligent writer is devoid of political feelings, often very powerful political feelings. One feels, one experiences these things intimately. They’re the very stuff of spiritual life. You don’t dismiss them. On the other hand, one must not get megalomaniacal notions of the powers of writers to interfere in politics or to change the course of history and all the rest of that. We saw what that led to in the ’30s, when so many writers joined the Communist movement. What was their effect? What did all these Feuchtwangers and Romain Rollands and Bertolt Brechts achieve in containing the power of Hitler or the power of Stalin? They did nothing. They were turned inside out and made to look like idiots. One must take the measure of these things in deciding what to do. The fact that one becomes a political partisan does not mean that there is no other way. There are other ways. There must be other ways.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: It seems to me that there are two ideas of America which have been quarreling. One is an idea of America held by Americans, and the other is an idea of America held by everyone else. It’s not surprising that the American view of America should be an interior view, and that the non-American view of America should be an exterior view—except for Toni Morrison, who, as she pointed out, has never thought of herself as American. It seems to be a question about the alienation of the American writer from the sense of America as an international phenomenon. There are very few works by contemporary American writers that treat the subject which, for the rest of us, is the paramount subject about America: how America behaves in the rest of the world. I would like to ask both the Americans and the non-Americans why it is that American writers have, so to speak, abdicated this task?
BELLOW: We don’t have any tasks. We just have inspirations. Tasks are for people who work in offices or on drafting boards and so on. We don’t have tasks. There are many things I wish I could do, were able to do. I wish that my imagination were broad enough that my natural talent permitted me to do all these things that people would like to see done. I do what I can, and I imagine that others do what they can. And nobody is totally accountable for the predicament of mankind in this terrible hour, unless they happen to be dictators or in favor of them.
BREYTENBACH: I remember a conversation with a previous French minister of foreign affairs who made the strange remark—I thought at the time—that we are perhaps moving to the point in history where it will be one superpower against all of us, the rest of us. He was referring to the United States. I’m not suggesting that the Soviet Union is wilting away, but coming from a professional politician, this is very interesting. And it is certainly so that many of us perceive it this way, and we’d like to look to American writers as people also aware of the effect of America has on the rest of the world.
GRASS: And Saul Bellow, you did speak about some German writers—you mentioned Feuchtwanger and others like Romain Rolland and Brecht; there are others, ones who were not members of the Communist Party. But this is not the question. They had to leave their country at a time of emigration, and they didn’t stop to speak out. Some members of the Communist Party did. You said, “What was the sense of all this? Nothing happened.” Sure, they were not able to stop the war, or to stop Nazism. But without the voices of these writers, my generation, after the war, we were lost. We need these writers, from voice to voice, from generation to generation. I remember, at the beginning of the ’50s, when I was a young man, I read Czeslaw Milosz, and his book Verführtes Denken. Milosz was not able to change Stalinism in Poland with his book, but his book was necessary, necessary up to the present for younger writers, for younger readers, to know what did go on, to speak about all of those things. Sure, Enzensberger and me and others, we are German writers, but we are also members of German PEN and International PEN. And I’m not afraid to criticize my own government at home. But if I am here and there are reasons to criticize, I do so also as a German writer. I have had struggles with Communist countries and it often happens that I don’t get a visa or my books are not published somewhere, and so on. Because I criticize. But I don’t like this double-thinking. If I criticize something in the Western world, I have to say before the audience, before everybody, that I am anticommunist or something else? That’s not necessary. We are here, and here are our colleagues from Nicaragua, and they need our help. And there is no contradiction to speak about these things and look for help we can give. If the price in being here is speaking nicely about aesthetic questions without speaking about the need around us, I’m in the wrong place.