By Gaither Stewart
“Just as over the portal of the antique world there was written the Delphic maxim, ‘Know thyself’, just so over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.” [Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man under Socialism.
A short time ago a beginner journalist in Rome asked my advice about an upcoming interview with a well-known media exponent and famous opportunist of Italy’s extreme right – wing political regime—the young lady had qualms because as she said she understood nothing of politics. Well, since ignorance of politics didn’t seem like an auspicious start, I outlined my views on the reality of current Italian and European politics and volunteered to read the interview before she delivered it to her magazine.
An intelligent person however, she subsequently was able to frame her social – cultural questions so that the interviewee had little chance to expound his crude political theories. Until her last question: “What did he think of the future of our society?” It was if the dikes had broken. In a rush of words he predicted that in the not too distant future people would forget that the atrocities of Communism, Fascism, and Nazism had ever happened.
When I opined that publishing this interview was support for burgeoning Fascism in the Italian government today [its exponents espouse similar theories], that we should hope the atrocities of Nazism and Stalinism would not be forgotten so easily, and that she would compromise herself by signing the article, she shrugged and said, “They pay me.”
Ignorance of politics that conditions everything in life is lethal for a writer, but in that context her words, “They pay me,” were vile and immoral. Moreover, she did not comprehend that literature—journalism here—is compromised when it loses its autonomy and is subjugated to political power of the moment.
It’s a truism that no more than one can choose the age in which one lives can one live without the age in which one is born; we are children of our times and thus to some degree consonant. The laws of the modern age of science and technology require agreement if not homogeneity as a condition of existence: to work and exist means to collaborate within a system in which the actions of each are prescribed. Each action is homogenous when it conforms to the requirements of the system.
Yet, the goals of the apparatus are seldom those of the individual. Personal conscience is easily reduced to conscientiousness in the execution of one’s duties from which is born the concept of conformist conscience. The result is the hegemony of “behavioral psychology of adaptation”—to be increasingly less oneself and more like everyone else. Clearly, modern technological society works against individual ideas—and for homogeneity.
Being different is not only non-remunerative but also arouses suspicion. The paradox is that authenticity—being oneself or knowing oneself, which wise men have long prescribed—in the conformist society becomes pathological behavior, as if being oneself were a disease. In some of the darkest periods of Brezhnevian Soviet society, dissidents were whisked away to psychiatric clinics.
Authoritarian systems fear the truthful portrayal of reality and rely on compromised writers to portray false images. The writer who practices compromise follows the victors, for conformity and opportunism go hand in hand. Inevitably he sticks to the middle; he avoids saying what he feels for fear of his place in society. He is the conformist per se.
The compromised writer is aware that many people do not like being told the truth and he is willing to write what he is told people want to hear and to bend with the prevailing wind. He is a fearful writer.
Freud instructed that the things the writer is inhibited to write are usually the most important and the things that press him the most. Self – editing and self – censorship are not the same thing. Once the writer stops in mid – sentence and censors something he wants to say, something he knows he should say, for the sole reason that he might be breaking some social – political rule of correctness, he is on his way—or is already there—to compromise. He is not true to himself. He is an untruthful writer.
It should be evident that compromise in literature leads straight to the banalities of fiction—the terrible to – do about petty problems of ordinary existence or in its most degenerated form about the radiant futures of totalitarian societies. I don’t see how the headache of choosing a vacation destination or workers with shining eyes gazing toward the horizon of the future can be a substitute for themes like injustice and human suffering.
Commitment stands at the opposite pole from compromise. The modern concept of committed literature emerged from the conflict of 20th century ideologies that have reflected the deep social changes of our times—the domination of Nazism and Communism in Europe, the victory of world Capitalism over Communism, and today the clash between market ideology and the rich world on one hand and on the other the growing rebellion of the impoverished, non – developing four – fifths of our planet.
Today’s social situation obligates the writer to examine his position in the world and his responsibility to other men. I believe it obligates the writer to approach his work in a committed way. To resist the temptation of compromise and conformity the writer must be devoted to the autonomy of literature. The honest writer must stand inside society—not in the shadows of the periphery—and he must tell the truth.
I believe that commitment to truth is inherent in the act of good writing. It is a moral absolute. To write is to reveal an aspect of the world in order to change it. In that respect writing is and has always been didactic.
One will note that commitment and involvement are closely linked; however, though involvement is inevitable for the writer, his commitment does not come about automatically. Not all writers are even conscious of their involvement; but the committed writer is aware of the world around him and his literature is the result of his attitude toward it.
Thus commitment involves the writer’s trying to summarize and then reflect through his work a picture of the human condition—which is also social—without however losing sight of the individual. Exponents of committed literature reject the fallacy that art is a thing apart; despite the obstacles politics raises, art, I believe, is part and parcel of the social.
It is a truism that writing is a social act insofar as it derives from the will to communicate with others and from its resolve to change things, in the sense of achieving something or resolving social questions. The artist wants to remake the world. And his passion must be freedom.
In France, Bernard – Henri Lévy and other nouveaux philosophes, made careers debunking intellectual commitment. Their message diffused throughout the world after the fall of Communism in East Europe was that one could no longer take socialist ideas seriously. Lévy said: “When intellectuals let themselves believe in a community of men, they are never far away from barbarism.”
Reductive, to say the least. I find this no less than an apology for totalitarianism. Lévy and friends became opportunistic journalists and found easy targets among French committed writers: Sartre had after all flirted with terrorists of the German Baader – Meinhof Gang and Régis Debray trained in guerrilla warfare in Bolivia with Che Guevara.
Post – commitment intellectuals in France, as in much of the rich world today, came to find themselves in the blind alley of having to try to justify social injustice. Conformists under the guise of free marketers tell us that rich countries have no responsibility for problems of the Third World—as if we didn’t all belong to the same world.
Susan Sontag wrote that pleasure has nothing to do with the artistic experience. Certainly literature’s ultimate role is not to embellish and provide people a pleasant Saturday evening alternative to a movie or bowling. Literature is not fashion and fad; it is serious business.
The belief in art for art’s sake, according to the Russian Communist theorist Georgy Plekhanov, “arises when artists and people keenly interested in art are hopelessly out of harmony with their social environment.” It has been said that art for art’s sake is the attempt to instill ideal life in one who has no real life and is an admission that the human race has outgrown the artist.
Instead of the “radiant future,” committed literature depicts the lives of other people, however ugly or illuminating. It contains both human truths and human potential. Since my daughter’s measles or a flat tire on the way shopping are boring and their presentation in fiction is mere recording, the literary author must instead total up and interpret human experience.
Fiction will always be a concentrate of many peoples’ lives and experiences. Society itself does not offer perfectly ready characters for fiction. The author’s imagination and interpretation of humanity stands at the center of the novel—and in a special way at the center of the committed novel.
What the writer concludes and narrates about these lives and experiences can be true—or not.
I personally want to see the heroic in a fictional hero, but I don’t want lies. I want the hero to offer me counsel on how to live better. On the other hand, to describe poor people as happy simply because they finally have shoes is nonsensical. The portrayal of the masses as happy because a new political party is in power is deceit.
Similarly I find the depiction of globalization of economy and capital as the spread of democracy, security, and well – being not only absurd but mendacious, immoral and evil. War is not peace. Disasters will always be disasters. And it is insane to call catastrophes victories for mankind.
The road of commitment is lined by the canonical names of literary history. At the time of the French Revolution, Wordsworth wrote his greatest poems like “The Ruined Cottage” and “The Old Cumberland Beggar”— which depict the sufferings of the English lower classes. Shelley—labeled by Harold Bloom the Leon Trotsky of his day—and Keats and Hazlitt, realized Wordsworth’s genius for teaching and instilling in others sympathy for all those in distress.
For Wordsworth counted genius, transcendence, and his personal epiphanies. Like his characters he was forever the stranger. An aura of otherworldliness marked his genius and rankled his contemporaries because he spoke from the beyond. But through all his strangeness, he cared.
They all care, the committed writers. Commitment may be expressed also in the writer’s search in himself for authenticity, reaching deep into himself to the place where truth lies. As Saul Bellow writes in his essay, “The Sealed Treasure”, the only thing we can be in this world is human. And we all care about truth, freedom, and wisdom.
Just as did writers in totalitarian societies—Fascist, Nazi, Communist, Fundamentalist—also today writers in uncontrolled market economies ineluctably face the choice between compromise and freedom. For art is choice.
Art cannot be the superstructure as per former Soviet Socialist Realism; it might resemble the structure on which it exists but it does not derive from it.
Yet, art does not need a revolution to be real art. It does not even require political freedom. One can’t tell real writers what to do. For true art, party ideology or party discipline or political correctness do not exist.
What art does need as its terrain, committed writers believe, is a vital society. And it needs ideas.
We turn up our noses at the word extreme. We don’t trust it. It is a dangerous word. Extreme provokes displeasure and doubt, for extremism is hovering nearby.
Alberto Moravia stressed that the writer is obliged to be extreme. No great writer, he says, was not extreme. H meant sincere. Can one think that Baudelaire and Rimbaud, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Ibsen, were not extreme, that is, sincere, in the deepest sense of true to themselves? With sincerity in mind Gabriel García Márquez taught his students of journalism to cultivate bias. To risk. To be committed.
Measure in literature is a different matter. I do not mean here control of material, to use that beloved rule of creative writing classes. Measure is a question of rhythm, proportion, balance. It is not social conformity or political correctness or even pleasure.
Asked what the writer is to do, Albert Camus suggests in The Myth of Sisyphus—written in 1940 amidst the European disaster but no less applicable today—that “he is neither asked to write about cooperatives or, conversely, to lull to sleep in himself the sufferings endured by others…. The tyrannies of today are improved; they no longer admit of silence or neutrality. One has to take a stand, to be either for or against. Well, in that case, I am against.”
On the other hand, as the nouveaux philosophes have shown, a strong case can be made also against literature engagée, committed literature.
First of all, it is accused of being political writing. Committed writers reply that moral and other conflicts of the day have a political background and that nearly every aspect of our lives is related to politics. As the case of the young journalist I mentioned shows, an understanding of politics is fundamental in order to understand what the writer must oppose and what he can defend.
Understanding politics does not mean participation in politics; writers are not much good at it anyway. Chekhov advised writers to “engage in politics only enough to protect themselves from politics…. A bit of ideology and being up to date is most apropos.”
But Chekhov was of course not Dostoevsky in whose great imaginative work it is impossible to separate the ideological from the artistic. His are novels of ideas. His characters are all charged with ideas. One has spoken of his “ideological physiognomy.” Dostoevsky felt ideas as others feel cold or heat or pain. The same feeling of ideas is to be found in great religious thinkers.
The enormity of universal problems today has overwhelmed the objection that modern society has made the concept of literary commitment obsolete. On the contrary, it seems. Not only social problems like alienation, the role of pop culture at the expense of culture but also questions of truth and freedom, war and peace, market economy and poverty, the environment and scientific advances, underline the heightened need for socially aware committed literature.
The characters in committed writing must be firmly rooted inside society. They face the whole gamut of social problems. Committed writers believe that human freedom itself is a social conquest and must be constantly reclaimed.
Perhaps the most difficult issue facing committed literature is that of forgetting literature in the name of commitment. Still, good writers are aware of the danger. Unlike writers of compromise they succeed in overcoming the threat through their ethical – aesthetical approach to their work: all in all, after everything is considered they don’t believe that anything can replace good literature.
Saul Bellow’s “lightened man” offers a model—the person finally detached from the prejudices of our times and restored to himself so that his own soul can emerge and truly see our human condition.
The last paragraph of Camus’s essay, “Helen’s Exile”, still rings as a paean to the unchanging role of artists:
“Admission of ignorance, rejection of fanaticism, the limits of the world and of man, the beloved face, and finally beauty—this is where we shall be on the side of the Greeks. In a certain sense, the direction history will take is not the one we think. It lies in the struggle between creation and inquisition. Despite the price artists will pay for their empty hands, we may hope for their victory….”