LITERATURE: COMPROMISE AND COMMITMENT
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)
John Keats Percy Bysshe Shelley
Readers may wonder what the poets Keats and Shelley have to do with this essay. They have a special place in my affections for a number of reasons. Firstly, they were forward looking and expressed commitment in their lives and through their poetry. Keats wrote once that “We need men who can dream of things that never were”, and to a correspondent he wrote: “I am ambitious of doing the world some good”.
Then there is the fact that they are both buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, which I know well, as Rome has been my home for many years. The cemetery plays a key role in the final volume of my ‘Europe Trilogy’: “The Time of Exile”. It is the setting for a confrontation between some of the representatives of good and evil in the story; a place where uncompromising commitment to a cause is shown ‘even unto death’.
= = = = = =
A beginner journalist in Rome once asked my advice about an upcoming interview with a well-known media exponent and opportunist of Italy’s extreme right-wing—the young lady had qualms because, as she said, she understood nothing of politics. Well, since ignorance of politics is not an auspicious start, I outlined my views on the reality of current Italian and European politics and volunteered to read the interview before she submitted it to her magazine.
An intelligent person, she was able to frame most of her questions so that the interviewee had little chance to expound his radical political theories. Until her last question: “What did he think of the future of our society?” In a rush of words the reactionary 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 her interview was support for burgeoning Fascism in Italy [its exponents espouse similar theories], that we should hope that such atrocities would not be forgotten, and that she would compromise herself by signing the article, she shrugged and said, “They pay me.”
Ignorance of politics that conditions most everything in life is lethal for any writer, but in that context her words, “They pay me,” rang immoral. She did not comprehend that literature/journalism is compromised when it is subjugated to the political power of the moment.
It is a truism that no more than you can choose the age in which you live , can you live without the age into which you are born; we are children of our times and thus to some degree consonant with it. Yet the goals of the apparatus are seldom those of the individual. Power tends to reduce personal conscience to mere conscientiousness in the execution of one’s duties. That is the place where the conformist conscience is born. The result is that you become increasingly less yourself and more like everyone else. Clearly, modern technological society works against individual ideas—and for homogeneity.
Being different is not only non-remunerative—they do not pay dissidents—but differentness also arouses widespread suspicion. The paradox is that in the conformist society, authenticity—being oneself and knowing oneself, which wise men have long prescribed—is considered pathological behavior, as if being oneself were a disease. In the darkest periods of repressive societies dissidents have been whisked away to psychiatric clinics or abducted and flown secretly at night to distant torture sites.
Authoritarian systems rely on compromised writers to portray false images. The writer who practices such compromise follows the victors; conformity and opportunism go hand in hand; inevitably the compromised writer sticks to the middle; he avoids saying what he feels for fear of his place in society. The compromised writer is well 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 winds of fashion. If war is no longer war, but humanitarian intervention, then it is. The compromised writer is a fearful writer.
Freud instructed that the things that press the writer the most but that he is inhibited to write are usually the most important. 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 to compromise.
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 in totalitarian societies, about “our way of life” and “the radiant future”. Clearly, the headache of the choice of a vacation destination or portraits of workers with shining eyes gazing toward the horizon of the future can never be substitutes 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 twentieth century ideologies that reflected the deep social changes of our times—the domination of Nazism and Communism (the pure evil of the first and whatever the stage of development of the latter)—in Europe and the victory of world Capitalism over Communism; today it re-emerges from the clash between the market ideology (the last stages of Capitalism) of the rich world and the growing rebellion of the impoverished four-fifths of our planet.
Today’s social condition obligates the writer to examine his position in the world and his social responsibilities. 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 his autonomy and the autonomy of literature. The honest writer must also stand inside society—not in the shadows of the periphery—and he must tell the truth. Commitment to truth, I believe, is inherent in the act of good writing. It is a moral absolute. To write is also to reveal an aspect of the world in order to change it. In that respect writing is and has always been didactic.
Commitment and involvement are closely linked; however, though social 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 conscious of the world around him; and his literature is the result of his attitude toward it.
Commitment involves the writer’s attempt to reflect through his work a picture of the human condition—which is 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.
Thus it is a truism that writing is a social act insofar as it derives from the will to communicate with others and from a 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, the so-called 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. Bernard-Henri Lévy once said: “When intellectuals let themselves believe in a community of men, they are never far from barbarism.” Reductive, to say the least. An apology for totalitarianism. Lévy and friends became opportunistic journalists and found easy targets among French committed writers: after all Sartre had flirted with terrorists of the German Baader-Meinhof group and Régis Debray trained in guerrilla warfare in Bolivia with Che Guevara.
Many post-commitment intellectuals in France, as in much of the rich world today, came to find themselves in the blind alley of trying to justify social injustice. Conformists under the guise of free marketeers tell us that rich countries have no responsibility for the 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 committed literature’s ultimate role is not to embellish and provide people with 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 Marxist 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, ugly or illuminating as they may be. Committed literature contains both human truths and human potential. Since my daughter’s measles or bad weather or a flat tire on the way to the shops are boring and their presentation in fiction is mere recording, the literary author must instead sum up and interpret human experience. Fiction is a concentrate of many peoples’ lives and experiences. Society itself seldom offers ready-made characters for fiction. The author’s imagination and his interpretation of society stand 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.
Though we want to see the heroic in a fictional hero, I personally don’t want lies. I want the hero to show me how to live better. On the other hand, to describe poor people in general as happy because they finally have shoes is ridiculous; the portrayal of the masses as happy because a new political party is in power is deceit.
Similarly, the depiction of globalization as the spread of democracy, security, and well-being is not only absurd but mendacious, immoral and evil. War is not peace. War is hate and violence. Disasters will always be disasters. And it is insane to call catastrophes victories for mankind.
The canonical names of literary history line the road of commitment. 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—realized Wordsworth’s genius for teaching and instilling in others sympathy for all those in distress. For Wordsworth, what counted was genius, transcendence and his personal epiphanies. Like his characters he was forever the stranger. Though an aura of strangeness and otherworldliness marked his genius and rankled his contemporaries, 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, Soviet Communist, Fundamentalist—also today writers in uncontrolled market economies ineluctably face the choice between compromise and freedom. For art is choice.
Art cannot be only the superstructure as prescribed in former Soviet Socialist Realism; it might resemble the structure on which it rests but it does not derive directly from it.
Yet art does not need a revolution to be real art. It does not even require political freedom. One cannot 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. Extreme is a dangerous word. Extreme provokes displeasure, doubt and fear, for socio-political extremism is always hovering nearby. However, our inherent mistrust apart, extremism is part and parcel of art. The Italian novelist Alberto Moravia stressed that the writer is obliged to be extreme. No great writer, he says, was not extreme. He 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 being true to themselves? With sincerity in mind, Gabriel García Márquez taught his students of journalism to cultivate bias. To risk. To be committed. In other words, to be extreme.
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 but it is not social conformity or political correctness; it is not 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 is made also against literature engagée, committed literature. First of all, it is accused of being political writing. Committed writers reply that moral conflicts have also 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 necessarily mean participation in politics; as a rule 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 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. 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 overshadows and overwhelms the objection that modern society has made the concept of literary commitment obsolete. On the contrary. Not only social problems like social inequalities and alienation and the role of pop culture at the expense of real culture underline the heightened need for socially aware, committed literature, but also questions of truth and freedom, war and peace, market economy and poverty, the environment and scientific advances.
Thus the invented characters in committed writing must be rooted inside real society. They must face the whole gamut of social problems. Committed writers believe that human freedom 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 that danger. Unlike writers of compromise, they succeed in overcoming the threat through their ethical-aesthetic approach to their work: 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….”
Rome, November 2012
(an update of the original essay of September 2002)