Compromise and Commitment

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By Gaither Stewart


According to the Russian Communist theorist
Georgy Plekhanov, “the belief in art for
art’s sake arises when artists and people
keenly interested in art are hopelessly out
of harmony with their social environment.”

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 —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.

An intelligent person however, she framed her 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?” At that point the dikes broke. 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 this interview was support for burgeoning Fascism in the world today who claim Fascism and Communism, Right and Left, are the same, and 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. She did not comprehend that journalism is compromised when it loses its autonomy and is subjugated to political power.

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Does art exist for art’s sake with no obligations to the society from which it springs? Is the search for a higher morality and truth an obsolete idea in the time of eternal capitalism as we have supposedly attained “the end of Ideology”? Does the artist really enjoy absolute freedoms? Many virulent apologists for the current unjust status quo, people like Bernard Henri-Levy, who have made careers of such bankrupt positions, would give a resounding “Yes!” Their statements are therefore reverentially enshrined in all the usual bourgeois media platforms, from books to the New York Times to Charlie Rose…

_____________________________________________________

It’s true that no more than one can choose the age in which he lives can one live without the age in which one is born; we are children of our times … and to some degree consonant. The laws of the age of science and technology demand 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. Action is homogenous when it conforms to the requirements of the system.

Still, the fact is, the goals of the apparatus are seldom those of the individual. Personal conscience is too 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. 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 the darkest periods of Brezhnevian Soviet society, dissidents were whisked away to psychiatric clinics. And many careers and livelihoods were destroyed, and people hauled off to jail during the McCarthy witchhunts. Of course, comparisons of this sort are tricky; the Soviet Union was a deeply traumatized society, with a long inherited history of autocratic authoritarianism since the formation of the earliest rus, and one assaulted since its birth by the far more developed capitalist world. The USSR had lost the equivalent of the entire populations of California and Texas during the Great War against the German fascists, literally devastating 70,000 towns, and 68% of its industrial capacity. A “plague on both your houses” when referring to capitalism and communism is therefore something that must be tempered with a deeper understanding of the cross-currents of human history.

In any case, the fact remains that authoritarian systems rely on compromised writers to portray false images; they fear the truthful portrayal of reality. The compromised writer follows the victors; 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 to compromise.

Compromise in journalism and literature leads straight to the banalities of writing—the terrible to-do about petty problems of ordinary existence or in its most degenerated form about the radiant futures of totalitarian societies. The headache of choosing a vacation destination or workers with shining eyes gazing toward the horizon of the future cannot 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 reflect 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 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. 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 autonomy. 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 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 didactic.

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 writing 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, writing, I believe, is part and parcel of the social.

Writing is a social act insofar as it derives from the will to communicate with others and from its resolve to change things. The writer wants to remake the world.

In France, Bernard Henri-Lévy and other so-called nouveaux philosophes, made careers debunking intellectual commitment. After the fall of Communism in East Europe their message 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. No less than an apology for totalitarianism. Lévy and friends became opportunistic journalists and found easy targets among French committed writers: they said that 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 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.

According to the Russian Communist theorist Georgy Plekhanov, “the belief in art for art’s sake 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.

Here fiction and journalism are linked. Instead of the “radiant future,” committed writing 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.

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 also 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. 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 writers in today’s market economies ineluctably face the choice between compromise and freedom.

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 does not exist.

Many people turn up their noses at the word extreme. They don’t trust it. It is a dangerous word. Extreme provokes displeasure and doubt, for even worse extremism is hovering nearby.

Alberto Moravia stressed that the writer is obliged to be extreme. No great writer, he says, was not extreme. That is, 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. We have to reject measure, that beloved rule of creative writing classes, as we are obligated to reject social conformity and political correctness.

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: “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.”

Here, two more words about committed literature, which is often accused of being political writing. Honest committed writers reply that moral 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 above 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; literary 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.”

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 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.

Committed writers believe that human freedom itself is a social conquest and must be constantly reclaimed. Good writers are aware of the danger of forgetting literature in the name of commitment. 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.

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Based in Rome, Gaither Stewart is a Senior Contributing Editor with Cyrano’s Journal Online: http://www.bestcyrano.org. His essays and reports are published widely throughout the web.

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3 comments on “Compromise and Commitment
  1. The independence of the artist has been debated for a long time, and many volumes written about the role ofart under communism, marxism, fascism, etc. The bourgeois sensibility with its natural affinity for deep egoism has no logical problems approving of an artist that is completely unconcerned with the issues of the day. The communists, in whatever variety you wish to discuss, have a more normative attitude since they assume (correctly in my view) that society is a tightly integrated and reciprocal whole in which no man is “really an island” etc. Some see in this the heavy hand of conformity, but man is never so free as when he is in harmonious and peaceful sync with the rest of the tribe…In any case, history has now shown that conformity and very effective ways of dealing with dissidents exist in all systems, extremely brutal ones in capitalist nations of the periphery…a provocative article and thank you much for running exceptional material.

  2. The idea that the writer of any kind—novelist, essayist, correspondent or mainstream journalist—would automatically debase his or her art once “politics” enters the picture is a totally groundless notion encouraged, as we might expect, from the status quo defenders. Firstly, let me say a couple of words about the question of “censorship” under socialist/communist conditions, and next, I’d like to advance a couple of arguments about the quality of art under various regimes.

    WHAT ART GETS PRODUCED AND WHAT ART DOES NOT

    Whilst it’s possible that some works could be modified or even aborted by those dreaded political commissars that capitalist propaganda is constantly warning us about (without ever explaining their actual role), similar constraints occur under “free” capitalism. Sure, some artistic expressions were frowned on in the Soviet Union, especially from the death of Lenin to the end of the Second World War, a period that roughly corresponds to the rule of Stalin. But we must remember the context, which in a way explains that such reactions—both by the state and the masses—were as much a product of socialist thinking at the time, as a result of a mentality of “embattlement” amply justified by the nonstop wars, famines, and convulsions that attended this period. If the people of the Soviet Union acted a bit paranoid, well, they had ample reason to feel that way: almost the entire world was at their necks trying to stifle the communist experiment in its crib. We should recall that it was during this extremely painful period that the USSR transformed itself from an essentially backward agricultural nation into a nation with sufficient scientific, technological and industrial might to defeat the Axis. This is simply an enormous accomplishment considering the obstacles within and without that the revolutionaries had to surmount. And the isolation of the Soviets did not end until 1949, when Mao’s China came into being. In societies embroiled in deep tumult errors, hyper-vigilance and doctrinaire (often crude) rigidities are bound to exist, but these may not be the product, as I say, of socialism per se but of the historical conditions the nation is traversing. In any case, why would a decent human being NOT be motivated to put his art at the service of a noble endeavour? So some works of art were ruled out in the Soviet Union—from architectural conceptions to literature. Does that mean that ALL the works of art an artist dreams of are permitted and reach fruition under capitalism?

    Leaving aside the fact that under capitalism there are untold numbers of people who could be great writers, painters, musicians, etc., but NEVER get a chance to show their talent because they are tied to the wheel of daily survival with no real institutionalized societal help, we have the reality of many artists simply not passing the “market test” or of finding a suitable patron.

    Some of these instances of “aborted art” are by now famous, and they were clearly motivated by ideological objections, such as the destruction of Diego Rivera’s revolutionary themed murals in New York due to Rockefeller’s opposition. More often, it is simply the erratic support of the arts by bourgeois patrons. It is not an accident that socialized art has given humanity some of its most magnificent examples of uplifting art, and that under FDR’s WPA there was a flourishing of arts that has not been equaled since.

    DOES ART SUFFER INEVITABLY WHEN FOLLOWING THE PREVAILING PARADIGM?

    I think this question can never be answered in the general, but only in the specific. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends on the situation engulfing the artist. Still, I remain convinced that in terms of the QUALITY of art produced, there is no reason whatsoever why art with a moral component should be inferior to art “for art’s sake.” A true revolutionary society will lean toward “moral art” as a preference, and I see nothing sinister in that. In fact, some of the greatest works of art were produced as a result of an elevated sense of commitment by the artist to a higher moral vision, in protest to existing conditions of inhumanity and exploitation. David’s paintings, Chopin’s etudes, Zola’s, Dickens’ works, and even Shakespeare’s, and in America Upton Sinclair’s novels, Jack London’s, Arthur Miller’s plays, Norman Mailer’s agitational screeds, and the revolutionary poetry of Ginsberg, are among the many examples of art moored in moral/political visions. So, at the end of the day, I guess you can’t force a great artist to produce “bad art”. It’s a “strawman” issue. Great artists are incapable of producing “bad art.” When their production suffers it is because they are being forced into schedules or formulas which are not their own. And that is a complex social phenomenon that easily transcends the label of :socialist”, “marxist” or “capitalist”. It’s just inherent in the condition of being human, and inhabiting huge and complex societies.

  3. Mr. Stewart says:

    “Still, the fact is, the goals of the apparatus are seldom those of the individual. Personal conscience is too 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. Technological society works against individual ideas—and for homogeneity.”

    This is perhaps a very minor quibble of mine in an article that resonates for its depth and philosophical maturity, but it seems to me that “the psychology of adaptation” is not exclusive to technological society, but to any class-divided society in which the average man, either to survive or to advance his own fortunes, has to conform to the majority vision of reality instituted from above. I don’t think that modern man is any less under conformity pressures than man in the middle ages or in ancient Rome. The only difference is that today the dissemination of such “conformity values” is a task assigned to the modern mass engines of consciousness manipulation, and in olden times it was the task of the priesthood, or official religion, almost exclusively.

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