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.
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.