Should Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Andrey Astvatsaturov

First presented at the Krasnoyarsk Book Culture Fair, Russia

Andrey Astvatsaturov Keynote text: “Should Literature Be Political?”

This topic was probably much more relevant to the conference of 1962 than it is today, 50 years later.  The sixties was a revolutionary and turbulent time for social and political change, a time of writers’ political engagement.

The trend actually began in the thirties after the global financial crisis and in presentiment of the Second World War.  In the thirties writers and intellectuals were obviously confronted with the demand to make a choice.  This choice was a very painful one, one you couldn’t avoid making.  Two opposite forces turned out to be active, relevant, and gripping the masses: Nazism and Communism; Hitler and Stalin. The destiny of the world and the path of Europe’s future were being shaped, it was the situation when one had to determine one’s own political views and become engaged.  Even if one was not happy with either political force he had to decide upon which camp to join. With little enthusiasm the conservatives concluded that the führer was a lesser moral evil while the liberals and the left wing supported the USSR and Stalin.

Romain Rolland visits Russia and meets Stalin. After the trip he publicly praises the building sites of socialism and writes about the USSR as a fascinating country. He simultaneously keeps his Moscow diary that would only be published 50 years later. The diary reveals his true impressions from the visit, saturated with the feelings of nightmare.  Romain Rolland got it perfectly well.  In the forties as well as in the post-war years the political nature of life intensifies even more.  History shows that progress is largely a myth which turns out to be destroyed for good. Writers try hard to communicate the ideas of individual guilt and inevitability of evil (Golding, Jones, Mailer). The political life in Europe and the USA is humming; there is a struggle between different ideologies, politicians, parties, and even participation of an individual in these processes can make a change.  The sixties was the time of non-conformism, of individual choice. That’s why the question ‘Should literature be political?’ asked at the conference in 1962 was more relevant than ever.

However it was already in the 1950s when a new type of writer who tried to keep away from ideals and political engagement, emerged. They were representatives of the “new novel” (Rob Griye); postmodernists whose aim was to strip literature of ideological content and eliminate the subject. Ideals and political ideologies were nothing else but forms of language.
The end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties were marked with political activism, confrontation and a clash of ideals here in Russia.  It was as if this time as called for literary political engagement. However this animation quickly turned into disappointment, because:

1.    Pluralism and freedom of speech turned out to be a simple collision of economic interests.
2.    Politicians who seemed honest and truthful turned out to be glory-hunters and careerists. The main one reminded us of a clown altogether. We have to note though that in spite of disappointing us they did go on fighting against each another, phrase mongering and confronting something, at least.

Modern politicians have never fought for power. They were appointed for their leading positions. They have never strived to win people over, it was the corporation which has been doing the work for them all along. There is no politics at the moment. There is only a corporate system.  This system never proposes people with ideals, views, or political will. The system operates by its rules and needs guards, not personalities, those who could be easily built into the system and have no will, in other words managers, conformists.

Basically literature should not be looking for ideals. Literature is a membrane resonating with public opinion and culture. That’s why in the contemporary world political literature is simply inappropriate.  Ideologies (liberalism, socialism, communism, Stalinism) are games of language that can’t be forced to create an illusion of reality. There is no subject either. Character is an object, a result of certain forces influencing it. The challenge of our age is to stay lonely.  Let’s take for example Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”. The character with the ideals is lonely with only political shows around him.  Muslim fundamentalists, left-wing activists, statists, are all actors, not even suspecting they are actors.  Politics is a show, a performance, a backroom deal of the corporations.

Many of my fellow writers are politicised. Their texts are as if an eloquent refutation of my words.  Zakhar Prilepin is the author of a political novel called “Sanka” whose main character is a protester and a rebel.  However I believe that the popularity of the novel is rather caused by the fact that it’s a good and beautiful aesthetic gesture, and that the majority of readers, although worshipping Zakhar, don’t share his national Bolshevik opinions. His letter to Stalin could also be regarded as an aesthetic gesture. It’s rather the pose of an artist than a position. And I doubt Zakhar really believes in what he has written.

German Sadulaev is another author with a distinctive ideological position. He is left wing, socialist, democrat.  His novel “The Tablet” is a revealingly engaged prose. However he renounces radical pose and aesthetic enhancement effect which is characteristic of Zakhar’s prose.  He is more known as a political publicist.

Thus, in my opinion, political literature is impossible in current conditions. Only the game, the pose, and the aesthetic gesture which feeds the imagination is possible.

Andrey Astvatsaturov 2012