9-LohreyaShould Literature Be Political?

Keynote address given by Amanda Lohrey

First presented at The Melbourne Writers Festival


Amanda Lohrey keynote text: “Can Literature Affect Political Change?”

My argument in brief is that the novel has little power to make an effective political intervention. The novel comes after the event; it is a chronicle of or argument with the event but does not shape it. Only in repressive societies can the novel achieve a form of symbolic power as a gesture of resistance which may help to fortify the morale of activists on the ground but it cannot do more than this to overthrow regimes. To quote Marcuse, art by itself can never achieve transformation but it can under certain circumstances ‘free the perception and sensibility needed for the transformation’.

The first half of the twentieth century was characterised by fierce debates about the relationship between politics and art, largely inspired by militant Left movements throughout Europe. One thinks of Bolshevik agitprop on the role of art to enlighten and inspire the masses by unmasking false consciousness and modelling possible utopias. My generation of Left artists was influenced by debates between European Marxists on the politics of representation and the most politically effective genres of realism. Among the most robust of these was the argument between German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht and the distinguished Hungarian theorist George Lukacs and the strategic nature of all literary forms was encapsulated in a checklist of questions posed by Brecht: Who is this sentence of use to? Who does it claim to be of use to? What does it call for? What practical action corresponds to it? What sort of sentence results from it? What sort of sentences support it? In what situation is it spoken? By whom? (Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans John Willett 1977).

In the post 1945 Cold War era debates on politics and aesthetics continued with decreasing potency of address and penetration, especially in the Anglo-American world where influential and often CIA funded critics and academicians maintained the line that political fiction was mere propaganda. Literature transcended politics; it was about the fundamentals of love, death and the landscape. True poetry was a meditation on how light was reflected in a rockpool or the outline of a maidenhair fern at dusk. Political fiction or poetry was ‘didactic’ and it ‘dated’. Meanwhile Left writers and critics continued to argue that writers should make it an integral part of their project to contest official histories, to interrogate the so-called master narratives of the culture and show how history and politics construct the personal. At the very least, such writing could give a voice to the voiceless so that the oppressed could recognize themselves in the work of art and gain strength from a mirroring effect that validated the experience of the marginalized.  In addition, sales and critical acclaim could endow the writer with a prestige that he or she could wield on the campaign trail, as in the case of German novelist Gunter Grass who campaigned actively over two decades for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP).

Whichever side you are on it is important to acknowledge that writing about politics is inherently problematical. Brecht’s questions are a blunt address to the cognitive but what of the unconscious? How sound are the rationalist assumptions that underlie the Left/liberal political project, namely that all people are inherently reasonable? Social utility is a Victorian notion that does not sit comfortably with post-Freudian perspectives on the riddle of human subjectivity. Art that aims to make a political intervention must grapple first with the unconscious, that substratum of desire, pleasure, fatalism and pain. This is a potential quicksand for the artist who is aiming to do more than write as a navigator of the psyche, who has specific goals of social utility in mind, namely converts. There is always a danger that an artist who paints a lurid picture of the apocalypse will seduce not repel; consider audience response to the character of Colonel Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, or Vito Corleone in The Godfather.

In his essay ‘Right and Wrong Political Uses of Political Literature’ (1997) Italo Calvino attacked the ‘wrongheaded notion of the committed writer’ and raised this question of the unconscious. ‘We can never forget that what books communicate often remains unknown even to the author himself, that books often say something different from what they set out to say, that in any book there is a part that is the author’s and the part that is a collective and anonymous work.’ In other words, in any text the writer’s unconscious engages with the reader’s and the outcomes are highly unpredictable.

But there is a further factor at work here and it is an historical one. The second half of the 20th century saw a decline in Left politics, the rise of affluence, consumerism and the mass media and the triumph of neo-liberalism and globalized capitalism, promoted during the ideological counter-attack of the 1980s which saw the foundation of a number of business financed right-wing think tanks in developed countries (see Alex Carey’s Taking the Risk Out of Democracy, 1995). I think you can argue that these think tanks have been far more influential than literary fiction is constructing public narratives of the political. They have, for example, successfully planted in the mainstream media a number of pundits and columnists whose vicious paranoid narratives continue to be retailed ad nauseam.

Some artists may strive to counter this but who is listening? Artists are a product of their culture, as are their potential audiences. One of the insights of the Frankfurt School was to predict that when the utopian impulse in western culture was converted to consumerist mode and the project of a purely individual and psychological model of salvation, the artist who sought to make political interventions would become enfeebled. And so it has proved. Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci made two of the most remarkable political movies in the history of cinema, The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1976) but when asked in 1988 why he had abandoned political cinema, Bertolucci replied: ‘The cinema always depends on reality. I couldn’t make 1900 today. Even though it was an historical story it corresponded to something in Italian society in the mid-70s…It is very difficult today to talk about politics…Or even to talk about what is Left and what is Right. Everything is mixed up in this soup called consumerism’.

Fredric Jameson has written of the power of systems to co-opt and defuse even the most potentially dangerous forms of political art by transforming them into cultural commodities, especially in the case of case of modernist art but also in the domain of fiction. In his scarifying critique of the postmodern novel, The Postmodern Aura (1985) Charles Newman writes of ‘the redundancy of the adversary style’ in an era in which avant-gardism becomes fashionable and a consumer passion for novelty creates ‘an entire culture of short-term traders’. What is new and temporarily shocking soon passes into the banality of the over-exposed and in first world countries the ‘problem’ of art becomes not its repression but public indifference to it.

One could argue at this point for satire, for making your readership laugh and your opponent look ridiculous, but if we consider the fine tradition within North American literature of the anti-war novel (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five) the political outcomes are not encouraging. Widely acclaimed on publication, Catch 22 sold millions of copies and is still taught in schools and universities. But has it inhibited any further US military adventurism? One of the criticisms of Heller’s novel is that it deflates into a lame ending when its hero Yossarian deserts to Sweden. In his essay, ‘The Deserters: The Contemporary Defeat of Fiction’ Carl Oglesby, a radical student activist in the 60s and later a writer, castigates Heller for this tepid resolution. Why, asks Oglesby, doesn’t Yossarian assassinate the villain of the novel, Colonel Cathcart?  Instead of rebelling within history, Yossarian rebels against it in a narrative in which Sweden stands for the ‘beyond’ of history. The possibility of rebellion is foreclosed. What I find interesting here is that in the best novel about the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) the regular soldiers have indeed made this progression and do assassinate their officers; it’s called fragging. But for them there is no escape either. Or rather, they escape into fantasy and the novel has no exit other than into a form of magical escapism and the pathos of men who can envisage no authentic political agency. Theirs is an even more extreme form of desertion than Yossarian’s. And thus we progress from Vietnam to Iraq and a culture in which the writer, in Oglesby’s words, is a figure of ‘privileged impotence’. Unless, of course, like Arundhati Roy, she chooses to abandon fiction for polemical non-fiction and a role as a frontline political activist.

The end of the Cold war and the advent of the postcolonial moment to some degree reconfigured the critical and artistic terrain that prevailed up until the 1980s.Writers in Britain’s ex colonies produced a wave of novels about imperialism and its effects and these invariably won the Commonwealth Writers Prize which became a mirror of the postcolonial moment. In Latin America the Leftist writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez made of magical realism a romantic form of political opposition but one that for readers in the West was read mostly for its romance rather than its oppositional politics which, in any case, tended to be occluded by the ‘magic’. The early works of Salman Rushdie promised a new form of story-telling based on a richly inventive bricolage of cultural reference and hybrid modes of rhetoric but in James Wood’s recent and famously adversarial view the genre eventually declined into a decadence which he provocatively labelled ‘hysterical realism’ (2000). Such novels, wrote Wood, ‘accumulate meaning only to disperse it’. With their ‘cartoonish’ plotting and bizarre characters they create a manic surface the effect of which is to deny the possibility of character development and hence of reader empathy (‘no-one really exists’). Wood writes of a ‘weightless excess’ that is not genuinely experimental: ‘the practical effect is a grammar of realism that challenges nobody and nothing’. Newman too has a great deal to say on this subject, citing its ‘easily purchased surrealism, wilful randomness and cheap narrative collage’, its ‘logorrhoea’, its decline into a ‘routinized disturbance available to any middle-class terrorist’. The initial freshness of perception that Marquez and the early Rushdie introduced has proved to be short-lived.

Wood doesn’t offer a political explanation of this but Jameson might characterize it as a form of postmodern panic or hysteria in the face of globalising capitalism’s colonization of every sphere and dimension of experience, its totalizing character which can only be escaped through wilful indeterminacy and chaos, including in fiction. This, however, creates a form of weak narrative which offers weak resistance to strong or fundamentalist narratives. To this I would add the decline of the writer as sage or oracle, along with the decline of the potency of the serious literary novel in the hectic, multi-vocal world of television and the internet with their ‘flood of secondary realities’. The novel is now a very small player in what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called the ‘consciousness industry’.

What is left? Two things, I would suggest. Firstly, the revelatory power of the documentary and secondly the mythic power of the story. The novel as honest chronicle is still a means to documenting and celebrating, in Newman’s words, ‘the particularity of partial knowledge.’ It can still bring news, it can still bring to our attention those areas of human experience that are passed over or denied in the mass media. But to have political influence it must be first be read, and read sympathetically, by a large audience and that is another matter.

On the mythic plane, I would argue that the novel takes its place as one agent, along with cinema and television, within the Levi-Strauss model of the function of myth, namely to mediate between and resolve within narrative those contradictions that are not susceptible to resolution in everyday life. In other words, mythic story-telling offers substitute gratification within, and compensation for, a fraught reality. As such the primary function of narrative is the opposite of reformist; it is to console and pacify, to dissipate rage rather than to incite it and to relieve the pain of the incomprehensible. To borrow from that prodigious reader Karl Marx, story-telling is the heart of a heartless world.  Is it then the opiate of the masses? Probably.

© Amanda Lohrey, 2013