The Writer in Wartime
Copyright © 2006 by Harold Jaffe. All rights reserved.
You onlookers / Whose eyes watched the killing
You live in Des Moines, Iowa, and are a published novelist with a modest reputation based on your narratives about white middle-class domestic crises. You also serve in a National Guard military police unit, and your company is called up and sent to Iraq to function as MP’s in Abu Ghraib Prison, west of Baghdad. There, you observe and strongly disapprove of the unlawful abuse and torture of the inmates, many of them innocent Iraqi teenagers snatched from the streets. Do you continue to write narrative still lifes or do you bracket your customary subject in order to bear witness, to broadcast as widely as possible the unlawful, immoral treatment in Abu Ghraib?
You are an “Aryan” painter living in Berlin during the Reich. You have heard and read about the extermination camps. You have seen Nazis violently mistreat Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled. Appalled colleagues and friends — most of them Aryans like you — have left the country. You yourself are appalled at the Nazi practices. At the same time, you continue to sell your pictures — oil and watercolor renditions of rustic woodland scenes — and make a respectable living in Germany, so you choose not to leave the country, at least physically. Mentally, you have separated yourself from the ongoing atrocities. You have, in Hannah Arendt‘s words, embarked on an inner emigration, and in keeping with this “emigration” your art does not in any way reflect the Nazi virulence.
Engaged vs Autonomous
When an American colleague with a cultish following as an innovative writer recently submitted a manuscript of short fiction to the respectable, non-mainstream press which had published him several times before, his volume, called Electronic Terror (I’ve changed the title), was rejected on these grounds: It was “sober” rather than comically madcap after his usual fashion; it lacked “esthetic distance”; it repeated some of the same structural devices as in previous volumes, hence wasn’t “fresh.” Moreover, it was “rhetorical.”
When my colleague protested that his subject was the genocidal war in the Middle East and the institutional terror at home, subjects which invoke moral outrage and at the very least, sobriety, rather than esthetic distance and madcap humor, the publisher was unmoved.
The argument was fundamentally between committed or engaged writing on the one hand and so-called autonomous writing on the other, fiction, that is, without an axe to grind. It is a quintessentially American argument. If this were France, the Netherlands, Hungary, Brazil, Colombia, Trinidad or Ghana — whether or not those countries were at war — the notion of committed writing would be immediately acknowledged without condescension.
In the early Eighties after the Sandinista defeat of the Somoza forces, the US intervened on behalf of the autocratic old guard, even as the US had intervened — with fatal consequences — in Guatemala against the duly elected leftist prime minister, and was in the process of intervening in El Salvador on the side of the right wing junta.
When in a 1984 issue of Fiction International devoted to “Writing and Politics,” I, as editor, asked the Nicaraguan novelist Claribel Alegria whether her country’s imaginative writers should, in her opinion, address the ongoing Nicaraguan revolution and US-led counter-revolution; she said yes, absolutely. When I further asked how she would respond to a writer who chose not to address this issue, she said she would refuse to shake his hand.
I have related this exchange to American writers a number of times and nearly always their response was to disapprove on the grounds that the writer needs full independence, without which his or her métier would be meaningless.
As a long-time Creative Writing professor, I know for a fact that any young writer who submits “political” writing to enter a MFA program will be rejected. And if, after submitting conventional narratives, he or she is admitted, but then submits politicized writing to his writing workshop he will be roundly criticized.
Almost without exception, every MFA program insists that its writers shun both politics (identity politics excepted) and linguistic or structural innovation. As a result, MFA fiction students everywhere write strenuously “workshopped” linear narratives which address love and family and betrayal and gender . . . themes from a restricted imaginative repertory. In what sense can that writing be considered independent?
Youthful fiction writers in the US commonly assume that the esthetic criteria which constitute excellence in 2005 have always been in place. Of course fiction, to take just that genre, has been many things since its inadvertent debut with (arguably) The Pilgrim’s Progress in the 17th century. Pious epistolary; bawdy adventure (with pious undertones), historical gothic, the novel of manners, romance, ratiocination, the fiction of texture without interiority, language-centered fiction, the proletariat novel, on and on.
Art is not an unmoved mover; it is, one way or another, a reflection of and response to contemporary culture and it employs the techniques and references at hand. I emphasize one way or another because I am not arguing for a single mode of committed art. Upton Sinclair, Brecht, Nelly Sachs, Elsa Morante, Hikmet, Sartre, Richard Wright, B. Traven, Primo Levi, John Berger, Simon Ortiz, and Ernesto Cardenal, to take representative examples, all responded variously in terms of technique, yet each wrote, or writes, an engaged literature.
This is not to suggest that there is not a handful of contemporary progressive American fiction writers. Established authors like Phillip Roth, Thomas Powers and Russell Banks, for example, are all liberal writers who have the status to comment politically so long as they do not stray too far to the left. Consider Brazilian director Walter Salles’s popular Motorcycle Diaries, which describes a sympathetic Che Guevara as a pre-revolutionary young man traveling through South America. If Salles had chosen to portray Che as a sympathetic actual revolutionary in Cuba and Bolivia, which is of course the crucial drama, Salles would not have been able to distribute his movie in the United States.
It must also be specified that committed writing in post-Millennium America means to write in a context that is in interlocking ways almost entirely institu-tionally mediated. Thus, relentlessly exposing the mediating stratagems which prevent what Lionel Trilling called, in a not unrelated context, sincerity and authenticity — that exposure constitutes a current version of commitment, especially if allied to options of resistance and revolt.
Further Mainstream Objections
Aside from the misguided belief in artistic autonomy, the US establishment-writer will likely raise the following objections: What authority does an imaginative writer or artist have to enter the public discourse about terror and genocide?
How can an author maintain esthetic integrity in writing that is committed to a cause outside itself?
What artistic resonance will a work of committed writing hold for future generations?
The authority to enter the political discourse is based on the probability that the imaginative writer has had more time to ponder and ruminate than his 8:30 to 5:30 work-a-day neighbors. Moreover, the imaginative writer, though implicitly pressured to write a certain way, is not absolutely beholden to his benefactors. That is, once he or she has established a degree of status, he has the option to deviate, with the increased risk of course that a given publisher will reject his manuscript. Finally, the imaginative writer has the capacity to circulate his perceptions in his published writings and thus to exert some small influence on readers.
But doesn’t this amount to “preaching to the choir?” Who after all reads “serious” writing besides writers? Well, writers also teach and are in position to discuss their new or modified views about committed writing with their students. This circulation is not negligible, even as samizdat (passing “dissident” manuscripts from hand to hand during the Soviet repression) was far from negligible.
Esthetic integrity? In a time of wide-scale ethnicide and institutional demonizing, consider, if you will, whether the attempt to remain above the fray represents integrity or silent complicity, as with the hypothetical Aryan artist embarked on his “inner emigration.”
The AIDS pandemic and the punitive official ideology that exploited it generated in the US in the late 1980s a host of visual artists and writers, many but not all gay, who “bracketed” their current projects to help establish ACT-UP and its artistic wing, Gran Fury. Among other accomplishment, these related groups created a “crisis art” to combat in potently imaginative ways the official propaganda directed against gay males. It is fair to say that without the brazen interventions of ACT-UP and Gran Fury the institutionalized hate-mongering would have taken an even greater toll on homosexual communities.
Does that intervention by writers and artists constitute an abandonment of “esthetic integrity?”
Not when (to quote one of ACT-UP’s battle cries) Silence = Death.
To put it differently: The directed crisis art produced by ACT-UP and Gran Fury could be called, in the British art critic Victor Burgin’s words, a “situational esthetics.”
Currently, Weblogs and blog art are obviously situational. But it could also be argued that every art is situational, deliberately or without deliberation. The US culture industry supports only that art which one way or another sustains the culture industry, whether it is politically sanitized writing or purportedly self-referential painting and sculpture. In that important regard officially supported art constitutes an opportunistic, self-aggrandizing “situational esthetics.”
Regarding artistic resonance for future generations, will it be imaginative writers or the corporate managers of publishing houses who decide which authors have their books republished or shredded? Although Walter Benjamin’s well-known derogation of the “auratic” artist has been influential among cultivated readers, many American writers aspire precisely to the aura of “superstar,” an investiture that the consumer-entertainment culture is only too happy to confer on a tiny selection of superficially provocative writers.
In any case, no matter what the writer chooses to write, whether specifically political or “universal,” it will in future be consumed (if still extant) according to criteria that we, here and now, cannot realistically anticipate.
When in the same 1984 issue of Fiction International, devoted to “Writing and Politics,” I asked J.M. Coetzee whether imaginative writing can effect social change, he replied: “On the question of the social effectiveness of literature, I have one comment: that it is in the interest of the community of writers . . . to believe in the efficacy of products of fantasy as instruments of action; and that it is not in the interest of those who actually wield power to disabuse anyone of this notion.”
Coetzee is saying in effect that ruling institutions will gladly permit the fantasy or postmodern madcap writer to pirouette and even have a pee in his corner, absorbing the tiny writerly outrage with the knowledge that his or her product will exert no leverage at all on public discourse. Coetzee’s implication is that if writers and artists take hold and, rather than evade, address the given crisis with the passionate persuasion of their craft — that would be a great deal more problematic for the power wielders.
Hence Herman Melville moved from the obscurantist Pierre, or the Ambiguities, to write his plain-speak poems, Battle Pieces, about the incestuous violence of the Civil War. Thoreau paused from collecting specimens in the woods while turning his back on his contemporaries to write a moving testimony to John Brown. Upton Sinclair led the muckraking novelists in focusing attention on barbaric institutions such as the animal slaughtering industry. Stephen Crane wrote about the miseries of the new industrial ghetto. Father Ernesto Cardenal was excommunicated for detailing in his documentary poems the somocista fascism enforced by official US Policy. During the Thirties in the US an entire generation of novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists and critics attacked US capitalism on behalf of pre-Stalinist Marxism. The Jesuit poet-priest Daniel Berrigan poured his blood on draft records and wrote scathingly of the US’s colonization of Vietnam. The committed artist catalogue is a very lengthy one.
Liberation of or from Nature
For theoretical-minded writers and artists there is an even more fundamental question. It has to do with the distinction the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (see New Left Review 170, July-August 1988), makes between the liberation from nature, and the liberation of nature. Liberation of proponents would, among other things, embrace the possibility of effective concerted response on behalf of an issue or even an ideal.
Liberation from proponents would deny that possibility, maintaining, in Auden’s words (after his disillusioned stint as a committed writer), that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Taylor suggests that these opposing notions of liberation have been confounded in poststructuralist discourse primarily because of their common enemies, each being opposed to the appropriation of consciousness and desire “founded on greed and unfettered instrumental reason”; and also because the liberation from has often incorrectly presented itself as a “radicalization” of the allegedly “outmoded” liberation of.
How do these two hypothetical liberations function as politics? The aspiration to the liberation of nature “grounds its confidence on something in the motivational make-up of human beings which could be the basis of a more convivial, ecologically responsible, more self-managing society.” Whereas the opposition towards the institutional appropriation of consciousness and desire proposed by the liberation from advocates aspires to what Foucault called an “aesthetics of existence,” and Derrida, “the joyous affirmation of the free play of the world, without truth [and] without origin.”
Liberation from nature signifies the option of existential delectation — insofar as it is accessible — without the “illusion” of anything beyond it which might — collectively or otherwise — ameliorate some aspect of the human condition. The Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci, a famous proponent of the liberation of nature, referred to himself as a “pessimist of the intellect but optimist of the will.” The liberation from proponent would alter that to: pessimist of the intellect and pessimist of the will.
The Current Madness
People compare our current period to the McCarthyism of the Fifties. Then, official US policy was banal, sanctimonious and virulent; now it is that and much more. In the Fifties the dollar was king, Americans traveled abroad, and the cold war with the Soviets and Chinese meant that actual large-scale violence was in suspension.
Official US policy since Bush the younger has been responsible for slaughter verging on genocide, xenophobia, domestic witch-hunting, the despoliation of the land, the heartless neglect of the poor and the aged, along with the erosion of the middle class, and undisguised money-grabbing by a select group of wealthy insiders. In the process the US has opened a Pandora’s Box of “terrorist” responses from enraged Muslims throughout the globe.
The dollar, meanwhile, is too weak for working or middle-class Americans to travel abroad. Electronic surveillance in the US is virtually ubiquitous. And the US is, without (official) contrition, the largest single contributor to the irreversible damage to the environment worldwide. As for objective news, one can find it, along with everything else, on the Internet, but the mainstream visual and print media on which the majority of people rely do the administration’s bidding almost absolutely.
The bleak litany is all-too familiar, and the prospects after a second presidential term which in effect sanctioned the administration’s pious, profit-mad bloodlust are if anything bleaker. What then is the writer to write: still lifes and domestic crises, business as usual?
The point is this: Whether the writer endorses liberation of or from nature, the question of stopping the mindless destruction must still obtain. However skeptical we might be about the practical usefulness of art, can we still invoke (in the committed poet Tom McGrath’s words) “the privilege of alienation”?
No, we cannot.
Previously published in American Book Review and subsequently published in Beyond the Techno Cave