By John Pilger
11 November, 2003
the great writers of the 20th century, art could not be separated from
politics. Today, there is a disturbing silence on the dark matters that
should command our attention.
In 1935, the first
Congress of American Writers was held at the Carnegie Hall in New York,
followed by another two years later. By one account, 3,500 crammed into
the auditorium and a thousand more were turned away. They were electric
events, with writers discussing how they could confront ominous events
in Abyssinia, China and Spain. Telegrams from Thomas Mann, C Day Lewis,
Upton Sinclair and Albert Einstein were read out, reflecting the fear
that great power was now rampant and that it had become impossible to
discuss art and literature without politics.
Martha Gellhorn told the second congress, "must be a man of action
now... A man who has given a year of his life to steel strikes, or to
the unemployed, or to the problems of racial prejudice, has not lost
or wasted time. He is a man who has known where he belonged. If you
should survive such action, what you have to say about it afterwards
is the truth, is necessary and real, and it will last."
Her words echo across
the silence today. That the menace of great and violent power in our
own times is apparently accepted by celebrated writers, and by many
of those who guard the gates of literary criticism, is uncontroversial.
Not for them the impossibility of writing and promoting literature bereft
of politics. Not for them the responsibility to speak out - a responsibility
felt by even the unpolitical Ernest Hemingway.
Today, realism is
declared obsolete; an ironic hauteur is affected; false symbolism is
all. As for the readers, their political imagination is to be pacified,
not primed; after all, what do they care? Martin Amis expressed this
well in Visiting Mrs Nabokov: "The dominance of the self is not
a flaw, it is an evolutionary characteristic; it is just how things
So it is "evolution".
We have evolved to the apolitical self; to the introspection and squabbles
of individuals divorced from any notion that their self-obsession is
less important and less interesting than an engagement with how things
really are for the rest of us.
Some years ago,
the then budding literary critic D J Taylor wrote a rare piece called
"When the pen sleeps". He expanded this into a book, A Vain
Conceit, in which he wondered why the English novel so often degenerated
into "drawing room twitter" and why the urgent issues of the
day were shunned by writers, unlike their counterparts in, say, Latin
America who felt an obligation to take up the political essence in all
our lives and which shapes our lives.
Where, he asked,
were the George Orwells, the Upton Sinclairs, the John Steinbecks? (Taylor
recently seemed to be repudiating this; let's hope he has recovered
The main literature
prize shortlists bear out his original thesis. Yet according to Claire
Armistead, literary editor of the Guardian, "writers are challenging
any sort of parochialism". But what else do they challenge? She
describes "a real generic inventiveness" in the three non-fiction
nominations of the Guardian Book Award. One is about a neurologist who
plays with words in a "totally eccentric" way; another is
about mountains; another is about the former East Germany which, she
says, "makes you understand a little better what a funny old world
we live in".
But where are the
contemporary works that go to the heart of this funny old world, as
the books of Steinbeck and Joseph Heller did? Where is the equivalent
of Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, Jonathan Coe's What
a Carve-Up! and Timothy Mo's The Redundancy of Courage? There are, of
course, honourable exceptions. You can buy James Kelman's collection
And the Judges Said... in W H Smith, which proves that books that rescue
true politics from the Westminster media village's "bantering inconsequence"
(to borrow from F Scott Fitzgerald) are wanted very much by the public.
Indeed, there are
countless books by little-known authors, produced by ever-struggling
publishers such as Pluto and Zed, which illuminate, sometimes brilliantly,
the shadows of rapacious power and which are ignored in the so-called
mainstream. No doubt, they are deemed "political"; and unless
politics can be diminished to its stereotypes and, better still, turned
into a TV drama, no thank you.
After all, as one
critic who dominates the reviews of paperback non-fiction, wrote: the
suggestion that social democracy is threatened by the insane march of
George Bush and his attendant McCarthyism is, well, "silly".
No matter that when you fly to the United States you lose the basic
civil liberty of your privacy; that your name alone can lead to body
searches, as Edward Said frequently experienced; that the FBI now routinely
inspects the reading lists of public libraries.
These are dangerous
times, and surreal. Column after column is devoted to the Martin Amis
cult: he who describes politics as having "withered away in this
country, and that's a great tribute to its highly evolved character",
and who sneers at the great anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations
as "really [about] anti-politics; they're protesting about politics
While the Guardian
rejoices in the new-found humanity of the former US secretary of state
Madeleine Albright as she promotes her autobiography, Madam Secretary,
there is not a single reference to the fact that this same woman, when
asked if the deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq as a result of American-driven
sanctions were a price worth paying, replied: "We think the price
is worth it." The headline over her smiling face read: "I
loved what I did."
is replaced by silence," the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko
said, "the silence is a lie." No writers' congress today worries
about the lies and crimes of George Bush and Tony Blair. It is gratifying
that the playwright David Hare has broken his silence ("America
provides the firepower; we provide the bullshit") and joined the
courageous dissident Harold Pinter.
There is an urgency
now. A Downing Street document, circulated among "progressive"
European governments, wants a world order in which western powers have
the authority to attack any other sovereign country. In six years, Blair
has sent British troops to take part in five conflicts, and he wants
yet more bloodletting. The document echoes his views on "rights
and responsibilities" - to kill and devastate people in faraway
places, thereby endangering and diminishing all of us.
What would George
Orwell make of this? There is a series of Orwell events planned to mark
the centenary of his birth. Most of those participating are politically
safe or accredited liberal warriors. What if Orwell had turned Animal
Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four into parables about thought control in
relatively free societies, in which he identified the disciplined minds
of the corporate state and the invisible boundaries of liberal control
and the latest fashions in emperor's clothes? Would they still celebrate
say..." wrote Bertolt Brecht in "In Dark Times", "...
when the great wars were being prepared for... they won't say: the times
were dark. Rather: why were their poets silent?"
first appeared in the New Statesman