Living in Hope and History

Notes from Our Century

Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux Paperbacks

THREE IN A BED:
FICTION, MORALS, AND POLITICS
Three in a bed: it’s a kinky cultural affair. I had better identify the partners.
Politics and morals, as concepts, need no introduction, although their relationship is shadily ambiguous. But fiction has defining responsibilities that I shall be questioning all through what I have to say, so I shall begin right away with the basic, dictionary definition of what fiction is supposed to be.
Fiction, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘the action of feigning or inventing imaginary existences, events, states of things . . . prose novels and stories collectively’. So poetry, according to the OED, is not fiction. The more I ponder this, the more it amazes me; the more I challenge it. Does the poet not invent imaginary existences, events, states of things?
If I should ask any erudite and literary gathering to give examples of the powers of the poets’ invention of imaginary existences, events, the poets’ matchless evocation of ‘states of things’, all drawn, just as the prose writers’ is, from life—the fact of life—as the genie is smoked from the bottle, I could fill pages with quotations. If fiction is the suprareal spirit of the imagination, then poetry is the ultimate fiction. In speaking of fiction, I should be understood to be including poetry.
What is politics doing in bed with fiction? Morals have bedded with story-telling since the magic of the imaginative capacity developed in the human brain—and in my ignorance of a scientific explanation of changes in the cerebrum or whatever, to account for this faculty, I believe it was the inkling development that here was somewhere where the truth about being alive might lie. The harsh lessons of daily existence, coexistence between human and human, with animals and nature, could be made sense of in the ordering of properties by the transforming imagination, working upon the ‘states of things’. With this faculty fully developed, great art in fiction can evolve in imaginative revelation to fit the crises of an age that comes after its own, undreamt of when it was written. Moby-Dick can now be seen as an allegory of environmental tragedy. ‘The whale is the agent of cosmic retribution’: we have sought to destroy the splendid creature that is nature, believing we could survive only by ‘winning’ a battle against nature; now we see our death in the death of nature, brought about by ourselves.
But the first result of the faculty of the imagination was, of course, religion. And from the gods (what a supreme feat of the imagination they were!), establishing a divine order out of the unseen, came the secular, down-to-soil-and-toil order of morals, so that humans could somehow live together, and in balance with other creatures.
Morals are the husband/wife of fiction. And politics? Politics somehow followed morals in, picking the lock and immobilizing the alarm system. At first it was in the dark, perhaps, and fiction thought the embrace of politics was that of morals, didn’t know the difference . . . And this is understandable. Morals and politics have a family connection. Politics’ ancestry is morality—way back, and generally accepted as forgotten. The resemblance is faded. In the light of morning, if fiction accepts the third presence within the sheets it is soon in full cognisance of who and what politics is.
Let me not carry my allegory too far. Just one generation further. From this kinky situation came two offspring, Conformity and Commitment. And you will know who fathered whom.
Until 1988 I would have said that the pressures to write fiction that would conform to a specific morality, whether secular or religious, long had been, could be, and were, safely ignored by writers in modern times. The Vatican still has its list of proscribed works, but in most countries one assumed there was freedom of expression—so far as religion was concerned. (The exception was perhaps in certain North American schools . . . )
Blasphemy? A quaint taboo, outdated, like the dashes which used to appear between the first and last letters of four-letter words. Where censorship was rigidly practised, in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and South Africa, for example, the censors were concerned with what was considered politically subversive in literature, not with what might offend or subvert religious sensibilities. (In the Soviet Union these were not recognized, anyway.) This was true even in South Africa, where the Dutch Reformed Church with a particular form of Calvinistic prudery had twisted religion to the service of racism and identified the church with the security of the state, including its sexual morality based on the supposed “purity” of one race. A decade ago, in 1988, an actor in South Africa could not get away with exclaiming “My God!” in a secular context on the stage, and Jesus Christ Superstar was banned; by 1989, savage satire of the church and its morality was ignored. As for sexual permissiveness, full frontal nudity in films was not snipped by the censor’s scissors.
But in holding this illusion about freedom of expression in terms of religious and sexual morality, I was falling into the ignorance Islam finds reprehensible in the Judeo-Christian-atheist world (more strange bedfellows)—that world’s ignorance of the absolute conformity to religious taboos that is sacred to Islam. And here Islam was right; I should have known that this kind of censorship was not evolving into tolerance, least of the rights of non-Muslim countries to grant their citizens the freedom of disbelief, but was instead becoming an international gale force of growing religious fanaticism. Then came the holy war against The Satanic Verses, in which the enemy was a single fiction, a single writer, and the might and money of the Islamic world were deployed in the fatwa: death to Salman Rushdie.
Now I, and other writers, were stunned to know that situations were back with us where religious persecution—the denial of people’s right to follow their faith in freedom—is turned on its head, and religion persecutes freedom—not alone freedom of expression but a writer’s freedom of movement, finally a writer’s right to life itself. Now in a new decade, with freedoms rising, we see that while a writer becomes president in one country, another writer is being hounded to death throughout the world. We see how a religion has the power to terrorize, through its followers, across all frontiers. Political refugees from repressive regimes may seek asylum elsewhere; Salman Rushdie has nowhere to go. Islam’s edict of death takes terrorist jurisdiction everywhere, contemptuous of the laws of any country.
Pre-Freudian hypocrisy, puritan prudery may be forgotten. The horror of what has happened to Rushdie is a hand fallen heavily on the shoulder of fiction: pressures to write in conformity with a specific morality still can arrive, and pursue with incredible vindictiveness, even if this is unlikely to happen to most writers.
Am I positing that morals should be divorced from fiction? That fiction is free of any moral obligation? No. Fiction’s morality lies in taking the freedom to explore and examine contemporary morals, including moral systems such as religions, with unafraid honesty.
This has not been an easy relationship, whether in the ghastly extreme of Salman Rushdie’s experience or, say, that of Gustave Flaubert, who, commenting on the indecency case against Madame Bovary after he won it in 1857, wrote of the establishment of spurious literary values and the devaluation of real literary values such a case implies for fiction. ‘My book is going to sell unusually well . . . But I am infuriated when I think of the trial; it has deflected attention from the novel’s artistic success . . . to such a point that all this row disquiets me profoundly . . . I long to . . . publish nothing; never to be talked of again.’
The relationship of fiction with politics has not had the kind of husband/fatherly authoritarian sanction that morals, with their religious origins, lingeringly have. No literary critic I know of suggests that moralizing as opposed to ‘immorality’ has no place in fiction, whereas many works of fiction are declared ‘spoiled’ by the writer’s recognition of politics as as great a motivation of character as sex or religion. Of course, this lack of sanction is charactistic of an affair, a wild love affair in which great tensions arise, embraces and repulsions succeed one another, distress and celebration are confused, loyalty and betrayal change place, accusations fly. And whether the fiction writer gets involved with politics initially through his/her convictions as a citizen pushing, within, against the necessary detachment of the writer, or whether the involvement comes about through the pressure of seduction from without, the same problems in the relationship occur and have to be dealt with in the fiction as well as in the life.
For when have writers not lived in time of political conflict? Whose Golden Age, whose Belle Epoch, whose Roaring Twenties were these so-named lovely times?
The time of slave and peasant misery, while sculptors sought perfect proportions of the human torso? The time of revolutionaries in Czar Alexander’s prisons, while Grand Dukes built mansions in Nice? The time of the hungry and unemployed, offered the salvation of growing Fascism while playboys and girls danced balancing glasses of pink champagne?
When, overtly or implicitly, could writers evade politics? Even those writers who have seen fiction as the pure exploration of language, as music is the exploration of sound, the babbling of Dada and the page-shuffling of Burroughs have been in reaction to what each revolted against in the politically-imposed spirit of their respective times; theirs were literary movements that were an act—however far-out—of acknowledgement of a relationship between politics and fiction.
It seems there is no getting away from the relationship. On the one hand, we live in what Seamus Heaney calls a world where the ‘undirected play of the imagination is regarded at best as luxury or licentiousness, at worst as heresy or treason. In ideal republics . . . it is a common expectation that the writer will sign over his or her venturesome and potentially disruptive activity into the keeping of official doctrine, traditional system, a party line, whatever . . .’ Gerard Manley Hopkins felt obliged to abandon poetry when he entered the Jesuits ‘as not having to do with my vocation’; a submission of the imagination to religious orthodoxy exactly comparable to that demanded of writers, in many instances in our time, by political orthodoxies.
We are shocked by such clear cases of creativity outlawed. But things are not always so drastically simple. Not every fiction writer entering a relation with politics trades imagination for the hair shirt of the party hack. There is also the case of the writer whose imaginative powers are genuinely roused by and involved with the spirit of politics as he or she personally experiences it. And it may not be the free choice of a Byron. It can be virtually inescapable in times and places of socially seismic upheaval. Society shakes, the walls of entities fall; the writer has known the evil, indifference, or cupidity of the old order, and the spirit of creativity naturally pushes towards new growth. The writer is moved to fashion an expression of a new order, accepted on trust as an advance in human freedom that therefore also will be the release of a greater creativity.
‘Russia became a garden of nightingales. Poets sprang up as never before. People barely had the strength to live but they were all singing’—so wrote Andrey Bely in the early days of the Russian Revolution. And one of Pasternak’s biographers, Peter Levi, notes that Pasternak—popularly known to the West, on the evidence of his disillusioned Dr. Zhivago, as the Russian anti-Communist writer—in his young days contributed manifestos to the ‘infighting of the day’. In his poem to Stalin he sang:
We want the glorious. We want the good.
We want to see things free from fear.
Unlike some fancy fop, the spendthrift
of his bright, brief span, we yearn
for labour shared by everyone,
for the common discipline of law.
This yearning is addressed by writers in different ways, as fiction seeks a proper relation with politics. In the Soviet Union of Pasternak’s day, some fell into what the Italian contemporary writer Claudio Magris, in a different context, calls with devastating cynicism, ‘A sincere but perverted passion for freedom, which led . . . into mechanical servitude, as is the way with sin.’ The noble passion deteriorated to the tragically shabby, as in the 1930s the Writers Union turned on itself to beat out all but mediocrity-mouthing platitudes, driving Mayakovsky to suicide and turning down Pasternak’s plea to be granted a place where he would have somewhere other than a freezing partitioned slice of a room in which to write and live. Yet Pasternak had not abandoned belief—never did—in the original noble purpose of revolution. When Trotsky asked why he had begun to abstain from social themes, Pasternak wrote to a friend, ‘I told him My Sister, Life [his then recent book] was revolutionary in the best sense of the word. That the phase of the revolution closest to the heart . . . the morning of the revolution, and its outburst when it returns man to the nature of man and looks at the state with the eyes of natural right.’ But for Pasternak the writing of this period had become, by the edicts of the state and the Writers Union, ‘a train derailed and lying at the bottom of an embankment’. And in this choice of an image there is a kind of desperate subconscious assertion of the creativity so threatened in himself and his fellow writers, since trains, in his era perhaps symbolic of the pace at which passes, fleetingly, the meaning of life the writer must catch, recur so often in his work.
Yeats’s ‘terrible beauty’ of the historic moments when people seek a new order to ‘return man to the nature of man, a state of natural right’, does not always make politics the murderer of fiction. The Brechts and Nerudas survive, keeping that vision. But the relation, like all vital ones, always implies some danger. The first dismaying discovery for the writer is once again best expressed by Magris’s cynicism: ‘The lie is quite as real as the truth, it works upon the world, transforms it’; whereas the fiction writer, in pursuit of truth beyond the guise of reasoning, has believed that truth, however elusive, is the only reality. Yet we have seen the lie transforming; we have had Goebbels. And his international descendents, practising that transformation on the people of a number of countries, including the white people of my own country, who accepted the lie that apartheid was both divinely decreed and secularly just, and created a society on its precepts.
To be aware that the lie also can transform the world places an enormous responsibility on art to counter this with its own transformations; the knowledge that the writer’s searching and intuition gain instinctively contradicts the lie.
We page through each other’s faces
We read each looking eye . . .
It has taken lives to be able to do so
—writes the South African poet Mongane Wally Serote. We may refuse to write according to any orthodoxy, we may refuse to toe any party line, even that drawn by the cause we know to be just, and our own, but we cannot refuse the responsibility of what we know. What we know beyond surface reality has to become what—again in Serote’s words—‘We want the world to know’; we must in this, our inescapable relation with politics, ‘page for wisdom through the stubborn night’.
At its crudest and most easily identifiable, the stubborn night is politically-inspired censorship, and yet, in some countries where no writer is locked up or his writings banned, and censorship is minimal and open to challenge by the law, fiction remains threatened by the power of the lie. Orwell alerted us to the insidious destruction of truth in the distortion of what words mean; but 1984 passed years ago, and he is remembered more for the cute cartoon movie of an Animal Farm than for a prophetic warning about the abuse of language. Harold Pinter spoke recently of ‘a disease at the very centre of language, so that language becomes a permanent masquerade, a tapestry of lies. The ruthless and cynical mutilation and degradation of human beings, both in spirit and body . . . these actions are justified by rhetorical gambits, sterile terminology and concepts of power which stink. Are we ever going to look at the language we use, I wonder? Is it within our capabilities to do so? . . . Does reality essentially remain outside language, separate, obdurate, alien, not susceptible to description? Is an accurate and vital correspondence between what is and our perception of it impossible? Or is it that we are obliged to use language only in order to obscure and distort reality—to distort what is—to distort what happens—because we fear it? . . . I believe it’s because of the way we use language that we have got ourselves into this terrible trap, where words like freedom, democracy and Christian values are still used to justify barbaric and shameful policies and acts.’
The writer has no reason to be if, for him or her, reality remains outside language. An accurate and vital correspondence between what is and the perception of the writer is what the fiction writer has to seek, finding the real meaning of words to express ‘the states of things’, shedding the ready-made concepts smuggled into language by politics.