There is almost an imperialistic silence when we want answers about writers who are generally considered untouchable because they are great writers. For, the most important aspect of a writer is surely who the writer is, after or even before we read any writer. Now there are certain writers that are generally read by most people indiscriminately, like myself, without an inkling as to who they are. This goes for most established or canonical or classical literature in major languages. I am thinking of English or Russian or other literary greats from everywhere else.
And yet, while the novels we read are really well written, the creed that they espouse is opposite to what the writers themselves thought of or lived. In other words, there is a discrepancy, a chasm between the aesthetics of their writing and the ideologies these writers actually had. And because most of these writers or such literature has been considered great, to be thought of as great, there are sadly no questions asked about them. I am thinking of writers like Proust, Flaubert, Dickens, Dostoevsky etc, to name a few. For while it is certain that they wrote so well and are really great writers, their silence on questions of empire, imperialism and the constant genocidal wars their countries have waged historically is acutely noticeable.
How can writers or great literature only exist in a pure aesthetic space, for just the aesthetic quality of the writing alone, that writing only ? Why should not their politics be considered as equally important, as important as their poetic side for the man who thinks and then writes things down is actually the same person. To add to this odd and unjust silence, the actions of literary critics have been no less unjust for they have perpetrated this silence, never allowing anyone to even question this imperial attitude. Thus I find most classical literature immensely readable but I want to know more about the why and why not of these writers and the basis of their political credo. The same could be said of embedded journalists in new imperial wars, the latest in Iraq, where journalists helped liberating these backward territories, one British broadcaster declaring, "I have liberated Afghanistan"!
The sharp side writes about the attitude of Charles Dickens to the Indian mutiny, and Dickens is reported to have said that "I wish I were commander-in-chief in India ... I should proclaim to them that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the race." ( Various sources on the Internet) It is thus important to remember that the man who wrote his great novels also said the above and his literature must be considered in light of his remarks, his attitude, for they exist simultaneously and cannot exist in a limbo, without each other. While it does not diminish their status as writers, it reflects what one keep in mind to measure contemporary writers too.
I found a related issue while reading Walter Benjamin too, for in his essays and the notes on his essays, it seems possible that Benjamin was planning to emigrate to Israel, an Israel carved on Palestinian soil, and surely there is no mention of Palestine by Benjamin, its people and their eventual death. He was an admirer of Scholem, an ardent Zionist. Thus, not only does this philosophical attitude sound confusing, it becomes unconvincing for surely generally regarded philosophical greats cannot only mention one injustice amongst a multitude of pains. One can have sympathy for something but one cannot assume a blanket silence for the role of an artist is not to fill an aesthetic corner or fulfill the fetishistic craving of a dumb, ill informed and brutally dishonest reader but to carve out of his or her own vision, a truth that is truly possible.
I do not find these issues irrelevant but part of an incoherent whole, a whole that has mystified and added the thickness of illusions to the rarefied greatness of these writers. If one considers the novel of ideas, what better than to read some of these great writers. It is when one considers that in all of this and subsequently more, even in the debates and literary critiques that have followed, this silence has added to a similar attitude, one feels a sense of dismay. And if one considers these issues again, then, sadly, there are few great writers.