Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Politics Of Silence

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.


Lupe said...

Let's see if my feeble skills in English can help me through this.

There actually is a great silence surrounding great names. I disagree about its being about political opinion. If there is one forced silence, it's an aesthetic one.
What I mean to say is, of course political opinion is relevant, but I don't think we can say it's been silenced. Proust's, Dickens' Anybody's works are full of interwoven political ideas and significant silences, and they are usually the first thing to be noted on criticism about them. Biographies often help, but sometimes they do not because what we read is not a writer's voice but a constructed narrator's, usually adapted to fit a specific audience. Dickens is a good example: he had to seduce an audience to sell his works and to keep being published, but what we know about his opinions has been often noticed to be rather different. We all have silences, we don't speak all the time about injustice, we have to live in a world where unfortunately there is so much suffering everywhere that we have to choose where must we put our energies, whether it's more important to speak about little children being killed by wars, by arsenic poisoned rivers, by diseases nobody seems to care about, by the hands of the armed conflicts that bring fuel enough to make the computer you are reading this lines with work, starved by enterprises which sell clothes as those you are wearing. We live in a world of hippocrit silences we can't always notice, silences we can't tell all the time, wars in which we have to decide sides which History and greater perspectives might proove wrong, which may be fair today but later told to be wrong. We are all crusaders, the future will sing to our sins and say how insignificant we were while raising their voices to hail either a new better order or another new tyrant. It's planet Earth.
So we must expect art to show that contradictory battle of meanings in a doomed world which we are expected to carry to a better future like a constant Sisyphus' curse, just to keep it from destroying itself. Art is there to represent a portion, a small fragment of reality. After reading A Tale of Two Cities, after closing the final unfair death in a system which was originally meant to be better, we have a full stop, an eternal silence about every other piece of reality.
I remember now Borges' "El Aleph". Poor Daneri couldn't but be a lousy writer, reality cannot be wholly described. Even if we had access to understand every conflict through the net of misinformations and distances built all around us, we wouldn't be able to express it. Great artists are those who are able to express that anguish, the impossibility to really know how not to waste our lives on unjust crusades and fairy tales, and it doesn't matter which their political ideas were. Think of Homer's Illiad, to give an even more classical example, of great heros going to death and to cause destruction for the uncertain glory of a bit of gold, a beautiful woman and a poet's song.
If there is an uncomfortable silence about classics, then, it's their unquestionned place in the cannon once it's been established, our inability to say the emperor is naked about works which surely don't deserve the fame they've got.

Sorry for such a long comment in such a terrible English, but I felt it would be good to open discussion. The best thing would have been to post a longer reply article on my blog, but I don't post in English there.

Alok said...

Most complaints like these about the nineteenth century novel sound very ahistoric to me. It wasn't as globalized a world as it is now. People didn't really know or understand or empathised with what was happening in India or Africa at that time. I don't think the silence as you call it was intentional.. it was just not on their agenda. The psychological novel was more concerned with the interior lives of those people at that time and I am not surprised to find that the stories about India or other colonies are absent in those novels.

Also my guess is that you are defining politics in a very narrow way. It is not just about making statements against injustices all over the world. it is also about willingness to understand other people's motives, to put oneself inside the other person's subjectivity.. that's the origin of all political morality - the ability to understand other people's position. And this is where the novel's politics come into picture, even those novels which are not political in any explicit sense.

Proust is actually a good example. His novel is actually quite full of politics too. The later volumes are replete with discussions about the ugliness of the Dreyfus affair and the endemic anti-semitism and reactionary nationalism in the french aristocratic societies of that time.

I also found your comment about Walter Benjamin completely anachronistic. There was no Israel-Palestine then... and it was a question of life and death for him as it was for so many other jews who had to emigrate.

Alok said...

Have you read E M Forster's A Passage to India? It is one of my favourite novels about India and it was written by a British.

Kubla Khan said...

Hi Alok....
Your comments are welcome. but i am surprised that silence on the writer's part can be attributed to things not being on their agenda, as you say. the question is...why not? and why cannot one ask that?
didn't Byron participate in the crusades? how can we assume that they were ignorant then and people are suddenly enlightened now?
you talk of a narrow definition of politics.......surely political morality must begin by an attempt to understand, understand this demeaning process of colonization, of empire?
and speaking of Benjamin, a philosopher one admires, surely anachronistic thinking would entail forgetting Palestine for it existed, and any emigration must ask why there?
regarding Forster's novel, I have readit, watched a David Lean adaptation too. I might suggest revisiting that novel, for while the author has attempted to understand India, he hasn't gone any further to offer a peace, a resolution of any issue for that w'd mean accepting the evil of imperailism. let me quote Said on this novel......
"Forster identifies the course of the narrative with a Britisher, Fielding, who can understand only that India is vast and baffling, and that a Muslim like Aziz can be befriended only upto a point, since his antagonism to colonialism is silly. The sense that India and Britain are opposed nations is played down, muffled frittered away".
The aim of my post and an earlier one is aimed at trying to ask, to understand and to put these respective literatures in a perspective that sounds less ambivalent to me.
As a person, I love contradictions myself but find it increasingly difficult to understand why such issues are largely unadressed.
novels don't occupy a space granted to them automatically. they are born of the pulse of their times. we may or may not be interested in seeking politics but the absence of it is politics too.
to read them with the notion that such and such thing was not on their agenda is to assume a ridiculous position.
But these are only thoughts, i might be wrong. And yet, one's admiration for these writer's is no way less.