Art Has “No Direct Influence” on Destiny

Polish poet Zbigniew HerbertPolish poet, essayist Zbigniew Herbert

I was channel surfing last night and saw an old C-Span episode (from 2003, I believe) discussing William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner. The author was present (he died in 2006), and I was interested in his contention that his book was all but banned by African American Studies programs because he, a white man, had presumed to write in the voice of a black slave.

I don’t know if his charges are true but his comments took me back to a time when many leftists resorted to lazy ideological attacks on certain controversial works rather than engage substantively with them. Now such lazy attacks are more likely to come from the right but, left or right, the demand that works abandon nuance and subtlety and toe a party line represents the death of both art and critical thinking.

It’s not that literature can’t be read through a political lens. As is no doubt clear from this website, my own liberal leanings guide any number of my interpretations. But I’m also aware that the work, when it is good, is always bigger and more complex than my politics. For that matter, it’s bigger and more complex than the author’s politics.

It’s not that art is apolitical. It’s just that art has an aversion to the kind of one-dimensional thinking that often presides in politics.

For related reasons, art doesn’t have a direct impact on world affairs. I came across an eloquent statement to this effect by Polish poet and essayist Zbigniew Herbert, whose recent book of essays is reviewed here by Patrick Kurp. (Krup runs a website wonderfully entitled Anecdotal Evidence: A blog about the intersection of books and life, which I’ve added to my blogroll.) Here is Herbert’s quotation:

History does not know a single example of art or an artist anywhere ever exerting a direct influence on the world’s destiny – and from this sad truth follows the conclusion that we should be modest, conscious of our limited role and strength.

Kurp observes:


One scrambles for exceptions – Orwell? Koestler? Solzhenitsyn, surely? But Zbigniew Herbert’s careful qualification – “direct” – would seem to leave out even the author of The Gulag Archipelago The passage above is from “The Poet and the Present,” a previously untranslated essay included in The Collected Prose 1948-1998, for me the most excitedly anticipated new book of the year.

I don’t know much about Herbert but it sounds as though some of his formulations came in response to one-dimensional thinking from the left in the early 1970’s when he was teaching in California. Take the following statement, for example:

And I often wonder why the work that results from this essentially noble stance is intellectually immature, as if the proclamation of humanist ideals led the artist into the realm of banality. I’ve often asked myself if it isn’t too cruel a punishment that political kindheartedness should cancel out a work’s artistic value.

Kurp seconds this, noting,

Good wishes and good feelings, whether in Steinbeck or Neruda, don’t make good art. [I trust that Krup is not relegating Grapes of Wrath to propaganda since I consider it a supreme work of art.] In fact, they make good art almost impossible. A poet cannot be a propagandist and remain a poet, any more than a neurosurgeon can simultaneously practice découpage. Herbert, survivor of Nazi and Communist barbarism and vulgarity, writes:

“The poet’s sphere of action, if he has a serious attitude toward his work, is not the present, by which I mean the current state of socio-political and scientific knowledge, but reality, man’s stubborn dialogue with the concrete reality surrounding him, with this stool, with that person, with this time of day—the cultivation of the vanishing capacity for contemplation.”

I agree heartily with Kurp’s belief that “if poetry or any art is to be memorable and moving, it can be neither engagé nor an empty game.” To which I add that the poet’s obligation is to truth.  I believe that those who want to change the world should listen to what the poet teaches us about human complexity. We become our biggest selves in the presence of art, and activists and world leaders would do well to build upon that vision.

It sounds like Herbert says something to this effect as well. Kurp’s review concludes with this wonderful quotation by Herbert:

I always wished I would never lose the belief that great works of the spirit are more objective than we are. And that they will judge us. Someone very rightly said that not only do we read Homer, look at frescoes of Giotto, listen to Mozart, but Homer, Giotto, and Mozart spy and eavesdrop on us and ascertain our vanity and stupidity. Poor utopians, history’s debutants, museum arsonists, liquidators of the past are like those madmen who destroy works of art because they cannot forgive them their serenity, dignity, and cool radiance.

Thanks, incidentally, to Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish for alerting me to Kurp’s website.

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  • Blade Lawless

    Love the phrase “cool radiance” and the idea that the Olympians are judging us through our reactions to their works. Any idea who that “someone” was who “very rightly” originated the idea?

  • Robin Bates

    I don’t know if Herbert got “cool radiance” from someone else or not, but it reminds me of Nietzsche’s description in The Genealogy of Morals of the Apollonian vision.

  • The Student

    This is my first post to BLTB, a site I greatly admire. I am an amateur, and as such hope you will forgive the “under-cooked” and sophomoric nature of my contribution.

    Now that introductions are out of the way, please allow me to state my (perhaps benighted) disagreement with Herbert:

    “History does not know a single example of art or an artist anywhere ever
    exerting a direct influence on the world’s destiny . . . .”

    My first reaction to this statement was the question of whether history
    itself can be fashioned into a work of art. If this is possible, Barbara
    Tuchman’s “The Guns of August” may be as worthy a candidate as was produced in the twentieth century. Anyone familiar with this work will at least allow that it is an example of fine craftsmanship. While its topic is fact, I would suspect that an objective reader would agree that there is a conspicuous element of imagination at work in this book. Perhaps the fact that it does not deploy symbolic elements disqualifies it from a discussion of art. (I am eager to hear the opinion of the forum on this matter.) The reason that I’ve hauled this work into the debate is that President John Kennedy and kid-brother (aka, U.S. Attorney General) Robert Kennedy deliberately referred to “The Guns of August” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, hoping to avoid the errors in judgment that, in 1914, resulted in a runaway sequence of circumstance that siphoned the world into global conflict. Thankfully, the Kennedy boys were able to apply these lessons and avoid what could have been an apocalyptic catastrophe. So, if a work of creative-nonfiction can be considered art, we here have an example of art not only exerting a direct influence on the world’s destiny, but also allowing for the continued participation of the human race in that destiny.

    Anticipating opposition to the inclusion of a “history book” in the realm of art (Aristotle, if we are to take him as an authority [and why wouldn't we?] indicated that, “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be”), I will offer some further suggestions that art has an impact on the world’s destiny.

    During the 2,400 years since the initial annunciation of Aesop’s Fables, how many kings, chieftains, caliphs, maharajahs, mikados, pashas and sultans have consulted these allegorical life lessons prior to rendering some history-altering decision? I don’t know the answer to this question, but have an idea that the answer is greater than zero. Would you agree?

    A more immediate example percolating in today’s news is the tribe of “primitive” peoples in India that have leveraged the popularity of Avatar (whose ability to connect to the masses may influence the zeitgeist of the 21st century in a meaningful way) to stop an English mining company from ripping up their sacred mountain for the hell of bauxite for an aluminum foundry.

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/08/24/india.avatar.tribe/index.html

    I agree that these works (with the probable exception of Avatar, whose merit lies chiefly in its ability to connect to the numbed minds of the masses) may not have been initially purposed to “change the world,” but that does not deny their impact. How many times was “To Kill a Mockingbird” held up as some sort of gospel during the trials of desegregation? Can’t we all agree that the Bildungsroman titled “Nicholas Nickleby” had at least something to do with the eradication of Yorkshire boarding schools? All art had to do was to cast its shining light on a blight (thinking now of the eroded Cathedral of Notre Dame) to right what we (the masses) could agree was a wrong.

    I am so convinced that art plays a preeminent role in molding the value system of the masses that I have stumbled into the fear that I have missed the mark in a discussion of my intellectual superiors. Is that the case? Have I made an ass of myself and struck the wrong note?

  • Robin Bates

    Dear Student,

    This is a very wise response. Nothing sophomoric about it at all. Since I spend much of my time talking about “how great literature can change your life,” I owe you some explanation why I would suddenly be appearing to agree with Herbert.

    Percy Shelley once wrote that “the poet nothing affirmeth.” (Incidentally, Shelley included certain philosophers and historians under the “poet” designation and so, by his lights, Barbara Tuchman would at least be eligible–I remember being riveted by The Guns of August when I read it in high school in 1969.) Even though Shelley was a passionate advocate for social justice who also also believed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” I think he was worried the poetry would get used instrumentally–that its value would be seen in whether it could effect specific changes on the world. He was worried by the rise of utilitarianism (which gets satirized by Charles Dickens in Hard Times), some of whose practitioners argued that things should be valued according to their utility and that art was valuable only to the extent that it can be shown to be useful. I think it is the vision of art that Herbert is reacting against.

    I don’t know much about Herbert, but growing up in communist Poland as he did, he would have been exposed to “socialist realism,” which (in its worst form) argued that literature was valuable to the extent that it furthered the goals of the communist revolution. (Okay, so furthering the goals of human freedom is good–but you can see how art would be appropriated for political ends so that, under Stalin, poets were imprisoned and even executed for not following a party line.) Then Herbert came to teach in California and saw political poets hoping that their poetry could end the Vietnam War. (I once went to a reading by poet Howard Nemerov who complained about such poets.) So I think Herbert’s comments need to be seen as a corrective, not a final statement.

    Because I think what you think, that people have been profoundly shaped by literature and that some have used it to change the world’s destiny. Although I have acknowledged the legitimacy of some recent attacks on To Kill a Mockingbird (such as by Malcolm Gladwell) in this blog, the novel helped shape my own integration views when I was growing up in the segregated south. I have criticized the New York Times’ Stanley Fish for going to the extreme, of being so afraid of instrumentalist uses of literature that he argues that literature has no practical function whatsoever.

    So maybe the way around this dilemma is to invoke Aristotle the way that you do, saying that literature represents what things might and ought to be. While literaturecan’t be reduced to specific causes, therefore, it is indeed integrally tied into our engagement with the world. I love your example of Nicholas Nickleby, but if that novel were only a propaganda piece, a way of propagating social justice (even social justice that we agreed with), then it wouldn’t be the novel we love. It would have a different center of gravity. As an example of a work that verges on propaganda, I think I’d mention Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle because, while I admire the fact that it got the United States to start regulating the food processing business (no more rat droppings in our hamburger meat), too often I feel that the book’s vision is being guided by a social agenda rather than by the complexity of life.

    Maybe this is what I’m saying: literature, at its best, has a vision of us in our biggest, self-actualizing selves. (It enbiggens us, to quote Lisa Simpson.) But it can’t necessarily tell us how to get from that vision to specifics. The latter is the business of politics. Literature’s wisdom can guide politics but can’t operate as a step-by-step instruction manual. When it tries to, it becomes something other than literature. How does that sound?

  • Rachel Kranz

    I’m having trouble commenting without writing more pages than is appropriate for a comment…! But here are a few quick thoughts:

    1. I think politics is just as complicated as art, and that political leaders like Gandhi, Mandela, King, et al. are just as complex in their thinking as artists. I think it’s hard to change the world and hard to come up with policies that do, and that any “direct influence” on the world is complicated and has unintended consequences and never completely succeeds and will always be judged differently by history than at the time. But that’s just as true of politics as of art.

    2. I think many great artists were in extraordinary dialogue with the social movements of their time, and with the political parties that led those movements, and that their art is the better for it. Brecht, Langston Hughes, Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Nadine Gordimer–those are just the first who come to mind. I certainly couldn’t write the way I do without having a sense of the movements to whom I feel responsible. Do I like the people on that list better than Dos Passos, Zola, and some other less complex artists? Yes, but I like John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Graham Greene better than some less complex religious writers, and I like Martin Luther King better than Jesse Jackson. The issue isn’t whether artists should promote particular ideas about politics, religion, or any other domain; the issue is how well they do it, by which I mean, how well they create a world and a form that expresses the ideas that are dear to them. If we can see the too-obvious ways in which they are pushing their ideas, then the art probably isn’t as good–but I feel that as well about romance novelists who make it too obvious that their heroines are perfect and deserve to triumph over their detractors, as opposed to the more clever and delicious way that Jane Austen manages the same effects. The problem isn’t politics, or complexity; the problem is how deeply the ideas have been worked into the structure and how generously the author has told the truth rather than using the work to fulfill out his/her own personal needs.

    3. With regard to social movements and artists–the key is to have a dialogue, in which the artist may both feel responsible TO the movement and take responsibility for his/her own work, rather than abdicating that responsibility to someone else’s idea of the truth. But again, that is equally true of the artist who–like Tolstoy, Donne, Swift, Julian of Norwich, Hopkins–sees his/her primary goal as promoting a religious agenda. That agenda isn’t the problem, nor the sense of responsibility to a larger community–the problem is accepting responsibility for telling the truth as you see it WHILE remaining responsible to that other community. However, I don’t see that as fundamentally different from what a priest or a politician has to do. If you don’t agree with the Pope, or the with the people who elected you, or with the people you are leading, how do you remain responsible to both your vision of the truth and your commitments? See the film “Invictus” for a fascinating exploration of this with Mandela, who disagreed with his movement about how to treat the Springboks, and accepted his responsibility to change their minds and win them over to HIS view of the correct course, while always acknowledging his responsibility to them. It was the dialectic between his vision and his movement’s vision that created change.

    4. In my opinion, people who elevate art over other forms of human activity are just rationalizing how hard it is to love art, to create art, and to study art, trying to make their work more important and their role more significant. I deeply believe in the necessity of art, to quote the Marxist critic Ernst Fischer, but I don’t think it’s any MORE necessary than religion, politics, family, love, or community. The challenge at the moment is for us to become global citizens who take action to save the planet and to create a just, nurturing society for ourselves and our descendants–and I don’t think that can be done without all the things on that list, so they’re all important. Herbert and Kurp might not like my saying that we are all global citizens who need to take political responsibility–they might find that oppressive–but that’s where I take my stand.

    5. Direct or indirect–well, we could argue about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Civil War, or “Catch-22″ and the antiwar movement, or even “The Sufferings of Young Werther,” which inspired a wave of suicides after it was published, in imitation of the hero’s choice (surely an unintended consequence for Goethe!). But I don’t think direct vs. indirect is the best way to understand the effects of ANYTHING, including political movements. The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King inspired Mandela and the South African anti-apartheid movement–was that a direct influence? Or an indirect one? The civil rights movement also led to the appearance of more Black faces on U.S. television (those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s remember the all-white shows and commercials of our childhood)…those Black faces on TV in turn changed how people of all ethnicities viewed themselves and the world…perhaps leading to the acceptance, ultimately, of Barack Obama as the first Black President–or was that more a function of affirmative action politics, or changes in capitalism, or the 14th amendment working its way through the society 150 years later, or…??? I don’t think “direct” vs. “indirect” is the most useful way to talk about the influence of ANYTHING.

    6. The objection to Styron’s work was not because he, as a white writer, wrote in the voice of a Black man. It was because he portrayed a hero–Nat Turner–as an oversexed Black male obsessed with having sex with white women, rather than focusing on his heroic qualities as leader of a slave rebellion. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t offer my own opinion about whether Styron was guilty as charged, but I did find “Sophie’s Choice” disturbing in its portrayal of naive and/or obsessed Jews who were continually having to be set straight by right-thinking non-Jews, so I’m willing to believe that Styron is guilty of a certain amount of racism and anti-Semitism that comes out in his works. Styron gets to portray the world as he sees it–and then the rest of us get to argue with him over whether he told the truth. Are you allowed to ask, “Is this work of art good for humanity or bad for it?” I think you are, just as you can ask, “Is this political policy good for humanity or bad for it?” or “Is this religious teaching good for humanity or bad for it?” If we feel free to condemn, say, Jim Jones or David Koresh or Torquemada as dangerous religious leaders, or to condemn Hitler and the Khmer Rouge as dangerous political movements, why can’t we condemn works of art and the artists who create them as bad for humanity as well? Then the issue becomes, are we CORRECT in our accusations? (People who say Islam is inherently a dangerous religion are, in my opinion, wrong, but you’re allowed to ask the question–the anti-Islamists just got the wrong answer. ) Why shouldn’t art be subject to the same kinds of questions are every other kind of human endeavor, and asked to justify itself on the same kinds of grounds?

    Scattered thoughts, & hopefully not too curmudgeonly. But the idea that art & politics occupy two separate realms, and that art has to keep defending its purity and complexity, instead of rolling up its sleeves and helping to save the planet with the rest of us, really leaves me dispirited.

  • Robin Bates

    Rachel, This is such a substantive, and brilliant, response that I think I need an entire post to share where your thoughts are leading me. Very quickly, I don’t mean to say that the world of art is purer or more important or more vital than the world of politics–and those artists who claim that it is often don’t acknowledge the political systems that they rely on. I do think there is a complicated dance between the two and that there have been times when a person’s art has come into conflict with the movement, or people in the movement, that he or she supports. (Brecht and East German Communism come to mind, but you probably know more about that particular case than I do.) Anyway, this is only the beginning of a very rich dialogue.

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