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.
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.