Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

The truth of Forche’s declaration burns our eyes and churns in our guts and still, somehow, we shrug it off and retreat to our cultural swaddle of trivialities, our fatuous romps with celebrities and their apparently delicious transgressions.

In the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, what was the fighting about in Chile, in El Salvador, in Nicaragua, in Argentina and Haiti, in the Philippines, and South Africa, and East Timor? The righteous leaders of each liberation movement were battling, as often as not, and with the blessings of the people, in their own self-interest for their personal access to the dangerous glories, and wealth of possibilities, of power. And as often as not, first came the years of sacrifice in the name of the people, then came the members-only feast at the same table where the old regime of vampires had gorged itself.

Yet what were the people fighting for–the yous and mes, the ordinary lives on the street?

Not for power but for freedom, of course, for liberty, for freedoms long familiar to affluent Americans, freedoms refined (or under W’s administration, eroded) daily in our courts and legislative houses. And how simple and basic they were, these freedoms. Freedom to have a mouth, to use that mouth for eating and speaking. Freedom to possess eyes and ears, to use them without fear. Freedom to follow one’s nose into the kitchens of the State to see what’s cooking.

And freedom most of all to have a mind and to exercise it and, having a mind, freedom to have an imagination obsessed and infatuated with the world and, having an imagination, freedom to be silly or serious, freedom to be entertaining or enlightening, freedom to be dedicated to higher cause or indulgent in lesser pleasure. To be this, or that, or ... frivolous. To be always, and fully, human. To be frivolous then was itself an important political expression, de facto and oblique but nevertheless a reflection of social reality, a statement of high significance. It said: I am free. Free from the terror and hopelessness that would rot my soul. If we shall perish, it will be from our own hands, through our own stupidity, and that is our right as a free people.

Yet even as we recognize the value of frivolity as the reflection of a political state of grace, we understand that as an aesthetic agenda frivolity places us on very thin ice, far away from the metrics of determining which stories are most worth telling.

Here are the atmospheric and genuinely metaphysic poles of creativity then: frivolity and seriousness. If, for the sake of argument, I skew the definition of frivolity to represent inwardness—that is, away from the State and the commonwealth and the wider social fabric—and political apathy, I can tag its traits onto the Literature of Domestic Experience. The Literature of the Uninterrupted Life, where only natural death, inner conflict, or happenstance of undirected fate—a car wreck, for instance, or breast cancer–disturbs the flow of intimacy, or jolts the isolation from intimacy. I am speaking of a self largely untaxed by history, which is also a self that cultivates an ignorance of history, and I am speaking of writers as the purveyors of the myth of American innocence, inhabiting a literary consciousness where one would be sullied and contaminated by contact with politics and power and its endless manifestations of corruption. Spinning at the opposite end of this globe of existence is the Literature of Political Experience. 

How to reconcile the two? Back in the ‘80s, the great Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, told an interviewer that, “Twenty years ago I was in Africa and this is what I saw: I went from revolution to coup d’etat, from one war to another. I witnessed in effect history in the making, real history, contemporary history, our history.

“But I was also surprised: I never saw a writer. I never met a poet or philosopher—even a sociologist. Where were they? Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere. Then I would return to Europe and I would find them. They would be at home, writing their little domestic stories:

“The boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy, the marriage, the divorce—in short, the same story we’ve been reading over and over again for a thousand years ... None of these books had anything to do with our world, our reality—nothing. There was one book about an unwanted child; and another about a boy, a girl, the laughing, the intimacy...”

Certainly it doesn’t matter the nationality of the western literature Kapuscinski is admonishing with, of course, self-serving dismay. But how are we to answer him? American writers are annually bombarded with criticism from our global colleagues for writing fiction in which everyone seems to be middle class, lives in the suburbs, and sees a psychiatrist (forget that these critics don’t always know what they’re talking about—we get their point). American writers: members of a group accused of having a broken vision, no longer able to evoke gutsy passions. Who said these things: a Chinese novelist, a South African poet, an Israeli novelist. Their comments are typical of the point of view shared by foreign writers who customarily attend the International PEN Congress in New York.

But if the story of the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy has been told repeatedly for a thousand years, then most certainly it’s a story humanity cannot afford to lose, a story that reflects our natures too well to ignore, a story of pure merit and fundamental vitality that we can’t cut adrift from our ethos without unmooring our own sensibilities as well, and eroding the meaning of our existence.

Of course there is something unsatisfactory and incomplete about this response, and the issue needs amplification. Isn’t it true that the potency of fiction and poetry derives not from the difference between a lie and the truth (which is the business of journalism, of information, to distinguish one from the other) nor from the friction between illusion and reality (which is the realm of the purely metaphysical disciplines) but rather from the divine cosmic dissonance that rings through the millennium from the clash of profound truths, one slamming against the other?

For instance, everything life gives us, it eventually takes away. For instance, this aphorism from Hemingway: “If two people are truly in love, there’s no way it can all end happily.” For instance, we had to destroy the village to save it.

Indeed, the opposite of a lie is the truth, but the opposite of a profound truth might very well be another profound truth. Yes, this is irony, but not the petty irony of lies and facts, not the trickster irony of reality diddled by illusion. It is the irony of essences, and it is the furnace of meaning where all that we might understand about our existence through the wide open eyes of literature and art is smelted down to its richest and most penetrating form, and the boy, the girl, the laughing, the intimacy are as capable of revealing those essences as anything else. The potential is there, as it is everywhere.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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