Should Literature Be Personal or Political?

Similarly, there’s this fundamental tension between the domestic and the political that I’m always turning back to, this dichotomy of existence, and how we approach it as writers. Listen for a moment to this character in Chilean author Jose Donoso’s novel Curfew:

“I’d like to talk about music,” says the privileged girl turned guerrilla fighter, “but in my heart I’m afraid it would be frivolous.” 

Curfew is a story about life in Pinochet’s Chile 12 years after the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Salvador Allende. The woman drags her ex-lover through Santiago’s deserted streets after the midnight curfew, searching for the army officer who years ago made her pretend to scream in pain during a mock interrogation, a pretense that ultimately crippled the psyche and self-identity of this woman far more artfully than the rapes inflicted on her revolutionary sisters.      

In Chile, Mr. Donoso has said, “all personal pain had to have at least a political subtext,” a sentiment we mostly assign to the fringe in the United States. When I read this character’s chilling remark about the frivolity of music, I was reminded of the first time, back in 1981, that I heard Carolyn Forche read from her book of poetry, The Country Between Us, and withered under her soul-sickening descriptions: the Colonel’s burlap sack of human ears, cut like bullring trophies from the corpses of Salvadoran citizens caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, which often as not was a victim’s own house and own bed, in the middle of the night. I listened to the images of the disappeared, of poetry set to ashes in the public square, and then Forche told the audience what all of us know but so few of us Americans have believed up until 9/11:

There is nothing one man will not do to another.

The burden of that truth, expressed with the force of such simplicity, is crushing, almost guaranteeing a built-in shelf-life to all human endeavor and progress, all noble ideas and grand systems. Beware, warns Forche.  “There is nothing one man will not do to another."      

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. 

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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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