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Politics and Fiction

Morals are the husband and wife of literature

Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Nadine Gordimer passed away yesterday at the at the age of 90. Fiction, she wrote—quoting the OED—is "'the action of feigning or inventing imaginary existences, events, states of things.' … The more I ponder this, the more it amazes me; the more I challenge it." Writers, she concluded, needed to be "guerrillas of the imagination." This piece was originally published in The New Republic on November 18, 1991.

Three in a bed: it's a kinky cultural affair. I had better identify the partners.

Politics and morals, as concepts, need no introduction, although their relationship is ambiguous. But fiction has defining responsibilities that I shall question, so I shall begin right away with the basic, dictionary definition of what fiction is supposed to be. Fiction, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is "the action of feigning or inventing imaginary existences, events, states of things." Fiction, collectively, is prose novels and stories; and so poetry, according to the OED, is not fiction.

The more I ponder this, the more it amazes me; the more I challenge it. Does the poet not invent imaginary existences, events, states of things? If I should ask you to give examples of the powers of the poet's invention of imaginary existences and events, of the poet's matchless evocation of "states of things," all drawn, just as the prose writer's are, from life—from the fact of life—as the genie is smoked from the bottle, you could fill an evening with quotations. If fiction is the suprareal spirit of the imagination, then poetry is the ultimate fiction. In speaking of fiction, then, I should be understood to be including poetry.

What are morals doing in bed with fiction? Morals have bedded with storytelling ever since the magic of the imaginative capacity developed in the human brain—and to account for this faculty, in my ignorance of a scientific explanation of changes in the cerebrum, or whatever, I believe it was the inkling development of the notion that the truth about being alive might lie here, in the transforming imagination; that the harsh lessons of daily life, of coexistence of human with human, and with animals and nature, could be made sense of in the ordering properties of the transforming imagination working upon the "states of things."

With this faculty fully developed, great art in fiction can evolve in imaginative revelation to fit the crises also of an age after its own, undreamt of when it was written. Thus, Moby Dick can now be seen as an allegory of environmental tragedy. "The whale is the agent of cosmic retribution," Harry Levin has written: We have sought to destroy the splendid creature that is nature, believing we could survive only by "winning" a battle against nature; and now we see our death in the death of nature, brought about by ourselves. But the first product of the faculty of the imagination was, of course, religion. And from the gods (what a supreme feat of the imagination they were!), establishing a divine order out of the unseen, came the secular, down-to-soil-and-toil order of morals, so that humans could somehow live together, and in balance with other creatures.

Morals are the husband/wife of fiction. And politics? Politics somehow followed morals in, picking the lock and immobilizing the alarm system. At first it was in the dark, perhaps, and fiction thought that the embrace of politics was the embrace of morals, didn't know the difference. And this is understandable. Morals and politics have a family connection. The ancestry of politics is morality—way back, and generally accepted as forgotten. The resemblance certainly has faded. In the light of morning, however, if fiction accepts the third presence between the sheets, it is soon in full cognizance of who and what politics is. Let me carry my allegory just one generation further: From this kinky situation came two offspring, Conformity and Commitment. And you will know who fathered whom.

Until just two years ago I would have said that the pressures to write fiction that would conform to a specific morality, secular or religious, long had been, and still could be, safely ignored by writers. The Vatican still has its list of proscribed works, but in most countries one assumed that there was freedom of expression so far as religion was concerned. (There is an exception in certain American schools.) Blasphemy? A quaint taboo, outdated, like the dashes that used to appear between the first and last letters of four-letter words. Where censorship was rigidly practiced, in Eastern Europe, for example, and in the Soviet Union, the censors were concerned with what was considered politically subversive in literature, not with what might offend or subvert religious sensibilities. This was true even in my own country, South Africa, where the Dutch Reformed Church, with a particular form of Calvinistic prudery, had twisted religion to the service of racism and identified the church, including its sexual morality based on the supposed "purity" of one race, with the security of the state. A decade ago an actor in South Africa could not get away with exclaiming "My God!" on the stage, and Jesus Christ Superstar was banned; but by 1989 savage satire of the church and its morality was ignored. As for sexual permissiveness, full frontal nudity in films was not snipped by the censor's scissors.

But in holding this illusion about freedom of expression in the orbit of religious and sexual morality, I was falling into something like the ignorance that Islam finds reprehensible in the Judeo-Christian-Atheist world (more strange bedfellows …), the ignorance of the absolute conformity to religious taboos that is sacred to Islam. I should have known that that particular tradition of censorship was not evolving into tolerance, least of all into tolerance of the rights of non-Muslims, but was instead becoming an international gale force of growing religious fanaticism. Then came the holy war against The Satanic Verses, in which the enemy was a single fiction, a single writer, and the whole might and money of the Islamic world was deployed in the fatwa that sentenced Salman Rushdie to death.

It was then that I, like other writers, was stunned to know that situations in which religious persecution is turned on its head, and religion persecutes freedom (not only freedom of expression but a writer's freedom of movement and finally a writer's right to life itself) are back with us. And now, in a new decade of freedoms rising, we see that while a writer becomes president in one country, another writer is hounded to death throughout the world. We see how a religion has the power to terrorize through its followers around the world. Political refugees from repressive secular regimes can seek asylum elsewhere, but Rushdie has nowhere to go. Islam's edict of death takes terrorist jurisdiction everywhere, in contempt of the laws of any country.

Pre-Freudian hypocrisy, puritan prudery, may be forgotten. But the horror of what has happened to Rushdie is a hand fallen heavily on the shoulder of fictions pressures to write in conformity with a specific morality still can arrive, and pursue a writer with incredible vindictiveness, even if this is unlikely to happen to most writers.

Am I positing, then, that morals should be divorced from fiction? That fiction is free of any moral obligation? No. Fiction has a morality. Fiction's morality lies in taking the freedom to explore and to examine morals, including moral systems such as religions, with unafraid honesty. This has not been an easy relationship, whether in the ghastly extreme of Rushdie's experience or, say, in Flaubert's. Commenting on the indecency case against Madame Bovary after he won it in 1857, Flaubert wrote of the establishment of spurious literary values and the devaluation of real literary values that such a trial implies for fiction:

My book is going to sell unusually well….But I am infuriated when I think of the trial; it has deflected attention from the novel's artistic success…to such a point that all this row disquiets me profoundly….I long to… publish nothing; never to be talked of again.

The relationship of fiction to politics has not had the kind of husbandly or fatherly authoritarian sanction that fiction's relationship to morals, with their religious origins, lingeringly has. No literary critic I know suggests that moralizing—as opposed to "immorality"—has no place in fiction, whereas many works of fiction are declared "spoiled" by the writer's recognition of politics as a great motivation of character, as great a motivation as sex or religion. Of course, this lack of sanction is characteristic of an affair, a wild affair in which great tensions arise, embraces and repulsions succeed one another, distress and celebration are confused, loyalty and betrayal change place, accusations fly. And whether the fiction writer gets involved with politics through his or her convictions as a citizen, pushing from within against the necessary detachment of the writer, or through the pressure of seduction from without, the same problems in the relationship must be dealt with, in the fiction as well as in the life.

For when have writers not lived in times of political conflict? Whose Golden Age, whose Belle Epoque, whose Roaring Twenties were those so-named lovely times? The time of slave and peasant misery, while sculptors sought perfect proportions of the human torso? The time of revolutionaries in Czar Alexander's prisons, while Grand Dukes built mansions in Nice? The time of the hungry and the unemployed, offered the salvation of fascism while playboys and girls danced balancing glasses of pink champagne?

When, explicitly or implicitly, could writers evade politics? Even those writers who have seen fiction as the pure exploration of language, as the equivalent of music in the exploration of sound, even the babbling of Dada and the page-shuffling attempts of Burroughs, have all been a revolt against the politically imposed spirit of their respective times—literary movements that were an act (however far-out an act) of acknowledgment of a relationship between politics and fiction.

It seems that there is no getting away from the relationship. We live, on the one hand, in what Seamus Heaney calls a world where the 

undirected play of the imagination is regarded at best as luxury or licentiousness, at worst as heresy or treason. In ideal republics…it is a common expectation that the writer will sign over his or her venturesome and potentially disruptive activity into the keeping of official doctrine, traditional system, a party line, whatever.

When he entered the order of the Jesuits, Gerard Manley Hopkins felt obliged to abandon poetry "as not having to do with my vocation," a submission of the imagination to religious orthodoxy exactly comparable to the one that is demanded of writers, in many instances in our epoch, by political orthodoxies. We are shocked by such clear cases of creativity outlawed.

But things are not always so drastically simple. Not every writer of fiction who enters into a relationship with politics trades imagination for the hair shirt of the party hack. There is also the case of the writer whose imaginative powers are genuinely roused by, and involved with, the spirit of politics as she or he personally experiences it. This may be virtually inescapable in times and in places of socially seismic upheaval. Society shakes, the walls of entities fall. The writer has known the evil, the indifference, or the cupidity of the old order, and the spirit of creativity naturally pushes toward new growth. The writer is moved to fashion an expression of a new order, accepted on trust as an advance in human freedom that therefore will be the release of a greater creativity.

"Russia became a garden of nightingales. Poets sprang up as never before. People barely had the strength to live but they were all singing": so wrote Andrey Bely in the early days of the Russian Revolution. And one of Pasternak's latest biographers, Peter Levi, notes that Pasternak—popularly known to the West, on the evidence of his disillusioned Dr. Zhivago, as the anti-Communist writer—contributed manifestos in his younger days to the "infighting of the day." In a poem to Stalin he sang:

We want the glorious. We want the good. We want to see things free

from fear. Unlike some fancy fop, the spendthrift of his bright,

brief span, we yearn for labor shared by everyone, for the common

discipline of law.

This yearning is addressed by writers in different ways, as fiction seeks a proper relation with politics. In the Soviet Union of Pasternak's day, some fell into what the Italian writer Claudio Magris calls, in a different context, and with devastating cynicism, "a sincere but perverted passion for freedom, which led…into mechanical servitude, as is the way with sin." The noble passion deteriorated into the tragically shabby, as the Writers' Union in the 1930s turned on itself to beat out all but mediocrities mouthing platitudes, driving Mayakovsky to suicide and turning down Pasternak's plea to be granted somewhere other than a freezing partitioned slice of a room in which to write and to live.

Yet Pasternak had not abandoned belief—he never did—in the original noble purpose of revolution. When Trotsky asked why he had begun to abstain from social themes, Pasternak wrote to a friend, "I told him My Sister, Life [his then recent book] was revolutionary in the best sense of the word. That the phase of the revolution closest to the heart … the morning of the revolution, and its outburst [is] when it returns man to the nature of man and looks at the state with the eyes of natural right." But for him the writing of this period had become, by the edicts of the State and the Writers' Union, "a train derailed and lying at the bottom of an embankment." In this choice of an image there is a kind of desperate subconscious assertion of the creativity so threatened in himself and in his fellow writers, since trains, perhaps symbolic of the pace at which the meaning of life passes, recur so often in Pasternak's work.

Yeats's "terrible beauty" of the historic moments when people seek a new order to "return man to the nature of man," a state of "natural right," does not always make politics the murderer of fiction. The Brechts and the Nerudas survive, keeping that vision. But the relation, like all vital ones, always implies a danger. The first dismaying discovery for the writer is again best expressed by Magris's cynicism: that "the lie is quite as real as the truth, it works upon the world, transforms it." The fiction writer, however, in pursuit of truth beyond the guise of reasoning, has always believed that truth, however elusive, is the only reality.

But we have seen the lie transforming. We have had Goebbels. And we have had his international descendants, practicing precisely such a transformation on the people of a number of countries, including the white people of my own country, who accepted the lie that apartheid was both divinely decreed and secularly just, and created a society on it.

To be aware that the lie can transform the real world places an enormous responsibility on art: it must counter this lie with its own transformations. The knowledge gained by the writer's searching and intuition instinctively contradicts the lie:

We page through each other's faces

we read each looking eye …

It has taken lives to be able to do so

writes the South African poet Mongane Wally Serote. We may refuse to write according to any orthodoxy, we may refuse to toe any party line, even that drawn by the cause we know to be just, and our own; but we cannot refuse the responsibility of what we know. What we know beyond surface reality has to become (again in Serote's words) what "we want the world to know." We must in this, our inescapable relation with politics, "page for wisdom through the stubborn night."

At its crudest and most easily identifiable, the stubborn night is politically inspired censorship, and in some countries (read the pages of the Index on Censorship) it is imprisonment and torture. But even in countries where no writer is locked up or beaten for his fiction, and censorship is minimal and open to challenge by the law, fiction may be threatened by the power of the lie. Harold Pinter has spoken recently of

a disease at the very center of language, so that language becomes a permanent masquerade, a tapestry of lies. The ruthless and cynical mutilation and degradation of human beings, both in spirit and body...these actions are justified by rhetorical gambits, sterile terminology and concepts of power which stink. Are we ever going to look at the language we use, I wonder? Is it within our capabilities to do so? … Does reality essentially remain outside language, separate, obdurate, alien, not susceptible to description? Is an accurate and vital correspondence between what is and our perception of it impossible? Or is it that we are obliged to use language only in order to obscure and distort reality—to distort what is—to distort what happens—because we fear it? I believe it's because of the way we use language that we have got ourselves into this terrible trap, where words like freedom, democracy, and Christian values are still used to justify barbaric and shameful policies and acts.

The writer has no reason to be if reality remains, for him or for her, outside language. The writer must seek an accurate and vital correspondence between what is and his or her perception of what is, finding the real meaning of words to express "the states of things," shedding the ready-made concepts smuggled into language by politics.

All very fine in theory, yes. But how would you refer in a novel to the term "Final Solution," coined by the Nazis? Or to the term "Bantustans," coined by the South African government in the 1960s to cover up the dispossession of blacks of their citizenship rights and land? Or, for that matter, to the term "constructive engagement," coined by the government of the United States in the 1980s for its policy toward apartheid? How would you refer to all these counterfeits of reality without a paragraph of explanation (which has no place in a novel) of what they actually were? The false currency of meaning jingles conveniently in our vocabularies; but it is no small change.

It becomes accepted value, and for this writers bear responsibility. Every fiction writer, therefore, must struggle to expose it, by discarding it in favor of the reality of the "states of things." (Journalism, which is supposed to be "fact" as opposed to "fiction," generally will not accomplish this.) Here, on the primal level of language itself, by which we became the first self-questioning animals, the ones able to assess our own behavior, is where fiction finds its footing in relation to politics.

My own country, South Africa, provides what can be cited as the paradigm of the problems of the full development of the relationship. Perhaps echoes of the present debate over what postapartheid fiction will be, ought to be, have reached you. Of course, the very term "postapartheid fiction" reveals an acceptance that there has been, that there is, such an orthodoxy as "apartheid fiction," or more accurately, "anti-apartheid fiction." In the long struggle against apartheid, it has been recognized that an oppressed people needs the confidence of cultural backing. Literature, including fiction, became what is known as "a weapon of struggle."

There is now a debate taking place among the writers. There are those who, perceiving that the cost was the constraint of the writer's imaginative powers within what was seen narrowly as relevant to the political struggle, think that the time has come for writers to release themselves, if they are to be imaginatively equal to the fullness of human life that is predicated for the future. (The revolutionary and writer Albie Sachs, with the undeniable authority of a man who lost an arm and the sight of one eye in the struggle, has gone so far as to call, if half-seriously, for a five-year ban on the slogan "culture is a weapon of struggle.") And there are others who believe that literature must still be perceived as a weapon in the hands, must still exist under the direction of the liberation movement come to power in a future democracy.

But there are some writers who have been—I adapt Heaney's phrase to my own context—"guerrillas of the imagination": In their fiction they serve the struggle for freedom by refusing any imposed orthodoxy of subject and treatment, but they also further the struggle by attempting to take unfettered creative grasp of the complex "states of things" in which, all through people's lives, directly and indirectly, in dark places and light, that struggle has taken place. As a citizen, as a South African actively opposed to racism all my life, as a supporter and now a member of the African National Congress, in my conduct and my actions, I have myself submitted voluntarily and with self-respect to the discipline of the liberation movement. For my fiction, however, I have claimed and practiced my integrity to the free transformation of reality, in whatever forms and modes of expression I need. There, my commitment has been to make sense of life as I know it and observe it and experience it. In my few ventures into non-fiction, in my few political essays, my partisanship has no doubt shown my bias, and perhaps a selectivity of facts. But then, nothing I write in such "factual" pieces will be as true as my fiction.

So if my fiction and that of other writers has legitimately served the politics in which I believe, it has been because the imaginative transformations of fiction, in the words of the Swedish writer Per Wästberg, "help people understand their own natures and know they are not powerless." "Every work of art is liberating," he asserts, speaking for all who write. That should be the understanding on which fiction enters into a relationship with politics, however passionate the involvement may be. The transformation of the imagination must never "belong" to any establishment, however just, however fought for, however longed for. Pasternak's words should be our credo:

When seats are assigned to passion and vision

On the day of the great assembly

Do not reserve a poet's position:

It is dangerous, if not empty.