Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume III, Number 44 December 7 - 13, 2003 Quezon City, Philippines
Silence Of Writers
by John Pilger
the great writers of the 20th century, art could not be separated from politics.
Today, there is a disturbing silence on the dark matters that should command our
1935, the first Congress of American Writers was held at the Carnegie Hall in
New York, followed by another two years later. By one account, 3,500 crammed
into the auditorium and a thousand more were turned away. They were electric
events, with writers discussing how they could confront ominous events in
Abyssinia, China and Spain. Telegrams from Thomas Mann, C Day Lewis, Upton
Sinclair and Albert Einstein were read out, reflecting the fear that great power
was now rampant and that it had become impossible to discuss art and literature
writer," Martha Gellhorn told the second congress, "must be a man of
action now... A man who has given a year of his life to steel strikes, or to the
unemployed, or to the problems of racial prejudice, has not lost or wasted time.
He is a man who has known where he belonged. If you should survive such action,
what you have to say about it afterwards is the truth, is necessary and real,
and it will last."
words echo across the silence today. That the menace of great and violent power
in our own times is apparently accepted by celebrated writers, and by many of
those who guard the gates of literary criticism, is uncontroversial. Not for
them the impossibility of writing and promoting literature bereft of politics.
Not for them the responsibility to speak out - a responsibility felt by even the
unpolitical Ernest Hemingway.
realism is declared obsolete; an ironic hauteur is affected; false symbolism is
all. As for the readers, their political imagination is to be pacified, not
primed; after all, what do they care? Martin Amis expressed this well in
Visiting Mrs Nabokov: "The dominance of the self is not a flaw, it is an
evolutionary characteristic; it is just how things are."
it is "evolution". We have evolved to the apolitical self; to the
introspection and squabbles of individuals divorced from any notion that their
self-obsession is less important and less interesting than an engagement with
how things really are for the rest of us.
years ago, the then budding literary critic D J Taylor wrote a rare piece called
"When the pen sleeps". He expanded this into a book, A Vain Conceit,
in which he wondered why the English novel so often degenerated into
"drawing room twitter" and why the urgent issues of the day were
shunned by writers, unlike their counterparts in, say, Latin America who felt an
obligation to take up the political essence in all our lives and which shapes
he asked, were the George Orwells, the Upton Sinclairs, the John Steinbecks?
(Taylor recently seemed to be repudiating this; let's hope he has recovered his
main literature prize shortlists bear out his original thesis. Yet according to
Claire Armistead, literary editor of the Guardian, "writers are challenging
any sort of parochialism". But what else do they challenge? She describes
"a real generic inventiveness" in the three non-fiction nominations of
the Guardian Book Award. One is about a neurologist who plays with words in a
"totally eccentric" way; another is about mountains; another is about
the former East Germany which, she says, "makes you understand a little
better what a funny old world we live in".
where are the contemporary works that go to the heart of this funny old world,
as the books of Steinbeck and Joseph Heller did? Where is the equivalent of
Eduardo Galeano's Open Veins of Latin America, Jonathan Coe's What a Carve-Up!
and Timothy Mo's The Redundancy of Courage? There are, of course, honourable
exceptions. You can buy James Kelman's collection And the Judges Said... in W H
Smith, which proves that books that rescue true politics from the Westminster
media village's "bantering inconsequence" (to borrow from F Scott
Fitzgerald) are wanted very much by the public.
there are countless books by little-known authors, produced by ever-struggling
publishers such as Pluto and Zed, which illuminate, sometimes brilliantly, the
shadows of rapacious power and which are ignored in the so-called mainstream. No
doubt, they are deemed "political"; and unless politics can be
diminished to its stereotypes and, better still, turned into a TV drama, no
all, as one critic who dominates the reviews of paperback non-fiction, wrote:
the suggestion that social democracy is threatened by the insane march of George
Bush and his attendant McCarthyism is, well, "silly". No matter that
when you fly to the United States you lose the basic civil liberty of your
privacy; that your name alone can lead to body searches, as Edward Said
frequently experienced; that the FBI now routinely inspects the reading lists of
are dangerous times, and surreal. Column after column is devoted to the Martin
Amis cult: he who describes politics as having "withered away in this
country, and that's a great tribute to its highly evolved character", and
who sneers at the great anti-capitalist and anti-war demonstrations as
"really [about] anti-politics; they're protesting about politics
the Guardian rejoices in the new-found humanity of the former US secretary of
state Madeleine Albright as she promotes her autobiography, Madam Secretary,
there is not a single reference to the fact that this same woman, when asked if
the deaths of 500,000 children in Iraq as a result of American-driven sanctions
were a price worth paying, replied: "We think the price is worth it."
The headline over her smiling face read: "I loved what I did."
truth is replaced by silence," the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko
said, "the silence is a lie." No writers' congress today worries about
the lies and crimes of George Bush and Tony Blair. It is gratifying that the
playwright David Hare has broken his silence ("America provides the
firepower; we provide the bullshit") and joined the courageous dissident
is an urgency now. A Downing Street document, circulated among
"progressive" European governments, wants a world order in which
western powers have the authority to attack any other sovereign country. In six
years, Blair has sent British troops to take part in five conflicts, and he
wants yet more bloodletting. The document echoes his views on "rights and
responsibilities" - to kill and devastate people in faraway places, thereby
endangering and diminishing all of us.
would George Orwell make of this? There is a series of Orwell events planned to
mark the centenary of his birth. Most of those participating are politically
safe or accredited liberal warriors. What if Orwell had turned Animal Farm and
Nineteen Eighty-Four into parables about thought control in relatively free
societies, in which he identified the disciplined minds of the corporate state
and the invisible boundaries of liberal control and the latest fashions in
emperor's clothes? Would they still celebrate him?
won't say..." wrote Bertolt Brecht in "In Dark Times", "...
when the great wars were being prepared for... they won't say: the times were
dark. Rather: why were their poets silent?"
article first appeared in the New Statesman - www.newstatesman.com
November 10, 2003