Monday, March 25, 2013
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
LITERATURE DOES NOT TELL YOU HOW TO VOTE
I won’t harangue you this week. I’ll merely drop a thought in your ear.
I just read a novel by Woody Guthrie, and I got to thinking how imaginative writers, poets, novelists and song-writers are sometimes annexed to political causes.
Guthrie was a case in point. His songs say something about poor folks and their lives and their hopes for better things, and that’s something that a wide audience can identify with. But it isn’t a political programme. Woody got taken up eagerly by the Greenwich Village Left, however, and was soon penning articles (“Woody Sez”) for the Daily Worker saying how great things were for plain folks in the Soviet Union and performing sundry other propaganda feats.
At which point I say – I can fully appreciate the singer-songwriter while at the same time rejecting his naïve politics. Because the skills and talents that make an imaginative writer are not necessary the same skills and talents that make a judicious political commentator. Poets, songwriters and novelists can give us a valid vision, but beware when they start preaching the means by which that vision is to be achieved.
I can grab examples from both the Right and the Left to illustrate this same point.
On the Right, W.B.Yeats. Brilliant poet, beyond dispute. One of the great ones from his early Celtic twilight stuff to the pithier Crazy Jane poems of his old age. But his ideology and politics? Lamentable swathes of half-baked mysticism, social elitism with lots of forelock-tugging to supposed aristocrats, and some years of beating the drum for home-grown Irish Fascism. Amazing that the man could write something as penetrating about political causes as “Easter 1916” and yet still fall for some of the 20th century’s worst claptrap.
Do I appreciate Yeats’ poetry any the less in regretting the nonsense of his beliefs and ideology? Indeed not. In fact I think I see more sharply the gulf that divides real literature like his from a political programme.
On the Left, I have to take it on trust that Pablo Neruda was a great love poet, because I don’t speak Spanish and have read only some translations of his stuff. While taking it on trust, however, I also have to report that Neruda was a simple-minded Stalinist in his political utterances. No matter how great his poetry is, it does not make him a man to trust in the matter of ideology.
I could fill up pages with sundry other examples. But the point should be clear enough.
I am not attempting to de-brain song, poetry and other literature. Of course imaginative writers can and do discuss ideas that have an impact on the world beyond the printed page. Literature is not just pure aestheticism or a self-referencing game. Great songs, poems and novels of protest, satire and social comment have been written. But the caveat still remains. The imaginative writer is no more astute in making political choices than anybody else is.
Therefore attempts to promote political parties and causes on the basis of an imaginative writer’s endorsement should be met sanely in the only possible way – with laughter.