Recently, there’s been much interesting discussion bouncing about Overland about whether literature can – or should be – ‘political’. And it’s not long before such questions transform into an argument about the use – or the necessary uselessness – of art. The various interlocutors seem to have found cautious middle ground in the agreement that the use of literature is to be literature.
As Jeff Sparrow commented earlier this month in a fascinating essay on the political in art, ‘literature matters as literature’. That is to say, in articulating the manifold complexities of being alive in a particular time and place, literature broadens our capacities to perceive and to think about who we are. As Sparrow comments of the war poets of 1914-18:
Counterattack is not The Junius Pamphlet, and anyone who mistook the one for each other was sorely mistaken. In terms of politics, Sassoon’s work didn’t – couldn’t – do the same work as Luxemburg’s. But that’s not to say that poetic engagement with the war was a waste of time. Poetry does different things, operates on a different level, provides different kind of knowledge.
I’ve made variations of my own on this assertion. And it’s fair to say that the merest hint that a utilitarian ethos be brought to artistic work makes me instinctively bristle. And yet … there’s an uncomfortable circularity in this argument that I can’t but prod. It might well be that this signals a certain defeat: that I feel that we are in such crisis as a culture and civilisation, that it is now all but impossible even to think about art without implying some extrinsic use.
Underneath my prodding lies a fundamental unease. Is it possible now for art to point towards an alternative reality that transcends its own complicities in the world in which it exists, without that being the merest nonsense, a meaningless fancy? It’s a doubt that was most harshly articulated by Theodor Adorno after World War 2:
Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself with the final stage of the dialectic between culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric… Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely.
This statement has been much misunderstood: Adorno wasn’t forbidding poets to write, or philosophers to philosophise. Speaking out of the great cultural scar of post-Nazi Germany, he was posing a fundamental question: whether culture, which is supposed to be the defining other pole of barbarism, might be implicated by the very processes of its thought in barbarism itself. It’s a question that has yet to find any satisfactory answer, although it’s generated endless discussion, not all of it ‘idle chatter’.
The idea of utilitarianism – the anaesthetising, as it were, of art – is central to Adorno’s extremely complex questionings about art, culture and society: he makes short work, for instance, of Jean Paul Sartre’s argument for the politically committed artist by pointing out that it differs very little from the conservative notion that art ought to ‘give you something’. And this polarity pretty much sums up the argument about political engagement that has been swirling around Overland: the spectre of utilitarianism, whether conceived as mass product or political didactism, versus the necessary moral and aesthetic freedom of the writer.
And yet …
Despite myself, I find myself asking: freedom to do what? To satisfy some individualistic thrill? To fiddle as Rome burns? To make art that justifies itself as art? Is that enough? Doesn’t standing proudly besides art’s essential uselessness in a time of such urgency seem a little … self-indulgent?
Unsupple questions, to be sure. Worse, they’re questions that stab at the heart of my vocation as a writer, which places itself passionately on the side of imaginative possibility and freedom. But they assert themselves nevertheless. What price literary purity if the planet can no longer support our civilisation?
The environmental crisis in all its myriad forms – climate change, mass species extinction, destruction of natural habitats and so on – seems like the ultimate fruition of Adorno’s warnings against reification. In turning ourselves, our work and our world into objects, we are suicidally destroying the natural world, and with it seriously threatening, at the very least, the survival of our civilisation.
In a dark Adornian nightmare, all values are now unquestioningly subsumed in economic value. And it may be, as George Monbiot conceded earlier this month, that the only way to defend the natural world might be literally to put a price on it. This might seem the very essence of corruption and oppression: the forced acceptance of certain values in order to defend what otherwise will be destroyed by those very values.
The Austrian novelist Robert Musil, writing in anguish about the expulsion of Jews from German universities in the 1930s, claimed that the ultimate political oppression for a writer was to be forced to be political. It may be that writers now face a similar dilemma: contemplating the current environmental crisis is an inescapably political act, yet is it possible, as a human being alive now, not to think about it? There’s no way of bailing out of Planet Earth.
If there is any way out of this bind beyond absolute negation or irony, both literary stances that have been gleefully appropriated by the mass media, you can send me the answers on a postcard. I don’t pretend to have any answers myself, or even to have proposed the right questions. It may be that the only answer is in the struggle itself. All the same, it seems to me that a literature that refuses to sully its purity with these urgencies is no more than what its critics claim: a self-indulgent middle-class wank.