Literature vs. Propaganda

By Justman, Stewart | Salmagundi, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Literature vs. Propaganda


Justman, Stewart, Salmagundi


Bakhtin's magnum opus, The Dialogic Imagination, opens with a dazzling exposition of the differences between Epic and Novel, the former a world where things are known and shown in full, and which therefore contains no further possibilities, the latter a world in the process of unfolding, like the present moment itself. All of Bakhtin's sympathies lie with the Novel side of this antithesis. Indeed, when he portrays epic discourse as absolute and authoritarian , "demanding a pious attitude toward itself," it is hard not to suppose that he had in mind Soviet propaganda with its epic grandiosity and brute fantasy of a paradise that lay at the end of time, the consummation of history. The Bakhtinian novel is everything propaganda is not: a world of verbal richness, free air, and skeptical irreverence toward prescriptive or final truths. While Bakhtin's understanding of Epic isn't really useful as a tool for the study of Homer, the evocative power of his opposition between Epic and Novel does get us thinking about the differences between propaganda and literature. Perhaps if this remarkable thinker had been able to speak more freely (and even so, it is a wonder he survived Stalin), he would have addressed himself to that question. The reader of Bakhtin has the impression that modern novelistic prose got its start sometime in the later Middle Ages. If so, then it developed in counterpoint with propaganda- specifically, the propaganda of the Crusades.

All regimes exalt themselves, but not all regimes seek to spread, to propagate, a supposedly universal message. Among the original enterprises of that kind was the concerted effort to defeat and convert, by the force of argument, the Islamic empire that so embarrassed, threatened, and outraged the Latin West in the era of the Crusades. The West waged a war of rhetoric and caricature against Islam, as it also waged war on the ground. (As in the Cold War, Western military force might harass its redoubtable opponent at the edges of his empire, but could not really touch the citadel of his power.) As if militarized in response to this adversary, the propaganda of the West was both aggressive and defensive, and by branding Islam a religion of lies it implied that nothing said by Islam could be believed. These were indeed ideal conditions for propaganda: a civilization ideologically armed with trained clerics, and convinced that its religion was the one true faith, confronted the disturbing fact of another civilization, by no means its inferior, committed to its faith, recognizing Jesus, but not as savior, and claiming as its own the city of Jerusalem envisaged by Christendom as the center of the world. Crusade and jihad were themselves mirror images. Perhaps if Islam didn't share quite so much with Christianity, including the latter's universalism, it would not have appeared to medieval Christendom a kind of distorting mirror in which the truth was bent into falsehood (the Trinity, for example, being parodied in a fanciful trio of Saracen idols, Termagant or Tervagant, Apollo, and Muhammad himself, as in the Song of Roland). According to Christian propaganda, Islam, the arch-enemy of Christendom, was a creed of sensual license as well as violence, founded by a practitioner of deceit . All three of the categories of sin in Dante 's Inferno - incontinence , violence, fraud- have a share in this propaganda-image, making Islam appear the very summation of wickedness.

If the literature of Europe in the later Middle Ages had been claimed by propaganda, it might have served up at every opportunity such caricatures of the Saracen as figure in the romances parodied by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales- romances like King Horn, where the newly knighted hero suddenly encounters a crew of "hethene honde" (hounds):

The Sarazins he smatte [smote]

That his blöd hatte [heated];

At evereche dunte [dint]

The heved [head] of [off] wente. . .

He slogh [slew] ther on haste

On hundred bi the laste,

Ne mighte noman telle

That fole that he gan [did] quelle [kill] .

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