Literature Pursued by Politics

By Goytisolo, Juan | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Literature Pursued by Politics

Goytisolo, Juan, The Review of Contemporary Fiction

In the course of recent international meetings of writers and artists-not only in Leningrad, Edinburgh or Florence, but also in Formentor or Madrid--the relations between politics and literature, the concepts of art for art's sake vs. that of art serving a Cause, have been the obligatory topic of discussion. A growing lack of confidence in the value of literature impels a considerable number of writers to seek a justification of their work based on reasons extrinsic to art. Positions are defended with uncompromising rigidity and the impartial spectator often has the feeling of attending a dispute among deaf men. "Literature and politics are two different things," some say. "Literature, once it is published, is a social fact and, as such, fulfills a political function," others answer. In reality, things are not as clear-cut as they first seem, nor are they as simple. These hastily formulated alternatives, these concepts of art-as-end or art-as-means, are far from resolving the problems we intellectuals confront; rather, they avoid them and, perhaps, complicate them. It's really a matter of superficial definitions that, instead of circumscribing and delimiting the topic, let it slither around and slip away altogether, as well as a matter of apparent dilemmas that, if we examine them more closely, neither contain nor could contain any truth or possibility of truth.

In a recent essay entitled "Literature Pursued by Politics," Alain Robbe-Grillet criticized the politicization of the work of art in these terms: "Writers are not necessarily political brains. And it's no doubt normal for most of them to limit themselves, in this field, to short, vague thoughts. But why do they feel such a need to express them in public at every opportunity? ... I believe, simply, that they're ashamed of being writers and live in perpetual terror they'll be reproached with it, be asked why they write, what good they are, what their role in society is.... The writer suffers, like everyone, over the misfortune of his fellow human beings; it's dishonest to pretend he writes to allay it.... The writer can't know what end he's serving. Literature isn't a means he's to place at the service of some Cause."

The observations of the chief theorist of the nouveau roman are relevant, beyond a doubt, but need some clarifications. To assess them properly, it seems to me necessary, above all, to situate them in their historical context as the concrete expression of the writer's aspirations in a given society. In France, where freedom of thought and speech are a reality, and equality of political rights is no empty formula, the novelist's relation to the public is entirely different, for example, than the one existing in Spain and the Latin American countries. The reason is very simple.

When the social and economic conflicts that constitute the dynamic evolutionary force of a country can be freely aired through the natural outlets for the expression of conflicting interests, the writer's social responsibility to the public is not the same as in those other nations where the interests and aspirations of different pressure groups find no legal outlet for expression. The peculiar status of French society--rid of the anachronism of colonial wars, free of the "danger" of revolution thanks to the prodigious technical transformation brought about by neocapitalism, etc.--favors the growth of a literature that, to use Vittorini's formula, tends to move from the level of consolation, from the level of guiding awareness, to that of probing and seeking, that of fruitful answers, that of knowledge. On the other hand, in those countries either underdeveloped or in the preliminary stages of development--as Spain is today--literature strives to reflect political and social reality, and if this task were abandoned it would bring as an immediate consequence the writing of an imitative literature, a simple rehash of writing in those countries that, like England, Germany and France, have reached a higher political, cultural and economic level, only leaving out innovative literary technique, which leads, logically, to the growth of a literature that, confronting reality with old worn-out formulas, does so with an anachronistic focus, a holdover from our grandfather's naturalism. …

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