The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals

By Said, Edward W. | The Nation, September 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Public Role of Writers and Intellectuals


Said, Edward W., The Nation


In everyday usage in the languages and cultures with which I am familiar, a "writer" is a person who produces literature--that is, a novelist, poet, dramatist. I think it is generally true that in all cultures writers have a separate, perhaps even more honorific, place than do "intellectuals"; the aura of creativity and an almost sanctified capacity for originality (often vatic in scope and quality) accrues to writers as it doesn't at all to intellectuals, who with regard to literature belong to the slightly debased and parasitic class of "critics." Yet at the dawn of the twenty-first century the writer has taken on more and more of the intellectual's adversarial attributes in such activities as speaking the truth to power, being a witness to persecution and suffering, and supplying a dissenting voice in conflicts with authority. Signs of the amalgamation of one to the other would have to include the Salman Rushdie case in all its ramifications; the formation of numerous writers' parliaments and congresses devoted to such issues as intolerance, the dialogue of cultures, civil strife (as in Bosnia and Algeria), freedom of speech and censorship, truth and reconciliation (as in South Africa, Argentina, Ireland and elsewhere); and the special symbolic role of the writer as an intellectual testifying to a country's or region's experience, thereby giving that experience a public identity forever inscribed in the global discursive agenda.

The easiest way of demonstrating this is simply to list the names of some (but by no means all) recent Nobel Prize winners, then to allow each name to trigger in the mind an emblematized region, which in turn can be seen as a sort of platform or jumping-off point for that writer's subsequent activity as an intervention, in debates taking place very far from the world of literature. Thus Nadine Gordimer, Kenzaburo Oe, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Elie Wiesel, Bertrand Russell, Gunter Grass, Rigoberta Menchu, among several others.

Now it is also true, as Pascale Casanova has brilliantly shown in her synoptic book La Republique mondiale des lettres, that, fashioned over the past 150 years, there seems to be a global system of literature now in place, complete with its own order of literariness (litterarite), tempo, canon, internationalism and market values. The efficiency of the system is that it seems to have generated the types of writers that she discusses as belonging to such different categories as assimilated, dissident and translated figures--all of them both individualized and classified in what she shows is a highly efficient, globalized, quasi-market system. The drift of her argument is to show that this powerful and all-pervasive system can go even as far as stimulating a kind of independence from itself, as in cases like Joyce and Beckett, writers whose language and orthography do not submit to the laws either of state or of system.

Much as I admire it, however, the overall achievement of Casanova's book is nevertheless contradictory. She seems to be saying that literature as globalized system has a kind of integral autonomy to it that places it in large measure just beyond the gross realities of political institutions and discourse, a notion that has a certain theoretical plausibility to it when she puts it in the form of un espace litteraire internationale, with its own laws of interpretation, its own dialectic of individual work and ensemble, its own problematics of nationalism and national languages. But she doesn't go as far as Adorno in saying, as I would too, that one of the hallmarks of modernity is how, at a very deep level, the aesthetic and the social need to be kept in a state of irreconcilable tension. Nor does she spend enough time discussing the ways in which the literary, or the writer, is still implicated--indeed frequently mobilized for use--in the great post-cold war cultural contests of the world's altered political configurations. …

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