Sunday, January 04, 2009

Art and the leash

I spend a lot of time -- perhaps an inordinate, shameful amount of time -- surfing the lit-blogosphere. This is partly the result of my living overseas and needing some way to keep in touch. It's also a reflection of a belief the lit-blogosphere matters, and that the Internet, despite its many short-comings, represents one of the best paths for literature to save itself.

One thing that has recently struck me, however, is the near-total silence surrounding the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I'm speaking of course of silence in the lit-blogosphere; there's no shortage of coverage -- and opinion-expressing -- elsewhere. And maybe this is partly the result of disaster-fatigue: a seemingly interminable state of strife between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, the war two-and-a-half years ago between Israel and Hezbollah (in fact, a war whose territory covered most of southern Lebanon), and half-acknowledged "low-intensity" conflicts in Darfur, areas of the Congo, the southern Philippines and southern Thailand are now coated by the thick patina of domestic, economic disaster. Numbness is a natural response to this much in the way of interesting times.

But it's not simply numbness, I think, that inspires the litblogosphere's silence on politics; it's also a belief specific to the West that politics and art cannot, by their very natures, mix, and that to attempt to do so is to mark one as a tiresome ideologue at best, an artistic all-thumbs at worst. Furthermore, the argument of arguments -- the ur-argument of the institutions of the literary establishment -- is such engagement by artists is futile. This is a truth apparently discovered after the end of the Romantic Movement and during the bloody middle of World War One. Poetry can't change the world because it can't change human nature.

But what happens in a world without poetry? That is, what happens to a world that lacks politically aware poetry when the age itself is political? What happens to art in times when history, to use a paraphrase employed by Jan Kott, is "let off the leash"?


  1. I saw a telling example of this a few months ago at the Ottawa Writers Festival, when David Bergen and Bill Gaston tried to tell Rawi Hage that his novel _Cockroach_ wasn't political. Hage was incredulous: "There are gay Iranian characters in my book, how can it not be political?" I think what Bergen and Gaston were driving at was that the book was good, therefore couldn't be political. Which is a seriously warped way to think about literature, but incredibly prevalent, I think, in North America and England.

  2. Zach: excellent anecdote (and funny, too). At this point, I should probably emphasize -- not for your sake but for the sake of the world at large (at least, that exceedingly small percentage of it which reads this site) -- that I have sympathy for the standard N. American trepidation about "political art"; once one starts banging the drum of PolArt too loudly, one opens the door to the worse kind of tendentiousness: humourless, self-righteous, artistically and existentially false. Nevertheless, political art *can* be done well -- this is one of the great lessons I've learned from Korean lit. The balance can be found.