How Political Can We Get While Writing?

The question of how political art and literature can be was never as crucial as it is at the current moment. Especially if you come from a place that is a stage for a brutal war, an endless conflict. It’s almost the same question you hear at every event you are invited to: how was your writing affected by what’s happening in your country? And what role does literature take as an act of resistance? Those questions are so much harder to answer than they seem to be. You have first to solve lots of issues within yourself, answering more basic questions: What responsibility do I have? Is it okay in the first place to speak about a responsibility and deliver political messages in what I write, or is that something against the nature of literature? Are art and literature affective or affected mediums? Are they triggers for change, or more like responses to reality? Whom do I write to, anyway? Who is the reader I picture in my mind when I write?

Questions like these are a great chance to open thoughtful discussions, but maybe it’s a good thing that they have no concrete answers. That’s why we have diversity, and perhaps the best thing to happen is the availability of every kind of author to exist, from hardcore ideological writers who want to emphasize their beliefs and deliver them in each chapter of a book, to those who write simply for the joy of it.

Actually these examples are not complete opposites. According to George Orwell, you might not have the option to be a nonpolitical writer, as he writes in his »Politics and the English Language« essay: »In our age there is no such thing as ›keeping out of politics.‹ All issues are political issues.« And even if you choose to write far from politics, this choice itself is a political act. It’s the presence of the absence again. The item you are excluding is there, presented exactly by its absence, an empty place. In that case the message lies not only in the narration, the events you are projecting, but it can also appear in the language of the text itself, pouring from the background shadows without the author even intending such a thing. When you omit the intense details bothering you in the complicated political situation you came from, this absence says something. That is similar to the empty squares you find on the walls in Max Liebermann’s house in Berlin. Those empty squares are left where his paintings should hang, the paintings that disappeared since the Nazis took the house after forcing Liebermann’s wife to sell it after his death. Those paintings’ absence is a message that is just as clear and strong as if he intended to document the events of his time directly with his art. In the time of aftermath of the 1848 uprising in Paris, which succeeded in overthrowing the monarchy of Louis-Philippe and where the events were still developing, promising a huge change in the country’s political and social situation, Gustave Flaubert chose to write Madame Bovary, a bitter sarcasm, in the depths of the Romantic era. It was considered one of the seminal works of the French Realism movement. That choice was a message in itself; a call for a rational way of responding to the political moment, inspired by the brutal reality and everyday’s life details, instead of the idealistic, delicate aspects of Romantic works.

So, how far should we go in trying to be faithful to the political necessities of our times in what we write? Maybe, the answer is in not getting far at all. In his literary criticism book Literature and Revolution, Leon Trotsky has a very interesting point of view on this topic when he compares Alexey Tolstoy (a distant relative of the famous Leo Tolstoy) who was a strict Communist author of sci-fi and historical novels like Aelita (in which two men start a Communist revolution on the planet Mars) and The Road to Calvary, and Tikhonov, a young poet at that time who wrote a poem about a grocery store, not mentioning the revolution. According to Trotsky the latter was a better response to the spirit of revolution than Tolstoy’s work, because, as he says: »He perceives and reproduces its inertia and immobility with such fresh and passionate power as only a poet created by the dynamics of a new epoch can do.«

This argument is not at all about defending the idea of an author without a political opinion to stand for; it’s more about how an opinion should (or should not) be included in the work. When you make great effort to load writing with a message, that’s perhaps a sign that’s not how it should be done. Finding what interests you, what you are passionate to write about, seems like a better compass than trying to find what you »should« write about. Here the Lacanian maxim »the letter always reaches its destination,« comes in handy, because it’s not up to you to decide where the letter arrives; if it ends up burned in the post office during a civil war or safely reaches the recipient. Your message’s destination is wherever it arrives. Don’t stress yourself out, thinking of a message you have to send in your work. It will reach its destination at some point anyway.