It seems to me that in the last 100 years or so there have been at least three main modes of viewing the transformative function of literature or art in general (I will use the concepts poetry, art and writing more or less interchangeably in the following pages). The first view is the view of the politically active author – be she socialist or conservative or whatnot. In her case every work must have a decisive social role, it must unveil injustices or wrongs and direct us, the reading populace, towards justice and revolution. If it fails to do so – or even worse, does not try – the work can only be categorised as „banal“ or „evil“. It goes without saying that for each group – socialist, conservative, etc. – the work must conform to present manifestations of the ideologies in question.
It can be argued that most work that does not adhere to this kind of direct political writing merely supports the status quo – i.e. the „ruling ideology“, the water in which we boil – of any given time and place, not only by not confronting it directly, but also by preaching the normative. For instance, a reader will not notice anything misogynistic about a novel which is the produce of a society where misogyny is not recognized; so when a 19th century reader fawns over Jane Austen’s novels he may not realize that the female characters have no agency. Such work may of course later be seen as either a portrayal of such injustice, as subverting it or as simply advocating it, maintaining its continual normalisation.
The second view is the romantic view that „poetry makes nothing happen“, as W.H. Auden put it. Poetry is from this perspective a thing in and of itself, a mode of being, a mode of thinking, which is separate from the mundane intentions of mere people. Art, it follows, is created by a talent with a higher sensibility, disconnected from the writer-as-human, an instinctual kind of thinking, semi-religious, very spiritual, what we call inspiration (divine or otherwise). Ideas are thereby not thought, they come; the artist simply fishes them out of the ether; her role is the role of the visionary, to see what others don’t: that in the rock there is a sculpture of a man on a horse and to then cull it out. Artists of this kind can hardly be held accountable for the ethical or moral content of their work, since it was never theirs to begin with. The art is the subject, the artist the object. You might as well shake your fist at God as objecting to its politics.
It is perhaps from this vantage point that Plato objected to poetry as inherently unethical, it being simultaneously useless and based in falsehood, numbing the faculties of reason, writing that the poet „knows nothing of true existence, he knows appearance only“. It is also here that a latter-time subversive poetry is born: the poetry which wishes not to be part of the contemporary market place; be it the schools of slow poetry, valuing as they do the personal connection (poet-speaks-to-reader-one-on-oneas opposed to poet-speaks-to-the-populace); or the tongue-in-cheek post-avant writer, claiming as she does that since poetry is inherently worthless the mere printing of it devalues the paper it is written on, and thereby undermines capitalism regardless of the content of the poems.
This last type of poetry also belongs to the third category, which is the view that the role of writing, art, or poetry is simply to disrupt the function of the world. This is art that means to make a difference but leaves the direction of that difference up to other powers – be they inspiration, democratic congress, God, the individual or something else entirely. This includes the transgressive arts, the Zen-like craziness meant simply to jolt us out of our otherwise catatonic existence, as well as those contemplative novels which mean to „complicate“ and „explicate“ the dramas of our lives in order to „move“ us, shake our very foundations, without any particular view of how, or a concrete opinion on what was wrong with our foundations to begin with.
The boundaries between these three perspectives are not altogether clear to me; and I am not sure where to situate certain works within them, as a reader or as a writer. In fact I am quite sure the borders are blurred and most writers’ intentions a complete mess, like most readers’ interpretations. I would however like to take three examples of how work may change, or try to change, the world. One of the examples is from my reading, one is from a work I’ve heard about (but very few have actually experienced) and one is from my writing.
Crime and Punishment is the book which has had the profoundest impact on me. When I first read it at seventeen I felt that the world would never be the same and I often wonder who I would’ve become had I not read it. But in what way did it change me? I have hardly ever felt that the killing of little old ladies is normative behavior. And I am not sure that I am truly incapable of mindlessly reaping the benefits of death – as long as I don’t need to do the killing myself. And I don’t go around confessing all the evils I’ve done – or even feeling particularly pained by them. Did I personally confuse heroic egotism with social bravery, and have I stopped since? That’s the closest I can get guessing.
But what if Crime and Punishment was a book of the same overall emotional and artistic quality – written with the same passion, the same love – but advocated … I don’t know … racism? What if I were to tell you that it was a thoroughly misogynistic book – don’t google it – would you think less of it? 5% less? 10% less? 25% less? Or is it all the same? Would you think less of me, having been changed by a misogynistic book?
The second more recent example, worthy of note, is Kenneth Goldsmith’s „uncreative writing“ – a practice mostly focused on reframing already existent texts, in a kindred manner to Duchamps famous framing a urinal as a fountain. Goldsmith has framed weather reports as lyrical poetry, an entire newspaper word for word as experimental narrative etc. etc. Recently he took the autopsy report of Michael Brown – the young man shot dead by the police in Ferguson – and read it slightly edited as if it was his poem entitled „The Body of Michael Brown“. Goldsmith did this at an event at Brown University called Interrupt 3. The work was received with anger, to say the least, and Goldsmith was accused of crimes ranging from shameless self-promotion – coat-tailing on the politics of the now – to appropriating the „black body“ in a way reminiscent of slavery, no less. Now, Goldsmith has staked out a corner for himself as an apolitical writer – or at least one whose work cannot be taken at face value, writing at one time:
[…] far be it for the conceptual writer to morally or politically dictate words that aren’t theirs. The choice or machine that makes the poem sets the political agenda in motion, which is often times morally or politically reprehensible to the author.
The politics of „The Body of Michael Brown“ could never simply be the politics of Kenneth Goldsmith, they are always also the politics of the writers of the original text, as well as the politics of those who receive the work. In his excuse for the work, posted on Facebook a few days after the event, Goldsmith ends with the words: Ecce homo, behold the man – in effect claiming to be the mirror, to be the messenger, and neither the image nor the message itself. As far as interpreting the intentions of Goldsmith himself, „The Body of Michael Brown“ could easily have been read as an act of solidarity – like most work written about racism in America, even when written by white people – but ended up being read as an inherently racist attack, a sort of continuation of the murder by other means.
Thirdly and lastly, I’ve recently finished the third – and probably last – in a series of novels where I’ve attempted to write with what I refer to as an „honest political agenda“. How I define „honest“ here is based on the feeling that once you’ve made an emotional connection to a person, a reader – as I am sure most writers aim to do with their readers, although admittedly this connection is only one-way – you have a certain responsibility to not manipulate them. In a two-way emotional connection there can be a certain amount of fencing – all lovers also struggle. But when reading an emotionally harrowing novel which then tells you how to behave morally, socially or politically – or even more likely whom to judge, how and for what – you find yourself defenseless, or at least weakened by the emotional impact of the story. It’s like loving someone who on the one hand refuses to see you, and on the other makes stringent moral demands of you (incidentally this would be the relationship many people have to God). You’re given the option accepting the morale of the story or not, and your decision will not be separated from your overall judgment of the book, your liking the characters or lamenting their fates.
The political parable of downtrodden-person-tries-to-find-happiness-and-is-stepped-on– be it in the manner of Gorkis social-realism or Rands objectivism – is not only dead but dishonest. You cannot approach your reader with less respect than those you love; a reader is not an object whose mind you need to change, but a subject whose mind and heart you are obligated to engage.
In the three novels I mentioned – Kindness, Evil, and Stupidity, the last of which is yet unpublished – I have tried three ways of engaging, all of which entail quite a bit of political, social and moral signaling, while attempting not to be heuristic. In Kindness, which deals with national bankruptcy and the Icelandic left, this engagement is sought through hyperbole or hysteria – taking the narrative always a step further than one would plausibly do, if one were honestly trying to advocate political change (the book ends with every single refugee in the world coming to Iceland; and Iceland simply dealing with it, as you would deal with any other fait accompli). In Evil, which deals with racism, otherness and the holocaust, I try to engage through directly adressing the reader, both as narrator, so that the reader constantly feels adressed (rather than disappearing into story which tells itself, bearing truth-without-perspective), and by embedding the politics within direct, repeated (and often contradictory) rhetorics. In Stupidity – which is a dystopian novel – I’ve concentrated on simply amplifying a handful of known features of contemporary society (most notably, surveillance and social media) and performing the world most familiar to me – i.e. life of writers, in my hometown etc – within those amplified conditions in a manner sparse enough that each reader needs to fill in a lot of the blanks (albeit with my insinuations) for themselves. The commentary in the novel about what the world actually looks like in this supposed future would probably fit on a single A4 page.
I have at times wished to differentiate between good (i.e. quality) and bad novels on the one hand, and good (i.e. kind) and evil novels on the other. A novel could thereby be kind yet bad – this is probably the most common form the political novel takes, well meaning but trite – and just as surely it could be good and evil; that is to say, well written, captivating, enthralling, yet containing a principally hateful message. It goes without saying that such a message would need to be coded – or even subconscious – because we would all naturally despise a novel we experience as hateful. We’d instinctively search it for the aesthetic fault needed to justify disregarding its beauty, or perhaps even make its particular aesthetic signify something evil (think of Leni Riefenstahls defenders and detractors) so that anything resembling it in the future immediately is met with disdain (think of the feeling you get seeing swastikas in Asia).
What frightens me most, though, is that all of the novels – or poems or artwork – that we enjoy, or even read, whose socially upheaving and progressive message we celebrate, are novels that in fact leave us unchanged, unmoved, novels which strengthen the foundations of what we already call our lives, our morals and our politics – not too mention the delightable status quo. That we as readers wish for novels to replicate us, so that we feel more real; and we as writers just want to make everyone like us (in both senses of the term). This leaves me feeling stuck in a hellish circle of banality.