LITERATURE AND POWER


When I first read the title of our panel, what immediately came to my mind was an episode from the last day of the Ukrainian Orange revolution. Those of you who were watching TV reports from Kiev during those days might try to picture the scene: late night in the city’s downtown on the 17th day of the uprising, some 2 million people about, exhausted, yet intoxicated with a sense of victory (the results of the fraudulent elections were cancelled, a re-vote called), and on the temporary stage in the middle of the square, Julia Tymoshenko - now the country’s Prime Minister, - addressing farewell words to the crowd with tears in her eyes: the days of the Revolution will forever remain in our national history, we’ll cherish them in our hearts, and – all of a sudden, the striking phrase – “we’ll do a book about it” (an exclamation mark!).

 A strange statement for a politician, one may say. What kind of book? Who’s going to write it? And what’s the big deal? The days of uprising would shortly produce tens, if not hundreds of books in different genres, so why single out one particular one? Yet, the message was clear:  what Ms. Tymoshenko was promising to the people with these words, was to turn their 17-day-long personal experience of love and faith into a STORY – a narrative to be memorized and told, possibly for generations.

 A good politician never fails to tell people exactly what they want to hear. True, what bigger prize can you offer to someone who’s been challenged by the severest of threats, and has successfully overcome them all, other than making a story out of his/her experience? People want their lives to make-up a story. Every human being in our culture has this need, if only to make sure that his/her life makes sense. Since time immemorial, long before the very appearance of writing, a story told and disseminated has been taken as indisputable proof that the events in the narration were worth living through. “I’ll make out of your life a narrative which gives you meaning” – this is the lure, which, especially for the non-religious mind, verges on the promise of salvation.

 The very raison d’etre of literature resides in its capacity to satisfy this most profound, existential human need, and it’s this capacity that makes literature indispensable, and irreplaceable by any other human activity. When I published my first novel, Field Work In Ukrainian Sex, a confessional story about a broken relationship and a woman intellectual’s identity crisis, an event which turned into the biggest scandal in Ukrainian literature in the whole post-Soviet era, my greatest cultural shock came not from critics who proclaimed me a witch well deserving to be burnt (were it not for our civilized time!), but from crowds of enthusiastic female readers. Ranging in age from their early 20s to the early 60s, they responded with the same exclamations – “This is my story!”, “I feel as though I wrote it!”, “It reads as though you were sitting in my kitchen, and I was pouring my heart out to you!”, etc.  This was something I would’ve never expected, or predicted – if only because the narrator’s story was anything but typical. What made it so intimately recognizable for many, were the feelings. Et voila. That’s where the true, as yet unbeaten power of literature lies, that’s what makes literature irreplaceable – even in our age of visual totalitarianism.

 It works something like “buy one, get one free”: once you buy feelings depicted in a book as “yours”, you’re trapped. You trust the author, as s/he has provided you with invaluable testimony that you’re not alone in this world. You let the author into your inner life. You accept his/her way of seeing things as “yours”.  And without noticing it, “for free”, you get from him/her ready-made moulds for your feelings - words, ideas, dramatic collisions, turns and moves of the plot, which you appropriate, at some subliminal level, as patterns to shape your own life after, so that it could be worth telling about, “story-worthy” – an utmost secret ambition of every individual.

 In the end, what we all read for, is to recognize in somebody else’s story, be it true or fictional, something that applies to our own inner life, to borrow these recognizable “bricks” to build up our own life into a story – even if only in our own eyes.

 That’s where the power of literature collides with that of politicians. Politicians are interested in masses, feeling – and voting – alike. (That’s what prompted Ms. Tymoshenko’s naïve assumption that one Book documenting the events would do as a narrative for the hundreds of thousands of individuals participating in them). Authors, on the contrary, are interested – or at least are supposed to be interested - in individuals, in interlocutors able to grasp other people’s personal views and feelings. When it comes to feelings, no political power – even in its extreme, absolutistic version - ever extends further than making people believe they feel what they really don’t. The target is attainable, as we all know only too well, both from 20th century history and from the present. By spending billions in the media industry, you can instill in people fear and anxiety, you can make them believe their lives aren’t full until they buy a Ferrari, or will be all messed up until they vote for Mr. So-and-So (to skip more gruesome examples). What you can never do, though, is to endow a person with a sense that s/he authors his/her life, as a protagonist of his/her own story, worth being shared with other people.

 In a Persian fairy tale a king addresses a foreigner with a remarkable demand: “I give you a year to tell me your story, but you should only say what happened to you, and if you tell me what you’ve heard from someone else, I’ll cut your head off”. I find this a fascinating requirement, a dream of a privilege granted to a living human being. None of us has a year to turn our whole life into a narrated story (another problem with them stories being, that you can’t live through them and tell them at the same time – writing is by definition a break from living), and no devoted listener – not even our dearest ones – would agree to spend that much time to help us make sense of our lives. Of all that I know, the fairy tale presents the most perfect parable of the benevolent Ideal Power as perceived from the standpoint of the individual: here it is, a supreme earthly power, a power as-it-should-be – a ruler who not just allows, but orders you, under the threat of capital punishment, to be your own author. (A ruler, one may say, who performs as a substitute of God.)

 It’s, of course, a pity that the Ideal Power doesn’t exist, and in real life kings act exactly the opposite: you’re not going to make them happy by insisting on your own story rather than buying those “fitting all sizes”, which they’ve plotted for you. It’s in literature alone that we can still find the remote reverberation of the fairy-tale-like Ideal Power, cherishing and celebrating an individual self: literature tells us what happened to someone else, so that we are able to understand what’s happening to us.

 The whole trouble starts when writers try to play earthly kings and talk to masses. The particularly tempting advantage of such politically powerful position is that it’s always aimed at immediate gratification, while the power of literature has a long-term affect, and more than often may not become visible until long after the writer’s death. Not only are thus writers and politicians different in terms of their addresses, but they live in different time modes, too. An extra reason not to confuse the two parallel circuits which by definition should stay apart. Which, in my case, means: regardless however much I might admire my country’s current political leadership – and admiration is known to be even better an excuse for corruption than fear, – and regardless however much of my personal writer’s time I’ve once sacrificed to help these people to power, if Ms. Tymoshenko asks me to write for her the Book which she’d so precariously promised to the crowd, my writer’s obligation would be to say “no”.

 This text has been presented at the Pen World Voices, the New York Festival of International Literature

 You can listen to an audio version here:




respiro@2000-2004 All rights reserved