Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Bookplanet: Arab writer reviews PEN World Voices NYC bash

This festival was booked up by the time I tried to get tickets, but here's a guy from across the ocean reporting on the goings-on. He's a bit rickety on the spelling of writers names, but otherwise nicely informative. (Via Literary Saloon.)
"The most interesting discussion at the New York festival addressed itself to the issue of the power of the written word to affect our lives: 'Does Writing Change Anything?' Most writers in attendance, from Wole Soyinka to Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen to E.L. Doctorow, answered affirmatively with an emphatic yes. Salman Rushdie said in a speech: 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ changed attitudes toward slavery, and Charles Dickens’ portraits of child poverty inspired legal reforms, and J.K. Rowland changed the culture of childhood, making millions of boys and girls look forward to 800-page novels.'

I find this throwaway observation on such a profound issue thin and absurdly unconvincing. Literature is more than just a vehicle for the transformation of 'attitudes' in society, for we leave that to its poor cousin, journalism. Literature is, in and by itself, a humanizing force that, by defining the syntax of our experience, deals with the image of man, with the shape and motive of his conduct. And yet. I wonder, as a person who strings words together for a living, if literate man, where he is heir to great works of culture, does not nevertheless remain vulnerable to bestiality.

In Europe, men read Goethe in the morning, listened to Bach in the evening and went on to their next day’s work at Auschwitz. In Iraq, a country with an enviable civilizational heritage, Iraqis buried their fellow-Iraqis in mass graves in outlying fields and dropped poison gas on them in impoverished Hallabja. In the Holy Land, Israelis, to whom liberal ideas are a building block of their sensibility and traditions as Jews, often rose to welcome that bestiality, when directed against Palestinians, and gave it justification and apologia. 'What are the links, as yet scarcely understood, between the mental, psychological habits of high literacy and the temptations of the inhuman?' George Steiner, the literary critic, asks. 'Does some great boredom and surfeit of abstraction grow up inside literate civilization preparing it for the release of barbarism?'

If the answer is yes, as I suspect it is, then what has been the point — say, for this author, already in his sixties, with several published books and countless papers to his credit — of a lifetime of writing? Why do we have to write, to contend for literacy, to impart ideas, if our work not once has acted as an impediment to oppression and to the degradation of our national soul? Yes, the participants at the New York Festival of International literature all had a great time pontificating, and massaged each other’s intellects, but I wonder if, in the end, it was not all of marginal value. Some kind of frivolous pursuit." Read on here where he also records a standup spat between an American writer and an Iraqi defender of the US war there.


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