Adam Ash

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

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Bookplanet: praise for Arab novelist Naguib Mahfouz as witness in today's world of horror from South African novelist Nadine Gordimer

Witness: the inward testimony
In the first Naguib Mahfouz Memorial Lecture, delivered in December at the American University in Cairo, Nadine Gordimer pays tribute to Egypt's Nobel laureate in literature who died last August

"HORROR was written on the sun." -- The prophetic words of the poet William Plomer.

The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was part of the unspeakable horrors of a past war. It is now 2006: the world has come to coexist in, witness the horrors of Twin Towers New York, Madrid bombings, London underground train explosions, the dead in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka ... the list does not close.

What place, task, meaning will literature have in witness to disasters without precedence in the manner in which these destroy deliberately and pitilessly; the entire world become the front line of any and every conflict?

Place. Task. Meaning.

To apportion these for us, the world's writers, I believe we have first to define what witness is.

No simple term.

I go to the Oxford English Dictionary and find that definitions fill more than a small-print column. "Witness": "attestation of a fact, event, or statement, testimony, evidence; one who is or was present and is able to testify from personal observation."

Television crews, photographers, are pre- eminent witnesses in these senses of the word, when it comes to catastrophe, staggeringly visual. No need for words to describe it; no possibility words could.

First-hand newsprint, elaborately descriptive journalism becomes essentially a pallid after-image. Television made "personal observation, attestation of a fact, event" a qualification of witness not only for those thousands who stood mind-blown aghast on the scenes of disaster but everyone worldwide who saw them all happening on television.

The place and task of attesting the fact, event, or statement, testimony, evidence -- the qualification of one who is or was present and is able to testify -- this is that of the media. Analysis of the disaster follows in political, sociological terms, by various ideological, national, special or populist schemas, some claiming the elusive reductive state, objectivity. And to the contexts -- political, sociological -- in this case, according to the dictionary there must be added analysis in religious terms. For Number 8 in the list of definitions cites: "One who testifies for Christ or the Christian faith, especially by death, a martyr." The Oxford English Dictionary, conditioned by Western Christian culture, naturally makes the curious semantic decision to confine this definition of the term witness to one faith only. But the perpetrators of terrorist acts often testify as witness, in this sense, to another faith -- a faith which the arrogance of the dictionary does not recognise: to the faith of Islam, by death and martyrdom.

Such attacks may be against an individual; one was threatened against Salman Rushdie. One almost took the life of the great writer in whose name we have the honour of gathering today -- Naguib Mahfouz.

Harold Pinter in his Nobel Prize speech 2005 spoke these words: "A writer's life is a highly vulnerable almost naked activity ... the writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds ... You are out on your own, on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection -- unless you lie -- in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician."

Naguib Mahfouz never constructed his own protection, he took the risk of the writer's naked activity, refusing the lie, even when writing of politicians, in the times he lived and wrote through.


Place; task; meaning.


Meaning is what cannot be reached by the immediacy of the image, the description of the sequence of events, the methodologies of expert analysis. If witness literature is to find its place, take on a task in relation to the enormity of what is happening in acts of mass destruction and their aftermath, it is in the tensions of sensibility, the intense awareness, the antennae of receptivity to the lives among which writers experience their own as a source of their art. Poetry and fiction are processes of what the Oxford English Dictionary defines the state of witness as "applied to the inward testimony" -- the individual lives of men, women and children who have to reconcile within themselves the shattered certainties which are as much a casualty as the bodies under rubble in New York, Madrid, and the dead in Afghanistan.

Kafka says the writer sees among ruins "different (and more) things than is a leap out of murderers' row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place."

This is the nature of witness that writers can, surely must give, have been giving since ancient times, in the awesome responsibility of their endowment with the seventh sense of the imagination. The "realisation" of what has happened comes from what would seem to deny reality -- the transformation of events, motives, emotions, reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that is meaning.

If we accept that "contemporary" spans the century in which all of us here were born, as well as the one scarcely and starkly begun, there are many examples of this fourth dimension of experience that is the writer's space and place attained.

"Thou shalt not kill": the moral dilemma that patriotism and religions demand be suppressed in the individual sent to war comes inescapably from the First World War pilot in WB Yeats' poem: "Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love." A leap from murderers' row that only the poet can make.

The Radetzky March and The Emperor's Tomb -- Joseph Roth's peripatetic dual epic of frontiers as the Charybdis and Scylla of the 20th century breakup of the old world is disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is not only inward testimony of the ever- lengthening host of ever-wandering refugees into the new century, the Greek chorus of the dispossessed that drowns the muzak of consumerism. It is the inward testimony of what goes on working its way as a chaos of ideological, ethnic, religious and political consequences -- Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia -- that come to us through the vision of Roth.

The statistics of the Holocaust are a ledger of evil, the figures still visible on people's arms; but Primo Levi's If This Is A Man makes extant a state of existence that becomes part of consciousness for all time. Part unavoidably of the tangled tragic justifications made behind the violence perpetrated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The level of unflinching imaginative tenacity with which the South African poet Mongane Wally Serote witnessed the apocalyptic events of apartheid amid which he was suffering and living goes into territory beyond the concepts of justice. He writes: "I want to look at what happened;/That done,/As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil/I look at what happened.../ when knives creep in and out of people/As day and night into time."

In an earlier age, Conrad's inward testimony finds that the heart of darkness is not Mistah Kurtz's bedecked river station besieged by Congolese, but back in the offices in King Leopold's Belgium where knitting women sit while the savage trade in natural rubber is efficiently organised, with a quota for extraction by blacks that must be met, or punished at the price of their severed hands.

These are some examples of what Czeslaw Milosz calls the writer's "fusing of individual and historical elements" and that Georg Lukacs defines as the occurrence of "a creative memory which transfixes the object and transforms it ... the duality of inwardness and the outside world."

No writer sums up the lifetime experience of creative memory which "transfixes the object and transforms it", the long journey of the writer, the impossibility of escaping, as Mahfouz reveals exquisitely in Dream 5 of his late work The Dreams. "I am walking aimlessly without anywhere particular to go when suddenly I encounter a surprising event that had never before entered my mind -- every step I take turns the street upside-down into a circus. The walls and buildings and cars and passersby all disappear, and in their place a big top arises with its tiered seats and long, hanging ropes, filled with trapezes and animal cages, with actors and acrobats and musclemen and even a clown. At first I am so happy that I could soar with joy. But as I move from street to street where the miracle is repeated over and over, my pleasure subsides and my irritation grows until I tire from the walking and the looking around, and I long in my soul to go back to my home. But just as I delight once again to see the familiar face of the world, and trust that soon my relief will arrive, I open the door -- and find the clown there to greet me, giggling."

There's no respite for the great writer to evade searching the meanings behind the circus that is the world, the "nauseating age of slogans" a father speaks of in the days of the Sadat regime, the era of Mahfouz's The Day The Leader Was Killed, and which applies as aptly to our own. An era when "between the slogans and the truth is an abyss" literature must struggle out of, bearing inward testimony.

I have spoken of the existential conditions of the writer of witness literature in the way in which I would define that literature. The question raises a hand: How much has the writer been involved in his or her own flesh-and- blood person, at risk in the radical events, social upheavals for good or bad ends -- the threats to the very bases of life and dignity? How much must the writer be involved? In a terrorist attack, anyone present in the air or on earth is at risk, become activist-as-victim. No choice of being just an observer. In other terrible events -- the wars, social upheavals -- like anyone else the writer may be a victim, no choice. But the writer, like anyone else, may have chosen to be a protagonist. As witness in her or his own person, victim or protagonist, is that writer no unquestionably the one from whom the definitive witness literature must come?

Albert Camus believed so.

Camus believed that his comrades in the French Resistance who had experienced so much that was physically, mentally both devastating and strengthening, appallingly revealing, would produce writers who would bring all this to literature and into the consciousness of the French as no other form of witness could. He waited in vain for the writer to emerge. The extremity of human experience does not make a writer. An Oe surviving atomic blast and fallout, a Doestoevsky reprieved at the last moment before a firing squad; the predilection has to be there, as a singer is endowed with a certain kind of vocal cords, a boxer is endowed with aggression. Primo Levi could be speaking of these fellow writers as well as of himself, as an inmate of Auschwitz, when he realises that theirs are stories each to be told "of a time and condition that cannot be understood except in the manner in which ...we understand events of legends ..."


The duality of inwardness and the outside world: that is the one essential existential condition of the writer as witness. Marcel Proust would be regarded by most as one among great writers least confronted by public events. But I accept, from Proust, a signpost for writers in our context: "the march of thought in the solitary travail of artistic ration proceeds downwards, into the depths, in the only direction that is not closed to us, along which we are free to advance -- towards the goal of truth."

Writers cannot and do not indulge the hubris of believing they can plant the flag of truth on that ineluctable territory. But what is sure is that we can exclude or discard nothing in our solitary travail towards meaning, downward into the acts of terrorism. We have to seek this meaning in those who commit such acts just as we do in its victims. We have to acknowledge them. Graham Greene's priest in The Comedians gives a religious edict from his interpretation of the Christian faith: "The church condemns violence, but it condemns indifference more harshly". And another of his characters, Dr Magiot, avows "I would rather have blood on my hands than water like Pilate." There are many, bearing witness in one dictionary definition and another who remind the world that the United States of America, victim of ghastly violence, has had on its hands the water of indifference to the cosmic gap between its prosperity and the conditions of other populations -- a recent survey showed the richest 10% of 25 million (plus) Americans had a combined income greater than the combined income of the 43% of the poorest of the world population.

George Buchner's character in the play Danton's Death makes a chilling declaration: "Terror is an outgrowth of virtue ... the revolutionary government is the despotism of freedom against the tyranny of kings."

Where does the despotism of terrorism begin to grow in our contemporary world; why? And where will it end? How? This is the mined territory of meaning, in the crisis of the present, from which the writer's responsibility cannot be absolved. "Servitude, falsehood and terror ...Three afflictions are the cause of silence between men, obscure them from one another and prevent them from rediscovering themselves." That is what Camus found in that territory. It is a specification within Milan Kundera's credo: "for a novelist, a given historical situation is an anthropological laboratory in which he explores the basic question: What is existence?" And Kundera goes on to quote Heidegger: "The essence of man has the form of a question."

Whether this question is unanswerable, just as final truth is unattainable, literature has been and remains a means of people rediscovering themselves. Which may be part of the answer to terrorism and the violent response it evokes. Literature has never been more necessary, vital, than now, when Information Technology, the new faith, has failed to bring this rediscovery about.


Is there inevitably a loss of artistic liberty for the writer in inward testimony as witness?

A testy outburst not from a writer, but a painter, Picasso, replies, vis-a-vis their creativity, for artists in every medium. "What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet ... quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world, whether it be harrowing, bitter or sweet, and he cannot help being shaped by it." Neither can the art. And there emerges Guernica.

Witness literature is not anathema to, incompatible with experiment in form and style, the marvellous adventures of the word. On the contrary, when writers, as Andre Pieyre de Mandiagues asks, "have been given a disaster which seems to exceed all measure, must it not be recited, spoken."

There is no style and form ready-made for witness literature. If it is to be a poem, it has to be found among all the combinations of poetics, tried or never tried, to be equal to the unique expression that will contain the event before and beyond the event; its past and future. As Yeats did with his pilot at war. If witness is to be a story or novel, that final demand -- the expression of the event before and beyond the event -- is the same. Among all the ways of plumbing meaning, existing and to be, this has to be discovered. Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kenzaburo Oe, Octavio Paz, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass, Naguib Mahfouz ... these are writers who discovered it unsurpassably for their own people, own countries, and by the boundlessness of great writing, for the rest of us who see the same responsibility of discovery to be pursued in our own countries.

I have had my own experience as that of a writer given evidence of a disaster which seemed to exceed all measure. In South Africa racism in its brutally destructive guises, from killing in conquest to the methodology of colonialism, certified as Divine Will by religious doctrine, took the lives of thousands of Africans and stunted the lives of millions more; systematically. I grew up in the Union that came out of wars for possession between the British and descendants of the Dutch, the Boers. The Africans had already been dispossessed by both. I was the child of the white minority, blinkered in privilege and as a conditioning education. But because I was a writer -- for it's an early state of being, before a word has been written, not an attribute of being published -- I became witness to the unspoken in my society. Very young I entered a dialogue with myself about what was around me; and this took the form of trying for the meaning in what I saw by transforming this into stories based on what were everyday incidents of ordinary life for everyone around me: the sacking of the backyard room of a black servant by police while the white master and mistress of the house looked on unconcerned; later, in my adolescence during the '39-'45 War, when I was a voluntary aide at a gold mine casualty station, being told by the white intern who was suturing a black miner's gaping head-wound without anaesthetic, "They don't feel pain like we do."

As time and published books confirmed that I was a writer and witness literature, if it is a particular genre of my circumstance of time and place, was mine, I had to find how to keep my integrity to the Word, the sacred charge of the writer. I realised, as I believe many writers do, that instead of restricting, inhibiting, coarsely despoiling aesthetic liberty, the existential condition of witness was enlarging, inspiring aesthetic liberty, breaching the previous limitations of my sense of form and use of language through necessity: to create form and sense anew.

Aesthetic liberty is an essential of witness literature if it is to fulfill its justification as meaning. And the form and use of language that will be the expression for one piece of work will not serve for another. I wrote a novel in the 1970s; it was, in terms of witness literature, an exploration of inward testimony to revolutionary political dedication against apartheid, invoked as a faith like any religious faith, with edicts not be questioned by any believer, and the consequences of this, the existential implications handed down from father to daughter, mother to son. Witness called on aesthetic liberty to find the form and language, in order for the narrative to be fulfilled in meaning. Modes of lyricism and irony that had served best for some of my other fiction would not serve where a daughter's inner survival of personality depended on fully recovering her father's life of willing martyrdom, his loving relationship with her and its calculating contradictions in the demands his highest relationship, political faith, made upon her; his actions, motives, other personal attachments, which the condition of revolutionary clandestinity perforce made a mystery. A novel where, indeed, actual documents must be encompassed to be deciphered in terms of inward testimony. Through aesthetic liberty I had, so to speak, to question this story in many inner voices, to tell it in whatever I might hope to reach of its own testimony submerged beneath public ideology, discourse and action.

This is the search for Zaabalawi.

In his short story of that name the genius of Naguib Mahfouz sends a man to seek the saintly shaykh, Zaabalawi; everywhere to find always he has just missed the one who has the answer to the questions of being personal, political, social, religious -- the inward testimony. Zaabalawi knows the human mystery is revealed not alone in high places -- he frequents Cairo bars, and the man is told he will be found at a particular haunt. Wearily waiting there for hours, the man falls asleep. When he wakes he finds his head is wet; others in the bar tell him Zaabalawi came while he was sleeping and sprinkled water on him to refresh him. Having had this sign of Zaabalawi's existence, the man will go on searching for him all his life -- Yes, I have to find Zaabalawi. Yes, we writers have to find the inward testimony our calling, literature, demands of us.

A writer who did is Naguib Mahfouz.

In Khufu's Wisdom, an early novel in which Mahfouz's brilliant creativity was already evident, Pharaoh Khufu leaves the palaces of worldly power and takes to the pyramid he had built as his tomb; there, he has decided to write "a great book guiding the souls and protecting the people's bodies with knowledge".

Naguib Mahfouz has drunk the cup and gone, leaving us behind in the shabby grim presence of worldly power, but he's left his wisdom, his writings, his inward testimony, the wisdom of great literature.


Post a Comment

<< Home