CAPETOWN – As the eighteenth-century theological philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg reminds us, the written word is humankind’s exclusive property. So there is a commonly accepted recognition that the responsibility writers possess for this treasure is great. Yet there are as many disagreements about the role that literature is to play in society as there are definitions of that role.
Some see writing as purely the aesthetic exploration of language, of the word. Indeed, some modern authors, as Susan Sontag once remarked, can be “recognized by their efforts to disestablish themselves,” that is, by their “will not to be morally useful to the community.” Such writers do not seek the role of social critic, but rather envision themselves as acting as “seers, spiritual adventurers, and social pariahs.”
The German novelist Thomas Mann was deeply opposed to such deliberate isolation on the part of writers, posing instead the claims that society makes upon art: “the courage to recognize and express – that is the quality that makes literature.” And a similar argument can be heard from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: “What is poetry which does not save nations or peoples? A connivance with official lies.”
In the recent history of our country, we South African writers have been faced directly in our poetry, prose, and plays with the daunting challenge of which Milosz spoke. Transformation of the world of apartheid by literary means and or style was simply not a possibility in a world of racial classification, mass relocation, and removal of peoples; the silencing of our people by detention without trial; the banishment of our people to our own Devil’s Island; and the overwhelming and ever-present racist rhetoric of Verwoerd, Botha, and Terreblanche.
If literature was to meet the challenge posed by apartheid at all, it had to act in light of what the critic Walter Benjamin most admired in the playwright Bertolt Brecht: The aim and responsibility of the writer must be to cause his or her audience to be astonished at the circumstances under which he or she is functioning.
From that unambiguous premise came what is known as our protest literature. And if the aesthetic exploration of the word was no longer the goal, it could not be abandoned entirely and with disdain; whatever we wrote and now write, with whatever purpose, whether to express the struggle for freedom or the passion of a love affair, can approach the power of truth only to the extent that we are capable of exploring the splendor of language brought into its service.
In South Africa, we had to clear our language of apartheid’s claptrap and the official euphemisms that sought to shroud the horrors of our daily lives – euphemisms such as resettlement” for “banishment,” and “permanent removal” for “death-squad assassination.” Yes, we had to clear our heads of the official language before we could write in a creative one; and some of us had to pay dearly for writings that asserted the truth in the face of connivance with the official lies: Our books were banned from publication and removed from circulation, and we experienced – either formally or through pressure on our family, friends, and associates – personal bans that kept us from the outside world (and the outside world from us). Worst of all, some of us were condemned to bans that silenced us, bans that prevented us from writing at all.
Today, we South African writers are hungry for an exchange of ideas with writers and artists from whom we were forcibly quarantined for so long. This creative isolation was something that we accepted as part of our contribution to the global political, economic, and cultural isolation of the apartheid regime, an essential strategy in the struggle for liberation. Now we are free to enjoy and profit from our growing contacts with literary comrades (a word that may have poisonous associations in the former communist countries, but that continues to be used here for its connotation of genuine human solidarity) from our own continent and with whomever will invite us to their countries or, even better, come to ours.
On our home ground, black and white South Africans are now legally brothers and sisters, united formally and politically in one country. But how can this formal status be made into a social and spiritual reality? Art and literature were at the heart of the revolution, and they must remain engaged today, for they lie at the heart of reconciliation and reconstruction as well.