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The Heart of Reconstruction

To commemorate its founding 25 years ago, PS will be republishing over the coming months a selection of commentaries written since 1994. In the following commentary, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer explores literature’s role in society and, in particular, in post-apartheid South Africa.

CAPE TOWN – As the eighteenth-century theological philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg reminded 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, as Susan Sontag once remarked, some modern authors 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 “seers, spiritual adventurers, and social pariahs.”

The German novelist Thomas Mann was deeply opposed to such deliberate isolation on the part of writers, emphasizing 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 Czesław Miłosz: “What is poetry which does not save nations or peoples? A connivance with official lies.”