The Heart of Reconstruction

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.

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.”

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