Several months ago, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed several times, life-threateningly, during a literary performance in New York. He survived, badly damaged physically but morally unaffected, as far as we know. That after all these years Rushdie still fell victim to the fatwa proclaimed over him more than thirty years ago says a lot about the era in which we live.
77 years after Yalta and the start of the Cold War and 33 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the apparent triumph of liberal democracy, we have entered a completely new era since 24 February this year. ‘A New Age of Empires‘ I call it, a brutal, uncertain world of competing, hostile blocs and worlds: China, India, USA, Russia, Iran. Except for the United States, they are all autocracies, or like India, electoral democracies well on their way to becoming autocracies.
In 2012, almost half of the world’s population lived in countries that could be described as free. Today, this has shrunk to 20 percent. In other words, only a small minority live in liberal democracy today, mainly in America and Europe. The number of autocratic regimes is not only increasing, their actions have long since ceased to be limited to indoctrinating the population or eliminating political opponents. They increasingly target NGOs and journalists. They are portrayed as ‘foreign elements’ or ‘foreign sponsored terrorist organisations’.
Until recently, one could still entertain the naive thought that academics, artists or writers would escape the dance: the scientific and cultural elite as billboard, as propaganda. But it also turns out to be an illusion. Writers and artists in particular have increasingly found themselves in the eye of the storm in recent years, not so much because of what they write or what they think, but because of ‘what they are’ or rather ‘who they are’.
Writing, composing or painting or drawing are above all free pursuits, individual expressions of pure creativity that escape strict imposed rules and thus create new, original worlds. Something that every autocracy naturally despises and fears. Artistic freedom is the last bastion to be taken because art is the ultimate buoy that can still save the open society. Eliminating or at least limiting them is the assurance that no resistance is meaningful or possible anymore.
Also read this article by Margaret Atwood: Rushdie embodies freedom of expression
Despite the title The Devil’s Verse not an anti-religious pamphlet, and Salman Rushdie is certainly not an atheist preacher. His oeuvre is anything but written from -isms or antis. He is first and foremost a storyteller, stories multi-layered, polyphonic, multicultural, beautifully human. The creator of imaginary homelands, as he himself calls them: imagined worlds in which he once lived, or could live. And it is precisely this evasion that has cost him the fatwa and freedom for his entire life, and in a hair’s breadth, life itself. This is what really hurts the inhumane, dehumanizing Iranian regime, which demands that there is only one homeland, one history, one reading of the collective memory, one divine experience. Appropriate. Their.
The stubborn refusal to embrace only one religion, one truth, one norm is also the deeper motivation behind the work of Chinese visual artist Ai Weiwei. In 1995, he published a series of pictures in Drops a Han Dynasty urn. Even more than openly criticizing the Chinese Communist Party, the destruction of the ancient Han dynasty vase caused him to fall into disrepute with the regime and eventually to be banned in 2015. No one is safe in an autocracy, not even a global one respected artist such as Ai Weiwei. Chinese politics accepts only one reading, one truth. And there is no room for criticism, no irony, no hesitant freethinking and certainly no symbolic destruction of Him.
War and Homicide
The Ukrainian Andrei Kurkov is perhaps the author who best dissects what any autocracy is about. Mandatory reading for anyone wondering about the general insanity in Russia today. About the blind acceptance of a corrupt regime that only preaches war and murder. “What seemed terrible before was now commonplace, which meant that people had accepted it as the standard of life”Kurkov writes in Picnic on the icewhich was published 25 years ago. Life in post-Soviet Ukraine was like living like a penguin, torn from its group and habitat, out of its element and unable to communicate. That fragmentation, that isolation, is a necessary condition for authoritarian regimes. Only if people lose touch with their environment are they susceptible to the one story imposed from above in an autocracy.
Kurkov is, of course, censored and rejected as an enemy in Russia. Not so much because he is Ukrainian, but also because he writes in Russian and knows exactly in that language how Putin’s autocracy, and indeed all autocracies, work. Why the Russians, with few exceptions, resign themselves to surviving prison, to prison security.
Rushdie, Ai Weiwei and Kurkov: all three pay the price: the first through terror, the second through concealment, the third through exile. But none of the three seem capable of anything else. Scripture is stronger than them. And by continuing to write, they continue to evoke deep connections with others, continue to create imagined lives, and thus practice compassion and restore norms and values in spaces and communities that have lost their norms and values. Like Baal in The Devil’s Verse notes: “The work of the poet [is] to name the unnamed, to point out impostors, to take sides, to initiate discussions, to direct the world and prevent it from falling asleep.”
But must poets be more than the louse in the coat, more than the last beacon of light, before the blackness of the night finally catches up with us? Should writers, poets and artists actually take political matters into their own hands? Go to war with fire and sword against the new autocracies? Just like Vaclav Havel did. Or Disraeli, who is said to be a great writer for all fellow politicians, and a great politician for all writers.
On closer inspection, the intersection of politics and writing is a breathtakingly lonely place. And above all, a very barren place. For those who really tried, usually lost the authorship or at least found it extremely difficult to ever resume their original calling after their failure. In a way, politics kills the writing.
At least that’s what happened to Mario Vargas Llosa, who once ran for the presidency of Peru. For months, maybe more than a year, he wrote nothing – except for a nice little erotic story. He had his autobiography The fish in the water needed to come back. The book reads like the chronicle of an announced failure, disturbing in its hopelessness. From the first page, the question is who goes down first: the politician or the writer. It took Vargas Llosa years to regain his writing soul.
Not everyone did so well. André Malraux, for example, paid very dearly for his political life as a writer. Bearing political responsibility blunted the delicacy that permeated his pre-war novels. Or Gabriele d’Annunzio, the great romantic poet, the darling of literary Italy, who would become the archangel of fascism.
As much as we need literature and the imagination that underpins it to fight authoritarianism, power and the abuse of power, it sounds so inappropriate to expect artists, poets and writers to lead society in different and better ways . Plato’s dream in which politics best ruled by poets and philosophers is a chimera.
It is up to the people, to the voters, to decide who will represent them and what direction society will take. It is the task of artists, poets and writers to act as beacons and point out when politics deviates from the moral compass, when, in the words of Milan Kundera, “the people lose power” or “forgetting beats memory”.
This text is an adaptation of the speech given by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt as president of the jury on Thursday 10 November at the presentation of the Boekenbon Literatuurprijs.