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Literature and Politics

By Yong Jie.


“Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to the one who doesn’t have a voice, when it gives a name to the one who doesn’t have a name, and especially to all that political language excludes or tends to exclude…Literature is like a ear that can hear more than Politics; Literature is like an eye that can perceive beyond the chromatic scale to which Politics is sensitive.”

– Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature


Three propositions are made in the above quotation. The first is that literature is important to politics above all when it represents the politically voiceless and nameless. The second and third pertain to the greater sensitivity of perception – as Calvino argues – of literature: that literature is like “a ear that can hear more than politics”, and an eye that can “perceive beyond the chromatic scale to which Politics is sensitive.”

The essay seeks to consider the three statements made, by exploring the first as an overarching question. Specifically, in discussing Calvino’s quotation, the essay is guided by the question: to what extent does the chief necessity of literature to politics consist in representing the politically excluded?

The paper comprises two principal sections. The first explores the way in which the thesis might be the case; considering the reasons for which literature might be better able to represent those left at the margins of politics, to “[give] a voice to the one who doesn’t have a voice”, it then seeks to explain the necessity of such a representation to politics. The second section looks at the obverse of the proposition, turning towards other ways in which literature might be of equal or perhaps even greater necessity to politics.

The argument is advanced that literature is indeed necessary to politics for the way in which it is able to, by dint of its greater acuity of perception, represent the politically excluded. Yet there exist another necessities, other ways of equivalent importance in which politics needs literature. These too will be explored in the paper.

I. The necessity of representing the excluded

In considering how the chief necessity of literature to politics resides in the representation of the politically excluded, it is perhaps necessary to first explore the reasons for which literature is able to acknowledge those whom politics often overlooks.

I. a) The individual at the heart of literature

The first reason is the greater focus of literature on the individual. One notes how Calvino refers quite instructively in his quotation to the way literature may serve the individual: it gives “a voice to the one who does not have a voice”, “a name to the one who does not have a name”. The insight here is that the individual lays at the heart of literature, though his or her voice may be lost to the ear of politics.

For if politics purports – at least in democratic polities – to be in the service of individual citizens, it tends to perceive these citizens as finally a part of a collectivity, its vision attuned to the broad sweep. And thus one is either a part of the Democrats or Republicans in the United States, belonging perhaps to the Jewish-American bloc, or the African-American demographic; in Malaysia, one may be seen by politicians as simply a member of the Chinese, Indian or Malay community. The individual derives significance from being a part of a whole. Indeed, in the perspective of politics, strength is gained in numbers: the collective counts for more, possesses a weightier presence than the individual, by dint of its size and thus ability to influence political outcomes in elections. The significance of a group within politics is commensurate with size, and the single individual is the smallest grouping of all.

And even in exceptional instances whereby particular individuals are taken into account within politics, these invariably possess power of some sort, economic or political, rendering them therefore significant. The ear of politics thus registers the roar of the gathered masses, and is sensitive to the whispers of the privileged; the lone voice of an ordinary individual belonging to no politically significant grouping often remains unheard.

Yet it is the individual around which literature revolves. A work of literature is by its nature the work of a single consciousness. And we are often drawn to works of singularity – works in which a consciousness speaks and expresses its experience of the world in an individual, inimitable manner. We love best, as Salman Rushdie points out, those writers whose “voices are fully and undisguisably their own” , who, in William Gass’ unforgettable phrase, “sign every word they write” .

The individual often forms too the subject of literature. Writers have always sought to portray persons of all sorts, it being perhaps one of the central enterprises of literature to depict humanity in all its inexhaustible variety. And thus one comes across Emmett in Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, a 44 year old medical textbook editor who, at four o’ clock every morning, lights a fire, brews some coffee, and then, while his family sleeps, settles down in front of the hearth alone with his thoughts, the content of which form the book. One is acquainted with, in Nicole Krauss’ A History of Love, Leopold Gursky, an elderly Jewish man who seeks recourse to imaginary conversations with a deceased childhood friend and nude modeling in a bid to ease his aching loneliness. One follows, in John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the former high-school basketball star struggling to break free from an existence long shorn of the glory of his adolescence, from the suspicion that life has long passed him by, back when he was seventeen.

Three books, three characters complete in their distinctiveness. And one has not yet mentioned the characters in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s sprawling novel of life “A Thousand Years of Solitude”, or indeed those in La Comedie Humaine of Balzac, who, in his ambition to be the “secretary” of French society, writing “the history which … historians have neglected” , is perhaps the exemplar of writers seeking to record the drama of human lives.

Literature then seeks to portray humanity in all its infinite variations. It celebrates individuality, diversity in being. And those at the margins of society, those who never quite fitted in, are those to whom writers have always been drawn, have always tried to depict. “The only people for me are the mad ones,” Jack Kerouac wrote, in a startlingly beautiful passage in On the Road. And Martin Amis would state, “In common with all novelists, I live for and am addicted to physical variety; and my one quarrel with the rainbow is that its spectrum isn’t wide enough.” If writers crave variety, readers too share the addiction, glad of the opportunity to live the world through the consciousness of another, to listen to those who, though speaking in voices completely different to their own, somehow speak for them.

One thus understands how, in its focus on the individual, literature is “like a ear that can hear more than politics”. For politics tends towards the macroscopic; consequently the individual voice is often crowded out by the louder cry of the collective. Literature on the over hand actively listens for the voice of the individual – the individual never is submerged in the crowd. This is perhaps best embodied by Balzac, who held dearly the more than 3500 characters populating the universe of La Comedie Humaine. “Balzac’s characters”, as Balzac’s biographer Robb writes, were “as real to him as if he were observing them in the outside world.” On his deathbed, Balzac would call for Dr Bianchon, the physician who appeared in thirty-one of his stories, by now no longer a figment of Balzac’s imagination but an actual living being.

And here perhaps lies the essential difference in mindset between literature and politics. Whereas latter tends to see the individual as a part of a collective, the more important whole, the former insists upon the distinctiveness of the single person. As Offred says, in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, in a quite different context, “One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other.” In this way, literature, aware where politics is oblivious to the distinctiveness of each individual, is able to “give a voice to the one who doesn’t have a voice”, giving a name to each one that politics deigns not to acknowledge.

I. b) The greater breadth and depth of literary vision

In yet another respect, literature possesses a greater fineness of perception than politics, whence arises its capacity to represent the politically excluded. As Calvino puts it, “literature is like an eye that can perceive beyond the chromatic scale to which politics are sensitive.”

There is a certain tendency in politics towards a bipolarity of vision, a view of the world – hence the aptness of the term “chromatic scale” – in black and white, like the consecutive chords of a piano. Does one belong to the right or the left? In one’s view, should euthanasia be legalized or not? Is gay marriage right or wrong? “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”, President George W. Bush would declare in a 2001 Joint Session of Congress and the people, in one of the cruder instances of political Manichaeism. The inclination of politics to reduce the world into black and white dispenses with the need to grapple with the shades of grey.

Literature eschews such a binary vision, seeking instead to perceive and portray human reality in all its complexity. In so doing, it is able to enrich and illuminate political issues, highlighting the ambiguities and nuances that politics may overlook.

In the case therefore of the criminalization of incest, the reader of Arundathi Roy’s The God of Small Things will less readily accept the conventional view that it is a necessary sanction for a perverse and reprehensible act. The novel centers upon Estha and Rahel, fraternal twins who are unwitting authors of a series of tragedies that lead to the disintegration of their family. Haunted by guilt and grief, they turn finally to each other for solace in a world that has seemingly denied them any comfort. Their relationship can only be understood as the union of two individuals who, desperately seeking love and solicitude, find these only in each other. And one leaves the book with an apprehension of the circumstantial nature of love, with less of a certainty that love is a thing to be legislated by society. For the story reveals the moral ambiguity, or even absurdity of “Love Laws”, that, as is echoed as a refrain throughout the book, “lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” “It’s nobody’s business but ours”, Jack fiercely tells Ennis in Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, another story of socially forbidden love. The reader might be inclined to nod in assent.

In Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, troubling questions are raised about psychopaths, adding nuance to public debates about the way in which they should be sentenced. The protagonist’s son is a psychopath who, at the age of 15, murders his father and sister before executing a massacre in his high school. Should punishment exacted on him, along with all other criminal psychopaths be all the more severe for their lack of remorse? Or could their lack of remorse actually exculpate them? – the absence of conscience is arguably an inborn condition , to be considered as much as a mitigating factor as mental retardation. Further, is the public imagination of psychopaths as irredeemable monsters accurate or simply an exercise in caricature? Though deficient in conscience, could they yet be, the book asks, capable of affection? “Yeah, she’s cool”, says Kevin, when asked in a TV interview from prison about his mother, whom he had – to her mind – so delighted in provoking from his earliest childhood days, yet whose photo he unexpectedly keeps by his side. Beneath the apparent diffidence of Kevin’s statement, a depth of feeling may be discerned.

It would certainly be easier and more politically expedient to dismiss Kevin and those of his psychopathic ilk as being monsters; yet We Need to Talk About Kevin resists any such easy conclusion. In the same way, literature forces us to consider the nuances of issues that may be simpler to ignore. It perceives beyond the black-and-white schemes towards which politics is given, forcing us to confront the ambiguities of all matters, the complications that, because they exist, cannot be excluded.


I. c) Why literature must represent the excluded

By dint of its greater sensitivity of perception (able to “hear” and “perceive” more than politics), in its focus on the individual and apprehension of nuance and ambiguity, literature is thus able to “give a voice to the one who does not have a voice, a name to the one who does not have a name”, those whom “political language excludes or tends to exclude.”

In a contemporary example, Dave Eggers’ 2006 novel What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng , through its compelling portrayal of a Sudanese boy’s experience of the second Sudanese civil war, finally brought to the attention of the international community a dimly perceived war in the geographically marginalized area of East Africa, which, for all its obscurity, lasted twenty two years and killed two million individuals.

And then there is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the mention of which is perhaps requisite in a discussion about the literary representation of the excluded. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1825 novel gave voice to the millions of slaves who had suffered hitherto in silence in the United States. It follows the travails of Uncle Tom, the slave whose nobility belies his legal status, an almost Christ-like figure who dies as a result of his refusal to betray his fellow slaves Cassy and Emmeline, and yet forgives, with these last words, the master who kills him: “there ain’t no more ye can do! I forgive ye, with all my soul!” Excluded politically, still at the time constitutionally considered three-fifths of an ordinary citizen, the slaves thus received, through the personage of Uncle Tom, their most eloquent spokesperson, who would speak of their plight and their cause for freedom to the American people, in a way that could not be ignored.

One sees then how literature often serves to represent those excluded in politics. Here it is worth noting that politics excludes individuals through principally two ways – silence and abstraction. The former entails a complete absence of mention of certain groups from political discussion, and thus awareness – here the case of South Sudan in the second Sudanese war furnishes an apt example. The latter, though allowing for a degree of attention to alight on particular individuals or groups, facilitates inaction (whether deliberately or otherwise) by ensuring that public awareness of them remains nothing more than abstract. And thus, to use just one example, the impoverished in Victorian England, despite sympathetic mention of them in political discussion, stayed on the periphery of politics, their situation excluded from serious consideration, as long as their plight were described in the abstract, with terms like “social inequality”, “high unemployment”, and perhaps a host of statistics, for instance, that about 30, 000 homeless children roamed London in 1848 , or that a third of Londoners in 1886 could be considered to be living in poverty . This is because such terms and figures, so characteristic of political language, even if true, cannot adequately convey the human reality that they try to describe. Data and other terms of abstraction, as Martha Nussbaum points out, “don’t easily reach the part of our minds with which we see others as fully human.”

Literature serves as a corrective in two ways. First, it pierces the political veil of silence, by acting on Salman Rushdie’s rousing suggestion, making “as big a fuss”, “as noisy a complaint…as is humanly possible.” For those whom politics would rather not hear, would rather pretend don’t exist, literature allows them the affirmative cry, “here I am, I matter, too, you’re going to have to reckon with me.” Secondly, literature brings the concrete to the abstraction of politics. To the figures of the impoverished, literature brings us the unforgettable faces of Oliver Twist, beaten by the Beadle of the workhouse for the temerity of asking for more gruel on behalf of the other starving orphans (“Please Sir. I want somemore.”), and Nancy Gold, forced into prostitution and crime as a result of poverty, who sacrifices her life to save Oliver Twist from the cruel Silkes and, as Lucy Jones poignantly puts it, “a world she cannot leave” (“…for the alley and the gutter were mine, as they will be my deathbed.”) To the “nameless” numbers of South Sudanese victims in the Sudanese civil war, literature gives us some of their names, retrieves some of their stories: William K, Achak Deng’s high-spirited best friend, who ebbs away on the long trek to Ethiopia (“I feel so heavy, Achak. Do you feel heavy this way?”), and finally dies seated under a tree while Achak goes to collect meat for the both of them; Dut Majok, Achak’s old teacher, who guides the uncertain protagonist as they swim across the crocodile-infested Gilo river (“Keep going. Now he’s too busy to eat you”, Dut tells Achak, who sees a boy being eaten by a crocodile), all the while as Ethiopian gunshots fire over them; the “strong” Moses, Achak’s other childhood best friend, who is taken captive at Pinyudo, and then sold into slavery, branded behind the ears by his master as he sleeps (“My story is so strange, Achak.”)

And yet, the question still remains: why is all of this important? Why is literature “necessary above all” to politics when it represents the excluded? The first response would be that if politics is about the advancement of the welfare of every citizen, (an objective which few societies, apart from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, would deny), then all interests, no matter how slight, must be taken into account. Literature facilitates this process by ensuring that all voices enter into the debate in society as to how we should live, and by what rules we should be governed. It allows the hitherto excluded the opportunity to assert themselves and be counted for, to say, “here I am, I matter, too”.

What is more, literature has an uncanny way of making sure that those to whom it gives voice are heard, and listened to. For, in a second response, literature is able to mobilise action on behalf of the excluded and marginalized, in the way that political pamphets or journalistic articles, for all their eloquence, cannot. It is the medium best able to give lie to Stalin’s terrible insight, that “a single death is a tragedy; a million death is a statistic”, by showing forcibly the stories and individual lives behind the figures. In its insistence upon scrupulously rendering all of human life, it is able to restore concrete reality to abstract terms, powerfully acquainting people with the human consequences of “civil war”, or “poverty”, that had previously only been dimly apprehended.

The provision of “particularized narrative[s]” , as Nussbaum puts it, thus allows literature the “unique power to produce motives for constructive action.” Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was hugely important in generating momentum for the campaign against King Leopold’s murderous regime in Congo. Among the social novels written by Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, in its depiction of the impoverished Victorian underclass, who lived in “a world of darkness..bereft of all signs of humanity”, outraged the British public and prompted the closure of the horrific slum, Jacob’s Island. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a best-seller in America and Britain immediately after its publication, awakened American citizens to the moral reprehensibility of subjugating persons who were human too, who could possess, as in the case of Uncle Tom, a nobility of spirit unmatched by their masters; the book therefore became instrumental in energizing the abolitionist cause in the United States. In a perhaps apocryphal but revealing story, Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Is this the little woman who made this great war?”

These works of literature, in naming and portraying the world, succeeded finally in changing it. They did so by providing emotional urgency to abstract intellectual apprehension. This is perhaps why literary representation of the excluded is necessary above all to politics. To know one should do something is quite different from feeling one must do something. Literature prompts the latter by providing images to political captions, bringing the plight of the marginalized firmly into sight, making it that much harder to cast them out of mind. Peter Singer once analogized individual inaction over global poverty as being akin to standing in front of a railway lever as a train approaches a person strapped to the tracks, and refusing to pull it so that the train comes to a halt. Literature, by depicting the screech of steel on steel as the train hurtles unstoppably on, the helplessly immobilized person just a short (and ever-shortening) distance ahead, still perhaps resisting against his straps or now resigned to his fate; the railway lever, right in front of one, black, rusty from disuse, and warm to the touch, the pull of which would stop a train and save a life, makes indifference and inaction seem like a moral abdication. Literature is necessary to politics above all when it represents the excluded because of its capacity to activate the emotional impulse required for ethical action, thereby compelling change. “Poets,” as Percy Shelley declared in A Defence of Poetry, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; perhaps the appellation should be extended to all writers of literature, whose works, in affirming the existence of the anonymous, in giving poignant voice to the hitherto voiceless, change the world for the better.

II. Other necessities

Yet for all that has been said, there are other ways, of arguably equal importance, in which politics needs literature.


II. a) Literature and the vibrancy of language

Literature poses a necessary counterpoint to a tendency of politics to deform language.

Indeed, George Orwell, in the essay Politics and the English language, noted a “special connection between politics and the debasement of language.” Such a connection possesses two aspects. The first is the broad inclination towards the euphemistic, due perhaps to a need to conceal from the electorate the unsavory aspects of particular policies. And thus, as George Orwell points out, the “transfer of populations”, a policy pursued with especial vigour by particular European governments in the aftermath of World War I and II, consisted of nothing more than “[robbing] peasants of their farms, and [sending them] trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry.” The “elimination of unreliable elements”, long a specialty of authoritarian regimes, referred only to the imprisonment of people “for years without trial” , or killing them with a “shot in the back of the neck” , or “of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps” . And political writing has seen no discernible improvement from 1946, the year that Orwell wrote the essay. Contemporary times has seen the term “enhanced interrogation” as a sanitary linguistic substitute for torture, though the American government insists on an essential difference between the two, since “we do not torture” .

The second way in which politics facilitates the decline of language is in its taste for the cliché. Certainly this is not true for all political speeches or writings – Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Martin Luther King’s speech which outlined his dream, Obama’s opening speech at the 2008 Democratic conference, are instances in which politics elevates language to rouse and inspire. Yet, these are exceptions to the general rule, remembered in part because of their rarity. Indeed, most politicians, trained in the dubious art of media-management, have become adept at dispensing, almost reflexively, trite phrases, devoid of any originality or vitality. “There’s no instant solution”, British politicians thus said 430 times on BBC Question Time, a political television programme, in the space of 4 months in electoral year of 2001 . “We have to get back to basics”, their American counterparts would aver in 2012, such that a search on the phrase would turn up 24 pages of results from Google News . One hears these politicians and agrees with Orwell that ready-made phrases like these “anaesthetizes a portion of …brain[s]”, of both the speaker and the audience.

Literature counteracts these tendencies. Unlike politics, literature is about the use of language to describe reality as it is. Where politics seeks to obscure, literature seeks to uncover; it insists upon a scrupulous rendition of reality, and on the courage to face up unflinchingly to it, no matter what it holds. “Open the windows”, P.F Thomese writes in Shadow Child, a meditation on the loss of his infant daughter and a searching examination of his grief. “Let the cold wind in.”

And if politics seeks easy recourse to the trite, to the phrases hollowed from overuse, literature is about the constant search for new ways of perceiving the world. One thinks immediately of P.G Wodehouse and his inimitable metaphors (“She had a penetrating sort of laugh. Rather like a train going into a tunnel.” ); or those of Raymond Chandler: “A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.” We find ourselves drawn to literature for writing for this sort, for the way literature, through language, gives us fresh eyes, ways of seeing the world anew.

Both of these then render literature necessary to politics. The insistence that literature makes, that language faithfully portrays reality, gives truth to the evasive lies that politicians may employ, forcing them to be accountable for actions they might hope to conceal. Thus, in the poem What Were They Like?, Denise Levertov exposed the human devastation wrought by the “air support” sanctioned by the American government during the Vietnam War, revealing the deception inherent in the use of euphemism:

When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.

Poems like these, in awakening the American public to the realities of the war being waged in its name, helped turn sentiments against the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and eventually resulted in the end of the war.

And in mounting a defence of language, literature is necessary to politics in a perhaps more fundamental way. There is a deep link between language and thought. As Wittgenstein observed, “[t]he limits of language means the language of my world.” The vibrancy and clarity of thought in a society is directly linked to the vibrancy and clarity of the language in such a society. This is why the role literature plays in vivifying language is of utmost importance. It is necessary for the continued civic participation in politics, for the perpetual challenge of those in power. And it takes on even greater significance when one considers the tendency of politics to distort language, satirized in Orwell’s 1984 by the slogans “War is Peace”, “Ignorance is Strength”, and demonstrated in the present reality, with the insistence of the Bush administration that “enhanced interrogation” was different from torture. For if words lose their meaning, we lose the means of naming the world. And if we can no longer name the world, we can no longer understand it, criticize it, and therefore work to change it. The decline of language must mean a decline of our critical faculties, an incapacity for political debate; it renders us ripe for conformity with the will of the politicians who wield power. Democracy then falters. Intellectually enfeebled, we become like sheep. And “the sheep might end in the slaughter-house” , as H.L.A Hart succinctly put it, in another context.

The counteracting of trite phrases by literature also serves the same purpose – to ensure our continued mental vibrancy, thereby allowing for our civic participation in politics. By insisting on avoiding clichés and stale phrases, literature insists one avoids turning, as Orwell warned, “into a machine…almost unconscious of what [one] is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church.” In emphasizing the independence and vibrancy of thought and mental vibrancy, literature thus plays a key role in the continuation of democracy.

II. b) Literature and engagement with the world

Literature is further necessary to politics because of the way it tends to increase our sense of engagement with the world. It does so by increasing our distinct sense of living, of being alive. It serves as a salve to our senses, stirring us from what Zadie Smith calls “the sleepwalk of our lives” , waking us to “that reality which”, as Proust so poignantly warned, “there is grave danger we might die without having known and yet which is simply our life.” Chancing upon William Carlos Williams’ poem Approach to a city, we notice once more the magic in the mundane: the ”gulls wheeling above the factory”, the snow on the streets that “silvers everything”, though “trampled and lined with use.” We read John Daniel, and are reminded of the wondrous mystery that is our existence:

There is no necessity
that any creature should fly,
that last light should turn
the grasses gold, that grasses
should exist at all,
or light

(Of Earth)

Literature thus reveals the bliss of existence, the shimmering poetry that lay beneath the prosaic. More than that, literature also increases our sense of common humanity. The act of reading entails entering, at least for a moment, the consciousness of another person – this in itself is an act of empathy. And in reading, we discover, or rather, re-discover, what we have always known but often forgotten – that we are, at the end of it all, much the same; all of us “goddamn people”, as Conor Oberst profanely but affectionately addresses us, “part of the mystery, to love and to be loved.”

In nourishing our awareness of all that is about us, and our sense of common humanity, literature nourishes our sense of engagement with the world. And this is necessary for positive political engagement, an engagement which seeks an improvement of things, as distinct from one underlined by more self-serving reasons, like a naked grasping of power. For one only seeks to change for the better what one loves – the rest excite merely indifference. It is for the same reason that a parent may forbid in his/her own child what he or she may sanguinely indulge in that of another. A constructive engagement with politics presupposes then an engagement with life, which literature does much to develop.


II. c) Literature stands for itself

The essay has concerned itself up till now with the ways in which literature is necessary to politics. Yet even as we concede to literature the role of the utile, we must insist finally upon its independence. Art must stand in the service of no-one if it is not to degenerate. The school of Socialist Realism demonstrates what happens what art is subordinated to the ends of another domain – in this instance, politics: its works, in conforming to the will of Stalin, reflect a peculiar deadness. Art must remain free if it is to be authentic; works of literature speaks to us only if what is said is genuinely felt, dictated by no one other than the writer. As Robert Frost pithily put it, “[n]o tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”

And here one comes to a minor objection about the English title of Calvino’s book, from which the quotation discussed by the essay is excerpted, and which is, perhaps, a problem of translation. In speaking baldly of The Uses of Literature, the title seems to reduce, discomfortingly, literature to the role of a tool. Yet, while literature may be of utility to other fields, its value is derived, finally, not simply from usefulness. Literature is not mere means, but an end in itself. Writers have often been asked to explain the purpose of literature. What, the question may have been posed, (sometimes by writers themselves), is the point of writing? Why do writers write? And despite all of ways in which literature may of use to others, perhaps the most immediate and honest response would be that they write because they have to. They write who must. “It’s hell writing and it’s hell not writing” , Robert Hass explains to us. Writing is perhaps, as Rilke, described, in a passionate letter to a Franz Kappus, a young man uncertain about entering a literary career, a “calling” ; and those on whom such a vocation alights “would have to die if … forbidden to write.” Works of literature, then, are borne of an inner necessity, written by individuals who could not do otherwise.

Literature is thus sufficient unto itself. And yet, despite this, or rather, because of this, it becomes an example to all other human endeavours. As Rilke beautifully puts it, in another letter to Kappus:

‘…art does not ultimately tend to produce more artists. It does not mean to call anyone over to it, indeed it has always been my guess that it is not concerned at all with any effect. But while its creations, having issued irresistibly from an inexhaustible source, stand there strangely quiet and surpassing among things, it may be that involuntarily they become somehow exemplary for every human activity by reason of their innate disinterestedness, freedom and intensity.’

Literature stands for itself; in doing so it furnishes an ideal for politics. Its disinterestedness is a quality politicians – so often self-serving – would do well to try to remember. Its commitment to freedom – to explore all matters, to be beholden to no-one (an often perilous undertaking, as the political persecution that has followed constantly writers – from Voltaire to Rushdie – can testify) – might offer heart to those in contemporary politics fighting against the notion that personal freedoms should be sacrificed in the name of security. The intensity of attention, as mentioned earlier, that literature pays to all things, so that even a world can be seen “in a grain of sand” , and “a heaven in a wild flower” , should be replicated in politics, in order that indifference never settles in, leading to the neglect of certain causes and groups. Global poverty is perhaps one of the greatest political issues of our time – and yet it continues, with the attendant human suffering, largely unnoticed by the developed world.

And we may add further to Rilke’s list. The concern of literature with truth, the scrupulous care with which it seeks to describe things as they are – a similar attitude in politics would have gone a long way in preventing for instance 2003 Iraq war, arguably the most notable political deception in recent history. And placing the individual at its heart, like literature does, would prevent the marginalization of segments of the population, perhaps numerically smaller, but equal in significance and worth.

And thus, literature may be considered necessary to politics as an example to be emulated. That is, the principles it embodies furnish a normative ideal towards which politics should strive – disinterestedness, freedom, intensity, truth, and an unyielding regard for the individual.


To what extent can we accept Calvino’s contention, then, that the chief necessity of literature to politics lies in its representation of the excluded? Perhaps it is impossible to find a response; the search for a hierarchy of necessities may be finally futile. Literature is necessary to politics for the way it provides a voice to the otherwise voiceless, just as it is necessary for ensuring the vibrancy of language, strengthening positive political engagement, and providing a normative ideal towards which politics can strive. In so doing, literature ensures that politics better serves the individual around which both revolve.


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Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004)

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Yong Jie is a Singaporean presently living in Paris.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 5th, 2015.