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This item is taken from PN Review 183, Volume 35 Number 1, September - October 2008.

In the first two issues of PN Review we published Octavio Paz's great essays on Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose death was announced on 3 August. When Paz wrote, the Russian novelist had won the Nobel Prize, been stripped of his citizenship and had recently been exported to the West. Paz admired and distrusted Solzhenitsyn in equal portions. His courage was of a rare quality, his witness grim and uncompromising. Yet it was not disinterested, and what troubled Paz about it was its tendency to allegory and its rootedness in a culture and ideology which found their most natural expression not in argument and analysis but in figuration and allegory.

Paz identified the profound reaction which Solzhenitsyn's perspectives might imply. He demonstrated the continuities between the Czarist and Stalinist systems: the failure of the Enlightenment in Russia, as in the Counter-Reformation Iberian kingdoms and therefore in their colonies, meant that the dust that blew across the plains of Spain, the Pampas of Argentina and the steppes of Russia was made of particles from the familiar, cloying mud of theocratic tyranny. This was not news to Paz who, twenty years earlier, had written in Victoria Ocampo's magazine Sur about the extent and the nature of the Gulag, thus forfeiting the respect of many of his contemporaries for interrogating the Soviet versions of itself.

Solzhenitsyn, Paz suggested, was in thrall to an idealised past; his realism about the present was mined by a sentimentality fed by superstition and a treacherous 'pan-Slavic' mysticism. Paz understood something about the Russian writer which the western critics chose to ignore because his white martyrdom and exile were so useful, so reassuring, to the land of his exile. Even when Solzhenitsyn became the ungrateful guest and called down a plague on both houses, Soviet and Western, applause continued. His isolation within a carefully fortified compound - fortified not against foes so much as against the corrupting present in which he had been forced to settle - was proof, surely, of his integrity.

His books were translated but, in the decades since he stepped off his plane in the United States and retired to his solitude, he has been less and less read. By the time he returned to a Russia which was itself returning from a passionate, unhappy affair with Utopia, and his citizenship was restored - place-names were being turned back to their pre-Revolutionary forms, churches re-opened, privileges re-invented - he was highly respected. Return seemed to confer an historic approval on the new Russia. But he was not a universally popular dinosaur. His writing remains, vast, full of brilliance and paradox, deeply consistent in its love of his version of Russia.

Since Solzhenitsyn's exile and Paz's essays, the language of cultural discourse has changed in this country. Early issues of PN Review, in so far as they reflected the concerns of their time, considered dissenting English-language as well as dissident European traditions. As PN Review from the 1980s and 1970s is made available to subscribers on line, they can read back into the archive and see how the wheel has been invented more than once. One subject upon which we have kept a wary eye is the Arts Council. Mao's idea of perpetual revolution seemed and seems genteelly to be honoured there, now as before.

In July, Margaret Hodge MP, late of the Treasury and now Minister for the Arts, gave a frisky interview to Catherine Rose, editor of Arts Professional. She's now in 'seventh heaven', having left the 'tyranny of the red box' behind. Labour, she declared, had brought the arts 'into the centre of people's consciousness'. Effortlessly she uses the word 'people's', a one nationism we might more readily associate with a superannuated Opposition than with newish Labour - as though the fact and rhetoric of multiculturalism had been a passing dream.

She insists that she is not just 'instrumental' in her outlook on the arts, conceding that there has been too much instrumentality in the proceedings of the Council in recent years. And she insists that she has her own appreciation of the arts. No, correction: of the 'arts sector': 'the cultural and heritage infrastructure in a community is vital to making it a`place that you want to live and work in, and`can help to build strong cohesive communities as well'. Clearly she has not entirely escaped the tyranny of that red box: it provides her language. Still, after listing instrumental uses of the arts encouraged by the Council in recent years, she affirms 'the importance of the arts just for itself'. Plural subject, singular pronoun.

Though she speaks as a politician, her interview and her public statements signal a change of emphasis in arts support. Of course she knows 'the role of culture in regeneration', education, social inclusion. Institutions are subject to certain 'imperatives' if they are 'dependent on public funding'. One of those imperatives, redefined in the McMaster Report, is 'excellence'. How is excellence to be judged? That is the debate in which the Arts Council is currently embroiled.

One Council officer told a group of us how she had attended a meeting of European arts funders. 'And how do you assess the quality of your clients' work?' she asked. 'We do what you do in Britain,' they replied. 'We use peer appraisals.' Appraisals have been 'off' in England for some time now. But I suspect the wheel will shortly be invented once again.

An original reason for inventing the Arts Council, to protect the 'arts sector' from political intrusion - the 'arm's length' principle which seemed to guarantee disinterested public support - has long been acknowledged as one might distantly, nostalgically, acknowledge a dusty saint in a church niche. McMaster, and now perhaps Mrs Hodge, have lighted little candles there, and the glow is reassuring.

This item is taken from PN Review 183, Volume 35 Number 1, September - October 2008.

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