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This item is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

ENGLISH-LANGUAGE WRITERS - at least from the Old Commonwealth - have a taste for politics but a limited interest in the democratic fray. Auden's 'loyal opposition', with variable emphasis on the word 'loyal', describes a characteristic stance. Utopian, humanist, Marxist and other ideological callings propose questions and then helpfully provide answers, but not necessarily the specific means, the action plan, the grace for radical persuasion. Writers sign petitions, propagandize, put their talents to political use. What else need they do? The exercise of power, or competition for power, corrupts, while lip and pen service to ideas and ideologies is deemed proper, instrumental, since the word cannot be corrupted.

This theme is memorably addressed by Geoffrey Hill in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy: the writer's responsibility for his words as they explode in the world of politics, in the social world. Political writers will believe that their words have impact, but only occasionally is that belief verified, and then always doubtfully. Words can be detonated, but sometimes not according to the writer's intention, or with an effect far from that desired, or desired at the time. When Michael Foot recited Shelley in Glasgow in the late 1970s ('Rise like lions after slumber'), to a Congress of Union leaders not noted for their love of liberty, it was like hearing 'Land of Hope and Glory' sung at a Militant gathering: grand, suasive, electrifyingly inappropriate to its context. Memorable words change valency and hue in different contexts.

There are benefits in a literary tradition which generally takes a dissenting stance before political and religious establishments, benefits that give Commonwealth writers as free access to Herbert and Herrick (to use Derek Walcott's examples) as Larkin or Davie or Harrison have. Our poetic heritage was not, generally speaking, a colonial instrument. It may be that children in Barbados had to read poems about snow falling in Cheshire, as Edward Kamau Braithwaite complained; but they might also read Milton and Shelley and Auden, with their different metres, accents and politics. It also means that British readers can, with a minimum of aural adjustment, hear the work of the best Commonwealth writers. There is still such a thing as English literature, even if Le Monde insists, in its book reviews, on discriminating between traduit de I'Anglais and traduit de l'Américain . The only other literature with a strong colonial heritage which retains this relative integrity is Spanish: Portuguese and Brazilian have grown more remote, and writing from post-colonial Francophone cultures has often broken deliberately from a literature far more colonially instrumental than ours has been.

When the Nobel Prize was awarded to Octavio Paz in October of 1990, some British and American commentators made bemused play of Paz's political role. His earliest political activity, after student days and demonstrations, was to go to the Yucatan and help set up a school for children of the exploited sisal workers. He was in Europe, and specifically in Spain in 1937. Appalled at the reports of the Gulag (he was a Marxist), he 'went public' some years later in the Argentinian magazine Sur , believing that the Left if it was to grow needed to come to terms with Stalinism. This did not endear him to fellow-Marxists.

He became an effective career diplomat. His resignation in 1968 at the time of the Olympic massacre in Tlatelolco, Mexico, was a political act with profound cultural repercussions. His engaged hostility to the Latin American left has landed him in no end of trouble at home and in some trouble abroad. He lives his politics on and off the page. His writing has, as a result, never been merely instrumental. Indeed - paradoxically - his activism has helped preserve the intellectual and moral integrity of his work.

Recently, several writers have been in the news, not for their writing, but for their political activity. Philip Balla in his 'Letter' in this issue describes how many Hungarian writers have found their ways into elected office. Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru are exemplary figures in different ways. The post-Salazar Portuguese government has been riddled with writers. In nations with authoritarian political arrangements, dissenting voices can become the voices of an alternative establishment when the authoritarian structures weaken. Writers risk corruption, of course: but they reckon it a risk worth taking not because they necessarily thirst for power but because they thirst after what they regard as right. The East German writers who feel so disenfranchised under the new German arrangements might wish they had gone a different route. And so might we.

One can hope that writers will find seats in the parliaments of small nations without authoritarian regimes, as well, those nations which do not possess a colonial heritage and whose language is contained within fixed borders. The decision of Dutch universities to succumb to the apparently irresistible pressure of English, to use it as the language of 'teaching, writing and assessment', should not puzzle us, though it ought to trouble us. If English is not used, the argument goes, the great universities will be unable to attract the fee-paying foreign student. Yet this lamentable economic priority will have irreversible cultural and political repercussions. The presence of writers in the parliaments of nations similarly pressured might distemper a debate whose terms have been largely dictated by politicians for whom culture is subsumed in economics. Were Dutch, or Finnish, or Swedish to atrophy and decline, English itself would be impoverished. It is a question of cultural ecology.

This item is taken from PN Review 77, Volume 17 Number 3, January - February 1991.

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