‘In Iran Just As Well as In Afghanistan, in Actual Fact, Words Defy Tyranny’
Curator Reading Koran on Roof of Library, Mauritania The power of words a library curator reading in Mauritania. Photograph: Remi Benali/ Remi Benali/Corbis
In a major book of Persian literature called Memorial of the Saints, written in the 13th century, the great poet Farid Ud-din Attar explains that, one day, a young disciple asked his master what the power of wise men was. “Speech”, the master answered, “speech!” Then the master showed his disciple the mountain at the foot of which he lived as a hermit, and said: “When a wise man orders this mountain to move, it moves.” And at that precise moment, the mountain started shaking. The master scolded it: “I’ve not asked you to move! I just wanted to show him an example!”
On the surface, of course this tale shows what has been mankind’s dream since time immemorial: to create, to change, to move, to destroy, to rebuild the world with words. Just with words! Who hasn’t dreamed of being able to say: “Let there be light!” and to see light appear?
Yet beyond this fanciful quest, there is something in that tale which makes me wonder about the link between the power and speech of wise men [and women], intellectuals and writers.
First, about asking a mountain to move and getting it to move: I interpret this allegorically (and perhaps naively) as a pragmatic aspect of language, its transitive function. And I don’t just mean in our daily conversations, but also in a literary text. Then, about the fact that the wise man just gives an “example”, and that the example becomes a commandment: that opens a debate on the notion of exemplarity and metalanguage in literature.
Everyone undoubtedly remembers the following title, which is magical in French: “Quand dire c’est faire.” In English it is “How to Do Things with Words”, written by John Langshaw Austin. This English philosopher means a series of sentences which aren’t simply a string of words that explain a state or a situation They become the very act they describe. Once uttered, they can change a life or a community’s life dramatically. For instance “I now pronounce you man and wife” used by a mayor. Or “War is declared” used by a statesman, who, just by uttering these words, throws his people in the great madness and terror it involves A few centuries ago, in Amsterdam’s synagogue, a sermon banished Baruch Spinoza from the Jewish community and condemned him to silence. And more recently, a “fatwa” forced Salman Rushdie into concealment
Believers say that the universe is created by the very words of God. And even if we don’t believe it, we still witness the way the words attributed to God lead men to action, whether on the path of wisdom or the madness of suicide attacks
But you might ask: is this the doing of the power of words or of the words of power?
Langshaw Austin said it well: for a performative utterance to be “fortunate”, in other words feasible, you need the right set of circumstances. You can’t just have anyone pronounce any couple man and wife! First and foremost, the person who unites the two must have some legitimacy and some power. Then, the couple must fulfil certain conditions and so on. And to get a mountain to move, you have to gain some wisdom first.
In order to shout “I accuse”, you have to be Zola first. And to be Zola, you have to have written Nana, Germinal, La Bête Humaine “It is splendid to be a great writer,” said Flaubert, “to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts. There must be a delirious pride in the feeling that you are bringing the full weight of your ideas to bear on mankind. But for that you must have something to say.”
When the writer has something to say, does it follow that he changes anything in the world? Jean-Paul Sartre would reply yes, because for him, saying things means wanting to change them; talking or writing means acting on the world. Karl Marx Marx the novelist would have had far less impact on the world. Nicholson/Corbis
Bright minds will probably ask: if writers wield such power with their speech, why is the world torn in [to] a thousand pieces? Why is there so much tyranny, war and injustice? Where do we find ourselves, after Germinal, after War and Peace, after A Farewell to Arms, after The Plague ? What is literature up to? Alas, another question that sentences literature to uncertainty.
“Clearly, if Marx had followed his dreams of youth and written the most beautiful novel in the world, he would have held the world spellbound, but he wouldn’t have moved it. You therefore have to write Capital and not War and Peace. You don’t describe Caesar’s murder, you have to be Brutus Making such links, such comparisons, might seem absurd to onlookers. But when art is weighed against action, immediate and pressing, action can only consider art as wrong, and art can only concur”.
Maurice Blanchot said these words. And he is not wrong.
Even Sartre, a keen supporter of politically engaged literature, said in a fit of despair: “When a child is dying, Nausea seems very lightweight”! Or Friedrich Hölderlin: ” what are poets good for in times of trouble?”
But before sinking into unfathomable despair, let’s reassure poets: You are here precisely to tell us what poets are good for in times of trouble. Because by telling us that, poets name, define and recall the nature of our lives in these “times of trouble”. Just as Shams Tabrizi, master of Rumi, a mystic Persian in the 13th century: “We are not able to talk, If only we could listen! We must say all! And listen to all! But Our ears are sealed Our lips are sealed Our hearts are sealed.”
This cry has echoed for centuries to denounce the permanent and implacable censorship that is breathed into the heart of writers, in Iran just as well as in Afghanistan (my country of origin), where in actual fact words defy tyranny. In those countries, the existential problem isn’t “to be or not to be ” but to say or not to say.
Thus, any act becomes political. Even silence. Even lies.
I remember that when soviets were in Afghanistan, a brilliant saying from Poland was used by intellectuals: “If you want to survive, don’t think. If you think, don’t talk. If you talk, don’t write. If you write, don’t sign it. If you sign it, don’t be surprised!” Unfortunately, this still goes for my native country, even if the new post-Taliban constitution allows freedom of the press. But the problem lies elsewhere; it lies in each of us, because our hearts are sealed.
In the south of Afghanistan, Pashtun women have a poetic tradition called landay. These are short, anonymous poems, which reveal a lot, like for instance: “Lay your lips on mine But leave my tongue free, that I may tell you I love you”
Imagine what would happen to that woman if she signed this!
This is how, by describing the conditions of mankind or by revealing humanity’s desires and dreams, a literary text can become a cry, an act of proclamation. It “gives a syntax to the cry”, as Deleuze would put it. It is a performative utterance. And even if that cry doesn’t waken slumbering spirits, at least it might trouble their sleep! Such an act isn’t a provocation, but a pro-vocation.
In that sense, politics isn’t the will, the fear or the duty of the writer. It is in the ink of its writing. Writers aren’t “engaged” in History, they are “embarked” in it, as Camus coins it, using Pascal’s wording.
Now, let’s talk about the other aspect of the literary experience, its exemplarity.
“Man’s world is the planet of inexperience” said Milan Kundera, “Inexperience is a quality of the human condition. We are born one time only; we never start a new life equipped with the experience we’ve gained from a previous one.”
It is because this world is a planet of inexperience that literature has a meaning. Given that we don’t live a permanent experience, literature helps us conceive the life of others (of those who lived before our time, or those who live at the same time as we do but elsewhere), as a pointer, perhaps even a mimetic desire, as René Girard put it.
We live and so we think with and through other people’s experiences, just as others live with and through our writing as an existential, sentimental, political, metaphysical experience. Salman Rushdie said: “It is literature which for me opened the mysterious and decisive doors of imagination and understanding. To see the way others see. To think the way others think. And above all, to feel.” Denis Diderot said: “Reading novels makes us better people, not only because fictions illustrate abstract principles, or because characters show us what behaviors to adopt or avoid, but also because it turns the empathy felt by the reader into an experience of the other, therefore an altruist experience.”
In that sense, an experience isn’t just “personal experience”, it isn’t just past; it isn’t a “study”, a scientific experiment carried out to check or justify knowledge data, which would make it a future-oriented act. It is the proof of our existence here and now. It is the act of meditating on what we live. It is living the world as the world lives us. It is an “inner experience” for George Bataille and an “original experience” for Maurice Blanchot.
Writing is an experience with language, ie with oneself. It is an experience which helps me see the world within myself, so I can deconstruct it in order to understand it, and then rebuild it as I wish. By changing the world bit by bit, one day we will change the world.
So, should we still doubt the political dimension of literature?
First, I’d say YES! We must doubt it because as Paul Valéry says, “politics means wanting to conquer and to retain power; it therefore involves an action of constraint or of illusion over minds which are the essence of all power ()” The political mind always ends up forced into forgery. It introduces a forged intellectual currency onto the market; it introduces forged historical notions; it builds specious reasoning arguments; in a word, it does anything it can to keep its authority, its so-called moral authority. And then, I’d say NO, because literature is a fight against all political systems. It is the power of words against the words of power. Thus the definition of politics in writing.
From the Edinburgh world writers’ conference in Saint-Malo, a speech on art, writing and reality from the French-Afghan author and film-maker Atiq Rahimi