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In a Violent World

(A reflection on the function of literature
and the role of artists.
In these—and at all—times)

In the tensions and violence of today’s world many people might question the sense of discussing literature. And yet there is a profound significance in the endeavour to explore the functioning of the word in a context which seems to have less and less time and space for it.

Years ago I wrote this passage in the novel “The Wall of the Plague”:

According to one hypothesis humanity has two distinct places of origin in the world, two beginnings, two essential connections. One of its birthplaces, it is alleged, was the Ural Mountains: the earth, the dung heap, to which all that is physical and concrete in a human being responds. Its type is the peasant. But another line goes back to the Middle East, where the Word had its beginning. The Verbum. Mind. Spirit. The urge to invent. Hence in order to evoke a response from the very core of a person’s humanity, one should appeal to either of these two instincts that have shaped that person. One can appeal to the hunting instinct, to the violence latent inside, the urge to change and destroy what comes in its way, to conquer; or to the imagination, to the human being’s ability to create.

If I were to write this passage today, it would undoubtedly have looked different. For one thing, Africa would have featured much more prominently among the cradles of humanity; and the duality might have been defined in a more nuanced way. But the essential argument, remains unchanged, and of course literature is primarily the expression of the verbum, as one of the basic instincts and shaping principles of the human.

Not that literature is ever univocal or has only a single, unique function in the world: much of its richness lies in its versatility in terms of its interaction with—and within—a context. The Russian writer Victor Erofeyev once compared literature to a piano. In a time of peace, he said, you use the piano as a musical instrument to soothe or excite the sense of hearing, to express inner feelings, to modulate your interaction with the world. In time of war, unexpectedly, the piano may fulfil numerous other functions. It can be used to barricade a door or a street against the enemy. It can be used to make alarm or hammer out messages in code. It can even be used to make fire against the cold of a severe winter. But when peace returns, it reverts to being no more and no less than a musical instrument again. Likewise, the literary work can disseminate propaganda, outwit the censors, unite resistance against evil, inspire people towards action, create solidarity of purpose, or whatever. In peace literature becomes ‘only’ literature again. Or, as Milan Kundera explains in his foreword to the new 1982 English translation of “The Joke”, after having been read, previously, as either a pamphlet against socialism or a political fantasy, it can now “ultimately be what it has always meant to be: merely a novel.”

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