7#<Hc;F F F F F F.fFFFF FFFGJxFG GH *H3F H GH H H30H H H H H H Nadine Gordimer

 

 

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Nadine Gordimer

Artful words

 

 

... as the philosopher Swedenborg reminds us, the written word is humankind's exclusive property, there is common recognition that the responsibility of writers for this treasure is great. Yet there are as many disagreements on, as definitions of, the role of literature in society ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There would be no point in dwelling on the past if it were not for the truth of another member of the writing community ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the point of view of legislation, literature is freed at last, not only from the grasp of censorship but also from the distortion of literary values which meant that no matter how badly and carelessly some writers used the treasure of the word, wrote his or her language, the work was praised because it was published in opposition to tyranny.

Some see the role of literature in society purely aesthetically, as the exploration of the possibilities of the word, of the patterns of language to be endlessly arranged and disarranged.

Some modern writers, as Susan Sontag remarks, make every effort to disestablish themselves: not to be morally useful to the community, not to be social critics but social pariahs and spiritual adventurers who don't want to dirty their hands in contact with the messy business of mundane human problems, which include wars as well as injustice, poverty and homelessness.

Thomas Mann opposes this attitude with the claims of society, which, he says, writers must have 'The courage to recognise and express — that is the quality which makes literature.'

And a cry comes from exiled Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz: 'What is poetry which does not save nations or people? A connivance with official lies!'

South African writers have been faced with that challenge in our poetry, our prose, our plays, in our very recent history. Transforming the world — another definition of the role of literature — by esoteric literary style was hardly a possibility in the world of apartheid, a world of mass removals of our people, the silencing of our people in detention without trial, the banishment of our people to Robben Island, the hijacking of the word, language, to express racist rhetoric in the mouths of our then leaders. If we were to meet the challenge at all, it had to be in the light of what Walter Benjamin defined as Bertolt Brecht's formulation: the aim, the responsibility of the writer was to cause the audience, the reader, to be astonished at the circumstances under which he or she was living and functioning.

From that premise came what is known as our protest literature. And if the aesthetic exploration of the word was taken out of its velvet casket, it could not be disdainfully abandoned. Certainly not by any writer of integrity to the art as well as to his or her social and political convictions. For whatever is written, with whatever purpose, whether to express the struggle for freedom or the passion of a love affair, can only reach towards the power of truth in the measure in which the writer is capable of exploring the splendour of language brought into its service. In Germany writers had to clear their language of Nazi claptrap, the euphemism of 'Final Solution' for 'mass murder'; in South Africa we had to clear our languages of apartheid claptrap, the euphemisms of 'Resettlement' for 'banishment', and 'Permanent Removal' for 'assassination'. We had to clear our heads before we could sit down to write; and some of us had to pay dearly, not alone with the banning of our books, but with personal bans on continuing to write at all, as the price of writings that asserted the truth against connivance with official lies.

There would be no point in dwelling on the past if it were not for the truth of another member of the writing community: Milan Kundera's much-quoted dictum, 'The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.' I make no apology for reminding myself and you of the kind of situation in which I and my fellow writers in South Africa did our work during the years of apartheid. Perhaps this is the best way we have of ensuring that what happened shall not be allowed to happen again, resurrect under new motives, and that censorship shall not find toleration among us for what seems to be the good of other forms of building our new society, until it is too late to realise what we have done.

Our new South African Constitution guarantees freedom of expression. The word is free at last. From the point of view of legislation, literature is freed at last, not only from the grasp of censorship but also from the distortion of literary values which meant that no matter how badly and carelessly some writers used the treasure of the word, wrote his or her language, the work was praised because it was published in opposition to tyranny. This was inevitable: a circumstance of war.

There are constraints other than legal affecting us — important small publishing houses in financial straits, semi-literacy, lack of libraries in former segregated black townships and schools — but these may be openly tackled, they belong to the general need and the general determination to create a culture with a dimension for the imagination that was not recognised in our country ever before. Our task now is to put the past aside, while admitting the huge cultural debts which are its legacy, and to look for ways to reimburse, invigorate, in our new South Africa, a long-deprived society.

Those in the outside world who, through Index, supported the struggle for freedom in South Africa, know, as part of the cultural family of the world, that if art is at the heart of revolution it is also at the heart of reconstruction. Index will continue to be invaluable to us as we guard our hard-won freedom of expression at home, and as we keep alert to whatever threatens that freedom, wherever this happens. For the Word, written or spoken, is our precious common property.

Nadine Gordimer 1997

Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Her more recent novels include My Son's Story (1990) and None to Accompany Me (1994), and the short story collection Jump (1991). Her lectures, Writing and Being were published in 1995

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