Political Writing and Political Writers

24 Mar

After World War II, Ezra Pound, American poet and one of the key figures in the modernist movement between the wars, was imprisoned in Pisa, Italy, awaiting trial for treason. For twenty five days he was kept in a tiny open air cage –an early form of water-boarding. His crime was a series of radio broadcasts on behalf of the Mussolini government. The content of the broadcasts were, like his poetry, often esoteric and obscure and it is doubtful if many American G.I. Joes were much affected by Pound’s arguments about the evil of usury.  Still, there was no question they were anti-American, pro-fascist and, in their uglier moments, deeply anti-Semitic and racist.  But it was the treasonous elements of the broadcasts, not the illiberal ones, that led to his imprisonment.  Even in America, freedom of speech is not a defense against treason. 

Eventually, through the efforts of his lawyer and his literary friends, Pound was deemed unfit to stand trial and was confined to St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital for twelve years.  Despite this, he was awarded the Bollingen Prize by the Library of Congress in 1949 for The Pisan Cantos, poems largely composed during his imprisonment.  Throughout his time in St. Elizabeth’s, Pound continued to be supported by those whom he had supported  – Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, T.S.Eliot and Archibald McLeish.  On the other hand he also became close to people like Eustuce Mullins and John Kaspar, noted far-right activists and racists.  One of the last photographic images of Pound, after his release and return to Italy in the 1959, is of the elderly poet giving the fascist salute to a cluster of journalists.

Pound remains one of the most controversial figures in modern literature – not because of his writing, which was always political – but because of his politics.  Pound’s poetry and writings about literature remain powerful and beautiful (though his political and economic essays are naive and often ugly).  The Cantos, especially the Pisan Cantos, are arguably some of the greatest poetry of the twentieth Century.  Moreover, Pound was critical as an editor of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, instrumental in bringing “The Waste Land” to its final form.  He promoted and published writers such as Joyce, Hemingway and Frost.  Beyond that he was a pillar of the broader modernist movement with close ties to composer, George Antheil, and painters of the Dadaist and Surrealist schools.

Anyone reading the Cantos could see the politics implied in them.  The 1920s and 30s were the decades of the great “isms” – Communism to the left, Fascism to the right, Anarchism all over the place – and Pound dabbled in a number of them as he sought to answer the great question of the day: Who was to blame for the horror of the Great War?  As long as Pound remained in the literary world, he was on safe territory but as soon as he stepped into the realm of politics and, moreover, used his stature as a writer to promote his politics, he was viewed as a crackpot, a villain and eventually a traitor.  I can make no excuse for Pound’s politics.  To say it was typical of his time is hardly an excuse; even isolated in an apartment in Rome, he must have been aware of the consequences of blaming Jews for all the evils of the world.

But I’m still attracted to his poetry.  Even that is considered contentious by some (despite Pound’s demise more than 40 years ago).  There are those who say you cannot separate the artist from their art.  Some of the same people also claim that their characters are real to them and their books write themselves but logical consistency is not always the hallmark of creative people.

Science fiction is not immune from these controversies.  Orson Scott Card, for example, has been attacked for his views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, which has led to a negative reassessment in some quarters of his Hugo and Nebula winning work. A recent novella, Hamlet’s Father, was criticized as an attempt to link homosexuality to pedophilia, a charge Card denied.  His views have also led to boycotts, by some comic books stores, and delay of the DC Superman comic that Card was hired to write.  Elizabeth Moon, another Nebula winner, wrote a blog opposing the ‘ground-zero’ mosque and suggesting assimilation was the proper path to citizenship.  As a direct result her invitation to be Guest of Honour at WisCon 35, a feminist science fiction convention, was rescinded. 

Some would argue this is political correctness gone mad. [I can’t resist the irony that the term ‘political correctness’ was first used by the left as a form of self-criticism and a warning against political orthodoxy.  The use of it by the right just smacks of cultural appropriation, doesn’t it?]  There are those, both left and right, who defend ‘freedom of speech’ as paramount.  Americans, in particular, are nearly fanatical about First Amendment rights – almost to the point of persecuting those who question them.  In Canada, and even more so in Europe, we’re not so sure.  We have laws against hate speech – we’ve even put people in prison for engaging in it (Holocaust deniers for the most part.)  A recent Canadian Supreme Court decision drew a line where freedom of religious speech ends and criminal hate speech begins.  In Germany, even displaying a swastika can lead to criminal charges, though the government did recently permit the republication of Mein Kampf, banned since 1945.

For people of liberal views – that is, those of us who support democracy, human rights, individual freedom, open economies, social responsibility, multiculturalism and collective rights – the issue of free political speech for artists is conflicted.  Even people who defend the use of offensive language, images or ideas in art, cringe at those who want to move those ideas off the page, canvas or musical score into the real world of social action and politics.  I suspect it comes from two great misconceptions about artists.

The first is that artists have some special insight into the world.  They are, as Ezra Pound liked to call them, the ‘antennae of the race,’ gifted with the ability to see where we are going, or more, where we should be going.  Not surprisingly, science fiction writers (and their fans) might be particularly prone to this belief.  I even use the concept in my company slogan: Science fiction, our conversation with the future.  Artists and writers can no more predict the future than corporate executives (like the ones at RIM who didn’t foresee the popularity of touch screen devices).  Artists create art because they have an argument with the past and the present (in this they are philosophic cousins of scientists – who find previous explanations of current data unsatisfactory).  All art – especially great art – arises from these arguments, and the anger, the pain, the sorrow and the joy they generate.  From that view, a fascist in conflict with liberal society can create great art, without having any particular insight into how humans should live their lives.  Artists can be dead wrong about the world; their error, spilled out on the page or the canvas for all to see, is their accomplishment.  Assuming that they’re wrong, of course.

The second error is that art (and therefore artists) is always somehow progressive, that even when ugly it leads to the advancement of human society.  Nonsense.  Art in Stalinist Russia was used to great effect to support an oppressive state; the CIA countered by secretly funding abstract impressionism to prove democracy could support art the people hated.  Writing, art and music are used to sell running shoes and shotguns – useful devises I’m sure but hardly critical to the improvement of human civilization.  Art is not progressive (or reactionary for that matter) in the sense that it has an ‘aim’ or ‘purpose.’  It is progressive to the extent that it is a conversation between a perceptive individual who is troubled by the world and the world that troubles her.  It is progressive if it stimulates controversy and debate outside the world of art.  It is valuable if it makes us think about things that we find personally disturbing or contrary.  It’s why I can read Ezra Pound, despite his offensive politics, and still be deeply moved – and disturbed – by his words.  I might object to Card’s or Moon’s political views – and even find them contemptible as human beings – but I won’t necessarily stop reading them.  Others may differ – as is their right.

So what do I conclude?  Can art be separated from the artist who creates it?  I doubt it.  As an atheist and a materialist (and a left winger, though that is less relevant), it would be hard to imagine where art comes from if not from the conscious and sub-conscious impulses of the artist.  One’s political and moral values must be reflected in the arguments one makes with the world.  However, there is a difference between argument and polemic.  Great artists can (and often do) create lousy art – I suspect that happens most often when they cross the line from letting their art be political and try to make it do politics. 

In a week or two Bundoran Press will be releasing the guidelines to Strange Bedfellows, an anthology of political science fiction.  I haven’t quite finished writing them yet but I know one thing they will say.  “We are looking for well-written science fiction stories with strong plots and compelling, if not sympathetic, characters engaged in arguments with the world.  We want political stories, immersed in science, that take on those arguments without polemic but with passion – recognizing that causes have both effects and consequences.  We don’t care what your politics are; we just want you to tell a good story.”  Maybe, as a result, some people will boycott the book.  That would be a shame but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.

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One Response to “Political Writing and Political Writers”

  1. Don Thompson March 25, 2013 at 3:39 am #

    Wow Hayden. I had no idea you were so intellectually gifted – though I must admit that assessing intelligence of others at parties where one is particularly intoxicated is probably unwise.

    I will take some issue with your conclusion, though, as expressed in “Can art be separated from the artist who creates it? I doubt it.” I am fascinated by the art of Michelangelo, including his Cristine Chapel wo0rk, but…

    While not an atheist I would likely disagree strongly with his religious and/or political views I can certainly appreciate the art. I am sure there are others I would like if I were so inclined, without agreeing with anything they say.

    I will acquiesce a bit, though and mention that while I was a Ran follower in my late teens (when I knew little of our western world but it’s outward face) and later became a strong detractor of her simplistic attitude and naiveté, I now understand her. Of course, no sane person over 30 could agree with her.

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