The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986
Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature
Paper read in English at a symposium on European politics arranged by the European Studies Program at Amherst College, February 25, 1976.
When I received the invitation to speak here at your symposium, my first thought was one that always comes to me on such occasions: I tried to remember if there was some recent piece of mine on literature and politics, some contribution to one of the numerous debates on the subject. And I realized that I had nothing ready. For some years I had not happened to write or say anything on this subject.
Now that I think of it, this is very odd. In the years of my youth, from 1945 on, throughout the fifties and beyond, the problems then dominant were concerned with the relations between the writer and politics. I might even say that every discussion revolved around this point. My generation could be defined as the one that began to be concerned with literature and politics at the same time.
In recent years, on the other hand, it has often occurred to me to worry about how things are going in politics and how things are going in literature, but when I think about politics I think about politics, and when I think about literature I think about literature. When I confront these two problematical areas today, I feel two quite separate sensations, and both are sensations of emptiness: the lack of a political program that I can believe in and the lack of a literary program I can believe in.
But on a deeper level I am aware that the knot of relationships between politics and literature that we came up against in our youth has not yet been unraveled; its frayed and twisted ends are still getting tangled around our ankles.
What happened in the sixties profoundly changed many of the concepts that we were dealing with, even if we still go on calling them by the same names. We do not yet know what all this will mean in terms of ultimate effects on the future of our society, but we do already know that there has been a revolution of the mind, an intellectual turning point.
If we had to give a brief definition of this process, we could say that the notion of man as the subject of history is finished—the antagonist who has dethroned man must still be called man, but a man very different from what he was before. Which is to say, the human race of the “big numbers” in exponential growth all over the planet; the explosion of the big cities; the ungovernability of society and the economy, whatever system they belong to; the end of economic and ideological Eurocentrism; and the claiming of full rights by the outcasts, the repressed, the forgotten, and the inarticulate. All the parameters, categories, and antitheses that we once used to define, plan, and classify the world have been called into question. And not only those most closely linked to historical values, but even the ones that seemed to be stable anthropological categories—reason and myth, work and existence, male and female—and even the polarity of the most elementary combinations of words—affirmation and negation, above and below, subject and object.
In these last few years, my worries about politics and literature have had to do with their inadequacy with regard to the tasks these changes in our mentality impose.
Perhaps I should begin by giving a better definition of the situation in the tiny domestic microcosm that is Italian literature, in order to explain what fresh tidings the sixties brought us.
During the fifties, Italian literature, and the novel in particular, aspired to represent the ethical and social conscience of contemporary Italy. During the sixties, this claim was attacked on two fronts. On the front of literary form—or, rather, on a front that was not merely formal but also epistemological and eschatological—it was the new avant-garde that attacked and questioned Italian fiction, accusing it of being sentimental, antiquated, and hypocritically consolatory. Only a violent break in the language and the space and time of fiction could represent contemporary life and dispel illusions.
At the same time, in the ranks of politically committed criticism, the most radical critics attacked and destroyed the claim to exemplariness made by committed literature, and accused it of populism.* On this front also, therefore, the ground was prepared for the revenge of the avant-garde, or at least of the literature of negation—that is, for the way of thinking in literature that claims not to provide any positive teaching, but to be merely an indication of the point we are at.
Along with these two attacking forces I must now mention a third, and of no less importance. The cultural hinterland of Italian literature was undergoing a complete change. Linguistics, information theory, the sociology of the mass media, ethnology and anthropology, the structural study of myths, semiology, a new use of psychoanalysis, a new use of Marxism: all these became instruments habitually employed to dismantle any literary object and break it down into its component parts.
I believe that at that moment literature found itself in a more promising situation than it had ever enjoyed before. The ground had been cleared of the vast misunderstandings that had weighed upon the debates of the postwar years. The dismantling of the work of literature might open the way toward a new evaluation and a new structuring. And what came of it? Nothing—or exactly the opposite of what might have been hoped for. This was for reasons both inside and outside the literary movement itself.
The new political radicalism of the students of 1968 was marked in Italy by a rejection of literature. It was not the literature of negation that was proposed, but the negation of literature. Literature was accused, in the first place, of being a waste of time in comparison with the one thing that mattered: action. That the cult of action was first and foremost an old literary myth was understood—or is being understood—very slowly.
I would like to say that this attitude was not entirely mistaken. It meant the rejection of a wishy-washy, so-called social literature, the rejection of a wrongheaded notion of the committed writer. And so in some ways it brought us closer to a proper evaluation of the social function of literature, far closer than any fatheaded traditional literary cult could have been.
But it was—and I am speaking in the past tense because I believe that something has already changed—it was also a sign of self-limitation, of narrow horizons, of an inability to perceive the complexity of things.
When politicians and politically minded people pay too much attention to literature, it is a bad sign—a bad sign mostly for literature, because it is then that literature is in most danger. But it is also a bad sign when they don’t want to hear the word mentioned, and this happens as much to the most traditionally obtuse bourgeois politicians as to the most ideological revolutionaries. This is a bad sign mostly for them, because they are showing themselves afraid of any use of language that calls the certitude of their own language into question.
In any case, the appointment between the two new avant-gardes, literary and political, never took place. The literary avant-garde suffered from the loss of the potential reserves of readers that it was looking forward to, and soon enough the defeated writers of the fifties slid back into their seats. Places cannot stay empty for long in literature without being occupied, in the worst hypothesis by bad writers, and at best by writers of the traditional stamp.
In recent years all the more oversimplified political viewpoints have failed, and our awareness of the complexity of the society we live in has grown, even if no one can claim to have a solution in his pocket. The situation in Italy today is on the one hand a state of deterioration and corruption in our institutional framework, and on the other of a growing collective maturity and search for ways of governing ourselves.
What is the place of literature in such a situation? I have to admit that the situation is no less confused in this field than in that of politics. There is an extensive nationwide public for the Italian novel, particularly when it deals with recent politics or history—not in the didactic manner of thirty years ago, but as a set of problems. On the other hand, there is the pressure of the mass media urging the writer to write for the newspapers, to take part in round-table discussions on television, to give his opinion on anything that he might or might not know about. The writer is given a chance to fill the space left vacant by any intelligible political discussion. But this task turns out to be too easy (it is too easy to make generalizations without having any responsibility in practice), whereas it ought to be the most difficult task a writer could undertake. The more flaccid and abstract the language of politics becomes, the more we are conscious of a tacit demand for a different language, more direct and personal. More provocative, too. Provocation is the public function most in demand in present-day Italy. The life and death and posthumous life of Pasolini have consecrated the provocative role of the writer.
There is a fundamental error in all this. What we ask of writers is that they guarantee the survival of what we call human in a world where everything appears inhuman; guarantee the survival of human discourse to console us for the loss of humanity in every other discourse and relationship. And what do we mean by human? Usually, whatever is temperamental, emotional, ingenuous, and not at all austere. It is very hard to find someone who believes in the austerity of literature, superior to and opposed to the false austerity of language that runs the world today.
The Nobel Prize this year was awarded to Eugenio Montale, but few now remember that the strength of his poetry has always lain in his keeping his voice low, without emphasis of any kind, using modest and doubtful tones. It is precisely for this reason that he has made himself heard to many, and his presence has had a great impact on three generations of readers. This is how literature tunnels its way forward; its “efficacy,” its “power,” if they exist at all, are of this type.
But society today demands that the writer raise his voice if he wants to be heard, propose ideas that will have impact on the public, push all his instinctive reactions to extremes. But even the most sensational and explosive statements pass over the heads of readers. All is as nothing, like the sound of the wind. Any comment appears no more than a shake of the head, as at a naughty boy. Everyone knows that words are only words, and produce no friction with the world around us: they involve no danger either for the reader or the writer. In the ocean of words, printed or broadcast, the words of the poet or writer are swallowed up.
This is the paradox of the power of literature: it seems that only when it is persecuted does it show its true powers, challenging authority, whereas in our permissive society it feels that it is being used merely to create the occasional pleasing contrast to the general ballooning of verbiage. (And yet, should we be so mad as to complain about it? Would to God that even dictators realized that the best method of freeing themselves from the dangers of the written word is to treat it as counting for nothing!)
In the first place, we have to remember that “wherever writers are persecuted it means not only that literature is persecuted, but also that there is a ban on many other kinds of discussion and thought (and political thought in the forefront). Fiction, poetry, and literary criticism in such countries acquire unusual political specific gravity, insofar as they give a voice to all those who are deprived of one. We who live in a state of literary freedom are aware that this freedom implies a society on the move, in which a lot of things are changing (whether for better or worse is another problem); in this case, too, what is in question is the relationship between the message of literature and society, or, more precisely, between the message and the possible creation of a society to receive it. This is the rapport that counts, not the one with political authority, now that those in government cannot claim to hold the reins of society, either in the democracies or in the authoritarian regimes of right or left. Literature is one of a society’s instruments of self-awareness—certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various codes, various forms of critical thought.
In a word, what I think is that there are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature. The first is to claim that literature should voice a truth already possessed by politics; that is, to believe that the sum of political values is the primary thing, to which literature must simply adapt itself. This opinion implies a notion of literature as ornamental and superfluous, but it also implies a notion of politics as fixed and self-confident: an idea that would be catastrophic. I think that such a pedagogical function for politics could only be imagined at the level of bad literature and bad politics.
The other mistaken way is to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments, as the truth of a human language that politics tends to overlook, and that therefore has to be called to mind from time to time. This concept apparently leaves more room for literature, but in practice it assigns it the task of confirming what is already known, or maybe of provoking in a naïve and rudimentary way, by means of the youthful pleasures of freshness and spontaneity. Behind this way of thinking is the notion of a set of established values that literature is responsible for preserving, the classical and immobile idea of literature as the depository of a given truth. If it agrees to take on this role, literature confines itself to a function of consolation, preservation, and regression—a function that I believe does more harm than good.
Does this mean that all political uses of literature are wrong? No, I believe that just as there are two wrong uses, there are also two right ones.
Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude. I mean aspects, situations, and languages both of the outer and of the inner world, the tendencies repressed both in individuals and in society. Literature is like an ear that can hear things beyond the understanding of the language of politics; it is like an eye that can see beyond the color spectrum perceived by politics. Simply because of the solitary individualism of his work, the writer may happen to explore areas that no one has explored before, within himself or outside, and to make discoveries that sooner or later turn out to be vital areas of collective awareness.
This is still a very indirect, undeliberate, and fortuitous use for literature. The writer follows his own road, and chance or social and psychological factors lead him to discover something that may become important for political and social action as well. It is the responsibility of the sociopolitical observer not to leave anything to chance, and to apply his own method to the business of literature in such a way as not to allow anything to escape him.
But there is also, I think, another sort of influence that literature can exert, perhaps not more direct but certainly more intentional on the part of the writer. This is the ability to impose patterns of language, of vision, of imagination, of mental effort, of the correlation of facts, and in short the creation (and by creation I mean selection and organization) of a model of values that is at the same time aesthetic and ethical, essential to any plan of action, especially in political life.
So it comes about that, having excluded political education from the functions of literature, I find myself stating that I do believe in a type of education by means of literature; a type of education that can yield results only if it is difficult and indirect, if it implies the arduous attainment of literary stringency.
Any result attained by literature, as long as it is stringent and rigorous, may be considered firm ground for all practical activities for anyone who aspires to the construction of a mental order solid and complex enough to contain the disorder of the world within itself; for anyone aiming to establish a method subtle and flexible enough to be the same thing as an absence of any method whatever.
I have spoken of two right uses, but now I can discern a third, which is connected to the critical manner in which literature regards itself. If at one time literature was regarded as a mirror held up to the world, or as the direct expression of feelings, now we can no longer neglect the fact that books are made of words, of signs, of methods of construction. We can never forget that what books communicate often remains unknown even to the author himself, that books often say something different from what they set out to say, that in any book there is a part that is the author’s and a part that is a collective and anonymous work.
This kind of awareness does not influence literature alone: it can also be useful to politics, enabling that science to discover how much of it is no more than verbal construction, myth, literary topos. Politics, like literature, must above all know itself and distrust itself.
As a final observation, I should like to add that if it is impossible today for anyone to feel innocent, if in whatever we do or say we can discover a hidden motive—that of a white man, or a male, or the possessor of a certain income, or a member of a given economic system, or a sufferer from a certain neurosis—this should not induce in us either a universal sense of guilt or an attitude of universal accusation.
When we become aware of our disease or of our hidden motives, we have already begun to get the better of them. What matters is the way in which we accept our motives and live through the ensuing crisis. This is the only chance we have of becoming different from the way we are—that is, the only way of starting to invent a new way of being.