If I knew who I was or what I was I would not write,
My generation has grown up with the emergence of the mass entertainment industry and the commodification of information. Since the arrival of television we have been bombarded with images that appear to stand in place of analysis and reflection. Images develop instant meanings; they have instant impact. Images can haunt us, some even become signs of the times, but images do not typically produce insight. Clearly they can have great meaning, but their meaning is not deep. My argument this evening is that an image is not worth a thousand words.
In the 21st century the mass media would have us believe that we can make sense as we watch, in real time, two planes crash into two buildings in the middle of New York City. These images have become value laden news grabs achieving emblematic status by their instant dissemination. The philosopher Zygmunt Bauman points out we are living in a time when 'no wellbeing of one place is innocent of the misery of another.' So if we can no longer feign innocence, if the images of the world rudely and insistently present themselves to us, what are we to do? What meaning can we take away from these hellish scenes?
In the State Library, this repository of books, a great space devoted to the history of knowledge, it is interesting to ponder why when images circulate with increasing speed and the accompanying commentary offers less and less analysis, and literary writing has gained in status, gravitas and significance. Whilst the traditional rules governing intellectual property are thrown into disarray by every teenager with access to i-tunes and duplication proliferates, the originality and distinctiveness of the writer’s voice has acquired all the more value. The book may have stiff competition from a vast array of other forms of entertainment, but the literary writer has become once again, like some ancient relic, the prophet of our times and a source of solace. We flock to festivals, the publishing industry is flourishing and at the same time every man and his dog has a blog. The literary voice has assumed even greater value in this period of transient commodification.
The good news is that the book has not died, ideas are more hotly contested than ever and the reflective and analytic power of words has renewed prestige. In an historical moment, seemingly fixated on sensation and visuality, writing is a deliberate and redemptive act.
In this lecture I want to consider the particular power of literary writing, why does writing matter in the age of the image? When we are inundated by images of despair, disenfranchisement and deracination, why do words carry so much significance?
Thirty years ago George Steiner wrote a book entitled In Bluebeard's castle. Sadly his observations still ring true:
The wide scale reversion to torture and mass murder, the ubiquitous use of hunger and imprisonment as political means marks not only a crisis of culture, but an abandonment of the rational order of man. It may well be that it is an indecency to debate of the definition of culture in the age of the gas oven, of the arctic camps, of napalm. The topic may belong solely to the past history of hope.
Steiner’s essay may resonate with despair but he was not writing to document the end of hope; he was trying to make sense of the Nazis’ love of Beethoven. Why write if not to share one’s despair?
In The history of reading Alberto Manguel arrives at the same conclusion with a personal story about the importance of literature even in the darkest of places:
When I was ten or eleven, one of my teachers in Buenos Aires tutored me in the evenings in German and European history. To improve my German pronunciation, he encouraged me to memorise poems by Heine, Goethe and Schiller, and a Gustav Schwab's ballad, in which a rider gallops across the frozen Lake of Constance and, on realising what he has accomplished, dies of fright on the far shore. I enjoyed learning the poems but I didn't understand of what use they might possibly be.
They'll keep you company on the day you have no books to read,' my teacher said. Then he told me that his father, murdered in Sachsenhausen, had been a famous scholar, who knew many of the classics by heart and who, during his time in the concentration camp, had offered himself as a library to be read to his fellow inmates. I imagined the old man in that murky, relentless, hopeless place, approached with a request for Virgil or Euripides, opening himself up to a given page and reciting the ancient words for his bookless readers. Years later, I realised that he had been immortalised as one of the crowd of roaming book savers in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.
A text read and remembered becomes, in that redemptive re-reading, like the frozen lake in the poem I memorised so long ago – as solid as land and capable of supporting the reader's crossing and yet, at the same time, its only existence is in the mind, as precarious and fleeting as if its letters were written on water.
Once we belong to a community of readers, we can begin to think aloud, to think together about hopelessness and that becomes, in itself, surely a cause for hope. And equally importantly precisely why writing matters.
We have felt the after effects of 9/11 both politically and culturally. You may remember that Donald Rumsfeld lectured the rest of the world, 'the war will be won when the Americans feel secure again.' Non-Americans, particularly those living in the Middle East during this inappropriately named War on Terror could be excused for being somewhat mystified by the American reaction to 9/11. The hundreds of thousands of innocent children who have been killed by American bombs might well ask, 'Why were you surprised?' Let me be clear, nothing justifies terrorism. Violence, whether inflicted by individuals or states should be an abomination for all humanity. My point is simply how are we to make sense of such acts of violence?
Writers have been struggling with this issue with particular intensity, since the attack on the World Trade Centre, that great symbol of American wealth and power. From Jonathon Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close through to Don DeLillo’s Falling man, September 11th has become the focus of profound anxiety and uneasiness about modern life.
Reading the 9/11 genre, for that is what it has become, it is clear that for many the act of writing has taken on the gestural significance that it had for another generation after Auschwitz. Some cultural commentators have argued, to paraphrase Adorno, that there can be no poetry after 9/11. Writing less than three months after that event in a revealing essay entitled 'In the ruins of the future', DeLillo argued, 'the narrative ends in the rubble and it is left to us to create the counter-narrative. There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.' This then is the writer’s brief: to bring understanding to bear on the fear to which we must either capitulate or resist.
We are living in times of uncertainty. The 21st century is an age of fabricated and real moral panics engendered by the fear of AIDS or terrorism, environmental catastrophe or illegal immigration to cite just a few modern anxieties. These moral panics are all too often transformed into political panics. 9/11 has legitimated a phoney war and took America and (Australia as a bit part player) to Afghanistan and Iraq. How has contemporary writing responded to the zeitgeist? Freud once prosletysed for his profession's ability to help us transform universal tragedy into ordinary everyday misery. Writing, after 9/11, is working the same turf.
Freud teaches us that fear is a primal anxiety. Our parents make us feel safe from the world. But our sense of security and wellbeing comes at a cost; the dark side of that security is its loss, more particularly the loss of love and the ever-present risk of being cast off. Fear and safety, love and abandonment are always intimately and profoundly linked. Adam Phillips connects this anxiety about love and security with the future. 'If you want a future, you must suffer a fear for it, for its possible loss. This fear of a loss of love is both the cost of the future, and what keeps the future alive.'
Every culture has its own jokes about fear. In the Jewish tradition the emblematic joke concerns the Rabbi and his umbrella. The shtetl’s Rabbi was a man of immense knowledge and wisdom. No problem was beyond him, and he was beloved and revered by all the community. But the congregation was mystified, and curious, that their wise Rabbi insisted on carrying a big black umbrella throughout the long and hot summers. Because of the great respect in which the townspeople held their Rabbi nobody dared ask him why he insisted on carrying an umbrella. However the day finally arrived when a young traveller came to the village and was incapable of restraining himself. 'Rabbi, he asked, look up and tell me what you see.' 'A blue sky,' the Rabbi replied. 'Exactly,' the young man said, 'so why the umbrella?' The Rabbi looked at him, thought for a moment, and said 'Put your hand on my shoulder...Feel my jacket, what do you feel?' 'Well I feel a jacket,' the young man replied. And the Rabbi responded, 'my point precisely...a dry jacket.'
In a time when terrors both infantile and adult, private and public, seem to dominate both our daily life and our nightmares, it is worth bearing in mind Brecht's quip, 'he who is still laughing has not yet received the bad news.' The umbrella joke is, he would say, predicated on a sense of anxiety and fear of the future. But it is a future that the Rabbi has already anticipated; his umbrella is a response to the past, the fear of rain encountered before and the fear of rain returning in the future. According to Phillips, 'In fear the imagined future joins up with the unpleasure of the past. Tell me what you fear and I will tell you what has happened to you. Knowing what you fear is a way of living in the past.' The Rabbi presumes a future that is stable that has been lived, and is predicated on the memory of rain.
Living in fear is at once personal and a communal response. When I was teaching at Columbia University in the late 1970s the Shah of Iran was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. It was remarkable to witness the American ideological weaponry brought to bear against the rise of the Islamic state, to watch the ‘education’ of deeply inward-looking and insular Americans in Islamophobia. Within a matter of days students were distributing stickers adorned with the Ayatollah’s face complete with bloodied fangs and the words 'give it to me.' The stickers were to be placed at the base of the toilet bowl and as apolitical and literal, as the students were, the message was obvious.
Today that virus of xenophobia is spreading anew as we witness the facile division of the world into the clash of a rational, enlightened West with an unreasonable, fundamentalist and primitive East. With such simplistic banalities and a few whopping big lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Coalition of the Willing has leapt into combat fatigues. The fear of terrorist attacks and the relentless heroisation of individual innocent victims reincarnates old racist fears of the Arab. Never mind the confluence of Christian fundamentalism and political conservatism that bought George Bush to the White House. The conjunction of Islamic fundamentalism, a generalised perceived fear and envy of Western capitalism and petro-economic clout provided a sufficient political narrative to legitimate the war. Never mind that the Iraqi people, beleaguered by political and religious divisions, were cynically yoked to the 'get bin Laden' campaign for the purposes of shoring up domestic political power. For ordinary citizens of the First World, two planes crashing into two high-rise office blocks was naturally a terrifying sight. However the panic and terror experienced by those caught in those buildings has since been shamelessly exploited to justify the 'War on Terror.'
There are other stories out of 9/11 worth contemplating. The jumpers were swiftly repressed by the media. As we have since discovered, over 200 people chose to jump from the towers. These individuals were deemed un-American and cowardly, as if the Twin Towers came instantaneously to represent some symbolic 'last stand', as if staying at one’s desk in these burning buildings would have constituted heroism. Reportedly it took a long time for families to feel able to own those jumpers, an understandable inability to resist the pressure to be conscripted to a narrative of American courage in adversity. There were also the potent, seemingly apocalyptic, images of ghostly individuals covered in ash and debris fleeing from the crumbling buildings. America and Australia have come to insist on what those poor people were fleeing, on their fear. Surely it is time to turn our minds to what these people were running towards – family, love and safety.
Writing about terror can help us understand what we fear, but it can also engender a sense of the world as a frightening place. Perhaps writing about terror brings us too close to it? Should we resist, on principle, understanding how terror works? Or is it in fact the duty of literature to continue to explore such the question of man's inhumanity. George Steiner asked a version of this question in relationship to Nazism, 'I am not sure whether anyone, however scrupulous, who spends time and imaginative resources on these dark places can, or indeed, ought to leave them personally intact. Yet the dark places are at the centre. Pass them by and there can be no serious discussion of the human potential.'
I have been thinking about the problem of writing about terror and the Holocaust for some time. Most novelistic attempts leave me with a sense of discomfort; the literary re-imaginings of that period can seem vaguely prurient and even self-indulgent. Today we are confronted with new horrors, new terrors to consider. The question is how can literary writing appropriately respond to the moment.
JM Coetzee addresses the question directly in his novel Elizabeth Costello. It is a novel that challenges and tests the very limits of fiction. It is unashamedly a novel of ideas; it is about a life lived in the heart and in the mind. In one set piece the protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, must give a lecture on the problem of evil. She has been reading a book about Hitler’s assassins and finds the excruciating detail of their execution obscene.
Costello wrestles with Steiner’s quandary: are people improved by reading; do writers 'who venture into the darker territories of the soul always return unscathed?' Costello is embarrassed to discover that her critique will be rehearsed with the author a member of the audience. She finds herself recollecting the repressed memory of a terribly brutal sexual assault she endured as a 19-year-old. In the final analysis she settles for reticence. 'If she had to choose between telling a story and doing good, she would rather, she thinks, do good.' Evil, Costello concludes, should remain 'off-stage'.
In considering contemporary literary writing on modern terrorism, should we, like Elizabeth Costello, require that the terror remain 'off-stage'? Does our understanding of the social context, the private desires and dramas, the political ambitions, depend on 'getting inside' the mind of the terrorist? Is Coetzee’s heroine right to assert that our collective moral compass should be firmly and squarely set against empathy with killers? This dilemma is endemic to the business of literature, it being an exercise of imaginative interpretation. Is the literary imagination a fitting tool, a good enough tool to make sense of terror? Is the tension we feel in these post-9/11 literary efforts, be they masterful or amateurish, to do with a sense of the unease and impropriety of entering the psyche of the terrorist? Is the tension to do with the imprecision of the literary imagination? Is literature inadequate to the task of making sense of terror?
To return to the Holocaust, Christopher Browning’s meticulous analysis of a group of Nazi policemen in Poland certainly sheds more light on the psychopathology of fascism's henchmen than the catalogue of novels written about the Holocaust. Professor Riad Hassan’s trans-global research into Muslim communities and their relative lack of religious observance, inevitably reveals far more about the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism than can Don DeLillo in The falling man, John Updike in The terrorist or Ian McEwen in Saturday.
Don DeLillo's entire oeuvre anticipated terrorism and its after effects. He has been described as the 'poet of paranoia'; however, when he attempts to explicate the mindset of the young men who guided those planes into the World Trade Centre, his otherwise subtle and nuanced novel lapses into parody and strikes a false and discordant note. Five years after 9/11, DeLillo’s understanding of those traumatic events is still constrained by writing from within America. Although even a groping and tentative DeLillo is still far more interesting than most 9/11 literature. The essay he published directly after these events was deeply empathic toward a bewildered America. In the last paragraphs this remarkable chronicler of the contemporary American psyche shed light on why writing matters. The reader's attention is turned from white America’s pain to a larger canvas in which Christian and Muslim, believers and non-believers, 'recall in prayer their fellowship with the dead'. The essay ends with four words 'Allah Akbar. God is great.' In The falling man, DeLillo returns to that 'fellowship with the dead' with the metaphor of 'organic shrapnel', that pieces of the suicide bomber's body embedded in their victims’ bodies. Disturbing though that image might be, it is a daring literary trope for the idea that there is no them and us. The terrorist and the terrorised are enjoined in a community of suffering.
In the 9/11 literature, terrorism, in inextricably bound up with the city. Terror works by creating panic in congested urban spaces, be it downtown Manhattan, the market in Jerusalem, the subway in London, or the train station in Madrid. Modern acts of terrorism insist on rupturing civic order and wellbeing. Community is replaced by a sense of fragmentation, loneliness, and anomie. Modern metropolitan life offers us instead a manufactured sense of community; the public spaces people avoid after dark, the preference for private transport, the lack of eye contact, road rage, the anti-sociability of the iPod.
Richard Sennet suggests that 'innate to the process of forming a coherent image of community is the desire to avoid actual participation. Feeling common bonds without common experience occurs in the first place because men are afraid of participation afraid of the dangers and the challenges of it, afraid of its pain.' This fear of pain, the risks inherent in communality and the comforts of individualism lie at the heart of metropolitan anxiety. Those fears create fertile ground for public terror and private panic.
Fear works in both the public and private spheres. Fear of violence, be it the Red Brigade of the 70s, the ETA Basque separatists of the 90s or Al Quaida of the 2000s, is intimate. These attacks feel personal even when they are obviously not. Fear undercuts the illusion that our lives are private. Fear brings the private into the social space. Our sense of self, our place in the world and our rights are all brought into question by planned, calculated acts of terrorism.
The literary responses to 9/11 have been largely preoccupied with making personal experiences public. Perhaps it is time to make the public personal, for more silence and less chatter. The proliferation of personal stories, confessionals, and testimonies in contemporary culture actually suggests less intimacy not more. The obsessive rehearsal of public events as personal experiences is a desperate quest for truth and understanding. Perhaps what we fear is our own in-authenticity. Perhaps truth, veracity, and intimacy have become a performance instead of a life.
The media’s complicity in this collective delusion is obvious. Think of the media’s treatment of any catastrophe over the past decade, from 9/11 to the tsunami in south-east Asia to the Beaconsfield mining accident, the story has inevitably focused on the personal narrative, the heroic individual. Do we have no way of understanding the implications of a catastrophe other than through the prism of individual experience? I suspect I am not alone in yearning for more analysis and information and less up-close-and-personal encounters.
In literary writing in the post 9/11 environment, the same fixation on the personal narrative, local and individualistic, prevails. Ortega Y Grasset has argued that, 'The novel’s power is to turn us into provincials of its world.' Is that really to be the task of writing in the new millennium? I want to argue against provincialism. I want to argue for rootless cosmopolitanism, for a literary imagination that operates against the constraints of nationalism, borders, and territories. We need, now more than ever before, an 'open market' of the mind, if I can appropriate the language of economic rationalism.
In the era of terror and its mass-market amplification, it is now, more than ever, vital that we distinguish the authentic from the pastiche, the real from the ersatz, and the truth from the distortion. Literary writing is one way to find that authenticity and space for reflection, as space beyond the provisional, the insubstantial, the fleeting stuff that fills our everyday lives.
In that context, and by way of conclusion, it is interesting to think briefly about Melbourne's bid to become a City of Literature, a metropolis publicly committed to the life of a mind, a culture that values ideas. What might it mean to be a real city of literature, beyond the tourist brochures and the UNESCO logo? What might a city of literature look like? In part we had a glimpse when Jonathon Mills delivered his first Deakin Lecture series. In a cold and wet May, Melbournians filled the Town Hall, night after night, to listen to some of the world's finest writers engage with each other and the issues of the day. A city of literature is a place that engages all its citizens in the pleasures of reading. It is a place where school children can discover the utterly private pleasure of entering the world of the novel, rather than feel short-changed by an education system watching its political back. A city of literature fosters debate and allows all comers. A city of literature is not a club, it is not a literary cabal, and it actively discriminates against cultural insider trading, literary mafias, and the dreary business of mates promoting mates.
A city of literature believes in itself as a place, which is committed to writing and ideas. A city of literature is a publishing hothouse where multinational juggernauts jostle with independent boutique players. It has a flourishing literary culture, big dollar literary prizes, well-funded festivals offering readers the chance to discover new writers and to observe celebrity writers behaving really badly. In such a city writers argue passionately, rivalrously, jealously, generously and even intelligently with other writers and their writing every day. It is that passion which is required to create a city of literature, a city in which fear gives way to hope.
Aeons ago I heard the great Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading to a crowd of thousands at Festival Hall. Decades later I had the opportunity to publish his latest novel. Yevtushenko had come to Australia for a literary festival and we invited him to our offices in Port Melbourne. He is best known for his poem 'Babi Yar', but I had always admired his poem 'The City of Yes and the City of No.' I asked him to recite the poem for the assembled staff. He stood up, circled the boardroom table, shaping the words, drawing us into a world of ideas, lyricism, despair and hope. The whole tragic history of Yevtushenko's Russia unfolded in an ordinary industrial suburb of Melbourne. What was remarkable was that this poem, written far away and many years earlier, could move a group of young publishing people so far removed from that history. It was an encounter that answered the question: why writing matters.