Dear Mr. Pinter
I am writing in response to your discussion of contemporary Anglo-American geopolitics and its relation to “truth” in your recent Nobel Lecture, “Art, Truth, & Politics.” More particularly I want to begin to explain why many of your natural allies … Read More
I am writing in response to your discussion of contemporary Anglo-American geopolitics and its relation to “truth” in your recent Nobel Lecture, “Art, Truth, & Politics.” More particularly I want to begin to explain why many of your natural allies — people who admire your work, see you as an ally in the ongoing fight for truth, integrity, and downright accountability in global democratic politics, and draw similar conclusions to yours about current U.S. foreign policy — found your lecture unhelpful and, in places, misguided.
The first problem with your attack on the current situation is that you offer no alternative — either to the U.N. or to the way that the United States has exercised its de facto leadership of the community of nations. The exercise of military and political power is always, and necessarily, marked by compromises. Today’s United Nations, although it seems deeply flawed, is an attempt at structuring those compromises in meaningful political time, and with the possibility for the different sides to be heard. What is your proposed alternative? While perhaps it is the place of an artist merely to comment on the present, rather than prescribe policies for the future, surely an immediate response to your critiques would be along the lines of Churchill’s comment about democracy – it’s “the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
It is no accident that a writer who has spent as much time and energy on human rights as yourself should win the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, when those rights seem deeply compromised by those members of the world community who nominally defend them. Although I mean in no way to diminish your writing, your work for human rights in the past decades is as much the context of the prize as your considerable dramatic oeuvre. Even given these contexts the content of your speech was far from obvious – you had been given a platform but your decision to use it was brave. Yet without specifying any alternatives, or even reforms, your critics are given ample grounds to dismiss you (and, by extension, those of us who share your views) as overly critical and idealistic.
The second problem with your lecture is its lack of nuance with respect to its targets. At the start of Moses and Monotheism (1940) Sigmund Freud discusses the dangers of confronting “supposed national interests” to “deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons.” Although he purportedly is “denying” the Jews’ Moses (“the greatest of its sons”) by claiming that he was, in fact, an Egyptian, Freud’s analysis runs exactly counter to the essentialist Aryan views of the Nazis and their black-haired, brown-eyed leader. At once arguing against the Jews’ enemies by undermining the Jews’ own claims, Freud was as steadfast as yourself in his defence of truth. “No consideration,” he states in his opening paragraph “will move me to set aside truth in favour of supposed national interests.”
Yet whereas Freud never separated his subtle, pioneering work in psychoanalysis with from political concerns, you seem to be two different people — a dichotomy you actually seem to support, as we will see below. You too set aside your own national interests as a subject of the United Kingdom, in order to speak what your perceive to be the truth, while attacking Bush and Blair, who are, in political terms, the greatest sons of the current world order. However, whereas Freud deployed his talents as an analyst to suggest a deeply critical alternative analysis of history that applied to his own time, there seems to be an explicit disjunction between your own plays – your area of excellence – and your treatment of contemporary events. As a playwright used to fleshing out multiple characters in your plays and discovering, by your own account, their voices as you wrote them, your Nobel Lecture was surprisingly univocal. Your disingenuous dismissal of the United States in its entirety ignores the extremely heterogeneous societies and histories in the United States, ones that have produced and inspired art and movements for peace, democracy, and liberation across the world.
Both the United Kingdom and the United States have much to be proud of, but also much to regret, in their histories, cultures, attitudes, and actions. Moreover, as you note about truth and falsehood, negative and positive exist simultaneously, even paradoxically in symbiosis: one does not “outweigh” the other, nor does the negative “undermine” the positive. This is true not only in cultural terms but even in terms of power. For example, some of England’s and the United States’ most regrettable actions have come about as a result of the great power that these two English-speaking nations have had at their disposal over the past two centuries — yet some of their greatest achievements have as well; for example, helping to bring about real democratic revolutions, from France to, more recently, the Ukraine. By dismissing the U.S. as entirely a power-hungry nation you put on the defensive the majority of its citizens who intend it to be, rather, a light unto the nations. Furthermore, in painting the nation with one colour in that way, you alienate exactly those constituencies you aim to mobilize – those who feel aggrieved at the actions carried out in their name.
It is the ideology that underlies this ‘split personality’ that is the third, and most central, problem with your lecture: namely, your differentiation between ideas of truth as a writer and truth as a citizen. For a writer you say (or quote yourself in 1958 saying) that “A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.” This statement, you now claim, is not the case for a citizen who must rather ask: “What is true? What is false?” As you point out, the context of truth in art is quite different from the context of truth in politics. However, in both fields, the status of truth is of the utmost importance. Despite the absolute truth being unattainable (“Truth in drama is forever elusive”) – in life, as in drama – as you point out, “the search is clearly what drives the endeavour.” Furthermore it is only through the critical engagement of artist, politician, audience or critic that “you stumble upon the truth in the dark.” One must take a stand on representations in both cases, because both artists and politicians continue to shape our world much as they did in 1958.
The distinction between a citizen and an artist, or at the very least an art critic, has become smaller, not greater, since 1958. You talk about the political rhetoric of “the people,” employed especially by leaders of the United States of America, and criticize that same “people” for being quiet in the face of those atrocities of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries carried out in its name. There are three reasons for their quietude: first, diminishing access to information as power is centralized and concealed; second, insulation from the results of the atrocities; third the dilution of the important information that is available by the vast river of mediatized information. Despite the anti-democratic tendencies of the first of these, the third, diluting effect, disguises the fact that more and more information is potentially available to the people in whose name UN Security Council policies are carried out, but that information is delivered in increasingly artistic ways. Yearning for a return to some objective truth in reporting, or some objective truth in understanding, is misguided because those sorts of truth never existed and never will exist: power distorts the truth in the hands of an author quite as much as it distorts it in the hands of an authority.
You discuss the disingenuous sale of the myth of American society: that the rhetoric of American openness and liberation is nothing but a cover for power-grabbing. This has an element of truth, but the politicians’ need for this myth shows that the American people as a whole do have a continuing belief in the “life and liberty” for which they fought against the global superpower nearly two hundred and thirty years ago. Myth can liberate as well as enslave. For example, the African American population in 1940, were as ready to fight for Nazi Germany as for the Allies. In order to convince recruits, the U.S. government commissioned the film series “Why We Fight,” which outlined the basic liberties and rights that Americans supposedly enjoyed and for which they were fighting. A generation later many of those recruits held the country accountable to those reasons stated in the films. It was a myth, indeed, but a myth that had meaningful, progressive political implications, because of the gap between what was said and what was done. If we talk fairly, we should act fairly. If we talk badly and act badly we can be held accountable. And if we talk fairly and act badly we are lying and should be held accountable for that.
Your argument, as I understand it, is with “the people,” especially those of the United States, for refusing to hold the government and the systems of representation, both political and informational, accountable for the ever-growing gap between presentation and reality. It is no accident that the term “representation” is used in artistic, political, and legal arenas. In each of those areas other people are elected to re-present us – to make us anew in the eyes of others. You argue that “the people” accept the two most important of these systems of representation — democracy and 21st century media — despite continuing and manifest betrayals.
Given these ideas of art and citizenry, and your correlate claim that American citizens are failing in their civic responsibility, it comes as no surprise therefore, but rather as a delight, that you offered up Pablo Neruda’s poem and then a speech ostensibly for George W. Bush to deliver. The former is an implicit recognition that the language of art is unsurpassable for its evocation of a situation: for the articulation of the truth of a situation. The latter — the staccato statements of belief that you place in the President’s mouth — both assume and (because of the context and form in your lecture) defamiliarize the nature of the United States as “good” as “compassionate” as “democratically elected” as having “moral authority” as being “a great nation.” The “fist,” the “barbarian,” the childish opposition of the “good” and “bad” Gods, the juxtaposition of the modes of execution (“We don’t chop people’s heads off… We give compassionate electrocution and compassionate lethal injection”) all point to the discrepancy between the United States’ self-view and self-promotion in the world and its actual behaviour. This is a discrepancy for which someone should be held accountable.
However, when you say that “political language does not venture” into the territory of your art because it is “interested not in truth but in power and the maintenance of that power,” you are placing unnecessary limitations on the capabilities of art, and the way they may be co-opted. In fact, politics has long wandered in the wilderness of art, ruthlessly appropriating strategies and half-truths that it can use for its own ends. The spurious direct link between Iraq and Al Qaeda which you refer to in your speech as being presented as truth is an example of this. Saddam and Al Qaeda are indeed related to one another as perhaps the Labour Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the USA are related to one another – they are in related fields though with largely opposing stances. Constant association through repetition – a strategy that you yourself use to great effect in The Birthday Party amongst other occasions – leads to the assumption of a link and begging of the question. Art, the artists who produce it, and the public who consume, participate in, and question it must hold many truths, fictions, and falsehoods at the same time before making their tentative conclusions in good faith. Belief in one true way is the fundamentalist mode against which you argue. Your argument is not for truth but for integrity: not for faith but for critical acumen. The scandal of the invasion of Iraq was not the truth of the situation but the deliberate misleading of the people by the leaders. The sine qua non for reading literature and viewing art is the critical engagement with the piece – what is there, how it is portrayed, and what is not there. It is exactly this lack of critical engagement, sharpened and practised in the realm of art, that is missing from the people.
Your own engagement with the problems of the United States is fraught with suspicion — as a non-American, and as a playwright, the target of your criticism is not your own community. Granted, as the United States acts by its own warrant on the global stage it becomes, despite all efforts and many fervent hopes, a global problem. However, your choice of outward-turning critique leaves you stuck in the realm of the political language (which you decry), championing the revelation of falsehood in the very manner in which it is usually pronounced.
I have no doubt that previous Nobel Laureates in literature could have had a beneficial effect on world events through their speeches. Perhaps in the period leading up to the Second World War and the Nazi Holocaust some of the prize winners could have prevented the coming mass bloodshed and genocide resulting from the heinous but explicit aims of Nazism. Roger Martin du Gard could have been more forceful in his 1937 acceptance speech than speculating that he won the prize because his books “appeared to defend certain values that are again being threatened and to fight against the evil contagion of the forces of war.” Despite the politeness of his reference Martin du Gard at least noted the political context of his prize – which is more than any other literature laureate did in the Hitler era. Given these counter-examples it is important that you chose to state the position of the truth into which you “stumble.”
We, however, live in a different era. Political actors and constituencies have learnt too much from art and entertainment to be swayed by “mere” intellectual or ideological criticism, and political audiences are unimpressed by strident claims that threaten their worldview. The justification for these claims often seems to come from their power – might makes right. But, insofar as you are the international prize winner, and the ultimate power in your speech, you have also claimed ex officio authority and wielded your fist (albeit around a pen) to mark your own statements as the ‘truth.’ Although you claim to give respect to your characters and allow them to flesh themselves out, you seem to approach this speech with preconceived ideas that make the claim to be stumbling “towards the truth in the dark” seem disingenuous. Your introduction, and explanation of the limits of political language and political satire shape our reception of your own political language and satire at the closing of your lecture. Your critique of the disjunction between the enlightened rhetoric of the United States and its “might is right” Realpolitik is not new; it comes with no alternative solution; it suggests no new insights into the nature of consumer entertainment democracies.
By way of conclusion, I return to the Freud of Moses and Monotheism, who, despite having lived in a radically oppressive situation – a situation that oppressed specifically his own people – nonetheless chose to look inward and make his internal analysis his response to the outward situation. This, clearly, involves problems, but it has the virtue of giving Freud standing in the matter. Rather than pointing fingers, Freud addresses a non-Jewish problem (ethnic essentialism and power politics) from within his Jewish particularity. He does not divide discourses into discrete realms — subtle and artistic here, brutish and political there — but rather, through his “historical novel” point at how they might profitably be combined.
By the end of his life, Freud knew that Moses was probably not an Egyptian. However, his self-conscious articulation of the history of the Jews still performs and displays a radical and open alternative attitude to the prevailing social and political analyses of his time. He complicates history and identity from a point of utter vulnerability at a time when the nations of Europe were fighting over nominally essential truths. Moreover, he does so in a genre that begs for art-critical reception, thus combining and confusing art, history, and politics as they share a pursuit of the truth. What his novel and your lecture do show, though, is that there is no alternative for us but to trust in art and artistic truths — precisely when they are translated into the political realm, for if we pull back from articulating our own artistic truths, those of patriotic propaganda, equally aesthetic but far more dangerous, will prevail. If we do not hold those who represent us to the standards of writers – “highly vulnerable, almost naked… open to all the winds” – then they will lie and become politicians.