Literature Is Freedom


Demystifying Polarities


 


          Are we then really so separate? How odd that, at a moment when Europe and America have never been so similar culturally, there has never been such a great divide.


 


          Still, for all the similarities in the daily lives of citizens in rich European countries and the daily lives of Americans, the gap between the European and the American experience is a genuine one, founded on important differences of history, of notions of the role of culture, of real and imagined memories. The antagonism — for there is antagonism — is not to be resolved in the immediate future, for all the good will of many people on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet one can only deplore those who want to maximize those differences, when we do have so much in common.


 


          The dominance of America is a fact. But America, as the present administration is starting to see, cannot do everything alone. The future of our world — the world we share — is syncretistic, impure. We are not shut off from each other. More and more, we leak into each other.


 


          In the end, the model for whatever understanding –conciliation — we might reach lies in thinking more about that venerable opposition, “old” and “new.” The opposition between “civilization” and “barbarism” is essentially stipulatory; it is corrupting to think about and pontificate about — however much it may reflect certain undeniable realities. But the opposition of “old” and “new” is genuine, ineradicable, at the center of what we understand to be experience itself.


 


          “Old” and “new” are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world. We cannot do without the old, because in what is old is invested all our past, our wisdom, our memories, our sadness, our sense of realism. We cannot do without faith in the new, because in what is new is invested all our energy, our capacity for optimism, our blind biological yearning, our ability to forget — the healing ability that makes reconciliation possible.


 


          The inner life tends to mistrust the new. A strongly developed inner life will be particularly resistant to the new. We are told we must choose — the old or the new. In fact, we must choose both. What is a life if not a series of negotiations between the old and the new? It seems to me that one should always be seeking to talk oneself out of these stark oppositions.


 


          Old versus new, nature versus culture — perhaps it is inevitable that the great myths of our cultural life be played out as geography, not only as history. Still, they are myths, clichés, stereotypes, no more; the realities are much more complex.


 


          A good deal of my life has been devoted to trying to demystify ways of thinking that polarize and oppose. Translated into politics, this means favoring what is pluralistic and secular. Like some Americans and many Europeans, I would far prefer to live in a multilateral world — a world not dominated by any one country (including my own). I could express my support, in a century that already promises to be another century of extremes, of horrors, for a whole panoply of meliorist principles — in particular, for what Virginia Woolf calls “the melancholy virtue of tolerance.”


 


          Let me rather speak first of all as a writer, as a champion of the enterprise of literature, for therein lies the only authority I have.


 


          The writer in me distrusts the good citizen, the “intellectual ambassador,” the human rights activist — those roles which are mentioned in the citation for this prize, much as I am committed to them. The writer is more skeptical, more self-doubting, than the person who tries to do (and to support) the right thing.


 


          One task of literature is to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties. And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate toward contrariness. Literature is dialogue; responsiveness. Literature might be described as the history of human responsiveness to what is alive and what is moribund as cultures evolve and interact with one another.


 


          Writers can do something to combat these clichés of our separateness, our difference — for writers are makers, not just transmitters, of myths. Literature offers not only myths but counter-myths, just as life offers counter-experiences — experiences that confound what you thought you thought, or felt, or believed.


 


          A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world. That means trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of; and not be corrupted — made cynical, superficial — by this understanding.


 


          Literature can tell us what the world is like.


 


          Literature can give standards and pass on deep knowledge, incarnated in language, in narrative.


 


          Literature can train, and exercise, our ability to weep for those who are not us or ours.


 


          Who would we be if we could not sympathize with those who are not us or ours? Who would we be if we could not forget ourselves, at least some of the time? Who would we be if we could not learn? Forgive? Become something other than we are?


 


Escaping the prison of national vanity


 


          On the occasion of receiving this glorious prize, this glorious German prize, let me tell you something of my own trajectory.


 


          I was born, a third-generation American of Polish and Lithuanian Jewish descent, two weeks before Hitler came to power. I grew up in the American provinces (Arizona and California), far from Germany, and yet my entire childhood was haunted by Germany, by the monstrousness of Germany, and by the German books and the German music I loved, which set my standard for what is exalted and intense.


 


          Even before Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms, there were a few German books. I am thinking of a teacher in an elementary school in a small town in southern Arizona, Mr. Starkie, who had awed his pupils by telling us that he had fought with Pershing’s army in Mexico against Pancho Villa: this grizzled veteran of an earlier American imperialist venture had, it seems, been touched — in translation — by the idealism of German literature, and, having taken in my particular hunger for books, loaned me his own copies of Werther and Immensee.


 


          Soon after, in my childhood orgy of reading, chance led me to other German books, including Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” where I discovered dread and injustice. And a few years later, when I was a high school student in Los Angeles, I found all of Europe in a German novel. No book has been more important in my life than The Magic Mountain — whose subject is, precisely, the clash of ideals at the heart of European civilization. And so on, through a long life that has been steeped in German high culture. Indeed, after the books and the music, which were, given the cultural desert in which I lived, virtually clandestine experiences, came real experiences. For I am also a late beneficiary of the German cultural diaspora, having had the great good fortune of knowing well some of the incomparably brilliant Hitler refugees, those writers and artists and musicians and scholars that America received in the 1930s and who so enriched the country, particularly its universities. Let me name two I was privileged to count as friends when I was in my late teens and early twenties, Hans Gerth and Herbert Marcuse; those with whom I studied at the University of Chicago and at Harvard, Christian Mackauer and Paul Tillich and Peter Heinrich von Blanckenhagen, and in private seminars, Aron Gurwitsch and Nahum Glatzer; and Hannah Arendt, whom I knew after I moved to New York in my mid-twenties — so many models of the serious, whose memory I would like to evoke here.


 


          But I shall never forget that my engagement with German culture, with German seriousness, all started with obscure, eccentric Mr. Starkie (I don’t think I ever knew his first name), who was my teacher when I was ten, and whom I never saw afterward.


 


          And that brings me to a story, with which I will conclude — as seems fitting, since I am neither primarily a cultural ambassador nor a fervent critic of my own government (a task I perform as a good American citizen). I am a story-teller.


 


          So, back to ten-year-old me, who found some relief from the tiresome duties of being a child by poring over Mr. Starkie’s tattered volumes of Goethe and Storm. At the time I am speaking of, 1943, I was aware that there was a prison camp with thousands of German soldiers, Nazi soldiers as of course I thought of them, in the northern part of the state, and, knowing I was Jewish (if only nominally, my family having been completely secular and assimilated for two generations; nominally, I knew, was enough for Nazis), I was beset by a recurrent nightmare in which Nazi soldiers had escaped from the prison and had made their way downstate to the bungalow on the outskirts of the town where I lived with my mother and sister, and were about to kill me.


 


          Flash forward to many years later, the 1970s, when my books started to be published by Hanser Verlag, and I came to know the distinguished Fritz Arnold (he had joined the firm in 1965), who was my editor at Hanser until his death in February 1999.


 


          One of the first times we were together, Fritz said he wanted to tell me — presuming, I suppose, that this was a prerequisite to any friendship that might arise between us — what he had done during the war. I assured him that he did not owe me any such explanation; but, of course, I was touched by his bringing up the subject. I should add that Fritz Arnold was not the only German of his generation (he was born in 1916) who, soon after we met, insisted on telling me what he or she had done in Nazi times. And not all of the stories were as innocent as what I was to hear from Fritz.


 


          Anyway, what Fritz told me was that he had been a university student of literature and art history, first in Munich, then in Cologne, when, at the start of the war, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht with the rank of corporal. His family was, of course, anything but pro-Nazi — his father was Karl Arnold, the legendary political cartoonist of Simplicissimus — but emigration seemed out of the question, and he accepted, with dread, the call to military service, hoping neither to kill anyone nor to be killed.


 


          Fritz was one of the lucky ones. Lucky, to have been stationed first in Rome (where he refused his superior officer’s invitation to be commissioned a lieutenant), then in Tunis; lucky enough to have remained behind the lines and never once to have fired a weapon; and finally, lucky, if that is the right word, to have been taken prisoner by the Americans in 1943, to have been transported by ship across the Atlantic with other captured German soldiers to Norfolk, Virginia, and then taken by train across the continent to spend the rest of the war in a prison camp in… northern Arizona.


 


          Then I had the pleasure of telling him, sighing with wonder, for I had already started to be very fond of this man — this was the beginning of a great friendship as well as an intense professional relationship — that while he was a prisoner of war in northern Arizona, I was in the southern part of the state, terrified of the Nazi soldiers who were there, here, and from whom there would be no escape.


 


          And then Fritz told me that what got him through his nearly three years in the prison camp in Arizona was that he was allowed access to books: he had spent those years reading and rereading the English and American classics. And I told him that what saved me as a schoolchild in Arizona, waiting to grow up, waiting to escape into a larger reality, was reading books, books in translation as well as those written in English.


 


          To have access to literature, world literature, was to escape the prison of national vanity, of philistinism, of compulsory provincialism, of inane schooling, of imperfect destinies and bad luck. Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.


 


          Literature was freedom. Especially in a time in which the values of reading and inwardness are so strenuously challenged, literature is freedom.


 


Copyright C2003 by Susan Sontag


 


Susan Sontag’s most recent book is Regarding the Pain of Others.


 


[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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