For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life. One might make an honourable exception of Harold Pinter, who has wisely decided that being a champagne socialist is better than being no socialist at all; but his most explicitly political work is also his most artistically dreary.
The knighting of Salman Rushdie is the establishment’s reward for a man who moved from being a remorseless satirist of the west to cheering on its criminal adventures in
The uniqueness of the situation is worth underlining. When
The early decades of the 20th century in
Not all rebukes were administered from the left. DH Lawrence, a radical rightist, denounced “the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition”. Possession, he thought, was a kind of illness of the spirit. High modernism, however politically compromised, questioned the fundamental value and direction of western civilisation. The 1930s witnessed the first body of consciously committed left writing in
In the postwar welfare state, however, the rot set in. Philip Larkin, the period’s unofficial poet laureate, was a racist who wrote of stringing up strikers. Most of the Angry Young Men of the 50s metamorphosed into Dyspeptic Old Buffers. The 60s and 70s – the second most intensively political period of the century – produced no radical of the status of a Brecht or Sartre. Iris Murdoch looked for an exciting moment as though she might fulfil this role, but turned inwards and rightwards. Doris Lessing was to do much the same.
It was left to migrants (Naipaul, Rushdie, Sebald, Stoppard) to write some of our most innovative literature for us, as the Irish had earlier done. But migrants, as the work of VS Naipaul and Tom Stoppard testifies, are often more interested in adopting than challenging the conventions of their place of refuge. The same had been true of Joseph Conrad, Henry James and TS Eliot. Wilde, typically perverse, challenged and conformed at the same time.
The great communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid died just as the dark night of Thatcherism descended. Rushdie’s was one of the few voices to keep alive this radical legacy; but now, with his fondness for the Pentagon’s politics, we need to look elsewhere for a serious satirist.
There are a number of factors in such renegacy. Money, adulation and that creeping conservatism known as growing old play a part, as does the apparent collapse of an alternative to capitalism. Most British writers welcome migrants, dislike Tony Blair, and object to the war in
Terry Eagleton is John Edward Taylor professor of English literature at