Are We in the World or Is the World within Us? PEN Writers and the Critical Spirit
The theme of this round table deals with an issue of utmost importance as it goes to the core of nowadays society’s problems, concerns and needs. If world’s philosophies have not been sufficiently energetic, convincing or persuasive in stressing upon the necessity of inquiring into the human condition, we now see the result of neglect. If we admit that literature, in its ultimate meaning, deals with human nature, it is true that we witness, more or less passively, general ignorance not only of philosophy but also of literature by politicians and by the public as well. Nowadays it can clearly be seen that man’s evolution is closely related to culture, philosophy and literature, that no one of these fields can stand apart and thus people cannot avoid these issues while confronting their own existence.
World literature has had a glorious and exemplary history. We may wonder why. It is exactly because it worked as a vehicle for the critical spirit of minkind, by incessantly drawing attention to the real concerns of man, those typical to a creature full of meaning, and incessantly reasserting this dignity, in opposition with its false and distorted image as a simple object (which some thinkers or social decidents advanced with a view to increase mean and partial interests).
Great writers have intuitively felt and expressed what spiritual masters said long tome ago: that the world is not an independent entity, having no reality of its own: it is like the moon, a mere reflection of the sun, and, moreover, it is an evanescent and transient apparition that people make possible due to their minds. It is not given once for all, but can be found in a perpetual process, being generated by ourselves. It is not true that we are in the world: instead, the world is in us. Only our bodies are in the world, while our spirit does not belong to the latter, being a completely independent witness. Consequently, by our deeds and words we can really change the world. Not in a spectacular way or all of a sudden, of course. But each human individual has his own force, not to be ignored or overlooked. We, as writers, have been endowed with the power to resist alien factors, even when facing them directly.
The world or, in a broader sense, society, lies under the sign of change. Heraclitusof Ephesus magnificently developed this idea (which truly was and still is a revelation) so far in the past, five centuries before Christ. Far in the past? This thought itself can make us think about the real status of phenomena and ideas. Could we say that phenomena are separate? Does time really exist? Real culture, the one we are proud of, simultaneously gathers all its manifestations, which thus become present within our perception beyond time because this remembering is possible any moment. That is why we can get face to face at will with the great writers or thinkers of all times. Ultimately, everything relates to everything, nothing stands apart, cultural autism is not possible. The role of writers is to unite mankind around ideas, phenomena and goals. Great literature manages to call together people, revealing the universality of human beings, preventing them from becoming, as it is put in the introduction to this round table, a “multitude of unconnected narcissists, i.e. mistrustful and excessively competitive individuals, in love with themselves”.
Writers remind people the simple fact that they are members of the same human family and help them keep burning the fire of knowledge and sensitiveness, i.e. of the simple but still rare and precious quality which could be named openness of heart: the feeling of compassion for other human beings, the keen attention to the hidden identity really existing among all beings and waiting to be revealed and disclosed.
Perhaps there are many troublesome and disagreeable matters regarding the approaches of writers themselves. Why not confess that throughout history and the whole of the world’s literature a great number of writers have been dealing either to excessively intricate problems of deep psyché or with strictly personal issues, thus disregarding general human and social concerns. Let us quote Heraclitus again: “Strong minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, weak minds discuss people.” These writers’ works and approaches have been perceived as fatally limited and petty or as detached from the great issues of the day and thus have not been embraced by many people. They got separate from mankind which could no longer follow their pursuits.
We now see the result. It should also be stressed that literature is too general a word. There really are as many literatures as writers. Each one is dreaming his or her dream, and each dream is different, springing from a distinct vision and outlook. In order to be universally appreciated, writers should be universal in their outlook. Of course, writers are independent creatures, and they do not accept being taught any lesson. However, their works convey what they really are: no more education, talent, vision, generosity, self-sacrifice or character than they really do have, just that. Some may try to cheat, but their creations disclose them. Consequently, we can say, like Socrates did, “Let him who would move the world first move himself.”
In their ideal hypostases, writers are innocent beings not aware of what they are creating. Such a statement may seem paradoxical, but in fact it does not imply that artists are unconscious – on the contrary, they are caught in the danse of joy and purity, totally lacking the capacity of manipulating people. Socrates’ thoughts can be useful again: “I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled [poets] to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration, such as you find in seers and prophets who deliver all their sublime messages without knowing in the least what they mean.”
The instant when creation becomes conscious of itself, the intellect begins its manipulating work of tyranically imposing meanings upon others. Real literature teaches through joy and sincerity; no more is necessary. It melts subject and object into a single joyous feeling, it brings real health, that of attitude, of consciousness. “A sincere man is always a child”, Socrates tells us a truth also known by Romanian sculptor Brancusi. A true writer restores man’s purity and dignity while not forcing admiration or devotion. Real (not artificial) art is always connected to an intimate experience which, however, is not an issue of narrow personal relevance. By an ineffable process, in a great artist’s work the minutest events have cosmical significance (let us think about James Joyce’s fictional Dublin). It simply attracts by these traits if they are present within the artistic tissue. Real art cannot cheat.
Maybe this kind of degradation and regress we now experience has been set up gradually, step by step, by successive giving-ups, both of creators and of audiences. It thus has come from their mutual complicity. The audience believed what they were told: that man is a mere material entity born for the only reason of enjoying world and life sensually and in an egotistic way: by exclusively taking as much as possible without giving anything in exchange or by dissipating gifts in wrong directions or things and i. e. by investing the treasures of time, energy, effort, health in outer transient events.
Consequently, several publics appeared, as expressions of a split society. As it is well said in the introduction of this round table, “society, as it existed until not so long ago, is falling apart, crumbling” into multifarious and divided groups mainly constituted “on the basis of material interests or are successfully encouraged by various measures taken by ideological, marketing and other manipulators, most often conveyed through the mass media”. In this respect let us remembered what Socrates said: “Thou should eat to live; not live to eat”. Man’s first duty is to know himself and constantly be himself, to look for his true nature.
It is high time we got aware of this regression occurred in parallel with society’s seeming outward evolution, materially speaking. We, as writers, are perfectly able and, moreover, morally obliged to teach again and again the lesson of creative subjectivity, and to be a counter-voice devoid of aggressiveness, able nonetheless to express and make heard its convictions, by means of the characters present in our works, be they those of prose or theatre or of the charm of poetry or of the force of essays. By doing so, we should become models of lives lived through culture and literature, according to a superior model, far from the ancillary condition of serving alien and false ideals and idols pertaining to culture seen as a consumer good, limited and forced “to become globally accessible, attractive and fun instead of rooted and bound locally (for example, national culture)”. Here I should add that art could also dream to be universally valid, by embracing the whole human condition.
Perhaps writers should be more and more radical, and touch a raw spot, by saying exactly what aches, what is unbearable for the people still endowed with sensitivity and compassion, thus being able to guess and even define what man is and what he is not.
And also, religion itself should be redefined and reconsidered, from an outer vision to an intimate and inner outlook. French revolution and afterwards postmodernity killed the idols, abhorred official religion, but man’s thirst for the sacred cannot be killed and the restraint has not been received as a philosophically reasonable view. Religion or simply spiritual perception seems to be a part of man’ inner consciousness and thus impossible to separate from human condition as it is not imposed from the outside. Its neglect bears monsters. Each human being has the right and duty to start an inner investigation and look for spiritual truth.
We repeat that Socrates already knew that: “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” This means that true philosophy and, in our case, true literature should search for that which is not transitory and should be created on the solid ground of imperishable, enduring truth.
Perhaps, writers’ warnings will be listened to more attentively if they are based on the sensitivity of the revelation of the frailty of human condition. Ietrature has the role of making concrete realities from abstract statements. They have the artistic force of rendering “the violations of human rights and freedoms” into something alive, and thus these terrible truths will be listened to with more interest due to their convincing visual character, even within in this climate of “lack of foundations and purpose in culture” which we undoubtedly experience nowadays (as it is put in the introduction to this round table). Perhaps horror will be made sensitive by human talent. Ion Luca Caragiale, a great (perhaps the greatest) Romanian playwright, said that a writer “sees enormously and feels monstrously”. In the same vein, famous storyteller Hans Christian Andersen has a tale in which a girl was proved to be a princess due to the fact that she could not sleep because of a pea placed under seven feather beds. This exceptional sensitivity, this unparalleled magnifying capability of a great writer will be able to render visible that which is now veiled by that blindness due to the layers of mental slag of indifference.
Let us return to the desideratum of a “society as a value-based system that appreciates durable goods, both material and spiritual”, as it is skilfully put in the introduction at this round table. What is reliable and lasting? Traditionally, only God is. As we have seen, man is not satisfied with this definition, and that is why he should search for his own sanctity. The work of art is part of this sacred status of man himself. Our writing can restore this (old and ever new) sacred condition of human condition. Socrates, who died for his city, perfectly knew the force of words: “And therefore if the head and the body are to be well, you must begin by curing the soul; that is the first and essential thing. And the care of the soul, my dear youth, has to be effected by the use of certain charms, and these charms are fair words (our underlining, S.-G. D.); and by them temperance is implanted in the soul (our underlining, S.-G. D.), and where temperance comes and stays, there health is speedily imparted, not only to the head, but to the whole body.” Peace and harmony are still desiderata of minkind which no cruel history can wash out of human mind.
Text written for the PEN International Conference in Bled, Slovenia, May 2015.