In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Introduction:Contemporary Literature and the State
  • Matthew Hart (bio) and Jim Hansen (bio)

A writer's life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don't have to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You find no shelter, no protection—unless you lie—in which case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.

Harold Pinter, "Art, Truth, and Politics"

It is only through being a member of the state that the individual himself has objectivity, truth, and ethical life.

G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of a Philosophy of Right

The passages quoted above represent the antinomy that this special issue of Contemporary Literature seeks to disrupt. If for Hegel the state is the necessary condition of political subjectivity—"It is the way of God with the world that the state exists," he is reported to have said—then for Harold Pinter the state too often serves as a mere shelter for lying politicians.1 Speaking to the Swedish Academy in December 2005, [End Page 491] Pinter struck a theme out of George Orwell's journalism, seeming to divide art and politics into irreconcilable camps. As he explains in his Nobel Lecture, "Art, Truth, and Politics," he once believed that "a thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false" (1). But in the context of the so-called war on terror, he now thinks these words require amendment. "I believe that these assertions still make sense," Pinter explains, "and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?" He warns us that political language does not share the same territory as the stylized interrogations of artistic practice, where one "stumble[s] upon the truth in the dark" of linguistic and aesthetic ambiguity (1). Politics, by contrast, is about "power and...the maintenance of that power. To maintain power it is essential that people remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even the truth of their own lives" (3).

In his 1948 essay "Writers and Leviathan," Orwell likewise argued that in "an age of State control" writers must balance their duties as citizens against the imagination's need to resist "invasion" by politics (407–8). Adopting Thomas Hobbes's metaphor of the state as a "Leviathan"—a monstrous artificial man—Orwell argues that human beings have an obligation to take part in the messy and inherently compromised world of politics. For the special class of writers, however, this moral compunction goes hand-in-hand with the need to distinguish between "our political and our literary loyalties" (412). The fundamental nature of this opposition draws power from Orwell's sense that modern politics is unusually totalizing and irresistible: "War, Fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc. are what we daily think about, and therefore to a great extent what we write about, even when we do not name them openly. We cannot help this" (408). But a writer must keep some part of himself inviolate, so that "his writings...will always be the product of the saner self that stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature" (414). For Orwell, as for Pinter, the state exists as a category of analysis in a largely negative sense. The state is overpowering, it demands conformity, and its power marks the failure of liberal principles of autonomy and free association. [End Page 492]

It is questionable whether artists who use the ideologically charged medium of language can ever really separate, as Orwell desires, the realms of politics and literature. What's more, by reducing the relation between writers and Leviathan to a distinction between disinterested observation and necessary evils, Orwell acknowledges that he can't then discuss...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 491-513
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.