The Gwyn Jones Lecture 2003
Writing And Ethical Responsibility – Sean Burke
… a poet is a light and winged thing, and holy, and never able to compose until he has become inspired, and is beside himself, and reason is no longer in him …
[Plato, Ion, 534b]
Weave a circle around him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
[Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”]
Like writing, reading so often begins in romance and ends in pragmatism. On first looking into the Ion of Plato or Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”, the idea of the poet as divinely inspired enthralls. Only later do we recognise that such celebrations are of a piece with the banishment of the poets. The line “weave a circle around him thrice” we either neglect or hazily register in magical, runic terms. Only on rereading do we discern the theme of exclusion, of quarantine, the structure by which society simultaneously celebrates and ostracises its artists, only by setting Plato’s Republic beside his Ion can we recognise that the very irrationality that sets the poet apart also makes the poet accountable to - or excluded from - a polis constructed according to the principles of philosophical rationalism. Hence, the perennial lament of the artist that he is both shaman and scapegoat, condemned to live inside and outside, at both the defining, mythopoeic centre yet at the ethical margins of his society. Such is the paradoxical situation of the artistic vocation: culture demands an elect to which it grants imaginative freedom but only at the price of accountability. Ireland longed for another great novelist, yet castigated Joyce in his day; Milton, who lived to see the public burning of his books has since towerered within the English canon; the very class which fêted Oscar Wilde was to drive him into imprisonment and exile. The artist is expected to transcend his or her society yet is called to account to that society if the work offends its mores.
During the last century, however, most academics, aesthetes and art-lovers would have had us believe the contrary: the writer is beyond ethical recall. A freestanding object, the literary work is independent of its creator and answerable only to itself. Within modernist aesthetics and New Criticism it became a virtual heresy to retrace the novel to its author, the cantata to its composer, the sculpture to its sculptor. The work was to be judged in terms of its internal coherence rather than the external motivations for its creation or its subsequent social, political or ethical effects: once woven, the web has no need of its spider. An orthodoxy in classrooms and university lecture halls in the second-half of the twentieth century, this approach was to be expressed in France rather more dramatically as “the death of the author”. The reader became the producer rather than consumer of the text; literature’s significance was to be found not in its origins but in its destination This movement in thought is well expressed by the French theorist Michel Foucault who ended an essay of 1969 with a vision of a discursive utopia:
All discourses … would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: "Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deeper self did he express in his discourse?" Instead, there would be other questions, like these: "What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself? What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects? Who can assume these various subject functions?" And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: "What difference does it make who is speaking?". 1
In a world of textual anonymity, the author would be protected from the effects of the text and the text protected from the effects of its author’s life. So many authors need not have faced the threat or reality of persecution the basis of what they had written; nor need women authors have been impelled to adopt male pseudonyms (Currer Bell, George Eliot, etc.) in order to gain a respectful audience for their work. Also reductive ad hominem arguments (literally, “arguments against the man”), by which biographical details are used to discredit the work, would be made impossible. However, to recommend anonymity is to acquiesce to the very oppressive forces that provoke such a consideration. In a society in which it mattered nothing who is speaking, the author could sign his or her text without risk. Moreover, anonymity is not a value in itself but depends upon context: one and the same person might be in favour of anonymity in the case of a text like the Satanic Verses whilst being righteously concerned to identify the author of a text such as Mein Kamph.
As for protecting the text from its author, the avoidance of ad hominem arguments is clearly desirable. That Tony Benn comes from a wealthy background does not invalidate his Arguments for Socialism, no more than Jonathan Swift’s pettiness makes Gulliver’s Travels a petty book, or Larkin’s racism deprives High Windows of aesthetic merit. However, it is not the conjunction of authorial life and text which is fallacious but the fact that the life is used to judge rather than contextualise the work. We need only remind ourselves that the placement of an author’s life beside his work opens a channel of interpretation and inquiry rather than one of evaluation. In extreme cases, say the anti-Semitism of a Richard Wagner or Nazi affiliations of a Martin Heidegger, it is ethically and morally incumbent upon us to look at how a great musician and a great philosopher came to ally themselves with so much that is worst in modernity. Such knowledge is vital in our reconstruction of the relations between art and politics in the epoch of European culture that preceeded National Socialism and should not be over-extended so as to dismiss outright The Ring cycle or Being and Time. Knowledge of who is speaking is essential to any reconstruction of why ethically troublesome or pernicious discourses came into being at a certain juncture of culture, history, of national and personal circumstance.
Societies are not, in any case, likely to lose interest in who is speaking. The commercial fortunes of biography in our day and age would alone to testify to the fact that the demand to retrace a work to its author is virtually as powerful as that to retrace a crime to its perpetrator, a murdered body to its murderer. Furthermore, in the act of publication, the writer - like any ethical agent - implicitly signs a contract with society, and accepts the possibility that a tribunal may one day assemble around the work. Consequently, we will feel justified holding an author to account where real-world effects are clearly and demonstrably intended by the work, but rare is the case when a text does not generate areas of ambiguity or “blind spots”. If indeed, as Blake observed, “Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” we have then to ask whether Paradise Lost is responsible, however obliquely, for that radicalisation of cultural values we call romanticism, along with its revolutionary political outcomes - a question which is strictly independent of whether we regard, say, the revolutions of 1848 in positive or negative terms. We have also to ask whether misinterpretations can be revisited upon the author’s legacy if only to extent that the author did too little to guard against misinterpretation. Indeed, we would have to ask if such a thing as pure misinterpretation is possible.
In his Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne sketched an idea for a short story: "A person to be writing a tale, and to find that it shapes itself against his intentions; that the characters act otherwise than he thought; that unforseen events occur; and a catastrophe comes which he strives in vain to avert. It might shadow forth his own fate - he having made himself one of the personages." 2 The story was never to be written but in any execution two themes would be unavoidable: firstly, the confusion of the artistic and the everyday plane; secondly, the degree of responsibility an author should take for the outcomes - unintended as well as intended - of his or her work. The Sorrows of Young Werther allegedly inspired numerous impressionable youths to romantic suicide, and we could imagine Goethe striving vainly to avert such catastrophes. Broadening the compass of this narrative structure beyond the authorial life, we can picture a Karl Marx protesting at the horrendous spectacle of the Gulags. "That is not what I meant at all," he might have said; then again, he might simply have shrugged, reminded himself of that caveat he issued to the world ("I am not a Marxist") and passed on to new speculations, impenitent works. Charles Darwin could be seen inveighing against the eugenics movement; Rousseau brought forth to witness the part that his romantic philosophy played in making the French Revolution and thence the Terror and Napoleon possible.
Our examples invoke authors whose texts, arguably, have a body count.3 With the exception of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, all are writ large of the pages of history, testify to a very peculiar mode of translation from the silence of composition through acts of silent reading to the incarnation of the written word in wars, revolutions, the destinies of nations and cultures. Extreme though such examples are, they illustrate how, when the ethical and political come forcefully into play, the rarefied notion of artistic impersonality implodes and society finds itself in search of an author.
Some twenty years after the French theory had declared the death or irrelevance of the author, culture again showed itself passionately interested in the question “who is speaking?” Academia was rocked by the revelations of Martin Heidegger’s practical involvement with National Socialist politics and the deconstructionist Paul de Man’s wartime collaborationism. It was to be the Salman Rushdie affair, however, which showed that authorial responsibility retains the passionate interest of culture in general. People from all walks of life entered into debates which turned on the issues of authorial intention, censorship, the responsibilities of the writer, the writer’s duty to his own culture, and the limits that should or should not be set upon artistic freedom. In the press, authorial intention became the core concept of many a letter, comment or opinion page. Rushdie found defenders aplenty amongst western liberals but such defences proved largely ineffective because they could find no common ground upon which to discuss the issue of textual ethics with the novel’s Islamic opponents. The following year saw the most extraordinary act of literary criticism in modern times as the Ayatollah Khomeni put a grisly and literal twist on the theoretical notion of the death of author:
There is only one God, to whom we shall all return. I would like to inform all the intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses, which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, as well as those publishers who were aware of its contents, have been sentenced to death.4
Rushdie found himself in a situation similar to that of the protagonist in Hawthorne’s proposed short story. The reception (if not the writing) of the story “shaped itself against his intentions,” and “unforseen events” did occur. A catastrophe - particularly for Rushdie himself and his publishers - seemed for a while to be in the offing. Interesting is the question of whether Rushdie “made himself one of the personages”. As Patricia Waugh writes: “One of the ironies of the Rushdie affair is that the political fictionalisation of history which had been the basic method of Midnight’s Children and Shame was suddenly turned against Rushdie himself … The author appeared to have become the grotesque victim of one of his own fictional plots, as the lurid glare of world publicity created its own metafictional scenario of life imitating fiction.”5 As author, Rushdie was entangled in a narrative that only issued from the ethical and religious content of his text but also conformed to his own novelistic ethos.
One can be sure that this ensuing real-world drama could not have been programmed at the level of intention into the composition of The Satanic Verses. But does this absolve Rushdie of any responsibility for these unintended outcomes? Feroza Jussawalla, identified Rushdie’s predicament at a deep theoretical rather than cultural level: “Rushdie has become a victim not of the Muslim world so much as of the indeterminacy, which is the condition of postmodernism, whereby authority has been completely wrested from the author and in his absence has been placed in the hands of warring factions of readers.” 6 Yet, it is misleading to identify this loss of authority solely with the postmodern condition. Some twenty-five centuries earlier, Plato had warned against this very dispossession of authority as the very condition of writing itself:
..[It] drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it, but equally of those who have no business with it; it doesn’t know how to address the right people, and not address the wrong. And when it is ill-treated and unfairly abused it always needs its parent (patros) to come to its help, being unable to defend or help itself. (Phaedrus, 275d-e)
With Rushdie, the author was placed, at some level, to defend his discourse much as his defences seemed like those of a man shouting from under the sea. He could also anticipate the anger it would provoke amongst Muslim communities, a consideration which led many to ascribe to the author fulsome responsibility for the perilous situation in which he found himself. After all, the act of writing is freely chosen and Rushdie was not obliged, as was Scheherazade, to weave fictions on pain of death, nor to choose as his source material “The Satanic Verses” which centuries of scholarly tradition had zealously protected from public circulation. Nor need he have traded one set of cultural values off against another by writing from a (western) world in which fiction is a distinct mode of knowing of an (eastern) world in which the aesthetic is not a distinct sphere. The distancing strategies - irony, metafictionality, self-consciousness - are put into play almost to the point of tedium, but prove inadequate when appropriating a religion and textual tradition which does not acknowledge mediation of any kind. 7 “Supposing Punch exposes himself in front of all the children,” says Malise Ruthven. “[T]he man in the booth who pulls all the strings cannot say, ‘It’s not me, it’s the puppet!’ Everything in that show is created by the puppeteer - the man who wrote the novel’”.8 To this extent, Rushdie failed to enter into an ethical contract with his audience, declined to put his name to what had been written in his name, wished to be the authoritative reader as well as the writer of a text he freely surrendered from the privacy of an intuition to public dissemination. Not for nothing did society call him back along the ethical path that tracks a text to a proper name, to a person, a biography and set of intentions.
On no man else
But on me alone is the scourge of my punishment
[Sophocles, Oedipus Rex]
Friedrich Nietzsche did not live to see his line “Do not drive the hero from thy heart” inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz. But we can imagine his astonishment that those words could have travelled so far and on such terrible winds of history. Before those words, at that place, he might recall the joyous, life-affirmative intent with which he penned them on the heights of Sils Maria in 1883, might recognise that just as you cannot step into the same river twice, so, too, no pure repetition of an act of writing - no restoration of original context - is ever possible.
In Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide, Berel Lang writes: “to reconstruct in the imagination the events leading up to the Nazi Genocide without the name or presence of Nietzsche is to be compelled to change almost nothing in else in that pattern”.9 Nietzsche, on this argument, is the victim of a bad case of “moral luck”: if the argument “no Hitler, no Holocaust” holds, then the embroilment of the name “Nietzsche” with the Nazi programme would hang on simple contingencies such as that of a mentally-ill young Austrian failing to gain a degree at Art School. Yet, the name of Nietzsche will always conjure up that of National Socialism. If Nietzsche is not the godfather of Nazism then why - either in a spirit of defence or prosecution - is he invariably summoned to the intelligensia’s Nurenberg?
Martin Jay writes in Fin de Siècle Socialism that “while it might be questionable to saddle Marx with responsibility for the Gulag archipelago or blame Nietzsche for Auschwitz, it is nevertheless true that their writings could be misread as justifications for these horrors in a way that … John Stuart Mill or Alexis de Toqueville could not”10 Properly, Jay strikes a middle path between culpability and exoneration, in refusing to see either a causal connection between, say, Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the Holocaust or to cast the Nazi propagandists in a simple “borrow-a-quote” relation with Nietzsche’s texts.
Here one needs to distinguish carefully intention from responsibility so as to see the former as a subset of the latter. An analogy might be drawn between the deed or act of writing and the concept of deed in its customary moral and legal senses. A man or woman who drinks and drives does not usually intend to kill; the intention is only to drive whilst under the influence of alcohol. But that lack of specific intention does not prevent us from holding that person responsible for the death of another; responsible, it is true, in a less heinous manner than a murderer, but culpable nonetheless. That Nietzsche did not intend National Socialism - that nothing could have been further from his mind - does not close the issue of responsibility. He wrote as he would have his philosophers of the future live - dangerously. He did not take care to explain himself, he courted aberrant readings, let his writings take him wherever they would. “Marx and Nietzsche … have so little to say about the content of a good life,” Bernard Yack notes in his The Longing for Total Revolution. He goes on to ask “[h]ow could such a weak and undeveloped concept of the good life inspire such intense longing?”.11 We might answer that it does so through a textual version of will-to-power (a higher-case equivalent of the literary fame sought by the Rushdie of The Satanic Verses), the longing of Marx, Nietzsche to write their names immemorially on the tablets of history. Both wanted to claim world-historical significance, yearned to see their names engraved beside those of Socrates and Jesus, Plato and Goethe, Shakespeare and Sophocles. Both sought to transcend their predecessors and to place themselves at the culmination of the past and the promise of the future, even to the extreme of turning the fragile European peace into scene of violent transformation.
We do have Nietzsche on record stating his intent in writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, an intent which is also an unshackling from any intent: “To play the great play - to stake the existence of humanity, in order perhaps to attain something higher than the survival of the race” 12 Chillingly, Nietzsche subordinates the ethical to aesthetic, humanity to the dream of a “something else” (of which we can only surmise that it will be a posthumanity). Since Nietzsche has no sense whatsoever of what will succeed “man”, this is no more than the ambition for his own writings, the fortunes of his own name. It is a throw of the dice, an irresponsibility that carries a grave weight of responsibility. His intention is to play which - whilst it intends nothing beyond itself - has turned many a childish day to tragedy. In the eeriely prophetic Ecce Homo, he declares:
I know my fate [Ich kenne mein Los]. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous [Ungeheures] - a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience [Gewissens-Kollision], a decision [Entschiedung] that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man. I am a man of dynamite ... The concept of politics will have merged entirely with a war of spirits; all power structures of the old society will have been exploded - all of them based on lies: there will be wars the like of which have never yet been seen on earth. It is only beginning with me that the earth knows great politics [grosse Politik].13
A central doctrine of Nietzsche’s philosophy is that one must love one’s fate even to the extent of willing it to return eternally. One must affirm all that one is, one had done and all that one is to become. To love one’s fate absolutely means also to love one’s posthumous fate, one’s legacy, the destiny of one’s writings even if they are to be used in “the most sinister rallying cries of National Socialism,” even if they are inscribed on the gates of Auschwitz.14 Nietzsche thus pledges himself to whatever is said or done in his name. His signature (in other words, the contract he establishes with his texts and readerships) thus differs from Rushdie’s in that he holds himself accountable for whatever (mis)readings are made of his work. “How lightly,” he says, “one takes the burden of an excuse upon oneself so long as one is accountable for nothing - [b]ut I am accountable.” 15 In this sense, he admitted his irresponsibility yet signed his name to that irresponsibility, made an ethically responsible acknowledgement of an ethically irresponsible act.
In the freedom and loneliness of the post-patronage writer, Nietzsche "danced with the pen" wrote "unwisely" and "imprudently". Having played the dangerous game to its limits, he had little choice but to affirm himself as "necessarily also the man of calamity" and to recast philosophy itself as danger. As Gödel shows in the hard case of pure mathematics, unintended outcomes are the hazard of any form of thought. But Nietzsche courted this risk. Like Blake’s Isaiah, he "cared not for consequences, but wrote", said a joyous “yes” to whatever might visit or intrude upon his legacy. He called himself to his own tribunal, wished as much to answer to the future as he would have the future answer to him. It is for these reasons that we call Friedrich Nietzsche to Auschwitz. He bids us do so.
Two authors, then: one living, one dead; one who avowedly writes fiction, the other who produced a peculiar hybrid discourse which we still today call philosophy; one who offended the canons of Islam, the other who offended those of humanism; one who lived in the eye of a media hurricane, the other who languished in utter obscurity throughout his productive life; one who was alive to see the dramatic reception of his texts, the other who died with only a small circle of friends to count as a readership. Yet in both cases, writing emerges as fatherless, orphaned at birth, free to reappear in alien contexts, to garner unintended meanings, to have unforseeable outcomes. Whereas an oral teacher can distinguish between those who can benefit from a discourse without abusing its terms, a written text has no power of selection over its audience, nor can it correct misreadings. Plato’s perspective on writing and (ir)responsibility thus coincides exactly with the postmodern view but for the fact that the former bemoans the very textual dispossession that the latter celebrates. The cases of Rushdie and Nietzsche dramatically illustrate what is the case with any form of writing which - unlike speech in which the author and his or her words coincide in the moment of articulation - involves as a first condition, the potential absence, disappearance or death of its author. This situation renders writing defenceless before its clients, unable to answer for itself, only capable of returning the same form of words in face of numerous conflicting interpretations, powerless to predict or progamme its own audience and reception. From here, it would be tempting to conclude that writing is irresponsible per se: just as no theory can predict its own effects, so, too, no discourse can guarantee its safe passage. Yet it is precisely the risk of writing which gives to the question “who is speaking?” its perennial urgency. To understand the nature of this demand we need to investigate its origins which are indeed the very origins of literary criticism. We need also to make an imaginative journey back to a time when literature and ethics were inseparable.
Unlike any other discipline, literary criticism arose in hostility to the object of its study. It has a precise moment of origin in Plato’s arguments toward the banishment of the poets from the ideal city. In the Republic, Plato presents cases of varying persuasiveness against poetry (by which we may understand literature in general). He advances the famous “copy of a copy” argument whereby the artist is an inferior copier of a copyist, one who merely represents a bed which a carpenter has made from a template provided by the ideal form of the bed. More telling are the ethical denunciations of literature for promoting patterns of imitation which are injurious to social order and the psychic development of children - arguments that remain valid today in debates over the pornographies of sex and violence – and for fostering intense emotional identification which involves the audience, readers or auditors in the action in such a way as to preclude rational reflection (an argument which finds a contemporary equivalent in Brecht’s theatre and theory of alienation).
To comprehend the urgency and intensity of the Republic’s critique, though, we have to remind ourselves that before Plato there were no firm distinctions between myth and truth, imaginative literature and rational thought, ethics and literature. Within primarily oral cultures, literature was not an aspect of cultural knowledge but its repository. This is the world of Homeric Greece, of the shamanic cultures of South America, of the Mabinogion and the Irish bards. It is also the world of the Quran, the world from which the source texts of the Bible evolved. The Homeric catalogues, the biblical genealogies betray the origins of these texts in a generational need to keep the cultural memory alive. Ethics, history, practical matters such as embarking and disembarking from ships, dietary codes, etc - all were appended to beautiful stories which themselves functioned as aide-memoires. With the Homeric poems, Socrates and Plato confronted a tribal encyclopaedia, one which not only constituted a vast reservoir of historical and mythical events, but also served as a guide to mores, attitudes, and ethical imperatives. Thus the poetry of oral tradition is not to be seen as recreation, myth, or under an aesthetic aspect, but as the dominant educational resource of its culture:
You did not learn your ethics and politics, skills and directives, by having them presented to you as a corpus for silent study, reflection and absorption. You were not asked to grasp their principles through rational analysis. You were not invited to do so much as think of them. Instead you submitted to the paideutic spell. You allowed yourself to become ‘musical’ in the fuctional sense of that Greek term. 16
The recitation of the Homeric works served simultaneously as theatre, festival and library. There can be no archive in an oral culture unless certain gifted individuals hold that information in their heads and ritualistically pass it onto another generation, and so on. The consequence of devoting the best minds of a culture to the task of memorisation is to preclude any sustained attempt at abstract thought.