The Poet and the Public Intellectual

 

Writing matters. But also, it matters in Wales, and matters now. Being that our country is in the very early stages of nation building, I do not think there can ever be a more important time for writers to be vocal in shaping public discourse in creative and positive ways.

However, in order to allow us to see ourselves and our teacup storms with a wide-angle lens let us begin far away from Wales. Pankaj Mishra’s new book From the Ruins of Empire traces ‘The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia’ not by repeating the deeds of the continent’s major players of the mid twentieth century – Gandhi and Mao – but through the writings of the intellectuals who prefigured them. Liang Qichao, a Chinese who visited America in the hope that it would provide inspiration for his homeland to break with Confucianism, ended up concluding that inequality and political corruption was no blueprint for a future society. Tellingly, he references Rousseau.

‘No longer will I tell a tale of pretty dreams,’ he wrote, ‘the Chinese people for now must accept authoritarian rule; they cannot enjoy freedom.’ It was a chilling prophecy of the Mao Zedong era. No wonder: Liang was an influence on Mao. But more encouragingly for those of us who value freedom, Liang did not see authoritarianism as the long-term goal. In a few decades, Liang maintained, the Chinese people should be given ‘Rousseau to read.’ And Jean-Jacques Rousseau is, in Western terms, the key name here.

What I would like to maintain is that the intellectual, the thinker – she or he that I would call the Writer (deliberate capitalisation) – not only plays an important role in society, but is an agent of and catalyst for social change. Let us begin by following through the example of Rousseau. If we agree that the French Revolution – along with the contemporaneous Industrial Revolution in England – ushered in European modernity, we must agree that thinkers were its precursors. The masses may have stormed the Bastille, but they did so with new ideas in their heads. Before and since, in Europe and across the world, revolution – and other, more gradual, social change – is fuelled by a heady cocktail of social conditions and ideology.

First come ideas, then words, then deeds. Always in that order. Where action precedes thought, we stand on the edge of chaos and oblivion. And so: before the mob, Rousseau. Before the American revolution, Paine. Long before Lenin, Marx. Long before the suffragettes, Wollstonecraft; before Gandhi and Dr King, Thoreau. The late twentieth century’s civil rights liberation struggles were not only the result of a softening of societal attitudes, but the actualisation of decades, centuries, millennia of theory.

In Wales, we must – whatever we might think of the man or his views – acknowledge the importance of Saunders Lewis. Like ‘public intellectuals’ in other parts of the world, Lewis doubled as writer and political activist. His twin legacy is the struggle to keep the Welsh language alive and the very concept of Wales as a political entity. Both have been normalised. In his 1962 radio lecture Tynged yr Iaith – The Fate of the Language, Lewis maintained that ‘Restoring the Welsh language in Wales is nothing less than a revolution. It is only through revolutionary means that we can succeed.’ The writer’s incendiary remarks were the catalyst for the formation of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, and the start of a period of direct-action agitation to enhance the status of the Welsh language. Lewis was nominated for the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature not, perhaps, for the quality of his writing but for the impact of his thought.

And the Nobel Prize, often recognised as the ultimate accolade a Writer can receive, is particularly relevant to my own argument. In the words of Alfred Nobel’s will, the Prize should be awarded ‘in the field of literature’ for ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.’ The Swedish Academy seek to reward lasting literary merit but also idealisk, a particular brand of idealism that ‘champions human rights on a grand scale’. The Prize rewards writing, but above and beyond writing, it rewards the Writer as symbol.

Most societies give rise to small groups of thinkers who become precursors to change. Sometimes the flow of history leaves these groups as marginal figures, condemned to the shadows. The Welsh Outlook is a case in point. You may well not have heard of it. The magazine was formed in the home of David Davies, grandson of ‘Llandinam’ the industrialist and brother of Gwen and Margaret, whose collection of 260 paintings graces the National Museum of Wales. With a readership of just a couple of thousand, the magazine’s centrality to the development of Welsh nationalism – taking it away from narrow religious and linguistic identity politics to engage with internationalism and modernity – is, when viewed in the international context to which it aspired, a footnote to a bigger picture somewhere else. Even the dates of its publication – the magazine ran from 1914 to 1933 – are redolent of far more pressing issues in Wales and a grander narrative elsewhere.

But at other times, history comes calling. The Writer – engaged in quiet, committed intellectual activity – must be ready to stand and be counted, not just in print but in life. I am thinking here of Orwell joining the International Brigades, Albert Camus’ role as editor of Combat, the French Resistance paper. More recently, I am thinking about the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk’s denunciation of Turkey’s genocide-denial. I am also thinking of writers who through their works have undoubtedly affected the way we think about the world. Sigmund Freud. Edward Said. Frantz Fanon.

If Wales does not have, at present, equivalents to these kinds of writers – political, prophetic, wide-ranging – maybe it is because, for the moment, history is happening elsewhere. Owen Sheers’ Resistance, considered in this light, is an odd first novel; it imagines a context, because a Nazi occupation of the Olchon valley allows us to consider our own types of community under such pressure. It is, the novel argues, under such pressure that we find out who we really are. Patrick McGuinness’ The Last Hundred Days, set in Romania, has a similar thrust. Whether the displacement happens through time or space, much contemporary Welsh writing gives the impression that relevant backdrops for the big socio-political and moral questions lie elsewhere.

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It is no accident that the preeminent writers of any given era are often inextricably linked with the history of the period. In the 1980s, as the world’s geopolitical plates rubbed up against each other along the Iron Curtain, it was no surprise that many of the decade’s most ‘important’ writers were from Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, two of those to whom I would draw particular attention were born just seven years and a hundred miles apart in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Vaclav Havel, who died late last year, was the embodiment of the public intellectual. A playwright, poet and essayist, Havel was also a dissident who became a political prisoner and then, when freedom came, was elected President. The ultimate Writer-statesman, Havel was widely accepted at home and abroad as possessing an uncommon moral authority to rule, in addition to his popular triumph at the ballot box. At the time of his death he was Chair of the Human Rights Foundation, yet another indication of the deep connection between the Writer’s concern with the human condition and the activist’s concern with the human’s conditions.

And it was Havel’s compatriot Milan Kundera, in The art of the novel (1986) who made a distinction between a Writer (my capitalisation) and a novelist. Kundera: ‘The writer has original ideas and a unique voice. He can employ any form (including that of the novel) and because everything he writes bears the mark of his thoughts, carried by his voice, it is part of his work.’ Into this category, Kundera – who has long been exiled to France – places Rousseau, Goethe, Chateaubriand, Gide, Camus, Malraux. On the other hand, ‘[t]he novelist does not attach so much importance to his ideas. He is an explorer, busy feeling his way to unveil an unknown aspect of existence. He is not fascinated not by his voice, but by a form he is after, seeking to make it his own, and it is only the forms that can meet the demands of his dreams that become part of his works.’ Examples he gives here include Fielding, Sterne, Flaubert, Proust, Faulkner and Celine.

Aside from the point Kundera makes explicitly, I think there is also something of importance in the fact he uses the singular ‘work’ in relation to the Writer and the plural ‘works’ when discussing novelists. To take the given authors, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Madame Bovary, A la recherché du temps perdu, The Sound and the Fury and Journey to the End of the Night are each singular works of art, self-contained infinities. By contrast, the best-known works of the Writers mentioned are part of a wider schema. The Outsider, for example, is best read – is intended to be read – alongside The Myth of Sisyphus. Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality is inseparable from On the Social Contract. In short, it might be said that the novelist is concerned with the Work, the Writer with the Body of Work that expresses an Idea.

I believe Kundera’s is a vital distinction, and very useful to an understanding of the Writer’s position here in Wales. It may help us to understand what we have had to celebrate in the past and what we have traditionally lacked. Better still, it can point a direction for the future.

I have already discussed Saunders Lewis, who very clearly fits Kundera’s criteria for a Writer. His work is clearly underpinned by a voice and a set of ideas. Bertrand Russell and Raymond Williams also clearly fit the profile of forward thinking, outward looking Welshmen whose primary emphasis is on the propagation and furtherance of ideas. Like Lewis, Russell went to prison because of his commitment to ideals – he was a conscientious objector in World War I; also like Lewis, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Unlike Lewis, he won.

The 1950 prize was awarded to Russell ‘in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought’. Note again the emphasis on varied ‘writings’ rather than a specific monolithic work of art, and again the emphasis on the Writer as champion of humanity and freedom.

But the vast majority of front-rank Welsh writers have been from the other side of Kundera’s divide. They have been novelists. Or, even more often, poets. In my previous essay, I made mention of Dylan Thomas’ writing shed. This rather odd tourist attraction with its perfectly preserved pictures and paraphernalia, discarded ‘manuscripts’ filling the wastepaper basket and littering the floor, has come to form the abiding image of the writer here in Wales. First, he is solitary; second, he is melancholy, a tortured genius searching for le mot juste, mae’r gair cywir. Third, he is a he. Fourth – and this is my main point – he is the very opposite of a public intellectual, the very idea of which has always been treated with suspicion in Britain as a whole. The Welsh Writers I have discussed – Saunders Lewis, Raymond Williams and Bertrand Russell – are all widely seen as European thinkers.

My previous essay also addressed the question of how the particular writers we have had in Wales who might be considered ‘world-class’ is for debate. Dylan Thomas’ status is not so much as our greatest writer but as the most well-known. He has been cast in bronze, ‘a Welshman, a drunkard and a lover of the human race, especially of women’, the paradigmatic Welsh writer. An icon.

There are numerous reasons why not so much Thomas or his writing but the image of Thomas and his lifestyle has become a burden to subsequent generations of Welsh writers to reach an international audience. As a country of three million people we have already had our fair share of internationally famous writers, i.e. one. When Bill Clinton stood on a stage in Hay-on-Wye and pronounced that ‘you’re lucky, you Welsh, to have [Dylan Thomas] as your poet,’ he used the singular.

In the eyes of the world, we have had our poet; there is no longer room for anybody else. In the same way that you might as an educated person be able to name one Burmese politician, one Icelandic popstar and one Slovene philosopher, around the world the likelihood is that an educated person could probably name – at a push – one Welsh poet. A useful analogy here would be with Jamaica. The Caribbean island is comparable with Wales in terms of both its population and its disproportionate number of ‘notables’. At London 2012, the world record-breaking sprint relay team demonstrated the island’s wealth of talent. And yet our desire for icons means Usain Bolt is the Jamaican sprinter. Even the very best Welsh writers are, it has seemed, forever condemned to being the Yohan Blake to Dylan Thomas’ Bolt, the Jimmy Cliff to Dylan Thomas’ Bob Marley.

My argument for the importance of the Writer is concerned with the role rather than the individuals who find themselves cast as such through what Orwell called ‘some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand’. For me, the Writer is defined not by his or her particularities – iconic or exceptional or otherwise – but by the way in which through the specifics of his or her writing he or she connects us to the general. The Writer, in the sense I am defining him or her, is a conduit for the spirit of the age. Somehow, through some means unbeknownst even to him or herself, the Writer rides the zeitgeist like a wild pony. The Writer provides a vital link to the past and a prescient glimpse of the future even when contextualizing the present.

What is noticeable in all of my examples, within Wales and without, is the time lapse involved. Whether from The Communist Manifesto to the Russian Revolution or Tynged yr Iaith to the Welsh Language Act 1993, there is usually at least a generation’s gap between the genesis of an idea and the recognition of its fruition or even an acceptance of its validity. What seems controversial, outrageous or revolutionary at first can seem like common sense decades later.

This is not to say writers are always right, or even ahead of the game; very often the opposite proves to be the case. And it must surely be noted that, as in this case, the argument for Writerly importance is most often put forward by writers. But it is no accident that dictators and oppressors first target the intelligentsia. Writers represent freedom; even in situations where they have not been politically active in the most direct sense, the potential they have to undermine lies makes them dangerous.

If I use Orwell as a leaning post once more, it is because his skill was to write in the plainest English what many would have said in terms that ordinary people would find off-putting. ‘I write… because there is some lie that I want to expose,’ he wrote, effectively ending any future attempts to explain the impulse any better than that. If I cite Eastern Europe under communism again, it is because the particularities of that period show us something universal about the relationship between freedom and oppression; samizdat literature – the hand-to-hand passing around of outlawed, sensitive material – shows us the power and importance of the written word. It finds contemporary echoes in the twittering soundtrack to the Arab Spring, events linked through journalistic shorthand to those of Prague 1968.

The first casualties of totalitarianism are the minds that would oppose it. The last decade has encouraged lots of talk about winning ‘hearts and minds.’ Hearts are easy to deal with; dictators and terrorists, by definition, are unconcerned with hearts. Minds, however, are dangerous. You can break bodies, but some of history’s most inspiring stories show that you cannot change minds quite so easily. Writers, of course, deal in the currency of the mind.

Dai Smith has called Wales ‘a young country not afraid to remember what it might yet become’. And at the end of a week where Leanne Wood used her first conference speech as leader of the party founded by Saunders Lewis to outline an idealistic vision of a Welsh New Deal, it would be worth remembering that while we will build the nation together – nurses, teachers, carpenters, mechanics, shop assistants, bar staff, rugby players, theatre directors, social workers, even politicians – for a clear vision of where we might go, we are also going to need not only novelists and poets, but Writers with a capital ‘W’.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis