Today's date:
Winter 2009

Literary Witness in a World of Terror: The Inward Testimony

Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. The following essay is adapted from a talk she delivered in Kolkata, India, in November, shortly before the Nov. 26 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Gordimer has updated her remarks for NPQ’s monthly Nobel Laureates column to reflect those events.

Kolkata—September, 2001. A sunny day in New York. Many of us who are writers were at work on the transformations of life into a poem, a story, a chapter of a novel, when terror pounced from the sky, and the world made witness to it.

“HORROR was written on the sun” | These are the prophetic words of the South African poet William Plomer. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were part of the unspeakable horrors of a past war; this was the horror that had come with the arrival of a new kind of war in a new millennium that has dedicated itself to globalization—a concept which both implies and is absolutely reliant on an end to violent solutions of international conflict. It is now 2008: we have come to coexist with the horrors of the Madrid bombings, the London underground train explosions, the dead in Afghanistan, Rwanda, Iraq, Darfur, Sri Lanka, and the knowledge that this incomplete list of tragic violence continues, most recently on Nov. 26 in Mumbai.

Suicide bombers and retaliation attacks of all natures—including blockades of food and medicine—slaughter the innocent bystander, destroy homes and livelihood, whatever territorial, political or religious aims, just or unjust, they represent.

What place, task, meaning will literature have in witness to disasters which make the entire world the front line of any and every conflict?

To apportion these for us, the world’s writers, I believe we have first to define what witness is. I go to the Oxford English Dictionary and find that definitions fill more than a small-print column.

“Witness: attestation of a fact, event or statement, testimony, evidence; one who is or was present and is able to testify from personal observation.”

Television crews, photographers, are pre-eminent witnesses in these senses of the word, when it comes to catastrophe, staggeringly visual. No need for words to describe it; no possibility words could.

Firsthand newsprint, elaborately descriptive journalism, becomes essentially a pallid after-image. Television makes “personal observation,” “attestation of a fact, event” a qualification of witness not only for those thousands who stood mind-blown aghast on the scene, but everyone worldwide who saw it all happening on television.

The place and task of attesting the fact, event or statement, testimony, evidence—the qualification of one who is or was present and is able to testify—this is that of the media. Analysis of the disaster follows in political, sociological terms, by various ideological, national, special or populist schemas, some claiming that elusive, reductive state, objectivity.

Meaning | Meaning is what cannot be reached by the immediacy of the image, the description of the sequence of events, the methodologies of expert analysis. If witness literature is to find its place, take on a task in relation to the enormity of what is happening in acts of destruction and their aftermath, it is in the tensions of sensibility, the intense awareness, the antennae of receptivity to the lives among which writers experience their own as a source of their art. Poetry and fiction are processes of what the Oxford Dictionary defines as the state of witness as “applied to the inward testimony”—the individual lives of men, women and children who have to reconcile within themselves the shattered certainties which are as much a casualty as the bodies under rubble.

(Franz) Kafka says the writer sees among ruins “different (and more) things than the is a leap out of murderers’ row; it is a seeing of what is really taking place.”

This is the nature of witness that writers can, surely must, give, and have been giving since ancient times, in the awesome responsibility of their endowment with the seventh sense of the imagination. The “realization” of what has happened comes from what would seem to deny reality – the transformation of events, motives, emotions, reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that is meaning.

If we accept that “contemporary” spans the century in which all of us here were born, as well as the one scarcely and starkly begun, there are many examples of this fourth dimension of experience that is the writer’s space and place, attained.

“Thou shalt not kill”—the moral dilemma that patriotism and religions demand be disregarded in the individual sent to war—comes inescapably from the World War I pilot in William Butler Yeats’ poem: “Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love.” A leap from murderers’ row that only the poet can make.

The Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb—Joseph Roth’s peripatetic dual epic of frontiers as the Charybdis and Scylla of the breakup of the Old World in the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—is not only inward testimony of the ever-lengthening host of ever-wandering refugees in the new century, the Greek chorus of the dispossessed that drowns the Muzak of consumerism. But also it is the inward testimony of what goes on working its way as a chaos of ideological, ethnic, religious and political consequences that come to us through the vision of Roth.

The statistics of the Holocaust are a ledger of evil, the figures still visible on people’s arms; but Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man makes extant a state of existence that becomes part of consciousness for all time.

The level of imaginative tenacity at which the South African poet Mongane Wally Serote witnesses the apocalyptic events of apartheid amid which he was living is organic, in its persistent perception. He writes, “I want to look at what happened; /That done./As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil/I look at what happened.../When knives creep in and out of people/As day and night into time.”

In an earlier age, the greatness of (Joseph) Conrad’s inward testimony finds that the heart of darkness is not Mistah Kurtz’s skull-bedecked river station besieged by Congolese, but back in the offices in King Leopold’s Belgium where knitting women sit while the savage trade in natural rubber is efficiently organized, with a quota for extraction by blacks that must be met, or punished at the price of severed hands.

These are some examples of what Czeslaw Milosz call the writer’s “fusing of individual and historical elements” and that Georg Lukacs defines as the occurrence of “a creative memory which transfixes the object and transforms it,” “the duality in inwardness and the outside world.”

The duality of inwardness and the outside world—this consciousness, which is that of the writer—reveals, at a depth beyond history, the unpredictable developments in social and personal values that come about in the aftermath of drastic; transforming political change: the veering of power from one form of order to another, the post-victory as the attainment of freedom. There is a strangely interesting, and in some instances a contradiction, in the situational similarities of South Africa and India, as seen in their literatures. Both revealed the distortions brought about in the human personality by a long era under colonialism, the reduction of a people into “The Other” and at the same time the discovery within themselves of forms of resistance, psychological as well as active, that defeated the self-appointed masters, finally.

India finds herself left with the trauma of partition, the wound lacerating individual lives territorially and exacerbating religious conflict. And there is the caste system, a traditional oppression surviving the British one. These ironic inheritances within freedom are brought to the world’s real understanding by the creativity of Indian writers.

South Africa’s victory over apartheid, in which South African Indian freedom fighters had an important role, finds South Africa left with the land itself still mainly in the title deeds of the white minority. And color, if not caste, remains a source of prejudice and pain, even if it now more understandably sometimes manifests itself in reverse, black against white in certain situations of the new age. South African writers—whose identity includes South African Indian writers—brought to the world the totally invasive impact of apartheid on the individual and group human psyche.

Much of contemporary writing from India now has the running theme of a new servitude among India’s peoples: an apparently uncontrollable urge of materialism, the passion for possessions, and the corruption at many levels which is an inevitable consequence, along with corruption attendant on passion for political power. The winner of this year’s Booker prize is a novel critical of the present-day national ethos by a young Indian writer, Aravind Adiga.

In South Africa the same betrayal of what freedom was envisaged as, the goal of human justice and caring, has evidenced itself in the same way—even by some heroes who were the bravest and most self-sacrificing in the freedom struggle. Pavan K. Varma’s outstanding comprehensive study, The Great Indian Middle Class, with a change of names and places could be read as a study of South Africa in the ten years since his was written. The relevance of witness literature’s inward testimony to world-wide fault lines, brilliantly analyzed in Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence, finds another dimension in Nayantra Sahgal’s extraordinary, vivid feat of inward testimony captured by her novel Mistaken Identity. That novel portrays how the country, continent, planet-wide, obsessive fear of terrorism means any one of us, anywhere, no matter how irrationally and haphazardly, may find him- or herself imprisoned as a kind of random precaution against who-knows-what fundamentalist political or religious threat. The highly original new surrealism of Kunal Basu’s novel, Racists, carries to a startling conclusion the human entanglement of the science and myth of racism with concepts of identity.

Writers cannot and do not indulge the hubris of believing they can plant the flag of truth. A deep thinker such as Karan Singh brings together philosophy, interfaith national and international possibilities, along with political responsibilities in this context. What is sure is that we can exclude or discard nothing in our solitary travail toward meaning, downward into the acts of violence. We have to seek this meaning in those who commit such acts just as we do in its victims. We have to acknowledge them. Graham Green’s priest in The Comedians gives a religious edict from his interpretation of the Christian faith: “The Church condemns violence, but it condemn indifference more harshly.”

Where does the despotism of violence begin to grow? Why? And where will it end? How? This is the mined territory of meaning, in the crises of the present, from which the writer’s responsibility cannot be absolved. “Servitude, falsehood and terror.... Three afflictions are the cause of silence between men, obscure them from one another and prevent them from rediscovering themselves.” That is what Camus found in that territory. It is a specification within Milan Kundera’s credo: “For a novelist, a given historical situation is an anthropological laboratory in which he explores the basic question: What is existence?” And Kundera goes on to quote (Martin) Heidegger: “The essence of man has the form of a question.”

Whether this question is unanswerable, just as final truth is unattainable, literature has been and remains a means of people rediscovering themselves. It has never been more necessary, vital, than now, when information technology, the new faith, has failed to bring this rediscovery about.

Is there inevitably a loss of artistic liberty for the writer in inward testimony as witness? | A testy outburst not from a writer, but a painter, (Pablo) Picasso, replies vis-à-vis creativity, for artists in every medium. “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet...quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world; whether it be harrowing, bitter or sweet, and he cannot help being shaped by it.” Neither can the art. And there emerges “Guernica.”

(Gustave) Flaubert writes to (Ivan) Turgenev: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it....”

Witness literature is not anathema to or incompatible with experiment in form and style. On the contrary. When writers, as Andre Pieyre de Mandiagues asks, “have been given a disaster which seems to exceed all measures, must it not be recited, spoken?”

There is no style and form ready-made for witness literature | If it is to be poem, it has to be found among all the combinations of poetics, tried or never tried, to be equal to the unique expression that will contain the event before and beyond the event; its past and future. If witness is to be a story or a novel, that final demand—the expression of the event before and beyond the event—is the same. Among all the ways of plumbing meaning, existing and to be, this has to be discovered. Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Jose Saramago, Amos Oz, Chinua Achebe, are among those who discovered it unsurpassably in different eras for their own people, own countries, and by the boundlessness of great writing, for the rest of us who see the same responsibility of discovery to be pursued in our own countries.

R.K. Narayan, Salman Rushdie, V.S. Naipaul, Anita Desai, Shashi Tharoor, Kumal Ba, Amitav Ghosh, Vikas Swarup; South Africans Zakes Mda, Achmat Dangor, Mongane Wally Serote, Lewis Nkosi, Andre Brink, Rajesh Gopie, Ahmed Essop, are some of those who come to mind, only a random few among many. And some of them belong to the phenomenon of writers in the diaspora: Indians and South Africans who for political, personal and sometimes inexplicable choice write from other countries where they have made their homes. Whatever the reason, one cannot ignore Jean-Paul Sartre’s view: “To go into exile is to lose your place in the world.” However, these writers, even of voluntary exile, often seem to disprove this in their writings.

I have had my own experience as that of a writer given evidence of disaster which seemed to exceed all measure. In South Africa racism in its brutally destructive guises, from killing in conquest to the methodology of colonialism, or certified as divine religious doctrine, took the lives of thousands of Africans and stunted the lives of millions more, systematically. I grew up in the Union that came out of wars for possession between the British and descendants of the Dutch, the Boers. The African had already been dispossessed by both. I was the child of the white minority, blinkered in privilege as conditioning education, basic as ABC. But because I was a writer—for it’s an early state of being, before a word has been written, not an attribute of being published—I became witness to the unspoken in my society. Very young I entered a dialogue with myself about what was around me; and this took the form of trying for the meaning in what I saw by transforming this into stories based on what were everyday incidents of ordinary life for everyone around me: the sacking of the backyard room of a black servant by police while the white master and mistress of the house looked on unconcerned; later, in my adolescence during the ’39-’45 war, when I was an aide at a gold mine casualty station, being told by the white intern who was suturing a black miner’s gaping head-wound without anaesthetic: “They don’t feel like we do.”

As time and published books confirmed that I was a writer, and witness literature, if it is a particular genre of circumstance of my time and place, was mine, I had to find how to keep my integrity to the Word, the sacred charge of the writer. I realized, as I believe many writers do, that instead of restricting, inhibiting, coarsely despoiling aesthetic liberty, the existential condition of witness was enlarging, inspiring aesthetic liberty breaching the previous limitations of my sense of form and use of language through necessity; to create form and use anew.

I read Rabindranath Tagore’s Chokker Bali, translated by Radha Chakravarthy, only in 2003. But Tagore, in his foreword a hundred years before, 1903, expressed far better than I do here and now that necessity when he declared, “The literature of the new age seeks out not to narrate a sequence of events but to reveal the secrets of the heart.” This holds good for the literature of our new age, the new millennium. Aesthetic liberty is an essential of witness literature. Through bold and innovative liberty we writers have to question the story of our time in many inner voices, to tell it in whatever we might reach of its meaning, submerged beneath public ideology, discourse and action.

An aesthetic quest? | But there is no ivory tower that can keep the assault of reality from beating at the walls, as Flaubert dismayedly noted. In witness to it the imagination is not irreal but is the deeper reality. Its exigence can never allow compromise with conventional cultural wisdom and what Milosz calls official lies. That outstanding intellectual of no compromise, Edward Said, asks who, if not the writer, is “to uncover and elucidate the contests, challenge and hope to defeat the imposed silence and normalized quiet of power?” And the final word on witness literature surely comes from Camus: “the moment when I am no more than a writer, I shall cease to be a writer.”