Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Not Writing for Power

Scott Horton recently interviewed Chinese playwright and activist Sha Yexin. One exchange particularly stuck out for me:

5. At the recent Beijing meeting on Chinese drama and literature, you said that playwrights should never forget the role of literature and the aim of writing, and that they should never write for power. Could you elaborate on that?

Why shouldn’t one write for power? Here are my reasons:

First, power corrupts. The British historian Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This famous quotation has now become political common sense. Its correctness has been borne out by the intensifying corruption in China, where power is exercised without oversight or restraint. When corruption and power exist in co-prosperity, how can people fight corruption? In present-day China, anti-corruption is kept at a certain level to ensure that people will not revolt while power will not get out of control. In some districts, corrupt elements have become leaders of the anti-corruption effort. Undiscovered corrupt officials are fighting those already exposed.

Second, power makes people stupid. By using mathematical theories, the American scholar Jonathan Bendor proves the great value of independent thinking and the limitations of decision makers. When leaders are too busily occupied with myriad state affairs, institutional methods can be used to ease their cognitive constraints, by seeking wise solutions from among the people and encouraging independent thinking in government officials. But in a totalitarian country, such institutional methods do not and cannot exist.

Most power-holders in such countries are fond of dictatorship. Each of them puts forward his “ideas” and “theories” when it is his turn to rule the country, hoping to see his thought adopted as the “guideline” to unify the thinking of the whole nation. Acting in this way, they deprive themselves of the kind of wisdom and talent that are needed to solve the thorny problems facing the country. As a bunch of dumbbells, they can not help becoming an object of ridicule among the people.

Third, power brings flip-flops and hence suffering to the people. Since power has reduced the wisdom and intelligence of the power-holders and their think tanks, setbacks caused by repeated policy changes including the adoption of reactionary measures are bound to occur. Frequent ideological reversals and repeated changes in ideas and policy bring about great social instability. It becomes very difficult to attain a truly harmonious society and avoid more flip-flops in the future.

Fourth, power produces cruelty. Those who hold power can be overwhelmed by the glare of the spotlight that accompanies power. They may experience a peak period in which they feel accomplishment, happiness, or pleasure. But according to Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, this peak period does not last long. The powerful had problems coping with the end of this period. Once they reject oversight, checks and balances that come from outside, they immediately become completely irrational and inhuman. If someone wants to share power with them or seeks to replace them with new power-holders, they become mad and cruel, and have no scruples in resort to guns, cannons, and tanks, producing huge social disasters.

If you are a writer who writes for power, objectively you are working, directly or indirectly, for corruption and stupidity, for more suffering and cruelty for the people. You may have some excuses if you are forced to write for power. If you write for power out of your own will, how can you evade your responsibility as an accomplice?

As may be easily understood, what I am speaking about is power in a totalitarian state. It is power without oversight and constraints, as compared with power born from democratic elections. Refusing to write for power also means refusing to write according to the will of those in power, or to promote their ideology in one’s writings.

One may choose to write for any other purpose: to write for art, for life, for oneself or others. But he or she must not write for power.

I haven't read any plays by Sha Yexin yet, but now I want to seek them out. There are many different reasons to write, but over here in the States it can be easy to take the freedom to write for granted. The stakes for Sha Yexin are higher.

When I briefly studied in Russia, my group was told harrowing tales of how artists of all sorts were treated in the Soviet era (The Great Terror has a good chapter on it). Some stories were absolutely heart-breaking. One of my favorite writers, Mikhail Bulgakov, was basically tormented by Stalin, despite Stalin's love of Bulgakov's play The White Guard (also known as Last Days of the Turbins). Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, was passed around for years in underground samizdat copies after his death (he died at age 48 before he could fully revise the second half). Decades later, an abridged version was published, and eventually, a full version. (The German film The Lives of Others captures a similar samizdat dynamic very well.)

I'll pass on some other images. An arts patron we met temporarily renamed his restaurant "Speak Out" after the end of the Soviet Union, because it felt important to him at the time. And our lead teacher – who was more brilliant even when drunk (a rarity) then almost anyone I've ever met - showed us with his lectures and conversations that simply surviving, remembering what had actually happened in the Soviet era, and telling it to others became an act of conscience. I had a movement teacher (who used to design nuclear missile silos!) who once lived in a border town where he was able to get records of jazz and rock music, which were banned or restricted. To escape detection, he and others would set up their record players in their basements, and dance away to the music, often alone. This guy had crazy moves – he had a tall, lanky build and could move his hands and legs to different rhythms in different time signatures - and I've always loved that image of secret dancing at night in the basement.

In general, what I value the most from my time in Russia is coming to understand that many Russians have much deeper expectations for their art. I had an acting teacher who said he had mixed feelings about a new production of Chekhov's Three Sisters we saw, that it was beautifully staged, but that "it wasn't life." At first, I thought that was a bit harsh, but by the end of my stay, I understood what he was talking about. (And he was a phenomenal teacher – the best audience for a monologue you could ever hope to have, living and dying with every line. He was the Michael Chekhov expert, stressing: zydes, ceychas, civodnya - here, now, today.)

It's not as if every act of writing is political or needs to be profound, though. For instance, The Master and Margarita is quite profound, but it's also a comic novel, witty and entertaining. Use whatever metaphor or motivation for writing works for ya - Annie Dillard's "living like weasels," Natalie Goldberg's "writing down the bones," Lanford Wilson's "burn this" or something else altogether. But I appreciate Sha Yexin's great observation above about not writing for power, and it's a good one to remember. It also makes me think of one of my favorite pieces on writing, William Faulkner's Nobel speech (although it seems a crime to quote just a section). The last line below is my favorite:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

No worries here, friend. :) I have no power and am likely not to get any of it. The only issue I have with the whole premise is that some degree of power is necessary, since most people are followers and not leaders. It's when power becomes absolute, as the old saying goes, then problems transpire.