Litteratur, frihet og makt

Det var tittelen på innledningen som den peruanske Nobelpris-vinneren i litteratur Mario Vargas Llosa holdt på Oslo Freedom Forum den 15. mai.

Talens manus foreligger på engelsk, og vi gjengir deler av den her:

“I have heard this dozens of times: this man and many thousands of men like him have so many important things to do, so many obligations, so many responsibilities in life, that they cannot waste their precious time buried in a novel, a book of poetry, or a literary essay for hours and hours. According to this widespread conception, literature is a dispensable activity, no doubt lofty and useful for cultivating sensitivity and good manners, but essentially an entertainment, an adornment that only people with time for recreation can afford. It is something to fit in between sports, the movies, a game of bridge or chess; and it can be sacrificed without scruple when one “prioritizes” the tasks and the duties that are indispensable in the struggle of life.

It seems clear that literature has become more and more a female activity. In bookstores, at conferences or public readings by writers, and even in university departments dedicated to the humanities, the women clearly outnumber the men. The explanation traditionally given is that middle-class women read more because they work fewer hours than men, and so many of them feel that they can justify more easily than men the time that they devote to fantasy and illusion. I am somewhat allergic to explanations that divide men and women into frozen categories and attribute to each sex its characteristic virtues and shortcomings; but there is no doubt that there are fewer and fewer readers of literature, and that among the saving remnant of readers women predominate.

This is the case almost everywhere. In Spain, for example, a survey organized a few years ago by the General Society of Spanish Writers revealed that half of  that country’s population had never read a book. The survey also revealed that in the minority that does read, the number of women who admitted to reading surpasses the number of men by 6.2 percent, a difference that appears to be increasing. I am happy for these women, but I feel sorry for these men, and for the millions of human beings who could read but have decided not to read.

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated–like some hidden vice–to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom.  I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals.

We live in the era of the specialization of knowledge, thanks to the prodigious development of science and technology and to the consequent fragmentation of knowledge into innumerable parcels and compartments. This cultural trend is, if anything, likely to be accentuated in years to come. To be sure, specialization brings many benefits. It allows for deeper exploration and greater experimentation; it is the very engine of progress. Yet it also has negative consequences, for it eliminates those common intellectual and cultural traits that permit men and women to co-exist, to communicate, to feel a sense of solidarity. Specialization leads to a lack of social understanding, to the division of human beings into ghettos of technicians and specialists. The specialization of knowledge requires specialized languages and increasingly arcane codes, as information becomes more and more specific and compartmentalized. This is the particularism and the division against which an old proverb warned us: do not focus too much on the branch or the leaf, lest you forget that they are part of a tree, or too much on the tree, lest you forget that it is part of a forest. Awareness of the existence of the forest creates the feeling of generality, the feeling of belonging, that binds society together and prevents it from disintegrating into a myriad of solipsistic particularities. The solipsism of nations and individuals produces paranoia and delirium, distortions of reality that generate hatred, wars, and even genocide.”


“The inventions of all great literary creators open our eyes to unknown aspects of our own condition. They enable us to explore and to understand more fully the common human abyss. When we say “Borgesian,” the word immediately conjures up the separation of our minds from the rational order of reality and the entry into a fantastic universe, a rigorous and elegant mental construction, almost always labyrinthine and arcane, and riddled with literary references and allusions, whose singularities are not foreign to us because in them we recognize hidden desires and intimate truths of our own personality that took shape only thanks to the literary creation of Jorge Luis Borges. The word “Kafkaesque” comes to mind, like the focus mechanism of those old cameras with their accordion arms, every time we feel threatened, as defenseless individuals, by the oppressive machines of power that have caused so much pain and injustice in the modern world–the authoritarian regimes, the vertical parties, the intolerant churches, the asphyxiating bureaucrats. Without the short stories and the novels of that tormented Jew from Prague who wrote in German and  lived always on the lookout, we would not have been able to understand the impotent feeling of the isolated individual, or the terror of persecuted and discriminated minorities, confronted with the all-embracing powers that can smash them and eliminate them without the henchmen even showing their faces.

The adjective “Orwellian,” first cousin of “Kafkaesque,” gives a voice to the terrible anguish, the sensation of extreme absurdity, that was generated by totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century, the most sophisticated, cruel, and absolute dictatorships in history, in their control of the actions and the psyches of the members of a society. In 1984, George Orwell described in cold and haunting shades a humanity subjugated to Big Brother, an absolute lord who, through an efficient combination of terror and technology, eliminated liberty, spontaneity, and equality, and transformed society into a beehive of automatons. In this nightmarish world, language also obeys power, and has been transformed into “newspeak,” purified of all invention and all subjectivity, metamorphosed into a string of platitudes that ensure the individual’s slavery to the system. It is true that the sinister prophecy of 1984 did not come to pass, and totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union went the way of totalitarian fascism in Germany and elsewhere; and soon thereafter it began to deteriorate also in China, and in anachronistic Cuba and North Korea. But the danger is never completely dispelled, and the word “Orwellian” continues to describe the danger, and to help us to understand it.”