Sunday, 6 November 2016

Political Uses of Literature - Italo Calvino on Hidden Motives

Publi Domain

Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was born in Cuba and grew up in San Remo, Italy. He fought for the Italian Resistance in WW2 from 1943-1945.

In "Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature," Calvino begins by describing the difficulties for writers in being heard, since even the most sensational and explosive writing can fail to impact on readers, "All is as nothing, like the sound of the wind." Words pose no danger to writer or reader, and those of the poet or writer tend to be swallowed up - unless and until the work is persecuted. When this happens, the true power of literature is disclosed, a challenge to authority.

The persecution of literature has a knock-on effect. Whenever writers are persecuted, there must already be restraints on discussion and political thought. Fiction and poetry can fulfil the important role of giving a voice to those deprived on one.

Two Wrong Ways of Thinking About the Use of Politics in Literature

Calvino posits that there are two wrong ways of thinking of a possible political use for literature.
1.                               "The first is to claim that literature should voice a truth already possessed by politics; that is, to believe that the sum of political value is the primary thing, to which literature must simply adapt itself." Calvino regards this claim to be pedagogic, one that can only to be imagined with regard to bad literature and equally bad politics.

2.                               "The other mistaken way is to see literature as an assortment of eternal human sentiments, as the truth of a human language that politics tends to overlook, and that therefore has to be called to mind from time to time" According to Calvino, this concept appears to allow room for literature to flourish, but actually it assumes "...a set of established values that literature is responsible for preserving." This, Calvino says, does harm because it confines literature to consolation, preservation and regression.

Right Ways of Thinking About the Use of Politics in Literature

However, the above does not imply that all political uses of literature are misguided. In Calvino's view, the reverse is true.
1.                               "Literature is necessary to politics above all when it gives a voice to whatever is without a voice, when it gives a name to what as yet has no name, especially to what the language of politics excludes or attempts to exclude." Calvino stresses that he includes aspects, situations and language of both the individual and society. Literature is able to comprehend what is beyond political understanding and perceptions. The individual writer may explore the unexplored, or even make discoveries that may become elements of collective awareness.

2.                               "This is the ability to impose patterns of language, of vision, of imagination, of mental effort, of the correlation of facts, and in short the creation.... of a model of values that is at the same time aesthetic and ethical." At this point Calvino says he believes in a type of education through literature that works only if it is difficult and indirect, implying attainment of literary rigour and stringency. This, he claims, is suitable for all practical activities that aspire to a mental order that is solid enough to contain the disorder of the world within.

The End of Innocence

We need to remember that, although once literature was regarded as a mirror held up to the world, that books are composed of words, signs and constructions.
Books can communicate in ways unknown even to the author.  Books can say something different from what the author intended them to say.
 Any book is partly the author's and partly a collective and anonymous work.
So Calvino's final point is that it is currently virtually impossible for any person to feel innocent. In whatever people say or do, hidden motives can be discovered, for example related to money or power or neuroses. But this is no bad thing.
"When we become aware of our disease or of our hidden motives, we have already begun to get the better of them," says Calvino. We need to learn how to accept and live through the possible ensuing crisis towards "a new way of being."

Italo Calvino was once a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

·    Calvino, Italo, "Right and Wrong Political Uses of Literature," The Uses of Literature, Essays, translated by Patrick Creagh, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Dieto, New York, London, 1986.

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