Writing in a State of Siege

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2438

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” One suspects that Jefferson would have extended his comments to include books as well, preferring the free exchange of ideas to any attempts to suppress the truth. The roots of this idealistic belief go back in Western civilization to Greek society. The nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill may have expressed this optimistic dictum best when he declared in On Liberty that if intelligent men are allowed to consider differing opinions without being inhibited in their search for truth, they will ultimately discover what is right and will be able to act in accordance with their discovery.

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Such confidence in man’s ability to think for himself has met with constant opposition from those who have adopted what they consider a more pragmatic view of the average person’s ability to apprehend the truth amid a confusing jumble of falsehoods and divergent opinions. The pragmatists can easily be divided into two camps: those who believe that average men can never be so intelligent as to be able to perceive the truth without much help and those who believe that the general populace may be able to reach that level of sophistication some day—but not yet. An apt spokesman for the first of these dissenters is Matthew Arnold, who throughout his life preached that the cultural salvation of the world was of necessity in the hands of that saving remnant who could think well enough to recognize what was good in the past and preserve it for the future. These elitists have drawn their share of fire from egalitarian writers and thinkers, but they continue to preach about man’s fallen condition, echoing the biblical doctrine that original sin will haunt mankind until the Second Coming.

The second class of pragmatists, however, eschew the notion that man is inevitably condemned to error but recognize that, for the present, the average person needs guidance to get him through the troubled times that beset him. If one looks for examples of this group, Karl Marx and his followers, especially Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, come to mind: They have been quick to point out that the world will eventually be a common man’s Utopia, but for the moment, a small party must preserve the masses from some (often unidentified) insidious cabal that would seize power for its own purposes were it not for efforts of the party to counter that threat. One of the results of such thinking has been the practice of censorship. Certainly, subjecting one’s pronouncements to the scrutiny of the state did not originate with the Communists: Socrates was asked to submit to a form of censorship in the fifth century B.C., and hundreds of other examples, both before and after that memorable incident in Athens, could be found to depict both the longevity and the persistence of censorship in human societies. The example of Socrates, however, highlights something that is closely related to the central theme of André Brink’s collection of essays Writing in a State of Siege: Socrates did not succumb to his censors, choosing instead to protest by the most dramatic means available to him. Like Socrates, André Brink has faced censorship; again like Socrates, Brink has chosen to protest rather than succumb.

Brink’s career provides an excellent example both of the history of the literary dissident in general, and of the problems faced by the serious writer in a country where literary issues are inevitably bound up with political and moral questions. Reared in a white South African society and taught to believe in the validity of apartheid, Brink underwent a rebirth of sorts while living in Paris, returning to his homeland to become one of the country’s most renowned and outspoken literary figures. When still a young man, he achieved a measure of local fame as a playwright and as editor of the avant-garde South African periodical Sestiger. International notice, however, came only with the publication of his fiction. His novels, written originally in his native Afrikaans and later translated (often by Brink himself) into English, often deal directly with the problems caused by the separation of the races and offer harsh commentary on the personal and cultural losses suffered as a result of the political system in South Africa.

Because he had chosen at an early age to write in his native language, Brink was for quite some time tolerated by the South African government. As he relates in one of the essays in Writing in a State of Siege, those South Africans who write in English traditionally had been regarded with skepticism by the government; many have had their works banned for decades. The Afrikaans novelists and poets, on the other hand, had until the decade of the 1970’s enjoyed relative freedom from overt censorship. Ironically, Brink himself was the first Afrikaans writer to have a novel written in that language banned. Hence, he speaks with authority on the question of government interference with the writer’s quest to speak the truth.

The reader who comes to Writing in a State of Siege expecting to find an artist’s musings on his trade may be surprised. Though Brink is a novelist, this collection reveals comparatively little about his theory of fiction in the normal sense in which that phrase is used in academic circles. Even the subtitle is a bit misleading, because religion enters into these essays only in connection with those forces of the organized Church in South Africa which have supported the government’s consistent policy of apartheid and have helped create what Brink sees as an intolerable moral and cultural climate in his homeland. Writing in a State of Siege is about politics, however, and about the relation of the writer to the political world which he is forced to confront whenever he wishes to speak to an audience on topics not considered suitable by those in power.

The sixteen essays in this volume were written during a period of fifteen years, from 1967 to 1982. Seven were contributions to various periodicals in South Africa and abroad; nine were originally presented as lectures or speeches at a variety of literary forums in Brink’s homeland and in other countries. The introduction, written especially for this volume and subtitled “A Background to Dissidence,” provides a useful history of South Africa that helps explain why the present government in that country continues with almost paranoiac zeal to suppress the voices of those who speak out against apartheid. The enthusiasm of the original European immigrants to conquer a wilderness and its inhabitants, Brink tells the reader, led inevitably to the adoption of apartheid as a part of the value system that the founders of the nation created (perhaps unconsciously) as a means of establishing an identity apart from both the European and African societies from which South Africa grew. The strong influence of the Church, which supported efforts toward apartheid, further solidified the notion that continued separation of the races was not only politically but also morally justifiable. Dissidents in South Africa are viewed, then, not only as political rebels but as moral heretics as well.

The organization of this volume is chronological. Brink says that there was no expressed intent to impose thematic unity on the collection, yet he admits that almost spontaneously, certain common issues stood out to give the group of essays a central focus. Despite the variety of audiences to which these writings were first addressed, the problem with which all of them deal is “the function and responsibility of the writer in society, notably in a state of cultural or moral siege.” “If there is one conviction that informs all the essays” in the volume, Brink continues, it is that in a world where “more and more violence is solving fewer and fewer problems,” the writer is “not less, but more necessary.” Brink argues vigorously, and usually convincingly, that unless nonviolent forms of dissidence are permitted, violence may be the only outlet for people who will no longer tolerate what they perceive to be unnatural abuses of human liberty.

The overriding concern of the writer working in a society whose government is either openly or clandestinely hostile to his efforts gives shape to both the subject and the argument of most of these essays. Several are primarily reportorial, outlining the actions of the government’s attempts to deal with dissident authors, and the actions of those authors to publish in spite of government restrictions. In others, succinct historical summaries highlight the changing role of the writer in history and familiarize Brink’s readers with the background that helped create the cultural climate in the Western world in general and more particularly in South Africa. A majority of the essays contain large segments of editorial writing, rhetoric designed to highlight injustices and stir world opinion in favor of the dissident writers and their cause. In these, Brink is quick to marshal to his aid an international list of libertarians both past and present: Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and others are cited or alluded to on numerous occasions to lend support to Brink’s argument. In only a few of the essays does Brink deal directly with literary questions from the viewpoint of the aesthetician, and there he is quick to remind the reader that the literary concerns of the writer who faces the threat of censorship are inevitably bound up with the political issues from which that censorship springs.

If there is a recurrent subject in all of these essays, it is certainly this issue of censorship. Brink paints a bleak picture of the situation in South Africa, and is especially demoralized by the insidious prepublication censorship that exists there: booksellers refusing to stock the works of certain authors, printers turning down jobs for certain writers, publishers unwilling even to read the works of those suspected by the government of unorthodox ideas. Censorship is justified in South Africa as a means of national survival: Surrounded by forces actively seeking to destroy it, the government is compelled to engage the country’s literary community in a collective endeavor to sustain the nation against the enemy, and those writers who refuse to conform simply cannot be allowed to publish for fear that their works will undermine the effort of those intent on preserving what is best in the country. Speaking out harshly against this attitude, Brink argues consistently that the writer’s duty is not blind allegiance; rather, he is “to probe beneath the surface, to pose dangerous questions, to discover essential human truths.” The demand that the serious artist feels to ask dangerous questions inevitably leads him to offend those who are complacent in their positions of power. In fact, Brink insists, “All significant art is offensive” in that it strikes against the reader’s commonplace experience and challenges him to see the world around him in a new way. As an aesthetic theory, this notion may appear obvious enough, but for a writer working in a society where to offend or challenge the staus quo can have unpleasant personal consequences, adopting such a viewpoint can have far-reaching implications.

Any author who publishes a collection of essays written about the same subject during a span of almost two decades risks almost certain criticism. If he is diverse in his views, he is liable to be charged with inconsistency—literary or moral. If, on the other hand, he is single-minded in his approach to a problem, he may be applauded for his views but condemned for simply repeating himself. If Brink has erred, he has done so on the side of consistency and hence tends toward repetitiveness: By his own admission, he has done little to modify these essays since they were originally prepared, and one finds ideas, and even phrases, being repeated almost verbatim, and even the truth can become tiresome if repeated too often. Nevertheless, upon reflection, one realizes that this collection is not intended to possess the unity of an extended treatise; its formal structure does not move consistently from the problem statement through examples and then to conclusions and recommendations. Furthermore, Brink is no political theorist; in fact, his one suggestion for political action—boycotting athletic events to call attention to the problems of apartheid—seems almost trite. (Despite that fact, the positive value of boycotting has been demonstrated on more than one occasion in recent years.) Rather, he is a writer trying to explain why the practice of his craft has more than aesthetic significance. In “Mapmakers,” one of the central essays in the collection, he insists that “when [the writer] takes up the challenges which confront him as a writer, he does so in a dimension different from that of politicians and soldiers.” He cannot be expected to work for political ends—to become a propagandist for any cause. Writers, in Brink’s view, do not write for or against any cause. They are instead, he argues, like mapmakers, charting unknown territory which the reader is free to explore at his own risk.

Writing in a State of Siege is a somber reminder that the writer is not always free to seek the truth or express his version of it without reprisal. The faults of the book—its repetitiveness, the constant recollection of authors and martyrs from various Western nations whose plights have been similar to those Brink now endures, the occasional reduction of complex issues to truisms—result from the consistent vision that Brink has of the impending violence that awaits South Africa if cultural avenues for change are cut off to those who will not abide the present intolerable conditions in which they find themselves. If his vision is not exactly a nightmare, it borders on being one and hence demands the attention of all who are concerned that truth be made available to all men and human dignity afforded everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color—also a truism, but one by which Western nations have generally pledged to live and for which their citizens will fight and die. Brink is conducting such a fight, with the weapon he handles best: the language of his people and the language of the Western world. Writing in a State of Siege is a major salvo, which one can only hope will help breach the fortifications of its declared enemy, partisan blindness to individual worth.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22

Canadian Forum. LXIII, December, 1983, p. 32.

New Statesman. CVI, June 8, 1983, p. 27.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, March 6, 1984, p. 17.

Observer. June 12, 1983, p. 29.

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