Writing in a State of Siege

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2438 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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.