ere is the story oftwo prisoners. The first is American novelist Norman Mailer. In 1969 the self-proclaimed existential hero and ‘prisoner of sex’ declared his candidacy for the Mayor of New York City. Then he was still the ﬂailing figurehead of East Coast radicalchic. averaging a fight a night. and the campaign seemed a reasonable idea. Mailer’s mouth soon put a stop to that. Opening his rallies with the battle-cries ‘No more bullshit!’ and ‘Fuck you all!’ Mailer’s political credibility dived. His ideas were idiosyncratic to say the least: New York was to become the 51st state. city neighbourhoods were to become autonomous units. that sort ofthing. When he told a reluctant. well-heeled audience in Greenwich Village ‘Before you reject me. let me tell you a cunt joke’. that was it. Mailer came nowhere.
The second prisoner is a real one. Twenty years later. Czech dissident Vaclav Havel was elected President of his country after the extraordinary spate of political upheaval that swept Eastern Europe in 1989. Already a major playwright by 1965. his work The Increasing Difficulty ()f Concentration was being performed in Prague as Russian troops toppled the Dubcek government. I lis works were immediately banned by Husak’s new regime. but I Iavel’s work continued. involving him in civil rights and pro-democracy movements. After becoming a signatory of Charter 77. calling for democratic government. Havel was jailed for four months. In 1979 he was arrested again. receiving a longer term offour years. The late 70s produced a trilogy ofshort plays. under the collective title of Sorry . . . which feature his alter-ego Vanek: intricately layered works that employ an absurdist format to explore the paradoxes and satirical potential ofthe totalitarian regime.
The contrast between the two could not be more extreme: the genuine. unalloyed heroism of llavel following what in the West is inevitably the liberal dream; and the foul-mouthed. posturing American decadent who makes himself and the underground culture he represents seem ever-more ridiculous in the eyes of the world. Even more. in the West the contrast represents sharply differing attitudes: a writer in Eastern Europe can become a significant political figure. can capture the leading place in political debate. That kind of status is practically unthinkable for any comparable figure in the UK. (‘an anybody imagine. or would anybody really want Harold
kind ofsignificant political role here‘.’
The easy answer is that different places and different times breed different needs; within the repressive systems of post-war Eastern Europe expression. and the difficulties associated with it. were central issues; the staging of a play took on a wider significance than a theatrical act. its meanings extended into a political spectrum. Authoritarianism recognises the politicisation of all areas oflife. and consequently seeks to exert its authorityeverywhere. In the West. however. a consensus somehow exists where art is exempt from political judgement.
What seems to be behind the absence ofwriters
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Pinter. Tom Stoppard. Tom McGrath playing any
from the political file is essentially. the post-war professionalism embraced by both writers and politicians. The modernist revolution in the arts empowered a whole elite whose reserved sensibilities enforced the idea that art was something for specialists. for technicians— in effect they were reacting against the Edwardian elite ofthe gentleman-scholar. Instead a new elite of aesthetic craftsmen was created: it is this element of modernism that survives almost unchanged up until now. The same effectively happened to politicians. as power moved out of the hands ofthe aristocracy. who saw government as an extension of their paternalist duties. The worker-politician is essentially a post-war phenomenon — a corollary of the Labour governments ofthe time. In order to maintain their own idea of professionalism then. writers and artists have deliberately absented themselves from the professional political arena. The paradox is. ofcourse. that a self-defined ‘intellectual’ will seek intervention in society as a professional writer. It‘s a no-win situation.
The only contemporary exception to this rule is. unfortunately enough. Salman Rushdie. Rushdie. though. belongs in a special category of political significance: Rushdie’s literary offerings. realistically targeted at a strictly limited audience. have been blown wide open; his life under threat. his ideas have assumed a resonance and involvement. that he obviously could never have conceived. At the same time though. Rushdie’s own position as an ‘intellectual’ has been quite clear. What this means. effectively. is that he remains uncommitted politically— the ‘intellectual’ is the one whose wisdom is turned in all directions. and is linked indissolubly with liberalism. In such a context. ‘freedom of speech’ assumes paramount importance — distractineg so in his case since its rights-based liberalism can be claimed by any party in the dispute.
The Glasgow East West Forum are setting up a conference at Glasgow University to examime the links between Scotland and Eastern Europe. After the SNP’s dramatic announcement ‘Scotland must follow the example of Lithuania’. there may be many lessons to be learned. Organised by the Department ofSlavonic Languages. the Scottish contingent will include Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan.
‘Pastcrnak said in Russia that there was something wrong if a writer was sitting in the chair of authority — it’s important to balance a sense of civic duty. social responsibility. with a responsibility to get on with writing. which after all is what he does best.’ Havel’s Vanek plays are also to be seen. to push home the writer connection. What. in the end. is to be learned from Ilavel‘.’ ‘It just shows'. says Morgan. laughing. ‘that the best thing is to be President.’
Scotland And The Slavic World. Glasgow
Uni versity, 28 Oct—3 Nov. Lectures and seminars open to the public, also associated events such as Havel 's The Vanek Plays (Glasgow University 30 ()ct—l Nov and The Old Athenaeum Theatre 2—3 Nov ). and a variety of classical concerts. For full information call Vivienne Greenhill orJane Mallinson 011041 330 5587.
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