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Literature Will Set You Free?

Susan recalls some reading:

There was a passage in Reading Lolita in Tehran when an Iranian student muses that nobody who read literature could ever become a totalitarian or support a totalitarian regime, because literature teaches us about shades and gradations and all the complexities of humanity that a totalitarian ideology must ignore.
An interesting theory, but is it true? Hitler, as I understand it, was not much interested in high literature, but was a big fan of Karl May's semi-pulp novels. He was also, of course, enthusiastic about painting and architecture. By no means a philistine. Stalin demonstrated excellent taste in literature, justly enthusiastic about the work of Mikhail Bulgakov, and though the author's political views got him in a lot of hot water, Stalin admired his work enough not to have him killed. Saddam Hussein apparently wrote fiction, so must have read something. Of course, not that many people overall are serious readers of literature, but the proportion doesn't seem to be any lower among the vicious dictator set than among the general population.

February 11, 2005 | Permalink


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I wonder if Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan studied any literature while at the Sorbonne.

My impression was that Pol Pot was supposed to be there for radio technology and Samphan got a Ph.D. in economics - I suppose probably little literature was studied, but I don't know what the requirements were then.

Posted by: Mr. Econotarian | Feb 11, 2005 5:11:45 PM

The truth will set you free....so says the Bible, anyway.

But literature can free one's mind up considerably. :)

Posted by: Deborah White | Feb 11, 2005 5:16:35 PM

There were lots of Communist authors in the XXc. Most but not all were anti-Stalinist or non-Stalinist sooner or later. There were also more fascist sympathizers and collaborators than we realize -- except in blatant cases (Pound, Heidegger), they were usually allowed to pretend it hadn't happened. Hitler was indulgent of the semi-Communist Picasso, who lived in occupied France without incident, IIRC.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 11, 2005 5:18:00 PM

English majors can’t be repressive?!? What a bizarre theory!

Why stop there? Chemists can’t be bad cooks. Accountants can’t make bad investments. Nurses can’t have unhealthy habits.

Anyway, big cities in the USSR had lots of streets and parks named after dead and living poets and writers, and statues of the same. Pushkin Street here, Tolstoy Square there. And many, many people actually read the literature. This didn’t stop the USSR from being a repressive society.

Posted by: ostap | Feb 11, 2005 5:25:34 PM

I can't remember the author-one of the more political philodophers in a Literary/critical theory course from years ago-but the observation was simply that an awful lot of guards at Auschwitz would have been well versed in Goethe, Schiller, and the like.

I think what she misses is the fact that Literature does teach you about humanity, but that can't stop anyone from regarding others as less than human. And if you don't share a common humanity...

Posted by: Wrye | Feb 11, 2005 5:26:24 PM

I remember reading that passage too. I think it alluded more directly to the malleable and violence-prone rabble that give totalitarian states their power, and less so to the leaders who are almost always more sophisticated and use that sophistication to their cynical advantage.

Posted by: mikez | Feb 11, 2005 5:26:40 PM

People are perfectly capable of reading literature without getting anything out of it if they are so disposed.

Posted by: flip | Feb 11, 2005 5:31:30 PM

Right, right, I don't think this was intended as an iron-clad, inviolable rule of human nature - more like a comment on literature's power to convey the devious complexities of human nature, and how that strikes a contrast to the vision of humanity adopted by totalitarian regimes.

In the case of the book, the "revolutionary" students were incapable of reading Gatsby without filtering all the characters through their ideology of strict morality ("But Daisy is immoral!") rather than approaching them on their own terms, as conflicted and complex characters worthy of blame and sympathy both.

Posted by: susan | Feb 11, 2005 5:38:26 PM

From Plato to the Karen Finley, people have claimed transformative powers and dangers to art. It ain't there. Like claiming transformative powers to food, claiming Big Macs can signal freedom around the world.

Literature can reinforce and amplify pre-existing mindsets, but anyone who reads Lolita sympathetically, identify in some horrified way with Humbert, really doesn't need it. Those who need it can't really read it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 11, 2005 5:38:34 PM

If you start in the opposite direction, to a locale/culture/religion/nation that detests literature, the results are fairly predictable, so the sentiment is understandable...

Posted by: Capt. Jean-Luc Pikachu | Feb 11, 2005 5:40:31 PM

Well, as for the dictators themselves, this idea seems to imply that they believe the ideology that they spout. And I'm sure to some extent they do. But I'd have to believe that most dictators saw some of the flaws in their methodologies, but accepted them anyway, believing that it was for the best. In other words, if you asked any totalitarian dictator if he'd still support his system if his position were handed over to one of his bitter enemies, he'd probably say no. It's the fact that he himself has the power that makes it an attractive proposition.

I do think that a well read (and more importantly, well educated) populace would be more resistant to totalitarianism. It could still happen, but it would be a harder sell.

Posted by: Royko | Feb 11, 2005 5:46:04 PM

John: What other literary figures were fascist sympathisers?

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Feb 11, 2005 6:17:06 PM

Other fascist fellow travelers: Gottfried Benn, Ernst von Salomon, Knut Hamsun, Celine...there must be many others.

Posted by: David | Feb 11, 2005 6:26:14 PM

What other literary figures were fascist sympathisers?Off the top of my head, Celine, Ezra Pound, Paul de Man, and to some extent Carl Jung.

Posted by: Colin | Feb 11, 2005 6:26:21 PM

It's a nice thought, but I don't see any evidence that it's true. It also depends on how strictly we define "totalitrian" - Louis XIV, for example, was not a totalitrian, but he was certainly an authoritarian, yet his reign saw the works of Racine, Corneille, Moliere, La Fontaine, etc, most of whom received substantial royal patronage. Similar records could be complied by many other absolute monarchs of the early modern era.

Posted by: James Kabala | Feb 11, 2005 6:36:56 PM

It's difficult to separate cause from effect. Maybe people who are interested in nuanced and modest politics are also more likely to be interested complex portrayals of human nature.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Feb 11, 2005 6:47:19 PM

Since we are talking about dictators, I recommend Talking with the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators by Riccardo Orizio. None of the dictators are remoreseful.

Posted by: Rambuncle | Feb 11, 2005 7:08:37 PM

I'm guessing that some sort of an encounter with "big ideas" is necessary, but not sufficient, for becoming interested in fascism. That encounter might come from literature, or it might come from someplace else. If so, then having read good books should make one *slightly* more likely to be a fascist.

Posted by: david | Feb 11, 2005 7:12:57 PM

Although the young Octavian's studies were cut short by the death of Julius Caesar and his (Octavian's) subsequent and successful campaign to destroy the admittedly already failing Roman Republic and establish a monarchy, it is generally conceded that his support and the support of his courtiers underwrote an age marked by some of the greatest literary creations in the history of European culture. If it is inaccurate to call the Augustan age totalitarian, one should recall with Tacitus that those might oppose him had been killed or bought off in the civil wars. It would not, moreover, be unfair to characterize the Principate as a fascist (in the modern sense of the word) regime (or so Syme thought).

Posted by: Pudentilla | Feb 11, 2005 7:30:23 PM

Mircia Eliade is another distinguished philosopher who was also pro-Fascist and a notorious anti-Semite. But since most of his Fascist writings were in obscure political magazines written in Romanian, he was able to successfully bury them after the war.

It also seems worth noting that both Mao Tse Dong and Chiang Ching were enthusiastic students of the classical Chinese literature that they persecuted others for reading.

Posted by: Alex | Feb 11, 2005 7:32:04 PM

It's decidedly untrue. Exposure to literature may cause people to think more seriously about the effect of words; exposure to art may cause musings on the effect of shape and color; exposure to music may promote booty-shaking. All these sensitivities might trigger some deeper human awareness. But we should never think that anything is an antidote to human evil.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Feb 11, 2005 7:36:47 PM

In Italy, Ungaretti and D'Annunzio.

It was really a hard time. In Spain, Franco had little support among the literati, but almost as a result, the Communists did.

The Spanish Republic was not Communist, and many who supported it weren't either. Eventually you end up thinking that "my enemy's enemy is my friend".

That was one of the great ages of poetry, BTW, Spanish or otherwise.

Posted by: John Emerson | Feb 11, 2005 7:47:59 PM

Rousseau in particular had a profound impact on the Montagnards behind the Great Terror of 1794: Robespierre, Saint Just. Bonaparte liked Ossian.

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 11, 2005 7:50:29 PM

Alexander the Great was taught by Aristotle (who was taught by Plato, who was taught by Socrates).

Posted by: John Isbell | Feb 11, 2005 7:51:54 PM

Well, again, it obviously doesn't hold up as a causal explanation or as an antidote to totalitarianism, but those are awfully literalist interpretations of what was basically an off-the-cuff remark. This sentiment isn't a thesis, it's a musing from a student in a totalitarian regime who has discovered that the impulses of the literature she's reading seem to combat the impulses of the system she finds herself trapped him.

Is all literature the same? No. Have dictators read books? Yes. But I don't think that's a very generous reading of what is simply a student discovering a refuge in great literature that offers a worldview opposed to the rigid totalitarian system around her. Which great literature can, of course, provide. All those Soviet citizens passing around Solzhenitzyn samizdat seemed to think so.

Posted by: susan | Feb 11, 2005 7:55:29 PM

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