So it seems that 2016 will go down in history as a political turning point, I would argue that it also seems unlikely that is it is a turn toward progression but the true result of political unhappiness in a number of countries won’t be seen for some time. It is almost always prudent to keep your political opinions to yourself unless you can be sure of a helpful exchange or debate on the topic (that’s pretty rare these days) but with this heightened awareness of politics, this week I have been considering the role of politics in literature.
Of course some literature is specifically designed to be political in nature, to argue for or against a political stand point or movement, or perhaps to highlight a social injustice. As an example I would turn your attention to Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day’s Black Heroes written by Linda Hervieux. The bullying treatment of America’s black soldiers by their own supposed comrades was so obviously unjust to the British soldiers and citizens that they would stand against their American allies to fight for the black men simply trying to be American soldiers themselves. In this it is clear that the author has found a social injustice and wishes to highlight it, we can see that there is politics at play here. But does politics pervade even our simplest literature?
In short, for me, yes. It does. In my not particularly humble opinion politics and political views are unavoidable. Whether a writer or readers considers themselves political or not they have opinions, no one is a blank canvas. No one thinks nothing, agrees with nothing whilst also disagreeing with nothing, feels nothing for themselves and those around them (it could be disdain but it’s not nothing).
At this point you may be asking but HOW do I find it in literature? How do I know it’s there? You may also not be asking this… Never the less let’s take a simple piece of literature that a large number of people will be familiar with, Harry Potter. I am by no means criticising Rowling when I call this a simple piece of literature, rather that it is not Shakespeare so thankfully we won’t be needing to decipher an inordinate amount of symbolism and sixteenth/seventeenth century English. If you haven’t read Harry Potter never fear, I’m just going to talk about something we all know regardless. Harry Potter was confined to a small cupboard of a room under the stairs of his Aunt and Uncle’s house. He was treated with minimal respect which was worsened by the way in which his cousin was doted on. Is this all fact? Well no. This is opinion. As a decent human being with morals you can see that it isn’t fair for Harry to be treated in this way but perhaps someone with less morals and vastly differing views on the world would say ‘well tough shit, suck it up buttercup and be grateful for the bed you do have.’ (I didn’t say this was a nice person) Rowling provides her readers with this information in such a way that we are expected to feel sorry for Harry and at the least be displeased by his relatives. This can be said to be (I wrote that specifically so I’m not just deciding her political views for her) because from her political view point this is inhumane, people should be treated equally and well. And as the reader when you agree with her you agree with her view.
Now this is pretty much as simplified and overstretched as I could make it to demonstrate that politics pervades everything. The most read book in the world is the Bible with a massive 3,900 million copies sold world-wide. And I can’t think of a more politically driven text. Yes, yes I know it’s a religious text but come on it tells people how to act, how to live their lives and how to react o those who would disobey these commandments. It’s a how to guide on life and more than that it’s a how to think guide, which is another way of saying here are some political views, they are yours now. Before you say it I am not admonishing every Christian faith out there I’m simply saying it’s a text that requires interpretation and consideration of the fact it was written literally thousands of years ago. I in no way want to say these religions are wrong just that I hope people understand that God is supposed to be a forgiving and fair being so maybe some of the rules written in the Bible would be out of character for such a being. (Uh oh, I strayed into religion)
Maybe you are disagreeing with me with regard to the politics pervading everything, in which case I welcome the debate but you’ll see once again we are back to politics as we discuss the power of politics in literature and vice versa. It would be easy to say ‘okay but me reading Harry Potter doesn’t change who I vote for in my next national election.’ (if you live in a democratic nation) And on the whole you’d be right. But, and it’s a big but, we as people are created by the world around us and our reactions to it. Are we the kind of people that ignore social injustice or do we speak out? Are we even the kinds of people that consider it to be social injustice? Has someone in your life been affected by law? (Perhaps you someone you know has been unable to marry simply due to sexual orientation). Do your religious beliefs make it hard to accept a certain way of life and people? These numerous alterations to our lives add up to create our political view point. Our exposure to literature makes us more aware of more events, social situations, political occurrences, minority rights, inequality etc. Because of this our reading makes us, it informs us and it changes us.
I would also argue that a writer is unable to write something they have no knowledge of, they subconsciously lean toward opinions they agree with (sometimes juxtaposing it with the opposing view) they cannot avoid letting politics slip into their work though they can actively fight against allowing their own view point to shine through.
I end then with a question. Some may easily answer one way or the other and some will consider for a great deal of time and be no closer to answering, eventually deciding to call it a chicken and egg scenario. As with the study of literature I suspect there is no right or wrong answer. Modern literature seems to have seen a move towards political unhappiness, there is often a sense of unrest, unhappiness with civilisation (see Fight club) or a distopian future in which current government has failed. Gone is the Georgian fiction filled with pride of the nation. Instead we see a move towards Victorian nostalgia for a better past and Modernist literature attempting to diagnose the ails of the nation. Is this a symptom of real world political unrest or is this a contributor?
Once again don’t hesitate to respond. Comment or contact me directly, become engaged.