Literature and Politics


Yong Jie in 3:AM Magazine:

In considering how the chief necessity of literature to politics resides in the representation of the politically excluded, it is perhaps necessary to first explore the reasons for which literature is able to acknowledge those whom politics often overlooks.

I. a) The individual at the heart of literature

The first reason is the greater focus of literature on the individual. One notes how Calvino refers quite instructively in his quotation to the way literature may serve the individual: it gives “a voice to the one who does not have a voice”, “a name to the one who does not have a name”. The insight here is that the individual lays at the heart of literature, though his or her voice may be lost to the ear of politics.

For if politics purports – at least in democratic polities – to be in the service of individual citizens, it tends to perceive these citizens as finally a part of a collectivity, its vision attuned to the broad sweep. And thus one is either a part of the Democrats or Republicans in the United States, belonging perhaps to the Jewish-American bloc, or the African-American demographic; in Malaysia, one may be seen by politicians as simply a member of the Chinese, Indian or Malay community. The individual derives significance from being a part of a whole. Indeed, in the perspective of politics, strength is gained in numbers: the collective counts for more, possesses a weightier presence than the individual, by dint of its size and thus ability to influence political outcomes in elections. The significance of a group within politics is commensurate with size, and the single individual is the smallest grouping of all.

And even in exceptional instances whereby particular individuals are taken into account within politics, these invariably possess power of some sort, economic or political, rendering them therefore significant. The ear of politics thus registers the roar of the gathered masses, and is sensitive to the whispers of the privileged; the lone voice of an ordinary individual belonging to no politically significant grouping often remains unheard.

Yet it is the individual around which literature revolves. A work of literature is by its nature the work of a single consciousness. And we are often drawn to works of singularity – works in which a consciousness speaks and expresses its experience of the world in an individual, inimitable manner. We love best, as Salman Rushdie points out, those writers whose “voices are fully and undisguisably their own” , who, in William Gass’ unforgettable phrase, “sign every word they write”.

More here.