Jorge Semprun is a Spaniard who fled to France as a Republican refugee in 1936. He fought with the French Resistance and was imprisoned in Auschwitz. In 1963, living in Paris, he was awarded the Prix Formentor for his novel, The Long Voyage, which was published in English in the following year. The text printed below was delivered as a speech at a recent literary conference in Paris.
What is literature capable of? No sooner is the question asked, than I seem to hear a whispered susurrus from voices deep in the warmth of literary circles: authoritarian voices speaking—often with authority—in the name of a valid, strong and rich literature. A quite simple answer ends the debate before it has begun: literature is capable of nothing.
Listen to Pasternak, who speaks with authority. One day, according to Yevtushenko who tells the story, a worker said to Pasternak: ‘Lead us towards the truth.’ Pasternak replied: ‘What a strange idea! I have never aspired to lead anyone anywhere. A poet is like a tree whose leaves rustle in the wind; he has no power to lead anyone. . .’
Pasternak was either too modest, or too proud. In either case, he was unaware of himself. For his intention was always, at the very least, to lead men towards themselves. The power of his poetry was immense. His literary power perhaps lay precisely in the fact that he refused to make concessions to political power—to that form of circumstantial political power that was Stalinism.
Listen to Robbe-Grillet. In an essay written in 1957, he declared: ‘No matter what his political convictions, or his personal militancy, the artist cannot reduce his art to a means in the service of a cause—even the most justifiable and exalting cause—which transcends it. The artist
But from this immaculate premise, Robbe-Grillet deduces an indefensible conclusion: that the artist creates for nothing. This is a purely theoretical conclusion, which his own work contradicts at every step. For as a form of literary investigation and reality, the nouveau roman is moving and developing, and this is a good thing for us all. Because for a Marxist critic all research is valuable a priori. Freedom of investigation including investigations that may appear to lead to a dead end, is one of the conditions of a true cultural life—a life that is organically linked to the whole of society. It is especially necessary in those socialist régimes that are founded, for historical and therefore transitory reasons, on a single-party system. This research can only be formal. The content is not a matter of research: it is imposed on us. Either by the world or by our ideas, our personal obsessions about the world.
However, for Marxism, a critique of the utilitarian conception of art—a critique which is essential, especially within Marxism itself—does not lead to ‘gratuitousness’. It leads to a quite different perspective. Such a perspective must start from the fact that Marxism is not only a theory, a critique, a method. It has also given birth to a certain form of society, to a specific type of political power. These are historical realities that no one, least of all Marxists, can overlook. This means that one cannot talk about literature from the innocence of ‘pure’ Marxist thought: the often terrible weight of a certain historical practice precludes this innocence. Thus, first of all, one must examine the relationship of literature to socialist power.