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In the PEN Controversy, Lessons on Art, Politics, and Really Bad Ideas

Or, why all great writers are conservative

Liel Leibovitz
May 01, 2015
A Hebdo-themed mural in the French western city of Rennes on March 6, 2015.(Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)
A Hebdo-themed mural in the French western city of Rennes on March 6, 2015.(Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images)

Is there a more delicately fleeting feeling, in this age of machine-assisted outrage, than apathy? Not caring is a luxury so few of us can afford now that so many of us are expected to opine about all that transpires, more or less in real time and for more or less the whole world to see. Yet when news broke earlier this week that several authors were boycotting PEN’s gala dinner to protest its honoree, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, I felt that most exquisite of emotions: I felt absolutely nothing.

Which, upon a flagon of Scotch and a moment of reflection, struck me as strange. PEN is one of very few remaining cultural institutions I still take seriously. Its tenets, literature and human rights, are the ones to which I’ve committed my life from a very young age. Just as aspiring athletes wake up before dawn to go run in the half-darkened streets and commit themselves to a diet rich in protein and low in joy, I rose early to sneak in another page of Proust and abstained from consuming even a morsel of writing that did not nourish the soul to the fullest. Because I never seriously entertained the thought that I’d become anything but a writer, I trained at my vocation as often as I could. I didn’t just see it as a pleasure; I considered it an obligation.

In those dreary days—try talking to your friends about Lucky Jim when all they cared about was Lucky Luke—I was sustained by variations on a single thought, sweet and vapid. One day soon, I dreamed while loafing about in the library, wrestling with some too-heavy volume I picked up out of a sense of duty, I, too, will move in the same circles as my peers, other writers, and be recognized for being, just like them, one of those touched by the Muse. That I grew up in Israel helped not a bit: Like all sons of nascent nations still marked by the yoke of Empire, I, too, was convinced, as Margaret Atwood so aptly put it, that “the Great Good Place was, culturally speaking, elsewhere.” With my meager allowance, I trudged over to the local Steimatzky bookstore and bought whatever old copy of The New Yorker they happened to stock. That each issue was weeks, even months, past its publication date only made it more desirable; walking out of the bookstore, I felt like a man looking at the stars and realizing, with awe and regret, that he’s seeing nothing but the glimmer of celestial bodies that burned bright long ago.

Naturally, then, the earth propelled me westward, toward the place where writing happened, toward New York. When I got my first gig, anonymously reviewing books for a large trade publication, I treated it with the same solemn reverence traditionally reserved for funeral processions. When I first saw my name in print, in a smallish Jewish magazine, I bought every copy I could find and stacked them all neatly on my desk. When I was first invited to a real literary party, I spent days composing my thoughts on anything from 15th Century art (wouldn’t you say that Paolo Uccello’s Miracle of the Desecrated Host is one of the unjustly forgotten masterworks?) to Russian revolutionaries (all downhill after Herzen). I was sure I would walk in and be rewarded, recognized by the Illuminati as one of their own. I was, in short, a pathetic git.

Just how pathetic became clear the moment I walked into that bar and saw so many of my literary idols, the men and women whose approval I craved, sipping on vodka tonics and chatting idly. Not, mind you, about the ancient masters and their secret passions, but about Friends, and about their friends, and about their bosses and the usual cast of characters that had populated the human comedy since Balzac first sipped on coffee and sat down to write. Stunned, I excused myself and limped back home. Was this the promised land? Were these the chosen people?

If you’re even remotely familiar with literature, you will, of course, recognize this theme right away: Provincial lad, starstruck, muscles his way into the gilded literary heavens, learns that they are just as plain as the earth, and sobers into a real writer. The aforementioned Balzac captured it all nicely when he named his novel Lost Illusions. Pick a novel at random, and you’re just as likely as not to find one of those sad young literary men, be it Marcel gazing at the dimming glamor of the aristocracy or Nathan Zuckerman learning that his icon, E.I. Lonoff, is, in close quarters, not much of a literary lion at all.

But that’s not my story. My story is new, and much more terrifying. What I learned, in my years of orbiting the intelligentsia, wasn’t that the allegedly learned and refined weren’t really that refined or learned; it’s that they weren’t really intellectually, emotionally, or morally present at all.

If you want to know what I mean, just read a few of the select explanations provided this week by the writers who chose to sit out the PEN dinner. “A hideous crime was committed,” wrote the novelist Peter Carey, “but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” And this, from a letter signed by 26 of contemporary literature’s most vaunted, arguing that Charlie Hebdo “seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect. Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire.”

Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.

To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard. The torch of their talent they affix to a wall where it lights, always and only, a thin sliver of the known world.

Why, then, be angry? Why quiver with rage, say, when reading that Keith Gessen, still another of the letter’s signatories, admitted on Twitter that he had never even read an issue of Charlie Hebdo, a statement this emperor of eloquence saw fit to adorn with an emoticon of a smiley face? It’s hardly worth the while. Let them squawk. They may think they’re serving some higher liberal cause, and perhaps, in some petty and ultimately meaningless fashion, they are. But great writers have always been, by definition, conservative creatures who know that if we amend the terms of the social contract that binds us together “as often as there are floating fancies,” then “no one generation could link with the other. Men would be little better than the flies of a summer.” The quote is Edmund Burke’s; the principles of true politics, he argued, “are those of morality enlarged.” The same is true of true literature, whose aim is never the whims of the individual but the rhythms of society, a living writhing mass in which no one individual is ever, existentially speaking, particularly privileged. We live, we love, and we perish, connected, whether we admit it or not, to those who came before us and to those yet unborn, urged on by a single, irresistible command: continue.

And we will, even if some of our contemporary writers won’t. From the true masters of the literary magic, like Herman Melville, we’ve learned that “mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore.” Those who see literature as discourse and who find no merit in honoring those slain for their right to practice their craft have set up their ramparts on the shore; beyond it lies all that is great and good.


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.