Wednesday, 8 April 2020

Literature and Politics

Policy and story in a time of contagion

Krishna Sen

Krishna Sen takes a closer look at the role of literature in times of crisis: how it compares to and complements public policy interventions, and how it will ultimately help us to not only survive, but to express our humanity through the current pandemic.

Prime Minister : You were programmed to survive. You can survive at the Lunar V settlement.
Roga Danar : To survive is not enough. To simply not enough!
( Star Trek , The Next Generation , Episode: The Hunted )

When a new contagion takes humanity by the throat, literally and figuratively, public policy – fast, furious and driven by the big data at our health professionals’ fingertips – is clearly what we need for survival. Never in our lifetime have we seen public policy enter so forcefully into our private lives, nor so willingly have we welcomed it right into our homes. We are doing what we are told and breaking all our common social norms, isolating ourselves in houses, emptying our streets. In this context, should every mention of art and literature raise a smirk and a response of ‘stop your undergrad philosophy sensibilities and let the serious men get on with the serious work of policy’?

Sure, the PM or the Chief Medical Officer won’t be sitting down with a good novel any time soon, but it does seem the rest of us are! As early as February, The Guardian reported that Penguin was rushing to reprint Albert Camus’ 1947 classic, The Plague . Demand for the novel was rising sharply. Meanwhile, a CNN headline screamed ‘No, Dean Koontz did not predict the coronavirus in his 1981 novel’. The article went to great lengths to list the many differences between the Wuhan 400 virus imagined in the thriller The Eyes of Darkness and our current reality. On Amazon, e-book sales for this novel have gone through the roof since the global outbreak.

Success of fictional works such as these depends on our deepest fears. Of course, most of us don’t confuse fiction with reality, but it is, at the very least, arguable that the success of the current policy of spatial and social distancing depends on the same universal fears of something alien attacking us. Pretty much every government has been using the language of ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ in persuading the populace to follow instructions. The numbers of diseased, dead or ICU patients cited along the way are too often too small to feel significant, or too large to comprehend and too complex to remember. What convinces are the stories told many times over in mythology and novels and cinema, stories of which we are reminded by the very language used to govern our behaviour: it’s a contagion (you remember the Hollywood movie?), it is unseen (you recall every ghost story), and it’s alien and unprecedented (Armageddon?).

Public policy and popular fiction have a common ground: narrative. The success of both depends on a good (in this instance, scary) story with a hero we can admire (the doctors), a villain (the more invisible, the more menacing) and a storyteller who speaks with authority.

But literature and policy start from very different places. The starting point of public policy is the assumption that every problem has a solution. And, as citizens, we demand clarity, consistency and immutability. The novel (and literary novels in particular) does the opposite: its job is to befuddle, to invite contradictions, to provoke a new question to every answer. If public policy is a one-way street, then literature insists on driving from every possible direction, and all at the same time.

The economic crisis of the moment also alerts us to the fundamental ways in which literature is different from most other artistic practices of our times. On 26 March, announcing an eye-watering 50 billion Euro package to support the ‘creative and cultural’ sectors, the German Culture Minister, Monika Grütters, said, amongst other things, “The creative courage of creative people can help to overcome the crisis.” This, of course, is as true of literature as of any other art form. But the main reason for the bail-out package – the vast numbers of self-employed artists and performers who will lose their livelihoods as performance venues and production houses close – does not apply to literature. Reading and writing can easily thrive in the midst of social distancing. Shakespeare’s biographers regularly point out that the ‘Big Daddy’ of all Anglophone playwrights did his best work surrounded by the plague. We mostly read and write in solitude.

In the midst of a pandemic, it takes little effort to suspend your disbelief and give in to Emily St. John Mandel’s powerful novel, Station 11 . In it, our 21st-century world is suddenly overtaken by a rampant version of a pandemic that has taken perhaps 99 per cent of the global population. Within days, governments fall, states dissolve, television blinks out, then the electric grids collapse. Twenty years later, the world is without any modern forms of transport and communication. Small and diversely organised settlements have reappeared, post-pandemic. Those who were adults before the world changed show the next generation obsolete objects like mobile phones or credit cards, and teach them to read from books and pages of newspapers and magazines that have survived the carnage. At the centre of the story is a troupe who perform Shakespearean plays, moving from one tiny autonomous settlement to another. Tattooed on the arm of the lead actress is a misremembered quotation: “Because survival is insufficient”.

In a crisis where the most private of our practices has to be rethought (when was the last time a PM told you to wash your hands while singing Happy Birthday ?!), we will need the best of public policy to survive and the best of literature to take us beyond survival into ethics and aesthetics, both of which are uniquely and fundamentally human.

Professor E. Krishna Sen, Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, and formerly Dean of Arts at UWA, is well-known for her extensive research and dozens of publications on Indonesia and media studies. She is a keen hiker and occasional travel blogger .


Arts and Culture
UWA Public Policy Institute