RISE LIKE LIONS: WRITERS AND RESISTANCE
Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four) I lift my spirits by remembering: the writers are on our side! I mean those poets, novelists, playwrights and songwriters who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.
The billionaire mandarins of our culture can show us the horrors of war on a movie screen and pretend they are making an important statement (“War is hell”, says the general as he orders his troops forward into no-man's land). But the artists go beyond that, to resistance, defiance. I think of Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her poem “Conscientious Objector”:
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans,
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell
e.e cummings, whose own experience with the first World War had powerfully affected him (see his memoir The Enormous Room) wrote in the same vein but in his own unique style:
i sing of Olaf glad and big
but – though all kinds of officers
And Langston Hughes, observing the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini, wrote simply:
The little fox is still.
Hughes could make his point in a few words. Waiting for his fellow writers to speak out on the outrageous framing of the “Scottsboro Boys” in Alabama, he wrote:
Surely, I said,
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller created the absurd war resister, Yossarian, who at one point, on a bombing run, asks his fellow crewmen: “Do you guys realize we are going to bomb a city that has no military targets, no railroads, no industries, only people?”
There is a touch, or more, of the anarchist in writers, who (with some shameful exceptions, those who rush to kiss the flag when the trumpets blow) will not go along even with “good” wars. Thus, Kurt Vonnegut did not hesitate, in the midst of the self-congratulation that accompanied victory in World War II, to remind the nation of Dresden, our own counterpart, in spades, to the Nazi bombing of civilians. His book Slaughterhouse Five held us to the mirror of our ruthlessness and that of all nations which pretend to moral superiority while joining the enemy in the back and forth of atrocities.
Vonnegut never fails to quote Eugene Debs (a fellow native of Indiana) when Debs, about to go to prison for ten years for opposing World War I, declared to the jury: “While there is a lower class, I am in it. While there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Eugene O'Neill, six months after Pearl Harbor, wrote to his son:
“It is like acid always burning in my brain that the stupid butchering of the last war taught men nothing at all, that they sank back listlessly on the warm manure pile of the dead and went to sleep, indifferently bestowing custody of their future, their fate, into the hands of State Departments, whose members are trained to be conspirators, card sharps, double-crossers and secret betrayers of their own people; into the hands of greedy capitalist ruling classes so stupid they could not even see when their own greed began devouring itself; in the hands of that most debased type of pimp, the politician, and that most craven of all lice and job-worshippers, the bureaucrats.”
The barrage of film and books glorifying World War II (The Greatest Generation, Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, Flags of Our Fathers, and more) comes at a time when it is necessary for the Establishment to do what it must periodically do, try to wipe out of the public mind the ugly stain of the war in Vietnam, and now that the aura around the Gulf War has turned sour, to forget that too. A justification is needed for the enormous military budget, and so the good war, the best war, is trundled out to give war a good name.
At such a time, our polemical prose is not enough. We need the power of song, of poetry to remind us of truths deeper than the political slogans of the day. The years of the war in Vietnam brought forth such songs, lyrics that were more symphonic than lyrical. I'm thinking of Bob Dylan and his “Masters of War,” with his unique, disturbing voice that cannot be duplicated on a printed page, though the words themselves can.
Come you masters of war
You've thrown the worst fear
Let me ask you one question
The great writers could see through the fog of what was called “patriotism”, what was considered “loyalty.” Mark Twain, in his brilliant satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, puts it this way:
“You see my kind of loyalty was loyalty to one's country, not to its institutions or its officeholders. The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; its institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from winter, disease and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags – that is a loyalty of unreason….”
George Bernard Shaw, unsure, perhaps, if the message of his plays was clear, stated his philosophy boldly in his prefaces, as in this one from Major Barbara:
“I am and have always been, and shall now always be, a revolutionary writer, because our laws make laws impossible; our liberties destroy all freedom; our property is organized robbery; our morality is an impudent hypocrisy; …our power wielded by cowards and weaklings, and our honor false in all its points. I am an enemy of the existing order.”
Today Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, has linked her energy as a citizen to her brilliance as a novelist to join the struggle in India to save the land and the people from the ravages of greedy corporations.
The great writers of the world have almost always been on the side of the poor, from Dickens to Tolstoy to Balzac to John Steinbeck. Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose wife Mary was the daughter of the anarchist William Godwin and the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft), in his passionate poem, “The Mask of Anarchy,” wrote five powerful lines that later, in the early 20 th century United States, would be read aloud by garment workers to one another:
Rise like Lions after slumber
Today we have the fierce revolutionary poetry of Alice Walker, Suheir Hammad, Martín Espada, and Marge Piercy – all activists as well as poets--and the “slam poetry” of Alix Olson and Aye de Leon. We have the example of a poet in action, the gifted Adrienne Rich, refusing to accept a prize from President Bill Clinton as her protest against the signing of the “welfare reform” bill.
The poets have taken Joe Hill's advice to heart: Don't mourn, organize. Sam Hamill founded Poets Against War (PAW) in 2003. Since that time the organization has gathered more than 20,000 poems and statements against war, the largest collective response of poets to any event in world history. The group is responsible for a website, a newsletter, hundreds of readings, and an anthology called Poets Against the War (Nation Books, 2003). PAW is living proof that poets may unite to serve as a single eloquent voice for the voiceless, as the conscience of the nation and indeed the world.
The roster of writers with social consciences is endless. I point to a few to represent so many, because their work, their commitment, encourages me and I want it to encourage others.