The Power of Words

Photograph Source: LearningLark – CC BY 2.0

To begin with a story. There are two people, a historian and a novelist, taking a walk on the moors. The evening is just turning to night when they come upon an abandoned, centuries-old manor house. Now, the historian looks at that old mansion in a very particular way.  She wants to find out how old it is, to derive a realistic account of the lives of the folks who once lived there, to develop an accurate record of their daily routines. To shed light on the realities of the place as it once was through a sober and factual analysis of the available evidence.

The novelist, however, finds the house alluring for a very different reason. She is moved by its dark inscrutability, its mystery – as these are the factors which spark her creative imagination. She wonders what spectral shapes might be lurking its murky shadows, what ghosts rattle around in its sinister cellars or dusty attics. For the novelist, it is privation – it is the lack of a coherent content which focusses her creative power and forces it to intercede. The imagination is driven to fill the void with its own forms and vapours.

And this is the most wonderful thing about being a story teller. Providing you know how to write the letters, all you require is the weird and wonderful nature of your own imagination. For this reason, it is one of the most democratic of all activities. You don’t have to rely on lab equipment or any other set of pricey paraphernalia beyond the cost of pen and paper.   You don’t have to have had an expensive college education. You can write like Robinson Crusoe in rags on his desert island, or you can write like Anne Frank in a small squat hidden room, cossetted away from persecution.

And yet…and yet…despite the humbleness of your tools or the sparseness of your conditions, you can create, quite literally, anything. You can call into being spaceships or monsters or even whole worlds which put into the shade anything Hollywood with all its sleek, slick CGI generations might dream of.  An empty page presents us with an infinity of possible wonders untrammelled by the limits and finitude of our actual existences. The writer J.M Barrie made the unfortunate mistake of growing old but Peter Pan, on the other hand – he will remain young forever.

Despite the miraculous nature of storytelling, however – writers and novelists, poets and playwrights are often regarded with a sense of amused disdain.  In a world where we are regularly assured that the one true measure of the human being is his or her ‘productivity’ – something which can be empirically quantified in terms of dollars, pounds or cents – those who devote their lives to ‘making stuff up’ are frequently derided as people with their heads-in-the-clouds. The type of people who are unable to get on with the serious business of ‘real life’ and instead retreat into the world of fantasy and dreams.

But literary creativity and the indulgence of imagination are not simply abstract, unworldly pleasures to be enjoyed by the dreamy and bemused. In actual fact, these things have an eminent practical value too and are as vital to the social order as much as the science based subjects (though in a somewhat different way).

Having witnessed first-hand the trial of Adolph Eichmann in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the phrase – ‘the banality of evil’. In articulating this, she didn’t mean that evil acts were now so commonplace that they appear to us as ordinary and everyday. Rather, she argued, the forms and structures of National Socialism had affected a new degree of separation between the individual subject and the life and thought of others.

The death camp guard was able to carry out their day-to-day routine, not because they were inherently evil, but because they were acting within the mechanics of a bureaucracy which had successfully abstracted them from the victims. The death of millions became simply a logistical task to be carried out. The guards would focus on the minutiae and the immediacy of bureaucratic routine to such an extent that they lost the broader capacity to imagine what the situation of the victims actually felt like. The ‘banality’ of evil to which Arendt refers lies, ultimately, in its lack of imagination.

Perhaps the truth of this is validated by another of Nazism’s ritualistic horrors – the burning of books. Certainly the regime wanted to supress any currents of information which ran counter to its own social philosophy – political thinkers in the Marxist tradition were particularly targeted.   But a diverse set of literary works was also used to feed the flames. Novels by Wells, Hemmingway, Joyce, Huxley, Tolstoy, Mann and many more were incinerated.

If the power and efficacy of the Nazism depended on abstracting functionaries from the victims through complex bureaucratic means, then one might say that art and literature operate in precisely the opposite direction.   Through literature one is not abstracted from others.  Rather one is compelled to inhabit the thoughts and feelings of the person who created the novel or the poem or the play.  One is infected by the humanity of the artist – one is moved, terrified, amused, disturbed – but above all one is made to empathise with the condition of another in and through the turning of the page.

The burning of books on the part of the Nazis wasn’t only about eliminating information of an antagonistic character to the regime.  It was about eradicating not just the ability to think, but also the ability to feel.  It wasn’t simply about the burning of books.  It was about the burning of the creative imagination itself.   Beyond its guns, its Stormtroopers, its physical repression, its brutal apartheid, its concentration camps, its slave labour and its death factories – the Nazi regime required the death of literature and imagination in order to sustain.

Ultimately, the lazy, fashionable anti-intellectualism which regards the products of our creative imaginations as somehow inessential to the ‘real world’ is critiqued most effectively by our stark contemplation of those places where the imagination has been reduced to ashes.

Tony McKenna’s journalism has been featured by Al Jazeera, Salon, The Huffington Post, ABC Australia, New Internationalist, The Progressive, New Statesman and New Humanist. His books include Art, Literature and Culture from a Marxist Perspective (Macmillan), The Dictator, the Revolution, the Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (Sussex Academic Press), Toward Forever: Radical Reflections on History and Art  (Zero Books), The War Against Marxism: Reification and Revolution (Bloomsbury) and The Face of the Waters (Vulpine). He can be reached on twitter at @MckennaTony