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Essay: Literature and politics

Donny Syofyan
Donny Syofyan

The Jakarta Post

Victoria | Mon, December 11, 2017 | 08:57 am
Essay: Literature and politics

Understanding the link between literature and society is a pressing issue writers and literary experts need to address and juggle. (Shutterstock/File)

Understanding the link between literature and society is a pressing issue writers and literary experts need to address and juggle. A long time ago, a writer might deceive him or herself and follow the belief that art is separate from society. Now everything turns out to be unique as we are in the face of a fast-moving reality.

Furthermore, a strong relation between literature and society is so much to do with the concept of freedom. Complete freedom cannot be achieved outside of the community. Human freedom is a matter of social conquest. As a part of society, the creative work of a writer is bound to his or her role as a person of action.

Some literary experts have proposed the so-called political novel with a view to scaffolding an inseparable connection between the novel and society, particularly politics. Irving Howe was of the view that a political novelist must engage in political turmoil or his works become raw and incomplete, while Max Adereth highlighted littérature engagée (engaged literature).

George Orwell, known for his works 1984 and Animal Farm, and Alain Robbe-Grillet, a French novelist who offered the concept of the nouveau roman, asserted that the author must serve political causes. An author must only engage in one thing, that is to say, literature.

In Indonesia, political novels remain few though various literary pieces deal greatly with society in general and politics in particular. Wenny Artha Lugina’s novels, The Blackside and Revival: Konspirasi Dua Sisi might be cited among the few novels representing the country’s political novels. In the past few decades, Muchtar Lubis, a great writer, is also known for writing fine political novels.

In a political novel, politics play a major role. The problem with political novels is that they blend feelings and behavior with modern ideologies. The fear of inserting ideology into a novel is rampant among critics and authors, who believe politics have a detrimental effect on literary work. An author of political novels would find difficulty since he or she no longer uses “original” sources.

The idea of putting heavy political content into literary pieces is subject to controversy and resistance. Some believe that Littérature engagée seems and sounds too political, somehow not “healthy” and nothing more than a political propaganda pamphlet. The implication is that an author devoting to politics and setting aside literariness is not a literary person and will be unable to produce a work of great literature.

I believe that such a fear is exaggerated. The conflict between morality and ideology has a political inspiration. Every part of our life, whether individually or socially, reeks of politics. However, the content of engaged literature is not always political. Good littérature engagée only puts politics in the background despite its magnitude.

Inspired by the notion of Raymond Williams, I think attempts to insert sociopolitical notions into a novel can be made in several ways. First, social ideas are presented in a straightforward manner in a novel. An author can use the propaganda technique to reach the reader easily without demanding sophisticated interpretation. The idea is simple: “our” idea is truth and others’ ideas are false. This was frequently found during Dickens’ time in the form of serials in print media. Usually, their content came in the form of a grand moral lesson: the poor shouldn’t steal, should follow the straight path and should be obeisant servants.

Second, a certain idea is not expressed in a straightforward manner but should clearly show the intention of luring people toward it. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is a good example of propagandizing history. Though not through history, DH Lawrence achieves a similar effect in his work, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Third, a certain idea is proffered as a convention. It seems reasonable and is not seen as propaganda. Readers will judge it as common sense or universal human experience. An idea is no longer felt as the idea, because it was considered fair or conventional to assess human acts in a novel. Jane Austen’s works epitomize the idea as a convention.

Thanks to political novels, an author can define him or herself by consciously engaging in deliberate actions. This position is a reaction against the creed of “art for art’s sake” and against the “bourgeois” writer, whose obligation is to his craft rather than his audience.

The discrepancy between the ideal and reality matters and is extreme. Difficulties arise once attempts are made to implement the ideal, with unforeseen consequences. The lack of enthusiasm for writing about politics is mystifying. Pop song writers have long composed songs of political protest, so why on earth would literary persons demur at following a similar path?


The writer, a lecturer in literary studies at Andalas University, is pursuing a PhD at Deakin University, Australia.