Why do I write? The first answer that comes to mind is: “I don’t know.” On reflection, a second answer emerges with a gravelly croak, like a fat, patriarchal frog among pond lilies: “Because they pay me.” Even though, as anybody with half a brain will tell you, the money in the business of writing would not sate a humble buttercup, to say nothing of one of those gorgeous carnivores that devour many times their weight in midges and other delicacies. Finally, a third answer might be that it’s the only thing I know how to do, and so I do it as best I can.
Beyond that, things get fuzzy. Of course, my reason is in neutral while I’m pronouncing on ladies’ handbags, interviewing a Mayfair jeweler, or reviewing a book of poetry – all of which, as a jobbing writer, I must do on occasion, and which, on occasion, gives me great pleasure. But when I write about society, history, and, above all, politics, my reason shifts up and starts to nag me with questions: “Why are you doing that? Who is it for, really? What are you trying to achieve, apart from upsetting and antagonizing people?”
The truth of the matter, which my poor ratio seems to have grasped at some point, is that when it comes to politics, today’s writers are about as powerless to alter the course of history as lepidopterists, numismatists, or calligraphers. Paradoxically, openly authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes of nineteenth-century Europe were more vulnerable to the pen and open to enlightened change than are modern democracies, where anyone’s opinion is as good as anybody else’s – except, of course, those in power, democracy’s furtive calque of the ruling class of old, who anyway don’t much bother with books. The hope of changing something by the power of the pen is, today, a boyish dream, and an old-fashioned one at that, something like wanting to grow up to be president.
Examples of books that, in recent memory, seemed to change history, such as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, are not exceptions that prove the rule, but indeed the rule itself. The Solzhenitsyn juggernaut had been launched by Khrushchev personally – he was fighting the old junta to create a junta of his own and needed a public scandal to discredit entrenched opposition – and then taken over by the CIA, which spied in the Gulag the same useful tool that an earlier generation of spooks had found in Pasternak’s Zhivago. In both cases, the Nobel Prize for Literature duly followed. Had it not been for this explosive confluence of patronage, nobody in the West would have heard of Solzhenitsyn, any more than they’ve heard, say, of Sergei Melgunov (1879-1956), whose Red Terror was published in 1923. And yet, as something of a specialist in the subject, I vouchsafe that nothing in the Gulag added an iota of veracity to what had been reported by Melgunov half a century earlier.
“Why don’t you listen to reason?” says my ratio, hands pressed to the chest in supplication. “Why don’t you stop sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong? You won’t change anybody’s mind with your politicking, and even if you do, it won’t make any difference, because this isn’t Gladstone’s England or Stolypin’s Russia. This is a modern democracy, where the individual reader’s, taxpayer’s, and voter’s opinion ain’t worth a hill of beans.”
“You’re quite right,” I answer. “But not by reason alone does man live.”
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