Insight | Where are the poets, the wild ones?

Paulo Barbosa

Looking at the Chinese literary scene, one wonders, where are the poets, the non-conformists? Where are, as Kerouac put it, “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved”?

From my readings, I found an interesting writer who is currently living in China: Su Tong, the pen name of Tong Zhonggui, who wrote the elliptical book “The Boat to Redemption”.

I’m aware there are other great authors in China, such as Beijing-based Yan Lianke and Sheng Keyi. Certainly, there are other good writers who haven’t been translated or remain unpublished. They tend to stay low-profile (few interviews or public interventions, no criticism of governmental policies) and are almost invisible. Considering that China has a population of around 1.4 billion persons, the fact that there aren’t thousands of relevant writers is a clear sign that something is wrong.

It seems that some of the best Chinese artists and writers are in exile or simply remain silent. Like Ma Jian (who recently faced trouble speaking in Hong Kong) those believe that “free speech is the foundation of civilization.” Some others publish heavily censored novels or craftily became experts in self-censorship. The others risk being arrested for crimes against the state or are accused of some dubious misdemeanor (Ai Weiwei comes to mind).   

In the essay “The Prevention of Literature”, George Orwell explained how in 1946 “the idea of intellectual liberty” was under attack from all directions. With the benefit of hindsight, I say some things don’t change.

“From a totalitarian point of view, history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened,” Orwell wrote, going on to argue that literature has sometimes flourished in despotic regimes, but never in those with an efficient “repressive apparatus.” Such rule “can never afford to become either tolerant or intellectually stable. It can never permit either the truthful recording of facts, or the emotional sincerity, that literary creation demands.”

When freedom of speech is stifled, “the mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes.” If the inventiveness of the poet can perhaps survive, the prose writer may have no choice between silence and death, the British author argued.

Here and elsewhere, an intolerant mindset is gaining weight. Using the Orwellian expression, in societies where groups of people have adopted the totalitarian outlook, a “newspeak” takes hold: Words can mean exactly their opposite, meaning can change according to convenience. Laws can be twisted and reinterpreted by sneaky prosecutors. Hollow slogans fade to be replaced by others.

If only free and fair societies can lead, a contradiction arises: How to expect people to be creative if they are not allowed to think and are taught to reproduce and obey? Innovation can only thrive if there’s tolerance for views that are not ours and there is a free flow of ideas. 

Recent history shows that there’s an equation between the level of totalitarianism of a society and the probability of its decay, or even destruction. The Nazi foolishness lead to the annihilation of the Germany; decades of purging the “enemies of the people” doomed the Soviet Union. In China, only the reforms spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping avoided such fate.

In his famous “Gulag Archipelago”, which remained underground in the Soviet Union for almost 30 years, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the psychological effects of thought control in the Iron Curtain: “By now, we are even unsure whether we have the right to talk about the events of our own lives.” 

But times change. In 2009, the Russian Education Ministry decided that excerpts of the book that exposed the Gulag system should be included in the school curriculum as mandatory reading. This is an example where truth and decency has prevailed after all.

Categories Opinion