Art has to be about social change, the American singer Harry Belafonte said to an appreciative audience last week at the Hay Festival. Coming from Belafonte, who campaigned against South Africa’s apartheid, this was expected. Over the years, Belafonte’s activism got the better of his art; his recent activism has included praising Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, whose own record in upholding civil liberties is weak.

The idea of social change assumes that society needs changing. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. A society that discriminates against a particular vulnerable group needs to change; when a narrower identity asserts its muscular identity, silencing other minorities, the society needs to assert its broader, inclusive fundamentals. In the former case, that society has to give up old, bad habits and traditions; in the latter case, it needs to assert majoritarian tendencies which are more inclusive.

If literature goes about documenting these concerns, it can turn into banal pamphleteering. While Belafonte’s rhetoric inspired a woman to ask Ian McEwan if he agreed with Belafonte, McEwan politely disagreed, saying art that seeks to change the world may lose its aesthetic sense. The following day, the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa eloquently articulated the role of literature. Great literature makes you sensitive to injustice; it makes us aware of the stupidity of our prejudices. But it may not produce changes in a concrete way. That is a job for others, more qualified than writers, to undertake. “Plays and poems are not the best weapons," he added. Sometimes you need journalism and campaigning.

There are limits to what journalism can achieve. The best reporting describes and interprets, it does not pontificate; it provides information and insights, and it has the humility to let readers decide what to think of an issue. Pamphleteering is different—it can be simple-minded and single-minded; and with some causes, it must necessarily be so: think of a pamphlet calling for abolition of slavery or female infanticide.

Vargas Llosa’s point is instructive: great writers who highlight injustice don’t go about seeking to do so, and they may not themselves lead exemplary lives. He cited Honoré de Balzac, the French writer who harboured prejudices and whose characters were often morally ambiguous, but his instinct and intuition were uncanny, and, eventually more important than his political convictions. “Keep literature free, don’t make it an instrument of justice," Vargas Llosa argued. “Literature should make visible what lies in the shadows of the society, because society doesn’t want to face its monsters." Instrumentalizing it, making it politically relevant for momentary partisan goals is the easiest way to destroy it and produce propaganda. When politicians use literature, it becomes propaganda; when literature uses politics, you get reality.

Vargas Llosa knows a bit about literature and its relationship with politics. His novels do not shirk from complex, political themes. In 1990, he tried blending the two passions, when he ran for Peruvian presidency. He lost, but he felt he had a moral obligation to run, given what was going on in his country. When he lost, he rationalized, saying (half-in-jest) that Peruvians liked his books so much that they did not want him to be their president.

Writers haven’t always succeeded at the polling booth. Michael Ignatieff, an expert on international human rights law, and whose novel Scar Tissue was nominated for the Booker Prize (as it was then known) in 1993, suffered a humiliating defeat in 2011, when he led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever performance in elections. Mohammed Nasheed won the Maldivian presidency in 2008, but was overthrown in coup-like circumstances this year. But there are exceptions: the late Czech playwright Vaclav Havel stood tall against Soviet expansionism and refused to live a life of lies that his government imposed on his citizens by speaking exactly what he thought (for which he was jailed, for “disturbing peace"), found himself elected president, first of Czechoslovakia, and after its division, of the Czech Republic. Two of his books were called Living in Truth and Disturbing the Peace.

Vargas Llosa didn’t get to lead his nation. But through his writing he keeps shining light on the reality around us. “Good literature creates dissatisfaction with the world around us. We read to imagine what could be because we find how poor the real world is." Great literature makes us think critically about the society around us, and dictators don’t like critical scrutiny. There is nothing inevitable about history, Salman Rushdie said the previous day. People bring about changes, which is why ideologues find literature dangerous and the powerful introduce censorship.

The fight against censorship, then, is not only a fight for an individual writer’s freedom; not only the struggle of memory against forgetting (to quote another Czech writer, Milan Kundera); but to keep alive ideas that the powerful want suppressed, because the powerful want to keep the world as it is, and literature reveals just that.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com

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