Writers and Politics

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise (Chp. 12):

Yet if we look at writers through the ages we see that they have always been political. Greek poets were political, they championed democracy or defended oligarchs and tyrants according to their sentiment. Pindar was political as were Aeschylus and Euripides, Plato and Aristotle, Catullus and Cicero, Virgil and Horace. Dante was engrossed in politics as were most of the artists of the Renaissance. Nobody told Byron he would be a better writer if he did not attempt The Vision of Judgment or Wordsworth not to bother with Toussaint l’Ouverture; Swift was not considered to have cheapened himself by The Drapier Letters or The Conduct of the Allies, nor Dryden to have let down poetry by Absalom and Achitophel. To deny politics to a writer is to deny him part of his humanity. But even from a list of political writers we can deduce that there are periods in the history of a country when writers are more political, or more writers are political than at others. They are not the periods of greatest political tension, they are those in which authors can do most, can be listened to, can be important, can influence people, and get their own way. Thus Roman poets ceased to be political after the Empire because they were powerless. A writer during the age of Augustus could not play the part of Catullus or Cicero. Writers flourish in a state of political flux, on the eve of the crisis, rather than in the crisis itself; it is before a war or a revolution that they are listened to and come into their own and it was because they were disillusioned at their impotence during the war that so many became indifferent to political issues after the peace.

It is clear that we are living now in a transition period as suited to political writing as were the days of Ship Money or the reign of Queen Anne. Writers can still change history by their pleading, and one who is not political neglects the vital intellectual issues of his time and disdains his material. He is not powerless, like the Symbolists of 1870, the aesthetes of the eighties and nineties, the beer-and-chivalry addicts of the nineteen hundreds or the demobilised Georgian poet on his chicken farm. He is not a victim of his time but a person who can alter it, though if he does not, he may soon find himself victimised. By ignoring the present he condones the future. He has to be political to integrate himself and he must go on being political to protect himself. To-day the forces of life and progress are ranging on one side, those of reaction and death on the other. We are having to choose between democracy and fascism, and fascism is the enemy of art. It is not a question of relative freedom; there are no artists in Fascist countries. We are not dealing with an Augustus who will discover his Horace and his Virgil, but with Attila or Hulaku, destroyers of European culture whose poets can contribute only battle-cries and sentimental drinking songs. Capitalism in decline, as in our own country, is not much wiser as a patron than fascism. Stagnation, fear, violence and opportunism the characteristics of capitalism preparing for the fray, are no background for a writer and there is a seediness, an ebb of life, a philosophy of taking rather than giving, a bitterness and brutality about right-wing writers now which was absent in those of other days, in seventeenth-century Churchmen or eighteenth-century Tories. There is no longer a Prince Rupert, a Doctor Johnson, a Wellington, Disraeli, or Newman, on the reactionary side.


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