The Artist’s Responsibility

“The responsibility of literature in the twentieth century becomes appallingly clear: to illuminate man’s freedom.”


“From the considerations of the preceding section, one point emerges with undeniable clarity: the responsibility of the writer in our time. His responsibility is heavier than that of the politicians or the church, for what is in question is a revolution in thought, not a five-year plan or a recipe for ‘getting right with God’. Man in the twentieth century suffers from an insignificance neurosis, which can only be attacked from ‘inside’.”


“I envisage the new existentialism as a mystical revolt, based upon recognition of the irrational urge that underlies man’s conscious reason. The writer’s task is to try to make the ‘noise of the power house’ audible. For this reason, I regard Blake and Shaw as seminal figures, in that both were permanently aware of the ‘power house.’ Their rationalisations of it are less important (Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, Shaw’s ‘vortex of pure intellect’, superman, etc.). What matters is that they recognised the need to give life an additional dimension of purpose.”


“The picture builds up with appalling inevitability, selecting details of human sin, weakness and misery —and entirely omitting any reference to the strength or poetry of human existence. If the reader has been carried along and convinced, the final effect is to make him feel that the world is a far worse place than he had ever imagined. And once this idea is firmly established, he is in the right frame of mind to appreciate Greene’s patent remedy—Catholicism. “Don’t worry, the world may be an awful dump, but the mercy of God is infinite”, etc. For the reader who feels inclined to ask: “But what about Beethoven, what about Michelangelo and Van Gogh and Rabelais…?” there is no reply, and he is left with a guilty suspicion that perhaps he is rather immature to ask such questions.


“The picture we are faced with, then, is of a society which is neither more nor less ‘decadent’ than in any previous age, but whose artists and writers have allowed themselves to sink into a minor role. The value of the artist lies in the fact that he asserts a sense of order, of the power of the human spirit, into the sordid conflict of our everyday lives.”


“The central preoccupation of existentialism can be defined in one phrase: the stature of man. Is he a god or a worm?”


“Modern literature takes the latter view. This is not because all modern writers are unaware of the alternative. Even Sartre’s Roquentin has strange god-like moods. But the tendency of the age has been to emphasise the insignificance of man, his misery and weakness. It is all a question of emphasis.”


“E. M. Forster was right when he called Ulysses “an attempt to make darkness and dirt succeed where sweetness and light failed”. He might have gone further and characterised the whole of modern culture as an attempt to make cynicism and despair succeed where enthusiasm and optimism had failed. With such foundations, it is hardly surprising that the culture of the mid-twentieth century is a monument to the unheroic premise.


“The acceptance of this view could affect the writer in certain obvious ways. The novelist or playwright who creates characters who are slaves of their environment does so because he accepts their predicament as his own. The conscious rejection of the unheroic hypothesis, the insignificance premise, might produce some interesting results. It might reveal that the influence of the writer on society is actually greater than the influence society is supposed to have on the writer. If this were established, it would reveal that all writers are committed whether they know it or not, committed up to the hilt in determining the attitudes of the society they live in.”


“The writers and thinkers are becoming increasingly ‘other-directed’, while the ‘saints’ are as rare as ever (and the few men who possess ‘saintly qualities’—Schweitzer in Africa, Dolci in Sicily —have a full-time job relieving human misery, without concerning themselves with ‘new values’). In the literary world particularly, it has come to be accepted that no new Tolstoys or Shaws can be expected, and the reviewer has put his yardstick in a cupboard and uses a six-inch ruler for his weekly batch of novels.”