Wednesday, May 7, 2008

GUY AMIRTHANAYAGAM: COMMITMENT IN LITERATURE

The text of a speech delivered as an invited delegate to the International Writers Conference held in association with the Edinburgh Festival in Edinburgh, U.K. (August, 1962)


The problem posed by the title seems to me an artificial one. Whether the writer deals primarily with his inner life or the world around him, in so far as he is a human being, he is committed the moment he begins to write. The writer uses words, and since words have meanings, he cannot conceivably avoid saying something meaningful about himself or the world in which he lives, unless he chooses to write nonsense. This may seem an unduly banal or simplified way of putting it, but the writer is immersed in the human situation or predicament; that is, after all, the pre-condition of writing, pre-philosophical, pre-epistemological, if you like.

I think 'commitment' is a live issue only for academicians, professors of literature and the clearly minor writers who have the time to bother with issues divorced and separate from the fervid agitation of creativity which should generate their work. I don't think the great writers ever raised the problem in this form, or judged themselves in relation to the extent to which they were "committed." That we should busy ourselves with the question is itself a major sign of cultural decadence and moral confusion.

Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoievsky, Dickens--how would you see them in regard to this business of commitment? The writer should speak the truth and if in the process he concerns himself with, say, politics and has said the truth about it, he is worth reading, at least for his acumen in affairs of state.

However, you cannot dismiss writers who wrote without the least shade of a political thought, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, or even T.F. Powys in this century as uncommitted and therefore inferior writers. It is rather like the position of the neutralist nations in the 'cold war.' If we in Ceylon are not committed to one of the power blocs, this does not mean that we are not committed: on the contrary we are so fully committed to the human situation in 1962 that we feel the only way we can help avert or at least protest against the possibility of man's suicide, is by being aggressively neutral.

Should a writer express the spirit of his age? Of course, whether he likes it or not, he will be conditioned by the times in which he lives but the particular age of history in which he lived does not altogether determine either the content or the form of his art. If the age in which he lives is given to trivial and worthless concerns, we do not require of the writer that his work merely reflect his triviality and worthlessness: what is valuable in a writer is not merely what he absorbs from his age, but what he, deriving from his own imagination and inner resources, contributes to transform and embed the reality he has encountered. Historians of literature may read a novel in order to discover in it a faithful mirror of its time, but a man interested in the novel and in life will read it for what it has to say directly to him and for what is valuable in it for all time.

Last afternoon there was considerable discourse about 'roots'; it ws said that a writer's work would sicken and die if he cut himself away from his roots. It is healthy and stabilising to discover and ground oneself in one's 'roots' but surely the quality of the roots in question affect the quality of the work. A great writer should be able to grow his own roots wherever he goes and if he cannot, obviously he should not travel.

I was astonished that a great poet like Hugh McDiarmed should be such a stubborn simpleton as to advocate so passionately a complete commitment to an elementary ideology and an inhumane closed system. Shouldn't we learn to cope not only with international but even with cosmic man? The little white rose of Scotland is a beautiful flower and has inspired great poetry, but is that all there is to proclaim? Will it bloom in outer space?

The problem is as simple as it is profound. The writer is a human being, more gifted, more aware but also more normal than the human average. It is the balanced normality of the writer that I wish to stress: a writer is committed to his craft, to himself, to the woman or women he loves, to his family and friends, to his country, to the world, to God or the lack of God, to death--why then discuss this problem of 'commitment' in such an external, such a superficial way?

Great art is not propaganda, not escapism, not even accomplishment; it is an act of radical seriousness forged in passionate logic, wrought out of the mind, the emotions and the blood of man.



--Guy Amirthanayagam c) 2008, Estate of Guy Amirthanayagam.


In collaboration with my siblings, I am preparing a volume of Selected Writing of Guy Amirthanayagam under the title "The Unplanned Flower". I will write further about this as the book takes shape.