To what extent is politically engaged literature tied to the historical moment of its production? – Uni Essay Again

More laziness of course. I’ve got my computer back so I can start whoring out my old Uni essays. This is one of the odder essays that came out of the hallowed halls that I tried so desperately to Unhallow as regularly as possible. Or something. Anyway, I really enjoyed writing it, but am posting without rereading. Enjoy the blabber about the blubber…and don’t steal…it’s wrong (apparently).


What we know of other people

Is only our memory of the moments

During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.

-TS Eliot The Cocktail Party (I,iii)1

What Eliot’s psychiatrist tells us about the way we are capable of relating to each other, applies equally well to the world of literature. Each literary exchange between author and reader is transitory and made over a certain distance of space and time. According to George Orwell we are stuck, along with Henry Miller, within the bowels of a transparent whale2 ‘with yards of blubber between [ourselves] and reality, able to keep up an attitude of indifference, no matter what happens.’ This blubber could perhaps protect us from the ravages of our disjuncture from the writers we read, but for Salman Rushdie ‘there is no whale. We live in a world without hiding places; the missiles have made sure of that.’3 In this world without hiding places, where we could at any moment be swung into epic apocalypse by the politics that swallow us whole, we are more than ever forced to create literature bound inextricably to the situation of the world in which it was made; and the same has been true for the last century at least. Rushdie announces that ‘politics and literature, like sport and politics, do mix, are inextricably mixed and that mixture has consequences.’4The world of the political is tied to the world of the literature, and can only achieve such a meeting at one specific moment in time, the moment of creation. If we are all ‘irradiated by history’5 then surely every text is just as radioactive; and if each text is radioactive then surely some kind of carbon dating or half-life analysis can be applied and measure the moment of irradiation. The moment the text is created becomes the moment it is contaminated by the political world, that is, the world of man. ‘Man is zoon politikon, a social animal’6 and the political world in which we live permeates all of our activities. Our politics describe, mimic and control our behaviour, our very social world.

It strikes me, and Orwell shares my view, that all literature of the modern era, and probably before, is politically engaged with the world around it. Even if it doesn’t intend to critique or praise any political ideal, structure or issue, a piece of literature is created by an author that exists in a certain time and place, and to exist within something is to be affected by it. One cannot escape the world one lives in without withdrawing into ones own subjective insanity; to withdraw from the koinos kosmos into the idios kosmos is what many (post)modernist writers attempt to do, but it is impossible. Even if a piece were to escape all political influence, it would still become politically engaged later on, as the claws of the critics struggle to politically engage with it, and tie it down once more.

‘In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia..’

-George Orwell ‘Politics and the English Language’ (p154)7

The twin acts of writing and reading are both lodged in their own historical period, there is a jump between two points, where each describe and affect each other. Jean-Paul Sartre tells us that God, the eternal author and reader that reads sub specie aeternitatis, is ‘the being Who cannot even see a situation without changing it, for His gaze congeals, destroys, or sculpts, or as does eternity, changes the object in itself’.8 Heisenberg’s uncertainty theory has taught us that the same is true of human interaction, observing something can change its location and state: this is as true of the reader/author relationship as it is to the author/world relationship. A reader lodged in one time may attempt to reshape the world of a text to fit the world he recognises, and it may be possible to do this to those texts that raise themselves to a timeless level. However even these texts still retain the shape of the time of their creation. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four is deeply rooted in the time of its conception, which is why the film adaptation chose to locate itself within a future that could have been designed in nineteen forty-eight, but it still speaks volumes to our own time, where big brother stares at us in the form of Mysteron-esque rings of light in benefit fraud adverts and there really is a perpetual war going on far away with an ever-shifting list of allies and enemies.

Sartre tells us that:

‘Whether he wants to or not, and even if he has eyes on eternal laurels, the writer is speaking to his contemporaries and brothers of his class and race . . . .

The same with reading: people of the same period and community, who have lived through the same events, who have raised or avoided the same questions, have the same taste in their mouth; they have the same complicity, and there are the same corpses among them.

…Authors too are historical. And that is precisely the reason why some of them want to escape from history by a leap into eternity. The book, serving as a go-between, establishes an historical contact among the men who are steeped in the same history and who likewise contribute to its making.’

-‘Writing, Reading, and the Public’ (p84-85)

This further explains and complicates the exchange between author, reader and history. The two former exist within different points of the latter and the two must make sense of their differences before they can understand what they share and how they can relate to each other. Author and reader must understand their divorce before they can be wed.

For Lukács certain texts: ‘cannot be distinguished from [its] social and historical environment. Their human significance, their specific individuality cannot be separated from the context in which they were created.’9 He continues that the fates of certain literary figures is ‘characteristic of certain types in specific social or historical circumstances.’10 It is worth remembering however that one cannot make the false assumption, that Orwell warns of, ‘that in any age there will be one body of belief which is the current approximation to truth, and that the best literature of the time will be more or less in harmony with it. Actually no such uniformity has ever existed.’11 This is why the mark of history on a piece of literature may become less important. The text is only as grounded in a historical context as its creator is, and each author of any piece, lives within in a such a unique and subjective world that it can be impossible to say what shapes the writing: is it the wider political scene at the time; the daily life, loves, trials and tribulations of the author; or simply the personal lived experience of the writer. The writer’s personal experience may not match any more empirical or objective assessment of the historical moment. This is a surmountable stumbling block however, once one acknowledges that we can still gain a full view of a political/historical moment- and perhaps a more accurate and intimate one- from a subjective viewpoint. Each text gives us an insight into ‘the dialectic between the individual’s subjectivity and objective reality.’12

Let us return to Eliot’s psychiatrist, and discover if the meandering free association of this essay thus far has anything interesting to reflect back upon its opening:

‘What we know of other people

Is only our memory of the moments

During which we knew them. And they have changed since then.’

-TS Eliot The Cocktail Party (I,iii)13

Perhaps we can see better now how literary texts are like ‘our memory of moments’ that have not only ‘changed’ but are not in fact even our own memories. We can tap into a kind of cultural memory of a world lost to us. We are trapped in our own historical situation just like the texts we read but we can still buy into memories of moments past, and attempt to chart the changes that have led from then to now. Reading is like a function of cultural memory. Each text relates us back to the past, and by doing this also allows us to relate to all that could have been to the ‘dreams or day-dreams’ of abstract potentiality.14 By travelling into the memory of the past, we can attempt to explore alternative futures, that were never quite reality, but were in one way real then, real in that they were possible, and in another way real now, real in that they could be happening right now. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, and also Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, both exist in this historical no-place as tales of a world that seemed possible in their own historical moment, and are perhaps in true existence now, in some form or another alive in the present.

As anachronistic prophecies from the past come true in alternate realities of the present we are still left washed up in the sea of the ever-changing political world, with barely a whale or a womb to call our own we are called on by Rushdie to make a choice: ‘either we agree to delude ourselves, to lose ourselves in the fantasy of the great fish…or we can do what all human beings do instinctively when they realise the womb has been lost forever- that is, we can make the very devil of a racket.’15 Rushdie sees hope in making a noise and perhaps taking control of our future, something Orwell had mostly lost hope of by the time of his career that we currently focus upon. I myself would say that in fact we are bound to take control anyway, for the relationship between text and history, and the relationship between reader and author, is always a dialectic. As the political tide of history continues to turn in a thousand different directions, we are constantly negotiating a future out of the history. We press on into the future informed by the relived memories of the past. The constant struggle between our own subjectivity, the world outside, and the inexorable drive of history will shape us a future that shall always be reflected, described and bound to the literature that will always be made.

To approach some kind of conclusion, I find it desirable to return to our original question, which I still find as curious as when I first saw it. For a start there is the issue of politically engaged literature; a phrase which seems tautological in that all literature must be politically engaged even if it doesn’t intend to be. As Orwell mentions, ‘a novelist is not obliged to write directly about contemporary history, but a novelist who simply disregards the major public events of the moment is generally either a footler or a plain idiot.’16 The word idiot is particularly apposite, as it raises the point that to detach from the political landscape is to detach entirely from the objective, shared social world of sanity and reality. Furthermore, while all literature is politically engaged, it is inherently part of a specific world that exists at a specific moment, politics is a world where a week is a long time, and the moment of creativity if borne of the moment it occurs. Relevance to other periods and political situations is merely a symptom of the constant repeating dialectic of history. It is possible for writers like Miller to write from the ‘non-political, non-educational, non-progressive, non-co-operative, non-ethical, non-literary, non-consistent, non-contemporary’ viewpoint of the Booster17 and become ‘a voice in the crowd, from the underling, from the third-class carriage, from the ordinary, non-political, non-moral, passive man’18, but they still remain engaged, and still remain locked in their own time. It may be difficult for a literary world ruled by ‘journalists…busy pretending that the age-before-last had not come to an end’19 to come to terms with the pace of change and the all-pervasive nature of politics, but come to terms it must, for it is trapped that way forever. Unless perhaps Orwell is correct and we merely have to wait ‘until the world has shaken itself into its new shape’20 before we are free of history and or politics.

Not long to wait then.


  • Eliot, TS – The Complete Poems and Plays (Mackeys of Chatham: Kent 2004)

  • Gilliam, Terry – Brazil (Universal Studios 1985)

  • Lukács, George – ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ in Literature in the Modern World ed. Dennis Walder (OUP: Oxford 1990)

  • Orwell, George – Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1968)

  • Orwell, George – Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1980)

  • Rushdie, Salman Imaginary Homelands (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1992)

  • Sartre, Jean-Paul – ‘Writing, Reading, and the Public’ in Literature in the Modern World ed. Dennis Walder (OUP: Oxford 1990)

1 The Complete Poems and Plays (Mackeys of Chatham: Kent 2004) p384

2 ‘Inside the Whale’ Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Penguin: Harmondsworth) p43, one wonders what Ahab would have made of this transparent whale

3 ‘Outside the Whale’ Imaginary Homelands (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1992) p 99

4 ‘Outside the Whale’ p100

5 ‘Outside the Whale’ p100

6 George Lukács ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ Literature in the Modern World ed. Dennis Walder (OUP: Oxford 1990) p159

7 Inside the Whale and Other Essays (Penguin: Harmondsworth 1980)

8 ‘Writing, Reading, and the Public’ Literature in the Modern World ed. Dennis Walder (OUP: Oxford 1990) p83

9 ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ p159

10 ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ p160

11 ‘Inside the Whale’ p44

12 ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ p162

13 The Complete Poems and Plays (Mackeys of Chatham: Kent 2004) p384

14 ‘The Ideology of Modernism’ p161

15 ‘Outside the Whale’ p99

16 ‘Inside the Whale’ p10

17 ‘Inside the Whale’ p19

18 ‘Inside the Whale’ p19

19 ‘Inside the Whale’ p25

20 ‘Inside the Whale’ p50


8 thoughts on “To what extent is politically engaged literature tied to the historical moment of its production? – Uni Essay Again”

  1. We call ’em Aubergines….which I think sounds a bit saucy.
    Though I’ve never made one into a sauce you know.
    Anyway, it was a little while back. Someone (probably Sig) cussed my colour scheme so I concocted this Moussaka of a mood.
    Thanks for liking the essay. I worried it would be boring…but it’s one of the favourite essays of mine. I really enjoyed writing it…it’s a bit pun heavy, but that’s me. I love writing about things that seem important…even if it’s kind of abstract…I liked this essay for that reason.
    Plus the fact that two of the best known (literary) authors of the twentieth century spent so much time talking about whales and blubber….I had to join in.

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