Monday 8 December 2014


“Literature is what prevents man from being indifferent to man”. OK, that’s my translation and I am sure that it can be improved, but other than that this Ionesco quote was the entirety of my literature exam at Baccalaureat (well, you could choose between three subjects, but that’s the one I chose). Actually it presented me with a slight conundrum: the norm of the exercise is that, after an introduction, you should expose your position, then expose a contrary one, then blend them in a synthesis, then frantically write your conclusion because you have had a look at the clock and oh bother.

In my case, I quickly reasoned that I would not have much to say against the statement, so I found a way to explain, without sounding too weird, that there would only be two parts (actually, I remember also suggesting that possibly my admiration for the writer of Rhinoceros made it more difficult to find disagreement with him –although Rhinoceros really is the outlier in his work, a totally different kind of play from what he usually wrote). I first elaborated on the statement, then produced a few caveats on the lines that not all literature may have this effect, and that other arts would sometimes achieve that, too (I mentioned Picasso’s Guernica there). Still, because it uses words, which is the medium through which we form most our thoughts (and yet I would argue a few months later with my philosophy professor that it was possible to form thoughts without a language, through visualisation – she just stated that it was not possible, but then she was also adamant that Xeno’s paradoxes were unresolved, so I suppose she mostly was not very open to listening and considering an argument), I reckoned that literature was particularly strong in that.

I knew I was taking a risk, and in fact, having told the story to several Literature teachers afterwards, a few told me that they would have graded me severely on the basis of my not having demonstrated the understanding of the structure of the exercise. Thankfully, I was graded by someone who must have thought I made a strong enough case for my decision to throw conventions through the window and there was none of that.

All that introduction because it highlights two subjects that are very important to me: fighting indifference towards others, and the role of the language (also the arts, true) in that. And, well, of course you should always read George Monbiot, but he really is on a roll of late.

Two of his columns (here and here) touch upon the subject of how language has been perverted to make unthinkable things become, well, actually unthinkable. And awful things almost unobjectionable. Conversely, it aggrandises some who should be scorned –look how the press will use “wealth creators” where we once would have said “robber barons”.

I realise that there is nothing new in the observation –Ionesco above said it many decades earlier, and mostly George Orwell essentially spent his life banging on that drum. But it would be a crazy requirement to ask writers to only express entirely new ideas. Also, of course, Monbiot is able to talk of our present world and point out some of the latest fashions in Newspeak. One of the most sobering conclusions is how difficult it is, even for someone aware of the problem and trying to express the very opposite view to construct an entire argument while avoiding poisoned phrases.

And so it is on these shores, especially so in November, that people who deliberately join an organisation whose purpose is to kill on foreign soil are called “heroes”. So much propaganda has been expended that it is now almost subversive not to wear a “poppy” (I am a subversive there, by the way, but people reckon that it is because I am French), and indeed I read that someone got fired from the BBC because he would not wear one on air.

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