Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Author - Holy Fool or Underground Revolutionary?

Dr Rowan Williams did a fabulous TED talk about a Russian novel in the tradition of the nineteenth century greats and in particular the concept of the ‘yuródivyy’ or holy fool. Now the concept of people acting as fools or jesters persist in many cultures, Stewart Lee writes about the Pueblo Indians’ function within their societies as fools to both delimit and permit the boundaries of behaviour within that society. But while Russian holy fools also performed a social function, their’s specifically were to offer new ways of coming to Christ. Their unconventional behaviour and acts, was as Williams offers, utterly selfless, for the holy fool has renounced worldly trappings in order to serve others to come to Christ. 

So these holy fools sacrificed themselves, their egos and were ascetics in an absolute sense. I don’t think writers necessarily sacrifice their egos, after all which writer doesn’t want to head a bestseller list in their category or win a literary prize? But in a sense they do, at least during the writing of a novel, have to give up their own sense of self (or at least take it down a notch or two), in order to open up channels to be able to write others, that is characters, who might be very far removed from their own being in life. They do a service to mankind, they must be or why else would people read fiction? Williams’ introduction gives a fair perspective on what this service might look like to readers and what fiction offers.

But then there is another credo or articles of faith, also from nineteenth century Russia, that might be applied to fiction authors. Revolutionary nihilism. Below is the first part of the “Revolutionary Catechism” composed by nihilist Sergey Nechayev:

1. The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no business affairs, no emotions, no attachments, no property, and no name. Everything in him is wholly absorbed in the single thought and the single passion for revolution.

2. The revolutionary knows that in the very depths of his being, not only in words but also in deeds, he has broken all the bonds which tie him to the social order and the civilised world with all its laws, moralities, and customs, and with all its generally accepted conventions. He is their implacable enemy, and if he continues to live with them it is only in order to destroy them more speedily.
3. The revolutionary despises all doctrines and refuses to accept the mundane sciences, leaving them for future generations. He knows only one science: the science of destruction. For this reason, but only for this reason, he will study mechanics, physics, chemistry, and perhaps medicine. But all day and all night he studies the vital science of human beings, their characteristics and circumstances, and all the phenomena of the present social order. The object is perpetually the same: the surest and quickest way of destroying the whole filthy order. 

Now, just replace the word ‘revolutionary” with the word writer, and the word ‘revolution’ with the word writing. (I have had a T-shirt designed with just this. I wore it for the launch of my new book).

For point 1 of the catechism, the writer effectively minimises his/her attachments because he/she stays in to write instead of going to the pub or the cinema. Writing is a solitary occupation, at least until the manuscript is delivered to the editor. As to point 2, some writers do take on established truths in their writing and critically dissect them in a way that may completely undermine them from thereon. Point 3 is both that the writer cannot be dogmatic in his/her approach, that is cannot restrict themselves through treating existing knowledge, values and ideas as sacred cows; but also that he/she must do their research in many fields of knowledge. 

So like the holy fool, the revolutionary too is an ascetic. He/she too operates outside the norms and codes of socially acceptable behaviour. He/she too is to have no sense of self, other than a pure embodiment of revolution. However, fiction writing is a poor instrument for politics and political change. Fiction writing is first and foremost entertainment and unlike say television, by and large only a small percentage of the population are reading novels. Though I regard myself as a political author writing (non-party-) political books, I also acknowledge that being an author is to political activism, what the sniper is to the battlefield; ensconced 3 miles safely behind your own lines, picking off victims who have no awareness of your existence and no right to return fire (our characters and society's holy cows we may take aim at).

Though not precise matches of course, I think these two models are reasonable models for considering the role of the fiction author. What do you think? 

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