Last Thursday was the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's murder. The former Beatle was a peace activist whose anthem "Imagine" remains a bittersweet reminder that the imagination can conceive worlds more loving than the actual.
The day before the anniversary of Lennon's death, the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded to another Brit, playwright Harold Pinter. A 75-year-old cancer patient, he could not attend the Nobel ceremonies but pre-recorded a speech titled "Art, Truth and Politics." Undoubtedly, the right will once again lampoon the Nobel committee for its leftist politics, but Pinter's speech is in large part a devastatingly factual critique -- and an angry one -- of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.
"The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious and remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them," Pinter said. He especially attacked the Iraq invasion, of course, but also reviewed in detail the way Ronald Reagan's government supported the Contras' overthrow of Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista government, which had eliminated the death penalty, allocated land to peasants and instituted universal health care and free public education. Such concepts were unacceptable to the Regan government and ended with the Contras' successful insurrection.
What interested me most about Pinter's speech was the way he wove his political critique into comments about the artistic imagination and the truth -- an analytical approach to Lennon's poetically expressed utopia in "Imagine." It's of special interest to me because in my own work, which is mainly with artistic clients, I often ask them to consider whether their creative voice, their muse, imposes a moral obligation.
The question is important for a number of reasons. It's readily observable that any narrative writer who sets out with the agenda to prove a certain "truth" will usually end up producing uninteresting work. As Pinter observes, most art -- in any form -- begins with an image and, as soon as you begin the inquiry into the image, you find that it has its own life. Characters appear and take on their own life. The characters represent their own understanding of the truth. They interact with one another and plots arise.
So the writer comes to realize in a pointed way that the understanding of "truth" is quite different from person to person. It is the writer's job to interrogate his characters in that respect -- that is much of what plot is about -- but most good writing ends up demonstrating the mystery that life yields a lot of poignancy and few universal truths.
Superficial people find that idea reprehensible. They immediately characterize the authors of such writing as "moral relativists." And of course that's true to a great extent. The notoriously renegade lives of most working writers and artists demonstrate that as much as their art.
But the point Pinter makes that is lost on such critics is that the writer is devoted to finding the truth, even though it is ultimately unattainable. The effect of this, of questioning everything, I would argue, is itself a moral and ethical responsibility. While we may not be able to say what is exactly true in universal terms, we can say with relative surety what does harm to people here and now.
Were the Iraq invasion a well-written novel or documentary film, it would be impossible to read the rhetoric of the administration -- all about the creation of democracy in the Middle East -- without noticing how the effort has killed thousands and thousands of people and actually seems to be leading to a theocracy.
But in the real world, Pinter notes, Americans have lost any sense of the horrific pain our policies have caused. That is in great part because we have allowed our government to excise from view, through lying and manipulation of the media, the images of the pain we are causing Iraqis and our own soldiers. Art can evoke those images and is thus truer than life as long as the journalistic media continue to regurgitate rhetoric rather than describe reality.
But can art alone precipitate a revolution? Probably not, but its method is instructive. In his speech, Pinter argues that even the artist must go beyond his role of mainly reflecting reality when he is thinking as a citizen. He says that in politics, all of us must more aggressively break the mirror of self-reflection -- which is forever shifting -- and look for the more stable truth behind the mirror.
On the surface that seems like a repudiation of the more relativist approach of the artist. But a better way to put it is to say that we must do both things. We must accept that absolute truth is beyond knowing, but the search for it is essential. That way, we do not stop questioning ourselves and fall deeper into the delusion -- so widespread among the right wing -- that Americans are beyond reproach; that we do not, for example, engage in torture when the evidence that we do is everywhere.
Only when we can see things as they are can we really follow Lennon's advice to imagine a different world.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.
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