Of pencil points and petty tyrants.
In the title essay of his latest book, Finding a Form (New York, Knopf, 1996), William Gass notes, with characteristic understatement and a wink, "Writing puts the writer in illusory command of the world, empowers someone otherwise powerless, but with a power no more pointed than a pencil" (32). The irony in Gass's persiflage resides in what he knows very well: namely, that a pencil's point can be sharper than the point of a sword, and that certainly the mark of a pencil has often proved more indelible than the stain of blood. Shakespeare teaches us as much, and if it were not for the indelible force of his words, Lady Macbeth would have washed her hands of it long ago. Bill Gass knows too that any "command of the world" is illusory at best, and the difference in this regard between what he calls, after Dante, "the ravenous politician" and the writer is that the writer has some inkling of the illusoriness of it all, whereas the tyrant relentlessly insists upon the reality of his command and browbeats every shadow into confirming his invulnerability. The shadow, more often than not, is the mark of a pencil or the specter of a writer who knows what the despot would rather were not so. This is why under certain regimes literature is forced underground or to the periphery. And where some veneer of civility curtails the outright assassination of writers and editors, other statesmanlike niceties for their neutralization and silencing come just as easily to autocratic kingpins and their meretricious minions.
Assia Djebar's latest book, Le blanc de l'Algerie, issues directly from such circumstances, and it is dedicated to three literary friends, one of them her brother-in-law, who were murdered in the current bloodbath perpetrated in her homeland in the name of piety and the sanctities of family and faith. In his Civilization and Its Discontents Freud teaches us something about the fundamentals and fundamentalisms of family and religion. He says, "It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left to receive the manifestation of their aggressiveness" (Standard Edition, London, Hogarth, 1961, p. 114). In the United States of America, writers as diverse as Herman Melville and Sherwood Anderson understood the perils of such fundamentalism and demagoguery, and Ralph Waldo Emerson urged with forbearance and insight that a society be judged not by its majority but by its minority and by those it pushes to its margins. Not infrequently, such lessons succumb to political amnesia, to expediency, or to insatiable ego. It is the role of literature and institutions like the university to teach us to hold such lapses in contempt and to disdain their symptoms. Assia Djebar's vocation as a student of history and her literary career have been devoted to the reassessment of those exclusions and to the rein-corporation of those whom the petty despots would banish from the family table and bully into silence. And this is why it is with a certain predictability that her latest work begins with the beginning lines of Dante's Inferno, the Florentine writer himself banished to the periphery, but whose pencil point never ceases to leave its indelible mark. Dante's dignified indignation at the arrogance of power and the predations of petty political satraps still echoes near and far with apt resonance.
It is because of her unflinching honesty and stately perseverance that today Assia Djebar may be the most threatening person to Algeria's political chieftains, secular and religious. It is because of her ethical steadfastness and perspicacious integrity as a writer and as a moral conscience in the face of tyranny's perennial delusions that a jury of her peers selected her for this prize. And it is for these same reasons and for her capacity to transform living tragedy into lived art and into the small redemptions of the creative impulse that we celebrate her achievement as the Fourteenth Laureate of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
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|Title Annotation:||Assia Djebar: 1996 Neustadt International Prize for Literature; literature versus despotic leaders|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1996|
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