Over the last weeks, Günter Grass’s admission of having briefly been in the Waffen SS (that is, a part of the SS that didn’t run concentration camps) has been plaguing him all over the world. I personally don’t have a problem with it.
Grass, like innumerable men of his generation, has hidden a shameful part of his life, hoping that it wouldn’t return to bite him. Of course, Grass gets more grief, seeing as he’s built his reputation upon being Germany’s moral voice (getting Germans to face up to their Nazi past), and yes, that makes him a hypocrite. But I still can’t feel very bothered by it.
Partly it’s because I see a writer’s works as separate from the writer. Some real shits have written some wonderful books, and those books have gone on to do wonderful things. Grass’s role in postwar Germany was good for the country and German culture as a whole.
But the other reason I’m not bothered by it is more disturbing.
In my lifetime (or at least the part where I was paying attention), fiction writers have never struck me as all that important. Their works, yes (well, sometimes), but not them as people. The age of the writer as a political force seems to have vanished into the nostalgic haze, and I’m not sure people of my generation listen to anything they say.
This came up before when Pinter made some vocal criticisms of US and UK foreign policy while accepting the Nobel Prize. Now, thinking on what a major political as well as moral voice Grass was in his time, I feel again as I did then. When Grass spoke in the sixties, people listened and took note. When Pinter shouts in the present, it gets some airtime, a tempest in a teapot, and then fades away.
When I wrote on Pinter’s statement, I was preoccupied—I think erroneously—on the artist-as-politicians model, which I don’t think is a particularly good thing. What I was forgetting, and what I’m re-remembering now, is that being a moral force in society is simply that. Speaking about moral complexities and ambiguities through your writing, sometimes into a microphone, and letting others figure out the policy side of it.
In Grass’s time, it was different. Writers and artists could speak directly about policy issues, back certain parties, march in demonstrations, and (unless my memory’s nostalgic) it had an effect. These days, though, it seems that all that’s left to us is speaking in abstracts, through fables and metaphor. Indirectly.
And when we speak directly, we’re “kooky”, or as ridiculous as a bunch of Hollywood actors throwing a tantrum about…well, whatever.
I may be wrong about this, and if I am let me know. Bring up some examples—in the English-speaking world, please (South America still gives its writers a public voice)—of the direct action of writers having more effect than a momentary column-inch in the newspaper. Hopefully I am wrong.
But I don’t think I am.
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)