The invitation to be “the conscience of the world” may have seemed like one any writer would accept. Here was a chance to denounce “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, starvation in Somalia, anti-Semitism in Europe, racism in America.
But one after another, 16 leading novelists, poets, historians, biographers, essayists and publishers declined the invitation during the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week. At a two-day forum co-sponsored by the fair and the Aspen Institute, many also warned of the danger of any writer acting as a moral arbiter.
“Why is a writer more capable of being a conscience than a jurist or an educator or a philosopher?” asked David Grossman, an Israeli whose books have explored the difficult relationship his country has with Palestinian Arabs and examined the moral dilemmas that result. “No one can serve as someone else’s conscience.”
Cynthia Ozick, an American novelist, poet and literary critic, spoke even more sharply: “Being a writer myself, I know what kind of people we are--and I don’t trust us. Writers are after power, and when writers meddle in politics it can be a cover for their drive for power.”
Yet, among these writers and publishers were men and women distinguished by their literary integrity, their readiness to take a stand and their willingness to suffer for saying what they think is right.
There were: Daniel J. Boorstin, an American historian and former Librarian of Congress; Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the Russian poet who has used literature to push for political change; Mikhail Lyubimov, a former Soviet spy who has mocked the KGB in plays and thrillers; Erwin Glikes, editor and publisher of controversial books such as “The End of History and the Last Man” and “The Closing of the American Mind” and Blaga Dimitrova, a once-banned Bulgarian author and scholar who is now Bulgaria’s vice president.
They undertook their examination of conscience with little reference to most major international issues and a wary, peripheral discussion of other modern questions.
“We are facing the most important cultural transition ever,” Annie Cohen-Solal, author of a critically acclaimed biography of French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre, said in a failing effort to spark debate. “Borders have opened, and writers now have to face other borders. We can’t talk about ideology any more. So many things have changed in the past two years that everything must be rethought and everyone must reposition him or herself.”
Glikes agreed. “Tyranny is no longer in a Stalin, in an overpowering state, in the violence of unleashed internal oppression,” he said. “There is another kind of danger. Now we have anomie, loneliness, purposelessness, these problems of modern life. The (world) is in a mess--but it’s not so much of a threat as a presence.”
Western writers are reluctant to tackle this on behalf of their societies, the speakers said, and most contended they should not.
“Conscience starts with the small things that you cannot accept,” observed Jonathan Galassi, a poet and editor-in-chief of the New York publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc. “It starts as private dissent and takes form from there. Certainties, in fact, are the enemies of true conscience.”
Peter Mayer, chief executive of Penguin Books and the author, at the height of the Vietnam War, of “The Pacifist Conscience,” noted that, “True, no one can be someone else’s conscience. But wittingly or not, a writer still speaks as a moral legislator.
“We all do speak for ourselves, just for ourselves. But we want and seek to persuade--that is, we are looking for the like-minded and hoping for an audience. Change in the way that people perceive things is an important part of what is going on in writing. . . . Writers write for someone.”
And that often makes them in practice precisely what they asserted they do not want to be-- moral guardians and guides through times they see as increasingly troubled.
“It may be that society finds it comfortable for someone to take on this responsibility and formulate the difficult questions . . . to release other members of the community from dealing with these issues themselves,” Grossman said, speaking of his experience as an Israeli writer who “crossed certain limits, broke certain taboos” in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Galassi argued that “the mantle of prophet” should be bestowed by the audience, not sought by a writer trying to arouse a national conscience.
Charles Rembar, a New York lawyer who has written extensively on the law, chided other forum members for a false naivete in declaring that they sought just to speak for themselves. “Writing amounts to nothing, if you don’t have an audience,” he contended. “It is like building a bridge to the middle of a river.”
Insisting that writers strive for a sense of conscience in their work, he extended the definition of writer well beyond novelists, poets, historians, saying, “A writer is also the advertising copywriter or the screenwriter at a movie studio. And it includes someone like Oliver Stone (director of the film ‘JFK’) who adds to ever-increasing amounts of bull or the writer who urges you to take up smoking and thus is a murderer as much as a Mafia hit man.”
Grossman included journalists, accusing the news media of accepting many developments so uncritically that they become “automatic components of modern society.”
“Life is more and more complex, and there are more and more moral dilemmas that seem insoluble and more and more tragedies,” Grossman said. “The omniscient media with its on-the-spot judgments fail (to comprehend this).”
The forum concluded that conscience was necessary to inform a writer’s work, wrong as a role for the writer in society, yet in some ways inevitable as they faulted others who would perform the same function.
“A politician and a writer speak with two different languages,” Dimitrova observed, “and it is very dangerous when they get mixed together but we all do this.”
Calvin Trillin, a writer for New Yorker magazine for three decades, said, “If you actually took seriously this being the ‘conscience of the world,’ you couldn’t bear to write.
“I can imagine my wife asking, as I went upstairs to write, if I could first take out the garbage,” Trillin observed. “But how could I? Am I not the conscience of the world? I imagine that when I did go up I would have little left to say.
“A more important question,” he said, “is whether the person is acting himself as a person of conscience. Does he ask himself, am I telling the truth?”