a quarter of a century ago I was travelling on a liner to Burma. Though not
a big ship, it was a comfortable and even a luxurious one, and when one was
not asleep or playing deck games one usually seemed to be eating. The meals
were of that stupendous kind that steamship companies used to vie with one
another in producing, and in between times there were snacks such as apples,
ices, biscuits and cups of soup, lest anyone should find himself fainting
from hunger. Moreover, the bars opened at ten in the morning, and, since we
were at sea, alcohol was relatively cheap.
The ships of this line were mostly manned by
Indians, but apart from the officers and the stewards they carried four
European quartermasters whose job was to take the wheel. One of these
quartermasters, though I suppose he was only aged forty or so, was one of
those old sailors on whose back you almost expect to see barnacles growing.
He was a short, powerful, rather ape-like man, with enormous forearms
covered by a mat of golden hair. A blond moustache which might have belonged
completely hid his mouth. I was only twenty years old and very conscious of
my parasitic status as a mere passenger, and I looked up to the
quartermasters, especially the fair-haired one, as godlike beings on a par
with the officers. It would not have occurred to me to speak to one of them
without being spoken to first.
One day, for some reason, I came up from lunch
early. The deck was empty except for the fair-haired quartermaster, who was
scurrying like a rat long the side of the deck-houses, with something
partially concealed between his monstrous hands. I had just time to see what
it was before he shot past me and vanished into a doorway. It was a pie dish
containing a half-eaten baked custard pudding.
At once glance I took in the situation – indeed,
the man’s air of guilt made it unmistakable. The pudding was a left-over
from one of the passengers’ tables. It had been illicitly given to him by
a steward, and he was carrying it off to the seamen’s quarters to devour
it at leisure. Across more than twenty years I can still faintly feel the
shock of astonishment that I felt at that moment. It took me some time to
see the incident in all its bearings: but do I seem to exaggerate when I say
that this sudden revelation of the gap between function and reward – the
revelation that a highly-skilled craftsman, who might literally hold all our
lives in his hands, was glad to steal scraps of food from our table –
taught me more than I could have learned from half a dozen Socialist
news item to the effect that Jugoslavia is now engaged on a purge of writers
and artists led me to look once again at the reports of the recent literary
purge in the U.S.S.R., when Zoschenko, Akhmatova
and others were expelled from the Writers’ Union.
In England this kind of thing is not happening to
us as yet, so that we can view it with a certain detachment, and, curiously
enough, as I look again at the accounts of what happened, I feel somewhat
more sorry for the persecutors than for their victims. Chief among the
persecutors is Andrei
Zhdanov, considered by some to be Stalin’s
probable successor. Zhdanov, though he has conducted literary purges before,
is a full-time politician with – to judge from his speeches – about as
much knowledge of literature as I have of aerodynamics. He does not give the
impression of being, according to his own lights, a wicked or dishonest man.
He is truly shocked by the defection of certain Soviet writers, which
appears to him as an incomprehensible piece of treachery, like a military
mutiny in the middle of a battle. The purpose of literature is to glorify
the Soviet Union; surely that must be obvious to everyone? But instead of
carrying out their plain duty, these misguided writers keep straying away
from the paths of propaganda, producing non-political works, and even in the
case of Zoschenko, allowing a satirical note to creep into their writings.
It is all very painful and bewildering. It is as though you set a man to
work in an excellent, up-to-date, air-conditioned factory, gave him high
wages, short hours, good canteens and playing-grounds, a comfortable flat, a
nursery-school for his children, all-round social insurance and music while
you work – only to find the ungrateful fellow throwing spanners into the
machinery on his very first day.
What makes the whole thing somewhat pathetic is the
general admission – an honest admission, seeing that Soviet publicists are
not in the habit of decrying their own country – that Russian literature
as a whole is not what it ought to be. Since the U.S.S.R. represents the
highest existing form of civilization, it is obvious that it ought to lead
the world in literature as in everything else. ‘Surely,’ says Zhdanov,
‘our new Socialist system, embodying all that is best in the history of
human civilization and culture, is capable of creating the most advanced
literature, which will leave far behind the best creations of olden
times.’ Izvestia (as quoted by the New York paper, Politics)
goes further: ‘Our culture stands on an immeasurably higher level than
bourgeois culture. . . . Is it not clear that our culture has the right not
to act as pupil and imitator but, on the contrary, to teach others the
general human morals?’ And yet somehow the expected thing never happens.
Directives are issued, resolutions are passed unanimously, recalcitrant
writers are silenced: and yet for some reason a vigorous and original
literature, unmistakably superior to that of capitalist
countries, fails to emerge.
All this has happened before, and more than once.
Freedom of expression has had its ups and downs in the U.S.S.R., but the
general tendency has been towards tighter censorship. The thing that
politicians are seemingly unable to understand is that you cannot produce a
vigorous literature by terrorizing everyone into conformity. A writer’s
inventive faculties will not work unless he is allowed to say approximately
what he feels. You can destroy spontaneity and produce a literature which is
orthodox but feeble, or you can let people say what they choose and take the
risk that some of them will utter heresies. There is no way out of that
dilemma so long as books have to be written by individuals.
That is why, in a way, I feel sorrier for the
persecutors than for the victims. It is probably that Zoschenko and the
others at least have the satisfaction of understanding what is happening to
them: the politicians who harry them are merely attempting the impossible.
For Zhdanov and his kind to say, ‘The Soviet Union can exist without
literature’ would be reasonable. But that is just what they can’t say.
They don’t know what literature is, but they know that it is important,
that it has prestige value, and that it is necessary for propaganda purposes,
and they would like to encourage it, if only they knew how. So they continue
with their purges and directives, like a fish bashing its nose against the
wall of an aquarium again and again, too dim-witted to realize that glass
and water are not the same thing.
The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus
the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present – I
am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am
going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into
the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep
myself warm? – But this is more pleasant – Dost thou exist then to take
thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the
little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working
together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou
unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to
do that which is according to thy nature?
It is a good plan to print this
well-known exhortation in large letters and hang it on the wall opposite
your bed. And if that fails, as I am told it sometimes does, another good
plan is to buy the loudest alarm clock you can get and place it in such a
position that you have to get out of bed and go round several pieces of
furniture in order to silence it.