As I Please
Tribune, 3 January 1947
Nearly 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
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 to Charlemagne 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
mans 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 seamens 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 pamphlets?
A 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 Stalins 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
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 writers 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
cant say. They dont 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.
From The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius:
In 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.