I believe that world literature has it in its power to help mankind, in these its troubled hours, to see itself as it really is, notwithstanding the indoctrinations of prejudiced people and parties. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
What is the difference between literature and propaganda?
This is something I’ve often pondered, especially in our highly sectarian and politically charged age, and a question I explored in a fashion as it pertains to spiritual fiction. But I’ve never quite felt that I found the answer.
The best distinction that I could come up with was that propaganda merely regurgitates answers, while genuine stories reframe the question altogether. But that seemed like an insufficient definition of either.
Then I came across this quote from Aldous Huxley:
The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.
That quote spoke concisely to a concept I had sensed but could never put into words. Our literature must remind us that even our enemies are human. Heaven knows our society would do well to remember this.
Our Very Human Enemies
If you follow me on social media, you may have noticed that I’ve spent the last few years with my nose in the classics, especially the Greeks. One of the things that impressed me most about Greek literature is the empathy the storytellers had for their political and military opponents, some of whom the poets themselves had fought in battle.
In his play The Persians, the tragedian Aeschylus illustrates the suffering that the Persian women must have felt after their empire lost to the Greeks in a battle Aeschylus himself had participated in eight years earlier. His contemporary Euripides wrote multiple plays about the Trojans who were enslaved by the Greeks after their city had fallen. His Trojan characters are sympathetic protagonists, and the Greeks are complex and sometimes cruel.
Currently, I’m reading Homer’s Iliad, written several centuries prior, which displays a similar compassion for the sufferings of the enemy. Many of the Trojan warriors are portrayed as likable family men with loving wives and children during quiet domestic scenes. (In fact, I don’t really like any of the Greek characters at all.) As I listened to Grant L. Voth’s lecture on the epic in one of his Great Courses series, I came across the following quote from Northrop Frye:
It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for Western literature of the Iliad’s demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic. With the Iliad, once and for all, an objective and disinterested element enters into the poet’s vision of human life. Without this element, poetry is merely instrumental to various social aims, to propaganda, to amusement, to devotion, to instruction: with it, it acquires authority that since the Iliad it has never lost, an authority based, like the authority of science, on the vision of nature as an impersonal order.
Does literature, true literature, always maintain this objectivity Frye mentions? If so, how does one determine the objectivity of a work of fiction?
These are questions I’m still pondering, but I’m reminded of Amazon’s original series Man in the High Castle.
Trust the Audience
Whereas the human ‘enemies’ in much of Greek literature were not really evil at all, this show explores what the world might have looked like had Hitler’s regime won the Second World War. The villain, John Smith, is a high-ranking Nazi official in Nazi-occupied America. It would be so easy for the makers of the show to paint the Nazis with a uniform, caricatured brush to caution the audience against the dangers of fascism.
Instead, the makers take a back seat. With about as much objectivity as a storyteller can muster, they allow the painstaking nuance to unfurl in the character development of Smith and his family. We see them eating breakfast together, getting the kids ready for school, socializing with other families, and doing things that normal families do. They are like us. But they aren’t. Like in Homer, we get to peer into the quiet moments of the characters’ lives to make our own evaluation, without being told what to think. And here, we see how Nazi ideology tears apart even the most ordinary-looking family, a microcosm of its effects on the broader culture. The show does not shy away from the cruel aspects of Smith’s character (which are many and profound), but it never lets us forget that he is indeed human.
This doesn’t mean that all characters must be morally murky. The show also follows strong heroes stout-heartedly fighting against the darkness in their society. But it does remind us that evil often looks more ordinary than we might expect. Every villain begins life the same as any of us. Every hero has the potential to choose a different path. Contrary to propaganda of the past, there are not some born to evil and others to good. We are each cut of the same cloth, and may each choose what to do with it.
One is reminded of this gem from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Perhaps true literature leaves us to find that line, and to answer its questions, for ourselves.
Some final thoughts from Solzhenitsyn:
Who will co-ordinate these value scales, and how? Who will create for mankind one system of interpretation, valid for good and evil deeds, for the unbearable and the bearable, as they are differentiated today? Who will make clear to mankind what is really heavy and intolerable and what only grazes the skin locally? Who will direct the anger to that which is most terrible and not to that which is nearer? Who might succeed in transferring such an understanding beyond the limits of his own human experience? Who might succeed in impressing upon a bigoted, stubborn human creature the distant joy and grief of others, an understanding of dimensions and deceptions which he himself has never experienced? Propaganda, constraint, scientific proof — all are useless. But fortunately there does exist such a means in our world! That means is art. That means is literature. – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (emphasis mine)
What do you think of these quotes from men who lived in an age plagued with propaganda? Is true literature the objective demonstration of the humanity of all its humans? How do we humanize our characters, and can we do this when our characters dehumanize themselves?