During my sixth-form years, I studied Ancient Greek for the first and last time. It played no part in my A-level curriculum. My school, a suburban academic hothouse that liked to show off the breadth and balance of its teaching at the same time as it delivered those all-important grades, insisted that senior pupils should taste a subject that had no direct relation to the pursuit of qualifications and certificates. Nonetheless, this high-minded gesture towards the value of a purely liberal education was – in my case, at least – not quite all it seemed.
The headmaster himself took our Greek class. Like many high-achieving teachers of his generation, he was a promising scholar who had risen, or fallen, into administration. A recreational return to the world of Euripides, Plato and Herodotus transported him back, for an hour or two, to a blessed place remote from problem pupils, wayward staff, building plans and pushy parents. So, on the morning of our lessons, he would stride back to his study from the morning assembly with a spring in his step. Our band of volunteer classicists would be sitting outside. ‘Come along, my Grecians,’ he would almost sing, as we followed him into the inner sanctum for a mind-expanding dip into antiquity.
I never learned all that much of the language. After all, I knew I need not try too hard. No tests or exams lay at the end of our ancient way: that was the point. Yet we did work from a book that consisted of easy-access extracts from canonical works, mostly drama and history – with a little light philosophy. In sips rather than drafts, I tasted the Athenian source at its point of origin rather than having to rely on dilutions in a modern bottle. Via scattered fragments, I heard Sophocles’ Antigone speak defiance on behalf of her dishonoured brother against Creon and his almighty state. I tried as well to decipher riddling Socrates when – according to Plato –the condemned subversive teased and jested with authority in the hours before his hemlock-speeded death.
Our textbook also made room for a few selections from the Greek of the New Testament. Even then, I understood that the ‘Koine’ of the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles was considered no match in subtlety or elegance for the tongue of the pagan playwrights and sages. A workaday lingua franca of ports and markets across the eastern Roman Empire, it allowed the peoples of the Mediterranean to talk and to trade. No classicist – as opposed to theologian – rated Koine Greek very highly as a vehicle for literary expression.
Yet the Gospel had its moments. And one of them lodged, indelibly, in my memory. For around 1,900 years, no one has been quite sure how to interpret the opening sentence of the Gospel of St John: the most mystical, intellectual and elusive of the quartet of texts that emerged from decades of scholarly winnowing to make up the approved New Testament. En archē ēn ho Lógos, kai ho Lógos ēn pros ton Theón, kai Theós ēn ho Lógos: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God.’ So runs the King James Version of 1611. Other, less orthodox translations maintain that ‘the Word was a god’. That rogue indefinite article undermines the doctrine of the Trinity, of three persons in one deity: the monotheistic back-stop installed by the Church fathers to defend their fresh faith against the default polytheism of the cultures through which it spread, with their altars, shrines, groves and temples that housed a god for every large and small thing.
I knew nothing of Christology then, and know very little more these days. All the same, I did grasp through the Greek that, at the root of this religion, lay the power of the Word. And not only the Christian creed that St Paul began to fashion out of the reform Judaism of Palestine in the early first century. The Logos drives monotheism. For the Abrahamic faiths, the sacred scripture – with its energising junction of storytelling and exposition, fable and doctrine – served as a kind of rocket-fuel. The holy text not only gathers the faithful around the Word but turbo-charges resistance, expansion or conversion.
Written around six centuries before the Gospel of St John, the Book of Exodus reports that Moses brought the Law to the Israelites from the swirling clouds of Mount Sinai: ‘And the Lord said unto Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.’ (Exodus 24.12; King James Version). After another half-millennium, in the early seventh century, the Qur’an would reinforce the primacy of the sacred text. ‘Recite! Your Lord is most bountiful. He taught with the pen. He taught man what he knew not’ (96.1). Or, as 2:2 proclaims: ‘This is the Book in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of God’.
In the beginning, the Word was a fount of authority – but also a spring of dissent and ambiguity. God, or a god? The Word, the story, the argument: Logos can embrace all three. Above all, the Word empowers its expositors and interpreters. Its idioms and dialects can enrich students in every way, tangible and intangible. Our merry sessions of sixth-form Greek served an ulterior purpose. The headmaster could endorse university applications and write other references. The better he knew you, the clearer you might stand out from the crowd. For concrete as well as abstract reasons, I had no cause to regret my mornings as a trainee ‘Grecian’ confronted with the deepest enigmas of the Word.
For all their quarrels with one another and among themselves, the People of the Book paid a common homage to the majesty of Logos. Scripture, often as gnomic and ambivalent as the first words of St John, required interpretation from scholars and sages, rabbis, priests and imams. The Word generated authority – and challenges to authority – across all the lands where Abrahamic belief took root. Within monotheistic faith, it solidifies hierarchy, but equally it dissolves hierarchy. The Word can be turned against the forces that have seized it.
Far back at the fountain-head of Abrahamic faith, parts of the Talmudic tradition celebrate not only the value of argument between man and man, but between man and God. Bewilderment, bemusement, even anger at God accompany the birth of belief in an undivided deity. For all three faiths, God’s inscrutable demand that Abraham should sacrifice his son Isaac stands as the primal mystery – and burden – of the disembodied Word. Isaac’s last-minute reprieve (‘Lay not thine hand upon the lad’) may, for the anthropologists, commemorate the ancient transition from human to animal sacrifice. For ordinary believers, and ordinary doubters, it more often represents the head-splitting strangeness of all divinity.
Later in the Hebrew manuscripts that came to be known as the Old Testament, the Book of Job reinforces the idea of a single God as an unreadable, even sadistic taskmaster. In his answer ‘out of the whirlwind’ to the just Job’s ever-growing litany of afflictions, God mandates merely blind trust, infinite patience and worshipful awe in the face of his tetchy majesty: ‘Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him?’ (Job 40.2). The Lord does not account for himself. Rather, he rewards Job with ‘twice as much as he had before’ (Job 42.10).
From the beginning, the divine Word gives rise to resistance. For the ageing Sigmund Freud, no longer a diagnostician of individual but of cultural maladies, humanity never quite knew how to receive the gift of monotheistic belief. The words of the scriptures, at once peremptory and unfathomable, both asked for too much and said too little. According to a positively antique Jewish joke, the divine wisdom of the entire Torah – the five books of Moses – can be summed up in four words: ‘Because I say so!’ God disposed, and man shuffled, grumbled and rebelled. For Freud in his revisionist essay ‘Moses and Monotheism’ (1939), human beings never truly reconciled themselves to a form of faith that so sternly cut against the grain of the ancient, populous pantheons. He posits the idea that the Israelites showed their gratitude to Moses – whom Freud sees as an Egyptian – by murdering him. Yet the invisible God that the prophet brought down from Sinai would in time propel the secular Word as it developed in philosophy, literature and science. Deity dematerialised, from idol into text, and with this shift came a world-changing ‘advance in intellectuality’.
Today, the Israeli novelist Amos Oz has little time for the formal observances of supernatural faith. He still puts his trust in the supreme dialectical value of dispute with and even against the voice of heaven. Co-written with his historian daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger, Oz’s book Jews and Words (2014) voices his own credo. ‘We have no use for the synagogue,’ Oz told me. ‘We believe that Judaism is a civilisation based mostly on language.’ Oz cites his favourite tale of ‘reverent irreverence’ among the rabbis of the Talmud: the story of Akhnai’s Oven. ‘Two saintly rabbis argue about interpreting the law in their capacity as judges. And they cannot reach a verdict. They will die arguing, but finally God has mercy on them. A voice is heard from above, saying ‘Rabbi Eliezer is right. Rabbi Yehoshua is wrong. Go to sleep’. And then the loser, Rabbi Yehoshua, turns his eyes upward and says, ‘Please keep out of it. You have given the Torah to human beings. Buzz off! Buzz off!’’
Ever since Abraham wrangled with God over the fate of Sodom like ‘a shrewd second-hand car dealer’, Jewish dialectic has dared to scold the Almighty. But can purely verbal believers such as Oz pick and choose: the jokes, the heroes and heroines, the tall tales, but none of the theological Word? He argues: ‘People will hurl at us that Judaism is a package deal: take it or leave it. It’s not a package deal. It’s a heritage. And a heritage is something you can play with. You can decide which part of the heritage you allocate to your living room, and which part goes to the attic or to the basement. This is the legitimate right of every heir. And I regard myself as a legitimate heir of the Jewish civilisation. I can relegate some of the heritage to the attic.’ Buzz off, God, indeed.
From another Abrahamic faith, the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has explained to me that, for her, the embroideries and embellishments of the Word in Sufi traditions of Islam can disperse power beyond its official interpreters. Against or outside patriarchal authority, ‘I realised that women who have been denied any power in other spheres of life can find a means of existence in this little world of superstitions, of folk-tales, of storytelling… They are the queen in that sphere’. For Shafak, the living Word of Sufism – a matter of the spirit rather than the letter – liberates the writer to absorb and harmonise many different stories. ‘This is something that perhaps I derive from Sufism. Because I think the human being is a microcosm: all the conflicts present outside are also present inside him… Art has the capacity constantly to deconstruct its own truths. That’s again why I think there’s a link between Sufism and literature. For me, both of them are about transcending the self, the boundaries given by birth.’
The scriptural text constrains, but it can also emancipate. As if in response to some human instinct for intellectual ju-jitsu, rebels, reformers and revisers both within and against religious tradition turn the power of the divine Word back on itself – and sometimes leave it flattened on the floor. Yet heresy requires orthodoxy. Revolt requires order. Dissent requires doctrine. In the Christian West as well, what Greek drama would have called antagonistic process of challenge, riposte and redefinition drove change. One kind of order modified, subverted, refreshed but did not simply demolish another. Post-medieval movements of enquiry and Enlightenment drew strength from the established institutions of belief. Both Renaissance and Reformation enlisted the power of the Word to subdue or transform the authority of state and church. New words, and new laws, sprang from old words and old laws.
As with many cultural revolutions, Renaissance and Reformation alike presented themselves as a return to the origin. For Renassance scholars, poring over classical manuscripts in the princely libraries of Italy, the authority to be revived lay in the canonical texts of Greece and Rome. To a political prophet such as Machiavelli, as for the English revolutionaries of the Civil Wars, the radiant future lay far in the past. Republican Rome, as idealised in the works of Cicero or Livy, should guide the statesman in search of a better tomorrow.
For sixteenth-century Protestant reformers in the wake of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the corrupt accretions of the Roman church had settled in a crust around the Word of God. Liberation would arrive when the mass of Catholic commentary had been stripped down and cleaned away. Within Europe, the printing press had since the 1450s had amplified the power of the subversive word. One memorable dramatisation of the belief that the letterpress will re-make the world comes in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831). It was published a year after the ‘July Revolution’ in Paris, led by a squadron of journalists, artists and poets. The plot unfolds in 1482, not long after Gutenberg had recreated the Asian craft of moveable-type printing in Germany. At one point, Archdeacon Frollo looks up from a printed volume to the towers of the cathedral. ‘Ceci tuera cela,’ he muses: ‘This will kill that’.
It never did – no more than it extinguished the synagogue or mosque. On the contrary: the Church – like embattled institutions ever since – harnessed the power of new media to fight back against subversive or reformist ideas. Martin Luther probably never physically nailed his ‘95 theses’ against ecclesiastical abuses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. He did offer them politely to the Archbishop of Mainz. However, by January 1518 they had been printed – and spread like bushfire across Europe. Very soon, however, the partisans of Rome struck back in kind. An epoch-defining war of words began.
Polemic moved quickly in the early Reformation. Merchants, scholars and envoys carried books and pamphlets along the trade routes that knit Europe’s cities together. One literary gambit trumped another in an escalating battle of ideas. In 1520, Luther had launched a salvo of calls for church reform. In 1521, Henry VIII of England – or so it said on the title page – responded with the orthodox Defence of the Seven Sacraments (ghosted by his thinker-in-chief, Thomas More). In gratitude, Pope Leo X granted the English monarch the title of Fidei Defensor, defender of the faith. Look at the face of any UK coin (still marked ‘F.D’) for a glimpse of how much doctrinal tracts mattered to the state.
From the age of Reformation through the age of Revolution, the power of the printed word as a solvent of dogma became an article of faith for both radicals and reactionaries in Europe and then the Americas. Because it was so fervently believed, it might have grown more real. And nobody believed in it more steadfastly than the Holy Office in Rome, which drew up and enforced the Catholic Church’s ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’ between 1559 and 1966.
From Kepler and Galileo through Voltaire and Hume to Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the banned works on the Index add up to a gazetteer for 400 years of Enlightenment. Paradoxically, the attentions of the Index confirmed a belief in the secular Western book as ground-breaking dynamite. In every age, the censor’s proscription salutes the power of its target. Authority does not ban what it does not fear. Conversely, persecution can spread the Word faster and louder than indifferent acceptance. Galileo’s trials in 1616 and 1633 echoed around the literate world, and hastened the triumph of the new – or rather, the revived –heliocentric cosmology. Rome did learn its lesson. By the 1860s, the Index chose to overlook Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). That neglect (or smart decision) has exempted the Catholic Church from having to take part in the evolution wars over the past 150 years.
Words burnt frequently across the late-medieval and early-modern world, as struggles between and within rival monotheisms took their cue from holy books and their state-sanctioned interpreters. The people who created, imported or preached the revolutionary Word burnt too – from the Protestant radical William Tyndale, whose English translations of the Bible underpin the later King James Version, at Antwerp in 1536; to the free-thinking scientist Giordano Bruno at Rome in 1600. Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Reconquest’ of Spain and Portugal by Catholic monarchs sent much of the Muslim culture of Iberia literally up in smoke. At a book-burning in Granada in 1499, a reported 5,000 volumes in Arabic – both sacred and secular – were consigned to the flames.
Yet, even at this front-line in the holy wars, another concept of the power of the Word made itself heard. In Granada, some Christian clerics pleaded for the library of the Emirs to be saved from the pyre. Theology aside, they knew that the Islamic kingdoms of Spain had hosted the Muslim and Jewish scholars who, via Arabic, both transmitted the scientific and medical learning of the ancient world to Europe and enriched it with new research along the way. For some minds, the idea that the true power of the Word lay in addition and accretion rather than a mortal struggle against enemies had already germinated.
Slowly, it became possible to think that someone else’s Word and way of thought might deepen rather than threaten your own. By 1580, Michel de Montaigne – a sceptical Catholic of partly Jewish descent – could look out across landscapes ravaged by the Wars of Religion in France and think sympathetically about the ‘Cannibals’ of the newly-explored Americas as people with stories and customs worthy of respect. To Montaigne, ‘I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that everyone gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country.’ The idea of plural realities corrects the delusion that, on our home turf, ‘there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.’
At roughly the same moment, in Mughal India, the Muslim emperor Akbar gathered scribes and sages from all the faiths he knew – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism – in an ornate audience hall at Fatehpur Sikri outside Agra. The Emperor asked them to debate the differences between their creeds, and to find their similarities. If the venue is correct (and no one knows for sure), you may still stand among those carved columns and ponder the birth of a syncretic Word that gains its power by amendment and comparison rather than competition, conquest and erasure.
Historians warn against trying to romanticise, or modernise, the acts and motives of pre-modern rulers. Akbar no doubt wanted the assorted clerics to argue among themselves, not with him. All the same, that multi-faith durbar at Fatehpur Sikri does feel, as with Montaigne’s pluralism, like a breakthrough of sorts. Shortly before a new age of rational investigation opened in Europe, Akbar had hinted that one could call a truce among the warring Words.
Open-minded curiosity about the traditions and convictions of others of course pre-dated the Renaissance in Europe. In the Islamic world, Ibn Battuta had on his travels in the fourteenth century from Spain to India pioneered the art and science of cross-cultural analogy The outlines of a new relationship between the Word and power begin to emerge. In place of the agonistic struggles of the age of faith-driven conquest, a more dialectical style comes to the fore. Writing of Shakespeare, himself (as The Tempest proves) a student of Montaigne, John Keats praised the ‘negative capability’ that can hold complexity and contradiction in a stable suspension without any ‘irritable reaching’ after certainty. For Montaigne himself, the European encounter with the Americas had not given the incomers a licence to plunder but a chance to learn: ‘Our world has just found another, and who can be sure that this will be the last of its brothers?’
In Europe, this opening-up to the power of another’s Word took place in fits and starts. Militant Protestants still looked for conquest rather than conciliation on the battlefield of interpretation. Both a theological and political revolutionary, John Milton may have defended freedom of expression during the English civil wars in his tract Areopagitica (1644). But he did so in the belief that his preferred Logos would undoubtedly prevail: ‘Whoever saw Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ Besides, Milton’s tolerance of dissent built fences of its own. In common with much of the Protestant tradition, he tended to treat Islam as a misguided but interesting deviation from proper monotheism while saving his real ire for Roman Catholic superstition and ritualism. Milton served Oliver Cromwell, who formally readmitted Jews to England in 1656, but he did not extend tolerance to Catholics because he thought them potential traitors to the state. Some Words stayed beyond the pale.
Even when science and Enlightenment took over from proselytising Christianity as the keynote of European advancement, the Word retained its drive towards dominion. One strand of rational enquiry did choose to compare rather than to conquer. In the eighteenth century, the philosophes in France picked up Montaigne’s pluralistic thread to contrast their own native cultures- often unfavourably – with conditions elsewhere. Satirical reproofs to the status quo may come from outer space, in Voltaire’s Micromegas, from Persia, in Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes – or even across the Channel, when the young Voltaire (in Letters on the English) used the idealised example of a commercial, decentralised, multi-faith state under the rule of law as a stick with which to goad absolutist France.
Yet Enlightenment could just as easily mean the quest for a master-narrative to ingest or even eliminate other people’s Word. The historian Jonathan Israel has plotted the continuing tension between Radical Enlightenment (2002) as a project of individual and social self-analysis, and the forms of instrumental knowledge that the combative states of the Age of Reason wished to employ. In the 1650s, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s bid to reframe the power of the Word as a power of self-reflection and unlimited enquiry could still outrage the norms of a world that believed in a monolithic Truth. Expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam, Spinoza became the prototype of the modern blasphemer. Yet, in one crucial aspect, the cap does not fit. His Ethics, published in 1677, might have fed an underground river of dissenting speculation that did much to nurture a metaphysics and morality beyond organised religion. But Spinoza doubted human doubt as much as he eroded religious dogma. No positivist creed can be adduced from his work, and its conflation of the idea of a depersonalised God with nature and reason – in short, with the Word.
Other scientific path-breakers proved equally resistant to the rational Word as a secular religion. If Charles Darwin’s narrative of evolution proceeded in part from his private loss of faith, it never resolved into a manifesto for materialism. The power of this Word lies in unending, self-revising curiosity – a winding path of tests, variations and adaptations to match its own narrative of natural selection. His peroration to the Origin of Species speaks of the nobility of change and complexity in nature rather than the satisfaction of a fixed system: ‘There is grandeur in this view of life,’ so that ‘whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved’.
The power of infinite curiosity, of Keats’ Shakespearean ‘negative capability’, proved harder to sustain than the idea of an exclusive creed. Soon after the Origin appeared in 1859, the anti-ecclesiastical militant Thomas Henry Huxley – ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ – had, although he coined the consciously open-minded term ‘agnostic’, begun to reframe the defence of evolution in terms of knock-down bouts with bishops. Needless to say, the church hierarchy was happy to oblige. Word against Word, with polemic the means and victory the end, remained the default setting of the European mind. Matthew Arnold, another homeless refugee from the breakdown of belief, wrote in ‘Dover Beach’ of his desolation as the ‘sea of faith’ ebbed to leave merely ‘ignorant armies that clash by night’.
Frequently, those ignorant armies took their Word as a unitary law. In colonial India, Thomas Babington Macaulay fused Protestantism and Enlightenment into a forced march towards modernisation that would swing reason like a scimitar against traditional belief. In his Minute on Education (1835), Macaulay envisaged the breeding of ‘a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ He objected in particular to the government-funded teaching of Arabic and Sanskrit classics, and the printing of texts in those languages, given ‘the intrinsic superiority of the Western literature’. For Macaulay the model moderniser, echoing Milton, ‘We do not even stand neuter in the contest between truth and falsehood. We are not content to leave the natives to the influence of their own hereditary prejudices.’
Elsewhere, the words that encouraged social revolution had no more qualms about the exercise of power. For Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach, written in the spring of 1845 but first published in 1924, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’. As if – as the thinker who found Hegel ‘standing on his head’ and turned him the right way up well knew – interpretation were not itself an agent of change. Marx was no Marxist (he said so himself), but he did usher in the age of manifestos and so helped the secular Word adopt its own version of the missionary position.
Still, a paradox lies at the heart of the Marxist and sociological belief in the force of revolutionary discourse. It can only bring about what was already destined to happen. From the Manifesto of the Communist Party, co-written with Friedrich Engels in 1848, to the three volumes of Capital (1887, 1885, 1894), Marx became an archetype of the writer whose books might alter the course of events. Yet most of his work tells another story. Although admirers of his Hegelian ‘1844 manuscripts’ might dispute the idea, the overall effect of Marxist materialism was to downgrade the firepower of beliefs as fuel for history’s march. For radical thinkers today, the notion that the economic ‘base’ determines the cultural ‘superstructure’ counts as ‘vulgar Marxism’. But the vulgar version took hold, for better or worse. Class conflict would, especially as re-imagined by Lenin as a licence for vanguard-party elitism, trump the battle of ideas.
For the wider radical movement, books remained icons, totems and talismans. They worked conversions and propelled the struggle. No one can survey the career of Leo Tolstoy, say, and not acknowledge that the novelist’s global renown lent his works a missionary force that touched hearts – and altered the course of events. Not only in Tsarist Russia, either: you might argue that, via the impact of his tracts about non-violent revolution on MK Gandhi and other anti-imperialists in India, the Count even helped to bring down the Raj.
Other novels have moved mountains, at least in the popular imagination. None did so to more spectacular effect than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After 1852, its sentimental melodrama became a battering-ram for the anti-slavery cause in America’s Civil War. The remark attributed to President Abraham Lincoln on meeting Stowe in 1862 – ‘So this is the little lady who started this great war’ – is most likely apocryphal. Nonetheless, it captures what countless contemporaries thought. The British prime minister Lord Palmerston, that original gunboat-despatching liberal imperialist, said that ‘I have not read a novel for thirty years; but I have read that book three times, not only for the story, but for the statesmanship of it.’
This mass-market Word could aspire not merely to influence over an elite but to ‘statesmanship’. Yet the Marxists, along with other sociological determinists, had cast doubt on the text as a tool of transformation. If vast epoch-making forces of class, economy and state drove world-shaking events, did it matter what treatises or stories advocated? That puzzle haunted writers who stood on the fringe, or in the thick, of nationalist as well as socialist upheavals. ‘Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?’ WB Yeats asked in his poem ‘The Man and the Echo’, referring to the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. He left the question unanswered. Lenin, strategist first and thinker second, brutally cut through this knot by fashioning the close-knit party as a machine that could jump-start historical change. Read Sayyid Qutb, or scrutinise the tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, and it is hard not to conclude that this Leninist Islam has absorbed from the Europe of a century ago both the power – and the paradox – of the militant, transforming Word.
Creeds rise and fall, mutate and mix. The hunger for a killer book of revelation – or revolution – persists. As I write, the comedian Russell Brand’s scattergun treatise Revolution (2014) rides high in the British bestseller charts. Brand may stand at the farcical fag-end of a long tradition of empowering words. Still, his acclaim confirms that it can still emit a glow. As late as the 1960s, the antediluvian dogma of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book played its part in impoverishing lives and lowering horizons in the world’s most populous nation. Advancement there, however unequal its outcomes, meant tearing up the book.
As the ideology-scourged twentieth century waned, many of the creative writers whose own words carried most weight did just that. As they surveyed the killing-fields of their time, literary figures tended to measure an ever-wider gap between their words and any form of scriptural orthodoxy. When George Orwell denounced the ‘smelly little ideologies contending for our souls’ in an essay on Charles Dickens in 1939, and in Nineteen Eighty-Four dissected the totalitarian abuse of language, memory and history, he spoke for a generation that elevated solitary truth against collective faith. As he wrote in 1943 in a polemic on ‘Literature and the Left’, ‘there is no knowing just how much the Socialist movement has lost by alienating the literary intelligentsia. But it has alienated them, partly by confusing tracts with literature, and partly by having no room in it for a humanistic culture.’ Orwell regrets that writers who sought to take a radical stand ‘were first regarded with patronage and suspicion and then, when it was found that they would not or could not turn themselves into gramophone records, they were thrown out on their ears. Most of them retreated into individualism.’ Seven decades later, they still do.
By the 1940s, an all-weather advocate such as George Bernard Shaw –zealously proselytising for causes from socialism to eugenics to vegetarianism – had begun to look like a historical throwback. Although post-war thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre would wrestle to align individual choice with class solidarity, the murderous ‘grand narratives’ of the twentieth century West tended to sever truth from power. Almost three-quarters of a century after WB Yeats had danced around the edge of a revolution, another Irish poet would scan the chasm that divided speech from force. Seamus Heaney not only stood at a conscious angle to overt commitment, for all the eloquence of his meditations on the Irish past. He made his intimate detachment – so near, and yet so far from the punch and counter-punch of history – the subject of much of his best verse.
In ‘The Flight-Path’, for example, the poet looks back from the relative stability of the 1990s to the height of the Troubles in 1979. He recalls a meeting en route from Dublin to Belfast with an angry Republican – by implication, an IRA supporter if not an actual guerrilla – who demands: ‘When, for fuck’s sake, are you going to write/ Something for us?’ The poet replies: ‘If I do write something,/ Whatever it is, I’ll be writing for myself.’ With Heaney, however, one stratum of irony overlays another. A few lines later, having invoked the ‘dirty protest’ of IRA inmates at Long Kesh jail, the poet sees the red eyes of the enraged militant ‘Drilling their way through the rhymes and images/ Where I too walked behind the righteous Virgil’. ‘I too’, because Heaney has also just alluded to Dante, an earlier disciple of the Roman poet. As Heaney understands, his beloved Virgil wrote as the flag-waving bard of Roman imperialism under the poet’s patron, the first Emperor Augustus. In his lecture ‘What is a Classic?’, which Heaney knew, TS Eliot approvingly connects Virgil’s Aeneid – the epic of Rome’s foundation – at once to the birth of the ‘classical’ tradition in Western literature and to the idea of empire. Speaking in 1944, with the Third Reich’s own appropriation of the classical-imperial Word still in power over much of Europe, Eliot dubs the Roman imperium and the Latin language ‘an empire and a language with a unique destiny in relation to ourselves’. Willing disciple of Virgil and Dante, Heaney, the man of unsullied words, can no more dodge power in its entirety than he can step away from his own shadow.
Given the bad faith, moral coercion and outright intimidation that have partnered the demand for creative minds to serve some ‘struggle’ or other, Heaney’s refusal to enlist becomes exemplary. Neither, in his case or others’, does it impede a willingness to commemorate historic injustice and salute the memory of its victims. In the modern literature of conflict, naming the dead becomes an act of restoration that returns to the Word its primal, almost magical authority. Yeats himself knew this when, in ‘Easter 1916’, he chanted the names of the Irish revolutionaries whose cause he could support only in the most doubt-encumbered way: ‘I write it out in a verse –/ MacDonagh and MacBride/ And Connolly and Pearse/ Now and in time to be,/ Wherever green is worn,/ Are changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.’
The Word may remember the dead, inscribe their sacrifice, and give a voice to the voiceless even if it seeks no role in the state or any other mode of power. In the twentieth century movements of liberation, expressive language performs a key function in resistance if not in active revolution. From Frantz Fanon and Simone de Beauvoir to Edward Said and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, empowering the oppressed has taken on a distinctly literary hue. Read any emancipatory landmark of the past half century or so, and the critical analysis of a hegemonic literature or ideology will often give it crucial leverage. Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) in large part an exercise in counter-patriarchal LitCrit, is just one case in point. One might dub this (as post-colonial theorists have) the Caliban strategy, after Shakespeare’s enslaved ‘monster’ in The Tempest: ‘You taught me language,’ he tells the invading Prospero, ‘and my profit on’t/ Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!’
Post-colonial or anti-patriarchal, the Calibans of the unshackled Word write back to power in its own approved tongue. For an age that – zealotry aside – has lost much of its belief in positive authority, the language of resistance has a special charm and potency. It lends the Word all the glamour of critique without any of the stain that comes with the exercise of power. Before the abortive ‘Arab Spring’, as tyrants tottered across the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood could in its neo-Leninist fashion gain traction by stating on every occasion that ‘Islam is the solution’. Meanwhile, the secular Egyptian novelist Alaa Al-Aswany had in his newspaper columns struck back at religious populism with his own motto: ‘Democracy is the solution’. Such words of resistance, although they may stiffen the sinews of opposition, can also deal in sentimental uplift rather than furnish a true alternative to the powers-that-be.
Back in Europe’s own tyrannical backyard, one standard-bearer of resistance via the Word never lost a sense of scepticism about literary combat. In 1980, in the depths of his country’s neo-Stalinist midwinter, the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel theorised ‘The Power of the Powerless’ in an influential essay. In the wake of the Soviet invasion that crushed the ‘Prague Spring’ of 1968, the playwright already had experience of clandestine organisations, of campaigns and open letters, protest manifestos and prison sentences. He had helped to write and launch the pro-democratic ‘Charter 77’ and denounced his nation’s state of fearful paralysis in a defiant letter to President Husak. Yet ‘The Power of the Powerless’ insists that literary activism will not thaw this frozen society, but ‘living in truth’: the daily practice of honesty and integrity in thinking, writing and personal conduct. Havel’s quietism does not issue in passivity. Instead, the true word spoken, written and above all performed will bring a ‘repressed alternative’ to fruition. This ‘parallel polis’ can in time defeat the actual one.
Even in October 1989, on the cusp of world-historical change, Havel warned against the hubris of those who wished for the Word to re-write reality. Accepting the annual Peace Prize at the Frankfurt Book Fair, he said that ‘it always pays to be suspicious of words… The same word can be humble at one moment and arrogant the next. And a humble word can be transformed easily… into an arrogant one’. On the brink of a revolution that he had helped to create, Havel set the words of humility against those of mastery. Soon, in an irony worthy of his own surreal and paradoxical plays, the writer who shied away from authority not only became his nation’s President in January 1990 but, repeatedly re-elected, held that post until 2003. For all his inevitable blunders, no professional wordsmith has done better in high office.
It could be that his wariness about the almighty Word rendered Havel all the more effective as an artist of the state. His truthful text was above all defensive rather than imperial. His words seek not to conquer but to cherish and conserve. They challenge the missionary position, in language and culture, that has spread darkness as well as light. Merchants of the word always enjoy stories that hail their muscle and majesty. ‘This will kill that!’, as Hugo’s book-brandishing cleric insists. Perhaps, as Havel hints, too many books – sacred and secular alike – have set out to change the world, and have done so all too successfully.
The Word may now shine brighter as a shield than as a sword. In the weary aftermath of modern wars of faith, it needs more power-challenging defenders and fewer power-hungry zealots. The defensive Word can take many contemporary forms. Prison and persecution can lend a text value in a context remote from its creation. In the 1970s, political detainees in apartheid South Africa read and re-read the so-called ‘Robben Island Bible’: in reality, a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare smuggled into the South African prison by a prisoner, Sonny Venkatrathnam. In this racist Calvinist theocracy, the Word of God retained a peculiar authority. Or of the gods: Venkatrathnam had covered his Shakespeare edition with pictures of Indian deities so that he could pass it off as a sacred Hindu scripture. Inside the island fortress, inmates would debate the plays with passion and even add a signature to sections that meant the most to them. One prisoner marked the lines from Julius Caesar in which Caesar says, ‘Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death but once’. Nelson Mandela signed these words on 16 December 1977.
In the face of tyranny or menace, the unfettered Word becomes something to cherish more than something to impose. In his third-person memoir Joseph Anton (2013), Salman Rushdie tells the story of his transition after the Iranian fatwa of February 1989 from an assertive combatant in the culture wars to a fugitive under sentence of death who had to depend on champions, advocates and safeguarders. Not all emerged unscathed: the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was assassinated; Rushdie’s Italian translator and Norwegian publisher both suffered grave injuries in fatwa-driven attacks. Above all, Joseph Anton gives homage to the guardians of the Word under siege. As Rushdie explained when we discussed the memoir, ‘Many people had stood up for me vocally, with great courage and principle, and I wanted to give back what I could.’ Rushdie in this mode no longer sounds like an experimenter or transgressor, but a celebrant of ‘people who love me’. ‘One of the things I’m most happy about,’ he said, ‘is to have had the chance to talk about how much people helped me.’
Under suspicion, under attack, under threat of banning or burning, the Word inspires not a lust for conquest but a protective tenderness. Heinrich Heine famously said that: ‘where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too.’ True enough, but how many of those who cite Heine know that his maxim first referred to burnings of the Qur’an by the Spanish Inquisition, and appeared in his 1821 tragedy, Almansor? In a modern paroxysm of military book-annihilation, Serbian artillery began in August 1992 to bombard and set ablaze the buildings of the National and University Library of Sarajevo, with its 1.5 million volumes and 150,000 rare books and manuscripts housed in the neo-Moorish old town hall. Most of the collections perished; other city libraries were also shelled to ashes. The Oriental Institute lost many priceless Jewish and Islamic manuscripts. Yet some people in Sarajevo, of different backgrounds, put their lives at risk to save the Word. Dr Mustafa Jahic and his colleagues – including a nightwatchman from Congo – managed to carry 10,000 books and manuscripts, under sniper fire, from the library of the Gazi Husrev Beg mosque.
Only two years ago, a parallel story unfolded in Timbuktu. As early as the 1320s, the Malian ruler Mansa Musa I converted the madrassa of Sankore into a fully-fledged university. Thanks to Sankore and other institutions, Timbuktu accumulated its renowned treasure-trove of manuscripts, perhaps 700,000 in all. They covered the range of arts and sciences known to the late-medieval world. In January 2013, during Mali’s civil war, the retreating fundamentalist rebels of Ansar Dine reportedly put to the torch both the Ahmad Baba institute and a separate warehouse as they fled Timbuktu. Yet, after the rebels evacuated the city, it emerged that most manuscripts had survived the puritan hatred of the rebels.
Led by Abdel Kader Haidara, director of the Mamma Haidara Library, representatives of Timbuktu’s thirty-two family libraries had secretly and at grave risk transported more than 350,000 items to Bamako. The Word had escaped beyond the reach of bombs, flames and dogmas. For art historian Julie Chaizemartin, writing as a recent exhibition devoted to the ‘Timbuktu Renaissance’ opened in Brussels, their mission constitutes ‘one of the biggest cultural rescue operations ever in the context of an exacerbated political-ideological war’.
In the long run, sheer apathy may menace the power of the Word more than censors, burners, banners and warriors both sacred and profane. Deep in the vast indifference of the internet all our texts can be stored but scorned, filed and forgotten. As early as the 1940s, a quarter-century before progress in computing wove the first strands of the Web, Jorge-Luis Borges had already contemplated the melancholy of the infinite Word in his story ‘The Library of Babel’. Borges’s Library, which becomes the whole universe, consists of a hive of hexagonal galleries that contain not merely every book that exists but every book that could conceivably exist. ‘When it was proclaimed that the Library contained all books, the first impression was one of extravagant happiness. All men felt themselves to be the masters of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal or world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist in some hexagon.’ However, as each human being searches vainly for the personal volume of ‘Vindication’ that will justify ‘the acts of every man in the universe’, disenchantment follows. ‘As was natural, this inordinate hope was followed by an excessive depression. The certitude that some shelf in some hexagon held precious books and that these precious books were inaccessible, seemed almost intolerable.’ Borges’ unbounded archive of the Word promises salvation but delivers only bewilderment.
At present, many people fear that the Word on the net will function as a hot, sharp tool of persuasion – in one common narrative, as the ignition-key of ‘radicalisation’ that via bellicose sermons and treatises sends young jihadis off to distant wars. Whatever the motivation in each case, the image of the charismatic online recruiting-sergeant may belong more to our past than to our future – to Victor Hugo’s ‘This will kill that!’ dream, or nightmare, of rival words in combat to the death. More widely, the universal archive of the Web – and now the Cloud – may threaten not turbulence so much as a stunned calm, with every human word on file but few of them in mind. In that case, the words that we cherish – that we take to heart – will be those that live longest and strongest. The pursuit of resilience may count for more than the yearning for revolution.
Published in 1953, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 imagines state-directed ‘firemen’ with orders to incinerate every book. It belongs to the same disillusioned moment as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – to whose ideas it owes a clear debt. In the West, if not further afield, the legacy of totalitarian ideology had tarnished every all-embracing vision of human betterment. Culture in this mood becomes a matter of desperate, last-gasp survival against inflammatory power. In Bradbury’s story, a secret cell of dedicated readers commits the entire text of beloved classics to memory. This is his science-fiction reprise of the ancient arts of remembering and recitation that preserved the Homeric epics in Greek-speaking lands for centuries before the first recorded manuscripts or, in the Islamic tradition, honours the ‘hafiz’ – the guardian – who has memorised every verse of the Qur’an. Human minds, and the bodies that bear them, incorporate and incarnate the power of the Word.
Montag, Bradbury’s reformed ‘fireman’, meets Plato’s Republic, and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and the Book of Ecclesiastes – all in human form. ‘Here we all are, Montag,’ the memory-rebel Granger tells him. ‘Aristophanes and Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha and Confucius and Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson and Mr. Lincoln, if you please. We are also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.’ For Granger, ‘all we want to do is keep the knowledge we think we will need, intact and safe. We’re not out to incite or anger anyone yet. For if we are destroyed, the knowledge is dead, perhaps for good.’
For St John, in the beginning was the Word – and in the end as well, since it may soon have need of dedicated guardians against online oblivion as much as purist violence. In the future, taking the Word to heart – rather than carrying it to any front-line – may prove the most robust source of its ineffaceable power. Those heterodox interpreters of the Gospel that I learned about as a teenage ‘Grecian’ in the headmaster’s study had a case. Perhaps the Word was ‘a god’ rather than the single almighty force that forever demands blood and fire from its adherents. If so, we should hope, or write, or pray, to ensure that it will be a god of peace and not a god of battles.
This essay makes use of some material from interviews originally conducted for The Independent, whose support is gratefully acknowledged.