Literature and Freedom

Earlier this year Ian McEwan was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Literature, Israel’s highest honor for a foreign writer. The award is given biennially to writers “whose work deals with themes of individual freedom in society.” Previous winners have included Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, and J M Coetzee.

McEwan did not immediately accept the award, fully aware of the long-standing, bitter disputes between Arabs and Jews in this troubled region. After the award was announced, he knew his days would not be peaceful. With “varying degrees of civility,” many individuals urged him to turn down the prize. One group wrote, “that whatever I believed about literature, its nobility and reach, I couldn't escape the politics of my decision.” A fellow writer told him that next time he should get his prize from Denmark.

In the end he went to Jerusalem to accept the prize and delivered what to my mind was an eloquent speech. I feel almost compelled to cite excerpts from it. Throughout he spoke of the thorny relationship between literature and politics.

“I would say as a general principle that when politics enters every corner of existence, then something has gone profoundly wrong. And no one can pretend here that all is well when the freedom of the individual, that is to say, of all individuals sits so awkwardly with the current situation in Jerusalem.”

In this context he spoke of the nihilism, as he put it, on both sides: On the one hand,“…once you’ve instituted a prize for philosophers and creative writers, you have embraced freedom of thought and open discourse, and I take the continued existence of the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute to the precious tradition of a democracy of ideas in Israel.”

And on the other, “… the continued evictions and demolitions, and relentless purchases of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, the process of right of return granted to Jews but not Arabs. These so-called 'facts on the ground' are a hardening concrete poured over the future, over future generations of Palestinian and Israeli children who will inherit the conflict and find it even more difficult to resolve than it is today, more difficult to assert their right to self-realisation.”

With equal conviction and insight he spoke of the long tradition of literature and its relationship to individual freedom. “Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the works of masters like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the literary illusion of character and the representation of consciousness were refined, with the result that the novel has become our best, most sensitive means of exploring the freedom of the individual -- and such explorations often depict what happens when that freedom is denied.”

He acknowledged the many great Jewish writers both past and present—Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Bellow, Primo Levi and he singled out three contemporary figures, Amos Oz, Abrahim Yehoshua and David Grossman. And more generally, “We speak of a Jewish tradition in the novel -- a vast, complex tradition, but still bound by common themes: a sometimes ironical attitude to a god; acceptance of an underlying metaphysical comedy and above all, in a world of suffering and oppression, deep sympathy for the individual as victim; finally, determination to grant to the downtrodden the respect that fiction can confer when it illuminates the inner life.”

In spite of the “great and self-evident injustice [that] hangs in the air,” he concluded by saying, “I gratefully accept this prize in the hope that the authorities in Jerusalem -- a twin capital, one day, I hope -- will look to the future of its children and the conflicts that potentially could engulf them, end the settlements and encroachments and aspire creatively to the open, respectful, plural condition of the novel, the literary form that they honour tonight.”

McEwan is donating the modest amount of the award--$10,000—to Combatants for Peace, an organization that brings together former Israeli and Palestinian soldiers to speak before groups about the impossibility of a military solution to the conflict.