The Pen is Mightier than the Sword

he pen is mightier than the sword
Edward Bulwer Lytton, Richlieu (1838)

For Nadine Gordimer
In her magnificent 80’s

“Not one of us comes here as a spokesperson for their culture or political system. The Communist and the anti-Communist, the apolitical and the Catholic, Jew, Protestant, Muslim may leave their labels behind them.” Arthur Miller said this in 1966, when he presided over the legendary World Writers’ Congress in front of authors from some 50 countries, which included Latin Americans such as Pablo Neruda, Victoria Ocampo, Mario Vargas Llosa, Juan Carlos Onetti, Nicanor Parra, Carlos Fuentes, Ernesto Sabato, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, Haroldo de Campos and myself.. Miller emphasized, “this is not a platform for war, neither hot nor cold. We have all been indoctrinated in a single cause. Our purpose here is to restore diversity. The PEN club is a free and open platform.” In the middle of the Cold War, the topic was, “the writer as an independent spirit.” Pablo Neruda, a major attraction at the Congress, expressed it this way: “I thought the Cold War was coming to an end, but a distinguished colleague (Valerij Tarsis) has woken me out of my dream. I want all writers to be happy, free and creative.” Saul Bellow was more cautious: He warned: “At the present time we are witnessing a degradation of the creative power of our contemporaries. There are clear signs that the intellectuals in what are called the Humanities in North American universities, are trying to take over literature and do away with the writers.” Today we could say something similar about the multinational media corporations. Mario Vargas Llosa spoke of the tribulations of the Latin American writer in maintaining his literary vocation when faced with the “snobbishness of ignorance”. The tangible result of that Congress was the emergence into the world of the boom*, as described by Carlos Fuentes in the Spanish edition of Life magazine. “The Latin American group had a deep effect,” he wrote. Juan Carlos Onetti confessed that, when faced with the offers that came to him from Scribner’s and Harpers he said, “Che finally let me be bribed by the highest bidder.”

The 69th World Writers’ Congress, dedicated to cultural diversity, could have no better location than Mexico, a country that includes the two traditions that have motivated American literatures from the time of their origins until the present day: the languages of pre Colombian civilizations and those of Europe.

Our literatures were created from these outpourings, distinguished by names and books like Nezahualcoyotl, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, el Popol Vuh, The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and Fray Bernadino de Sahagun. This why I would like to call the attention of this Congress to the presence of writers in indigenous languages, Mexican as well as others in the Americas. Here we will endeavor to listen to their literary voice, free from the restrictive criticism of anthropological or folkloric prejudice. They are the cornerstone of our communicational structure, or rather, our cultural tree.

“I have an idea,” the English writer Catherine Amy Dawson wrote to her daughter in 1921, “to form a club that I have named PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists)”. Some months later the first meeting of PEN (with 41 writers) was held in London. “Anything that contributes to understanding and international peace is good”, wrote John Galsworthy, their first president. Writers of such diverse nature as Luigi Pirandello, Miguel de Unamuno and Heinrich Mann participated in the early Congresses. In Mexico the first PEN Center was established by the writer Genaro Estrada in 1924. Galsworthy was succeeded by international presidents such as H.G.Wells (1933 – 1936), Jules Romains (1936 – 1941). During the Second World War there was a collective presidency of Wells, Thornton Wilder, E.M. Forster. Among the presidents after 1947 were Maurice Maeterlinck, Benedetto Croce, Alberto Moravia, Heinrich Boll, Per Wastberg, Mario Vargas Llosa, Arthur Miller.

Although cultural appreciation in 1921 was Eurocentric (the recently concluded First World War and the Russian Revolution had led to an ideological polarization among writers similar, in some aspects, to the years following WW II and the Cold War, which extended to Latin America), inspiration also came from testimonial literature. Fyodor Dostoievski being the modern day driving force with his House of the Dead, a work he wrote after having been on the point of being executed in 1849. This genre has allowed many writers of the Twentieth Century to endure their suffering, as for example The Requiem by Ana Akhmatova, who says, “by way of preface”: “In the course of these terrible years of the lejovtchina (the name given to that period of terror from September 1936 until July 1938 when Lejov was head of the NKVD), I spent 17 months in line outside the prisons of Leningrad. On one occasion somebody “recognized” me, so to speak. A woman with blue lips who was behind me and had never heard my name, broke out of the torpor we were trapped in, and whispered in my ear (there everybody spoke in whispers): “And this, can you describe this?” “I can”, I answered. “And then something like a smile sketched itself upon what had once been her face.”

More testimonial books have been published, like The Forty Days of Musa Dagh by Franz Werfel (about the extermination of the Armenians at the hands of the Turks at the beginning of the Twentieth Century), and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexnder Solshenitsyn. In 1984 and Homage to Catalunia, George Orwell expressed his criticism of Fascist and Stalinists politics. At the inauguration of the 2000 PEN World Congress in Moscow Gunter Grass stated, “In all ages -and nearly always whistling in the wind- the writer has borne witness. With their pens, the Italian writer Primo Levi and the Hungarian author Imre Kertesz, made a display before our eyes of daily life in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, that was more vivid and insistent than any statistical report, however detailed that might have been.”

In this era of electronic communication the panorama is devastating in terms of human coexistence and respect for human rights; even though a few years ago we witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of totalitarian regimes in the East, and in some countries of the western world mankind enjoys enormous civil liberties and great economic affluence. The old ethnic and religious fundamentalisms still exist to generate discord and terrorism, while criminal mafias have become a whip for the civil population and, in some ways, informal governments.

On the threshold of the Twenty First Century we have not only to look to the past to understand our role on Earth as human beings, but we also have to examine the writer’s function in societies as convulsed and changing as our own. In the face of such demands and pressure, the writer of today cannot withdraw from the challenge of history, the destruction of the ecosystems and the negation of traditional human values. If the man of the Third Millenium is now a planetary citizen, the writer will have to be one also.

There is no doubt that our cultural future and our social peace resides in the acceptance of human plurality.

*boom – the sudden emergence of several world class Latin American writers in the Sixties