"The essential ambiguity of literature is neither arbitrary nor unclear"
Many years ago my father-in-law, who had been a British prisoner of war in Japan, gave me a small pocket anthology, The Knapsack, edited by the undeservedly forgotten Herbert Read. The book (which I have since passed on to my daughter) had been put together for the Ministry of War to be given to its soldiers: its proclaimed intention was "to celebrate the genius of Mars." Surprisingly, however, the general tone of the anthology was above all elegiac. Among its many splendid selections, I seem to remember (memory now often fails me) Herodotus’s description of the Battle of Salamis, T. E. Lawrence’s praise of his enemies in the desert, Henry V’s harangue during the siege of Harfleur, those verses from the Iliad that describe Achilles’ despair at the sight of Patroclus’s corpse, and a few paragraphs by Joinville recounting the dreadful Egyptian crusade. The merits of courage, the choice of an honourable death, the obligation to fight for the fatherland and other rhetorical commonplaces appeared in many of those pages, but also the horrors of the massacres, the agonies of loss, the arrogance and greed of certain leaders. A page by Montaigne, "On the punishment merited for defending a fort with no good reason," held the following line: "There are those who have such a high opinion of themselves and of their own resources that they believe it is absurd that anyone in the world should oppose them." Montaigne had in mind not only the tyrants of his own century.
The difficulty in proposing an anthology of literary texts to satisfy the requirements of a Ministry of War lies in the fact that these texts seem inclined to escape the narrow purpose of merely lashing on the soldiers. Slogans, posters, political speeches can, unabashedly, cheer on an armed fight; literature, on the other hand, seems to be more cautious. Borges once pointed out that the Odyssey and the Iliad move us because they are two ancient metaphors of our existence: life as a journey and life as a battle. Perhaps for that reason, the telling of war, even following the conventions of the epic genre, is never quite celebratory. Of Troy sung by Homer, we remember the Greek victory but also the terrible pain of Hecuba and Priam; of Napoleon’s campaigns chronicled by Chateaubriand, the refinements of the style Empire but also the death of Chateaubriand’s cousin Armand, "crushed like an insect by the imperial hand"; of the many novels on World War II, the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini but also the long horror of the trenches and the camps. To the glorious death proclaimed by revolutionary anthems, André Malraux answers in the voice of a wounded soldier in his novel La Voie Royale: "It doesn’t exist... death... Only I exist... I... I... who am dying."
In the second part of Don Quixote, the Duke tells Sancho that as governor of the Island of Barataria, he must dress the part: "half as a man of letters and half as a military captain, because in this island which I bestow upon you arms are as necessary as letters and letters as arms." In saying this, the Duke not only refutes the classical dichotomy but also defines the obligatory concerns of every governor, if we understand the one to mean action and the other reflection. Our actions must be justified by our literature and our literature must bear witness to our actions. Therefore, to act, in times of peace as in times of war, is in some sense an extension of our reading, since our books hold the possibility of guiding us through the experience and knowledge of others, allowing us the intuition of the uncertain future and the lesson of an immutable past.
Essentially we haven’t changed. We are the same erect apes that a few million years ago discovered in a piece of rock or wood instruments of battle, while at the same time stamping on cave walls bucolic images of daily life and the revelatory palms of our hands. We are like the young Alexander, who on the one hand dreamt of bloody wars of conquest, and on the other always carried with him Homer’s books, which spoke of the suffering caused by war and the longing for Ithaca. Like the Greeks, we allow ourselves to be governed by sick and greedy old men for whom death is unimportant because it happens to others, and in book after book we attempt to put into words our profound conviction that it should not be so. All our acts (even amorous acts) are violent, and all our arts (even those that describe such acts) contradict that violence. Our libraries exist in the tension between these two states.
Today, at the threshold of an absurd war wished upon us less from a desire for justice than from economic lust, our books may help to remind us that division between the good and the bad, just and unjust, Christians and pagans and the axis of evil, are far less clear than political speeches make them out to be. The reality of literature (which ultimately holds the little wisdom allowed us) is intimately ambiguous, exists in a vast spectrum of tones and colours, is fragmented, ever-changing, and it never sides entirely with anyone, however heroic the character may seem. In our literary knowledge of the world, we intuit (with Milton and with the author of the Book of Job) that even God is not unimpeachable; far less our beloved Cordelia, Parzifal, Robert Ross, Candide, Bartleby, Gregor Samsa, Alsonso Quijano.
And yet, at the same time, that essential ambiguity of literature is neither arbitrary nor unclear. Praising the supposed Arabic author of Don Quixote for the excellencies of his story, Cervantes has this to say: "The book depicts thoughts, unveils imaginings, answers unspoken questions, clarifies doubts, resolves arguments, and finally reveals the very atoms of the most curiosity-driven desire." In times of crisis, for its intended reader, almost any book can accomplish all of these things as well.