Todd Coffin

Adrianna E. Frick

Rachel Gibson

Jenny Lee

Christy Rodgers

Erica Weitzman


Literature’s Imperative of Voice: Pablo Neruda and Gao Xingjian’s Perspectives on the Figure of the Writer

Jenny Lee
Northwestern University

It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle seems so unfairly weighted against them (Said xvii).

Upon returning to Chile from Sweden after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971, Pablo Neruda addressed a massive, adoring crowd at the National Stadium in Santiago with passionate expressions of love, pride and gratitude for the Chilean public, humbly reasserting his position as the poet of his people, and rededicating his poetry to the multitude of Chileans with whom his poetry had become synonymous throughout the tumultuous years of his life. Speaking of the imminent civil war that would erupt a few weeks before his death, Neruda gravely intoned, I have a duty as a poet, as a politician and patriot, to warn all of Chile of this danger. As writer and citizen, my role has always been to unify Chileans. . . If Chile, if the body of Chile, were wounded, my poetry would bleed (Passions 317).

The winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, Gao Xingjian, faced a very different reaction from the national adulation which greeted Neruda's return to Chile. Barred from setting foot in the country of his birth because of his status as a political dissident, the nearest Gao came to mainland China was in a brief visit to the autonomous region of Hong Kong where he was received with heavily guarded excitement (Grammaticas). Despite the fact that he had been ensconced in France for the past two decades, however, Gao Xingjian was not spared the onslaught of media and public criticism from the country from which he had been exiled. Nearly every academic, writer, and politician from mainland China had an opinion about Gao Xingjian. Gao was variously accused of being a Frenchman who happened to write in Chinese, a writer who had compromised his pure commitment to art by publicly defending himself against political attacks from the Chinese government, or, according to one professor who disliked the tone of Gao's Nobel acceptance speech, too proud, not like [Joseph] Brodsky [the winner of the 1987 prize], who acknowledged the greatness of Russian literature that came before him (Lovell 29).

Ironically, Gao Xingjian's bitterest critics were pro-Western, cosmopolitan writers who believed that the Nobel Committee had succumbed to political and cultural tokenism by choosing a writer who was Chinese (as no Chinese-language writer had won the prize before) and yet conveniently fell within Western anti-Communist sympathies. According to these critics, Gao was nowhere near the best that contemporary literature in Chinese had to offer. In addition, the Committee was accused of shady internal politics because Gao's translator and strongest advocate, Göran Malmqvist, was a member of the Swedish Academy (30). Despite their differing concerns, however, the common irony shared by these various attacks on Gao was their resulting politicization of a writer whose own position on literature had always been fiercely private, anti-political and anti-nationalistic.

This essay will be concerned with two writers with very different convictions about their public roles as well as the social relevance of their literary works. Even independently of the public reaction they have inspired, it is nevertheless still difficult to find two individuals who have expressed more opposed views on what they perceive to be the writer's relationship with his or her natural constituency or the national culture to which the writer professes the closest ties (Said xxii). Neruda — the distinguished Chilean statesman and devoted Communist whose political and literary careers paralleled as well as nurtured each other's development — is a perfect example of Edward Said's representation of the intellectual as a public figure who is committed to empowering oppressed groups in society. On the other end is Gao, who embodies Said's romantic notion of the solitary spirit in opposition both by circumstance and conviction. Both were, or continue to be, exiled at some point in their careers, but even the reasons behind their shared experience of exile are fundamentally different — Neruda's was politically motivated, as he was affiliated with the party that was currently out of power; Gao, on the other hand, chose exile because of the government's persistent attacks on the supposedly subversive content of his creative work (Falcoff 52). These Nobel laureates, separated by nearly three decades, exemplify Nobel Committee's post-1970s shift away from selecting writers who have been politically engaged towards those who have been more unaligned and artistically independent (Lovell 17).

However, the line dividing the two writers' positions is not as clear as one might think. Gao has not been as removed from the opportunities available to him to use his public platform as his individualist stance initially suggests, as evidenced by his increasingly vocal criticisms of China's oppressive cultural policies as well as of the Western market economy's insidious commercialization of literature. (One critic has even complained, Originally, Gao stood for artistic creativity, but now he's changed, he's expressing opinions about the Mainland (Lovell 29).) Neither had Neruda ever been comfortable with the idea of politicized poetry verging on the language of propaganda. As Roland Bleiker points out, despite his conviction to write in the language of everyday life, Neruda was fully aware of the need for artistic innovation to break through existing linguistic habits, for it is through these very conventions, inaudible and seemingly harmless as they are, that practices of domination become objectified (Bleiker 1139).

As in the previous chapter, this chapter will primarily examine the Nobel lectures of Pablo Neruda and Gao Xingjian and highlight their ideas on the relations between society and the writer, and society and literature (Neruda uses poet and poetry in place of writer and literature ), particularly in relation to the function of language in both literature and politics. These two writers' stances on literature's social function as well as on the writer's responsibility to the public have been clearly shaped by their personal experiences as citizens and artists, and thus are different. However, Neruda and Gao share similar concerns regarding an ethics of literature, in which literature has an imperative to give a voice to those who are commonly sidelined in official narratives of history, whether they are illiterate peasants (for Neruda) or the censored individual writer (for Gao). More generally speaking, literature can claim to have an ethical dimension through the role it plays in opening a space for voices to heard outside the linguistically conditioned boundaries of political representation, in the space between experience and the interpretation of experience (1131). This chapter will be an attempt to show how their apparently conflicting ideas on literature's (and the writer's) relationship to society compel a reassessment of the relationship between literature and politics, as well as what it means for literature to have a political dimension, for which a reinterpretation of politics may be necessary.

Pablo Neruda — Poetry is the Bread of the People

Throughout his life, Pablo Neruda strove towards a poetic philosophy in which the poet and his poetry were constantly being reshaped by their immersion in the forces of nature, on one hand, and society, on the other. Through these contributions from the earth and from the soul, Neruda hoped to suffuse his poetry with equal partners solitude and solidarity, emotion and action, the nearness to mankind and to the secret manifestations of nature (Towards). Lifted nearly verbatim from the pages of his memoirs, the first half of Neruda's Nobel lecture is a harrowing account of his journey with several guides through the Andean mountains towards the Chilean border with Argentina that he would cross into freedom and exile in 1949. The narrative lends itself an almost primordial, mythical quality that serves to illustrate the experiential (rather than intellectual) origins of Neruda's poetry. Neruda believed strongly, however, that the poet cannot sustain himself solely in the condition of solitude, even when surrounded by the stark beauty of the Chilean landscape, nestled between the mountains and the sea. I come from a dark region, from a land separated from all others by the steep contours of geography. I was the most forlorn of poets and my poetry was provincial, oppressed and rainy, he declared in his Nobel speech. But always I had put my trust in man. I never lost hope. It is perhaps because of this that I have reached as far as I now have with my poetry and also with my banner (Towards).

This hope in humanity would become the most powerful motivating force behind Neruda's poetry. Particularly after the Spanish Civil War, which galvanized his Communist sympathies in the face of the brutal deaths of ordinary citizens as well as his fellow poets such as Federico García Lorca at the hands of the Fascists, Neruda's social and poetic commitments gradually shaded into each other to the extent that it was difficult to see where one ended and the other began. While his early volumes of poetry were marked by solipsistic retreats into depression and burning passion, Neruda related in his Memoirs the major turning point in his poetic consciousness brought about by the events of the Civil War: My visit to Spain had given me added strength and maturity. The bitterness in my poetry had to end...Can poetry serve our fellow men? Can it find a place in man's struggles? I had already done enough tramping over the irrational and the negative. I had to pause and find the road to humanism, outlawed from contemporary literature but deeply rooted in the aspirations of mankind (139).

Although Neruda had an illustrious diplomatic career that began with his appointment as honorary consul to Rangoon in 1927 and ended with his ambassadorship to France in the early 1970s (spanning brief stints as senator, presidential candidate, and Communist exile), it would be misleading to identify the politics in his poetry to be of the same nature as that contained in his political roles. The politics of his poetry had to do with looking beyond the individual towards the community and attempting to dismantle political discourse by examining the very language by which it was constructed. Neruda wrote from the standpoint of the working class and peasants whose voices were typically marginalized in society, leading Bleiker to observe that his writings were all about heeding to whispers that risk drowning in the roaring engines of high politics (Bleiker 1129). Neruda considered his most effective political tool to be language itself — ordinary language that would chronicle these voices authentically and reach the widest audience possible, but also language to be exploded from within to produce new visions and new ways of embodying the variegated experiences of Chileans — the coal miners of the nitrate pampas, the Araucanian Indians, the peasants of Isla Negra.

Neruda was very careful not to elevate his own status as a poet above the heads of the people whose sword, whose handkerchief my humble poetry wants to be (Memoirs 149). Neruda always maintained that the poet is not a little god (a subtle slight of his fellow Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro whom he quotes here, and whom Neruda frequently criticized for bask[ing] in his own divine isolation ), but a baker who prepared the daily bread for his community (296). Sometimes Neruda offered his poetry as the weapon in the struggle for bread; other times his poetry was offered as the nourishing sustenance itself. Neruda also often insisted that he was not an intellectual, and that his rich poetic images and ideas were not culled from literary theories but from his everyday flesh-and-blood experiences, elemental and often violently sensual, yet familiar and accessible to anyone who read his poetry. (However, despite his glib portrayal of himself and other poets of his generation as children of nature who rebelled against the decadent bourgeois literature of their times, Neruda was by no means anti-book and anti-literature — his lifelong passion consisted in amassing rare editions of literary works for his personal library, works which represented universal fragments of knowledge captured in my voyage through the world and the subterranean labor of conscience that led me to the light (Passions 334).

In keeping with his humble views of the poet's position in society, Neruda believed that poetry itself is an action set free the moment it is uttered or written, irreducible to a single petrified form intended by its creator. He explained in his lecture that he was often unsure whether the creative control rests in the poet or the poetry: I do not know whether I experienced this or created it, I do not know whether it was truth or poetry, something passing or permanent, the poems I experienced in this hour, the experiences which I later put into verse (Towards ). In a related anecdote in his Memoirs, Neruda described an incident when he was asked what is meant by a certain image in a poem dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca. In response, Neruda had chided the individual for failing to recognize that poetry is not static matter but a flowing current that quite often escapes from the hands of the creator himself (Memoirs 123). However, by giving poetry an autonomy separate from the intentions of the poet, Neruda's comments nevertheless had greater social and political implications than was evident on their surface. By loosening the ties between the individual poet and his poetry, Neruda thus placed poetry at the wider service of society: Poetry will water the fields and give bread to the hungry. It will meander through the ripe wheat. Pilgrims will slake their thirst in it, and it will sing whenever men struggle and when they are at rest (Passions 335).

Claiming such total freedom for poetry provided Neruda with his best defense against his political detractors who accused him of being a sectarian poet. In the end, he stated firmly, the individual poet makes only a small contribution to the entire body of poetry existing throughout history and in the imagination. Thus, it is mistaken to expect one poet to write for all people, for no poet has any considerable enemy other than his own incapacity to make himself understood (Towards). Neruda did not evade the issue of his own particular political commitments, however. Early inroads of politics into his poetry were made during his student days in Santiago when the workers' movement began to consolidate against the oppressive regime of President Arturo Palma, and Neruda's decision to commit himself to the Communist cause occurred, as mentioned above, during the Spanish Civil War, many years before he actually joined the party in Chile in 1945. As Edward Said notes in Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures, the intellectual has an imperative to take the side of the oppressed, a principle Neruda claimed as the driving force behind all his activities, political and poetic: In the midst of the arena of America's struggles I saw that my human task was none other than to join the extensive forces of the organized masses of the people, to join with life and soul with suffering and hope, because it is only from this great popular stream that the necessary changes can arise for the authors and for the nations (Towards). Neruda believed that the popular masses are the instigators of as well as the inspiration for social and artistic progress, which thus doubly implicates the writer as artist and citizen in their struggles:

[T]he truth is that I can find no other way for an author in our far-flung and cruel countries, if we want the darkness to blossom, if we are concerned that the millions of people who have learnt neither to read us nor to read at all, who still cannot write or write to us, are to feel at home in the area of dignity without which it is impossible for them to be complete human beings. . . [W]hat would have become of me if, for example, I had contributed in some way to the maintenance of the feudal past of the great American continent? How should I then have been able to raise my brow, illuminated by the honor which Sweden has conferred on me, if I had not been able to feel some pride in having taken part, even to a small extent, in the change which has now come over my country? It is necessary to look at the map of America, to place oneself before its splendid multiplicity, before the cosmic generosity of the wide places which surround us, in order to understand why many writers refuse to share the dishonor and plundering of the past, of all that which dark gods have taken away from the American peoples. (Towards)

The poet's duty falls between the poles of realism and the mythic, filling the mighty void with beings of flesh and blood while partaking of the task of making fables and giving names (Towards). Thus on one hand, the poet is to function as a critical mirror of reality, cautious of romanticizing and thus falsely depicting the harsh realities of daily life for many people. For this, Neruda gave the example of his poetic rendering of the peasant woman who washed the villagers' laundry every night: If I had been one of the poets of the past who loved beauty for beauty's sake, and art for art's, I would have celebrated that ritual washerwoman in the figure of a priestess presiding over her temple of foam, her vestments, and religious veils. But I, a poet of our times, saw in that washerwoman not a ritual but a sorrowful reality, the lives of millions of women of our enormous, forsaken America (Passions 344). At the same time, however, the poet, in a long line of bards and storytellers of the past, is charged with the duty of creating new myths, reawakening the old dreams which sleep in statues of stone in the ruined ancient monuments (Towards). Neruda offered this credo for writers in the Americas in particular, whom he enjoined to participate in the reconstruction of the myths of the indigenous peoples that had disappeared under the narratives of colonial discourse.

Of course, treading the fine line between myth and reality requires a vigilant command of language, as well as a creative desire to manipulate language in order to transform the very means of representing experience. For Neruda, the very goals of poetry are connected to the expressive and communicative functions of language (an idea that will also be seen in a variant form in Gao Xingjian's thinking). Poetry aspires to guide the poet towards self-understanding (expression of the psyche), and to convey the varieties of human experience to others (social and communicative expression). At the level of interaction between the poet, the poem and the reader, poetry creates social consciousness by enabling the reader to become aware of himself as part of a wider human community, whose experiences are conditioned, codified and valued to such a large degree through the mediation of language.

Without the poet, of course, there can be no poetry. Thus, the question of poetry's social ramifications is inseparable from the question of the writer's function in society. According to Neruda, a writer's fate is tied to his people, and Neruda did not claim elevated status for the writer, only the freedom to write according to personal convictions. Of course, Neruda noted that in politically difficult times in which freedom of expression is severely restricted, the writer's choices are limited to taking the side either of those in power, or of those who are disenfranchised of their civil liberties. As expected, however, it is no question which choice Neruda advocated, and his demands for the treatment of writers and artists in his society were firmly tied to the aspirations of the Chilean people:

We [artists and writers] do not expect preferential treatment. We do not contemplate a court of crowned thinkers, favored by dynamic intellectual power. But in full awareness of the contribution that artists and writers make to the development and the honor of our nation, we demand consideration of our lives and our problems, assurance that the young may continue their creative development without opposition. But we know — and that is why we are here — that, first and foremost, our people must be elevated to the life of human dignity they deserve (Passions 325).

Gao Xingjian — Literature is the Voice of the Individual

The writer is not the conscience of society nor is literature the mirror of society. The writer flees to the margins of society: he is a non-participant, an observer who looks on dispassionately. There is no need for the writer to be the conscience of society, for there has long been a surplus of social conscience. The writer simply uses his own conscience and knowledge to write his own works. He has responsibility only to himself (qtd. in Burckhardt).

Gao Xingjian's Nobel lecture is presented as a series of brief, aphoristic statements on literature, language, and the figure of the writer. In the first two hundred words of his speech, Gao sweeps aside God, nationalism, politics and history from the space he designates for literature. He puts forward a striking case for literature that, on the surface, opposes everything Neruda had wanted for his poetry. Whereas Neruda viewed poetry as a kind of prism mediated by the individual through which humankind can project itself, Gao shuns the idea of the universal completely in favor of the individual voice. For Gao, literature solely represents the voice of the individual writer; it is not subordinate to politics, does not serve the people, and does not represent a national culture or the voice of the oppressed. The writer, moreover, is not to be seen as a spokesperson for any cause, or an embodiment of righteousness no matter what his personal views or his circumstances. Gao's views on literature in certain ways approximate those of Nadine Gordimer, who argues for unchecked artistic freedom in the conveying of human experience, but his views that the persona of the writer is totally private and subjective appear to contradict the notion (previously discussed in the other writers) that the writer somehow inherently contributes to society, whether through his social commitments or his creative work.

Gao's unwavering positions on the absolute autonomy and subjectivity of literature and the writer's position stem directly from his own personal experiences as a victim of the Cultural Revolution in China, during which he was forced to burn a suitcase full of unpublished manuscripts and eventually saw every one of his works banned from publication. After his refusal to renounce his spiritually polluted literary views that were seen as subverting the foundations of revolutionary realism, Gao disappeared into the forests and mountains of Sichuan Province, embarking on a solitary ten-month trek which inspired his novel Soul Mountain and precipitated his exile to France in 1987 as a political refugee. As a result of these experiences, Gao has taken a hardened view of ideology, or what he calls isms, and all external pressures and constraints on the creative act, warning that they harbor the potential to destroy both literature and the individual's freedom (Gao, Case). At the same time, however, it was his experience of self-enforced silence during the period of his greatest persecution that gave rise to his clearest conviction about the function of literature:

During the years when Mao Zedong implemented total dictatorship even fleeing was not an option. . . To maintain one's intellectual autonomy one could only talk to oneself, and it had to be in utmost secrecy. I should mention that it was only in this period when it was utterly impossible for literature that I came to comprehend why it was so essential: literature allows a person to preserve a human consciousness (Case).

For Gao, there are no idealistic prescriptives for what literature should be; the qualities he chooses to emphasize are what he considers to be inherently present in literature itself (though often he presents these qualities as innate potentials that are not necessarily universally realized). Because literature is born as an act of an individual writer, the act of writing signifies a form of self-realization, a material and existential proof that goes beyond a mere, ephemeral conversation with oneself. From my experience in writing, Gao declares, I can say that literature is inherently man's affirmation of the value of his own self and that this is validated during the writing, [and] literature is born primarily of the writer's need for self-fulfillment (Case). His own experiences give support to his conviction that literature represents a primal human need for self-affirmation: I began writing my novel Soul Mountain to dispel my inner loneliness at the very time when works I had written with rigorous self-censorship had been banned. Soul Mountain was written for myself and without the hope that it would be published (Case).

Gao also believes that the written word is magical, because it allows communication between separate individuals, even if they are from different races and times. It is also in this way that the shared present time in the writing and reading of literature is connected to its eternal spiritual value (Case). Thus, literature positively affirms the immediate, eternal present because of its relevance at the moment of meeting between one writer and one reader, a moment that can be repeated over and over again whenever the work is read. Despite its symbolic function as the spiritual meeting-ground between separate individuals, however, Gao remains firm that a work of literature's broader impact on society is an extra-literary effect, to be determined not by the writer's own intentions nor by any quality intrinsic to the literary work. He believes that since literature is an individual engagement in which the writer and the reader (if any) participate of their own will, the activity of literature cannot be said to have an essential duty to the masses (Case).

Like Neruda, Gao does not accord the writer a superior position in society. He notes gravely that the writer is usually among the first citizens to be sacrificed in any kind of cultural revolution in order to prevent the writer's spreading of potentially subversive and counterrevolutionary ideas. (This is particularly true in China, where writers have been discouraged from creative activity and largely limited to performing the functions of investigative reporters and social scientists (Calhoun 130).) However, because he dissociates literature from the masses, Gao refuses to grant the writer a fundamentally social role or responsibility. In a subtle attack on those who support him for being a political dissident, Gao notes that it would be just as critical a mistake to lionize a victimized writer as to condemn or persecute him. In keeping with his anti-dogmatic stance, however, Gao is careful not to claim his conception of the writer to be absolute, but says only that a writer may have the freedom not to align himself with any predetermined partisan politics or theories. As a banned writer faced with literary suicide, Gao himself chose the condition of exile in order to continue to be able to express himself without any constraints.1

Being a writer in exile may have divorced Gao Xingjian from a homeland, but it has only served to intensify his commitment to his native tongue. When other factors no longer exist, you're left facing only your language, Gao writes in his essay The Bearable Lightness of Exile. He continues, I'd say a writer has a responsibility only to his language; he is not responsible for the 'motherland' or the 'people.'. . . When you're only responsible for language, your demands on language are far more rigorous (105). In his view, it is unnecessary for a contemporary writer to go out of his way to promote the preservation and propagation of a national culture by rehashing hackneyed cultural metaphors: For a writer of the present to strive to emphasize a national culture is problematical. Because of where I was born and the language I use, the cultural traditions of China naturally reside within me (Case). Instead, the writer's creative task begins with the very exploration of language itself by looking carefully at what has already been articulated in his language and address[ing] what has not been adequately articulated in that language (Case).

Gao considers the communicative function of language to be secondary to its self-expressive function — that is, to speak one's thoughts to oneself first before conveying them to others. As with Neruda, however, Gao believes that the power of language ultimately rests in its connection of the individual subject with the world through his linguistic conception of human experience:

Language is the ultimate crystallization of human civilization. It is intricate, incisive and difficult to grasp yet it is pervasive, penetrates human perceptions and links man, the perceiving subject, to his own understanding of the world. . . As with a curse or a blessing language has the power to stir body and mind. . . Language is not merely concepts and the carrier of concepts, it simultaneously activates the feelings and the senses and this is why signs and signals cannot replace the language of living people. (Case)

Gao's arguments about language, literature and writing are not without flaws. Gao's vocalized convictions can be seen as contradicting his own stance, firstly by resolving his position into a set of principles regarding literature, and secondly by using his visible and prestigious position to launch his scathing criticisms of China's cultural policies as well as of the market commodification of literature. Most importantly, his strongly individualist and anti-political position has a tendency to marginalize his deeply held humanist convictions about literature. Despite his insistence to the contrary, Gao presents a vision in which the writer does make an important contribution to society by demonstrating through literature the primacy of the individual human voice. In support of this, he writes that the writer has an ethical imperative to tell the truth:

Truth when the pen is taken up at the same time implies that one is sincere after one puts down the pen. Here truth is not simply an evaluation of literature but at the same time has ethical connotations. . . For the writer truth in literature approximates ethics, it is the ultimate ethics of literature (Case)

In his ideas on ethics in literature, Gao goes one step beyond Neruda, who had called for writers to faithfully reflect human experience but without the imperative to distort visions in order to challenge the entrenched forms of representations (Bleiker 1140). For Gao, however, the principle of distortion is a key component of the writer's task in the unmasking of reality:

In the hands of a writer with a serious attitude to writing. . . [l]iterature does not simply make a replica of reality but penetrates the surface layers and reaches deep into the inner workings of reality; it removes false illusions, looks down from great heights at ordinary happenings, and with a broad perspective reveals happenings in their entirety (Case)

Judging from these insights, what Gao is thus proposing is not a cleavage between literature and society, but a reshifting of emphasis from the writer to his work. Although, as mentioned above, he believes that the enduring value of a work is an extra-literary response that reflects historical and social conditions rather than the intentions of the writer; nevertheless the consequence of that work's endurance returns to the fundamental significance of literature: The clamor of the writer and his actions may have vanished but as long as there are readers his voice in his writings continues to reverberate (Case).

Does Gao believe, then, that the literary work can bring about change in society? Gao's immediate answer is no, since the individual voice is nevertheless still too inconspicuous in comparison to the grand sweep of official history. He offers hope through the literary voice, however, as a kind of alternative history, similar to Neruda's notion that poetry embodies the voice of those who normally have no power to speak: History is not all that humankind possesses, there is also the legacy of literature. . . When the great laws of history are not used to explain humankind it will be possible for people to leave behind their own voices in literature (Case). Gao humbly concludes his Nobel lecture with a graceful expression of gratitude towards the Swedish Academy for awarding this Nobel Prize to literature, to literature that is unwavering in its independence, that avoids neither human suffering nor political oppression and that further more does not serve politics. . . [and] for allowing me to ascend this dais to speak before the eyes of the world (Case).


The aims of this essay have been to compare the claims made by Gao Xingjian and Pablo Neruda regarding the relationship between writing and society. These writers respond differently to the question of whom literature is meant to serve: For Gao, it is the frail individual, for whom literature challenges the hegemony of the unknowable laws which manipulate human history (Case), while Neruda believes that poetry is to be put to the service of an honorable army. . . which moves forward unceasingly and struggles every day against the anachronism of the refractory and the impatience of the opinionated (Towards).

Despite their differences, these writers share a very important concern regarding literature's imperative to give voice to those outside the strict boundaries of political and historical representation. However, an examination of the deeper similarity between their views requires a reconsideration of the relationship between literature and politics, as well as in what sense literature can be considered political. Both literature and politics are linguistic engagements, or ways of representing human experience through language. Because the expressive and communicative components of language constitute ways in which the self perceives and organizes information about itself and others, both literature and politics may be understood as discourses which formally articulate a concern with persons as linguistic beings, as selves thrown amongst other selves (Buckler). In addition, since these discourses are concerned with the acknowledgment and valuation of selves, literature and politics can both be considered as humanistic engagements, a notion which becomes an important link between the ideas of Gao and Neruda (Buckler).2

In order to discover in what sense literature can be considered political, it is necessary to distinguish politics proper from the more general sense of politics used above, the latter being a social and linguistic form of representation. By honing in on the inevitable gap that opens up between an event and the way this event has been imbued with meaning and significance, literature can negotiate and transcend politics proper and thus become political in terms of the latter sense (Bleiker 1131). Bleiker goes so far as saying that literature (or poetry) is intrinsically political because it resists being drawn into the narrow black-and-white debates that characterize politics [proper]. Instead of getting entangled in myopic purposes of agitation, poetry seeks to investigate the forces that have already circumscribed the functioning of politics, the ones that have silently predetermined what can be said and what not (1138).

Neruda and Gao both agree that the writer can accomplish this by using the existing structures of language to transform the ways of representation from within language itself — to articulate what has not yet been spoken, to discover and develop the latent potential inherent in language (Gao, Case) and to break down literary molds with new forms which arise from the urgent renewal of historical change (Neruda, Memoirs 196). Through the innovation of ordinary, everyday language, literature can function as testimony with a certain measure of authenticity, whether in expressing the voice of the individual writer or in lending a voice to others.

Of course, it is difficult, if not impossible, to expect literature to flawlessly recreate the memories and experiences present in the individual or collective human consciousness. However, Gao reminds us that literature is not the same as a historical or political document, and thus the truth of literature takes on illuminated meaning:

Actually there are few facts in documented testimonies and the reasons and motives behind incidents are often concealed. However, when literature deals with the truth the whole process from a person's inner mind to the incident can be exposed without leaving anything out. This power is inherent in literature as long as the writer sets out to portray the true circumstances of human existence. . . In the hands of a writer with a serious attitude to writing even literary fabrications are premised on the portrayal of the truth of human life, and this has been the vital life force of works that have endured from ancient times to the present. (Case)

In addition to the distinction Gao makes between the ways in which literature and factual documents deal with truth, Bleiker comments that one of the most important activities of the poet-chronicler involves inscribing the inevitable silences within the narrative, and transfiguring their terrifying void[s] into hope (1134). At the conjunction of Neruda's I see and Gao's I am is literature's I will remember, and it is this poetic rendering of events and memories which would otherwise be forgotten that ultimately imbues literature with its particular social ethics.

Thus, the writer's intellectual commitment need not be judged by his explicit participation in or rejection of political activity, which is irrelevant to his actual writing. By opening up a space for alternative voices to be heard, literature interrogates the meaning making of political discourse and thus itself performs a critical political function. In keeping with this, Bleiker argues that Neruda's true political and historical contribution must be evaluated in terms of his poetry:

One may or may not agree with the content of Neruda's politics, but one can hardly deny that his influential poetry fulfills the function of a historical memory. . . Neruda's poems hold on to faint voices and perspectives that may otherwise have vanished into the dark holes of historical narratives. For better or for worse, Neruda's poetic testimonies are part of today's collective consciousness. They have entered the canons of Western thought. This is why even those commentators who are hostile to his politics readily accept the central role Neruda has played as a poet and a poetic chronicler of our time (1130).
Gao also reinforces this idea of the writer's primary function: If the writer wants to challenge society it must be through language ( Case, italics added). His statement gestures firmly towards the meeting-point between literature and political commitment.

Gao and Neruda both warn that the process of writing is strewn with temptations and hurdles. According to Gao, the writer will unavoidably meet with the temptation to use literature as a vehicle for political ideas, but the writer must remember that literature is not a forum for angry shouting, but the act of man focusing his gaze on his self (Case). On his part, Neruda alludes to the moments of unbearable loneliness present in the process of writing. However, both offer a glimmer of hope through the possibility that literature will survive as part of humankind's historical legacy. Neruda writes, Each and every one of my songs has endeavored to serve as a sign in space for a meeting between paths which cross one another, or as a piece of stone or wood on which someone, some others, those who follow after, will be able to carve the new signs (Towards). By enlarging the record of human experience and bequeathing it to future generations, literature is thus able to draw a continuous line of human consciousness from the past towards the future. As Gao proclaims, Literature is for the living and moreover affirms the present of the living. It is this eternal present and this confirmation of individual life that is the absolute reason why literature is literature (Case).


1 Edward Said writes that the condition of exile – real or symbolic – represents the condition of intellectuals who are marginalized outside the comforts of centered privilege and power; however, he adds that the condition also carries with it certain rewards and, yes, even privileges, including the broadening of the intellectual's vision through the eccentric angles of vision that it can sometimes afford (Said 59-60). Gao bears out this analysis by his consideration that being overseas isn't only nonrestricting, it's actually stimulating. . . I'd even say [exile] doesn't have much of a negative side(Gao, Bearable 105).
2 In his essay Writers in Politics, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o also addresses the relationship between literature and politics in terms of their shared linguistic and humanistic engagements: There is a dramatic poem of Léopold Sédar Senghor in which a white man is so overwhelmed by Chaka's power and mastery over language that he exclaims: my word, Chaka. . . you are a poet. . . a politician. The poet and the politician have certainly many things in common. Both trade in words. Both are created by the same reality of the world around them. Their activity and concern have the same subject and object: human relationships. Imaginative literature, dealing with a people's consciousness, and politics, with the operation of power in society, are reflected in one another and they act on one another (in Writers in Politics: A Re-engagement with Issues of Literature and Society 67).

Works Cited

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---. Towards the Splendid City (1971 Nobel lecture). 16 June 2003

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Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual:
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New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

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