Tag Archives: totalitarianism

Do Poets Attempt To “Control” People?

On my way home yesterday evening, I bumped into an acquaintence and engaged in one of those random and somewhat odd conversations one does, on occasions find oneself involved in. My acquaintence with the gentleman with whom I spoke is of a passing nature, in that we have spent a few minutes chatting when we encounter one another. However, yesterday evening we spent some 40 minutes or so talking, during the course of which I learned that he is an artist. This led me to mention that I write poetry, to which his response was that “poets/poetry wants to control people”.

I was, I must confess somewhat taken back by the above statement. Despite me trying to elicit why my acquaintence held such a view, I was unable to obtain an answer which made sense to me. However the statement that “poets/poetry tries to control people” got me thinking about whether there might be any substance to the opinion expressed by my acquaintence.

Poets do (as with the rest of the population) hold views on religion, politics etc, some of which find their way into the poetry they write. Can reading a poem which voices a particular opinion “control” the reader?

Many years ago I remember reading an anthology compiled by the late left-wing Labour politician Tony Benn, entitled “Writings On the Wall: A Radical and Socialist Anthology”. I remember being impressed by some of the writings contained therein, however the book did not turn me into a Socialist. Where there to be a simple connection between what we read and how we vote then, surely I would now be a card carrying member of the British Labour Party or another Socialist party which (as mentioned above) I am not.

A poem has no power to exert physical control over the reader. Indeed, during the course of our chat, I mentioned to my acquaintence that where I to take hold of him and demand that he act in a certain manner that this would, quite obviously entail an attempt by me to exert control over him (I hasten to add that no one was grabbed or maltreated in any manner during the course of our interactions). We can, therefore safely conclude that poetry (or any other form of art for that matter) has no power to (literally) “control anyone.

Having said the above, it is true that Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, Mao’s China and various other regimes have banned books and persecuted (or even murdered) writers with who’s work they disagree. For example “The Gulag Archipelago”, which catalogued the horrors of the Soviet prison system was banned in the USSR, and its author persecuted. So, obviously totalitarian governments fear literature that attacks the belief structure on which the regime is built.

Does the fear of totalitarian regimes of literature which attacks their world view proove that poetry (and other forms of art) have the power to “control” those exposed to them. No. What free artistic expression can accomplish is to encourage those exposed to it to question their view of the world (or at least some aspect of it). Encouraging critical thinking is not control. Quite the opposite for, in the case of the authoritarian government it is the regime (not the poet or other artist) who is “controlling”, whilst the artist is questioning the status quo.

In conclusion, poetry does not “control”. It may (and often does) contain a message (political, religious or otherwise), however the reader can make up his/her own mind as to whether they agree (or disagree) with the poet’s perspective. It should, of course also be remembered that much poetry is purely (or largely) playful in nature. There is, for instance in most limericks no desire on the part of the poet other than to produce laughter in his/her readership.

As always I would be interested in the perspectives of you, my readers.


The General Will (a satire on the idea that “the people” are invariably right)

Only a fool
Can object to Rousseau’s rule,
For “the general will”
Can do no ill.

It is treason
To deny
That “the people” are guided by reason
And he who does so must die.

So say I
Until “the general will”
Does ill
Unto me
And we are no longer free …


Room 101

Today I was subjected to the worst thing in the world. I attended a meeting, at my place of work in room 101. In point of fact the meeting was an uneventful one. There was no O’brien threatening me with a ravenous rat in a cage which, if released would tear me apart. Nor where there any posters with the slogan

“Big Brother is watching you”.

Yet, for all that it was still room 101. My uneventful meeting got me thinking, not for the first time how words and phrases find their way into common usage, often with those employing them never having read the publications from which they eminate. How many viewers of the television programme, “Big Brother” have actually read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four? I suspect the answer is that a majority of viewers have not read Orwell’s novel, although most would, I think entertain a vague notion that “Big Brother” and room 101 originated in Orwell’s dystopian novel. It is rather sad that Orwell’s critique of totalitarianism has been reduced to the level of popular entertainment by the TV show, “Big Brother”.


The man behind the screen watches his cold blue eyes intent, malevolent. He sees all, watches the mould slowly eating the walls, but who watches the watcher? Do men with emotionless faces mark his every move as the huntsman does the game,until, at last the rifle is raised and …

Disappearing Books

I love the solidity of paper books. The feel of a book in my hands coupled with that unique scent which books possess is, surely one of the pleasures of owning physical books. Naturally the greatest joy to be derived from books is the reading of them, however the physicality of books mingles with the reading experience producing a medley of pleasures.

In contrast to physical works e-books have the advantage of allowing the possessor to have a veritable library of literature without the inconvenience of books being piled up throughout their home. There is nothing wrong with having books occupying almost the entire floor of your spare room but unless you are lucky enough to inhabit a mantion there will come a point where one simply runs out of space! Another great advantage of e-books is that most are accessible to blind people such as myself. I can enjoy an e-book using the text to speech facility on my Kindle or Voiceover on my iPad.

Despite the many advantages of e-books they possess one major flaw – there ability to disappear without trace from websites. I recently experienced this for myself when my collection of short stories, “The First Time” vanished from Amazon’s Kindle store. The links still appeared on Google but on clicking on them the dreaded “404 page not found” error raised it’s cheery head. Fortunately I still had the original file on my computer and with the help of a friend “The First Time” was soon back on Amazon, however old broken links are still showing on Google (at the top of the search results) while the new (correct) links languish somewhere near the bottom. Now of course physical books can disappear also. A bookshop or library may take a decision to remove particular works from their shelves or at the more extreme end of the spectrum regimes such as Nazi Germany have burned books by authors of which they disapproved. However even if a book is comprehensively purged the chances are that the book will still survive in the hands of a few individuals to be passed around clandestinely. In contrast e-book retailers can with the aid of technology remotely delete books from devices. In practice this happens rarely due to the perfectly understandable angry reaction provoked among the owners of the works being removed. However in an authoritarian state in which all publishers are either owned by the government or subject to governmental interference one can imagine books disappearing from e-book readers. Don’t like that author because he is a “Conservative”, “Communist”, “Jew”, “Liberal”, “Christian” etc. No problem remotely delete their works from e-book readers. In practice I suspect that some technically savvy individuals would find ways to preserve their copies of banned books but many would no doubt disappear into the virtual trash can. Pause for thought?

I should point out that Amazon did not delete my book from e-readers nor did the company delete it from their site due to concerns over it’s contents. The book was removed due to a misunderstanding and is now, as I said above back up on Amazon and can be found here, http://www.amazon.com/The-First-Time-ebook/dp/B00FJGKY7Y/ref=la_B00CEECWHY_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1380885715&sr=1-4

Man does not live by bread alone

Today I fell into conversation with a young Polish lady. We conversed about a variety of topics and during our conversation I asked her whether any Poles looked back with nostalgia to the time when Poland was ruled by the Communist Party. I must confess to being somewhat taken back by the answer to my question which was, in the words of my acquaintance that

“you can have to much freedom”.

The lady then went on to say that she thought that things had in some respects been better when Communists governed her country.

For reasons which I will not go into here I was not able to tease out what exactly my companion meant by her statement that people can have to much freedom. Her comment did however get me thinking about why I prize freedom, by which I mean the right of the individual under law to live their life, broadly speaking as they choose without undue interference from the state or society as a whole. As a writer I value the freedom to write what I please without the fear of the midnight knock on the door. We in democracies take freedom of expression for granted, however we should remember that the Nazis burned books by Jews and others they believed to be undesirable while Communist states prohibited works (fiction and non-fiction) which criticised the ruling ideology. Indeed Communist states have banned works by fellow Marxists who happen to have a different interpretation of Marxism from that held by the ruling elites.

I don’t want to live in a society in which books are censored. At the very least this would lead to a truncated intellectual climate and in it’s most extreme manifestation to tyranny.

It is postulated by apologists for various authoritarian systems that they maintain order by fostering equality by, for example ensuring full employment and universal social welfare. The argument often seems to boil down to “sacrifice freedom of a few intellectuals for the greater happiness and prosperity of the community”. Those who argue in this manner tend to downplay or deny the Soviet gulags and the intellectuals confined to mental institutions for criticising the regime. It is a delicious irony that apologists for tyranny frequently reside in democratic societies which (quite rightly) leave them free to express their views so long as they do not advocate violence. The freedom enjoyed by those who express contempt for democracy would be denyed by them to their opponents (oh irony of ironies).

Man does not live by bread alone and if intellectual freedom is sacrificed in the name of economic security we will, in all likelihood, ultimately end up with neither prosperity or freedom.

Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

In his poem, In Memory of W B yeats, the poet, W H Auden wrote

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.”


Auden is one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, I do, however take issue with his view that poetry (and writing more generally) makes nothing happen.

In Oliver Twist Dickens portrayed the English poor law in all it’s brutality. He laid bare the cruelty of the workhouse and the corruption of those who, like the fictional Mr Bumble the Beadle grew fat by abusing the system. Oliver Twist is unremitting in it’s highlighting of the abuses perpetrated by Bumble and his ilk, however Dickens humour also helps to ensure that the novel remains widely read to this day. Who can forget his description of little Oliver daring to ask for more gruel in the workhouse? Dickens was not responsible for bringing about the abolition of the workhouse, however Oliver Twist undoubtedly stirred the conscience of Victorian England, indeed the novel continues to move our conscience in the early years of the 21st century.

To take another example, George Orwell’s terrifying portrayal of totalitarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a world in which much of the population of Oceania is constantly observed by the telescreen, influenced and continues to influence those who oppose totalitarianism. Although a man of the left Orwell has been cited by people of both left and right in defence of pluralism. Auden’s view that “poetry makes nothing happen” was not shared by the regimes who banned Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his much shorter novel Animal Farm. The former Soviet Union and other authoritarian states believed that writing can make things happen, why else would they have prohibited the works of Orwell and other critics of authoritarianism?

Doubtless the greater prosperity enjoyed by democratic societies had a profound impact on the populations of Communist societies. Despite the attempted jamming of western media pictures of life outside the Communist bloc did penetrate behind the iron curtain. The inhabitants of Czechoslavakia, Poland and other states which came under Soviet influence wanted consumer goods, however the intellectuals among the populace desired freedom and the writings of Orwell, Kafka and others kindled in them this desire for democracy.

In conclusion it can be said that Auden is right in the sense that writing in and of itself makes nothing happen. However the influence of authors such as Dickens and Orwell should not be underestimated. When combined with political and economic forces words can (and are) powerful tools  for good or ill.