On Isms and Ists – Dostoyevsky and Sartre

Context 24

Louis Paul Boon

Use of “we”
Whores and scumbags
And . . . and . . . and . . .
Punctuation with “ . . . ”s

So long as
As long as

I have previously said that books need to be written out of passion or boredom, out of anger or just because, but never to prove a point. It’s the writer that matters, not the underlying theory. Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a ridiculous book, while The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, is a miniature masterpiece. I also stated that the primary task of a book is to seize the heart and soul, rather than to function as a technically flawless piece of furniture. And when substance and style—be it classical, experimental, or dada—work together in near-perfect harmony, then that’s even better.

But there is another thing. I would never ban a work, for example, because it clashes with my personal views; ideally I would omit such self-evident statements, but my correspondent forces me to spell it out. I applaud him for telling me that he only wants to write books that aim to bring joy, and financial and social security to his fellow man. I also prefer such books, but only as long as they are written by a master. However, I completely disagree when he refers to other authors, such as Dostoyevsky and Sartre, as degenerates and scumbags: “Are Dostoyevsky’s and Sartre’s so-called heroes really anything but disreputable and depraved characters? –The worst sort of villains, poisoning humanity’s simplest and most natural sentiments with their wicked ways. Why the need to understand and empathize with murderers, whores, and drunks? Why all the interest in these beasts and their filth?”
I have said before that real writers and poets are a bit like seers or prophets, that they function like signposts or seismographs. It’s true; they can sense what’s going on in this world as if they were delicate instruments or creatures with antennae. No matter how foolish this may sound, and no matter how much I may be ridiculed, what I say is true. There are those who stumble through life and cannot be bothered, and there are those who seem to be able to sniff out what lies ahead. It comes as no surprise that writers and poets (as well as the prophets of old, who were nothing more than poets) primarily belong to the second group. The recipient of this letter may be a little behind the times if he really wants contemporary authors to write in the way Gorky and Zola once did. These two heavyweights wrote books that were indispensible fifty-odd years ago—only if you are not really up to speed, can you still revel in their works.

Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, was a step closer to modern man, who has become cunning, secretive, and perhaps slightly more debased. His preface to Notes from Underground may say that his protagonist is purely a product of the imagination, but the writer also claims that these types of people have to exist somewhere in our metropolises. Reading this in our day and age may make us smile: we now know that the author himself was one of these types and, more importantly, that big cities are now teeming with such characters.

And what about Sartre? Open any newspaper, and the front page, as well as the second and third, give accurate descriptions of the type of thing Sartre’s characters are up to all day. I know that some prefer to turn a blind eye to these people, thinking they are the exception and that the rest of the population still consists of law-abiding, honest and upstanding citizens. Theoretically, it is possible to build a model society from only the honest and upstanding—but such a society would collapse like a house of cards once it turned out that one of the creatures of Sartre’s “twisted imagination” (who are all too prevalent nowadays) had been hiding among its well-meaning masses. And right away this society would have to face the fact that it has created concentration camps, that it has built ovens, that mass graves have been dug, and that children are being burned alive while an orchestra is playing louder and louder to smother their cries.

Regardless of this, it is perfectly feasible to continue writing books about the virtues of men or compose poems on the beauty of autumn (even Ilse Koch wrote some, while she was working as a guard for one of the most infamous concentration camps, where she fashioned lampshades out of human skin). But literature produced in this manner has no connection whatsoever to real life.
In reality, Ilse Koch was a monster who could, nevertheless, write poetic crap about autumn. Whereas Sartre is a virtuous man and a brilliant writer who sensed that certain aspects of our society were about to go South. And even if Sartre had only written odes to autumn, he might still have been one of the greats—because there would still be the possibility that these poems would have somehow conveyed a fragment of our zeitgeist. Even Kafka with his apparent escapism draws a painfully accurate portrait of this world.

That is the essence of what I said at the beginning of this article: you are allowed to write novels and poems on any subject, as long as you really are a writer or a poet. And isms or ists don’t even come into it.

The original version of this article
appeared in Vooruit, 21 August, 1954.
Translated by Wouter Mathijs Mulders

Chapel Road. Dalkey Archive Press, 2003.
Summer in Termuren. Dalkey Archive Press, 2006.
My Little War. Dalkey Archive Press, 2010.

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