The previous month in the New York Times an even more overtly Zhdanovite call for a new literature, as single-minded messaging rather than as free play of the imagination, was issued by the indefatigable Viet Thanh Nguyen (also recently using his space in that newspaper to request of us that, in spite of his MacArthur Prize, we not refer to him as a “genius”, a call I have no trouble heeding). Drawing support from the Palestinian-American writer Noor Hindi’s self-explanatory poem, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying”, Nguyen insists that in the post-Trump era American writers must resist the temptation to go “back” to writing about “flowers and moons” (the latter in the plural, so presumably also including non-terrestrial natural satellites), on the grounds that, as Hindi puts it, “Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons.” But they surely remember having seen the moon at some point in their lives, and on one understanding of poetry its power lies, precisely, in its ability to conjure to the mind’s eye what is not there, to make worlds, to bring about poiesis. On one common understanding, moreover, it is good to call the moon to mind in this way, because the moon is one of the basic things that orients human beings in the world, that places us in the cosmos and in nature, and consoles us. But to acknowledge such a thing as the moon to be among the human goods is to commit the sin of what Zhdanov would call “decadent romanticism”, which is characteristic only of “bourgeois imperialist” literature.
For my part I am not at all convinced that oppressed people do not have the “privilege” or “luxury” or “freedom” to write about nature, or to engage in romanticism; in fact I think they do have this privilege and this luxury and this freedom, and these are what makes literature so incalculably powerful: it generates worlds within worlds, which are quite often beautiful worlds within ugly ones. I am not convinced in part because much of the most powerful nature writing I know has in fact been produced by people enduring brutal political persecution, for example the Sakha national author Platon Oïunskiï, aka Bylatyan Oïuunskaï, executed in the Great Purge of 1939 under accusation of leading a “bourgeois-nationalist counterrevolutionary organization” (he was not). In spite of appearances, Nguyen’s call is not one that takes sides with the oppressed; he is not, himself, in a prison cell, and to be a recent MacArthur recipient with a regular column in the Times is to occupy a position rather closer to that of a leader of the All-Union Congress of Writers than to that of a political prisoner. To paraphrase something Perry Anderson said of Jürgen Habermas, this dude is out there racking up awards like medals on the lapel of a Brezhnevite general. It is not for Nguyen to say who longs to speak of the moon.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor