Art, Truth and Politics

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

This is
the text of the lecture to be given by Harold Pinter when he receives
the 2005 Nobel Prize for literature on Saturday. Forbidden by
doctors from going to Stockholm to receive the £720,000
prize, the ailing playwright and poet has delivered his speech
by video.

In 1958 I wrote
the following:
‘There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is
unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not
necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.’

I believe that
these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration
of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them but as a
citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is
false?

Truth in drama
is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it
is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour.
The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the
truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image
or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without
realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there
never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art.
There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each
other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other,
are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of
a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is
lost.

I have often
been asked how my plays come about. I cannot say. Nor can I ever
sum up my plays, except to say that this is what happened. That
is what they said. That is what they did.

Most of the
plays are engendered by a line, a word or an image. The given word
is often shortly followed by the image. I shall give two examples
of two lines which came right out of the blue into my head, followed
by an image, followed by me.

The plays are
The Homecoming and Old Times. The first line of The Homecoming is
‘What have you done with the scissors?’ The first line of Old Times
is ‘Dark.’

In each case
I had no further information.

In the first
case someone was obviously looking for a pair of scissors and was
demanding their whereabouts of someone else he suspected had probably
stolen them. But I somehow knew that the person addressed didn’t
give a damn about the scissors or about the questioner either, for
that matter.

‘Dark’ I took
to be a description of someone’s hair, the hair of a woman, and
was the answer to a question. In each case I found myself compelled
to pursue the matter. This happened visually, a very slow fade,
through shadow into light.

I always start
a play by calling the characters A, B and C.

In the play
that became The Homecoming I saw a man enter a stark room and ask
his question of a younger man sitting on an ugly sofa reading a
racing paper. I somehow suspected that A was a father and that B
was his son, but I had no proof. This was however confirmed a short
time later when B (later to become Lenny) says to A (later to become
Max), ‘Dad, do you mind if I change the subject? I want to ask you
something. The dinner we had before, what was the name of it? What
do you call it? Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook. Honest.
You think you’re cooking for a lot of dogs.’ So since B calls A
‘Dad’ it seemed to me reasonable to assume that they were father
and son. A was also clearly the cook and his cooking did not seem
to be held in high regard. Did this mean that there was no mother?
I didn’t know. But, as I told myself at the time, our beginnings
never know our ends.

‘Dark.’ A large
window. Evening sky. A man, A (later to become Deeley), and a woman,
B (later to become Kate), sitting with drinks. ‘Fat or thin?’ the
man asks. Who are they talking about? But I then see, standing at
the window, a woman, C (later to become Anna), in another condition
of light, her back to them, her hair dark.

It’s a strange
moment, the moment of creating characters who up to that moment
have had no existence. What follows is fitful, uncertain, even hallucinatory,
although sometimes it can be an unstoppable avalanche. The author’s
position is an odd one. In a sense he is not welcomed by the characters.
The characters resist him, they are not easy to live with, they
are impossible to define. You certainly can’t dictate to them. To
a certain extent you play a never-ending game with them, cat and
mouse, blind man’s buff, hide and seek. But finally you find that
you have people of flesh and blood on your hands, people with will
and an individual sensibility of their own, made out of component
parts you are unable to change, manipulate or distort.

So language
in art remains a highly ambiguous transaction, a quicksand, a trampoline,
a frozen pool which might give way under you, the author, at any
time.

But as I have
said, the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned,
it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the
spot.

Political theatre
presents an entirely different set of problems. Sermonising has
to be avoided at all cost. Objectivity is essential. The characters
must be allowed to breathe their own air. The author cannot confine
and constrict them to satisfy his own taste or disposition or prejudice.
He must be prepared to approach them from a variety of angles, from
a full and uninhibited range of perspectives, take them by surprise,
perhaps, occasionally, but nevertheless give them the freedom to
go which way they will. This does not always work. And political
satire, of course, adheres to none of these precepts, in fact does
precisely the opposite, which is its proper function.

In my play
The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate
in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an
act of subjugation.

Mountain Language
pretends to no such range of operation. It remains brutal, short
and ugly. But the soldiers in the play do get some fun out of it.
One sometimes forgets that torturers become easily bored. They need
a bit of a laugh to keep their spirits up. This has been confirmed
of course by the events at Abu Ghraib in Baghdad. Mountain Language
lasts only 20 minutes, but it could go on for hour after hour, on
and on and on, the same pattern repeated over and over again, on
and on, hour after hour.

Ashes to Ashes,
on the other hand, seems to me to be taking place under water. A
drowning woman, her hand reaching up through the waves, dropping
down out of sight, reaching for others, but finding nobody there,
either above or under the water, finding only shadows, reflections,
floating; the woman a lost figure in a drowning landscape, a woman
unable to escape the doom that seemed to belong only to others.

But as they
died, she must die too.

Political language,
as used by politicians, does not venture into any of this territory
since the majority of politicians, on the evidence available to
us, are interested not in truth but in power and in the maintenance
of that power. To maintain that power it is essential that people
remain in ignorance, that they live in ignorance of the truth, even
the truth of their own lives. What surrounds us therefore is a vast
tapestry of lies, upon which we feed.

As every single
person here knows, the justification for the invasion of Iraq was
that Saddam Hussein possessed a highly dangerous body of weapons
of mass destruction, some of which could be fired in 45 minutes,
bringing about appalling devastation. We were assured that was true.
It was not true. We were told that Iraq had a relationship with
Al Quaeda and shared responsibility for the atrocity in New York
of September 11th 2001. We were assured that this was true. It was
not true. We were told that Iraq threatened the security of the
world. We were assured it was true. It was not true.

The truth is
something entirely different. The truth is to do with how the United
States understands its role in the world and how it chooses to embody
it.

But before
I come back to the present I would like to look at the recent past,
by which I mean United States foreign policy since the end of the
Second World War. I believe it is obligatory upon us to subject
this period to at least some kind of even limited scrutiny, which
is all that time will allow here.

Everyone knows
what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe
during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread
atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All
this has been fully documented and verified.

But my contention
here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially
recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone
recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and
that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands
now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence
of the Soviet Union, the United States’ actions throughout the world
made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what
it liked.

Direct invasion
of a sovereign state has never in fact been America’s favoured method.
In the main, it has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity
conflict’. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people
die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop.
It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish
a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace
has been subdued – or beaten to death – the same thing
– and your own friends, the military and the great corporations,
sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that
democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy
in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy
of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it
here as a potent example of America’s view of its role in the world,
both then and now.

I was present
at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United
States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to
the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I
was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but
the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf.
The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to
the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said:
‘Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners
built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived
in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They
destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural
centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in
the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand
that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist
activity.’

Raymond Seitz
had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly
sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles.
He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. ‘Father,’
he said, ‘let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always
suffer.’ There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not
flinch.

Innocent people,
indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody
said: ‘But in this case "innocent people" were the victims
of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among
many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities
of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government
not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction
upon the citizens of a sovereign state?’

Seitz was imperturbable.
‘I don’t agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,’
he said.

As we were
leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays.
I did not reply.

I should remind
you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement:
‘The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.’

The United
States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for
over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew
this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas
weren’t perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and
their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements.
But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out
to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty
was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants
were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given
title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable
literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than
one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service.
Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

The United
States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion.
In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being
set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social
and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of
health care and education and achieve social unity and national
self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions
and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance
to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier
about ‘a tapestry of lies’ which surrounds us. President Reagan
commonly described Nicaragua as a ‘totalitarian dungeon’. This was
taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government,
as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of
death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record
of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military
brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were
in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll
missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in
El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the
democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is
estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive
military dictatorships.

Six of the
most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered
at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a
battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia,
USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated
while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why
were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better
life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately
qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question
the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation
and oppression, which had been their birthright.

The United
States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some
years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution
and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan
people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The
casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education
were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. ‘Democracy’ had
prevailed.

But this ‘policy’
was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted
throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never
happened.

The United
States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military
dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War.
I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti,
Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course,
Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973
can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of
thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they
take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign
policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable
to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.

It never happened.
Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening.
It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United
States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but
very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand
it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of
power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good.
It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I put to you
that the United States is without doubt the greatest show on the
road. Brutal, indifferent, scornful and ruthless it may be but it
is also very clever. As a salesman it is out on its own and its
most saleable commodity is self love. It’s a winner. Listen to all
American presidents on television say the words, ‘the American people’,
as in the sentence, ‘I say to the American people it is time to
pray and to defend the rights of the American people and I ask the
American people to trust their president in the action he is about
to take on behalf of the American people.’

It’s a scintillating
stratagem. Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay.
The words ‘the American people’ provide a truly voluptuous cushion
of reassurance. You don’t need to think. Just lie back on the cushion.
The cushion may be suffocating your intelligence and your critical
faculties but it’s very comfortable. This does not apply of course
to the 40 million people living below the poverty line and the 2
million men and women imprisoned in the vast gulag of prisons, which
extends across the US.

The United
States no longer bothers about low intensity conflict. It no longer
sees any point in being reticent or even devious. It puts its cards
on the table without fear or favour. It quite simply doesn’t give
a damn about the United Nations, international law or critical dissent,
which it regards as impotent and irrelevant. It also has its own
bleating little lamb tagging behind it on a lead, the pathetic and
supine Great Britain.

What has happened
to our moral sensibility? Did we ever have any? What do these words
mean? Do they refer to a term very rarely employed these days –
conscience? A conscience to do not only with our own acts but to
do with our shared responsibility in the acts of others? Is all
this dead? Look at Guantanamo Bay. Hundreds of people detained without
charge for over three years, with no legal representation or due
process, technically detained forever. This totally illegitimate
structure is maintained in defiance of the Geneva Convention. It
is not only tolerated but hardly thought about by what’s called
the ‘international community’. This criminal outrage is being committed
by a country, which declares itself to be ‘the leader of the free
world’. Do we think about the inhabitants of Guantanamo Bay? What
does the media say about them? They pop up occasionally – a
small item on page six. They have been consigned to a no man’s land
from which indeed they may never return. At present many are on
hunger strike, being force-fed, including British residents. No
niceties in these force-feeding procedures. No sedative or anaesthetic.
Just a tube stuck up your nose and into your throat. You vomit blood.
This is torture. What has the British Foreign Secretary said about
this? Nothing. What has the British Prime Minister said about this?
Nothing. Why not? Because the United States has said: to criticise
our conduct in Guantanamo Bay constitutes an unfriendly act. You’re
either with us or against us. So Blair shuts up.

The invasion
of Iraq was a bandit act, an act of blatant state terrorism, demonstrating
absolute contempt for the concept of international law. The invasion
was an arbitrary military action inspired by a series of lies upon
lies and gross manipulation of the media and therefore of the public;
an act intended to consolidate American military and economic control
of the Middle East masquerading – as a last resort – all
other justifications having failed to justify themselves –
as liberation. A formidable assertion of military force responsible
for the death and mutilation of thousands and thousands of innocent
people.

We have brought
torture, cluster bombs, depleted uranium, innumerable acts of random
murder, misery, degradation and death to the Iraqi people and call
it ‘bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East’.

How many people
do you have to kill before you qualify to be described as a mass
murderer and a war criminal? One hundred thousand? More than enough,
I would have thought. Therefore it is just that Bush and Blair be
arraigned before the International Criminal Court of Justice. But
Bush has been clever. He has not ratified the International Criminal
Court of Justice. Therefore if any American soldier or for that
matter politician finds himself in the dock Bush has warned that
he will send in the marines. But Tony Blair has ratified the Court
and is therefore available for prosecution. We can let the Court
have his address if they’re interested. It is Number 10, Downing
Street, London.

Death in this
context is irrelevant. Both Bush and Blair place death well away
on the back burner. At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American
bombs and missiles before the Iraq insurgency began. These people
are of no moment. Their deaths don’t exist. They are blank. They
are not even recorded as being dead. ‘We don’t do body counts,’
said the American general Tommy Franks.

Early in the
invasion there was a photograph published on the front page of British
newspapers of Tony Blair kissing the cheek of a little Iraqi boy.
‘A grateful child,’ said the caption. A few days later there was
a story and photograph, on an inside page, of another four-year-old
boy with no arms. His family had been blown up by a missile. He
was the only survivor. ‘When do I get my arms back?’ he asked. The
story was dropped. Well, Tony Blair wasn’t holding him in his arms,
nor the body of any other mutilated child, nor the body of any bloody
corpse. Blood is dirty. It dirties your shirt and tie when you’re
making a sincere speech on television.

The 2,000 American
dead are an embarrassment. They are transported to their graves
in the dark. Funerals are unobtrusive, out of harm’s way. The mutilated
rot in their beds, some for the rest of their lives. So the dead
and the mutilated both rot, in different kinds of graves.

Here is an
extract from a poem by Pablo Neruda, ‘I’m Explaining a Few Things’:

And one morning
all that was burning,
one morning the bonfires
leapt out of the earth
devouring human beings
and from then on fire,
gunpowder from then on,
and from then on blood.
Bandits with planes and Moors,
bandits with finger-rings and duchesses,
bandits with black friars spattering blessings
came through the sky to kill children
and the blood of children ran through the streets
without fuss, like children’s blood.

Jackals that
the jackals would despise
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate.

Face to face
with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives.

Treacherous
generals:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers
from every socket of Spain
Spain emerges
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.

And you will
ask: why doesn’t his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land.

Come and
see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets.
Come and see the blood
in the streets! *

Let me make
it quite clear that in quoting from Neruda’s poem I am in no way
comparing Republican Spain to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. I quote Neruda
because nowhere in contemporary poetry have I read such a powerful
visceral description of the bombing of civilians.

I have said
earlier that the United States is now totally frank about putting
its cards on the table. That is the case. Its official declared
policy is now defined as ‘full spectrum dominance’. That is not
my term, it is theirs. ‘Full spectrum dominance’ means control of
land, sea, air and space and all attendant resources.

The United
States now occupies 702 military installations throughout the world
in 132 countries, with the honourable exception of Sweden, of course.
We don’t quite know how they got there but they are there all right.

The United
States possesses 8,000 active and operational nuclear warheads.
Two thousand are on hair trigger alert, ready to be launched with
15 minutes warning. It is developing new systems of nuclear force,
known as bunker busters. The British, ever cooperative, are intending
to replace their own nuclear missile, Trident. Who, I wonder, are
they aiming at? Osama bin Laden? You? Me? Joe Dokes? China? Paris?
Who knows? What we do know is that this infantile insanity –
the possession and threatened use of nuclear weapons – is at
the heart of present American political philosophy. We must remind
ourselves that the United States is on a permanent military footing
and shows no sign of relaxing it.

Many thousands,
if not millions, of people in the United States itself are demonstrably
sickened, shamed and angered by their government’s actions, but
as things stand they are not a coherent political force – yet.
But the anxiety, uncertainty and fear which we can see growing daily
in the United States is unlikely to diminish.

I know that
President Bush has many extremely competent speech writers but I
would like to volunteer for the job myself. I propose the following
short address which he can make on television to the nation. I see
him grave, hair carefully combed, serious, winning, sincere, often
beguiling, sometimes employing a wry smile, curiously attractive,
a man’s man.

‘God is good.
God is great. God is good. My God is good. Bin Laden’s God is bad.
His is a bad God. Saddam’s God was bad, except he didn’t have one.
He was a barbarian. We are not barbarians. We don’t chop people’s
heads off. We believe in freedom. So does God. I am not a barbarian.
I am the democratically elected leader of a freedom-loving democracy.
We are a compassionate society. We give compassionate electrocution
and compassionate lethal injection. We are a great nation. I am
not a dictator. He is. I am not a barbarian. He is. And he is. They
all are. I possess moral authority. You see this fist? This is my
moral authority. And don’t you forget it.’

A writer’s
life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have
to weep about that. The writer makes his choice and is stuck with
it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some
of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb. You
find no shelter, no protection – unless you lie – in which
case of course you have constructed your own protection and, it
could be argued, become a politician.

I have referred
to death quite a few times this evening. I shall now quote a poem
of my own called ‘Death’.

Where was
the dead body found?
Who found the dead body?
Was the dead body dead when found?
How was the dead body found?

Who was the
dead body?

Who was the
father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Was the body
dead when abandoned?
Was the body abandoned?
By whom had it been abandoned?

Was the dead
body naked or dressed for a journey?

What made
you declare the dead body dead?
Did you declare the dead body dead?
How well did you know the dead body?
How did you know the dead body was dead?

Did you wash
the dead body
Did you close both its eyes
Did you bury the body
Did you leave it abandoned
Did you kiss the dead body

When we look
into a mirror we think the image that confronts us is accurate.
But move a millimetre and the image changes. We are actually looking
at a never-ending range of reflections. But sometimes a writer has
to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror
that the truth stares at us.

I believe that
despite the enormous odds which exist, unflinching, unswerving,
fierce intellectual determination, as citizens, to define the real
truth of our lives and our societies is a crucial obligation which
devolves upon us all. It is in fact mandatory.

If such a determination
is not embodied in our political vision we have no hope of restoring
what is so nearly lost to us – the dignity of man.

*Extract
from "I’m Explaining a Few Things" translated by Nathaniel
Tarn, from Pablo Neruda: Selected Poems, published by Jonathan
Cape, London 1970. Used by permission of The Random House Group
Limited.

December
8, 2005

Harold
Pinter, playwright and poet, is the 2005 Nobel Laureate for Literature.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare