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essays

1978

Art and Autonomy

Novelist George Konrad speaks about the state, the artist, and “The quiet revolution of self-rule.”

“The Long Work of Liberty.” New York Review of Books (USA), January 26, 1978: 38–41.

[This address was read by the author, a prominent Hungarian novelist, at the Venice Biennale on Cultural Dissent in November 1977. He has written: The Case Worker, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1974; and The City Builder, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1977.]

As a victim of both Nazism and Stalinism, the author argues that one “cannot trust the state, only a few friends at best.” His aim in life has been to have private conscience, not public loyalty, choose between right and wrong, and to make sure this happens, he has become a writer.

Regardless of the peculiar form of its ideology, right or left, communist or capitalist, the state creates a culture that subordinates its citizens. The state places responsibility in the hands of the leaders and installs a censor in the minds of its subjects. The true symbol of the totalitarian state is the exemplary bureaucrat who is more loyal to the state than to his friends. On the other hand, the writer or literary artist is committed by the creative force which compels him to expression, to tell the truth as his conscience perceives it. The act of creation is itself a radical act in which the artist tests the limits of his consciousness. While the literary artist uses the word to express the truth, the state relies on crude or subtle forms of coercion. “The gallows erected by the state are not more decent than a gun thrust out of the window of a speeding car. In our century more than 100 million people died as a result of orders given by statesmen. No common criminal can match this record…. There is no political doctrine that does not reserve the statesman’s right to be an accomplice in murder.”

Socialism is a term to describe all that has happened in Eastern Europe since 1945 and will continue in the future. Socialism is not merely an ideology, but a general term for an existing social framework. Despite the state’s apparently all-pervasive and enduring culture, we may predict the development of an alternative culture, parallel to that of the state, and based on individual consciousness and the irrepressible human desire for ever more personal freedom. Not at first backed by institutions or even any organized movement, the new culture begins when the autonomous self reacts against the manipulated self. The breaking up of the state’s culture and its monopoly of power is a joint undertaking in which, consciously or unconsciously, the entire society participates. Out of this struggle a parallel culture based on individual consciousness begins to leave its mark on every phase of societal life, even upon the state culture. “Freedom is a beautiful word even for an idiot. The desire for it, like the desire for sex, can be suppressed only temporarily.”

The quiet revolution of self-rule is slow in coming, but it begins with the individual who does not subordinate his conscience to the needs of the state. The vocation of the literary artist in this revolution is, in a special way, to be true to his own conscience, to express through his art a lifelong striving for personal autonomy, seeking this utopia through continuous self-liberation.

Finally, western intellectuals must be cautioned against labeling certain literary artists from Eastern Europe as “dissenters.” There is no such thing as “dissident” literature; the term itself indicates the acceptance of a politicization of literature. True literature and true art (regardless of its national origin) strives to defend the concretely human against the violent and stupid formulations of the abstractly human. Every decent writer is a one man party and church. Lacking his own individual world view which is expressed in concrete images, he has nothing; neither Marxism nor anti-Marxism will help him produce good literature. Political or state culture knows the dissident writer; autonomous culture, that of the individual, knows only the good artist or the bad.