Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) - Literature as encouragement
15 Apr 2007

‘I doubt that literature has ever triumphed over repression. I think of Hitler in his bunker, with a pistol at his temple and with the Red Army only a few blocks away, and I have to admit that the overthrow of a tyrant is not a literary enterprise.

‘Literature has, however, encouraged some repressed people to behave as proudly and honourably and humanely as possible, under the circumstances, and it has suggested to them models for a better society and better citizens, should the tyranny be overthrown.

‘The American Revolutionary War comes to mind. The powers of a monarchy were repudiated, and a Declaration of Independence and a Constitution were written by a few highly literate men, and the ideas in these documents were drawn, directly or indirectly, from nearly the whole of Western literature.

‘Literature will always be at cross-purposes with autocrats. This is not because authors have always been enthusiasts for freedom. It is because authors, if they are to find willing readers, must depict human beings as somehow marvellous, as enchanting observers and reasoners and makers of important decisions on their own.

‘Autocrats, on the other hand, would prefer their subjects to have low opinions of themselves and their neighbours, to consider human beings unworthy of justice and dignity and privacy and independent thinking and so on. Literature, in order to be interesting, has always tended to weaken self-loathing – even in prisons and lunatic asylums and military installations – simply everywhere.

‘This means trouble.’

Padraig Reidy

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