When a piece of literature addresses a specific event, trend or political reality, it is immediately relevant. This “engaged” literature, whether poetry or prose, may be temporarily popular because it speaks to the events of the moment. Once the moment has passed, the relevancy is lost, and an otherwise beautiful piece of literature may fade into obscurity. When Stan Apps probes the nature and validity of war, challenging the reader to understand that “war is the way you have been thinking” (Apps line 9), it seems relevant and even poignant. However, in another time, one not plagued by controversial wars, religious intolerance, and a politically charged atmosphere, the reader may lose his or her ability to connect on a deeper level with the poem. While “VI” will always remain a beautiful piece of literature, it may eventually lose its relevancy by speaking too closely to the era in which it was written.
On the other hand, literature that does not engage with a specific political reality has the benefit of relating to many different political trends and events. Kafka’s The Castle, for example, describes a world disconnected with any specific political reality. The town has no name, the castle itself is ambiguous at best, and only a single initial represents the principle character. He does not even have a true identity. Yet, when reading The Castle, it is possible to connect it to a variety of different political or bureaucratic situations that have occurred throughout the twentieth century and beyond. The Castle could be read as expressing the irony of bureaucracy, both as it is now and as it existed in previous eras. It might also be seen “as a critique of industrial society, of exploitation, alienation, bourgeois morality – of capitalism, in a word” (Kundera 106). Kafka, simply by creating a story that is the very embodiment of political non-engagement, has produced a literary work that can apply to all political realities. A work that does not attempt to address a particular event or trend is open to interpretation, and as such can relate to almost any situation. In Kafka’s case, non-engagement has fashioned a piece of literature with an enduring and timeless quality that many engaged works simply do not possess.
Creating a literary work that does not engage with political trends is not the same thing as ignoring political reality. Instead, literature is at its best when not engaged with current events or trends, especially in a political sense. The beauty of non-engagement is that it allows the reader to relate to the text regardless of the current political climate. The Castle, which is arguably one of the best examples of literature that is non-engaged from political reality, has emergent themes that enable the reader to apply it to any era. The reader can come to his or her own conclusion regarding the overall issue of the work, and therefore has more value in the particular piece of literature than the author has. The author of such a work is taking a backseat and allowing the reader to engage with the current political reality by not engaging during the process of writing. This makes literary work that exhibits non-engagement even more socially responsible than engagement. By creating a piece of literature that is applicable in any era and can be interpreted to apply to many different social-political situations, the writer is acknowledging political reality and being politically responsible.
This is not to say that a writer has any political responsibility. Writers can write for a variety of reasons. Writing political stories or poems is a choice, as is the decision to engage or not engage with political trends. However, if a writer chooses to remain non-engaged from a specific political reality, he or she has the unique opportunity to create a piece of literature that is relevant in all times and speaks to many different events and trends. In this way, non-engagement is the more socially responsible way to engage the reader in both the language of the piece and the issues it can address.
Apps, Stan. “VI.” God’s Livestock Policy. Los Angeles: Les Figues Press, 2008.
Kafka, Franz. The Castle. Ed. Mark Harman. New York: Schocken Books, 1988.
Kundera, Milan. “Somewhere Behind.” The Art of the Novel. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2003.