Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights, by Lyndsey Stonebridge

Bryan Cheyette praises an ambitious account of the place of literature in addressing today’s fundamental issues of persecution and injustice 

January 14, 2021
A photograph of German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (L) is on display during a press preview of the exhibition “Hannah Arendt and the Twentieth Century” at the German Historical Museum
Source: Getty
A photograph of Hannah Arendt on display at the German Historical Museum in May 2020

“What if we learned to do human rights (again) by following our writers into the darkest places of our history?” This is one of the many rhetorical questions in Lyndsey Stonebridge’s latest collection of essays. It is typically challenging and high stakes. Her readers are asked to enter some of the “darkest places” – colonised societies, concentration camps, totalitarian regimes, slave plantations – in a bid to understand what it is to be human during the “conditions of [humanity’s] extinction”. The avoidable deaths at Grenfell Towers, the brutal offshore detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island off Australia and the endless refugee camps dotted throughout the Middle East and Africa all provide present-day contexts for those who are considered less than human.

Liberal versions of human rights are no longer adequate, according to Stonebridge, when addressing the everyday violence – de-citizenship, internment, torture – by shameless governments of all kinds. Such rights, produced after the industrialised deaths of the Second World War and the horrors of colonialism and slavery, have been reduced to a Western-oriented “moral project”, whose hypocritical humanitarianism is ridiculed and exposed. The overwhelming response to the so-called refugee crisis (denial, confinement and repatriation) has undermined the West’s self-proclaimed moral authority. Literature, once thought of as a humanising art form, is equally deficient. The imaginative empathy generated by even its greatest exponents is not enough. Empathy does not lead to action; it makes nothing happen.

In this desperate context, Stonebridge’s canon of writers – Hannah Arendt, Behrouz Boochani, Suzanne Césaire, Mahmoud Darwish, Primo Levi, Ben Okri, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Virginia Woolf – view their shared humanity as a form of insurgency. Boochani’s exposé of Manus Prison, Qasmiyeh’s poetic rehumanising of Palestinian refugees or Suzanne Césaire’s surreal account of anti-colonial insurgency highlight the lived meanings of freedom, equality and justice in extremis.

There is something strangely old-fashioned in making literary criticism quite so purposeful. Such ethical certainty leads to scintillating polemics in favour of those who are with impunity made stateless and rights-less – the wretched of the earth – but it also generates unnecessary moralising. The distinction between the vibrant human agency of the coruscating survivors of Grenfell (a new type of “creative citizenship”) and the “traumatized victimhood” of an earlier kind of survivor (such as Primo Levi) serves little purpose apart from pitting one form of subjectivity against another. Stonebridge is surprisingly invested in the victim as “survivor” who is rehabilitated into “human time”. This untroubled linear account, moving effortlessly from dehumanisation to rehumanisation, is too facile. As her exemplary reading of Woolf’s Three Guineas shows, redemptive narratives miss out the less assimilable aspects of “love, loss, memory, and trauma”.

Not too long ago, literary criticism was pronounced dead, as it spoke only to a few ivory-tower specialists and was not even visible in mainstream bookshops. Writing and Righting is at pains to “collectivize humanity” through a shared set of values that finds the statelessness of Shamima Begum abhorrent, the lack of recognition of Grenfell as a criminal act repugnant and our “age of camps” barbaric. Stonebridge is an immensely gifted writer and thinker. Her new book will help to revitalise literary criticism.

Bryan Cheyette is professor of modern literature and culture at the University of Reading. The Ghetto: A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights
By Lyndsey Stonebridge

Oxford University Press, 176pp, £18.99

ISBN 978019088140454
Published 26 November 2020

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