No comfort for dictators 1

August 5, 2010

In his otherwise interesting article on the role of poetry today, "The virtue of verse" (29 July), George Watson claims that Modernist works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot "may have been music to the ears of all the great dictators and terror groups". This is a curious speculation, given that the historical facts in this case are well known.

Despots such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (presumably the "great" dictators in question) preferred poets who peddled the absolute "truths" of their own ideologies and condemned as degenerate or decadent those who portrayed human life as meaningless and history as an irredeemable nullity.

Equally, terrorist groups are more likely to be motivated by their unshakeable faith in their particular version of the "truth", not by nihilism or relativism.

Some Modernists, faced with an apparently senseless world, were certainly drawn to the apparent comfort and certainty offered by totalitarian ideologies or the transcendent truths of religion, but this hardly means that texts such as The Waste Land or Godot were the kind of music dictators wanted to hear.

Watson's article ends by arguing that there are "moral certainties" that poets should be striving to express. Perhaps we should be told what these certainties are, as it would save a lot of arguments in the future - and not just in literary studies.

David Clarke, Senior lecturer in German, University of Bath.

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