Recently I received a somewhat smug letter from one of the editors of PN Review asking me to contribute to yet another symposium on the state of critical chassis which still persists in Great Britain. The editor enclosed a statement entitled 'A New Orthodoxy' which listed certain 'imperative tasks'. The sixth task was this: 'To expose the absurdity of using literary criticism as an outlet for political frustrations.' This paradoxical call for inactive action issues from a familiar form of conservative quietism, but it is important to remember that in certain other societies quietism and political frustration are not opposed attitudes or states of mind. In Miroslav Holub's Czechoslovakia; the poet and the critic know that the act of writing is both necessary and absurd. This is the sharp, precise point of 'Swans in Flight', where the swans circle 'and that means that Fortinbras's army is approaching. That Hamlet will be saved and that an extra act will be played. In all translations, in all theatres, behind all curtains and without mercy.' These lines allude both to Pasternak's 'Hamlet in Russia' and to Zbigniew Herbert's 'Elegy of Fortinbras', and they wryly describe that fixed and determined social reality which constrains the poet who writes from inside the Eastern bloc. The laws of the state are like the rules which govern a tragic masterpiece - only naive optimists believe they can be changed to allow for a happy ending. But the irony is that in suggesting this Holub's fatalism takes on a political edge and relevance. By expressing a frustration, the writer has taken a risk.
LRB 1 August 1985 | PDF Download