The writer must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.


                William Faulkner: Nobel Prize Speech, 1950


Some time ago, immersed as we all are in the daily round of mostly trivial happenings, hurrahs and harassments, which make up life, in a moment of respite I read an extract from the Polish writer Gustaw Hurling’s Journal Written at Night about a meeting he once had with a fellow writer, the great Italian novelist Ignazio Silone.

As Hurling describes the meeting, Silone is very old, it takes a great effort to rise from his seat, there is enormous fatigue in his face.  But his mind remains clear and sharp.  More than that, it is as if Silone’s mind has been enriched by the slow distillation of his thought through hard and perilous years.  For he is one who in following a long road through time and experience has carved out for himself and for others through his writings an appreciation of conta davvero, what “really counts.”

Silone’s writing is “like a stone that is sculpted day by day by a stream of running water and indifferent to the gurgle of novelty, fashion, ideological rhetoric, political demagogy and intellectual coquetry that the stream carries away.”  At his meeting with Gustaw Hurling, Silone speaks slowly and carefully and explains his views that writers are people for whom writing comes harder than for anyone else.  “Were it not for the laws of the publishing market.  I would write, polish, complete and correct the same book over and over again.”

During a lifetime in which he was constantly at war with whatever powers happened to be in place and taking turns to act arrogantly, Silone first broke with the Catholic Church and joined the Communist party, then later broke with the Communists and took care to seek no further affiliations.  “I am a Christian without a Church and a socialist without a party.”  His experience of life in general and of those in authority in particular, he said, showed him that “there are no reforms capable of fundamentally changing man with his problems, capable of eliminating the conflict between the individual and the community, between society and the state, capable of mitigating the dissonance between pain and the pursuit of happiness.”

Pessimistic counseling perhaps, but worth thinking about, though I wouldn’t like our political leaders to take too much notice of the despair which underlies Silone’s words as they try on behalf of us all to find a way –  not very successfully at present – to change fundamentally the structures within which we behave towards each other as fellow citizens.

What does really count?  Ignazio Silone said it was the image of society in which “it is human souls that are immortal and not institutions, not kingdoms, not armies, not churches and not nations.”  The view which he held as a personal doctrine was the main precept of Simone Weil, the French essayist and religious thinker:  “We must always be ready to change sides, like justice, that eternal fugitive from the camp of the victors” – a precept to remember, a precept that really counts, especially at a time when battle lines are being drawn and one hardly thinks of trying to see the other side’s point of view far less contemplate changing sides.

What does really count? The Congolese novelist, Sony Labou Tansi, found the answer in poetry.  On the very edge of fury about the terrible happenings in Africa he wrote in the Foreword of his novel The Seven Solitudes of Lusa Lopez:  “To be a poet nowadays is to want to ensure, with all one’s strength, with all one’s body and with all one’s soul that, in the face of guns, in the face of money (which in its turn becomes a gun), and above all in the face of received wisdom (upon which we poets have the authority to piss), no aspect of human reality is swept into silence.”

Men or women who seem instinctively to know what really counts and who live their lives accordingly are very rare.  Should you meet one, bless the day and stop and for a while at least pay attention.

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