Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination
In the opening pages of his new essay collection, Writers and Missionaries, Adam Shatz recalls a remark by John Berger that subtlety is a luxury of the privileged. “But I am not so sure,” Shatz writes. “It seems to me that subtlety and nuance are indispensable tools of criticism—not least for groups of people (so-called minorities, for example) who have been seen, and often vilified, as monoliths.”
There are no monoliths in Shatz’s book, nor caricatures nor polemics. There are judgements, to be sure, as well as clear perspectives on the triumphs—and failures—of each of the sixteen writers and filmmakers he takes on. But each portrait is painted with care, with Shatz always keeping an eye to the particular social and historical challenges that each figure faced, as well as the political turmoil that roiled each of their lives.
Among his subjects are Chester Himes and Richard Wright, both American authors who fled the racism of the US to settle in France; French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, whose portrait of the Holocaust in his film Shoah was eventually weaponized (not least by Lanzmann) against any criticism of Israel; and Jacques Derrida, whose originating wound of being exiled from Algeria as a child animated the intellectual concerns of the rest of his life. In an epilogue, Shatz articulates his own early traumas, reflecting on his early fascination with culinary arts as his attempt to deal with bullying and anorexia.
We spoke with Shatz about the importance of nuance in political debate, why there are no virtuous victims, and the lessons of Frantz Fanon, the subject of his forthcoming book, The Rebel’s Clinic.
Pac Pobric (Rail): Many of the people you write about in your book died before 2003, when the first essay in this collection was published. Obviously, there’s been a great deal of turmoil in the intervening twenty years. What kinds of insights can these long-dead writers offer about the period we’re living through?
Adam Shatz: The first thing I’ll say is that, for me, dead writers are as alive as living writers. I've never drawn that distinction. A writer who speaks to you is alive on the page. So for me, these are living figures, even if they did not see—or were spared—the last twenty years. I think there's something edifying, stimulating—sometimes reassuring, sometimes disturbing—about going back to writers who experienced the convulsions of their own times to see how they addressed them and incorporated them into their work. But I'm not putting these thinkers forward as models, exemplars, or moral beacons. There are some writers in this book whom I regard as very morally compromised.
Timothy Brennan, in his biography of Edward Said, which I review in Writers and Missionaries, remarked that Said was attracted to writers he ought not to have been interested in. I think it's a perceptive observation, only I wouldn't have said ought not. I think we're often attracted to what is not like us, and even to what we violently disagree with. Repulsion is not infrequently accompanied by fascination. That's one of the reasons I wrote about figures like Michel Houellebecq, who is personally quite repellent and increasingly an Islamophobe; and Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the founders of the nouveau roman, who was a voyeur and probably a sadist of some kind; and Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American scholar who made common cause with the neoconservatives at the time of the Iraq War, and whose work is filled with clichés of what today we would call Orientalism. But he was also gifted, and in his early work a very perceptive writer.
I am hesitant to say there's a set of moral lessons they have to teach us. But I do think that in each case, I'm looking at the tensions—sometimes very productive tensions—between lived experience and intellectual work. I'm not trying to argue that intellectual work is entirely determined by lived experience, which has become a trope in an age that over-valorizes experience and subjectivity. But I do think there are interesting relationships between these two things. The interface of the individual and history—that's what excites me.
Rail: That tension, between the writer searching for independence and the constraints of the era in which he or she lives, is a central theme of the book. Even now, the world is obviously dominated by various forces outside of our immediate control. In that situation, what does freedom look like for a writer?
Shatz: It depends on what kind of freedom we're talking about. Is it collective freedom? Is it individual freedom? I was thinking of an existential freedom, the power to transform what Jean-Paul Sartre calls the “practico-inert”—the stuff we inherit.
Take, for example, Richard Wright, who grew up as a witness to the terror of the Jim Crow South. He eventually makes his way to Chicago, performs a variety of thankless, menial jobs, and then becomes a part of the Communist Party. The Communist Party is, obviously, a highly Stalinist organization that leaves little room for individual freedom. And yet paradoxically, because the Communist Party is one of the only institutions in American life where Black and white people can meet on a plane of equality, and because it provides a platform for young, gifted, and determined people like Wright to describe their reality, it becomes, for a time—until it becomes a hindrance—an instrument of self-liberation for Wright.
Through his shattering memoir, Black Boy, and his novel, Native Son, Richard Wright forever changes the face of American literature. Now, did Wright strike a blow for freedom? I think the first person he liberated was himself, which is no small thing if you grew up in circumstances like his. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. pointed out years ago in The Signifying Monkey, writing, for Black Americans in the era of slavery and even afterwards, was a way of proving one's humanity. Writers like Wright, Chester Himes, and William Gardner Smith all form part of the intellectual and creative ferment that went into struggles like the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. No one individual can bring about through words the liberation of an entire group. But these individual acts are of inestimable significance when you add them up.
One of the things I try to do in these essays, and certainly in the section on Black writers in Paris, is to give a sense of how struggles towards freedom and self-expression were lived by these writers, and how they responded to their circumstances. It was not always in the most admirable ways. Chester Himes is, to be sure, a magnetic figure, but his magnetism is often very dark. He did things we wouldn't defend, things that were quite awful, above all his abusive treatment of his lovers, which he did nothing to hide and even justified. But I'm interested in human fallibility. Is there such a thing as a virtuous victim? I'm not sure there is. It's a notion we cling to—this idea of the unbesmirched innocence of the victim. But if you are forced into degrading circumstances, you're often forced to make unpleasant choices. We live in an era in which there is a great desire for unblemished heroes. I regard that as something of a delusion. As I say in the introduction, there are plenty of heroic acts in this book, but no heroes.
Rail: Several of the people you discuss in your book have complicated relationships with the political projects or parties they support. For example, Edward Said aligned himself with the cause of Palestinian liberation but always worked to maintain some sense of independence. To what degree is it possible to be a writer and to be fully dedicated to any project outside of oneself?
Shatz: If writers aren't faithful to their own visions—if that's not the first of all principles—it's going to be very difficult for them to remain vital as writers. If they use writing to advance a movement, and can no longer acknowledge the mistakes it makes, they essentially become publicists. Or if they're lucky and win power, they become commissars: take, for example, the tragic case of Georg Lukács. But I don't hold the view that affiliation with a political cause or a political party spells doom for a writer. I think life is far too complicated for that.
Again, Said is a good example. When he joined the Palestine National Council (PNC) and took up the cause of Palestine, this decision took a lot of courage. Of course he could count on a receptive audience in the Arab world, where Palestine was practically a sacred fight. But Said was teaching at Columbia University in New York, a city with a very substantial and politically influential Jewish population, much of it highly sympathetic to Israel. It was risky; he faced bomb threats for his commitment, not to mention accusations that he was the “professor of terror.” Yet it’s clear that Said gained a great deal from his involvement in the Palestinian cause. He saw things that others in his position could not see: the awakening of an oppressed people, the complexities of inter-Arab politics, the relationship between theory and practice. Even his relationship with [Palestine Liberation Organization chairman] Yasser Arafat, which was fairly close at one point, and which led to his being ridiculed by critics as being Arafat's man in New York—even that relationship, I think, probably fertilized his work. It’s too easy to say that any brush with power means that a writer has sold out—the choice isn’t between purity and becoming Henry Kissinger.
But there is a price to pay. If you're a writer and you align yourself with a political cause and become deeply involved in its functioning, there is a certain independence you relinquish publicly.
Rail: The book’s epilogue takes on a very different subject: your experiences as a young chef. How does that piece fit alongside these others?
Shatz: One theme that links the epilogue with some of the other essays is that it examines the relationship between an early experience of trauma and a creative path. Jean Genet wrote a wonderful piece about Alberto Giacometti in which he suggested that at the beginning of any artist’s or writer’s work lies a wound, and that their work circles the wound in some way. We see this, for example, with Jacques Derrida. He never lost a sense of exclusion and of being marked as a Jew after his expulsion from school in Algeria in 1942, after the Vichy laws were applied. Another example is Chester Himes, whose brother suffered a terrible injury while performing a chemistry experiment, and was blinded after being refused medical care at a hospital because he was Black.
I'm not suggesting that what I experienced in a schoolyard in suburban Massachusetts is at all comparable. It's not. But I went through a period in which I experienced a lot of bullying around my weight and the fact that I was Jewish. It was persistent and vicious. I responded early on by becoming quite violent, and then I turned the violence against myself and became, for a summer, more or less anorexic. It was in response to this experience of bullying and of anorexia that I began to experiment in the kitchen and to develop a different relationship to food. An experience like that never really leaves you. I think the imprint of that arguably resulted in my desire to become a writer. I think it also led me to become drawn to people who had also been “other,” or who were marginalized or subjected to stigma in some way.
Rail: That leads me to Frantz Fanon, who’s not the subject of an essay in this book, but about whom you’re writing a biography due out in January titled The Rebel’s Clinic. What’s interesting to you about him, and how does that book relate to this one?
Shatz: I've been thinking about Fanon since I was a teenager. My father had copies of Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth in his library. I was fascinated by him as a figure; I just loved the photograph of him on the Grove Press edition of Black Skin, White Masks. He looked like a kind of an idol—a brooding, revolutionary intellectual, serious and purposeful. At that age, we're all looking for people on whom to model ourselves.
But the other reason I was drawn to Fanon is that he dedicated himself to the suffering of others. That's often forgotten. You could read about Fanon thinking that his primary concern was the experience of Blackness or ending white supremacy. But his major project was the liberation of Algeria, though he was not Algerian and he was not Muslim. This is precisely the thing I find fascinating and admirable about Fanon. Now, the book is not a hagiography. I have plenty of critical things to say about Fanon. But the book bears a resemblance to Writers and Missionaries in that it’s a very intimate look at both life and work.
Rail: Yet there’s an allergy, perhaps especially among students today, to the idea that anyone could faithfully dedicate themselves to a cause outside of their own identity without some perverse sense of self-interest, or a savior syndrome.
Shatz: I'm not suggesting that those things aren't at play. They are. But I think anything you do is probably going to be compromised by complex motives, even if you work on behalf of “your own people.” Because “your own people” are not going to be entirely in agreement about what to do about a certain situation. It's very easy with the advantage of hindsight to judge and praise or condemn a person's political position or intervention at a particular point in time. But the closer you look at it and the more sensitivity you bring to assessing that person's appraisal of the situation, the more complicated it becomes.
I'll give you an example. There’s an essay in Writers and Missionaries about Jean-Paul Sartre’s visit to Egypt and to Israel–Palestine in 1967. It was a very elaborate trip that was organized by both Egyptians and Israelis. Sartre publicly identified with the struggle against colonialism, and particularly with the Algerian struggle against French rule. He was an admirable and courageous defender of the Algerians. So understandably, the Egyptians thought that once Sartre saw the conditions of the Palestinians in Gaza, once he visited Egypt and met with [Egyptian President] Gamal Abdel Nasser, he would understand the justice of the Arab case against Israel. The Israelis were more anxious. But because Sartre had written powerfully about antisemitism in his book Anti-Semite and Jew, they held out the hope that Sartre would side with them, especially because at the time Israel was led by a government with a strong Labor presence that still included socialistic elements. There was such a thing as an Israeli Left at the time. It was a Zionist Left and therefore very compromised, but it included people who considered themselves Leftists, and sometimes Marxists.
Now, I do regard it as a disappointment that after clearly experiencing empathy for the Palestinians on his trip and noticing the militarism and the national chauvinism of Israel at the time, Sartre ended up more or less aligning himself with Israel at the time of the 1967 crisis. But at the same time, I don't think it's fair to say that Sartre was pro-Zionist in any simplistic sense, or that he was hoodwinked by the Israelis. I think Sartre found himself in a morally challenging zone where he felt torn between his anti-colonial principles and his guilt over the Holocaust. I'm not saying there’s a lesson. But it's a humbling reminder that political crises often present situations in which making a judgment call is not necessarily easy. So I have to put aside my own hopes and politics and to assess things with a greater degree of empathy, historical understanding and analytic rigor. I'm not arguing for a more forgiving criticism because I can be quite severe. But I think we need a more contextual and historical criticism, one that has a certain humility. If we think the bien-pensant thinking of 2023 is going to be the bien-pensant thinking of 2040, we’re severely misled.