Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination
Just after September 11th, 2001, the essayist Adam Shatz sat down with V.S. Naipaul for an interview. Naipaul was supposed to discuss his writings on Islam, but the conversation sank into a series of ugly generalizations. Though Shatz was unmoved by Naipaul’s analyses, the novelist made one remark which stuck with him. “You have to make a choice,” Naipaul said, “are you a writer, or are you a missionary?”
Writers and Missionaries (Verso, May 2023), Shatz’s new collection of essays, considers this very question. Across fifteen profiles, Shatz chronicles a diverse group of writers frustrated by the narrow prisms of ideology and identity. He examines novelists and playwrights who have tested the lines of literature and advocacy, artists and critics who have grown frustrated by moral simplification and political binary.
Shatz, a profoundly well-read, endlessly patient critic, was never a missionary. But he was once a different kind of writer. Twenty years ago, he was more comfortable with totalizing judgments, less troubled by political dogmas. He’s critical of his early work: he “find[s] the tone jarring, the confidence unearned, the lack of humility suspect.”
Today, Shatz is a connoisseur of nuance. He holds a clear affinity for those who resist ideological factions, who upend what nationality, class, or race might imply of their beliefs. He prefers writers who, like the Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud, are “suspicious of hardened positions and grand analyses”; he is sympathetic to critics who, like Edward Said, prefer “affiliation” to “filiation”; to those who critique their ‘brothers,’ who are sometimes derided as ‘self-hating’ or insufficiently committed—yet who still preserve some commitment, who write with moral purpose, who want injustice remedied. Shatz knows literature and politics overlap: his subjects are caught in between, weighing their conflicting loyalties to prose, audience, and cause.
Shatz refers often to writerly ‘commitment,’ using a term first theorized in Jean-Paul Sartre’s What Is Literature? “To speak is to act,” Sartre argued then, and “the ‘committed’ writer knows that words are action.” Silence, it follows, is not passive but active; “it is to refuse to speak.” Sartre leapt from language to combat. “A day comes,” he famously wrote, “when the pen is forced to stop, and the writer must then take up arms.”
Writer—or missionary? Sartre’s own followers, Shatz observes, sometimes confused the distinction: many heard the call to engage as the call to proselytize. Shatz devotes an excellent chapter to Sartre, focusing on his contentious visit to the Middle East in 1967. Sartre was flummoxed by Palestine and frustrated by the misapplication of his writings. Facing a group of students in Cairo, he sounded a little like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall: “Have you all read my work? I do not think so. […] When I called for committed literature I did not mean propaganda.”
Sartre was embittered; his followers were even angrier. They were mystified, writes Shatz, that “the defender of colonized Africans and Algerians” refused to “be a champion of the Palestinians whose lands had been confiscated by Zionist settlers.” Sartre’s books were set ablaze. Had the philosopher betrayed his own principles?
Where Sartre grew wary of totalizing commitments, other public intellectuals shrugged politics entirely. Roland Barthes, Shatz observes, felt “repugnance toward anything that could resemble a gesture in the life of a writer.” Barthes proffered a different bravery: “it is courageous,” he wrote, “not to be courageous.”
Barthes and his brave indifference appear in the middle section of Writers and Missionaries, one of five chapters devoted to French writers and theorists. This is Shatz at his finest,
synthesizing the complex principles of deconstruction and tracing their political consequences in swift, limpid prose. The theoreticians kept activism at arm’s length: “the call to choose sides,” writes Shatz, “struck [Jacques Derrida] as a betrayal of deconstructionist first principles, an abandonment of the doubt and skepticism he cultivated in his work.” Derrida wanted a world without center, “without origin,” and—most provocatively—“without truth.” His so-called “active interpretation” would liberate us all.
Or would it? Shatz offers a revealing example of Derrida’s non-commitment, a corporeal test of critical principles: “When a close friend […] wrote to him about the torture of an Arab teenager, Derrida was horrified but refused to take a position.” The critic wriggled: “to justify or condemn either group,” Derrida contended, “is not just obscene, just a way of quieting one’s conscience, but also abstract, ‘empty.’”
Shatz is gentle with Derrida. He commends the “moral sensitivity—the attention to nuance, the refusal to choose sides […] of his political thinking.” Yet these words invite the question: is the “refusal to choose sides” a form of moral sensitivity, or is it political cowardice?
Today, it depends where you stand. On the left, “silence is violence,” and if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. These catechisms dot signs and shirts. Meanwhile, the right owns the realm of the ‘apolitical,’ adamant that athletes ‘stick to sports,’ that teachers ‘keep politics out of schools.’ Euphemisms like ‘personal belief’ shroud reactionary values; if the belief were less repugnant, it might be made public.
It’s a little jarring, then, to remember the titans of modern theory once jealously guarded the right to privacy. “If a right to a secret is not maintained,” wrote Derrida, “we are in a totalitarian space.” Fascism, concurred Barthes, is “any regime that not only prevents one from speaking but above all obliges one to speak.”
Shatz reminds us that what seems a consensus is only ephemeral. There remains no clear answer regarding the method or degree of political engagement required in literature. Shatz’s subjects wrangle with commitment, writing and refusing, a dialectic between an act and its negation. It’s only natural, Shatz explains: these are “the wrenching demands that the world imposes on the mind.” Writers and Missionaries may raise an age-old question, but the collection feels startlingly timely. Both call to conscience and call to nuance, Shatz’s words are provocative and perspicacious—even, to use that most modern phrase, ‘necessary.’