In 1955, Beirut witnessed a debate between “the dean of Arabic literature,” Taha Hussein, and the leftist Lebanese writer Raif Khoury. The debate title was “For whom does the writer write: the elite or the people?” It had been assumed that Taha Hussein would defend the argument for “writing for the elite,” which he did not do, arguing instead that this is a false dichotomy and that the author “writes for others; he writes for those who have the opportunity to read.” As for Khoury, he argued, as had been expected, for “writing for the people.”
The debate was organized by the Lebanese writer Souheil Idriss, who was the owner and editor-in-chief of the literary magazine ‘Al Adab’. He also translated several works by Jean-Paul Sartre into Arabic.
In fact, the subject of that day’s debate was Sarterian, especially since the Arabs accepted from the French philosopher and writer who had supported the Algerian revolution what they did not accept from its other source, i.e., the Soviets. That is because only eight years prior, Moscow had supported the partition of Palestine. One of the debaters, Raif Khoury, a friend of the communists, was resented by his friends after “accusing” them of Titoism and nationalism; thus, the two debaters were united, despite their divergent positions, in condemning the miserable conditions of writers in the Soviet Union.
Going back to Sartre, as the source of inspiration, he published in 1948 a book entitled ‘What is Literature?’ (also published under the title ‘Literature and Existentialism’ in the English translation), which consists of four chapters that had previously been published as essays in French Magazines: ‘What is Writing?’ ‘Why Write?’ ‘For Whom Does One Write?’ ‘The Situation of the Writer in 1947.’
Sartre had been heavily criticized for his tendency to politicize literature, and in this book, he argued against his critics and their opinions.
Nevertheless, his first essay, which was bolstered by an immense number of references to French literature from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as well as by an elaborate discussion on the impact that language had had on French culture and society, grabbed more attention and created more controversy than any other segment of the book.
In this essay, the French philosopher and writer made the distinction, upon which he builds his theory, between prose and other forms of art like poetry, painting, sculpture, and music. This distinction, which was adopted “to clarify,” states that these art forms are a “subject” because they are judged by the viewer and listener, while prose is an “object”: it is functional, persuasive, and tied to meaning, as “writers wanted to destroy, to edify, to demonstrate.” And the writer, as Sartre put it elsewhere, is “a speaker; he designates, demonstrates, orders, refuses, interpolates, begs, insults, persuades, insinuates.” He alone expresses the meaning that his readers receive from him; prose is the field of meaning, which cannot be drawn, sculpted, or composed.
Moreover, other forms of art (painting, sculpting, music…) arise from the impact of different sensory stimuli, like shapes, colors, and tones. Even poetry, which is composed of words, does not revolve around these words and their meaning. Rather, what matters in poetry is joining and grouping words together, which leaves the poet “outside of language”: he transforms words into small worlds, which means he serves words more than he uses them. Prose, on the other hand, uses words as signifiers for what we find around us and in our world. Indeed, it is impossible, in prose, to search for truth and reveal situations without exclusively using language. If it is true that poetry serves language, then language serves prose and allows prose to “employ” it.
While writing a story or play requires a style, it is not the most important thing in prose writing. Instead, it is the issue being written about that matters, that is, conveying some truth and revealing current situations to overcome them in the future. Thus, the prose writer does not confront questions of style or aesthetics but: what image of the world do you want to reveal or expose, and what changes do you want your revelation to induce?
If the writer carries out this task, fulfilling his duty, no one will be able to “conjure up an escape from responsibility for himself” after that.
This engaged writing brings readers to the truth and the model of a free society. Indeed, as soon as the writer understands what is happening in the world, it becomes his duty and obligation to speak. For its part, silence, as a refusal to speak, is elevated to a violation of the “law” of literature.
However, poetry, painting, sculpture, and music cannot and are not asked to meet these conditions, and they even do not apply to forms of prose like novels. That is because considering literary writing to be an endeavor meant to convey truth or advocate ideals renders it an ethical effort, as well as an effort to mobilize those who receive its truths, which should not apply to novels.
And this, once more, does not imply that artistic style should be overlooked in prose writing. But artistic judgment here remains conditioned on not concentrating too much on the style which should be confined to allusions and insinuations. Sartre does hesitate to condemn the “purists” who are only drawn to psychological analyses of the writer or revealing the unconscious or subconscious aspects of his work, or those who treat literature like it was only the artistic value that matters, denying its social function and overlooking the goal behind it and the impact it has.
To sum up, no book can be artistically beautiful and morally bad or harmful.
In other words, as in every conservative consciousness, even if it tries very hard to present itself as revolutionary, moral and political criteria overwhelm literary criteria. And there is a message conveyed by the author through words, as is the case for religious books. Unlike other arts, neither the viewer nor the listener takes part in judging this message. They just receive it.
Indeed, Sartre rehashed what Soviet writers had been saying, and he added some of the French meander we are all familiar with. We are, once again, looking at a caller and a receiver, a positive side and a negative one, a pollinator and a pollinated.
Our writers have been afflicted with this engagement for decades.