it's time to get above ourselves

A Toxic Culture

czjb7lbweaaa5vf-jpg-largeAL Kennedy was yesterday awarded the Heine Prize in Dusseldorf, Germany. The prize is “to personalities who serve by their intellectual heritage in terms of fundamental human rights, for which Heinrich Heine used, to promote social and political progress, international understanding or the realization of the unity of people”. The Heine Prize jury said: “The Heinrich Heine Prize of the City Dusseldorf 2016 is awarded to the excellent AL Kennedy, well known for her idiosyncratic literary work, which plumbs the limits of the human soul. Her views on political and social conditions sharpen social discussions about the Iraq war and the proposed referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union in the tradition of Heinrich Heine. AL Kennedy is a great literary figure and European”. This is her acceptance speech.

I would like to thank the judges of the Heine Preis for allowing me to receive this honour, to be thought of as a good writer by people of intellectual rigour and good judgment is always a kind surprise. To be thought of as in any way worthy of a prize which also seeks to celebrate the promise of humanity and the role of writing within the ongoing project which is human civilisation is very moving. To be associated with the spirit of Heine’s writing, his compassion, his imagination, his daring, his mourning and his outrage – this is beyond what I would have hoped for myself, or my work.

So thank you all.

But, as you know, the arts today cannot simply be about maybe some happy press releases and a congenial event where we congratulate each other on knowing about values. We are all aware that the values which keep us all safe, promise us the best possible opportunities to fulfill our humanity and to see and cherish what is human in others – those values are currently being forgotten, derided, or quietly buried alive.

As Germany clings to the lessons it learned about cultural toxicity long ago, I speak to you as a citizen of the UK, a country where books do not have to be burned – epidemic library closures and a massively compressed literary culture quietly prevent books ever being read or even born. Mine is a country which would rather leave traumatised and undefended children in the Calais mud, or now who knows where, than offer them the welcome we once extended to the kinder transports and to 100’s of thousands of refugees before and after World War II. This is a country where the availability of the arts has narrowed shockingly in the last decades and where community arts are especially under threat. This is a country – a wealthy country – where around 130,000 of our own children are homeless.

This is a country which tortures in black sites abroad and police stations at home, which incarcerates citizens without trial. This is a country with a wrecked education system for the masses based on monetisation and testing and an emotionally traumatising and entitling education for the elite. This is a country where there is less and less mass media arts coverage. This is a country where the public discourse is a hell’s broth of gossip, malign invention, racism, rabble-rousing hatred and smut. This is a country where civil servants despair, where politicians base decisions on faith and feeling which does not include faith in our species or fellow feeling, where any attempt to rise above the gutter is reframed as smugness, or otherworldly insanity. This is a country where – as the UN recently pointed out, our government’s treatment of the disabled contravenes their human rights and where there is no need for an equivalent of Aktion T4 to organise the extinction of human beings with disabilities. We have simply withdrawn all their means of support, subjected them to official harassment and mass-media demonisation and waited for them to die in their tens of thousands – of stress, starvation, or else driven to suicide by their pain and despair. Make no mistake; we have been lost for some time – long before Brexit advertised that fact to the world. There is no morning when I could not wake up and say, like Max Liebermann – who once illustrated an edition of Der Rabbi Von Bacherach – “Ich kann gar nicht soviel fressen, wie ich kotzen mochte.” [There’s no way I could eat enough to vomit as much as I would like to.’]

“This is a country where the public discourse is a hell’s broth of gossip, malign invention, racism, rabble-rousing hatred and smut. This is a country where civil servants despair, where politicians base decisions on faith and feeling which does not include faith in our species or fellow feeling, where any attempt to rise above the gutter is reframed as smugness, or otherworldly insanity.”

 

And this lack of art and this lack of humanity – they are connected. You know it, I know it, we have known it all along, but we have allowed the dominant discourse to forget. But as Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

The practice of arts, contact with the arts, is our lifelong education – right here – it prepares us to choose wisely. It exercises our imagination, the force that allows allows us to visualise any change, all consequences, to empathise with each other. Without it, hope is a form of delusion. Art is at the heart of democracy. If we doubt ourselves, if we feel we may simply be making ourselves feel important because we are artists, then we can look to science, we can read about situation pressure and its massive power – what is culture but situational pressure. We can read about empathy, about compassion – how diminish it and how to enlarge it – by doing what art does. We can study history, we can learn all over again the beautiful and terrible truth of Heine’s words from the play Almansor, “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Moonstone” [That was just a prelude, where books Are burnt, people will eventually burn too].

We can look at the work of Raphael Lemkin, the man who invented the term Genocide before that crime had a name and who studied many culture’s progressions into genocide – and see that the vorspiel is always the same – first the art is murdered, then the people. Always. Always.

And speaking now for myself – I’m 51 years old and my life a writer has failed. For something like 35 years I have produced work and I have loved the process of that and I have earned my living – I have been paid to dream aloud, there could be no better life for me – and I have a nice home and I’ve won some prizes and I have – from time to time – worked with writers in prisons, or community centres, or hospitals, worked with new writers, with children, written in the media – and I have learned from that, but I haven’t talked enough about what I have learned. I have seen art light up lives, because that is what art does. But I haven’t done enough. I haven’t told enough people how precious that is, I haven’t fought to make a space within which that could be heard. Like many of us, perhaps, in comfortable, apparently stable democracies I have forgotten that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance and I have mistaken lazy silence, cowardice, for truly loving tolerance. Love tells the whole truth – when something is wrong there is no love in being silent and nodding as if it were right. And I haven’t said – at the start of every workshop – we will now make a part of culture – the thing which tells us to be cruel or to be kind, alone or united, ignorant and frightened, or endlessly learning and brave. And this matters – always – so we will now break our hearts to be extraordinary because anything else, anything imperfect, anything simply self-obsessed, weak and “conceptual” diminishes the place of art amongst us, wastes perhaps the only chance that art will have to improve and awaken and even save a life. This is life and death.

Whenever we see reality TV shows that diminish humanity, articles that lie in a way fiction wouldn’t dare to, words used to rob them of their sense, or cynical website pieces that feed off outrage, while creating more, I haven’t said often enough – There cannot ever be a place for this amongst us. It is not elitist to want the best for our fellow-man – it is insulting to stand by while other human beings are fed manure, are shown, over and over, only how low humanity can go. It cannot be that only our cars and electrical goods are aspirational. It must be that our dramas, or novels, songs, photographs, paintings, cartoons, poems, ballets, operas and all the rest are extraordinary, diverse, unexpected and things of life. If we have no money, then we have no money – art can be cheap without being bad, toxic, hateful. This is a necessary truth.

” It cannot be that only our cars and electrical goods are aspirational. It must be that our dramas, or novels, songs, photographs, paintings, cartoons, poems, ballets, operas and all the rest are extraordinary, diverse, unexpected and things of life. If we have no money, then we have no money – art can be cheap without being bad, toxic, hateful. This is a necessary truth.”

 

And I owe my career, my artisan’s satisfaction and any morality I might lay claim to as a person to art, to writing, to – for example – a single scene in a drama that haunted me in my childhood and has ever since. In the drama a man who was not a torturer, but who was weak, stood in a torture chamber and was handed a pair of pliers – and there was the torture victim and there was the torturer and there were the pliers and there was the unspoken assurance that if the weak man did not torture he would be tortured and there was the pause. And that drama, by German screenwriter Lukas Heller who was born in Kiel in 1930 – asked me and still asks me – and what would you do? How weak are you? How best can you control your weakness and your desire for self-preservation – how do you prevent your fall and keep yourself and others truly safe?

And the how is what art always tells us – amongst everything else that it shows us and tells us. And it makes me think of lines from Heine’s poem – Allnächtlich im Traume – which is large enough to be about more than one kind of love…

Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort,
Und gibst mir den Strauß von Zypressen.
Ich wache auf, und der Strauß ist fort,
Und das Wort hab ich vergessen.

[translation here]

As writers and artists we keep hold of the cypress that reminds us we all die and that we should be merciful and we serve the dreams that come to us to be expressed. We make them articulate and let them join the larger dreams that others make for us, the dreams that form our culture. Our culture makes the reality we inhabit. As artists, as writers, we are paid to dream awake and that is very nice for us. As human beings, which is more important, we have a duty never to forget those secret words we hear in darkness and to guard each other from the worst of who we can be, the worst of worlds that we can make and to do better. And we can love that, we can love that loudly. I would thank Heine and the Heine Preis for being part of what I love.

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27 Comments

  • Darby O’Gill 8 months ago

    Wonderful

    Reply
  • Dougie James 8 months ago

    Yes, absolutely!

    Reply
  • Alistair Livingston 8 months ago

    Yes. “Whenever we see reality TV shows that diminish humanity, articles that lie in a way fiction wouldn’t dare to, words used to rob them of their sense, or cynical website pieces that feed off outrage, while creating more, I haven’t said often enough – There cannot ever be a place for this amongst us. It is not elitist to want the best for our fellow-man – it is insulting to stand by while other human beings are fed manure, are shown, over and over, only how low humanity can go. “

    Reply
    • Thrawn 8 months ago

      So what…she would censor what she and her fellow Illuminati deem as “undesirable”…an artist more confident in her art and with more faith in humanity would not be so dogmatic…depressing really

      Reply
      • Gery 8 months ago

        No. Not at all.

        You are distorting an exhortation to speak out as an individual and compounding that distortion with a poor ‘ad hominem’ that is as innacurate as it is uncalled for.

        Read what is said again: “Whenever we see reality TV shows that diminish humanity, articles that lie in a way fiction wouldn’t dare to, words used to rob them of their sense, or cynical website pieces that feed off outrage, while creating more, I haven’t said often enough – There cannot ever be a place for this amongst us. It is not elitist to want the best for our fellow-man – it is insulting to stand by while other human beings are fed manure, are shown, over and over, only how low humanity can go. It cannot be that only our cars and electrical goods are aspirational. It must be that our dramas, or novels, songs, photographs, paintings, cartoons, poems, ballets, operas and all the rest are extraordinary, diverse, unexpected and things of life.”

        I hope you too will find it within you speak out against that which diminishes humanity and in favour of the aspirational.

        Reply
  • John Page 8 months ago

    Thank you to Bella for making these profound comments available.
    These words are a provocation to us all, it is not enough to give up the telly as low class pernicious dross or to avert one’s eyes from the foul Express and Daily Mail headlines. As the Yes2 Campaign gets going we all have an obligation to speak up couteously for the values we inherited from the “Spirit of ’45” generation which have been trashed by those who want Britain to be great again using Trident to “punch above our weight” while feeding the masses programmes about cake baking and ballroom dancing.
    John Page

    Reply
  • Rose 8 months ago

    I can’t think of words more suited to our times – a powerful call. The cypress metaphor is beautiful too (from the translation link) the call towards humanity in this simple way is heartbreaking. Kennedy is right we do need to ‘break our hearts to be extraordinary..’ that’s what art at its best does, because compassion is painful but necessary

    Reply
  • HopeGraceFury 8 months ago

    Thank you for sharing these words. I needed to read them today.

    It is hard for me to make art knowing that, at best, it will have a small but profound impact and, at worst, it could become valuable and then be appropriated by capitalism’s pension funds. And the only way to guarantee the latter doesn’t happen is to repeat the enforced silence of my childhood, to become my own abuser.

    It is hard to speak up against a seeming tide of voices who talk about social justice as if it is, at best, naive idealism and, at worst, evidence of moral defectiveness and leftist facism that seeks to throw the blameless privileged under the bus in a misguided effort to save the marginalised.

    It is hard to keep staying alive when simply being who I am within the context of historical colonialism, cast into the role of daily witness to the suffering of oppressed people at home and abroad, means that I become complicit in the unfolding human tragedies. And then there are the crimes we as a species are committing against the planet and the animals and plants that we consume to extinction. I can barely stomach my own relatively minor corruptions and transgressions; to be confronted by those of my fellow human beings, from petty acts of vandalism through to atrocities carried out in the name of freedom, peace and religion, is more than my already wounded soul can bear. I am not humble enough to believe the world would be better off without me but I increasingly wonder if I would be better off without the world. My fear of failure and not wanting to inflict undeserved suffering on family and friends has kept me safe so far but I don’t know if I have the resilience needed to keep up this internal battle for another 5 years.

    AL Kennedy’s words remind me that in world where our attention is now a weaponised commodity and it no longer feels like striving to be a good person is good enough, then maybe the world needs gentle dreamers all the more. By refusing to answer the call to self-annihilation, simply choosing to stay alive becomes my personal act of non-violent resistance.

    Reply
    • Justin Kenrick 8 months ago

      Take care

      Reply
    • AL Kennedy 8 months ago

      Take care out there. The world needs you.

      Reply
  • Peter Kershaw 8 months ago

    A wonderful analysis of the way that the UK is being dragged by the current Government and its allies in the Brexit movement. Powerful words, and a reminder to us all that for evil to triumph it is enough that the good do nothing. The message needs to be spread as widely as possible whilst we still have time to act. Thanks to Bella Caledonia for publicising this.

    Reply
  • Thrawn 8 months ago

    Sensationalist, melodramatic nonsense…and to implicitly link the present UK to fascist Germany beggars belief…the speech of a middling artistic talent with a middling intellect drenched in self-righteous, self-important pseudery

    Fits right in here though….

    Reply
    • John Page 8 months ago

      This is vile…….you should be ashamed of yourself.
      John Page

      Reply
      • Frank 8 months ago

        I thought it was melodramatic too. People are entitled to their opinions comrade.

        Reply
    • Darby O’Gill 8 months ago

      I think your response confirms the writer’s claim that “This is a country where the public discourse is a hell’s broth of gossip, malign invention, racism, rabble-rousing hatred and smut….”

      Reply
      • Alf Baird 8 months ago

        Perhaps the response is reflective of “an emotionally traumatising and entitling education for the elite”?

        Reply
    • john mooney 8 months ago

      Kennedy succinctly leaves you trolling in the gutter you so comprehensively belong in! Cheers ;o)

      Reply
    • Pilrig 8 months ago

      Away back to the Daily Mail.

      Reply
  • DialMforMurdo 8 months ago

    “verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen” not Moonstone!

    Reply
  • Mathew 8 months ago

    A L Kennedy is a beacon of sanity. Thanks Bella.

    Reply
    • Natalie Solent 8 months ago

      “A L Kennedy is a beacon of sanity.”

      Apart from her being a “9/11 truther”.

      Here’s a link to a page of testimonials on the 911Truth.org website for a book called “9/11 and American Empire: Intellectuals Speak Out”:

      http://www.911truth.org/911-and-american-empire-intellectuals-speak-out/

      One of the testimonials reads as follows:

      “Read this. Read this now. And then tell someone else what it told you. If you wondered where morality, intellectual rigor, common sense and historical perspective went when they disappeared from public discourse, be reassured–the authors of these essays were keeping them safe for you, along with a surprisingly functional sense of humor. This is a massively important book about events that are still changing our world. Forget the internet wingnuts, forget the blurry thinking and the blurry photographs, forget the government gibberish. If you want to know about 9/11, read this book. Read it. Read it now. And then tell someone else what it told you.”—A. L. Kennedy, author of Paradise and Indelible Acts

      Reply
      • Gery 8 months ago

        Please engage with the subject of the article. A poor attempt to divert discussion to whichever rabbit hole you think you’ve gotten to the bottom of is no substitute for a thoughtful contribution which might add insight instead of just noise.

        Reply
  • Fearchar 8 months ago

    Can someone please replace the misquoted words?

    “mochte” -> “möchte”

    and, more importantly

    “Moonstone” -> “Menschen”

    Reply
  • Chris Wright 8 months ago

    Excellent – this article neatly articulates the growing dismay with which I view the United Kingdom nowadays.

    Reply
  • Marcia Blaine 8 months ago

    Great stuff. Thank you AL Kennedy. Those making immoderate remarks need to think before they type.

    Reply
  • Merita Behluli 8 months ago

    Wonderful thoughts, beautifully expressed…I would like to read every sentence written by Al Kennedy…unfortunately in my developing country can’t find her books…can’t visit freely “developed” world, due to visa requirement ……

    Reply
  • [email protected] 6 months ago

    Wonderfully Wonderful! Such truth spoken from the heart.

    Reply

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