My Take

Sensible tactic to preserve creative space

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2012, 2:52am

Should every mainland artist or intellectual who has achieved prominence shout at the top of their lungs against the central authorities and become, inevitably thereafter, dissidents?

Some foreign critics and mainland dissidents seem to think so. And that seems to be the gist of their criticisms against Mo Yan since he won this year's Nobel Prize for literature.

Much has been made by his critics about his pen name, which means silence or say nothing. But his name might have been meant ironically, since as a prolific writer, he has been anything but silent? Or that silence itself can be a statement?

We like to think those with a great gift in the arts or sciences must also be good people. Unfortunately, that is not a requirement. The annals of world literature, philosophy and science are littered with men of genius who were complete bastards.

Being awful human beings does not impair the quality of their work. It's often the good and the brave who fail to raise their works beyond mediocrity.

Mo has been criticised for taking part in a hand-copying of Mao Zedong's famous Yan'an Talks on Literature and Art in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the speech.

But Mo's act was small beer compared to, say, Martin Heidegger's infamous university address in 1933, in which the philosopher, amid Nazi anthems and swastikas, praised the führer for leading German students in their march towards the "destiny of the German people".

Could such a Nazi academic be any good at philosophy? Sadly yes, and profoundly so. Throughout history, artists and thinkers have always had to find ways to work around repressive regimes, and their methods often do not reflect well on their moral character.

Mo is no hero, but nor is he a bastard. By distancing himself from the authorities, occasionally doing their bidding to avoid trouble, and speaking up for those persecuted when the occasion demands, he does what is only sensible and decent to preserve his creative space and protect those around him.

In such matters, W. B. Yeats has already said the last word: "The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work."