The power to provoke

Harold Pinter is a writer I have enjoyed and loved since I was a teenager, coming up from Bromley on the train to queue for tickets to see, several times, Gielgud and Richardson in No Man’s Land. And I’d read, while waiting on the station, the famous 1966 Pinter interview in the Paris Review, where he states clearly the writer’s task: “One tries to get the thing ... true.”

Before this I had seen The Caretaker somewhere, and, to my surprise – having heard that Pinter was a difficult, if not opaque writer – laughed as much as if I’d been at a farce.

Harold Pinter is well-known for his mastery at representing the unfortunate preoccupations of the twentieth century – terror, paranoia, persecution – both domestically and, later in his career, in larger politics. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Pinter is a comic writer, and a devil with the mad insult. This is from The Homecoming: “He brings a filthy scrubber off the street ... I’ve never had a whore under this roof before. Ever since your mother died.”

Pinter brilliantly understands how wit and humour can be used as a medium of humiliation and degradation, to destroy the victim’s defences and turn the individual into nothing. But he is also aware of how language as wit can be used to attack authority, to undermine power and pomposity, to subvert.

In Milan Kundera’s 1967 masterpiece The Joke, set in the 1950s, the young Czech protagonist is arrested and imprisoned for sending a postcard to his girlfriend. “Optimism is the opium of the people!” it says – a relatively mild joke but one that becomes a suicide note, and a kind of self-sacrifice. “A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”

In 1980, Milan Kundera told Philip Roth: “I learned the value of humour during the time of Stalinist terror. I could always recognise a person who was not a Stalinist, a person whom I needn’t fear, by the way he smiled. A sense of humour was a trustworthy sign of recognition. Ever since, I have been terrified by a world that is losing its sense of humour.”

It is a stretch to think of a great writer who isn’t also comic: Gogol, Dostoevsky, Proust, Kafka, Beckett and so on are, at times, what Roth calls sit-down comedians. Jokes undo knots and undermine dictators. The powerful may have many attributes, but a sense of humour is never one of them.

Writing, then, is playful, a form of loose collaborative excitement, creating, with the reader, a shared experience of pleasure. Writers are, from one point of view, as I like to explain to my writing students, in show business. They must entertain, and give good value, otherwise there is nothing going on between reader and writer. From another point of view writers are scrupulous critics. Comedy and wit, which combine both, are ways of seeing into, and seeing through.

It’s a serious and necessary business, amusement, and you can tell how serious it is by the number of journalists and writers who are in prison around the world, as well as by the attempts there are, as PEN would confirm, to shut writers up, to censor and impede them – always a sure sign that a writer, somewhere, is doing her job and that she has some authority in a cynical world.

Let’s remind ourselves: words are very dangerous, they are dynamite. Jokes can’t start a revolution, but they can loosen the bricks in the wall. A joke introduces a little anarchy into the world, a bit of disruption. It tests the limits; it pushes them.

In Pakistan, when Zulfikar Bhutto first began to compromise with the Islamists, my father, his brothers and other liberal friends referred to this as “the great leap backwards”. They liked to say the country was being “sodomised” by religion, a line I later used in My Beautiful Laundrette. Their political impotence and sense of helplessness led them to make jokes continuously, even as the situation worsened. At least humour represents love, a promiscuous combining of elements, which will help form solidarity among dissenters.

Behind this idea is partly the modernist notion of the writer as devil, as dangerous, as a rebel. But I have come to think that it is insufficient; more is required. It is almost adolescent as a view: humour as the revenge and refuge of the powerless, the last stand of the already defeated, giggling as they go down. My father was born and brought up in India under British rule. There was some equality there, he liked to say. As a child he was beaten by Catholic nuns as well as by the moulvis who instructed children on the Koran.

The racial ideas my father faced – in India under colonialism, and in Britain when he first came here in the early 1950s – were of a kind which have mostly been driven out now, as Britain’s aggressively self-important sense of itself has declined. However, it might be useful to remind ourselves of these notions.

As an Indian my father was always uncomfortably aware that he was considered inferior; that he was less of a man than the other men who ruled. It was part of the general attitude of the time, and not only in Britain. Whites were superior as human beings to what were known as “the coloured races”. My father and his family despised and mocked their British masters, while wanting to be like them. The English gentleman was their ideal. This class of Indian also wanted to be recognised as equals by the master who despised them. It was an impossibly ambivalent position to be in, and no one was satisfied.

As the son of an Indian father and English mother, I didn’t want to be like the English, I was already English, almost. But I became aware that I represented some sort of problem for the English, because they kept asking me who I was, where I fitted in, where I belonged and how long I’d be staying, not difficulties which my father, an Indian, had had. I was asked these questions so often I began to lose my bearings. What was I doing to the neighbours to make them so philosophical?

And so, as a teenager, I began to write. I wrote for my life. The idea of having an identity by calling myself “a writer” suddenly seemed both consolidating and liberating, like a Cartesian assertion of existence. Critics sometimes like to characterise me as an autobiographical writer, and I like to reply that all writing is as autobiographical as a dream, in which every element both does and doesn’t belong to the dreamer, and is somehow beyond them. “Who’s there?”, the first line of Hamlet, is the question writers ask themselves when they sit down to write, perhaps in the hope, one day, of finding out. But there are multitudes there.

I was aware that I did want to speak of the experience of my family and myself. This seemed necessary and important for my survival. It was something of an epiphany as I sat at my typewriter every day, after school, and found

I had my own words, however clumsy and derivative. Those of us like me were not, then, merely subject to the denigrations and descriptions of others. We could talk back. Writing would be a message to the world outside my family, and outside the suburbs. I would inform people what was going on, what life in the new Britain – a Britain unknowingly transforming itself forever – was like for us. This was not writing as a form of defence, but, for me, as a way of situating myself fully in the alien world, an attempt to work out a place in it – writing as an attempted solution to various internal and external conflicts.

Through my Indian family, I became aware, as a young man, of this very full form of speaking, the novel. The British writers I admired – Forster, Orwell, Greene, Waugh – had all put colonialism, and what dominion does to people, at the centre of their work. Indeed, Forster regrets, at the end of A Passage to India, that certain kinds of free and equal relationships will not be possible while one consciousness dominates another. And J.G. Farrell wrote, “The loss of the British Empire is the only interesting thing that happened in my adult life.”

Not that some of these attitudes don’t remain. A friend said to me recently, “Surely you have to acknowledge that people like your father only wanted to come here because of the peace, prosperity and high level of civilisation we have made.” It should go without saying, of course, that the economic prosperity and creativity of the West has always been partly based on colonialism and immigration. If there has been a failure to acknowledge this – and even to despise and attack those whose labour made, and continues to make, this prosperity and freedom possible – it is the hatred of the master for those he depends on; hatred for the necessary subaltern without whom nothing good happens. This is partly because the subaltern is hardly noticed; he is only a quarter present, almost invisible, glimpsed from the corner of the eye.

But how then might he or she be seen? First there would have to be a political presence, of course. Margaret Thatcher, as we know, revived nationalist sentiment by attempting to resuscitate wartime versions of English patriotism. She was an exclusionist who didn’t want too much “difference” or “otherness”. The early to mid-1980s in Britain, when I was working in the theatre and had begun to write films, were a rough time for minorities. The defining struggle of the less deferential Second Generation against prejudice and police discrimination and brutality was at its height. Out of this came civil unrest, and riots in Brixton, Bristol and Birmingham.

It had begun to occur to people that immigrants and their children were here for good, and Britain had changed for ever. There was a reluctance to accept this and, at the same time, a demand from people who felt disenfranchised and ghettoised for recognition, as well as for just and equal treatment. Multiculturalism and identity politics were a good idea, a form of self-protection, when social cohesion, under Thatcher, was breaking up, and racism was unchecked. It seemed, for a time, that not only the idea of Britishness, but Britain itself, would disintegrate under these pressures. Multiculturalism reminded us that there are certain attributes which can’t be subtracted from people without asking them to forfeit their links to the past, and to others in the future. Numerous groups had begun to explore their own history – often a history of persecution – and tried to determine how they were made in relation to it. Where once there had been silence, and the pressure of a majority culture, multiculturalism (or a counter-history) celebrated difference, multiplicity and pluralism within the same place. After all, the wish to wipe out another’s history and culture is a form of genocide, and what is repressed is always more compelling than the sanctioned story.

When culture is only an extension of power, if it is an official culture, if you like, one can see how a joke can expose suppression. It shouldn’t be forgotten that along with the superiority of the white man went the superiority of his culture, which was, for a long time, monolithic. If we can recall how difficult it was for the cinema to be taken seriously as an art form, and then pop, we ought to have an idea of how much that cultural dominance can exclude in other areas, of how people can be dispossessed of knowledge, a particularly cruel form of authority. As Kundera also reminded us, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”.

But I can also recall, in the mid-1980s, being told by an Afro-Caribbean acquaintance, that ideas like socialism, feminism and liberalism were no good for blacks and Asians. They were white people’s ideas, and since the whites hated us and it would be rational for us to hate them back, we had to repudiate all their ideas. According to him, the only way forward was for us to reconnect with our history, as if what was called “our history” had nothing to do with anyone else’s. This is similar to something a cousin of mine – but not an uncle – once said to me: “Since we are Muslims, we have to create here in Pakistan only a Muslim not a Western society”, with the Koran, of all things, providing the blueprint for the future.

It’s not difficult to see here that once attributes and differences become fetishised – if the subject becomes a series of idiosyncrasies or typical marks, and even begins to believe that this is what he really is – then the possibility of creative collaboration and renewal is cancelled. Marginalisation and alienation become permanent. Among the many good reasons for immigration, at least one is to ensure the free circulation of people, ideas and culture, for that is how, as Rushdie puts it in The Satanic Verses, “newness is brought into the world”.

But if multiculturalism becomes the gated community of the minority, if it becomes another monoculturalism, that which was once protective becomes a prison. Identities become traps, rather than temporary accommodations between selves and the outside world. When it comes to a description of what a human being is, and what she might need to lead a fulfilling life, multiculturalism, while it once opened the door to other narratives, has come to seem inadequate and reductive, and, for its supposed beneficiaries, has closed off the rest of the world.

The finest poetry, novels and plays might be a good place to look when we require new paradigms for both criticising and understanding the world. Works of art, which describe and redescribe experience until we grasp its complexity, can liberate us from the static points of view that multiculturalism seems to generate. Great works of art are different to one another, but they are almost always concerned with the individual and her struggle with the majority view.

Universal values, particularly those of freedom and equality, are the basis of any minority community having a presence at all. If diversity and pluralism are to mean anything, they have to apply to a knowledge of a range of religions as solutions to human helplessness, as well as knowledge of ideas of atheism, secularism and doubt, and their place in a liberal, developing society. For instance, a universal value would be the use of education as a force for emancipation, for critical and objective evaluation, rather than for religious indoctrination.

As we all know, there’s been some hard thinking on these difficult issues, particularly in the period since the fatwa on Salman Rushdie in 1989, which was a turning point for both literature and liberalism. This attack on a book, an author, freedom of expression and a literary culture, has left nothing the same.

But what of the desire to censor and control? What does it really mean? Sigmund Freud insists that although we have a fantasy of maintaining a reign of authority over ourselves, the truth is that each day, and, in particular, each night, our real life passes in a chaos of fumblings, bumblings, bingeings, forgettings, fantastic uprisings, wild dreams and delinquent fantasies, a comedy of errors and idiocies. Our lives are more like a Laurel and Hardy film than they are like a Stalinist state.

A mere joke can remind us, therefore, that the authoritarian regime can never succeed. As with the mischievous postcard in Kundera’s novel, the imp of truth escapes. Kundera’s novel will last longer than the regime it attacked. The forced empire of the self – the imperious ego – is always in danger of being undermined; the creative is never far away, since the disowned and the repressed inevitably return. The system creates dissidents, and the dissident speaks suppressed parts of the authority, parts which eventually have to be returned to him – as a reminder of the human. Sometimes this is the writer’s work, even if he or she would repudiate the political labelling. Rushdie, Pamuk, Mahfouz, Kundera and Pinter himself have all, at times, represented something honest in the State, and have been attacked, on occasions violently, for telling the truth.

A comedian can only make people laugh, whereas a good writer should have a wide palette and be able to intrigue, upset, shock and excite – transporting us from mood to mood in the same piece. Nevertheless, a joke is a marvellous moment of liberation, while being a reminder of constraint. Laughter is a recognition that something has to be freer.

Free speaking and writing are always difficult because they are always under threat. This guarantees their authenticity. In his Paris Review interview, Pinter notes the following: “The speech only seems funny. The man in question is actually fighting for his life.” And if we are not fighting for our own lives and, by extension, others’ lives, what are we doing?

Copyright © Hanif Kureishi, 2010

This lecture was given by Hanif Kureishi as winner of the PEN/Pinter Prize at the British Library on October 20 2010. PEN is an international writers’ association which works to promote literature and defend free expression. The prize is shared with an international writer of courage selected by English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, and will be presented this year to the Mexican journalist and human rights activist Lydia Cacho

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