Tag Archives: literature quotes

The Nobility of the Writer’s Craft

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsFor myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche’s great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.

By the same token, the writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his art.

None of us is great enough for such a task. But in all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in the irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. Because his task is to unite the greatest possible number of people, his art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude. Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.

Excerpt from author and philosopher Albert Camus’s speech, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1957 in Stockholm, Sweden.


The Agony of Man

Alexis Zorba: Why do the young die? Why does anybody die? Tell me.

Basil: I don’t know.

Alexis: What’s the use of all your damn books? If they don’t tell you that, what the hell do they tell you?

Basil: They tell me about the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.

Alexis: I spit on this agony!

From Zorba the Greek (1964), screenplay written by Mihalis Kakogiannis based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.


The Power of Literature

Inside stories lies transformational power,
Power that moves the invisible us,
Power that stirs our emotions,
To experience the experiences of others;
Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.
And thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.
   Emmanuel Reed Manirakiza (c.1993-2012) in a speech to the
African Leadership Academy held in South Africa in September of 2010.

This is an insightful and profound testimony about the power of literature, why literature endures, and why we read. But what makes these words so memorable and compelling is that they were not written by an academic, an accomplished author or playwright, but by a young man, a Rwandan refugee, who experienced first-hand the darkest side of humanity, seething with intolerance, hatred, and cruelty. Through an unlikely conjunction of events, perseverance and faith, Emmanuel managed to escape its evil clutches. As a young boy (6 years old) he witnessed the vicious slaughter of his extended family — his aunts, uncles, cousins; his father was stoned to death and he lost his mother and sister to cholera. For years, they lived as feral children, foraging for food in the Congo, the weeks and months punctuated by a seemingly endless cycle of fleeing and hiding until the war ended in 2001.

Fortunately for Emmanuel, an Anglican bishop took an interest in him and placed him at Sonrise School, founded for orphans of the genocide, and it was there that this frightened but tenacious boy (now age 9) blossomed as a student, a provider (earning money to support his sisters), as a community leader (helping others develop a trade, tutoring, mentoring), as a writer (writing for a newspaper and public performances of his poetry), and as an English teacher. Emmanuel’s scarred skin and the bullet fragments lodged in his calf were a constant reminder of the brutality that helped forge his character: “Perhaps because I was old enough to distinguish a boil scar from a bullet scar. It is also these haunting memories that remind me time and again that I have a responsibility to fight against evil and divisionism. Such ideology caused terror and brought tragedy that ruined my life and fellow Rwandan citizens’ life. It cannot be repeated.”

Despite the world he was born into, Emmanuel never considered himself a helpless victim. Quite the opposite, he was graced with a maturity and self-awareness to discover the one inescapable truth in life that separates achievement and failure, hope and despair, life and death: in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “we are our choices.” Emmanuel lived by a motto: “tough times make tough minds”; however even a brave, determined, and resilient young boy had moments of doubt — but he persevered because he believed in himself and his choices. In his diary, during some of the darkest days of his life, he records his struggles with the turmoil that exists in his world and within his soul: “Emmanuel, do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of justifying why you can’t climb the ladder of success. You owe no one an explanation why you will not achieve your goals. Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today but not what life had done to you in the past. Though you’re to look for God and others for comfort and instructions, you alone are responsible for your choices and you hold the key to your future. Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.” With the kind help of teachers and mentors, Emmanuel allowed the wisdom and insights of literature into his heart and into his life, a glimpse of the vast canvas of life and humanity not obscured by the shadows at its edges.

Tragically, Emmanuel life’s was cut short by a swimming accident; he drowned on July 15, 2012 in Kigali. He had just learned how to swim and enjoyed it immensely.

Knowing something about this remarkable young man, and rereading his words about literatures’s transformational power, one cannot help but feel humbled by the teachings of an extraordinary human being who severed the shackles of his past, to crawl through the pitch-black night of evil and hatred to reach daybreak, filled with the light of love and kindness. How extraordinary that he was able to look past man at his worst, transcend his suffering and sacrifice, and use the lens of literature to see man at his best; to renounce hatred and intolerance and have the courage to live and love with an open heart. Despite all the violence and brutality that he experienced, Emmanuel believed in the intrinsic goodness of man. And for all that was taken from him, he gave back so generously, so selflessly. Indeed, Emmanuel’s story is a powerful reminder that stories can heal and transform — and here’s the rub — if we let them.

The world will never know how much more Emmanuel could have contributed to the world; however this much is clear: his words (thanks to Andrew Powell’s blog) will continue to resonate, illuminate and inspire us to live our lives more authentically, more courageously, more responsibly, more generously. He challenges us to battle hatred and intolerance, and use our talents and skills to contribute to the world to help — and not hurt — one another. And it is important to share and reflect on this story; by doing so we honor him, his family, his teachers and mentors, and what he believed in. Like all great stories, Emmanuel’s story is fragile — it must be treasured, it must be remembered, and preserved so that it may speak to future generations. Emmanuel came to appreciate what any student of literature knows: that when we stop reading and sharing, when we stop reflecting and learning from these stories we will forget where we came from and who we really are; we sever the delicate thread that binds all of mankind.

One has to wonder: why was Emmanuel taken so early? Perhaps he was too pure, too innocent, too good for this world. His time, however short, was full of purpose and meaning; he touched so many lives so deeply, bringing illumination through his good nature, acts of kindness, and mature wisdom. Divine Providence must have looked upon this angelic child — who had suffered enough, sacrificed enough, and given enough — and knew that it was time for him to slip the surly bonds of earth to return to his eternal home, to be reunited with his family, leaving behind the struggle and the strife of human existence.

Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To

For further reading: http://apatala.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/emmanuel-manirakiza-uphill-climb/
http://ihcounsel.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/climb-on-emmanuel/


Doublets: Reading a Great Book

A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.

Robertson Davies, Canadian novelist, playwright, professor (1913-1995) best known for writing The Deptford Trilogy (1970-75).

When you read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.

Clifton Fadiman, American editor, literary critic, and essayist (1904-1999). He helped establish the Book-of-the-Month Club and served on its editorial board for 50 years as well as serving on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia Britannica and The Reader’s Club. He was the a book editor at Simon & Schuster and The New Yorker. He was a voracious reader, known to read 80 pages per hour. Ironically, he lost his sight due to illness in the 1980s but continued reading (listening to audio tapes) and writing (through dictation).


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