Michael Holroyd: Art must be amoral if it is not to be propaganda

Taken from a talk given by the writer and biographer at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature
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Can literature turn a blind eye to injustice? Yes, of course it can – it does. Our notions of justice are always changing, and the only thing that remains constant about it is its relativity. It is, unlike religion, never absolute; if literature goes out of its way to place conscience above art, it becomes propaganda.

Literature is amoral, like biology, like physics, like the universe itself – and like the letters of the alphabet we use. Literature is an energy, an imaginative energy, which reflects all aspects of human nature. It is not part of our schoolmastering, but part of our learning in a wider and more imaginative sense. It teaches us to refute simplicities, simplicities which neatly separate good and evil. Above all, it is not just a set of cautionary or exemplary tales, but unpredictable, awkwardly shaped, not leading directly to bigger salaries and wages. Useless and sometimes shocking stuff. So let's have some more of it!

Some people believe that there is a political consciousness that inevitably underlies the art of writing. I believe there is sometimes: and sometimes not. As Professor Joad might have said: it depends what you mean by political consciousness. Was Virginia Woolf a political or an apolitical writer? During her lifetime, and subsequently in the books written chiefly by male writers such as Quentin Bell and Nigel Nicolson, both sympathetic witnesses, she was to all intents and purposes a non-political writer.

They could call in evidence several entries she made in her diaries. For example, in the 1920s, she wrote: "some politics are beginning to interest me... like a football match.'' Hardly a deep interest in politics, and hardly a female interest. Yet a number of recent writers, mostly women, have seen her are a considerable force for change in the political mind of the country – and not only the mind of Britain.

So who is right? In a sense, Professor Joad is right. It depends on what you mean by politics. If you are referring to party politics, the vacuum-packed debates and intrigues that go on round Westminster, then she has had no influence at all. But if you mean English studies, and the debates that go on in our universities, then she has had a great influence.

Between the team matches in the House of Commons and the intellectual playing ground of academe stands a large area, the area of public opinion, that is being fought over, with eruptions of laddism and repercussions of harassment that feature regularly in the media. This would have astonished many early 20th-century literary pugilists, such as Wyndham Lewis, who believed that the reputation of Virginia Woolf had been buried with the final demise of feminism.

In the 1930s, Leonard Woolf had an argument with his wife Virginia as to who had the real influence in our lives: those writers, such as George Bernard Shaw, who actively and specifically campaigned for changes in legislation, who wrote regularly to the national papers and later broadcast on the radio, filling our media with high-class propaganda; or those who were the more imaginative creators that Shelley had described as our unacknowledged legislators. Leonard, who was a hard-working Fabian and who helped with the creation of the League of Nations, believed that it was the first category of writers; Virginia thought it was the poets and novelists who produced a lasting effect.

Both had their moments of doubt. Leonard, in late life, calculated the enormous number of wasted hours he had spent on committees in his career; Virginia was filled with despair at what she saw and heard around her. But both, it seems to me, were also right. There is room for both kinds of writer, and indeed a need for both, in the long battle with public opinion.