Conrad was born in Berdychiv, in the present-day Ukraine, in 1857, to Polish parents.
I am not an expert on geopolitics, so I don’t feel qualified to pontificate on the present war in the Ukraine (although, as a lifelong student of history, I daresay I know more about it than many of the journalists and politicians gibbering about it). Clearly it’s a catastrophe for the world order. But also it will have consequences for culture. About these, particularly in the sacred realm of literature, I do feel qualified to speak.
Finally, we have a real crisis. As Mencken predicted a century ago, it’s in the interest of politicians (and the media, who feed at their tables) to keep the public in a state of perpetual fear. It makes it easier to enslave and manipulate us. So since the fall of the Soviet Union we have lurched from one crisis to another, some of them real (9/11and its aftermath, and climate change), some more or less invented, or blown up out of all proportion to their real gravity (Covid, and identity politics.) For the last ten years or so, the culture wars have been ‘raging.’ I don’t want to analyse these: it’s too complicated a subject to deal with in a short essay whose focus is elsewhere. What any objective observer will verify is that however this ‘war’ was originally fuelled by genuine desires for diversity and social justice, it has degenerated into truly ridiculous outrage, storms in teacups, over statues and bathrooms, and absurd distortions of history. More seriously for the writer, it has led to censorship – the censorship of exclusion and cancellation, and perhaps more gravely still, the self-censorship that most artists practise now for fear of being ostracised. Literature, which used to be about the fundamental problems of human existence (consider the great Russian novelists!) has become to a large extent a whining about ‘oppression’ and a glorification of victimhood. I was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t in its death throes.
But now, with a real war in Europe, and the prospect of a catastrophic one for mankind – now we are faced with the possibility of extinction – it’s possible that the intelligentsia and the literati (and what I call the ‘wokerati’) will understand that what has been causing them outrage for so long is relatively trivial. Could the war bring about the end of our childish culture wars? It just might.
And here’s another likely change: although liberalism in the nineteenth century was closely associated with nationalist movements in Europe, for some time now the left (which regards itself as ‘liberal’ although it has little in common with the liberal principles of Edmund Burke and J.S. Mill) has decried nationalism as a crude, jingoistic, tribal emotion of the right-wing; in fact nationalism has often been identified with the far-right, and fascism. And yet now the left is wholly on the side of the Ukrainians, who appear to be as nationalistic as one could imagine. So it’s just possible that it will dawn on people that the dichotomy between liberalism and nationalism is a false one. There is actually no reason why a liberal democracy should not function within a nation. One might even argue that it’s more likely to function within a nation, that is, a country whose people regard themselves as one, than in some kind of bureaucratic supra-national body like the EU, or a supra-national empire. Again my purpose here is not to discourse on politics, except in so far as politics impinge on our intellectual and artistic life.
Which they do. Ever since the Second World War, post-structuralist and postmodern theory has come to dominate our intellectual life, and for the past couple of decades at least most intellectuals have taken the view that we need to promote a kind of supra-national utopia, and promote ‘diversity’, which sounds wonderful but has increasingly meant the exclusion of the ‘white patriarchy’ – and most worryingly, diversity of opinion and viewpoint has not been tolerated. Within academia, and the media, and the literary world, there is a monoculture. Dissident voices are silenced, or at best ignored. (And ignoring dissident voices is an effective way of silencing.)
This is the serious theme of my satire, Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, which will be published by Flame Books in Great Britain on May 15, and in the USA on June 15. It is a zany romp, and I’m proud that readers are finding it hilarious – but the novel is asking serious questions about what kind of society we live in, and want to live in. Just how liberal are the professors of ‘the liberal arts’ who are teaching our children and grandchildren? Are they promoting critical thought, or an ideology? Are they encouraging creativity, or conformity?
Posterity will tell how good my timing is. I believe this is the first satire to tackle such themes, (although Philip Roth gave us a foretaste of it with The Human Stain, as long ago as 2000.) Perhaps I will be cancelled, as Roth has been, or worse, ignored. I only hope that the book will be read, not just because it’s funny, but as a summons to freedom of expression – a call to become our better selves. Dogma ill befits us in the West. We must have diversity of opinion – or perish. Bombs can kill us. But an authoritarian, intolerant culture can destroy our souls too. If we want our lives to be worth living, we must reclaim our freedom.