Questioning the Ethical Stance of the Fiction Writer

Photo © Shutterstock

When The Parthenon Bomber was released in Greece back in 2010, the book stirred a wide-ranging controversy. The title was enough. The sheer notion that someone would even consider bombing the Parthenon was at the realm of the unthinkable. Among the many articles, reviews, and reader comments that followed in the months after the book hit the bookstores, there was one newspaper column that I found especially interesting because it questioned something fundamental for my understanding of literature: the ethical stance of the fiction writer. In a few words, in that article the columnist argued that the The Parthenon Bomber is written in such an enchantingly distant style, that one might think that it endorses a “poetics of violence.” In simpler terms, the columnist suggested that such fictions are dangerous, because they might indeed inspire or incite acts of violence, vandalism, and terrorism. I was thrilled! In my mind, the fact that such questions could be raised by and about a piece of fiction validated the social role literature can still play in our times.

Let’s wonder: If a writer thinks his book has to be written in a specific way, and this is likely to lead to harmful interpretations for himself or others, should he write it, and in that specific form? In other words, what happens when your writing leads to risk-taking? The example that concerns us here is the romantic validation of violence through fiction. It is this impulse toward action (be it a creative force or an impulse toward destruction) that seems to be highly seductive for intellectuals’ minds. It is enough to look at examples like Giorgos Makris, the futurist Filippo Marinetti, or even the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen and his alleged statement that 9/11 was “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.”

So what happens when art (in our case a novel) attempts to deal with this violent impulse that very often leads people to committing incomprehensible acts? Examples could be Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-past Nine, or Don DeLillo’s Mao II. Would we call such works subversive or dangerous? And how do we respond to literature that shies away from moral statements, opting to analyze violence in a detailed and emotionally self-controlled way, avoiding generalizations, yet indicating the inadequacy of violence as a form of emancipation?

I personally had to deal with such concerns when writing The Parthenon Bomber. It is my long-lasting conviction that the statements made in a literary work cannot be challenged beyond the epistemology of fiction. Sherlock Holmes’s London is not the city of Arthur Conan Doyle. Books are “protected” by the genre noted on the cover: novel / novella / short story. If we circumvent this belief, we will not be able to write literature ever again.

On the other hand, it is true that the interpretation of political action relates to the way we understand the constituent moment of representation. Thinkers from Nietzsche to Foucault have argued for the disappearance of the “authentic” moment. We do perceive our political, social, and aesthetic reality through representations and the media. There is a form of responsibility embedded in writing itself. This responsibility cannot be overlooked.

Thus, if questioned about writing, the writer is obliged to answer: “Yes, books are written in complete freedom.” Any form of ideological censorship would be a disastrous literary error. At the same time, history has shown us that the romantic vision of changing the world through some sole act (benign or evil) of immense proportions has always been futile. This – of course – does not mean that violence and evil could ever be eradicated from the world, or that opposition (even violent), is an a priori moral mistake. Here is where literature has a crucial role to play in highlighting the multiple versions of our reality and revealing the contradictory nature of life, ethics, and human nature.

We should recognize that, ultimately, aspiring bombers always fail! “New Parthenons” will be built to replace the ones we bomb. If possible, let’s strive to achieve local, collective, yet substantial changes to our lives. This is the meaning of Giorgio Agamben‘s phrase that marks the end of The Parthenon Bomber: “The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation.”