Authorship and Social Responsibility

While I was in Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York, I came to know an old Russian professor, retired, a layperson, who lived at the seminary school which trained future priests.

The professor was a worldly man and an intellectual, but very devout and pious, his thinking very much influenced by Russian Orthodox beliefs. One day, during Lent, the period before Easter, he was looking at an iconographic painting of the final Day of Judgment, depicting the wicked souls being cast into the torment of hell and the righteous souls being admitted to a heavenly paradise. He remarked that the day of Judgment must certainly be most severe for authors, because although the ordinary person must answer only for personal actions and sins and transgressions, an author must take responsibility for the conduct of thousands or millions of people who are influenced by the authors writings, either for good or for evil.

Each of us is author of our own actions (or inaction) and our lives and careers are our books, whether famous, or infamous for the very few, or simply anonymous for the vast majority. Each of us must answer for our actions in some fashion or other. We pay a price for foolishness or sloth, and we are rewarded and compensated for wisdom and industry. But an author or artist is a different sort of beast from the ordinary individual or average citizen.

We must ask ourselves two questions. First, what do we mean by social responsibility? Secondly, what is the nature and motivation of an author or artist?

In every society, government, culture, and ideology, there is a stress and emphasis upon the responsibilities of an individual to society as a whole. From the time we are small children, we are painfully aware that certain things, in fact, many things are expected of us, and that there are consequences and a price to be paid should we fall short of those expectations. The notion of an individuals social responsibility has existed in one form or another since very ancient times, in the earliest of governments and polities, and even in the small tribes of hunters and food gatherers at the dawn of history. It is only in the past several centuries that there has arisen a notion that societies have responsibilities to individual members. We call this new found notion of society’s responsibility Human Rights or Civil Rights.

Every school child in America is required to read Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, (a.k.a. Samuel Clemens). Twain’s novel is required reading because it is a brilliant, entertaining and, now, historic portrayal of a time of slavery and oppression in America. We now know that smoking and the use of tobacco is very damaging to the health. In Samuel Clemens day there was no notion that tobacco might be harmful. Yet, every other page of Huckleberry Finn is praising the virtues and pleasures of smoking tobacco. Many young people have been tempted to experiment with tobacco simply because it was so romanticized by Mark Twain’s novels. We may see this negative influence of Huckleberry Finn as an example of social irresponsibility, of corrupting the youth. We certainly cannot lay the blame for this corrupting influence at the feet of Mark Twain. We must, if anything, blame generations of educators who have chosen to place the book among the required readings of the curriculum of very young and impressionable students without giving thought to the damaging social consequences.

If we extend our notion of authorship and social responsibility to artists, then possibly, we may see the painting Guernica, by Pablo Picasso, as a positive exercise of social responsibility, dramatizing for society the evils of violence and war. Yet, if we study the life and works of Pablo Picasso, it becomes quite obvious that concern for social responsibility was not in the forefront of Picasso’s mind as a goal or concern or inspiration.

In the 1960s, Francoise Gilot, one of Picasso’s several ex-wives wrote Life with Picasso, and painted a picture of a very selfish, egocentric and unpredictable personality. That woman divorced Picasso and married the famous humanitarian Jonas Salk, who pioneered the development of the first polio vaccine. We may certainly see someone like Jonas Salk as a scientist committed to social responsibility in his attempt to alleviate the suffering of many. Though, perhaps it is far more accurate to observe that each author, whether of books or paintings or theories in physics and math, is driven more by a quest for the power of recognition than by some altruistic notion of social responsibility. Authors and creators are most driven by an eudaimonic inspiration or compulsion which drives them mercilessly and relentlessly towards the act of creation, and often, in that process, alienates the author from society as an eccentric rebel outcast.

What of the authorship of someone such as Albert Einstein, the author of the theory of Relativity which made possible the terrible destructive force of the atomic bomb? The ancient Greeks spoke in their myths of Pandora’s Box. The name Pandora means every gift or all gifts. When Pandora’s Box was opened, many terrifying things escaped which could never be put back again. In the myth, the last thing to escape was Hope. Many physicists felt dread and guilt over the monster of destruction which they had created and unleashed.

Those who are religious and believe the Bible to be the divinely revealed word of God feel that each and every sentence is totally good and instructive. Yet, at the end of the New Testament, in the Second Epistle of Peter, Chapter 3, verse 16 we find this curious warning:

[In the Bible] are some things difficult to understand , which they that are unlearned and unstable twist and distort, unto their own destruction.

So here, we see the Bible itself warning us that there are verses within it which are harmful to certain people. In the Old Testament of the Bible, in the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet speaks scathingly of the lying pens of the scribes. And yet it is those very scribes who copy and perpetuate the religious scriptures. Indeed, Karl Marx saw religious scriptures as an opiate of the people and therefore as something negative from the point of view of social responsibility. Conversely, the religious communities of the world see communist regimes in a negative light, believing them to oppress and censor freedom of religious expression and worship.

If one looks at popular authors and artists like Picasso, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Proust, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Thomas Dylan, and many others, one sees that they are rebels, renegades, misfits, alcoholics, recluses. We see that the worlds of imagination which they create in their writings and art are forms of escape from reality and everyday responsibilities of a good citizen.

Now, if we search for socially responsible authors, then one might choose Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Toms Cabin. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he exclaimed, And here is the little lady who started the Civil War. Certainly, Lincoln was exaggerating to some extent in his good-natured humor, but it is certainly also true that the nation as a whole became more self-conscious about the evils of slavery after reading Uncle Toms Cabin with the cruelty of Simon LeGree, whose name became the byword of wickedness.

Another prime example of social responsibility in American literature is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which exposed the evils of company towns who exploited immigrant workers in the meat-packing industry. President Theodore Roosevelt was
sickened by the brutality and injustice which Sinclair’s novel dramatized so vividly. Roosevelt immediately called upon Congress to pass a law establishing the Food and Drug Administration and, for the first time, setting up federal inspection standards for meat. The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act, were both signed into law on June 30th, 1906, as a direct result of Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle. President Roosevelt commended Sinclair for exposing the corruption and injustice, but scolded him for being such a socialist. Certainly, Sinclair seems to be one author deeply motivated by notions of social responsibility.

We even see, in the 20th century, authors like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, examining the state and society as some abortion gone bad, creating a nightmare world for its inhabitants. The passion of the authors creative obsession is closely analogous to the reckless abandon of sexual passion. In Orwell’s novel, 1984, it is a love scene of wild abandon in a secluded woods which symbolizes the rebelliousness and isolation of the individuals will to power. It is the State of Big Brother which crushes the sexual feelings of the protagonist during his imprisonment.

We easily come to see society and the state, not in their day to day reality, but in the fictional picture which is painted for us by novelists and philosophers and historians. We romanticize our notion of the state until we become like America, carrying its holy grail of democracy and freedom to the four corners of the globe through diplomacy or force, to the willing and unwilling alike. As social activists, driven by our ideologies we become Christs running about everywhere seeking out the largest cross, and then gathering about us a reluctant crowd of Herods.

In Genesis it is said of Abraham that he believed the promise of the divine vision, and that his very belief was counted to him as a form of righteousness or correct action, which also goes by the name of social responsibility. But by the time we come to the end of the Book of Job, God is saying to Job, Tell your friends that I am angry with them because they BELIEVED about me incorrectly. We see how ideology and theory and belief gradually supplant the individual and his daily actions and conduct in life. Finally, by the time we arrive at Jesus and his Apostles and Paul, we are told that we are utterly worthless and hopeless no matter what we do, but that there is a way to be forgiven, if only we will embrace a certain belief. Communism and Capitalism are both jealous gods preaching their ideology to the world and offering forgiveness and shelter in return. A certain physicist once pointed out that, in a gaseous collection of molecules, each individual molecule enjoys the utmost random chaotic freedom of chance. No one may say what a given individual molecule will do at any given moment. And yet, the mass of molecules as a whole is under strict obedience to various laws of temperature and pressure and gravity. The fiery rebel freedom of any single renegade molecule represents the force of hundreds or thousands of molecules robbed of their vigor and spontaneity and exiled to an icy state of passivity and inaction.

Plato explored many notions of social responsibility his dialogues, most notably The Republic. Plato proposes to examine the State as a kind of microscope to view the soul written in large letters. Plato envisioned philosopher kings in a society which saw the noble character of its citizens as its product and enterprise. Remember that Socrates was put to death for allegedly corrupting the youth through his teachings, whether oral or written we know not.

That great German philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, said that we must always act in such a way that we treat individuals as ends in themselves rather than as means to some end.

Psychiatrist John Powell wrote: “To live fully, we must learn to use things and love people, not love things and use people.”

Gradually, over the millennia, our notion of social responsibility has evolved and shifted from the prehistoric hunters and warriors duty to his tribe, and has done a hundred and eighty degree about face. Now the great emphasis is upon society’s duty to the individual in the form of human rights or civil rights.

In light of the above considerations, I must personally conclude that the notion of social responsibility of the author is something alien and unknown to the author, imposed posthumously by a reading public. Responsibility, if it lies anywhere at all, lies in the appetites and demands of the consumer public, who clamor for an endless stream of murders, rapes, cataclysms, wars, monsters and even alien invasions from outer space. Our true responsibility is to our own inner space first. If we personally set that inner space of the heart in order, then the orderliness of society will perhaps follow more naturally. The real truth is that both religion and politics are the opiates of the soul, lulling it into complacency, apathy and indifference.

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2 Responses to “Authorship and Social Responsibility”

  1. Jeff Says:

    A lot of interesting musings.

    For one thing, your final question puts the status of your post into question. You are writing aware that you are writing about social responsibility of an author, a role you are holding, denying any such social responsibility. There seems to be some performative contradiction there.

    Also, I would think that some authors, like Hobbes and Locke, have more social responsibility than others. We can’t be responsible for how everything we write gets interpreted, but we are responsible for what we write and how we present it to the reading public. I think much of the post hinges on the idea that there is one person who holds social responsibility for a text, but I would deny that. Yes, Mark Twain didn’t know about cigarettes and cancer, but he did know about slavery. He’s not culpable for the promotion of the one, but he is culpable for showing the harm of the second.

    • William Buell Says:

      Good points.

      “Responsibility” is a double-edged sword. Public demand shapes the media and the media in turn shapes public opinion. The demand, appetites and tastes of society make a market for many Judge Judy and Reality shows and only a few educational shows. I am guessing that Hobbes had some self-interest in promoting the advantages of the rule of Kings, given his audience.

      Gandhi said something to this effect: “If you desire to see a certain change in the world you should first endeavor to make that change within yourself.”

      Some authors/artists are compulsively driven to write or paint even if they do so in poverty or without audience. Sometimes such authors are only discovered after their death.

      When Charles Darwin sent his “Origin of the Species and Descent of Man” to press he expected that only a few hundred scientists would read it and was astounded to see that every butcher, baker and candlestick maker was buying a copy. Darwin had his own personal crisis with regard to organized religion but he did not write his book with the agenda in mind of discrediting organized religion.

      Thanks for your interest and comment.

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