Lyndsey STONEBRIDGE. 2020. Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 176 pp. ISBN 9780198814054
Brîndușa NICOLAESCU [a]
Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series]
Vol. XXIII, Issue 2, pp. 295-301
[a] Department of Comparative Governance and European Studies, Faculty of Political Science, University of Bucharest, ROMANIA. email@example.com
The rhetorically scintillating homophonic pair within the title certainly catches the reader’s attention to one of the still very few extensive works that explore the role that literature has played in the history of human rights. Both writing and righting rely on creativity and comprehension to render human values understandable and visible. But in this collection of essays that continues the line of argumentation already developed in The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg (Stonebridge 2011) and Placeless People: Writing, Rights and Refugees (Stonebridge 2018), Lyndsey Stonebridge goes beyond the assumption that literary education brings obvious humanizing benefits. More specifically, she argues that literary writing has been a co-author of the history of human rights writing. Therefore, writing should not be analyzed only through its instrumental function of recording the past. Furthermore, the development of literature should be understood in close connection to the development of human rights, as literature has been essential for the creation and maintenance of human rights, as well as for challenging different perspectives on human rights. For instance, each of the histories from which human rights developed more consistently – those of the Second World War, of the decolonization period and of the Cold War – also has several histories of corresponding literary genres, such as the Holocaust testimony, the anti-colonial poetics, and the samizdat underground. All these literary genres address ideas about human dignity and equality. At the same time, the literary genres may closely follow the political project, as illustrated for example by the intertwined histories of the decolonization of human rights and of the decolonization of literary studies and the humanities.
Drawing upon Jacques Rancière’s view that literary communities are ultimately communities of humans and, consequently, they will develop ideas and norms related to human relations (Rancière 2016), Stonebridge argues that literary communities also matter to human rights, as they identify a plethora of forms of being human, and transform human values into lived experience, transcending thus the nature of fiction. The art of writing reveals the complexity of humanity and creates a language of rights that exceeds the field of arts. To advance her point, Stonebridge explores the concept of literary empathy, which she considers to be a commodity. Skeptical of the role of sentiment, moral compassion or regret that reading entails, she argues that very good writers succeed in doing more than relying on empathy, namely they manage to create innovative forms through which inequity becomes visible for the reader. When the “banality of language” leads to a state of indifference and even blindness, literature can render visible the words of those who are usually excluded or marginalized.
Within this context, the volume’s main argument is that writers are needed more than ever, not because they can generate empathy, but because they can name in a more precise manner those forms of injustice that otherwise would be difficult to identify as human rights violations. Then again, creative and innovative literary forms are also needed to counterpoise the soft literary humanitarianism and uncritical idealism that crept into the mainstream debates on human rights. She claims that the latter has thwarted the “righting” efforts because it has linked human rights with personal empathy and liberal individualism, contributing thus to the growth of inequality and injustice. If human rights today should call for action, moral sympathy per se cannot act as a factor of change. In an “age of impunity,” human rights are under attack from various directions, including the deficient use of the word itself, which no longer carries enough weight. Therefore, this is also a language crisis and literary writing has the effective means to address by facing the issue of the visibility of human rights infringements. More specifically, new literary genres can show what abuse is from the perspective of the abused.
The chapter “Words of fire” is particularly illuminating for this point, as it explores the close relationship between literary creativity and the politics of citizenship, especially from the victims’ perspective, whose voice may be listened to, but it is rarely heard. Stonebridge uses the striking example of one devastating testimony of a survivor of the fire that engulfed the London residential building Grenfell Tower in June 2017. One month after the events, in a meeting with the local authorities that was largely covered in the media, a woman of Iranian origin tried to claim back her human dignity by quoting, in original, from Saadi (Sadi of Shiraz), a famous 13th century Persian poet. She asked not for pity or solace, but for human rights to be respected: “You who are mindless of others’ pain / Do not deserve to be called human” (p. 65). And when contemporary poet Ben Okri also reacted to the tragedy and recited a poem on Channel Four News, his words stood for an explicit creative political act. Stonebridge thus demonstrates that poetic words are intense actions, they point out the failure of the ordinary language and help create a poetics of citizenship.
Prior to that, she goes through the history of human rights from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke up to the 20th century debates and admits that, to a certain extent, literary sensibility could compensate for the lack of solidarity. The whole tradition of natural rights went hand in hand with the history of the novel as a revolutionary genre, from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) that inspired the drafting of Article 29 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Milan Kundera’s “anti-politics” and J.M. Coetzee’s understanding of the novel as a genre that could not fully develop within colonial settings (pp. 31-40). The 18th century legacy of moral imagination required new ways of imagining freedom and human dignity in the post-colonial “deformed and stunted” setting that Coetzee complained about. Difficult though it might have seemed, literary writing has indeed been able to create a political context and thus assert the belief that moral progress is still possible in the aftermath of wars, atrocities, and crimes against humanity.
Next, in the chapter “Experimental human rights”, Stonebridge explores Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay Three Guineas (1938) and its direct indictment of progressive liberal internationalism alongside the bold critique of militarism, fascism and capitalism. Woolf’s “ethics of care” reflects not only her daring originality and freedom of thought that challenge the patriarchal inequalities of power, but also reveals the connection between the development of human rights and literary modernism, with the latter emerging in parallel with an alternative use of language aimed to counterbalance the new experiments in political morality. From this perspective and written roughly around the same time, Simone Weil’s essay The Power of Words (1937) also belongs to the same modernist type of protest against the failed humanism of the epoch. Woolf’s argument about the pervasiveness of structural violence within patriarchy is further echoed in the chapter “The bewilderment of everyday choice” which addresses the nature of violence, especially in connection to the writings of Sigmund Freud and with references to the recent case of Shamima Begum, the UK citizen who, aged 15, left for Syria to join the extremist group Islamic State and later attempted to return but was denied her citizen rights by UK authorities. For Freud and many after him, violence is perceived as latent in any political system. Consequently, the bewilderment in front of the war outbreak is only a helpless acknowledgement of the irrefutable existence of violence. At the same time, if citizenship meant to forfeit the right to be violent, the desire to be violent will never perish. In this context, Stonebridge is concerned with recent cases of de-citizenship (i.e., withdrawal of citizenship), which illustrate how violence has been politically instrumentalized. De-citizenship and statelessness are thorny subjects that she has addressed throughout her previous teaching and literary criticism concerning refugees’ condition. In this volume, as an example of a literary treatment of this theme, it is worth mentioning her discussion of Kamila Shamsie’s novel Home Fire (2017), whose female protagonist – Aneeka – is a coruscating contemporary version of Antigone, who asks for her right to mourn her brother, a member of the Islamic State.
In the longest and last chapter of the volume (“Survival time / Human time”), Stonebridge analyzes Hannah Arendt’s works, especially the idea of the “abstract nakedness of merely being human.” She chooses Arendt as a convenient way to propose another frame for thinking about rights writing. Arendt’s texts are placed in a dialogue with the Iranian and Kurdish political writer Behrouz Boochani, whose novel No friend but the mountains (2018) is one of the most significant literary achievements of refugee writing, a genre speaking directly about the condition of the victim. Boochani explicitly referred in interviews to his endeavor to create a new, “transformative” language capable of raising the readers’ awareness of the realities of displacement and deportation. The outrageousness of genocides and the oppression of totalitarian states has been replaced by refoulment, the contemporary calculated organization of violence and brutality, the intentional degradation of human life in refugee camps and prisons. In Boochani’s text, written initially in the form of WhatsApp messages sent from the offshore Australian Manus prison based in Papua New Guinea, the title’s metaphor does not only connect the vivid childhood memory of the mountains of Kurdistan with the mountains on the Manus island but also stands for the mottled image of the human condition forever tinged by kyriarchy, i.e. a social system in which different forms of oppression coexist, overlap, and are essential for the system’s survival. And it is this inescapable intersection that has become the contemporary dwelling of humanity, as Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke foresaw in a line quoted by Arendt in The Human Condition: “an uncertain abode in the darkness of human heart” (p. 103). Like Primo Levi, Behrouz Boochani struggled to keep human time alive against a dehumanizing backdrop. Moreover, Stonebridge argues that the placeless and timeless condition stemming from forced displacement should not be reduced to the genre of individual testimony or trauma about an experience “out of time.” Instead, there is a narrative continuity in reconstructing the “human time” lived and written by the survivors of political statelessness. Therefore, the new poetics of political life outside the nation-state created by the refugee writers represents a critical addition to the canon of writing for defining humanity.
The volume’s conclusions put a strong emphasis on the recognition of the narratives of the “sufferers of history.” A telling example is Hannah Arendt’s teaching method that included literature in the syllabus of political science classes to help students understand the perspective of the powerless, of those who are not in charge. Stonebridge claims that literature could play an essential part nowadays; consequently, very good writers have the mission to write the history of survival and suffering appropriately. In this context, she provides the example of Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, a poet born and raised in Baddawi, a multicultural refugee camp in Lebanon. In both a poetic and political attempt to “chase a history that is forever disappearing” (p. 118), Qasmiyeh is literally “writing the camp,” as his poetry has become the archive in the making of the de-politicization of refugees’ experience. In an age of impunity and turmoil, de-citizenship and blatant inequalities, critical-creative literary genres could put forward another way of writing human rights and righting what was wronged. Therefore, books of high literary merit are needed more than ever. But to fully understand their value, we also need inspiring and original works of literary criticism, as is the case with this volume, which offers a rewarding experience also for any reader interested in the history of human rights.
RANCIÈRE, Jacques. 2016. Literary communities. In The Common Growl: Towards a Poetics of Precarious Community, ed. Thomas Claviez, 93-110. New York: Fordham University Press.
STONEBRIDGE, Lyndsey. 2011. The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press.
STONEBRIDGE, Lindsey. 2018. Placeless People: Writing, Rights and Refugees. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780198797005.001.0001
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NICOLAESCU, Brîndușa. 2021. Review of Writing and Righting: Literature in the Age of Human Rights by Lindsey Stonebridge. Analele Universității din București. Științe Politice [Annals of the University of Bucharest. Political Science series] XXIII (2): 295-301. https://doi.org/10.54885/DMMD1941