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Optimism in Check, Nihilism at Bay

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In keeping with one of my literary heroes, Raymond Carver, I have two three-by-five note cards taped to the wall beside my desk. On of one of them I've written down something the South African artist William Kentridge said to Calvin Tomkins for a profile Tomkins was writing on him in the New Yorker: "I'm interested in political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings. An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay."

I read the Kentridge profile in 2010, the same year I first encountered his layered, palimpsest-like charcoal drawings turned into animations at The Museum of Modern Art. Kentridge's surreal films, funny, melancholic, sensual, and gruesome, depict characters shamed by their country's past and ambivalent as to how to move forward. At that time, I'd been toiling away at an ever-expanding novel for nearly five years. As frustrated as I may have been by my novel's inability to find closure, for all the various elements to conform and meld satisfactorily toward some definitive place, I felt obliged to continue, determined in part, to uncover the hidden roots of the book's inception. Kentridge's words felt instructive. Rather than despair over uncertainty, Kentridge actually seemed to be calling for it, or rather expressing an exclusive interest in work that was "of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures, and uncertain endings."

Those conditions expressed by Kentridge, remain for me, like a mantra: an aesthetic prescription for great art and great literature -- art that might just find a way to linger in the collective imagination. But what of the explicit political dimensions? In what ways can the call for "uncertainty" be understood as the same as the call to view ourselves and our world as critically and as honestly as we know how -- to keep "optimism in check and nihilism at bay"?

With the Olympics now underway in Sochi, the world is forced to view a country where the freedoms of its citizens have undergone an abrupt and tragic erosion in the last eighteen months. From the defamation laws silencing dissent in the media, to the "blasphemy" laws insulating an increasingly fundamentalist church, to the perversely titled "propaganda" laws, which have incited violence against gay people, the Russian government has been establishing an environment increasingly inhospitable to the very human language of ambiguity and contradiction.

From history we know that many brilliant artists have succeeded, at great personal cost, under repressive conditions in exposing the lack of freedom in their society right up to the present day -- Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Wilde, Kundera, El Saadawi, Liu Xiaobo or compelled to make compromises to survive -- Shostakovich under Stalin. This does not make a virtue of repression but rather illustrates the artistic impulse to express and lay bare.

The other note card by my desk has a sentence from a letter the writer Bruno Shulz (a Polish Jew killed by the Nazis) wrote about Rilke: "The existence of his book is a pledge that the tangled, mute masses of things unformulated within us may yet emerge to the surface miraculously distilled."

As a current Western writer, I have my own type of watchdog: the tyranny of the majority and of received wisdom. Expressing my own viewpoint, without self-censorship, therefore, becomes the challenge. I began my novel in 2005, unsure precisely what I had to say, but inspired by the dismay I felt living in a country engaged in two violent, escalating wars, and the dismal aftermath of hurricane Katrina. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and develop my ideas without fear of punishment or jail time. And I continue to write motivated by the possibility, however small, that should I somehow manage to glean from within myself something "miraculously distilled," it will have the opportunity to be heard. Every voice must be allowed this opportunity.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and PEN American Center in conjunction with the Sochi 2014 Olympics. The series is part of our Impact Sports initiative, which examines the intersection of sports and social good. The posts in the series critique the Russian government's censorship laws. Read all posts in the series here. To find out more about PEN, click here.

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