Sven Lindqvist changes the world one reader at a timeby Julian Baggini / November 2, 2012 / Leave a comment
The stock image of the engaged artist is someone who speaks truth to power, rouses the masses and becomes a public participant in political discourse. But with the exception of serious reportage by a handful of authors, in free societies such attempts at direct engagement stir only the world of books and letters. It takes a celebrity to change public consciousness.
However, when I met the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist in his apartment in Stockholm, I realised that there were other ways for artists and writers to have political impact. No one has been more damning of the moral failings of western civilisation than Lindqvist, who in books such as Exterminate All The Brutes, his most famous work in English translation, has revealed how the achievements of the west have depended on genocide, destruction, exploitation and plunder.
Yet his work’s power has little to do with commanding the attention of society at large. Lindqvist does not have much opportunity to address authority, nor does he rouse the crowds from the podium. Rather he takes each reader aside, looks her in the eye and tells her bluntly why she is part of the problem.
Lindqvist told me that he writes, “as if the words were directed towards a certain person, to a certain you.” The result is that the reader feels Lindqvist to be “as close as even to touch him and be touched by him.” When he does draw his stark conclusions, you feel that you—and not the abstraction known as western civilisation—are being accused. So a sentence like “global violence is the hard core of our existence” in A History of Bombing becomes not so much an indictment of society as a reminder of our complicity in its guilt.
This approach can be very discomforting indeed, and Lindqvist does not spare himself. Explaining why American soldiers razed villages and killed civilians in the Korean War, he writes, “If I myself had been sent to fight in Korea, I would certainly have demanded that the war carry as little risk as possible for me personally.” Which invites the awkward question: wouldn’t you?
Such writing does not change the world directly; it changes the consciousness of the reader. This is…