Liberty - a few words
Dec 29 1213
The dictator is on the rampage and his people are crying out in despair at the horrors he’s inflicting on them. Although the words were first written with a reed pen made on a clay tablet almost four thousand years ago, the wrongs the people are suffering are all too recognisable.
In this case his victims have recourse to laments in the form of prayers to the gods, and the sky goddess has pity on them. Her remedy is to create a different kind of human being –a wild man with a nature that gives him deep sympathy with fellow creatures. This newcomer, Enkidu, brings passions and understanding of a different order into the world in which the dictator rules. When he and the dictator meet each other, there is a shift in the balance of power; the responses of the new being profoundly change the tyrant’s sense of his own omnipotence.
The Epic of Gilgamesh expresses a dream of liberation. It does so within a strong sense of human limits: the dictator must taste the bitterness of death, learn its irreversibility; only then can he unlearn his former ways and come closer to understanding love of others, from which follows their right to freedom.
It’s an old poem, and it’s both more hopeful and more fatalistic than current political philosophy. The society it summons across the millennia is feudal, more feudal than some feudal states today, and it would be anachronistic to think the wild man could alter that. Besides, prayers are not enough to make liberty happen.
But the pattern of words called prayer is a form of speech, and it can act antithetically to hate speech. It can communicate what is desired for good. It can articulate ideals. I remember the ecological activist and poet Susan Griffin writing, years ago, in relation to the movement to allow women to choose to have babies or not, that we must not let the enemies of liberty snatch for themselves the language of life while we, the lovers of freedom, find ourselves always in opposition, speaking against, forced into negation, into the language of death. It is hard to do. Invective, diatribe, denunciation and prosecution roll off the tongue so much more easily. It’s much easier to complain about lack of liberty than to communicate what liberty is; it’s harder to enjoy it to the full when it’s there than to rail against its loss. One form of freedom is not having to fight about holding on to it - because it is so securely planted and accepted. But that state is ideal, always on the far horizon.
The dictator is on the rampage and everyone who can leave is leaving. Some of them in disguise as boys because his hit men are seizing and attacking girls, bringing them to the palace to be raped and murdered. The scene is all too recognisable, though these crimes were being told in India and Persia and Syria and Turkey and other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East since the ninth century at least. In this old story a young woman devises a plan: she will volunteer to marry the despot and then tell him stories which will gradually unfold the possibilities of another way of justice, magnanimity, and tolerance – not liberty as we understand it today – but something at least larger than his narrow and vicious reign has hitherto understood. Shahrazad’s poetic fables of the night gradually lift the darkness from the tyrant’s mind.
The stories are entertainments, and cunning. They conceals lessons in liberty: when the genie Shahkr is freed from the barnacled copper flask in which he has been imprisoned for a thousand years, he flows out in a towering rage, determined to avenge himself on the world that has punished him so ruthlessly. The fisherman who has unscrewed the flask and set the genie free finds himself in danger of his life. But he manages to trick the raging Shahkr back inside by a simple ruse (it’s a very old trick, but we know it best from Disney’s film Aladdin), by asking him how someone so colossal could fit into such a small bottle. So Shahkr shows him.
This part shows us speech as storytelling, the clever sleight-of-hand of ancient fables. Once more captive, the genie begs and begs to be set free, but the fisherman fears that once let out, he’ll want to kill him all over again. So the fisherman tells the genie more stories about the torments and slavery suffered by others, the injustice and the cruelty inflicted on others. He remembers
a crocodile which…
a prince who…
a dictator who…
And Shahkr listens well from inside his prison cell to these stories of enslavement, injustice and violence. He pleads again for his liberty; this time, the fisherman takes a gamble and trusts him. He sets the genie free.
Shahkr comes out glorying in the light of day – as it were Mandela leaving Robbins Island – and he tells the fisherman to come along, as he strides off to a kingdom where
Jews, Zoroastrians, Muslims and Christians co-habit in mutual endeavour …
this kingdom of the Black Isles is under threat: its people subjugated. Shahrazad embarks on a long winding story, which eventually ends with the kingdom’s survival, the restoration of liberty to the inhabitants, the fisherman’s freedom from want, and other liberties gained by others among the numerous dramatis personae – but not all liberties and not for everybody . Not yet.
As E.M.Forster’s original statement of the Council for Civil Liberties declared, 80 years ago, after the death of its founder Ronald Kidd,
“…he championed the liberties of the people in the fight that is never done"
If you don’t go on fighting for it the modicum of liberty dwindles. Liberty is a bit like live yoghurt – it grows as if by magic and sweetens its medium - if it’s given the right medium to grow in, and granted the right conditions. It sleeps when deprived of them. The right conditions are many and complicated, but liberty definitely grows in culture and flourishes through stories and words. The laws that guarantee our liberty have to take root in that culture, otherwise they’ll be broken or ignored – or, worse, reversed. This doesn’t mean that writers or storytellers set out to instruct – god forbid that belief in literature’s powers lead to a Stalinist writers’ union style sermons and falsehoods. But it does mean that fiction in its many ancient forms – fable, fairy tale, parable, riddles – acts powerfully to create the common ground where laws guaranteeing liberty can grow (gay rights is a case in point). So for me, Liberty is an open cultural space, always at risk from a variety of stealthy as well as obvious dangers (for example, the current pressure on public institutions to find corporate sponsors; the horrible new legalistic acceptance of forms of torture).
‘Poetry can be strong enough to help,’ wrote Seamus Heaney. I think he had imagination strong enough to help. I’ve always trusted literature – and art - to be strong enough, in the sense of curious, open, and exploratory. Can words make something happen? They have to try. But above all, in difficult times, they also act crucially to prevent some things, too. The protests, the outcry, the arguments may appear to fail, but they have still turned and changed the common ground and lots worse might have happened to choke it if they had not imagined a different, possible version of the story.
Marina Warner is a writer of fiction and cultural history and teaches literature and creative writing.