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The Creativity of Dictators

Stalin, Mao, Saddam the most powerful writers of their time

Illustration by Chris Kline

Dictator: The chief of a nation that prefers the pestilence of despotism to the plague of anarchy.

-Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

There is a long-standing tradition of the writer as contrarian, and an equally long-standing tradition of dictators attempting to silence dissident voices. If we mention writers and dictators in the same sentence, it's usually to highlight the courageous opposition of the former to the brutal tyranny of the latter. Osip Mandelstam's famous caricature of Stalin, for which the poet was persecuted and exiled, is a particularly memorable example:

His fat fingers slimy as worms,

His words dependable as weights of measure.

His cockroach moustache chuckles,

His top-boots gleam.

How, then, do we account for literature authored by tyrants? What is there to say about Stalin's and Mao's highly lyrical poems, about Muammar Qaddafi's surrealistic philosophical stories, about Saddam Hussein's (of all things) fantasy novels? More than merely inconvenient, such facts suggest a fundamental truth about creativity itself. Jo Tatchell, in a recent article for Prospect magazine-in which she identifies this literary genre as "dic lit"-has argued that, for the dictator, "the act of creating 'art' is an extension of the urge to control. Fiction in particular offers the author a malleable world." There's certainly something to this; just think about the ways in which absolutists have typically firmed up their rule (the revision of official history, the dissemin-ation of propaganda) and established cults of personality (statuary, paintings and commissioned literary encomia).

The phenomenon of dic lit isn't a simple case of art in scare quotes. What Tatchell seems to miss is that the "urge to control" is a trait shared by both dictator and poet. In Saddam's novel Zabibah and the King (set in an Edenic Iraq and featuring a close friendship between a charismatic king and a beautiful villager named Zabibah), the king asks Zabibah, "Do the people need strict measures from their leader?" And Zabibah replies, "Yes, Your Majesty. The people need strict measures so that they can feel protected by this strictness." How far is that from Wallace Stevens calling out for the "blessed rage for order"? Or from Irving Layton wondering, "How to dominate reality? Love is one way;/imagination another." More recently, the American poet Mark Halliday has claimed that arrogance (toward language, toward the reader) is the essential quality of poetry, that "each poem is imperious."

Call it what you will-the urge to control, the rage for order, the need to dominate reality, the will to power-it is an animating force in great artists and great dictators alike. The very qualities that make the revolutionary a revered figure (charm, confidence, vision, persuasiveness) also lead writers to extraordinary achievements.

Many writers have sensed this kinship. It's not hard to understand how Layton, who thought his own life more vital than other men's, could pen a line like "Poet and dictator, you are as alien as I," addressed to the similarly megalomaniacal Mao. Nor is it hard to see why Napoleon was the inamorato of more than his fair share of literary admirers, notably Nietzsche and Wordsworth. (The reverse has also been true: in both his policy and his rhetorical style, Mussolini modelled himself on the poet, war hero and proto-fascist Gabriele D'Annunzio.) Since Homer wrote The Iliad, artists with a bent for the broad canvases of history have found inspiration in charismatic world-changers.

And let's not forget that dictators and writers experience a similar fall from grace when their once fertile rage for order calcifies into a sterile status quo. Like the great Pablo Neruda, reduced by hubris and reputation to publishing reams of dreck, refusing to believe he'd lost his touch, the dictator-suddenly a tragic hero in the drama of his own life, a victim of his own vitality-is forced into more and more improbable narrative acts to assert his rule. Stalin's later purges come to mind. Though it provokes a shudder to think of mass murder in such detached terms, you might even call these drastic acts real-life deus ex machina solutions.

Small wonder, then, that after Sad-dam was defeated by the US in the first Gulf War, he effectively lost control of the real-life fable he was authoring (the next chapter being the conquest of Kuwait) and turned instead to escapist allegorical romances like Zabibah and the King and, most recently, Be Gone Demons! In this tale, set in Biblical times, Saddam casts himself as a resistance fighter named Salim who does battle with invading Romans, fighting them "like a hawk." Need it be said that Salim repels the invasion? Having failed in his first attempt at creation, the former dictator was bound, as Samuel Beckett put it, to fail better. The world of fiction can indeed be more malleable than real life, at least for those who understand fiction poorly. In the face of imminent American attack, Saddam was busily plotting a more congenial world. (Impossible, here, to resist reporting rumours that the played-out mythmaker didn't actually write the novels attributed to him, but only dictated the plots for others to flesh out.)

But just as we should be leery of reducing dic lit to a special psych-ological phenomenon, we should not assume that all literature produced by despots necessarily fails as art. Though many of Mao Zedong's poems are the political equivalents of Hallmark verse, or embodiments of what Milan Kundera has called "totalitarian kitsch" -chock full of red banners and ecstatic armies of millions-Mao was too deeply steeped in the genteel traditions of Chinese verse to be confined to simple agitprop. His exploration of the tension between political and aesthetic agendas stands in striking contrast to the dogmatic theories of most Marxist ideologues. This is explicit in his Little Red Book. "Works of art which lack artistic quality," argues Mao, "have no force, however progressive they are politically." Mao acknowledges that for revolutionary art to avoid espousing what he calls the "poster and slogan style"-for it to have genuine power-the artist must "carry on a struggle on two fronts."

This two-pronged tension is evident in the Chairman's own poetic efforts. In the last verse of Mao's Poems, for example, we eavesdrop on a dialogue between a soaring roc who has "rous[ed] a raging cyclone" and an idealistic sparrow. The sparrow, "scared stiff" of the hellish reality of "Man's world," yearns to escape into the "jewelled palace in elfland's hills." The roc's reply to the sparrow's timid-ity and lying language-"Stop your windy nonsense!/Look, the world is being turned upside down"-becomes even more poignant when one realizes that it was composed in 1965, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. This context lends the roc's speech a power different from the transparent, closed allegory of a Saddam novel. The words strike a ringing note of disillusioned clarity and self-awareness, rendering a terrible deed undeniably human and reminding us that with dictators, as with poets, the line between creation and destruction is very fine indeed.

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