The Catholic Herald recently published a book review of Dictator Literature by Daniel Kalder, which spoke of "..the tedium and horror of dictators' prose. The review by Ed West speaks of Lenin's aggressively tedious prose that was full of hatred and bitterness. West points out that Stalin fared a little better, having some natural talent, but that Mussolini was a goodish journalist, but no fiction writer. But it also claims that Mussolini was an obsessive anti-theist, firing rhetorical firecrackers at a series of straw men, which shows that is work did not rise above the level of mere propaganda. The book reserves its most critical language for the arch-monster Hitler, whose combination of an ignorant mind and a monstrous ego gave us the appallingly bad Mein Kampf, the work of one too arrogant to acquire either literary skill or wisdom.
What can we learn from Dictator Literature? Kalder wants to map the devastating wastelands of the human spirit while exploring the terrible things that happen when you put writers in charge. While there is some truth in the concern that no single occupation group can be trusted with ultimate power,mention of Czechoslovakia's president Vaclav Havel is a useful counter-example to Kalder's pessimistic claim, for Havel was a writer who turned into a successful and respected president. But the devastating wastelands of the human spirit that were expressed as these dictators' policies were the source of these dictators' turgid and generally unattractive writings.writing. Ugly policies came from ugly ideas, which were reflected in ugly prose, but the reality was worse than the literature. Mein Kampf was bad, but it would be worse to meet the SS in the flesh; and having once met a man who had seen and listened to Hitler, I was assured that it was not a pleasant experience, which led the man to get away as fast possible.
The key idea is that what we write is the expression of our minds. It is our individuality in words. We express ourselves in what we write. So the first step in good writing is that we should begin with our own minds, cultivating them and being determined to improve them. Without cultivation of the inner life of the mind no one can be a good writer, and it is a lifelong process. Within our own minds we must endeavour to realize the True, the Good and the Beautiful good qualities that these tyrants did not make real in their lives, quite the opposite in fact.
All writers must strive to express in words the great trinity of values: the True, the Good and the Beautiful. We might do this in a simple way by writing about interesting recipes,but we might be profound in our analysis of the gospels, but as long as we realize through our writing in some limited way these three values we are on the right path, for we are giving readers' sparkles from the sun of truth, goodness and beauty.
Catholic Herald July 26th 2018,Ed West.