„Let art flourish, though the world perishes.“
– Slogan of the Futurist
（Editor’s note: PEN International’s 55th International Writers’ Meeting is held on 15.-18.5. 2023 in Bled. The hosting organization is Slovenian PEN. While the world suffers currently under war and violence, John Lennon’s song „Imagine“ from 1971 has inspired writers: When Lennon wrote this song, the third astronaut mission landed on the Moon, the Vietnam war spread to Laos, and the people of Bangladesh were faced with genocide. Like today, there were wars and repression in nearly every corner of the world. The topic of the 4th Bled meeting that year was Why do we write? Maybe the answer lies in the word IMAGINE. Just imagine a world from Lennon’s song could be made possible. What kind of social order would foster peace? Liberal? Capitalist? Controlled? Free? Would it be the same social order in every country and continent? Imagine all the people and challenge the present world burning with wars with the prospects of peace. (quote from Slovenien PEN at the January meeting of the Writer for Peace Committee .) Ms. Tienchi M.Liao is a board member of Wf PC, she participated in the Bled conference and presented the following speech.）
The world was never entirely without war, peace was only interim.
I was 2 years old when my mother took her 5 children and got on the last airplane in Chongqing to fly to Taiwan in order to flee the war. My father has to stay on the Chinese Mainland to fight against the Communist Army. Months later the whole country fell into the hands of Mao Zedong and his Communist Party. As a war prisoner, my father spent more than 2 decades in jail and finally died in prison in the early 70s.
In my childhood in Taiwan, we were used to the siren, the vibrant sharp howler was the warning that the People’s Liberation Air Forces was flying across the sea and throwing bombs on the island. People hurried to the dark wet bunker and huddled together. The sticky air, the suppressed vague whispers, and the horror-struck face of my mother irritated me. I began to cough and gasp violently for breath. People got nervous and started to complain about my behavior. Minutes and hours passed, and the alarm was cleared. Exhausted we returned home. This scenery repeated many times and hounded me in my dream until I grew up. In my college years, I learned about the Vietnam War, the boat people, the My Lai Massacre…followed the Cambodian genocide in the mid-70s.
I came to peaceful Europe, there were wars in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and even in Balkan, I still felt safe, it seemed to me that all those terrors were far away.
The Russian-Ukraine war broke out in Europe, it has lasted more than a year, and there is no sign of ending. Living in Germany, the daily devastating war scenery, though only on screen, made me anxious and sad. On the other side of the globe, the Chinese government sends military planes and frigates circling daily around the island of Taiwan. My childhood nightmare comes back.
After the 2. World War Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969) wrote the sentence: „It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz. Actually, Auschwitz continues in another form everywhere in the world. Adorno’s words seemed so pale and weak. Just imagine, the mass murderer Mao Zedong has written beautiful and heroic poems after millions of his countrymen died in the civil war. Furthermore, under Mao’s regime about 20 to 40 Million Chinese died because of the great famine in the late 50s and later in the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, People were reciting and chanting Mao’s verse. The poem below is among the most popular ones, it was written in 1961 in the middle of the famine.
Ode to the Plum Blossom
Wind and rain escorted Spring’s departure,
Flying snow welcomes Spring’s return.
On the ice-clad rock rising high and sheer
A flower blooms sweet and fair.
Sweet and fair, she craves not Spring for herself alone,
To be the harbinger of Spring she is content.
When the mountain flowers are in full bloom
She will smile mingling in their midst.
– official translation by the Foreign Language Press, Beijing
Genocides continued to happen in Rwanda, Myanmar, and Jemen. The cultural genocide is implemented in Tibet, South Mongolian, and against the Uighur in Xinjiang. No wonder, China’s President Xi Jinping also writes poems, however, I will not read his poem to you, as I do not want to hurt your aesthetic feeling.
As a matter of fact, it is quite a phenomenon that tyrants love to write poetry. The Roman emperor Nero (37-68 AD) participated in poetry, song, and lyre-playing competitions. While his city burned to the ground, it was said that he was „greatly delighted with the beauty of the flames“. The Italian Futurist poeta Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876-1944) gloried violence and even war. The Futurist exalted the dynamic and beauty of the modern, mechanical world. „Let art flourish, though the world perishes“ was one of the Futurist’s slogans. 1) Both Marinetti and the poet-warrior Gabriele D’Annunzio inspired the dictator Mussolini, so that his verse was „prone to mawkish“, according to his biographer Richard Bosworth(1943-).
When Stalin was young, he loved poetry and could recite the Georgian epic „The Knight in the Panther’s Skin“ by heart. Later he read Goethe, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman. As a 17 years old boy, Stalin wrote lyrics with tender and romantic motifs, e.g.
“The pinkish bud has opened,
Rushing to the pale blue violet
And, stirred by a light breeze,
The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.“2)
Imagine, this sentimental young man became a tyrant, who brought millions of people to death.
Adolf Hitler’s poem „ The Mother“ sounds very touching, he composed it in 1923.
When your mother has grown older,
When her dear, faithful eyes
no longer see life as they once did,
When her feet, grown tired,
No longer want to carry her as she walks –
Then lend her your arm in support,
Escort her with happy pleasure.
The hour will come when weeping, you
Must accompany her on her final walk.
And if she asks you something,
Then give her an answer.
And if she asks again, then speak!
And if she asks yet again, respond to her,
Not impatiently, but with gentle calm.
And if she cannot understand you properly
Explain all to her happily.
The hour will come, the bitter hour,
When her mouth asks for nothing more.
Yes, the bitter hour came to millions of people, young and old. Imagine, this cruel despot even had a tender feeling at least to his mother.
Another example: guess who wrote the following love songs:
I am a supplicant for a goblet of wine
from the hand of a sweetheart.
In whom can I confide this secret of mine?
Where can I take this sorrow?
I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love…
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
Ayatollah Khomeini was the composer of these lines. Khomeini was the Supreme Leader of Iran and one of the most prominent Shi’a Muslim leaders, who issued on February 14th, 1989, a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie and his publishers.
Imagine, almost at the same time, he published this poem in the New Republic in 1989! 3)
John Lennon dreamed of a utopia, where there are no religious barriers, no national borders, and not even private property, that is, all the factors that cause human antagonism, none of them exist. Imagine a world full of selflessness, equality, and mutual love.
All the tyrants, dictators, murderers, and butchers also have dreams, dreams of nature, love, beauty, and even freedom, they want to possess all these for themselves, but not for all the people, not for the world. One thing is for sure —the power of words, we writers know better than those hypocrites, we write with heart, conscience, and sense, and we do not only have dreams, with our words we can mobilise people to join us to uphold the basic humanity and universal value.
2) Suzanne Merkelson, “Bad Politics, Worse Prose”. Foreign Policy. Retrieved April 12, 2011.)
3)Daniel Kalder, Dictator-lit: The poetry of Ayatollah Khomeini, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/jan/29/dictator-lit-ayatollah-khomeini)