The Paris Review

What Is the Political Responsibility of the Artist?

Armed women in one of the main squares in Tehran at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution.

Perhaps no modern writer has experienced as much political turmoil and upheaval as the great Polish storyteller Ryszard Kapuscinski. Take, for instance, his claim that during his time serving as a reporter and war correspondent, he witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times. One might expect Kapuscinski to have a particularly informed response to the question that seems to be on so many people’s minds these days: What, if any, is the social or political responsibility of the artist? Or, to put it another way: Should writers be writing for a cause?

Penned thirty-five years ago, Shah of Shahs is Kapuscinski’s retelling of the most notorious revolution that he ever experienced firsthand—the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The book is a brilliant, nuanced portrait of a country and its corrupt leader in the tumultuous days leading up to and following his removal from power. Yet, upon close examination of the text, it seems that the author’s allegiance isn’t to any political party or ideology or cause—he is as harsh a critic of the powers that toppled the Shah as he is of the Shah himself. Instead, his allegiance is simply to art, and to the truth.

This is perhaps a strange statement to make about Kapuscinski, considering that, as a “nonfiction” author, his commitment (which he admitted was one of the best books he’d ever read), Rushdie says, “ ends with the tragic or poignant image of Haile Selassie dying in bed, believing he was still emperor of Ethiopia. And actually this is not how Haile Selassie died—he was murdered in his bed, he was smothered to death by the Marxist regime that had succeeded him—and I mentioned it to him, that it seemed to me to be a flaw in this otherwise great book, that the death of the emperor was romanticized, and Ryszard looked cross and refused to discuss it, and took the out of the artist—that it’s what worked best as a book. Which is fine, if you’re not claiming to be telling the truth … ”

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