by Roisín Kiberd
Must we write manifestos? As pieces of writing, they often age badly. Composing one is an act of blithe confidence, best attempted by the perilously young. They’re the last respite of the irrational, an attempt to give context to spontaneity. They come before a downfall; political dictators write manifestos. Serial killers, too.
But artists, also, write manifestos, as do filmmakers, fashion designers, educators and activists, technologists and luddites and peacekeepers and saints. Writers create manifestos, and sometimes their works, unintentionally, become manifestos over time. A manifesto’s purpose is fluid: it can inherit meaning, lose it, come to be forgotten or have its goals vindicated by history.
Each one is, by definition, an act of hope. In that sense, a manifesto is the bravest, most difficult thing a writer can ever compose.
Watched over by stained glass windows in the Royal Hospital’s Baroque Chapel, three writers – playwright Marina Carr, storyteller and scholar Alan Titley, and the novelist Kit de Waal – put forward their manifestos as part of the day’s opening panel. It’s referendum day, a fitting occasion for personal convictions. Many in attendance have just arrived from the polling booth, and those who have not yet voted, this author included, sit a little uneasily in their seats.
Marina Carr begins by interrogating the nature of manifestos themselves: are they always deliberate, or can a work of writing – through context, or prescience, or purely through enduring popularity – become a manifesto over time. Carr lists manifestos throughout history; there are those by Vorticists, Stuckists, cyberfeminists (the Bitch Mutant Manifesto) and ecosexuals (the Post Porn Modernist Manifesto). There are those manifestos that do not end well (Valerie Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto, i.e. that of the Society For Cutting Up Men, taken perhaps a little too seriously by its author) and those that are audaciously impossible (“birds must be eliminated”, Yves Klein is known to have declared). There are also those which become canonical, like TS Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, or Shakespeare’s assertion, found in Cymbeline, that “Golden lads and girls all must/ As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.”
Carr says that she is still working out a manifesto for herself, but that the closest equivalent is to be found in the letters of Keats, most of all in one written to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgiana Keats, on May 14th, 1819, in which he calls the world “the vale of soul-making”, and outlines the necessity of pain, trouble, and learning in forging a soul:
I will call the world a school instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read. I will call the human heart the hornbook used in that school… As various as the lives of men are — so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, souls, identical souls of the sparks of his own essence.
“Write, you bastards, write!” Second in the line-up, Alan Titley cuts straight to the point, arguing that a writer must be independent-minded and fearless. His manifesto, in part a treatise on subjectivity, and in (greater) part a call to action, encompasses everything from recent to current Irish political history, immigration and Direct Provision, the Magdalene Laundries and post-colonial culture, and the politics of language.
Ireland, Titley observes, has “the longest unbroken vernacular in Europe”, yet we stand at “the beginning of history.” It is up to us to broaden our horizons, to write a future for ourselves. It’s a sermon which moves seamlessly between subjects, grounding the writer alongside activists, educators, leaders and creators of history as it is lived. It’s a role that’s there for the taking, for those writers willing to confront everything they find uncomfortable, or challenging, and to overcome the limits of what believe they know.
“It is safe to be angry when the beast is dying,” Titley says. The role of the writer, then, is to be angry now.
Kit de Waal, delivering the final manifesto of the three, opens with a complicated hypothesis: “Was there ever worse advice than ‘write what you know’?” Exploring questions of empathy and imagination, especially in light of recent, predominantly online debate around cultural appropriation in fiction, de Waal assures her audience that they should not limit themselves: as one example, Flaubert did not live as a woman committing adultery before writing Madame Bovary. She says, “We need to write books that imagine other lives, and we should write books that imagine other lives.”
Therein lies a challenge, however: de Waal warns, “do not dip your pen in someone else’s blood”. This limitless possibility must be handled with care, and writers need to look beyond stereotypes, literary ‘blackface’ and exotica. They should strive for accuracy, and treat sensitive topics accordingly. ‘Privilege’ is as much about knowing what you have as being aware of what others have lost: to those who have lost almost everything, what remains is “doubly important… Those things mean more than what they are, because they represent what was lost.”
These are timely challenges, but they are far from impossible, as de Waal’s own work bears out. Ultimately, de Waal describes writing as a transformative, empathic, near-transcendental thing, a conduit between cultures, races, ages and perspectives.