October 22, 2004
Saddam and Hemingway: together againBy Jack Engelhard
Even before his trial begins, Saddam Hussein is asking for mercy, though, according to reports, he still considers himself the rightful leader of Iraq.
He has already been granted a substantial privilege. Saddam, who faces charges of genocide (nobody's perfect), has a library of 170 books in his cell.
So we know he reads, but is he still writing? If so, that's trouble.
By now it's received knowledge that while Iraq burned from shock and awe, Saddam was busy typing out prose. Indeed, dictator was a side job while he ran the country. Between gassing the Kurds and invading Kuwait, fiction was his game and his favorite writer was, is, Hemingway. Big mistake when writers turn from fiction to politics.
Writers are generally nuts. They're not stable people, so what can we expect of them as leaders?
Beware, then, of literary types who dream beyond the writing.
Ezra Pound was tried for treason, declared insane, and was finally sent to a mental institution. He wrote some fine poetry. But my guess is that had he attained high office anywhere, he would been a disaster for his nation and their neighbors.
We all know how Hemingway ended up. Before taking himself out by shotgun, he tried to end it all by stepping into the whirring blade of a helicopter. That's no knock on his writing. He's still my hero...as a writer. But imagine him in politics with all that paranoia.
Well, he did have a point when he suspected the FBI of tailing him all over the place. Turns out he was partly right.
So it's not that simple, or as Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." So here's another gifted writer with another gifted problem, ego. Lucky for us that he left us with "Leaves of Grass" and no domestic or foreign policy.
Mark Twain died a bitter old man, nothing resembling Tom Sawyer. In his later writings he took on the Almighty, religion and the Bible, pen dipped in acid. He was angry at God and thought life as being a series of punishments. I think so, too, incidentally. But that's no way to run a country, not with that attitude.
Dostoevsky was a compulsive gambler and if you read his book about that you remember that he was something of a toady and a masochist. Fabulous writer, though. Tolstoy, like writers before, during and after, began taking himself too seriously and embarked on a life as a sage and prophet. The Russian Orthodox Church had enough of that and finally excommunicated him. He ended up a wandering ascetic and died at some remote railway station, still talking to himself.
Obviously, then, there is no connection between a virtuous talent and a virtuous life, or even a virtuous mind. There is no explaining how high art so often derives from such murky origins. The fortunate thing is that these artists are harmful only to themselves (and their friends and families) as long as they stick to their craft.
It's when they step out and try to convert their literature into politics that puts us all in jeopardy. I'm thinking Karl Marx here, and Hitler. No, these two cannot be counted as high artists, except that they did try to put their ideas and ideologies into action, and we saw what happened. Along with everything else, they were WRITERS.
Marquis de Sade is known as the freest spirit that ever lived. He explored "the depths of human nature" and that cost him 12 years in an insane asylum. In his day he was called a libertine and a pervert for his "extreme" sexual writings. Today he'd have some kind of job on MTV, or perhaps he'd be running a country.
We don't know what the later Adolph produced while hiding in his bunker, at least I don't, but we know that Saddam wrote something called "Be Gone Demons."
Not quite "The Old Man and the Sea," Saddam's favorite Hemingway, but Iraqi reviewers loved it while he was in power and controlled everything.
Now? Not so much.
The best bet is to leave writers to writing and politics to politicians, though that doesn't always work out so well, either.
Jack Engelhard is the author of the bestseller turned—movie "Indecent Proposal" and the award—winning memoir "Escape From Mount Moriah." His novel "The Days of the Bitter End" is being prepared for movie production and he is completing a docu—novel on media corruption, "The Uriah Deadline." He receives e—mail at firstname.lastname@example.org