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Reader View: The point of poetry and supporting the arts

April 30, 2017 GMT

On a weekday night in March, I was among a very sparse audience at the CCA’s Cinematheque for a showing of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, a cerebral thriller dramatizing the ancient antagonism between tyrants and those of his subjects who deal in images, ideas and information.

The film — as with so many other matters these days — bears on current events: the new administration’s threats to make crippling cuts in the budgets of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The proposed cuts are being made in the name of fiscal restraint, but nobody believes this: The combined budget of the targeted programs is minuscule. In truth, the threats are only a reiteration of the tyrant’s cunning sense that artists, photographers, journalists and the like are the natural enemies of his captive state.

In Neruda, the eponymous poet is seen by Chile’s fascist president as more dangerous than a sniper with a rifle. You can kill the sniper but not the poet’s pernicious influence. Thus, the expedient course is to capture and publicly humiliate him. And thus also, the peculiar desperation of the hunt for Neruda through the deep snows of the Andes, a true-life episode brilliantly narrated by the real-life Neruda in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1971).

Neruda was a communist, but as his Nobel speech makes clear, political affiliation is quite beside the point, because a writer’s ultimate allegiance is to the human spirit with its deathless devotion to the creative impulse. His cause, Neruda tells us, must be our own as well, whether this be in Chile or the Greece of the colonels or Hitler’s Germany or Franco’s Spain, where the hooded assassins came for Garcia Lorca. When we support the arts, when we support the unfettered flow of ideas and information, we bear witness to our common humanity, which knows no borders, no ideology.

Frederick Turner is author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction. He is a longtime resident of Santa Fe.