There is an intellectual dimension to every human enterprise. The transition of the human being from fruit gatherer and hunter to farmer and domesticator of animals must have been a great leap in the conceptual relation of the human to nature. I assume that this leap was not a result of one person theorising the concept of farming and domestication and another person putting the concept into practice. The thought and practice were one. The farmer was also the thinker. It is fairly accepted that intellectualising as an autonomous area of human activity rose with greater material productivity and class differentiation to allow for the survival of the producer of the non-material.

Every imaginative act embodies a viewpoint, and the intellectual as a conjuror of images wants to persuade us to view the world and our place in it in a certain way. While viewpoint is inherent in many an intellectual product, it is more so in the work of the literary intellectual. An intellectual, however, does not work in a condition of absolute autonomy. An intellectual does not invent words, except for the occasional special need, but rather, uses words that are inherited as language already in use. The language already in use and the contemporary historical moment mould the intellectual. It’s in the context already given that the intellectual wrestles with ideas and explores images to his or her satisfaction. An intellectual has to do that - the logic of his calling - but, even then, there is an ethical dimension to intellectual production.

In May 2005, I joined 20 other intellectuals from around the world in South Korea for the Second Seoul International Forum for Literature organised on the theme of writing for peace. A highlight of the get-together in Seoul was a visit to Panmunjom, “the “truce village” that straddles the border between North and South Korea in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone.”

Standing beside Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel laureate for literature, watching the North and South Korean soldiers facing each other in hostile but pokerfaced postures, I realised just how much the grounds on which we stood were a metaphor for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The layers of images in this place tell the history of our times: the bomb, colonialism, decolonisation, neocolonialism, the Cold War, superpower rivalries and globalisation.

I was born under the shadow of the atomic bomb. I remember a verse in a call-and-response dance movement by some Kenyan youths of the latter half of the 1940s in which the soloist talks of his return from Japan, where he had just dropped bombs. The reference was clearly to the atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, but I don’t know if the dancers were identifying with the act or simply recording a momentous event in human history. The horror of what the youths were singing struck me when, years later at a 1974 conference held in Tokyo on democracy and the reunification of Korea, I visited Hiroshima and saw the scene of devastation. The images and the stories of continued disastrous radioactive effects on generations born years after Hiroshima made me recall the words of the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, J Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the birth of the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. Seeing the Trinity test explosion at the Alamogordo test range in a desert appropriately called Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Deadman) in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer borrowed from the Bhagavadgita to describe the result of what his assembly of scientists had produced: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Within a month, the human angels of this death visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the devastating effects that I could see and feel 30 years after the bombing. “We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer had said.

Atomic cloud over Hiroshima, taken from "Enola Gay" flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku
Atomic cloud over Hiroshima, taken from "Enola Gay" flying over Matsuyama, Shikoku

How right he was: never in the history of the world had there been a man-made invention that could, at the push of a button, destroy all life on earth.

More than the birth of great religious leaders, the birth of the bomb marks the severest break in the continuity of human history. There is the world before the bomb and the world after.

Capitalist modernity ends with the bomb; postmodernity begins with the bomb. And we hope it will not end with the bomb.

Yes, only hope! A handful of nations now have the capacity to bombard the world over and over again. They form a nuclear club. Despite the end of the Cold War, the world is still under the shadow of sudden death. You would think that the whole world would be mobilising to stop this shadow of death from destroying all human life, but it seems to me that the world’s focus has shifted to those nations that do not have nuclear weapons, as if the intention of possessing nuclear arms is more dangerous than the actual possession of them. The nations that already carry death want to convince the world that the real threat to life lies with those who are seeking to join their nuclear club.

Surely, non-proliferation should go hand in hand with nuclear disarmament. Every call for nations not to develop their own nuclear arsenals should be accompanied by an equally vehement call for nuclear nations to disarm. One of the greatest mass movements in postwar Britain was the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Many members of the Labour Party - including some of its leaders, such as Neil Kinnock - were active participants. It is a pity that, after the party’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher, there has largely been silence on this issue in the streets of London.

If one role of the intellectual is to use words in defence of human life, in our times this responsibility should translate into raising a hue and cry against the “destroyers” of the world. Belief in stability built on mutual assured destruction is pure madness. The first right of any claim to intellectual life is the right to life. It is in that spirit that the intellectuals who met in Cologne in 1982 and in Seoul in 2005 could rightly justify their claim to speak on issues of war and peace. In the poem Not What Was Meant, Bertolt Brecht writes:

Even the narrowest minds
In which peace is harboured
Are more welcome to the arts than the art lover
Who is also a lover of the art of war.

The same period that saw the birth of the bomb saw other death threats to social life. The hope generated by the intensified decolonisation that took place after the Second World War, which led to the independence, civil rights and social rights of many nations and communities all over the world, was stifled by the rivalries of the Cold War and by the emergence of the instruments for economic globalisation: the Bretton Woods system, the institutions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. The Cold War is officially over, but globalisation is expanding at full speed.

Just as the world of nations is divided into those who have the weapons of mass death - members of the nuclear club - and those who don’t, the world of capitalist globalisation is divided into a handful of nations brought together around the Group of Eight who possess wealth and the majority who live in poverty. This is not a case of “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” In fact, the wealth of this minority of nations is rooted in the poverty of the many. The minority who have do not consume resources solely within their national boundaries; they use up over 90% of global human and natural resources. Alarmingly, the gap between the two groups of nations increases daily.

This global divide is reflected within nations, where the gap between the poor social majority and the wealthy social minority is widening. With the Dickensian world of Oliver Twist – “Please sir, I want some more” – reproduced in even the wealthiest of nations, the homeless, the prisoner and the beggar have become the social metaphors for our times. In eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century England, the homeless who resorted to theft for survival were shipped to penal colonies, some of which later bloomed into full-fledged nations. Today the wealthy section in nations sends the homeless caught stealing to prison colonies in their territories. The prison population is the fastest-growing social sector in many nations, making Benjamin Disraeli’s “two nations” a reality in many countries.

In my view, the rifts among nations and within nations are equally destroyers of worlds, and it is not surprising that the nuclear wealthy nations are also among the economically wealthy. Is this correlation not yet another area of concern for the intellectual?

Once again Brecht comes to mind. In the poem Speech to Danish Working-Class Actors on the Art of Observation, he calls on the workers to use their learning and teaching to play their part in all the struggles:

Of men and women of your time, thereby
Helping, with the seriousness of study and the cheerfulness of knowledge,

To turn the struggle into common experience and
Justice into a passion.

An irony of globalisation is that the globe is shrinking into a village because of information technology and yet its divisions of culture have deepened. This capitalist fundamentalism has generated other fundamentalisms in alliance with it, such as some elements of Christian fundamentalism popularly known as the Christian Right or, in opposition to it, some elements of Islamic fundamentalism, popularly viewed as terrorism. It is worth noting that the leaders of an endlessly self-righteous West have often been quite happy to work with Islamic and Christian fundamentalists when it has suited them. Otherwise, the cultural divide of “my god is more of a god than your god” makes conversation very difficult and divides people unnecessarily.

When each side claims to take orders from that side’s god, the anxiety of who possesses the means of death is heightened. Claims that my god is more of a god than your god are very ungodly.

The religious ideology of capitalist fundamentalism demands the destruction of state barriers to the movement of finance capital but the erection of barriers to the movement of labour. Democracy becomes confused with the right of capital to move freely within and across states but not the right of labour to do the same. Racism, which also takes the extreme form of religious bigotry through the boast “my race is the chosen race,” has become more pronounced, and, as a result, some countries are even calling for the erection of physical barriers around their territories. A variant of the notion of the chosen is that of exceptionalism. What if every nation saw itself as exceptional and not subject to norms that regulate relations between nations and peoples? Ethnic cleansing in nation-states becomes the occasion for massacre and genocide.

In a world with barriers to contact and barriers to speech, there must still be a place for those saying that the essence of the word is to talk, to make conversation, and that, without conversation, communication, the human community would never have come to be. We would have remained like all the other components of nature, undifferentiated from it, in perpetual repetition of its same cycles. Nurture out of nature is enabled by the word as language. The role of the word is to connect, as defined in E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910):Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” John Donne expresses the same idea in Meditation XVII (1624). Unfortunately there are many who still think they can profit best in a life lived in fragments of nations, race, gender, religion, especially when they can claim that their fragment is “wholier” than others.

This human connection Donne proclaims should surely be truer of cultures. All cultures are tributaries to the common pool of human experience. The death of any culture diminishes me because it is one tributary less for the human community.

We only have to connect, to help put faiths and doctrines and languages, big or small, into dialogue. And if, in this connection, I quote Cesaire, it is because what he says of culture contact was our organising motto at the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California, Irvine. In his castigation of colonialism, he admits: “It is a good thing to place different civilisations into contact with each other; that it is an excellent thing to blend different worlds; that whatever its own particular genius may be, a civilisation that withdraws into itself atrophies; that for civilisation, exchange is oxygen.”

It is difficult to prescribe any one role for the intellectual. Intellectuals can and must explore all possibilities and logical implications of their chosen fields and form. But I hope that the intellectuals of our times believe in the contact of cultures as the oxygen of the human community; that in the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament, for social justice and for cultural exchange, today’s intellectuals can find what they need to further facilitate the generation of more oxygen, thus enabling a shared human inheritance of the best in all faiths, doctrines, cultures and languages.

Unfortunately, in the academy, I have seen a tendency to shy away from engagement with words like freedom, liberation, social justice, peace, nuclear disarmament, class struggle, commitment and a retreat into a modern scholasticism where splitting hairs about form takes precedence over content. In eschewing those words, the academy leaves them to the forces that would like to empty them of content, relevance and meaningful reference. Emily Dickinson says, “A Word that breathes distinctly / Has not the power to die.”

Political authoritarianism is terrified of the power of the word that has become flesh. It loves the word that has been dislodged from the flesh.

The challenge for the intellectual is to make words become flesh, to make them breathe distinctly. Theory must always return to the earth to get recharged. For the word that breathes life is still needed to challenge the one that carries death and devastation. Works of imagination and critical theories can only weaken themselves by pulling back from that challenge.

Excerpted with permission from Secure The Base: Making Africa Visible in the Globe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Seagull Books.