Many of us take literacy for granted. I remember before I started kindergarten, when I asked my mother one day about what all these words on signs meant, and she started to tell me about reading. I couldn’t wait to learn. She taught me some, and school taught me some more. That’s how it’s supposed to go, right? Reading is passed on from one generation to the next, and it’s just a part of life. But what if you can’t read? What’s that like?
I read a pretty good answer to that question the other day in a story by Joseph Wittlin entitled “The Emperor and the Devil” (anthologized in A World of Great Stories, H. Haydn and J. Cournos (eds.), New York: Crown, 1947). It’s about a man named Peter Neviadomski, born 1873, who had three times been passed by for conscription into the Polish army because he was the sole breadwinner in his family. His luck ran out one day when he was visited by a railwayman named Corporal Durek, who reached into his bag, pulled out a blue paper, and showed it to him. It was a summons to report for military service. Peter knew what it said without reading it. He couldn’t read it. He was illiterate. Durek could, of course, so he had all the power.
Peter’s attitudes may be summarized in two excerpts from the story. The first one refers to the invention of the printing press (p. 666):
Gutenberg, Johann Gutenberg, was the name of that man whom the devil made drunk with Rhine wine in Mainz, and who, in the year 1450, invented a new torture for those who knew nothing of letters, for the meek in spirit. Possessed by the devil, Gutenberg, in league with a certain Faust, founded the first printing works. From that time on the devilish business spread like a cholera plague, to bewilder, bewitch, and poison, day and night, grasping souls imprisoned by the pride of knowledge. But also since then so much harmless paper has been blackened by the devil’s marks that the whole globe might be wrapped in it, yet, in the year 1914, there were still many righteous souls, especially in the district of Snyatin, who had not yielded to temptation. They did not falter, even when confronted by compulsory school attendance, by fines and by imprisonment, preferring to pay, or to languish in jail, rather than to afflict the souls of their children with the Latin or Cyrillian alphabet….
Peter continues on, comparing literacy with all that is evil in the world, and faulting governments for perpetuating that evil. When Corporal Durek, as an instrument of the government, presented Peter with the summons, here is what transpired (p. 667):
The Corporal knew quite well that Peter couldn’t read, but all the same he handed the calling-up order over to him, with an air of not knowing anything of the kind. That Neviadomski should be compelled to ask him to read out the contents of the paper flattered his vanity. In his relations with people who could read, Durek was no more than the executor of a higher power, but in dealing with people who couldn’t read, he felt that he was not only the partner of that Power, aware of its intentions, but also the representative of its culture. To such people he personified not only the punishment of guilt, and not only the key to prison cells, but also the key to all the secrets of the written word. So Durek couldn’t refrain from enjoying his superiority over Neviadomski, although he hadn’t the smallest intention of gloating over the misfortune of the lowly. Quite the contrary. Not an hour ago he had spoken with sympathy of this very misfortune in the hall of a neighboring country house to which he had taken a preliminary notice of a requisition for fodder, and where he had been welcomed with a small glass of vodka, a piece of cake and cigarettes:
“Our people are still very uneducated, gracious Countess—the minimum of illiterates is 80 per cent.”
The word “minimum” was intended to show that he himself belonged to the educated.
Neviadomski did not disappoint him. He cast a helpless look at the paper and said:
“Will you do me the favor, Herr Korporal? …”
The Corporal was used to this procedure and enjoyed it. He quickly broke the seal, glanced at the date and announced sternly:
“In five days’ time, punctually at nine o’clock in the morning, before the Draftboard in Snyatin.”
Durek then read Peter the entire message and enjoyed every minute of it.
Power. That’s what literacy is.