Sunday, April 20, 2008

Who are we? What are we doing? And why? Sunday Salon

I keep going over this. The compartmentalization of literary conversations and politics... I was tempted to write: ...and matters of consequence.

Not that I believe for a second that literature and the arts are not in themselves, consequential--even primary to politics. But they cannot be so as Mandarin pursuits apart from the messy realities of power and its relations to everyday life.

I'm not a political person. My drive is more toward tending my garden. But I don't see any escape from that most basic choice: either let others wield power for us, or become a part of the process--to attempt, as best we can, to actualize the ideal of "governance by the consent of the governed." And do it ourselves.

And so I go out and knock on doors. I take a stand. I try to understand--not only the "issues," so called, but what shapes them.

For that, I search in my reading, and as I write, for understanding.

I would like to see in Sunday Salon posts, more connection made between what we read, and how the world works. Is literature nothing more than a diversion from the blood bath of history?

Whatever we choose to read or to write, you can be sure it will be used by those who wield power. With or without our consent, complicit or otherwise.

We are none of us innocent.

An impossible choice, to be sure--between independence of thought and creative endeavor, and resistance or usurpation by one or another crippling ideological camp But the impossible is exactly what is needed. What has always been needed. And what, defeat after defeat... has lifted us above the "is" to something closer to what we might become.


  1. I am not entirely truthful when I say that I prefer fiction that is not heavily political because my favourite (and I mean top ten here) writers and novels are political in significant ways -- Homer, William Blake, Ayi Kwei Armah. And I've discovered science fiction which, of course, loves to be political.

    I suppose I don't intentionally focus on it a lot of the time because it's too easy for me to. In analysing a book I'm more equipped with the words to discuss political themes than to address technique or language. Naturally, as I talk about politics all the time and more aesthetic book discussion almost never. It's why I'm much less confident writing about poetry because such angles are unavoidable. And so I try to use my blog as a way to develop that skill and vocabulary (unsuccessfully, for the most part, but there you go).

    I'm reading (and blogging about) Derek Walcott's poetry now and I cannot avoiding addressing both aspects of creative writing. I shall try to make sure at least some of them end up as Sunday Salon posts. ;)

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I've left my response as new post.

  3. I have little interest in overtly political art, politically driven literature. Work that has aesthetic merit will be political in the best sense--like Homer or Blake, without having to narrow the goal to aim for it. I've been feeling a "concern," as the Quakers say, something deeply personal. I'm not sure how to get my thoughts around it. I suppose... more than suppose, that the source has to do with how difficult it's been to balance these disparate demands on my time: my teaching responsibilities, my writing, and the volunteer work I've been doing on the Obama campaign.

    There is no way I can choose one over another. Teaching nourishes me as a writer, gives me a place in the world, an emotional and psychological security, and what drives me to write, that which wakens me from my private garden of wishes, will not let me forget that I am not--that I do not exist as one alone. We find ourselves as individuals by incorporating what is other.

    A tortured way of putting it. If I could find easy expression for what is gnawing at me, there would be no crisis. And there is.

    Break it down. That's what I tell my students when they struggle to find words for complex ideas. Name the parts. Then trace their relationships.

    The part that I don't know how to assimilate--the political. Break through from the abstract to the concrete. I tell them that, too. I spent the day grading papers, and wanted to be out on the street knocking on doors. Yesterday, I spent hours in the heat doing just that: knocking on doors--and I was happy! But I have papers to grade, a novel to complete. And happy as I was--this airy sense of freedom--there were dreams of a private garden apart from all that, dreams of a deeper happiness.

    I've come to see this as more than a personal crisis, as something perhaps symptomatic, where the political has come to occupy a place apart, an abnormal independence-power and the machinations of power removed from the needs that produced them, removed from the means they are meant to serve.

    I respond to the rhetoric Obama employs precisely because it exposes this rupture. I feel it in my bones. I have terrible waking dreams of the alignment of forces I fear this will provoke. Some of dreams have human faces, remembered--the doors that opened when I knocked.

    We are a beast torn apart, fighting against itself, limb against limb, organ against organ, cell against cell.

    That's what politics has become.

    And it's become that because we have isolated it, removed it from the normal course of life and tradition... where it grows malignant and returns to infect every other alienated aspect of life... religion, culture...

    We must find a way to reintegrate politics into our lives, all the aspects of our lives, without turning everything into politics... as the alien beast it has become.

    I've expanded on this in a new post.

    Thank you for your thoughts.

  4. My feeling is that at the very least, politics underlies what we read and why. It's not necessarily that we MUST ask political questions about a given text, but that we ought to consider what political realities put a given work into the canon in the first place: politics may be a reason we're reading what we're reading.

  5. This is what my Nadine Gordimer research is about - how do literature and politics fuse, how she does that (extremely well, in my opinion), and why its important that the two spheres remain connected.
    I like your comment about tending the garden, that's how I see it as well. We are a part of the process, whether we choose to recognize that involvement or not.