Why do we write? Why bother to write? I remember the advent of Game Boy, the beginning of the current culture wherein the signal gesture is eyes downcast concentrating on some hand held device, and thinking, well, it’s all over now. Readers gone, illiterate sons, no point. But then my sons grew up to be writers and one persists. And we started the magazine (so that now, when I see someone bent over a phone, I think, ah! another reader — okay, wishful thinking). But the question persists, always persists — why write?
Genese Grill, who in February contributed to Numéro Cinq her insightful and erudite essay on Marcel Proust and Robert Musil, herewith delivers an apologia (ancient form — nothing to do with apologizing) for writing, a passionate, persuasive, eloquent (not to mention well-written) defence of the realm of writing. Read it and rush to the barricades (or get out your laptop and start writing). This essay is the preface to a book of essays in progress. Genese (have I mentioned that she is an artist, also a scholar and a translator of Musil?) also created a room-sized hand-painted accordion book with one of the essays painted on the panels; we’ve included images of that as well (photos by Rebecca Mack). Because in this day and age, as we see over and over in Numéro Cinq, the word is art.
When so many others have written before us, illuminated, explained, shown, arranged, described the world and human existence, when so many others more eloquent, more learned, more witty, more poetic have polemicized and preached about what is important, about how we must live, about what is wrong with society, with our lives, with our thinking, when the world is arguably in countless ways even worse now despite all the words, when it is even less humanistic, more materialistic, less poetic, more utilitarian, when humans seem even less connected, more isolated, even after generations of writers have toiled to share their insights and to inspire to a better existence —we persist in writing, in feeling that writing might be a meaningful way to save the world, save our souls, to right the wrongs, make up for disappointments, overcome alienation and despair.
In addition to all of these common complaints lodged against writing, there are even people who believe that reading and writing belong to a hopelessly corrupt past, that they are the tainted remains of a paternalistic Enlightenment attempt to control people’s thoughts by an elite which, the theory goes, misguidedly or even treacherously posed as reformers, teachers, fellow human beings. Such theorists, in the spurious interest of freeing mankind from the discipline, authority, and standards of the old world, have contributed greatly to the denigration of so much which makes life worth living. They have aimed—when they aimed at culture—at the wrong enemy; and if today’s citizens are more free than they were two hundred years ago, we need only ask, as Nietzsche did: free for what? To go to the mall whenever they please? To never challenge themselves at all? To live lives where natural and artistic beauty, reflection, relative silence, awe and wonder are present in only the scantiest proportion compared to the fragmented technocratic busy-ness and consumerism that has become the norm? Is there no other way to get free?
Are great books really something to defend against, to ridicule, to knock off a pedestal? Or have they not always, mainly, been a powerful force of liberation, often a critique, often a means toward humanizing, toward inspiring tenderness and compassion? Ironically, the great books of the past seem to have increasingly induced a sort of revolutionary fervor which has itself taught people to doubt, to deconstruct, to denigrate books themselves. The educated Marxist professor snarls at the great works of the past like an ungrateful cur or a parasite who has forgotten who first taught him the word freedom. Like Caliban, who complains that Prospero taught him language, the ingrate only knows how to curse the magic of culture. But poor Caliban, the reader may object, is Prospero’s colonialist slave, so he may well begrudge his master’s “kindness”. Quite right, my skeptical post-modern reader, quite rightly read. Yet who but Shakespeare taught us this?
Now that people read so little it is even more difficult than ever to measure the “use” or benefit of writing (leaving aside for just a moment the all-important non-utilitarian aspects of writing). We might even ask why, if writing is efficacious, it has not succeeded in ensuring a practicable love of reading in our society, where, apparently, the average person reads but one book a year—at most. If we really want to change the world, if we really want —indeed, even in a maligned Enlightenment tradition—to inspire reform, reach people, impart urgency, does writing a book make sense? Who will read it? What will it do? Won’t it just be ignored?
Do words and ideas impact the world at all, or are we raising our voices like that passionate orator Mynheer Peeperkorn in The Magic Mountain, howling at the edge of a riotously loud waterfall, our words hopelessly drowned out by the spray and sensation of a force — in our case of media, convenience, technological sensationalism, consumerism, novelty and speed—a force far stronger than all our dusty fusty intellectual intensity and our airy ideations? Why do we persist in writing when writing seems sometimes to make so little palpable difference?
Do we continue out of a self-indulgent personal love of a way of life that has now become solipsistic or stubbornly antiquarian? Because it is what we like to do or because it is the only thing we know how to do? Or can it be that the act of writing itself—yes, real writing, inscribing, on paper, with ink, for printing in books that one can hold in one’s hands—is now something of a revolutionary act in itself, an act that is more than just an empty fatalistic last gesture in honor of some lost world?
I wager that, yes, to write books, to read and treasure books and ideas and intellectual discourse is a revolutionary act (if somehow simultaneously reactionary). I might even venture that one of the reasons reading is so out of fashion is not that it is boring and ineffectual but because it has the power to function as a sort of flaming conscience illuminating the “bad faith” of a general state of denial and a neglect of higher ethics and spiritual aesthetic values. As Kafka suggested, a really great book is like an axe that breaks the frozen sea within us. Do today’s humans care to be thus destroyed, broken down, burnt up, challenged? Whether they do or no, it is imperative that we strain and strive to rouse to wakefulness whoever is still even the least bit conscious, even if it means pouring a bucket of cold water upon our fellow humans and, yes, even upon ourselves in our most comfortable and ethically lazy hiding places. To write is to challenge the negligent, disinterested, laissez-faire status quo. Culture, in the coinage of my friend Stephen Callahan, is the new Counter-Culture. We may not win the war, but we have no choice but to fight, or write, as the case may be.
But let us return to the aforementioned non-utilitarian aspects of writing and reading. These aspects are inextricably bound up in everything which is to be gained or lost along the way. Outside of the content and import of what there is to be said and argued and persuasively insisted, the experience of writing (reflective, committed, difficult, grappling, ruminative, essayistic, careful, aesthetic, emotional) and the experience of reading (in relative quiet, with respect to the considered ideas of another human being, critically, with margins, with emotion and inter-subjectivity, with devotion) bears its own weight and its own significance in the context of today’s fragmented and casual society. In other words, the way in which we read and write is directly commensurate to the way in which we construct meaning and measure value in our lives, our world, our history, our future, our fellow beings. Reading and writing are two very representative practices that demonstrate the essential dynamic relationship between spirit and matter. Ideas and words, living and breathing in books and sentences, synthesizing, dissecting, and re-animating realities, influence and engender our physical world. By altering these practices or marginalizing them, we are, in essence, altering the very way we conceptualize, share, proffer, process and manifest ideas. Thus I begin with an underlying assumption about the ability of spirit to matter in questions of matter and in hopes of breaking internal frozen seas on an individual and universal level, one reader at a time, one tiny fissure, one tiny idea at a time.
Writers all sometimes believe that they have something new and important to say that has not been said in quite the same way and quite the same context as before. Other times they fear they have absolutely nothing at all of value to add. Even our own “freshest” ideas are but reanimations and reworkings of mostly the same things that have fascinated us since the beginning of our personal consciousness. We think we have come upon something new only to find it in much the same words in a notebook from a decade ago. Yet the slight variations of syntax, the context into which we have now placed an idea, may make worlds of difference, may be the small strand of hay that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. A small idea may be waiting, hidden in a large book, for the right reader, just like a despairing romantic inside a country house deep in the woods, with just a candle in the window, is waiting for a surprise visitor.
Something another writer has said may make us furious, or egg us on to verbally spar; we may be exhausted by received ideas, by the sort of questions which seem to leave only two possible and unsatisfactory possibilities as answers. We may think we know how to pose a new question altogether or provide a third or fourth answer which, as Cummings hoped, asks its own new question and so on and so on. I am reminded of the utopian visionary Charles Fourier, whose preface to his opus The Four Movements claims that he alone, finally, after so many centuries, has discovered the single most important secret to human happiness that no one, not one person ever, has even begun to imagine before him. An outrageous, majestic, beautiful and absurd claim! Nevertheless, it is true that each new voice may add something invaluable to the conversation. Imagine how bereft the ensuing centuries would have been had Fourier not had the courage of his crowing and had kept his revolutionary ideas to himself?! This French visionary is an apt exemplum of the way in which spirit works on matter, because his ideas were, in fact, directly influential on actions. The words that he committed to paper in a tiny room in Paris formed a good part of the basis of American utopian communities (like the late Brook Farm), even if a slightly puritan-tinged interpretation of his phalansteries and phalanxes left out some of his wilder and more improbable imaginings (the sea that would turn to lemonade, the evolutionary development of human tails, the benefits of unhindered passional attractions).
On the train to Concord Massachusetts to attend a transcendentalist conference, I met a fellow scholar and we fell quickly into a surprisingly heated argument about whether or not the intellections of the abolitionist movement had had anything significant to do with the ending of slavery. This fellow maintained that all the ideas, all the writing, all the speechifying, all the newspapers and broadsheets of the period had really had no significant influence on the success of abolitionism in comparison to that effected by the Northern soldiers’ experience going into Southern states and seeing the horrors of slavery with their own eyes. While it certainly makes sense that this real life experience was revolutionary, it seemed rather odd to me to deny that ideas and words had contributed to changing things. The eye-witness experiences of these soldiers were, in fact, written down in letters home or in essays for Northern journals; and other first-hand accounts, by escaped slaves, penitent owners, or in fictional accounts, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, surely crystalized vivid experiences into words, ideas, and theories.
Why then did my fellow traveler want so much for it to be so that words did not do anything, that ideas were ineffectual in history? I knew why I wanted the opposite to be true. I needed, with every fiber of my being, to believe that ideas changed the world, for better or for worse; and he, whose dislike of Emerson turned out to be no accident, needed to believe the opposite. He wanted to take the power out of the hands of the educated classes, and away from the individual, self-reliant, supposedly elitist genius, and place it in the many hands of the illiterate soldiers, or into the slippery hands of fate, as Tolstoy tries to do in War and Peace, where he argues, implicitly in his story and explicitly in his essayism, that history is not made by individual choices or heroes, but by the random forces of accident.
But this dualistic split between the elite educated classes and the illiterate masses is, to my mind, a dangerous and largely unexamined construct that demands unpacking and re-visioning. Is it really necessary to throw out culture and intellect because one portion of humanity has traditionally had a unique access to it? Would it not be better to work toward providing more members of society with the skills and the agency to critically consider philosophical, social, and aesthetic ideas and to participate in a meaningful and reality-relevant conversation about how we are best to live and function as a society? Anti-intellectualism seems to be a persistent American trait which somehow is inextricably bound up with the mythology of democracy. But is the vilifying of culture really a helpful response to our current problems?
My desire to believe in the efficacy of ideas and writing combines a commitment to the preservation of high culture and committed scholarship with a conviction that the realm of ideas and words should never be something to which only one class of people has access. I am also certain that such culture is best, most lively, most meaningful, when kept in the closest possible contact with our real lives and experiences, not separated into mere abstractions or de-contextualized from social practices or the lives of others. I believe that almost anyone can learn to read, write, and think and that the insights and depth of consideration to be gained through the process of wrangling with the written word is a richer and fundamentally different process than that to be acquired through the more casual and relatively non-committal process of conversation (though speech might also meaningfully aspire to more careful and sacred consideration). I also maintain that almost anyone has the power to change the way the whole world sees and acts and lives, with little more than curiosity, some learning, and some passionate discipline, and that the words and ideas of any one individual can and do and will move others immeasurably.
In my years as a community college instructor I have seen with my own eyes how even those students with little to no academic preparation, students who are struggling to hold two jobs, go to school, and raise children on their own, can and do become immediately passionately engaged in the philosophical, social, and aesthetic questions which need to be considered before beginning to live a considered, ethical, and socially-responsible life. While it is of course easier by far to engage in philosophical and poetic activity when one is not under the constant strain of putting bread on the table or buying a new pair of shoes for one’s children, to thus conclude that only those who have easy access to leisure can participate in reflection, critical thinking, and spiritual aesthetic experience is really the worst form of cynicism—one which hides a treacherous snobbery under its supposedly compassionate condemnation of the alleged elitism of culture.
For to deny anyone the right or responsibility to participate in the communal reflection on and creation of the world is to me a crime. To do so is to deny that person his or her humanity. Instead of silencing further those whose concerns and ideas have all-too-often been traditionally undervalued, this is a call to innovative and positive inter-action rather than continual complaint about the restrictive and technocratic megalithic structures and systems that seem sometimes to confine and define us; a call to utilize the language and the raw material given to us instead of stubbornly calling foul and refusing to participate in a system, history, and culture that are, indeed, deeply flawed and haunted by ghosts and demons of all kinds. This communally created labyrinth of oscillating desires, repressions, rebellions, resistances, and generativity remains, despite or even by virtue of its darker shadows, also a culture rich in beauty, humanism, tenderness, striving, passionate inquiry, imagination, and myriad evidences of the most ecstatic forms of life and love.
The conflict between intellectual culture and popular action had of course been rehearsed before we 21st century humans repeated it on the suburban train out of Boston—by former now-famous Concordians. The transcendentalist movement notoriously split off into two factions comprised, on the one hand, of individualist thinkers and writers, and, on the other, of engaged activists and communal utopians. But this narrative of a clean split is quite misrepresentative of the complexities and overlappings that really obtained. Bronson Alcott, possibly the least grounded of all the Concordians, felt impelled to actually experiment with his ideals in the real world, and founded the Fruitlands community, which eventually foundered on an unworkable proportion between the physical and the spiritual realms. George Ripley founded Brook Farm, which made a formidable attempt at bridging the gap between ideal and reality. Both utopian communities featured excellent progressive schools and were fundamentally attempts to give working people access to higher learning and to give the all-too dainty middle and upper class intellectual the chance to get his or her hands dirty. Hawthorne quickly learned that he could not get any literary work done after a day’s toiling in the fields; but others found the combination of matter and spirit salutary if not precisely conducive to the creation of great works of literature. Finding the right balance of body, mind, and soul is never easy.
Hyper-educated “bluestockings” like Elizabeth Peabody and Margaret Fuller (who claimed she had the headaches of a genius) suffered myriad physical pains in their striving for intellectual transcendence (but Margaret, at least, finally ran off to fight a real revolution in Italy and take on her first lover, supposedly an Adonis with limited intellectual talents). Elizabeth educated herself prodigiously, wrote, edited, taught, and ran the most intellectually exciting bookstore in Boston, while simultaneously supporting and caring for a large and unruly family of siblings and various unstable and sick relatives. Her two sisters, Mary and Sophia, won away from her the only possible suitors she entertained (Nathanial Hawthorne and Horace Mann). It may be difficult to measure the effect of her genius (despite her own share of headaches) on the real world, but I think, although largely unappreciated, it was not minor after all was said and done.
The abolitionists (spear-headed by fiery women strategists) kept spreading the word, with and without the intellectual authority of rousing speeches by Emerson and Thoreau; Thoreau built a real house in the woods, instead of just writing about an imaginary one, but scorned the jailers who tried to imprison his soul within the walls of the Concord jail one night (because his soul, his conscience, his mind was free) ; committees and clubs were founded; gardens were planted; journals begun, printed, proliferated, and abandoned; walks were taken; hands were grasped; love was and was not consummated; letters were written and sometimes not sent; and, as Emily Dickinson cryptically noted from nearby Amherst, “people must have puddings”.
Bronson Alcott’s inability to take the physical world into consideration (exemplified by his comic attempt to move his family home without putting a foundation under it) was counteracted by his daughter Louisa’s intense focus on ensuring material security (with Little Women, she earned more money from her pen than any other writer of the period, with the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe); but her traumatic experience with an inept spiritualist father may have kept Louisa from ever daring to enter into conjugal relations with a man. When a visitor asked if there were any animals laboring on the farm at Fruitlands, Louisa’s mother famously answered, “Only one woman,” but of course there were more women than one: the daughters helped too. Ironically, Louisa’s practical innovations were all in the interest of avoiding more physical labor by providing herself and her family with the financial support necessary to dream and imagine. In a similar strain, Thoreau began his peon to transcendence with a chapter entitled “Economy”—an economy calculated to afford its readers with a model most conducive to musing, intellectual activity, aesthetic experience, walking and communing with Nature, the World All, and the timeless reverberations of morning moods.
The painted trays, quilts, and pies made by abolitionist women supported the more ineffable traveling lectures given by escaped slaves as well as the writing and publication of propaganda journals and the legislative process of lobbying and advocacy. The theories and words of social intellectuals were answered by the actions of smugglers on the underground railroad and even more violent physical acts of daring such as the raid on Harper’s Ferry—or perhaps the actions inspired the words; quilts and pies and gunpowder and risked lives worked in tandem with ideas, words, and ideals.
The idea craves and creates action and manifestation; the experience and the action are object lessons, rituals, or manifestations that inspire ideas and fresh conceptualization. The experimental enactment is spurred on, checked, re-evaluated, and given meaning by the idea, the vision, the transcendental imagination. Material choices are made on the basis of spiritual values and spiritual values must be made on the basis of certain unavoidable material realities. Of course there are times in history or in one’s personal life when actions may be taken that fly in the face of physical practicality and prudence, when a person literally sacrifices his or her bodily comfort, convenience, or even existence for an idea or ideal. For ideas and values that are not lived or have not touched and changed or colored our lives and perceptions may as well not have been thought or written down at all.
We write in the hopes that our words could mean something to someone, somewhere, across time and space. Has Walden made a difference in the world? Have Thoreau’s words been heeded? On the one hand, when we see the mass of men and women in quiet desperation who prefer to go on with their accumulating and wage slavery rather than consider living a different way, his words certainly do not seem to have mattered much. When we see the persistent and total destruction of the ecosystem, we may wonder about the power of his statement: “Thank God they cannot cut down the clouds”. For, as if in refutation of a cryptic oracle, they (or is it even we?) really have managed this seemingly impossible feat, as clouds are visually cut down by skyscrapers, airplanes, and countless towers of technology. On the other hand, we know “many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” as Thoreau himself noted in his chapter on reading. We ourselves know how much certain books have meant to us, how they have changed our lives both materially (in terms of conduct of life) and spiritually (in terms of directing how we see the world).
Like the awkward anti-heroes of a fairy tale, like Dumb Hans or the Goose Girl, we write as if we were attempting to complete some impossible task against all odds. We are climbing the mountain of glass, separating the millions of lentils from the millions of stones, weaving gold out of straw before dawn, trying to guess the magic word in three days, and scooping the ocean out with a leaky thimble, day after day, decade after decade, on the chance possibility that some drop, some one word or phrase of what we write, will get through to someone, make us, make a possible reader feel less alone, confirm our own suspicions, solicit a response, an echo, a challenge, across the watery abyss. And if it sometimes seems as if writing has made no impact at all on the rushing, raving world, let us at least consider that it might have been an even uglier, an even colder, an even more callous world still, without the absurdly Sisyphean labors of writers and thinkers who have constantly brought all their small weight to bear against the weighty downward slide, who might, in fact, be the ones responsible for keeping total chaos, destruction, and utter indifference at bay—just until now.
If we were to let up at long last, give up, resign ourselves to silence — I dare not even suggest what might happen, what horrific indifference and simulated emptiness might ooze into every last crack and bury us alive, unable to remember the slightest thing, unable to form sentences or consider our actions, unable to value, denounce, celebrate, or dream. We may never know what nasty nightmare our often thankless little efforts keep at bay. But let us, at the very least, write in thanks and tribute to those who have persisted in the past, against such odds, in believing that writing, that ideas, that visions and images, do matter. One thimble-full of salvaged words, one pearl of sweat or salt tear, one drop of ink, made of belief, commitment, made of love of humanity, of history, of culture, and of nature, no matter how humble, no matter how seemingly quiet, inarticulate, or out of tune, no matter how seemingly unheeded, may be precisely the enlivening, moistening alchemical liquid needful to keep the well of inspiration from going dry once and for all. Was it in despair or in hope that Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy counseled thusly: “Writers! Open the vein!”? Did he mean we had better end it all? I like to think, rather, that he meant we ought to write as if our own life blood, all our experiences, thoughts and feelings, were flowing onto the page, that we might die even in the midst of writing—in making visible and hopefully intelligible— whatever it is we have within us.
—Genese Grill, with photographs by Rebecca Mack
Genese Grill is an artist, writer, and translator living in Burlington Vermont and the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’: Possibility as Reality (Camden House, 2012). “Apologia” is part of a collection-in-progress entitled, Keepsakes: On Matter, Immateriality, and the Making of Meaning. She currently is pursuing the mad task of possibly re-creating the world through metaphor by building and inscribing a giant room-sized hand-illuminated accordion book portal containing an essay from this collection, and by working on a series of translations of previously unpublished Robert Musil writings (to be published by Contra Mundum Press beginning in 2015).