Friday, July 22, 2011

Brick by Brick

Chaos demands to be recognized and experienced before letting itself
be converted into a new order.
--Hermann Hesse

One of the things that excites me about being a writer is that it requires a long view of the human condition. All those required university Humanities and science courses--history, philosophy, literature, languages, psychology, sociology, ecology, biology, etc, etc, etc—have converged in my brain and reveal themselves to have actual relevance to the real life process of writing. I stand at the confluence of these separate streams, where they mingle and merge, and dip up the result in my cupped hands, and a character is born, or a scene is set, or a tragic narrative trajectory is launched.

We are living in interesting times. My neighbors, husband and wife, just got back from Tennessee, where, as volunteers, they were helping to clean up the devastation of a tornado. They described how brick houses were simply torn asunder, and a trail of loose bricks was laid out for a quarter mile beyond the house sites. This has become, for me, a metaphor for the larger chaos that seems to be ripping the world apart.

It doesn’t really matter what you investigate. Stand outside, turn yourself to any point in the compass, walk less than a mile, and you are likely to find a problem: a polluted creek, potholes in the road, a skulking teenager, or trash thrown from a car window. Multiply these minor problems by the infinitude of their fellows, add large dollops of government corruption, corporate greed, ecological cataclysm, religious intolerance and incessant warfare, throw in a few solar flares for good measure, and you have a recipe for a world consumed in chaos. In a way, it’s a writer’s paradise. One need never want for a topic, a plot, an archetypal Bad Guy or an opportunity for dark humor.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m of that antique persuasion that writers have certain obligations that might be called didactic. The entertainment value of writing is always going to be a primary factor. That’s why readers gobble up The Da Vinci Code and eschew The Dictionary of Finance and Investment Terms. Nevertheless, it behooves the writer to consider whether the reader will put down the latest read as a human being expanded by knowledge and fortified by a higher spiritual vision, or as a troglodytic brute that craves more violence, sexual dysfunction or racial and gender divisiveness, or a passive, apathetic citizen overwhelmed and undone by literary pessimism.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating censorship here, just a demonstration of what it means to be truly and deeply human in the best and highest sense. Perhaps no one has expressed this better than William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel prize acceptance speech, in which he sums up his “life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” One paragraph is particular states the case, and I append it here, in full:

“Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only one question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat. He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid: and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

Let us return to the metaphoric brick house of human culture. Surely, we are witness to a time when our old sense of the world is being torn asunder and strewn across the landscape in terrifying and life-threatening chaos.  Yet, with Faulkner, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things.” It is our job to find those scattered bricks, collecting them from the fields where they lie not just fallow but damaged and useless, and to build, brick by brick, word by word, a new edifice to serve the greater good and to demonstrate to future generations that we were not just people of the glands, but people of the heart.

In the words of J. B. Priestley, "No matter how piercing and appalling his insights, the desolation creeping over his outer world, the lurid lights and shadows of his inner world, the writer must live with hope, work in faith." It may be that this chaos to which we are all witness may be a necessary leveling; a reculer pour mieux sauter. In any case, the mess has to be cleaned up, just as my neighbors have demonstrated. So we writers must decide at the outset, before the rebuilding starts, if we are mere sensationalists, leaning up slipshod shelters that will not withstand the first storm, or honest masons, stacking and mortaring our used bricks just and true, not for the sake of enlightened self-interest, only, but for future generations to shelter in, as well.

We are not simple beings. We have all drunk at the confluence and have carnal knowledge of life in its infinite variety, horror and beauty. We cannot claim ignorance. If we fail in our task, it will be a failure of choice; a failure to imagine what is best and brightest; an embracing of sloth, that deadly sin that involves emotional and spiritual apathy. We can’t alter the fact that we live in a time of hurling bricks and stormy chaos. But the building of the new order from the remnants of the old is all ours and a task worthy of contemplating, every single time we sit to bond one word to another.

1 comment:

Baking Sorceress' Apprentice said...

I find this to be an awe-inspiring treatise on dedication and perseverance of writers and other similar craftsmen and women who are honoring the soul. At what time, if ever, do they realize this is what they are doing? By what name do they call it? It seems, as Faulkner observed, "we must create something out of the human spirit that had not been here before." And, to this end, if we are true to our endeavors, we may pass through the pain of darkness and transmute somehow to our own philosopher's gold.