I have in the last few months been so busy with academics, my first year of college, and the general indolence of the ambitious, that I have allowed this blog to sit idle. I have been writing for classes and for this blog but something has stopped me from publishing anything here. In that time I have been thinking quite a lot about writing and what wanting to write for a living says about someone. I say someone, what I mean is what it says about me. In particular, why it is I want to write.
The thing about writing is that it is a very selfish thing to do. Orwell famously listed “sheer egoism” first in his motivations for writing, before any allusions to beauty or truth. Now, egoism does not necessarily mean arrogance here, although it certainly can. It simply means that the desire to write-and the more selfish desire to make a living writing-is precisely that: a desire. Just as hunger growls and thirst parches, the need to write has a physiological effect on a body. Something tightens in the chest and a mad scramble for the nearest paper, pen, keyboard or crayon. But it is a selfish thing, to want to write. There is no nobility or righteousness to it. For myself, wanting to write is the same as wanting to breathe, to eat, to drink, to sleep. And like all these things, writing seems terribly, desperately inadequate.
To say that times are tough is a cliche bordering on the pointless. It is also true. Politics entangles us all, and we are every day sinking deeper and deeper into a mire of sadism and cruelty. Whatever I write, whether it be an elegant elegy for democracy or a polemic against the stupid and hateful, it all seems inadequate. The world seems to be dragging itself back into the sorts of darkness I had once thought the reserve of history books and derivative dystopias. It not without cause that Orwell also said of writing that
“One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Watch this video. It is from the southern border of the country I study in. Listen to it. Read the captions.
That was obtained by ProPublica. It is a recording of audio from 10 children separated from their parents at the American border. The when doesn’t matter, why their parents brought them to America doesn’t matter. Listen to them. They may not speak your language but you can understand them. Their every word is weighed down by the sort of monsters we all recognise. Terror, despair and desperation in each cry and wail. When I went to America for the first time in the autumn of last year it was for much the same reasons as they did. I think I can do better there. I think it is the sort of place I can make something of myself. The most horrible obstacle I faced was a dull immigration line. There is not much to say about this that is not already being said. There has been outcry and outrage and nothing has changed. And even if things do change, some failures are not there to be forgiven.
A few years ago, my parents and I were visiting Poland. My mother has family there,albeit no blood, and for days and days these people who I had never met were generous and kind and loving to us.
We went to visit Auschwitz one day. (There is no verb for such an experience; they all reek of holidays and guided tours, I have settled on the most neutral). We went to Auschwitz and walked past bricks against which mothers and fathers had been murdered. Past the demolished remains of human-fuelled furnaces. I vomited in a bin outside one of the exhibits. This one, in fact.
Those are the shoes that were taken from those sent to Auschwitz. They are in a pile four times my height. In the exhibition next to them are suitcases, next to them are watches, and on and on.
These are from Arizona. They were taken from immigrants and discarded as “non-essential items”. These shoes in particular were collected by a former Customs and Border Protection janitor named Tom Kiefer.
These images, through this small intrusion into my college life, overwhelm me. What good is a blog or a podcast or anything I do in the face of such obvious cruelty?
But the truth is whatever I do, it is necessary as long as it is done. My generation is perhaps the first to be faced with this daily, hourly onslaught. Our parents, politically conscious, intellectually liberal though they were, carried on with their lives, got degrees, got married and got on with it. Many of my peers will no doubt follow the same path. This is not a failing on their part. It is understandable. In many ways it is done for the sake of survival. Being up to date with all the injustice in the world is a recipe Being close to injustice numbs the moral nerves and dulls our senses of right and wrong, even when all it takes to be reminded is ordinary vision.
There’s an old line, sometimes mistakenly attributed to Orwell that goes “In a time of universal deceit- telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” The problem is that this saying assumes too much power on behalf of the truth-teller. The truth is that there is nothing revolutionary about writing and nothing radical about speaking it. It is not and ought not to be done in service of some grander design or principle. Nor should it be done under the expectation that it will effect some great change, or even some small one. I’m not sure why it should be done. But I know that I don’t think I have it in me to get on with my life and not do it. Perhaps it is as simple as that; sheer egoism. The belief that you ought to say and do what you think is right to satisfy your own self-righteousness.
This essay does not have an conclusive ending because this conversation that I am having with myself has not ended. But thanks for reading. I’ll be publishing a blog every Monday evening.