A Long Bout of Some Painful Illness

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.

Auschwitz
Auschwitz

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.

Arizona
Arizona

 

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.

 

 

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Should we not bleed?

There is a great deal made of the loneliness of writers. They are a solitary, pained bunch anguishing under the weight of the ideas they have yet to discover and the stories they have yet to tell. It’s an understandably attractive reflection to contemplate. We are all Byronic heroes struggling to excavate our genius to display to the world.
Unfortunately for us, though perhaps fortunately for the average reader, most don’t get to.
But this image of the Romantic writer; Hemingway with a whiskey in one hand, a pen in the other and depression on his mind, persists.  Perhaps because the alternative is far less attractive to introspection.

I write this in the middle of the night, in one of those all too brief respites from exams, tests and college applications. I write because I find it enjoyable. There is an exhilaration to framing a thought in a particularly pleasing way. I apologize for this digression into the first-person but it’s in service of a larger point. I’m writing this alone, and not really for anyone in particular. It is as solitary as I imagine writing can be.

But this is a collaboration.

Not with anyone in particular, but the all the most original thoughts I could compose, the most eloquent phrases are constructed on scaffolding put up by a thousand writers before me. An essay on the eccentricities of writers is hardly original for a young writer. As it happens it’s barely even original on this blog.
Writing is uniquely positioned as an art form because of the power of the individual writer. Filmmakers are reliant on their cast and crew, game designers on their development teams. Visual artists; your painters and so on, are reliant on the audience’s interpretation. The writer is the only artist whose only limitation is their skill and ability to explain.
The skill of writing is not simply creativity, but the combination and composition of a million different ideas, phrases and rhythms.

A good writer in our time is working, quite often very closely, with; Homer, Aristotle, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Shelley(s), Dickens, Wilde, Shaw, Hugo, Steinbeck, Russell, Tolkien, Orwell, Lewis, Clarke, Kubrick, Hitchcock, Hitchens, King, Fry and Pratchett to name very few. And in this collaboration the writer is called upon the reanimate these silent authors and attempt to best emulate their best features.
It is so often repeated that it now borders on cliche but to read is to inoculate yourself against poor, repetitive and dull writing. Originality is the craft of knowing what to use later.
Writing is absolute in its primacy for the simple reason that it is, in practical terms, the annotation of thought as combinations of symbols and spaces. This simplicity marks it out as the finest means with which we can know each other and know at all.
Through this lens, writing loses much of its romantic lustre but gains the optimism that should be inherent in a form that manages to democratize thought.

I love the phrase ‘The Republic of Letters’. I was first introduced to it below.

“Universal empire is the prerogative of a writer. His concerns are with all mankind, and though he cannot command their obedience, he can assign them their duty. The Republic of Letters is more ancient than monarchy and of far higher character in the world than the vassal court… he that rebels against reason is a real rebel, but he that in defence of reason, rebels against tyranny has a better title to “Defender of the Faith,” than George the Third.” -Thomas Paine The American Crisis No. 2

I found this tremendously appealing, and it says far more eloquently and concisely much of what I think about writings role. I dislike the romantic notion of writing as a ‘need’ to express yourself because I feel it diminishes the importance of writing. All life has needs. They can range from the primal  to the complex. We do not distinguish ourselves as beings if we are simply motivated by a ‘need’ to write. Nor do I appreciate the attempt to describe writing as noble. No medium or tool can be noble, only it’s usage can warrant that description.

Writing is vital not because of some moral sheen that it bestows on the writer but because of a basic philosophical distinction it draws between humanity and our lesser neighbors. A beast needs. It acts for what it wants. We can never separate ourselves from our ‘beastliness’ as it is what makes us live. A beast acts on its needs. As do we. But, we distinguish ourselves as intelligent because we are not limited by our needs. We act on what we think ‘should’ be. And this is where writing plays an immense role. Without writing and its resultant shared human mentality, we could only act on our needs. Without the construction of organised thought that is writing we would be unable to ever believe that anything ‘should’ be. But this is still not noble. We once believed some rather unfortunate things ‘should’ be. It did not make us just or great. But, with writing and the desire that it instills to fashion a world as it ‘should’ be, we aspire to greatness. To nobility. That potential, and our striving for use it, is flawed and frequently even ruinous.

But it is what we are. And what separates us from beasts.

Something worth reading.

Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries.
― Carl SaganCosmos

To introduce oneself as a “writer” is increasingly in vogue, spurred on by a consumer oriented publishing industry that treats books as products. I find this extremely unsavoury as it reduces literature to just another aspect of the market. Biased though I am against the assembly line tracts of modernity, seeing as I hope to avoid modern times as long as I live (preferably longer) I think this a fundamentally flawed view of the ideal purposes of writing and does immeasurable harm to the medium.
To be a writer should be beyond a simple job description. It should be an announcement of skill, of style and intellect. Many can write, but to be “a writer” should promise a celerity and beauty of prose that also informs. This applies not only to the world of fiction, where hackery can frame the bestseller list for months on end but also to journalism, specifically to opinion writers a great many of whom can be best describing as “stating” their opinion. I think that qualifies them as hacks. There is nothing gained in a stated opinion. Any fool can state their opinion. An opinion writer should “express” their opinion in a manner that is rewarding in its own right. The best non-fiction writers did this. Men and women like Christopher Hitchens and Dorothy Parker managed to make the tedious book review, now so often abridged to a scale rating, into works of art in their own right; concurrently funny, illuminating and insightful. Continue reading “Something worth reading.”

Remember the Ladies

“You have to know the past to understand the present.”
― Carl Sagan

Recently I have been reading a variety of correspondence between the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. In addition to being an unequivocal wealth of historical insight, the letters are surprisingly effective at humanising figures spoken of by most in the same breath as gods. It is a curious inversion of the laws of optics that the distance of time makes great men legends.
However, it seems that this rather pleasant order is upended with great women the same temporal distance from the present. So I felt the urge to help distribute the history of one such woman and ask for others to follow.
Continue reading “Remember the Ladies”