Kingsley Amis advised his son Martin not to be a writer because he’d end up wandering around the house in his dressing gown trying to think of the right word. A.M. Klein says of the poet, “stark infelicity/. . . stirs him from his sleep.” This is what writers do. We wander the house half-dressed in search of felicity. We don’t sleep well. We play around and play around, we wait and we procrastinate, we try this and we try that, until we get it right. The words, the line breaks, the details of character, of plot, the sound, the rhythm, every detail fitting, appropriate, relevant, happy, felicitous, right. And each time something clicks into place—even though we know it will probably need to be cut because we’ve made other changes and everything is related to everything else—we’re home.
So there’s that. But I have a friend who some days can’t leave the house. It’s not the neighbourhood, it’s the world. He’s a writer, who writes out of rage and despair at the dreadfulness of it all. He didn’t smile when I told him Pascal said man’s misery stems from his not being able to stay in his room. When I mentioned Edmund Wilson’s description of a writer—“The victim of a malodorous disease which renders him abhorrent to society and periodically degrades him and makes him helpless is also master of a superhuman art which everybody has to respect and which the normal man finds he needs”—he just laughed.
In Canada, only some readers and reviewers abhor and degrade some of us, sometimes. Society is well-disposed enough, when it notices. But if it doesn’t abhor us, we may abhor it or at least what it condones and like my friend on some days have trouble leaving the house. How many writers woke up the morning after September 11 to projects that would no longer do? What words could click into place for us now? Nine/eleven didn’t happen in Canada, but its effects did. And then there was Harper, and more recently Trump, and sixty-five million refugees of war, and meanwhile the mass extinction of life on the planet. One effect has been a politicising of the cultural atmosphere. Another kind of politicising, of literary theory and education, began in Canadian universities in the mid-seventies, though it’s been only recently, as those students have grown up in the world they’ve grown up in, that emulations of Alice Munro have given way to texts radical in more overt and varied ways. But since 9/11, perhaps because by the end of the century there was hope that literature could speak to and not simply mirror entrenched social injustice, there has been despair.
Even Zadie Smith, at Harbourfront in the fall of 2015—after reading from Middlemarch about how knowing and feeling all ordinary human life would be like hearing the grass grow and the beating of the squirrel’s heart, it would kill us, and so the “quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”—said that while people have taken from this the “literary idea” that more empathy would make the world a better place, George Eliot is simply being realistic about our moral limits. Human empathy is fickle, Smith concluded, it comes and goes, and if we want change we must depend not on “human sentiment” but on legislation and the law.
To argue that we should look to the life-saving virtue of our stupidity and to our legislators for change is to reject Eliot’s belief that art, by extending human sympathy, is our means to moral progress. But legislation for change, really? In a market-driven society? It’s been more than a century since Marcel Proust described “that abominable and sensual act called reading the newspaper,”
thanks to which all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last twenty-four hours, the battles which cost the lives of fifty thousand men, the murders, the strikes, the bankruptcies, the fires, the poisonings, the suicides, the divorces, the cruel emotions of statesmen and actors, are transformed for us, who don’t even care, into a morning treat, blending in wonderfully, in a particularly exciting and tonic way, with the recommended ingestion of a few sips of café au lait.
Who don’t even care. That’s the intention. We’re not meant to. That way nothing will change. To judge from the twentieth century and the first two decades of this one, things will only get worse. And meanwhile what are writers? Buskers in the marketplace, consoling the shoppers, leaving the dreadfulness of it all to the politicians, the lawyers, and the CBC?
I would say that Zadie Smith is directing our attention too far downstream. The barbarism isn’t out there, held at bay until brought to heel by government and the law, while artists, safe in here, cultivate our sentiments. It all exists inside each of us at every moment. Literature attends to the reality, the truth, of that. Here’s Eliot, again from Middlemarch: “Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.” Like some ancient Greek, literature is interested in those poor little eyes, those timorous lips more or less under anxious control. Why? Because otherwise they’re obscured by a speaking-trumpet.
Literature focuses attention on what is happening upstream, at the fountainhead, where the problem originates, in the human mind. Legislation can keep us relatively safe for a while, but without continuing insight into our nature the legislation will erode, becoming ever more selective about who and what it keeps safe, and at some point, even here, as nine years of Harper reminded us, it certainly won’t be keeping safe people who don’t work for the firm.
The reason, beyond good luck, that I directed the Writing Studio at the Banff Centre for eighteen years was the writers who come there as participants and faculty. These are people, mostly Canadian, most in their late twenties and thirties but also older, into their seventies, who are thinking for themselves about what it means to be in the world. If they’re poets they’re thinking about what it means to be alive, sensuously, socially, mentally. If they’re story-tellers they’re thinking about what it means to be a person emotionally connected to other people. These are writers, who, like all people who think for themselves, live by their own lights. For some it’s all they have, but it’s everything.
Most years at Banff I found a way to mention Gregory Bateson’s observation that only a human can relate a theory or name a thing. If your cat meows when she’s hungry, she’s not theorizing, she’s not naming food, she’s saying I depend on you [so feed me]. Bateson’s point is that as humans we think of ourselves as mainly engaged in the first kind of relating, but our dominant concern—befitting the animals we are—is the second. What we’re talking about matters little to us compared to our relationship with the person we’re talking to. Let’s say we think the ratio is 80-20%, but it’s more like 20-80%. Are we making a good impression? Do they like us? To this I would add that this fault in the rock face of our worldview, this chronic blindness to the animal primacy for us of our relations with others, is also the site of entry into art. If art is superhuman it’s because the animal is bigger for us than the human. In fiction or at the theatre, the audience pays attention to what the character is saying not for what it says about the world but for what it says about what she needs, socially and emotionally, in her relations with other people and the world. Irony, metaphor, metonymy. Artists use A to signify B. Joseph Conrad said art is indirectness. It’s the unsayable by the human alone.
The human mind is conditioned to think of itself as under the control of an agent capable of understanding what’s going on and therefore able to protect and extend its power. The self is how the mind commits to what it thinks it is and knows. It’s a strange-loop doubling-down. The artist—something like the sceptical, self-deprecating, bemused Canadian she sometimes is—has been blessed with the intuition that her mind does not know what it thinks it knows, and moreover it’s not alone in this error. This is why she has nothing of instrumental, political use to offer the conditioned mind (not even her own), unless it’s I don’t know. In the 1880s, Anton Chekhov put it this way:
The time has come for writers, especially those who are artists, to admit that in this world one cannot make anything out, just as Socrates once admitted it, just as Voltaire admitted it. The mob think they know and understand everything; the more stupid they are, the wider, I think, do they conceive their horizon to be. And if an artist in whom the crowd has faith decides to declare that he understands nothing of what he sees—this in itself constitutes a considerable clarity in the realm of thought, and a great step forward.
Chekhov is talking about a clarity-of-mind step forward, not a legislated one. Clarity of mind is why and how the literary writer watches and listens, knowing nothing. A conscious animal is not into providing answers of any kind. A meow is a wide open message signifying nothing except relationship. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not an answer to anything. D H Lawrence says that if you try to nail anything down in the novel, either it kills the novel or the novel gets up and walks away with the nail. Literature will always walk away with the nail. It knows that the nail is only an abstraction, a belief, inimical to the artistic endeavour. Like the personal, art can have a powerful political effect, but that is not to say art is political. Political means the marketplace, where things are supposedly known that are not known. They’re hardly noticed. Who’s got the time? There’s always breaking news! It’s the market! Art is about paying attention to what is actually going on for people. It’s not about confidence in government and the law, which are fatal to it. This is why speaking-trumpet expectations of artists frightened Chekhov:
I am afraid of those . . . determined to regard me either as a liberal or a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist [believer that all religions are equally valid]. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more . . . .
Consider the animal. Here is J. M. Coetzee on a great ape in a cage:
At every turn Sultan is driven to think the less interesting thought. From the purity of speculation (Why do men behave like this?) he is relentlessly propelled towards lower, practical, instrumental reason (How does one use this to get that?) and thus towards acceptance of himself as primarily an organism with an appetite that needs to be satisfied . . . In his deepest being, Sultan is not interested in the banana problem. . . . The question that truly occupies him, as it occupies the rat and the cat and every other animal trapped in the hell of the laboratory or the zoo is: Where is home and how do I get there?
Where is home and how do I get there? This is same question asked by the human animal trapped inside a conditioned mind. Where is home and how do I get there?
Now that the reality of climate change has started to sink in, there has been a shift, visible in concepts like the Anthropocene, toward understanding the human in the context of not only the animal but all life on the planet. This can only be a good thing. But not in the marketplace, where this larger ecological awareness is being framed in the language of rights, which is “human” talk, not about a relationship (we are doing the planet a grievous injustice) but about an object desirable for the injured party to have, or be awarded. So we’re conferring rights on rivers and talking about personhood for chimpanzees.
Clearly, this is a matter too unsayable for the politicians and the courts, who will ensure that nothing changes because what is done will be done arbitrarily and piecemeal. Absurdly. Literature has understood for centuries what is at stake here. Witting animal talk, conscious animal talk, cognizant of the primary reality of relationship in the life of all animals including the human, is not about rights but about obligations. Not an abstraction to be pursued and possessed the way we pursue and possess a piece of property but the honouring and maintaining the network of our actual relationships. Like the other animals, we are social creatures. Rights talk is government/law/business/media/market talk. It’s a way to sell humane behaviour, by turning what should be a galvanizing injustice into marketable emotion, marketable power. It’s a way to go on not even caring. How much easier to confer rights on people we’re oppressing than to stop discriminating against and incarcerating and otherwise mentally setting them aside. Let the government and the police and the courts deal with it. The last thing the problem can be is that we as individual human beings are plainly failing to fulfill our obligations to other human beings. It shouldn’t be surprising that in a rights paradigm, other animals and the planet hardly register. To engage in rights talk is to create a hierarchy of the oppressed, in which the most clamorous win the most compensation. No wonder impostors. No wonder life in the full death grip of the market, with no voice at all—the life of the animals, of the forests, of the seas—needs advocacy groups and teams of lawyers, or we will destroy it as fast as we can.
Rights are a pragmatic, political tool in a market society. The unsayable isn’t sellable. Religions break it down into articles of faith and sell it that way, and then come the rivers of blood. Art isn’t an agent for anything, not the Church, not rights, not the Bank of Montreal, not Canadian Tire, not leaders and their sunny ways. The nail is an abstraction, belief disguised as reality. Art comes out of a felt sense of human obligation, of what is going on in the heart, in those poor little eyes peeping, in what that anxious control of those quivering lips looks and feels like. Art is also about the speaking-trumpet, but it’s not it. It’s about the unsayable. Once my wife Rosa overheard someone on the bus say to the person beside him, “I don’t know what that means at all, but I think you’re saying something I understand.” That person could have been talking to a writer, or to any artist, or to any human being who was even a little bit off-script.
As artists, we’re not trying to make a picture of how things are. Sometimes our work is felt in the world, provoking the market to accommodate the tremor. What we’re focused on is something different. We’re conditioned beings who are trying to go home, and that means private digging. Celan says, “There was earth inside them, and they dug.” That’s us. We’re writing drafts, we’re performing a succession of replacements, we’re digging deeper and deeper as we excavate our own models, our own superficiality, our own commonplaces, banalities and clichés, burrowing down through the wadding of our stupidity, the language of the conditioned mind, of the unwittingly-animal human that we spend our days inside and that is inside us like a debilitating fog. We dig in order to come at what we haven’t ever quite been able to say before, in order make something that feels fresh and new and right and intelligent to ourselves, and—with enough work and luck—to others. We can sense it glimmering, deep down. The closer we get to it the closer we are to home. This is happiness, the kind that every artist knows.
I don’t have trouble leaving the house, first, yes, because this is Canada, legislation is still in place—as a six-foot white male and not, say, a woman of colour, I walk out with a childlike lack of fear of assault, not in this neighbourhood anyway, though I am getting old, so that day could come—but also because I know I carry it all inside me anyway, and not just the seeds of it, and not just because I’m a writer, and also because I’m not writing to reflect it or to provide solutions, because I have none. To regret this or to pretend I have one would be an error, just as it would be an error to give up in despair. This is not a matter of the forces of barbarism being too powerful or art too weak, but of art being not about answers but about the fact of the primacy for human beings of relationship and the implications of that, the obligations that arise from that. I need to go out there, not in order to name but in order to discover appropriate ways of pointing to the world, of elevating aspects of it to attention, to relevance, of saying meow and woof like a would-be conscious animal addressing a by-and-large, like myself most of the time, unwitting one, who will have no idea what I mean but who I hope, for the sake of us both, and of every plant, animal, and human on the planet, will understand. This is only what art has always done and always will do. It’s not useless. These days it might look useless. A marginal activity. Busking in the marketplace. It’s not that, it’s work at the rock face, it’s everything.
From “Where Is Home and How Do I Get There?,” in Luminous Ink: Writers on Writing in Canada, ed. Tessa McWatt, Rabindranath Maharaj, and Dionne Brand (Cormorant Books: Toronto, 2018)