After giving the commencement address to the class of 1952 for the Bennett College Homemaking Institute (since simply rechristened Bennett College), a historically black, all-female college in North Carolina, Ralph Ellison wrote to his long-time friend and literary confidante Albert Murray that the experience was unlike anything else he had ever had to do. Ellison wrote of being escorted about campus by the college’s president, a brusque, post-emotional man, who happened also to be a reverend and preferred that moniker, as well as by a fleet of young women who knew Ellison’s novel well, yet seemed to regard him as a reputable individual nonetheless. Of the reverend-slash-president, Ellison’s feelings sharpened as he entered the church where he was to give the commencement; the organ’s first furtive notes called back feelings for him of his Oklahoma upbringing, of love and rage and sadness at just how corrupt and disillusioning the world that college and church culls from and sends its progeny back to truly is. And, Ellison wrote, the reverend looked at him hard, as if to say, “Don’t start no shit now.”
And he gave his speech, Ellison wrote, with his voice breaking over the words, for then, for the first time, he realized that the distance between shaman and seeker required a certain performative grace to cross and connect. If the shaman worked only from raw emotion, that emotion itself would break.
Someone had been foolish enough to entitle the talk, “Finding Peace Through Artistic Experiences,” and Ellison tried to be up front with his audience; tried to tell them that there was no peace, in the conventional sense of that word, in art, but only a fighting chance with the chaos of living, and that the world that they lived in was full of four-flushing con artists whose business it was to sap the life spirit, not to mention the creative will, from them for the sake of status and profit and little else.
Two points of order:
First, there is that beautiful phrase, “a fighting chance with the chaos of living.” For life itself is risk. There is no avoiding life and therefore no avoiding the risks it requires, that, in fact, it forces upon us. Good art rarely is any sort of escape from chaos. At best, it can serve as catharsis, but the cost of that artistic catharsis is a full re-staging of the crisis. Being an artist, especially a writer, entails not just confrontation, but a long, slow, patient involvement with that which is most difficult for us. Often the path into good writing leads directly through territory that, if not for this urge to re-tell the traumatic, we would leave behind in the space somewhere between memory and forgetting.
Second point: there’s a kind of deficit thinking around writing that I want to avoid. Stories are more than just a jumble of injustices and indignities. And perhaps, beyond the in-laid brilliance of vivid or pristine language, of deeply understood characters and the like, there is also something subtly gained by the writer in the writing process. This is counter-intuitive, at least for me, because writing drains me. It requires tapping the reservoirs of memory and of feelings since transcended. It is a reverse transcendence by which I can come upon, remember, and relate in the guise of story, across the analogy that connects the real to the fictive, what I have known. It is a knowing again— and it takes from me reserves I fear cannot be regained. Yet what does arise in place of that newfound lack and loss is that fighting chance, the realization that I can take hold of raw experience and make something out of it, a story, a statement, a moment. Maybe even a book.
It requires courage, the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote in Between Past and Future, simply to venture beyond our four walls. That is where risk in the adult sense starts. The entry into a world that has no regard for us, where we play in the knowledge of certain defeat, at the mercy of time and nature— not to mention those four-flushing scammers who are actively making the world a less idealistic, more suspicious, less tolerant, more closed and cornered place.
Yes, 2016 was, in the words of another great black intellectual, the comedian Deezus Nice, the year of the scammer. That is no revelation right now, but change the lens through which we look at ourselves just a bit, transport yourself back to 2015, or to a time in the future when histories will be written about this strange tidal wave in time, and think about how those versions of ourselves in the near past or distant future would (and will) look upon this moment where we find ourselves so totally swindled from so many sides— Macedonian teenagers even getting in on the act, for heaven’s sake.
My friends, we are living through a lot; a roll call of outright cons and covert four-flushing that beggars description. The worst are filled with righteous intensity, or however that line from Yeats goes, and it feels some days, depending on the newspaper headline, like we might not be slouching, but rather running break neck toward Bethlehem. We all have internet access, so I will trust in the general social consciousness and will not count for you the ways that we have been done in by malign individuals in pursuit of power, people who’ve seen fit to sacrifice everything, including the language that people like us prize so highly, in order to further their own less than noble ends. We are reminded that the Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times,” is intended not as a blessing, but a curse.
What I would like to narrow in on and contemplate is the capacity of well-wrought language to counter the dishonesty that is having its tragicomic way with us, captured as we have been and taken unwillingly along on a sort of laugh-tracked tour of a cemetery with tombstones that read, “Here lies academic freedom,” “Here lies the NEA,” and, “Rest In Peace to the 4th estate.”
The honest reckonings of individuals, the capacity for justice in a society, and a language that is deft, honed, clear and beautiful, are all very much connected. Which makes our role as writers, whether we are writing determinist realism out of the school of Dreiser and Sister Souljah, or gonzo non-fiction in the tradition of Hunter Thompson and Charlie LeDuff, whether we are memoirists or fantasists or poets or playwrights or practice the dark arts of sci-fi and speculative fiction, vitally important in this moment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about language and societies. I’m working on a multimedia museum exhibit about the suppression of literature in societies where the powers that be reckon it would be better if people would see and know much, much less. We have two specific cases in point, but really, whether the stage is antebellum America under the shadow of Southern slavery and Northern disregard and the book is David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, or current day Northeast Nigeria, where anti-intellectual power-mongers cloak themselves in religion in order to justify their thirst for power, or any other place on our turbulent map, what is consistent is that meaning in words begins to die. The evidence of one’s eyes, that most cherished of literary abilities, to see the world fresh and describe it as if one is coming new to it, these words the first that have ever been uttered, with all the heady excitement and archetypal import that such a status entails— originality, specificity and care in language — is discarded in favor of volumes and volumes of verbiage, the sole intent of which is to render meaning meaningless.
The slaves are happy because we say they are. Never mind whatever they tell you, or what you might see in raw wounded flesh before you. The record can always be re-written, information exchanged for other information, history substituted for other history. In this world where words do not really matter, illiteracy has always had a wider meaning than the simple ignorance of symbols. It is the disastrous inability to see and explain what sits before us. The slaves are happy because that man or that book says they are. The organized rebellion recently put down was not organized and was not a rebellion, but rather the happenstance of savages and psychotics given too much idle time from their destiny of hewing wood and drawing water, because it has been told to us that that was what it was— no matter the blood running in the road. Back to work. Back to sleep.
The poem, the novel, those words, the righteous men in masks with machine guns tell you, are more than simply a waste of time, they are a decadent vestige of the besotted elites, of the debauched West. No good revolutionary, no good patriot, no good Muslim, no good Christian (recall, Tolstoy, once saved, condemned his own novels) would ever write in such a fashion, let alone read such trash. Back to work. Back to sleep.
As for us, here, who knows. We gotta stay woke, because what we have is still very much a privilege. We have this moment. We have so much.
We have our books, as many as we can purchase or borrow from friends and lovers and the forgetful, or cull from the deep caverns of our own minds, to be written once we allow ourselves back into that space of crisis where fear and desire and revelation are born. We have our words, which even when they are stolen from us and turned in on themselves, still burn with the indignity of that dispossession.
We are fully heir to all that has come before us, from pre-Christian and non-Western faiths put to paper, to the holy books, to those revelations we call poems, novels, plays, that godless men like myself call pieces of truth. We have so much still waiting for us to write.
I mentioned Arendt a while ago but told only the half, for that passage continues thus: It is courage, the philosopher writes, that liberates us from the worry over life, for the freedom of the world. For in politics, she writes, not life, but the world is at stake.
In art, of course, each singular human life is the world— the world in a grain of sand. So, even more is at stake: life and the world, both.
With basic reality and the evidence of our eyes as contested as ever, words, clean, sharp, clearly articulated words, will more and more appear as brilliant as the sunrise and as necessary as its revelations. Our most well-chosen words have always been a kind of courage and a difficult and necessary form of freedom. The story continues.
— Delivered Winter, 2017, Port Townsend, Washington