Monday, February 25, 2008
Recipe: An Active Writer's Life
It helps to know what you want from life, and the more specific the better.
Early on, those writers who somehow melded meditation and action posed very positive models for this scribe.
Letters between Sartre and Camus on the French existential left were thrilling in their pointed jabs, simple presentation of complex arguments, and implication that what writers thought was not only important, but crucial to a society's direction.
South American writers who ran for Senate or president or parliamentary deputy took the Frenchmen's debates further; went beyond engaging the ideas of public policy to make policy itself.
In Spain, exiled poet Rafael Alberti returned upon the Franco regime's demise to represent the Spanish Communist Party in the first democratically parliament in some 40 years.
Alberti didn't really like the job, thought it too hard and mundane, but you get the point.
Spain was faced with the task of reinventing itself visa vis modernity and similar souls answered the call such as philosophy writer and professor, Enrique Tierno Galvan, leader of the Peoples' Socialist Party and the best mayor Madrid ever had.
Driving this scribe's life-long inclination was a sort of famous John F. Kennedy quote: "I've always felt that if more poets engaged politics and more politicians read poetry, the world would be a better place."
Shelley's designation of poets as "unacknowledged legislators" was another inspirational archetype so that frequent descents from the ivory tower into the political arena as journalist became well-established habits.
The recipe has always been fulfilling.
All of which leads to a very interesting article in an attractive environmental publication called, "Orion."
"Our Storied Future," written by Rebecca Solnit, dissects this phenomenon for writers and other bearers of the idea.
Her point of departure is the European tradition of opposites found in the vita contempliva and the vita activa.
The former, she writes, "gives us the depth, the ethics, the imagination, and the understanding to become active, to work for what we believe in. And action brings our contemplative work to life, gives it purpose and meaning."
When you spend your life shouting quietly (writing) from the margins of all activity and following little-used maps for existence, you can get quite excited when stumbling across a kindred spirit.
It was enough to call it a day, though it had just started, when this passage from the essay rose up and bit the eyes:
"I often joke that I want to be a Latin American intellectual -- a loose rubric for the remarkable contributions of Ariel Dorfman, Eduardo Galeano, Elena Poniatowska, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Subcomandante Marcos and many more writers from south of the border -- because these writers offer great examples of the union of the active and contemplative lives, the union of art and politics."
These writers, Solnit opines, refuse to see a dividing line between politics and art. "Apolitical art," she says, "and artless politics are the fruit of a divide-and-conquer strategy that weakens both; art and politics ignite each other and need each other."
She sees a variation of the dichotomy from those who feel the writer's proper posture, especially in the Anglo world, is that of cynic.
At the risk of running far afield, it may be worth pointing that there is a certain degree of this going on amongst intellectuals drawn by Senator Barack Obama's candidacy, but repulsed by their perceived duty to stand apart, and critique, rather than lend energies to a fledgling movement addressing the dichotomies now afflicting us.
This is not electioneering for Obama or an attempt to pull Solnit into his camp without permission, just to draw an immediate and concrete example for those wrestling with the proposition, which is airy and wrought of thought.
Solnit writes that cynicism itself is, not only naive in its insistence we play it safe since there's no change to be had, but handmaiden to despair, which is a luxury.
"If I despair I can drive a Yukon and watch bad television. Despair makes no demand upon us; hope demands everything."
The nut of her argument, for writers in action, is to meet the task of telling the world's story: "To write, to make art and film, to work as a journalist or an educator can be a radical act, one that blurs the lines between action and contemplation by employing ideas as tool to make the world as well as understand it."
By way of example, Solnit concedes the Zapatista insurgency in Chiapas, Mexico may have "lost" by conventional military criteria, but enjoyed a storytelling victory that, "inspired people around the world to rethink power, participation, revolution, and the possible in the most beautiful and unexpected way."
Specifically, Solnit asserts that before the Zapatista uprising in 1994, few people cared about corporate globalization and the economic forces shaping their lives, "but that has all changed, in part because of them."
The bait you lay determines the fish you pull in.
"Orion" came to the scribe, in the form of a free subscription, thanks to his paid membership in the Society of Environmental Journalists.
Closing rank with members of a shared craft to improve the trade's standards and better portray environmental realities was product of the vita activa inspired by Sartre and those Latin American intellectuals.
The reading of "Orion" was product of the vita contempliva.
This synthesis of Solnit's article, the product of her preaching, a marriage of the two.