Shunsuke Matsumoto, Landscape with Bare Trees, 1938.
In light of the sad outcome of yesterday’s election, here are some excerpts from our Writers at Work interviews that might offer solace, or inspiration, or a cudgel against complacency.
People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.
—Marilynne Robinson, 2008
It is not possible for me to be unaware of the incredible violence, the willful ignorance, the hunger for other people’s pain. I’m always conscious of that though I am less aware of it under certain circumstances—good friends at dinner, other books. Teaching makes a big difference, but that is not enough. Teaching could make me into someone who is complacent, unaware, rather than part of the solution. So what makes me feel as though I belong here out in this world is not the teacher, not the mother, not the lover, but what goes on in my mind when I am writing. Then I belong here and then all of the things that are disparate and irreconcilable can be useful. I can do the traditional things that writers always say they do, which is to make order out of chaos. Even if you are reproducing the disorder, you are sovereign at that point. Struggling through the work is extremely important—more important to me than publishing it.
—Toni Morrison, 1993
I think writers are not only writers, they are also citizens. They are generally adults. My position is that serious and good art has always existed to help, to serve, humanity. Not to indict. I don’t see how art can be called art if its purpose is to frustrate humanity. To make humanity uncomfortable, yes. But intrinsically to be against humanity, that I don’t take. This is why I find racism impossible, because this is against humanity. Some people think, Well, what he’s saying is we must praise his people. For God’s sake! Go and read my books. I don’t praise my people. I am their greatest critic. Some people think my little pamphlet, The Trouble with Nigeria, went too far. I’ve got into all kinds of trouble for my writing. Art should be on the side of humanity.
—Chinua Achebe, 1994
Women are obliged to play at being what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis. I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well-balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.
—Simone de Beauvoir, 1965
People who differ from one another or draw lines between each other on matters of “taste” are a part of the class society, just as surely as wealth and power are parts of it. These are more than manners, in a society; these things politicize us. By demonstrating how Americans discriminate we are also being political, as writers. And as long as we have presidents who lie to us—who use language as irresponsibly as President Reagan uses it—we’ll be political just by using language clearly. But I’m getting tired of blaming Reagan for being Reagan; the American people have to take responsibility for this man—they wanted him; they wanted him twice … This is very troubling to writers; we couldn’t have a president as irresponsible as this if the American people paid attention to language. The news is: language doesn’t matter. But writers make language matter; we describe exactly. You see? Even caring about language becomes “political.”
—John Irving, 1986
Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire, subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; It finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? I guess we can hang on and encourage each other, dig in, protest in every peaceful way possible, and hope that people are better than they seem. We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourcefulness. I still believe in this country, that it can fulfill the destiny Blake and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.
—Philip Levine, 1988
I was writing before politics impinged itself upon my consciousness. In my writing, politics comes through in a didactic fashion very rarely … the real influence of politics on my writing is the influence of politics on people. Their lives, and I believe their very personalities, are changed by the extreme political circumstances one lives under in South Africa. I am dealing with people; here are people who are shaped and changed by politics. In that way my material is profoundly influenced by politics.
—Nadine Gordimer, 1983
The need to restore warmth to people’s lives is our most imperative task. This alone can save us, save the whole planet.
—Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1965
Don’t be tyrannized by the part of yourself that’s only interested in elsewhere … One is going to feel different things at different times. As Emerson said, “Our moods do not believe in each other.”
There’s a mood in which you’ll feel, This is a terrible fact about life. We’re always going to be preoccupied by what we’re missing, by what we’ve lost, and there’s no way around it. And in other moods we can think, Well, that’s what it is to live a life, so get used to it, that’s the point. That’s not a problem, it’s the point.
—Adam Phillips, 2014
The greatest compliment I receive is when people walk up to me on the street or in airports and say, Miss Angelou, I wrote your books last year and I really—I mean I read … That is it—that the person has come into the books so seriously, so completely, that he or she, black or white, male or female, feels, That’s my story. I told it. I’m making it up on the spot. That’s the great compliment.
—Maya Angelou, 1990
Bro, we’re living in the Kali Yuga, a Dark Age of petite bourgeoisie ideology, a petite bourgeoisie ideology whose resources and ruses are infinite and which ubiquitously permeates the world—high culture, low culture, bien-pensant media, prestige literature, pop music, commerce, sports, academia, you name it. The only reasonable response to this situation is to maintain an implacable antipathy toward everything. Denounce everyone. Make war against yourself. Guillotine all groveling intellectuals. That said, I think it’s important to maintain a cheery disposition. This will hasten the restoration of Paradise. I’ve memorized this line from André Breton’s magnificent homage to Antonin Artaud—“I salute Antonin Artaud for his passionate, heroic negation of everything that causes us to be dead while alive.” Given the state of things, that’s what we need to be doing, all the time—negating everything that causes us to be dead while alive.
—Mark Leyner, 2013
I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain? … For us, the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning. The clue to this can be found in folklore, which offers the first drawings of any group’s character. It preserves mainly those situations which have repeated themselves again and again in the history of any given group. It describes those rites, manners, customs, and so forth, which insure the good life, or destroy it; and it describes those boundaries of feeling, thought, and action which that particular group has found to be the limitation of the human condition. It projects this wisdom in symbols which express the group’s will to survive; it embodies those values by which the group lives and dies. These drawings may be crude, but they are nonetheless profound in that they represent the group’s attempt to humanize the world. It’s no accident that great literature, the product of individual artists, is erected upon this humble base.
—Ralph Ellison, 1955
We’re now in the twenty-first century and have seen so many metatheories fail that we’re very skeptical, appropriately skeptical, of all of them. But I think we’re still in search of them and always will be, because we apprehend that there is coherence in the universe. We understand that what appears chaotic is merely the result of a limited point of view. If you can view chaos itself from God’s eye, you can see great patterns. Everybody from Aristotle and Plato to Wallace Stevens has written about this.
The point is to pierce the veil of illusion and see underneath to the skeleton, to the infrastructure, to the plumbing, and see how this stuff is actually made and how the magic effect is produced. You can’t live as anything other than history’s fool if you don’t make an effort to do that. I mean, you will always wind up being history’s fool—it’s not like you’re going to get out of it—but the only hope we have is for people not to be literal readers, not to be fundamentalist readers, and to understand that, from the Holy Scriptures on, the whole point is to interpret and to understand. I think theater forces you to do that.
—Tony Kushner, 2012
Culture is continuously adapting to new situations. There will probably be a different culture, but there will be a culture. After the fall of the Roman Empire there were centuries of profound transformations—linguistic, political, religious, cultural. These types of changes happen ten times as quickly now. But thrilling new forms will continue to emerge and literature will survive.
—Umberto Eco, 2008
I learned some new words on this tour. Speeding!—I like this word. I didn’t know it before. And I always knew the word fuck off, but I didn’t know fuckup. So on this trip, I have two new knowledges: Speeding and fuckup. Fuckup I like very much.
You tell a fuckup to fuck off.
—Andrei Voznesensky, 1980
Akhmatova I never met. She died in ’66 and I never encountered her, but she’s an old friend of mine in spirit. She taught me something, taught me the possibility of dealing quite directly with the most painful experiences … Requiem 1935–40 is a good example. The background of the poem was excruciating, and yet out of it she made a poem that is personal at its immediate level but universal in its ultimate form. It transcends the personal by viewing the historic occasion through the lens of individual suffering. Nothing is diminished in her poems: all her adversities and humiliations. She wrote with such burning and scrupulous intensity that she became part of the historic process itself—its conscience and its voice.
—Stanley Kunitz, 1982
“To N. V. Rikov-Gukovski,” by Anna Akhmatova, from issue no. 26 (Summer–Fall 1961):
All is despoiled, abandoned, sold; Death’s wing has swept the sky of color; All’s eaten by a hungry dolor. What is this light which we behold?
Odors of cherry-blossom sigh From the rumored forest beyond the town. At night, new constellations crown The high, clear heavens of July.
Closer it comes, and closer still To houses ruinous and blind: Some marvellous thing yet undivined, A fiat of the century’s will.
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