I hope you will indulge me this evening, as an audience, and allow me to direct most of what I have to say to the recipients of these remarkable and generous awards. These are pats on the back from a discerning group of people.
It is the conceit of nearly every generation that their times are fraught as no other times before them have been. Within the fetch of our own times we can point to the Depression, the war that followed the war we said would end all wars, ocean acidification, and the current financial firestorm, to select nearly at random. As a culture, we’ve become so accepting of the pivotal importance of our own time that we have, many of us, lost almost entirely the calming perspective that can come from looking back over the whole show, back beyond Bach composing his B-Minor mass, past Copernicus’s reimaginings, Julius Caesar at the Rubicon, and Hammurabi writing out his code of law. If you will, let me go all the way back to Altamira, and Magdalenian phase, Cro-Magnon women and men offering their small communities the guiding patterns of life we’ve come to call “stories.” These miniature landscapes of psychology and insight, these seamless evocations of angst and awe, are the compressions of history and emotion we have believed, through the ages, we can live by.
If we look back over the whole of human history, at the horror of enduring war, from Alexander moving east out of Macedonia, up through Tamerlane to the so-called “Indian wars” that cleared North America of most of its resident peoples, we find that which makes us profoundly ashamed but, with, say, Bach or Monet or Nadine Gordimer, also that which makes us feel elevated—a capable, imaginative, and just species.
The to-and-fro of grace and mendacity in our history is so well known to most of us that a high school student—well, perhaps not any longer—could trace it. We are used to the pattern. We believe, many of us, that even as the stakes are raised, and the scale of horror reaches the size of Birkenau, we will endure and triumph. Reprobates in government, we believe, thieves in business, those with perverse appetites of every kind, will be brought to bay, isolated and punished. This infrequently happens, of course, and that gives literature one of its oldest and most compelling themes, in the form of two familiar questions: Who are we? and Where are we going?
If you will indulge me again, and I know I am not alone, now, in thinking this, I believe this pattern of endurance against darkness is about to change. In cancer wards we’re facing the bill for the Industrial Revolution. The seas are rising. And it’s hard to keep track of the diasporas. And with these changes may come some other order of business for writers and artists.
We are, all of us in this room I think, so familiar now with the specter of what is looming, and so overwhelmed by the complex particulars of it, that to bring certain aspects of this international disaster up at all is to risk trying everyone’s patience. It’s like having too many lit matches fall on your skin. But out there on the horizon are implacable and enormous threats to our physical and mental well-being, the like of which humanity has known before only in a very limited way, like the Black Plague in Europe in the 1300s. Global climate change, of course. But pick a lesser known menace, the inadvertent disturbance of viral ecologies, which has recently brought Lassa, Marburg, Ebola, Hanta, and AIDS viruses to our attention. What these phenomena have in common is that they are completely indifferent to our fate. These are unanticipated developments, part of the esoterica of reality we keep stumbling over in our quest for control and meaning.
What I want to suggest here is that it will take something altogether different in us, something beyond contemporary certitudes, beyond our faith in types of exceptionalism, beyond the election of a worthy president, if we are to successfully hold ourselves out to historians as a wise and courageous and compassionate people.
It may seem gratuitous to state that we have hard work ahead, but that doesn’t make the observation any less true or imperative. Whatever our callings, as mothers, as teachers, as writers, as women and men in business, as philanthropists and explorers and caretakers of culture, we can shape a response. We can measure our beliefs, measure our energy, measure our immediate and pressing responsibilities, and respond. Though, of course, no one has to.
It is a peculiar trait of our species, I believe, to worry, to the extent we have, historically, over what will happen to future generations. We worry about our children’s fate and about opportunities for our grandchildren these days, but the tyranny of the present, the attenuation of history that comes with privileging the present, has made us shortsighted. If we could see further back and further forward, we would be less prone to grief, less anxious, less lonely.
So, with this urging of a broader perspective, I would like to offer a few thoughts tonight to the recipients of these prestigious awards. Your names will now be noted, and there will be expectations. I would urge you to forget, from this moment on, everyone’s expectations. I would ask you not to fall into the trap of believing your work has to speak to the kind of plight I have alluded to here. The practical urgency that I have suggested is now upon us is of a different order than the urgency that compels you to write. For a writer to ask one’s imagination to do the work of his or her reasoning mind is, sometimes, a recipe for disaster.
You’re here this evening because each of you sees something in the spectrum of visible light that the rest of us do not see. If we read you, and can attune ourselves to your language and imagery, we will know more of the world. And having read you, we will conceivably have been reminded of something essential to life but which we have forgotten.
When I was a boy, I lived around the corner from this library, on East 35th Street, between Park and Lexington. I didn’t know, of course, that I would become a writer. You will all now be asked, if you have not been already, what led you to become a writer, and if it goes for you as it has for me, you will offer an answer that is meant only to put an end to that question. Some passion, some ineluctable longing, some species of love pulls us into this. It is inscrutable, why we do this, though at various times in our lives we seem to have an answer. In the years after I first walked into these rooms as a boy, standing out there in the foyer, intimidated by the glory and the history that is here, I did wonder what it meant to be a storyteller—the artful saying of what one imagines, work that includes poetry as well as prose.
What does that kind of person, a storyteller, do?
For many years I made direct inquiries about storytelling in my travels, among Inuit people in Canada, among Warlpiri people in the Northern Territory of Australia, among Kamba people in Kenya. I spoke with storytellers in Japan and China, in Europe and South America. Without making too fine a point of this—because writers with one frame of mind about storytelling might bristle in the presence of writers with another frame of mind—it seems to me that all writers work within the tradition of storytelling, and that, further, storytellers are primarily pattern makers, and also the keepers of proven patterns. They are, in the phrase of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, “the servants of memory.” Our Achilles heel as a species has always been that we forget. And my own belief about this is that story arose early in our history as a response to this cultural problem, to the danger of forgetting, and also to the fear that comes over us when we realize that it is because we forget that our plans to improve the present so often go awry.
It is not necessary, in fact I think it is rare, for a storyteller or a writer to be a wise person. What is essential to the work is that the writer be able to create a trustworthy pattern, and to set that pattern out in a modern idiom, a pattern of thoughts and emotions and scenes that serves the reader in her effort to remember who she is, what she means by her life, and where she is going.
One striking thing that has emerged for me in discussions with other writers about the social dimension of our work, and which has also emerged in discussions with storytellers from indigenous traditions—which would include, for myself and for many others in this room, those Madgalenian storytellers and their progeny—is that the distinction in prose between fiction and nonfiction, though logical and even useful, is not as important as the distinction to be made between an authentic and an inauthentic story. An authentic story is about us. About our dreams and our fate. An inauthentic story is only about the storyteller. Each of you has a vision. We hope you all will nurture and protect that vision, and remember that we, too, have dreams and a fate when we read you.
I come here this evening as a colleague, as someone who shares with you a very old kind of work, as someone who sees how essential it is, in a complex society like ours, that we not be in agreement. I do not ask you to see the world the way I do but only to see the world, to engage it according to your gifts and predilections. Our road is treacherous now, as Cormac McCarthy delineated it recently. We have little to guide us but love, and our ability to remember. Every day we look for reconciliation—within ourselves, within our families, within Sudan and Iraq, and between the populations of ethnic territories. We need stories that help. We need stories that revive in our psyches a sense of wonder, a sense not so much of what specifically is possible but a sense, simply, of possibility.
Insofar as you are able, I would ask you, then, to be wary of the distractions of fame and the blandishments of commerce. I would ask you to be tireless and devoted in the courtship of your own imagination. I would ask you to take care of your friendships, your allegiance with other human beings. If you feel grief or rage or love, give it a shape so that we as readers will know what you mean, and be able to better understand, better cope with, the landscapes of our own grief and rage and love.
Once, some years ago, I was walking across an immensity of space, the arctic tundra in Alaska. I was with my close friend, the composer John Luther Adams. We had been talking, off and on, about the ways in which music and language might place a person, ground a listener or a reader, in a particular geographic place, give them a point of reference, a stable floor within a complex work of art, within a short story or a cello suite. It’s difficult to explain how this might happen in a musical composition, because in that medium the rendering of the effort to communicate is so figurative. With writing, the rendering is more literal. So John and I were talking about what sort of music and language we might use together to convey the great intricacy of this seemingly empty landscape, the tundra. I said that whatever language we came up with, it would have to be recognizable though not necessarily intelligible. We walked on, and I said to John, “I would try it first, I think, in Latin. We could begin with the euphony of some of the scientific binomials here—Ursus horribilis for the grizzly bear. Corvus corax, the raven. A sedge, Carex misandra. Rangifer tarandus, the barren ground caribou. Salix planifolia pulchra, diamondleaf willow.”
We walked on; and something about the repetitive nature of our steps among the many, nearly identical tussocks of vegetation suggested to me a classical Latin phrase, peccata mundi, “the sins of the world.” We kept going, wondering about cadence in both language and music, and wondering if a presentation in a language that had actually grown up out of this landscape before us might work better—Gwich‘in or Iñupiaq. Indigenous phonemes and tones, then, might be a way through the dilemma of making this physical place comprehensible. But I kept coming back to peccata mundi, something of an idée fixe with me. And then a door opened.
“We’re talking about forcing light into darkness,” I said to John. “We’re trying to create light where there is neither wonder nor comprehension. If we begin with a cadence of darkness, peccata mundi, then how, following that, should we next suggest the light?”
We are still talking about this, how to deal unflinchingly with that darkness that both threatens and defines humanity, about how to combine our talents to that end, to write music and tell a story that helps. We have discovered a principle, however, according to which we can now organize our thoughts: Guadeamus igitur. Another Latin phrase. “And therefore let us rejoice.” Knowing how deeply threatening it all is, let us rejoice. Or, as the poet Adam Zagajewski has put it, let us learn to praise the mutilated world, to give into a shared fate.
It goes without saying this evening that you are talented and determined men and women, and that you have something to say. I would ask you to put aside for now the urgencies of this moment in time that we are all grappling with, and to concentrate instead on the different urgency you feel as an artist. We need that. We need, more than we can properly say, stories and poems that will stick. Write until your mind goes blank. Write until your heart is nothing but ashes.
Barry Lopez is best known as the author of Arctic Dreams, for which he received the National Book Award. Among his other nonfiction books are About This Life and Of Wolves and Men, which was a National Book Award finalist. He is also the author of several award-winning works of fiction, including Field Notes, Winter Count, and a novella-length fable, Crow and Weasel. Barry Lopez has received numerous awards and prizes, including the Honorary Geographer 2011 Award from the Association of American Geographers, as well as the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the John Burroughs and John Hay Medals, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, five National Science Foundation Fellowships, and a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, as well as Pushcart Prizes in fiction and nonfiction.
Photo by Nancy Crampton