Congratulations to all the Whiting Award winners. What a great prize. It just gives money. It’s terrific. Sometimes you get a nice plaque and then you’ve got to borrow money to put it in a frame or something. A good piece of change is just terrific to have. Because all a prize like this can do is buy time, and that’s the greatest gift that a writer can have.
In last Monday’s New York Times, the 27th of October, 2003, there was a piece by Alex Berenson that said, “The United States is doing everything it can to fight the Iraqi people’s fears. All over the city of Baghdad, the occupying authorities have put up large billboards featuring bucolic scenes of date palms arched over a riverbank. Inspirational messages are splashed over the pretty pictures. Baghdad is getting better.”
I wondered, don’t the Iraqi people feel a slight disconnect between the truth they see with their eyes around them and the truth that the billboards so grandly and proudly trumpet? I’ve been in London a lot lately, and have become very taken with the uncharacteristic British response to the action of an American magician who suspended himself over the Thames in a glass box for 44 days without any food.
What was surprising was the vehemence that this American magician’s action engendered. Police arrested people for trying to detach his breathing tubes. People pelted the glass box with eggs. People played loud music to prevent him from ever sleeping. It was an extraordinary 44 days of vehemence. I asked someone in the crowd as I was passing by why they were so angry at him. And this one man said, “Well, what’s he doing it for? If he was doing it for some reason, for world peace, or to protest something, I could see it, but he’s just hanging up there for no bloody reason.”
So walking away, thinking always about myself, I thought, is this a metaphor for me? I’m a writer. What do I stand for? Do I let my work just hang out over the stage without any comment, without any commitment? If this magician in the glass box did stand for some cause, no matter what it was, the war in Iraq or world hunger or trying to stop tearing down a building like Penn Station 40 years ago or trying to persuade somebody to love him, would his action change anything?
Change. Hmm. Aren’t we getting into politics? And I asked myself, am I political enough? Should I be more political in my work? I mean, we live in a society whose actions do affect us as writers. The Justice Department can subpoena library records to see who’s checked out what book, but it won’t do the same for people who buy guns because that would be an invasion of privacy and the right to bear arms.
So we writers are considered dangerous. What is written can be a threat to society. With the image of the starving magician on display over the Thames in a glass box I asked myself the question, can art make anything happen? Can we compel art to make anything happen? Yes? No? I thought of W.H. Auden, who writes in his great poem “In Memory of William Butler Yeats” the surprising lines, “Poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper, flows on south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
Poetry survives as way of happening, a mouth. I can only think of Samuel Beckett’s Not I, his great one-act play, the mouth trying to go on, the spotlight just on the actress’s mouth, or Happy Days, the heroine, Winnie, buried up to her neck in sand, trying to go on. Might a definition of art be no more than this, the record of how to survive on this planet?
T.S. Eliot, in his memorable essay “Tradition and Individual Talent,” writes about the last time the artist was a full-fledged member of the established society. In Shakespeare’s day, the people went to the theater for the same reasons we go to a doctor today. Audiences went to the Globe Theatre to see their problems acted out. Seeing emotions carried to the extreme helped audiences find the proper limits for their own lives.
But the artist today, the writer, us, how peripheral are we as he or she to the world we live in? And why are we considered dangerous? We, the artist, you and me, we can’t will something to happen. We don’t have that kind of power. No, the artist is somebody minding his own business, trying to make something out of nothing, whether it’s a writer or a painter or a musician. But politics may result from what the artist produces. Is this right?
Let’s hear from artists who thought they were minding their own business but whose effect has been shatteringly political, indeed, to have written works that have become political icons. Listen to what Ibsen has to say about A Doll’s House. Hear Ibsen’s astonishment that A Doll’s House has been claimed by the Suffragettes. “I am not even quite clear,” says Ibsen, “as to just what this women’s rights movement is. To me, it has seemed a problem of humanity in general. True, in general, it is desirable to solve the woman problem along with all the other problems, but that has not been my whole purpose in writing A Doll’s House. My task has been the depiction of humanity.”
And listen to an Eastern European novel with the entrancing title, Love and Garbage, written by Ivan Klima, who was editor of the journal of the Czech Writers Union during the Prague Spring of ’68 and saw his work banned. This novel concerns Kafka. “I think it would be difficult,” Klima writes, “to find in our century”—that last century—“many writers who are less interested in politics or public affairs than Kafka. There is no mention in his work of war or of revolution, or of the ideas which may have helped to bring them about, just as there is nothing in his work which directly points to his Jewishness. The reasons why Kafka’s work was suppressed in our country”—Czechoslovakia—“were different. I didn’t know if they can be simply defined, but I’d say that was being most objected to in Kafka’s personality was his honesty.”
Honesty. George Orwell. George Orwell has become the paradigm of the modern political writer, most notably his scathing allegory, Animal Farm. His homage to Catalonia keeps alive a brutal piece of world history, that prelude to World War II that saw Guernica, the Spanish Civil War. Lionel Trilling says about Orwell that “Orwell told the truth and he told it in an exemplary way, quietly, simply, with due warning to the reader that it was only one man’s truth. He used no political jargon, and he made no recriminations. He made no effort to show that his heart was in the right place or the left place. He was not interested in where his heart might be thought to be, since he knew where it was. He was interested only in telling the truth.”
Oh, but isn’t that the artist’s only job? Ibsen said, back in 1874, that “To be a poet means essentially to see, but, mark well, to see in such a way that whatever is seen is perceived by the audience just as the poet saw it. But only what has been lived through can be seen in that way and accepted in that way. And the secret of modern literature lies precisely in this matter of experiences that are lived through. All that I have written in these last ten years I have lived through spiritually, but no poet lives through anything in isolation. What he lives through, all of his countrymen lived through with him. If that were not so, what would bridge the gap between the producing mind and the receiving mind? I’ve been inspired by that which has stood higher than my everyday self, and I have been inspired because I wanted to confront it and make it part of myself.”
I work in the theater, so I ask, are politics and theater even compatible? If politics is the art of the possible, isn’t theater the art of the impossible? But wait, even Brecht couldn’t live up to being Brecht. He’s a great playwright not because of his ideas, but because of the theatrical power of his plays. The force that makes them live is aesthetic force. The ideas he espoused couldn’t keep the government he believed in from toppling.
Where do I look for answers? Are answers even possible? What do we do in a world of wait and see? I’m a playwright. Can I find the answer in terms of theater? But isn’t theater the place for illusion, the world of dreams, the world where you dream the impossible dream, where three sisters dream of getting to Moscow? Calderon’s great play, La Vida es Sueño, life is a dream. A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Gypsy’s Mama Rose trumpeting, “I had a dream.” Blanche Dubois’ lost home is appropriately called Belle Rive. Dream, when you’re feeling blue.
Is this any place for reality? Well, yes. I, as a playwright, have to make sure it is. My job becomes clearly defined, to make theater the place for reality. My favorite quote of all time was said by Karl Jung, “The greatest sin is to be unconscious.” Ibsen talks about the producing mind and the receiving mind. In other words, you out there in the audience, and me: the play, the event on stage, up here, how do we connect? The life on stage and you out there witnessing it, not passively, not like sleepwalkers dialing a TV. No, actively watching. But where does the artist fit in?
I want to quote from a remarkable speech that Joan Didion gave here in this very room at the New York Public Library a year ago, last November. Joan Didion said then, “It so happened I was traveling around the country again recently, talking and listening to people in St. Louis and Columbia and Philadelphia and San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Pittsburgh and Boston. I heard very few of the fixed ideas about America’s correct role in the world that had come to dominate the dialogue in New York and Washington. I encountered many people who believed there was still what we had come to call a disconnect between the government and its citizens. Many mentioned a sense of inevitability or dread about going to war with Iraq. They did not understand what this new war was about. They did not want to believe it was about oil, nor did they want to believe it was about domestic policies. If I had to characterize a common attitude among them, I would call it waiting to see, at a remove.”
I believe that Joan Didion points out the ideal functioning space for the writer today, our prime real estate, and that is to live in that disconnect between the government and its people, to write from that space where people are characterized as waiting to see, to fill in that remove. All we can do at this point in history, as in any other point of history, is to tell our part of the story, our part of the puzzle, as accurately as we can, with as much information in it, everything that our society has produced. Then, take what we need to create our work and drop that work into the pool of culture and trust that another person will see it, hear it, recognize it, and say, “Yes, I needed to know this. I am not alone. Another person saw this, felt this. This is what it was like to be alive in 2003.”
Because our role here on Earth, the artist’s role, is as simple as this: to provide the evidence for alertness. The point of art is not to supply escape, unless it’s Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, and those are clearly marked. But rather, the point of art is to clarify and the skill of art is to produce courageous clarity with the trust that the passion and vivacity of that clarity will lead to understanding. Not with the didacticism of the message, for that is propaganda, but with the pleasure of the aesthetic fully containing the didactic.
If the artist can hold up a mirror large enough to show the world and share that vision with the vibrant cooperation of an audience that understands you cannot order what needs to be reflected, then the bridge between the stage and the audience, the page and the reader, is joined. We connect. We do that extraordinary thing. We belong to the world and are not fooled by the world.
Earlier this year, our First Lady Laura Bush called a poetry conference at the White House. When one of the invited poets announced that he would read a poem condemning the war, the conference was abruptly canceled. The First Lady said—my favorite quote of this past year—“Poetry is no place for politics.” Well, let’s counter Laura Bush’s words, “Poetry is no place for politics,” with the words of a great American poet, William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
If we can have an art that simply tells the truth to its people, then we’re on our way. But to make people demand the truth, to need the truth: that’s the challenge. If, by our work, we can create a hunger in our audience for the truth—not a truth that’s achieved by repetition, hammering falsehoods home over and over and over until they begin to take on the camouflage of truth, not a truth that belongs to Madison Avenue, boasting that Baghdad is getting better, but something so dangerous, the truth. The way things are.
If we as writers can create a hunger for the truth, a need for the truth in our audience that is necessary as water, yes, a need for truth so we will know what to do with it and not be passive victims, we’re out of that glass box. If we can tell that kind of truth about our particular world and share it, then Ashcroft’s right. The written word is more dangerous than a gun. Yes, if we can live our lives in awareness and write in full consciousness that this is what it’s like to be alive right now, then that is art as, perhaps, the ultimate political weapon.