Revolutions and Writing

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It’s been said that the best creative writing comes from periods when political and social revolutions are happening. I suppose the drama of a revolution is a part of that, and the intellectualizing or rationale for the revolution generates situations and characters that writers can easily work with. But a quick survey of modern revolutions and their run-ups reveals different sorts of creativity.

Nothing much in the way of literature came directly out of the American revolution, but in its aftermath, as American society began to settle in, we had novelists Melville and Hawthorne, poets Whitman and Dickinson. The French revolution? Here think foremost of Hugo and Marat, who wrote their stories amid the revolution’s action. And similarly in Russia, the great writer Tolstoy. However, preceding the Soviet Union’s dismantling – a relatively gentle revolution – we have firebrand novelist Solzhenitsyn and poet Yevtushenko.

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In later years, the literary medium changed. The Cuban revolution and the U.S.’s almost-revolution of the fifties and sixties brought a new form of creativity to the fore: songs. Things were happening so rapidly, in the U.S. particularly,  that songs quickly written, recorded and put on the airwaves were the best way for energy to coalesce about the day’s drama.

In South Africa, the grander literature preceded the revolution outright, in the novels of Coetzee, and Gordimer, to name a mere pair of many.

And so we see the great fertile literary periods of the twentieth century were in times of ideological change and consequent revolution. What will this century bring, with its social media and blogs – something new and as yet undeveloped?

 

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A Trip into The Political Desert

Harper’s Magazine/ May 2012 Issue

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That the U.S. is ideologically divided should surprise no one – in fact, it may not be of as much concern as the political pundits would have us believe. What does concern this reader is that political talking points are pushing everything else aside in magazines such as Harper’s.

In this issue, Thomas Frank weighs in on the late Andrew Breitbart as if Andy’s posturing, yelling, and righteous indignation were of significance in these United States. Only at essay’s end does common sense begin to reign. Frank’s realization here is that old A.B. was just a personality, not a voice compelling us from our political wasteland.

And Lewis Lapham’s signature essay on the consequences of forgetting the lessons of history leaves us wallowing in political mud without any view – from above or from the past – to render perspective. Even Ben Austen’s piece of reportage on the demise of public housing leaves us with only crumbling, existential fossils of the Great Society, without an insightful explanation of cause and effect.

With such posturing – and without incisive examinations (which remains the responsibility of media) – we'll remain a divided country. 

Fortunately, fiction gives us a moment of relief. Paul Theroux’s story, “Our Raccoon Year,” clever juxtaposed a season of fending off raccoons against a father, frustrated by a mother’s absence from the family. It’s a clever piece that leaves much to the reader to discern. Too bad the rest of this issue didn’t lead me to that point in assaying this the second decade of the twenty-first century.

 

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Crossing the Border

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End of the year magazine issues tend to be retrospectives, or the content seems more strained than usual. The January 2012 issue of Harper's Magazine seem to fall in line with the latter. However, there's one curious juxtaposition:

A piece of first person reportage by Cecelia Balli, "Calderon's War," exposes the way the war on drugs leaves the average Mexican citizen caught, if not in the well-reported crossfire between soldiers and drug gangs, then at least at the mercy of both in other ways. In a country as corrupt as Mexico has been, says Balli, reform and stability of the Law and Order variety is slow, but it's happening. Of course, this slowly fructifying stability will affect the U.S.in a positive way if it takes root.

Whech brings us to a memoir/essay by Alexandra Fuller, "Her Heart Inform Her Tongue." Fuller is from Rhodesia, a British colony of yesteryear that more or less assumed its independence sometime between 1965 and 1979, and she wrote this piece about a trip she and her daughter made to Mexico, ostensibly to learn Spanish. On the way to that, her thoughts returned to the conditions, the bloody days that fomented the move to Rhodesian independence. Why? She saw so much of that in Mexico.  

Both articles are, in a way, object lessons for us of the U.S. We're precariously perched on, hopefully, the other side of economic apocalypse, but there are predators all around us, who could send us backsliding. Just knowing how bad conditions have been and, for the most part, still are with our neighbor to the south, should make us work harder to maintain a middle class, to revive our egalitarian ethos, to basically live up to our ideals. And that will take honest pragmatism, not ideology-cloaking elitism, racism, and whatever other isms brought us to this place.

The Coexistence of Reason and Mystery

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Part 1 – The Re-Enchantment of the World – Secular Magic in a Rational Age, Edited by Joshua Landy & Michael Saler

 

 

At first blush one wouldn’t use the words “magic” and “secular” in a complementary fashion. But this collection of essays does succeed – at least to some degree – in melding magic and rationality. Its various essays begin with Max Weber’s plaint (or proclamation – your choice) that “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’”

 

This has generally been taken to mean that the project of the Enlightenment – its reason and overarching scientific method – has taken (or will take) away the mysteries of life, i.e., those aspects that we conventionally see as beyond human involvement and understanding. This has, of course, been anathema to the theses of religion and has been at the root of the centuries-old friction between religion and reason. But this book takes on itself a project that I applaud: a healing of this rift, in all its manifestations.

 

Each essay is an attempt to do just this, each in separate fields of secular endeavor. We see in looking to the re-enchantment latent in gardens and place, in architecture, religion, art, literature, philosophy, and even in politics, elements of human experience that allow us to become re-enchanted with secular life.

 

The point here is that re-enchantment isn’t a return to a primitive human way of viewing things; after centuries of science and reason, we should know better. Instead, it’s a way of allowing ourselves to be re-enchanted with life – within the world given to us via centuries of rational progress.

 

But there’s a tacit suspicion here that reason has its limits, as the difficulties of the last hundred years or so seem to indicate. While this may be in part because of a remaining lack of reason's development within world culture, it's hard to avoid the idea that the working of the left brain will always need the right brain’s enchanting spectacle. And, conversely, that enchantment will forever need reason as its anchor, lest it lead humanity astray.

 

Admittedly, the book's editors and its separate essayists have bitten off a lot with this project. Still, it’s a vital endeavor, a project that can nudge reason into a more proper intellectual role.  I’d encourage anyone who has read this far into this post to take the book on. Toward that  end, I’d point readers primarily toward the section on ideology and on Nietzsche contributions to the subject. It’s that important a subject.

 

I do want to follow this post with another on how re-enchantment is seen to play out in the world of literature. Please stay tuned.

 

 

My Rating: 4 of 5 stars.