From Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, a collection of essays, which will be published next month by W. W. Norton.
We live in an era crippled by our devotion to capitalism. We are beleaguered by hopelessness (what is the opioid epidemic if not the symptom of a people duped by false dreams?) and by rigorous utilitarianism (formed by a late-capitalist mindset, we ask always: What’s in it for me?). We inhabit a time and place in which falsehood and truth are fatally commingled; in which our ideals appear shattered and abandoned by leaders and priests and coaches who are unmasked as predators; and in which any sense of self is assaulted and abused by advertisers. In short, recent years have been a dark maelstrom, a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape, in which, under the guise of the pursuit of pleasure, individuals are tortured, dehumanized, discarded, destroyed.
We had come to see this ominous hurtling as inevitable. But in the past few months, at the mercy of a ravaging virus, we have discovered that in other ways we aren’t disempowered. Crisis and extremity are by no means desirable. But these extraordinary times have forced us to slow down, to think collectively, to seek hope, to value the truth, and to celebrate resilience and faith in our fellow human beings.
We may look to the past, to the vast compendium of recorded human experience, for wisdom, solace, or at least a sense of recognition. When our abiding principles seem upended, I remember an Enid Blyton story I loved as a child, about a little girl who loves lying until she gets trapped in the Land of Lies, where untruths are praised and the truth disregarded. Considering the opioid epidemic, I recall Odysseus and his men in the land of the lotus-eaters, or Tennyson’s poem of the same name: “What pleasure can we have To war with evil? Is there any peace In ever climbing up the climbing wave?” Meanwhile, our political fiascoes call to mind a line from King Lear: “A dog’s obeyed in office.” If we pause and listen to history and literature, we’ll find, as Louise Glück puts it in “October,” “you are not alone, the poem said in the dark tunnel.”
Language makes this possible. It enables us not only to ask for a glass of milk, or to say that we feel sick, but to speak of our sorrows and ecstasies, of our philosophical musings and our memories. I am constantly amazed at this extraordinary medium—created by our distant ancestors out of nothing, still evolving. The written or printed word enables the transmission of thoughts and experiences across centuries and cultures. Our passion for storytelling—not simply for sharing information, but for giving meaning and shape to events—has motivated individuals and armies. The dissemination of the written word, from the time of Gutenberg, has enabled us to tell stories of great depth and complexity, and to share our analyses of these stories. I don’t just mean literature: history, too, is the analysis of human stories; as are psychology, anthropology, law, and philosophy. The dramatic prevalence of the image over the written word in our present moment is akin to a return to the Lascaux caves: immediacy has its advantages, but nuance isn’t one of them.
Just as we are called to be active custodians of our planet, we must also be custodians of human knowledge and of our own minds. We need not be alone in our experiences, nor passive: the riches of all human thought and imagination are available to us. If we were to ensure, as a society, that people’s basic needs were met, then we might recognize that a richer life doesn’t require money, or access, or things: each of us can be nourished by the life of the mind. Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, and yet when we read his writings, we encounter a mind profoundly free, a mind able to articulate itself in language both urgent and lucid, that serves as a reminder that power over language is power tout court.
When you read fiction or encounter a work of art you are invited into an open-ended conversation. You’re engaged in an experience that is simultaneously private and universal. Your encounter with a work of fiction is yours alone. And yet in words, our encounters can be shared, our experiences thereby expanded and deepened. Reading opinions that differ from our own, we are challenged to articulate our own experiences, and through the articulation we live more deeply. The hurtling slows.
I advocate for the actual, irreducible, and irreplaceable animal record—outside the age of mechanical reproduction. The movement of the hand that holds the pen; the imprint of ink upon paper; the dignity and intimacy of the individual letter, written for a particular addressee (and hence so different from a blog or social-media post), without thought of other readers. The loss of what that represents philosophically is enormous: my grandparents, my parents, even my friends and I in youth, spent hours writing letters about what we were doing and thinking, where we were going and what we noticed, as a gesture of intimate communication. It signified that each of us mattered, that the person to whom I wrote mattered, and that our communication was important—often precisely because it wasn’t widely shared. Privacy, intimacy, dignity, and with them, depth and richness of thought—all were a readily available part of daily life, for even the most modest among us.
My paternal grandfather spent the better part of a decade in his retirement writing a 1,500-page family memoir for my sister and me. He did not expect anyone else to read it. He titled it “Everything That We Believed In.” His undertaking was a gesture of faith in himself, in us, in language and the transmissibility of experience. The result was an extraordinary and life-changing document; nobody else need think so, but for me and for my sister, it was. My father, on the other hand, of more melancholic temperament, a businessman during the day, spent a lifetime of evenings, weekends, and holidays as a scholar and thinker who, as in Bernhard’s account of Wittgenstein’s nephew, was a philosopher only in his head, committing nothing to paper. My abiding memory of him in old age is of a man in his library, sitting in his leather chair in a pool of light surrounded by darkness, wearing half-moon glasses, with a book in his lap and a Scotch on the table beside him. He had nobody to talk to, nobody with whom to share his considerable erudition; he lived in the splendid and terrible isolation of one who, while still retaining faith in the life of the mind and the power of books to speak to him, had renounced the possibility of being understood and the value of passing on his knowledge. Both figures have their Beckettian absurdity—my grandfather toiling at his desk, for what? My father, reading voraciously, for what?—but also represent hope of a kind, and inspire me to persist.
So many stories remain untold; so much that we have to learn, and to experience, is still hidden from the world. To attend to these stories is to slow our current hurtling, to calm the chaos, to return to what makes us human. It is to find the past and the present restored, as well as the possibility of the future. We can’t go on, we must go on: in this period of trial and transition, those of us for whom the power of the word is paramount must keep the flame alive. Nothing matters more.