Premise: “The Writer” is not a special kind of human being, but an ordinary kind of human being for whom Language is a primary medium for engaging with the riddle of Necessity and Invention that is at the core of all of human life, and arguably of Life itself.
For the writer, many sorts of Necessity are key. There is the unending pressure of material necessity, summed up for all time in Herman Melville’s famous plaint: “Dollars damn me.” There are the social bonds, the tugs and pulls of family, friendship, community–a mesh of gift and obligation that may feed the writer even as it keeps her from her desk, a paradox memorably explored by recent generations of mother-writers in such books as Tillie Olsen’s Silences: When Writers Don’t Write, Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born, Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot, and Reiko Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning. There are the necessities, the givens, of Language itself–what the poet George Oppen called the Materials—including the histories of literary forms.
Today I am going to focus on another register of Necessity, the one having to do with the threshold our species has crossed, entering on an era in which a heedless exercise of our collective technical ingenuity has brought us to the point of rendering extinct not only a vast range of non-human life forms, but our own much-touted “higher intelligence.” To put it a bit more starkly, for some time now we have had no choice but to proceed “under the sign of species suicide,” a circumstance requiring a vast, unprecedented effort of social re-invention– and hence a monumental effort to revise how we imagine and depict reality. In this effort, I believe, writers have a great role to play.
In the following brief extracts from my journal of recent months, you can see me groping—as I always am—for some access to this inscrutable Necessity that calls on all our powers of Invention.
March 29 
Newspaper article about Bangladesh [and] low-lying islands doomed by rising seas. The calm tone of it: this will happen, displacing millions. Why. How is it acceptable to say: this is happening, these things will happen.
From George Oppen’s “The Image of the Engine”:
Endlessly, endlessly,/The definition of mortality//The image of the engine//That stops.//We cannot live on that./I know that no one would live out/thirty years, fifty years if the world were ending/With his life.
Everything, suddenly, about “wreck” or “ruin.” Obvious why. Bhanu Kapil’s blurb to Bea Gates’ new poetry book Dos describes it as a “wrecked, shimmering pilgrimmage.” Would we feel so much wreck if we hadn’t so much stuff; so much info?
Precipice Studies: Examination of the thinking and behavior of a self-conscious species on the brink of self-extinction.
Let’s get this straight: UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says drastically reduce carbon emissions now. U.S. and China are principal offenders and must act for the global reduction to work. Article in today’s Times details how U.S. politics [make this unlikely]. So, the world is supposed to be killed b/c a few powerful Americans and Chinese don’t want to interrupt their short-term plans and narrow advantages?
“At a time of cultural devastation, the reality a courageous person has to face up to is that one has to face up to reality in new ways.”–Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a meditation on the life and testimony of the Crow Indian leader Plenty Coups (1848-1932).
In an essay on George Oppen, Rachel Blau du Plessis quotes from a speech given by Paul Celan, accepting a literary prize after the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1958: “…the efforts of someone who, overarced by stars that are human handiwork, and who, shelterless in this till now undreamed-of sense and thus most uncannily in the open, goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality” (from Thinking Poetics: Essays on George Oppen).
On the one hand: everything that matters: everything that has made itself, over the millennia.
On the other hand: money.
Read interview with a leftist immigration activist in Indypendent. Two million people have been deported since start of Obama administration. The activist argues that political expediency and old-fashioned racism are not enough to explain the wall-building and border-securing frenzy; it can only be explained by expectations of mass migration from south to north, in response to climate change.
NYT headline: “Scientists Warn of Rising Oceans from Polar Melt: Today we present observational evidence that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has gone into irreversible retreat.”
After driving, one sees with car eyes. The mirrory phallus of the new Trade Center building standing up over the city skyline.
I keep thinking of Leslie Marmon Silko’s short story “Yellow Woman,” whose protagonist wants to insist that the modern, urbanized world is the only world: “…I am not Yellow Woman. Because she is from out of time past and I live now and I’ve been to school and there are highways and pickup trucks that Yellow Woman never saw.” Isn’t this…what so many of us feel…looking at the “life” of our cities and suburbs (really, the “life” of our economic system): there it is–Life Itself! Who can doubt it? Isn’t it more real than the lives of salamanders or obscure crustaceans? So long as highways and skies are filled with transportation (with evidence of commerce), our god lives!
A 2007 quote from Jonathan Schell: “When I wrote The Fate of the Earth in 1982, I said that, first and foremost, nuclear weapons were an ecological danger. It wasn’t that our species could be directly wiped out by nuclear war down to the last person. That would only happen through the destruction to the underpinnings of life, through nuclear winter, radiation, ozone loss. There has been an oddity of timing, because when nuclear weapons were invented, people didn’t even use the word ‘environment’ or ‘ecosphere’…So in a certain sense the most urgent ecological threat of them all was born before you could understand it. The present larger ecological crisis is that context.”
This is the realm of Necessity that preoccupies me these days, both as writer and reader. What I must know, what I’m writing to find out is: what is it like to go on, consciously, under the sign of species suicide? Why has our history come down to this? Aren’t there other ways to live, and how do we invent them, and who is this vast “we” that somehow has to make that choice?
I leave aside for now the question of the practical activity required to institute a desperately needed harm reduction program for our species and planet, a task that belongs to everyone and not just to writers. I submit to you that the experience of a type of collective insecurity never known before in our history as a species is the contemporary context for all writers’ inventions, whether or not we acknowledge it. It would be more than absurd for me to offer prescriptions for meeting this challenge, but because I am struck by our slowness to take up the task–after all, given the signal triumphs of technologies of destruction in the first half of the 20th century alone, one would expect Precipice Studies to be far advanced by now!–I want instead to address some of the barriers to so doing.
- The question of humanity’s future on the planet—the question of “the planet’s” future—the question of what we even mean by saying “the planet”—our disorientation and grief before the wrenching alterations to the poet’s supposed eternal preoccupations (Marilyn Hacker’s “love, death, and the changing of the seasons”)—all of this is so big, so intimidating, so complex as to offer us a perfect excuse for throwing up our hands and retreating to more familiar writing territory.
- The guilt factor. It is difficult to think honestly about the vast damage that the human species is currently inflicting on the biosphere and its own survival prospects without feeling acute if thoroughly useless guilt about one’s own inevitable failure to “make a difference.”
- Acknowledging this level of necessity flies in the face of a utilitarian culture that emphasizes practical solutions, fixes, formulas, “the power of positive thinking.” Americans disdain “losers,” and you might start to look like one if you focus too intently on the level of loss inevitably flowing from our planetary predicament.
- There’s little or no “market” for writing about this stuff. It’s not entertaining. It’s not “relatable.” In fact, it risks discarding the capitalistic premise that “the market” offers the ultimate measure of value. You will not be trending on Twitter. Your Amazon numbers will tank.
- Writing honestly in a time when our dominant social and technological structures–the very “inventions” meant to support and sustain the human project–have become acutely toxic for the present and future of that project is not simply a matter of facing difficult content. It challenges us intensely on the level of form, inviting us to scrutinize some of the most basic assumptions underpinning our literary traditions. We need to question the role of the individual hero or heroine, asking how we might envision a sort of collective protagonist arising from the countless ill-assorted motives, acts, and accidents that combine to determine our species fate. Narrative order, the satisfactions of well-made plot–how do these serve a confrontation with realities that are multiple, interlocking, endlessly complex, under nobody’s control? How might we approach a literature in which humanity itself may be no longer at the center? Among other things, we need to question automatic assumptions that the conventions of “apocalyptic” narrative, with their obsessive emphasis on ending, offer us much that is useful in coming to grips with our strange situation.
We need, instead, to take another look at writers who have pondered the problem of going on under the sign of species suicide, as George Oppen did in the passage I quoted from “The Image of the Engine,” or as Audre Lorde did when she composed the tartly witty warning with which she ends “Between Ourselves”:
if we do not stop killing
the self that we hate
soon we shall all lie
in the same direction
and Eshidale’s priests will be very busy
they who alone can bury
all those who seek their own death
by jumping up from the ground
and landing upon their heads.
And then there is Linda Hogan, whose beautifully measured lines insisting on an open balance of unbearable danger and tender possibility have stayed with me since I first read them over thirty years ago. From her poem “Disappearances”:
I remember how the Japanese women
turned to go home
and were lost
in the disappearances
that touched their innocent lives
as easily as they touched small teacups
These are the lessons of old women
whose eyes are entire cities,
iron dark lattice work
they saw and became.
In their eyes
there is silence,
red ash and stormclouds.
The quiet surprise of space
carrying the familiar shape of what it held.
This moment the world continues.
In undertaking such a reconsideration, I believe, we are going to discover that a “literature of fragile ongoing” has been long in formation, generally unrecognized as such but now available to us as inspiration for the further inventions–both literary and practical–that we must urgently attempt.
* Adapted from a keynote address given at the summer 2014 Goddard College Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program. The residency theme was “Necessity/Invention”
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About the Author
Jan Clausen’s most recent poetry title, Veiled Spill: A Sequence, has just been issued by GenPop Books. Her publications include five earlier volumes of poetry; the memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity (Houghton Mifflin); and the novels Sinking, Stealing and The Prosperine Papers (Crossing Press [U.S.] and The Women’s Press, Ltd. [U.K.]). Her short fiction and poems have appeared widely in journals and anthologies such as AGNI, Another Chicago Magazine, Bloom, Drunken Boat, Fence, Hanging Loose, Hotel Amerika, H.O.W. Journal, Kenyon Review, the Library of America volume Poems from the Women’s Movement, Obsession: Sestinas for the 21st Century, Ploughshares, and Tarpaulin Sky. Book reviews and literary journalism appear in Boston Review, Ms., The Nation, Poets and Writers, and The Women’s Review of Books. From 1989 to 2010, Clausen taught writing at Eugene Lang College, the New School (New York City). The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she currently teaches in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program and at New York University.
Photo credit: Joanna Eldredge Morrissey