We are writers. We protect our time and our psyches and just now it’s especially hard. Terrorist attacks, hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, threats to constitutional government, and oh yes, _do I _still have a job sap our writing attention. Writers and other artists have always been the ones to try to reckon with the terrors and anxieties of human experience. Tag: we’re IT.
I’m thinking about Adrienne Rich’s phrase “the dream of a common language” (the title of her 1978 book of poetry). The phrase suggests a vision of a community of goals and values, aspirations and hopes which may have the power to transcend boundaries: national, linguistic, cultural, social, maybe even religious and political. A work of literature is universal, we say. In this divided and divisive time in the United States, it seems more important than ever to think and write globally, and with awareness of justice, fairness, kindness, and at times, rage.
And we are working against gross misuses of languages. And disrespect for language. Ignorance, and proud of it. We have a president who commands few words and uses them to deliver threats, warnings, insults, and apocalyptic decrees. Who has no sense of nuances of meaning or the common practices of social communication. Who seems to exist in a vacuum and doesn’t know or care about social, political, or cultural traditions or history. Who embodies American anti-intellectualism, described by Richard Hofstedter in his 1963 book of that title. The president’s ethos is a grave threat to American culture and society.
Thucydides’ description of changes that occurred in the Hellenic world during the Peloponnesian War resonates with our moment in history:
“To fit in with the change in events, words, too had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; the ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted to action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man . . .”
This passage has often been cited in times of crisis or uncertainty, and unfortunately it is often applicable. What does it mean for writers today? It has always been an artist’s responsibility to tell the truth. The telling must be precise and eloquent. Loud and expressed often. Truth is complex, of course, but it is definitely not lies, half-truths, fake news, evasions, or silence. Journalism and other media are the most relevant here, but a writer is also a citizen, and citizenship carries responsibilities. In a broader sense, too, a writer is a citizen of the world.
The New America values wealth over people. It values wealth over language and culture. This is a country of, by, and for the rich; a democratic republic trending toward plutocracy, autocracy, and oligarchy. Writers and other artists, along with many, many others, will likely suffer the consequences of fundamental changes now in progress.
For myself, a poet, I find that I need to bring more of my concerns about our culture and my country into my work. I am trying to write more, and more precisely, about what is happening today, traditions of the past as I know them, and how these are connected—and not.
Nancy Kassell is the author of two books of poetry, Text(isles) (2013) and the chapbook Be(longing) (2016), both from Dos Madres Press. She has published poems in Kalliope, Spoon River Poetry Review, Southern Poetry Review, Feminist Review, and Salamander, as well as in several anthologies, including Verse and Universe. She is also the author of a cultural study, The Pythia on Ellis Island: Rethinking the Greco-Roman Legacy in America. (updated 2018)