Friday, February 1, 2013

On Being Subversive

In his book After Theory, literary critic Terry Eagleton writes:
Because subjects like literature and art history have no obvious material pay-off, they tend to attract those who look askance at the capitalist notions of utility. The idea of doing something purely for the delight of it has always unsettled the grey-bearded guardians of the state. Sheer pointlessness is a deeply subversive affair. 
There is something about literature that feels dreadfully extravagant. The sheer complexity and length of time needed to decipher lines like "the wimpledwater-dimpled, not-by-morning-matched face" written by Gerard Manley Hopkins feel ridiculous in a context in which time is money, money time. Why craft words together, picking and choosing them like some outdated aristocrat choosing wine from the dusty shelves of their cellar? We live in a world dominated by oppression, selfishness, and need. Cannot those sacred minutes wasted on words be translated into minutes invested in helping others? Or at the very least, translate that time and energy into money, to be in turn translated into rent payments and a new sweater? Is it not an act of pointlessness to use my financially viable minutes not to work but to drown in the infinite interpretive depths of analyzing John Donne's use of conceits? I suspect that it is.

What does it mean to do something for the pure delight of it?

Perhaps delight leads us to justice. In one of my favourite essays - "Why Write?" - Jean-Paul Sartre writes about the power of literature to engage both the author and the writer into a rediscovery and formation of the world. He writes:
And if I am given this world with its injustices, it is not so that I might contemplate them coldly, but that I might animate them with my indignation, that I might disclose them and create them with their nature as injustices, that is, as abuses to be suppressed.
Although I may not agree with all of Sartre's ideas, I believe that there is something to be said about how, in the midst of the extravagancies of language a thread of justice points towards a better world, a world as it should be. When an author gives us the gift of a vision of the world we become participants in that world. We learn to encounter the other more deeply, which Sartre believes forces us to consider in what ways we are complicit in their suffering. And part of this means that we must notice the details, forget the bottom line, and live for a moment in the words of another.

I have tried on multiple occasions to uncover for myself a useful career. In highschool I had modest hopes of, oh you know, eliminating all illnesses from Africa, and maybe dabbling in eradicating world poverty while I was at it.  It was only by accident that I fell into being an English major. After university I still had high dreams of accomplishing just minor tasks like abolishing the sex trade in Thailand, among others (for those of you without degrees in analyzing words, this is an example of sarcasm...) And yet, I am continually drawn into this elusive realm of images and words.

Perhaps I have arrived. Perhaps I can be assured that words will translate into change, and that I can read them and love them knowing that this is a world infused with Word and that by focusing on words that point to the Word, I am, for now, doing something worth doing. Money might be time, but time is filled with more than dollar signs. It is filled with extravagant details, with people needing to be heard, and with glimpses of hope and beauty pointing to a day, one day, when we will each and every one of us will see the world - and one another - as they should be seen.

To end off this rambling tangent of my various and sundry attempts to justify my affection for words, I would like to refer to the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, referred to in a class I am taking about the Christian Imagination. Solzhenitsyn knew injustice having spent years in the Gulag of Soviet Russia. He knew materialism. And he knew art. Here are his words, taken from his 1970 Nobel lecture written:
So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through - then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar TO THAT VERY SAME PLACE, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?
(Solzhenitsyn's entire lecture can be found here )

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