Why We Spend Our Brief Lives Indoors, Alone, and Typing
Or, how I justify teaching my students the dying art of writing
I worry about what to tell Kate.
For most of my students, knowing how to write well will just be an unfair advantage in whatever career they choose — I tell them it’s like being rich, or pretty. But Kate takes art personally: she loves the Dadaists but also thinks they’re a bit cliqueish and silly; in her emails she quotes Rilke and Hurston. She’s one of those students so passionate about writing and literature it makes me feel, briefly, younger to be around her. It also secretly breaks my heart. I once unprofessionally confessed to Kate my misgivings about training her in an art form as archaic as stained glass. She tells me she still thinks about this all the time.
I know better than to blame myself for Kate’s career choice; she was already doomed to this vocation when I met her. You recognize these students less by their intrinsic talent than by their seriousness of purpose: they allow themselves no other options; they’re in it for the long haul. She recently took a year off from studying law, politics, and economics to take nothing but courses in literature: “There is something telling me that if I ever do something to save people from the misery that other people have caused them,” she wrote me, “it will be because of what Ibsen teaches me, and not a class on terrorism.” She worries that by obsessively observing and recording she’s missing out on the experience of being alive. I have assured Kate she is more alive than anyone I know.
How can I justify luring guileless young people into squandering their passion and talents on a life of letters?
But in this dystopian year 2019, with “the newspapers dying like huge moths,” as Ray Bradbury predicted in the ’50s, “Literature” a niche category among all the Book-Shaped Products© on sale, and “the discourse” limited to 280 characters, how can I justify luring guileless young people into squandering their passion and talents on a life of letters? It’s not just that writing is an unmonetizable profession — Kate knows that much already — I worry it’s obsolete. Late in life, the novelist James Salter despaired of the post-literate civilization he saw already arriving: “The new populations will live in hives of concrete on a diet of film, television, and the internet.” Trying to read something like To the Lighthouse with attention spans stunted by stroboscopic overdoses of Instagram/Twitter/Reddit/Imgur might as well be climbing Kilimanjaro. These very words will likely vanish from your head within hours, driven out by the latest presidential obscenity or Mueller revelation, the next episode of Atlanta, a new Maru video.
“They speak about the dumbing of America as a foregone thing, already completed,” wrote Michael Herr, “but, duh, it’s a process, and we haven’t seen anything yet.” That was in 1999, long before what people are calling, with the chilling nonchalance of a fait accompli, the “post-truth era.” Consensual reality is as abandoned as Friendster; everyone now gets to curate their own truths like Spotify playlists. You can convincingly Photoshop a Parkland survivor tearing up the Constitution, or CGI “deepfake” footage of Kat Dennings having sex with you. Journalists routinely get death threats, while the two most widely trusted institutions in America are the police and the military, who can be relied upon to obediently massacre us on command. I’m still haunted by an essay speculating that, if the President were proved to have committed impeachable crimes, we would face “an epistemological crisis” in this country: What if his supporters simply declined to buy the evidence?
Of course people have always claimed that the culture is in decline, that the age of true art is past, that each generation is more illiterate, vulgar, and stupid than the last. But the constancy of this claim throughout history can obscure, from the limited perspective of a single short lifetime, that it may be true. We lack the historical elevation to tell whether this current darkness is just a passing reactionary spasm, like the McCarthy aberration, or part of a longer, more inexorable Gibbonian decline. “I know Writing isn’t dead and I believe it’ll only be once we all are for good,” Kate wrote me. I just hope the latter date is further away than it sometimes seems. But even an apocalypse needs chroniclers. One of my colleagues says she’s writing for that (possibly brief) interval between the end of the internet and our extinction, when our grandchildren may turn to our words to try to understand what happened. I keep remembering Agnolo di Tura writing, during the Black Death: “so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.” He had buried five children by then, and had every reason to believe it was true; still, he wrote it down.
Or maybe it’s not civilization that’s in decline; maybe it’s just me. Talking to Kate also makes me feel older, uncomfortably aware of the distance between her searing idealism and my own guttering disillusion. Anyone who makes the mistake of turning their passion into a vocation gets to watch it turn, like gold transmuting into lead, into a job. You start out motivated by pure, childish things: the pleasure of finding something you do well, of telling stories or making jokes. You’re driven by the same fear that drives magnates and despots: the approaching deadline of mortality, the dreadful urgency to make something to prove you were here. These motives gradually get buried under geological layers of bullshit — reputation, recognition, self-image, money — until every airport bookstore becomes a warped hall of mirrors confronting you with your own insecurity, petty jealousies, and resentment. Posterity is no less absurd an illusion than an afterlife. A friend of mine recently forwarded me a cache of letters by Raymond Chandler, in which he ruminates, like one of his own weltschmerzy heroes, on the vanity of literary striving: “Do I wish to win the Nobel Prize? […] I’d have to go to Sweden and dress up and make a speech. Is the Nobel Prize worth all that? Hell, no.”
Just as courage is acting despite your fear, faith is acting despite your despair.
Why, then, do we do it — spend so much of our brief time alive in this gorgeous world indoors, alone, and typing?
After all my worrying about what to tell Kate, it turned out it was up to her to tell me. “Somehow most people are taught that Art is a way to distract from the terror,” she wrote me, “when in fact I think it is the only way to get through it at all.” In other words, all my arguments for writing’s futility are in fact arguments for its necessity. I was never as idealistic as Kate — or rather, I was never as hopeful; my idealism is too fragile, too easily disappointed. What she and I share is that foolish, ineradicable belief in art and the written word: That there is such a thing as truth, and that it matters when it’s spoken, even if no one listens. Beliefs so frail and indefensible, so easily debunked, that you’d almost have to call them articles of faith. And faith is like courage: Just as courage is acting despite your fear, faith is acting despite your despair.
The last time I saw Kate we stopped, on a whim, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and discovered the “American Poet’s Corner,” a chapel dedicated to writers. We stood searching its floor for the names of our favorites, the patron saints of our chosen vocation: Poe and Twain, Fitzgerald and O’Connor, Cummings and Plath. The quotation from O’Connor reads: “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing.” I’d likened writing to stained glass, an anachronism, but stained glass is more than an artifact in itself — it’s a medium, to make the invisible manifest. The sunlight through the cathedral windows cast a warm pastel glow across the flagstones, lending to those graven words the animating blush of illumination.
A few days ago Kate wrote to let me know she’d been accepted to journalism school, with a full scholarship. She wrote: “Looking forward to it all.”