Great and memorable writing addresses itself idiosyncratically to questions of general relevance, questions society asks itself out of a pressing necessity. Depending on how we answer and/or explore them, these questions shape how we perceive, express and organise ourselves, others and the cosmos we inhabit.
Who made the world? What is the nature of reality? What is the purpose of existence? Where go the fresh dead and all our ancestors? To what end did they and do we suffer so much? Will they come again? Who lives on the other side of the mountain and are they a danger to us? What monsters inhabit the depths of the sea and the woods? To whom shall we make sacrifices and appease in order to defeat our enemies? This, in bare outline, is the research program of all our sacred mythologies and books, those kits of instruction.
And later on, when the necks of Queens and Gods were on the guillotine, came these: Can we rule over ourselves? Can we save ourselves from chaos? How can we save ourselves? Can there be meaning and redemption without Gods?
And later still, up to and including the present, when horror rules, when we are nothing perhaps but our own taunting figments and ghosts, when cosmic solitude and a profound doubt in everything takes hold in the most perceptive and sensitive intellectuals—and not only in them—the questions of catastrophe present themselves: is there anything left worth saving? Is there anything? How can the unspeakable be spoken? Can we trust our own tongues? Does thought (and all the symbolic vehicles of thought) itself not betray us at the root?
Of course, different questions take on a different intensity at different times, and in the work of different writers, who become writers by the virtue of expressing themselves differently to anyone else. Difference, not tradition, makes the writer, though one can only avoid repetition by knowing what not to repeat. Each piece of writing should be a declaration of spiritual and perceptual independence. It should show courage and daring, and even recklessness. It should enthrall through play and novelty, illustrating that the page is an open and unconfined invitation to create, and not just to imitate. Writing does not, however, afford either the reader or writer an escape from either the self or the world. This side of oblivion, there is nowhere for us to escape to where we are not already lying in wait for ourselves, in disguise. Imagination is part of reality—the greater part of it—and certainly not its alternative.
For me, the questions of the moment are questions of immanence. What are we in the process of becoming? What are the signs? What are they signaling? What is that hurtling down the tracks? Will we be better or worse off after it hits? Why are so many people killing themselves? Why are so many others risking their lives in revolt? Do they know something the rest of us don’t? Are there any excuses left for the rest of us?
Many great writers have believed that humans are angels in waiting. Many others that we are just animals with an increased capacity to destroy. My heart is sometimes with the former. My head is nearly always with the latter. Where do you stand?
Please, in your words, tell your lies and your truths, even or especially if they are vertiginous and difficult.
You must have realised that we are living through an epoch of prolonged and general crisis, the outcomes of which are totally unpredictable. All the same, maybe you are willing to predict?
You might also feel that constant and burdensome foreboding which is the psychological mark and the aesthetic tone of our present times, that sense of a universal enshadowing (or shall we call it an embalming?), those intuitions of vague dark shapes on the horizon, which we approach or which approaches us at gathering speed. But, are these flickers the shadows cast by the furnaces of an oncoming hell, or by the beacons of imminent paradise? Looking south and east, to the Arab spring, to the messianic wretched of the earth, we might still be able to believe in the latter. But, how can we tell?
Heaven, hell, purgatory or endless limbo—whatever it is that is becoming—we can be certain that our crisis means, eventually but inevitably, transformation, metamorphoses, new births and utter changes.
Shouldn’t our way of thinking, our way of seeing, our way of saying and showing, shouldn’t our literature also be changing?
- Dave Lordan is guest editor of our Summer 2012 issue.