He laughs. They laugh.
What is the point of writing? I've always asked myself this question, but it's usually been in a let's-keep-ourselves-honest kind of way. Lately, why write has become a genuinely pressing concern.
I've found myself thinking about Number the Stars on a daily basis. I haven't read Number the Stars in probably 25 years, but I remember that the main character had a sister named Lise who died in the Resistance. I didn't know what the Resistance was the first time I read the book, but I have an older sister, and the death of someone's older sister struck me as so fundamentally wrong that something really should be done about it. By which I mean I felt it should be undone. Evidently this was my first experience of narrative brutality, and it worked. Lise stuck with me.
So did this section about Peter, Lise's fiancé:
He had changed a great deal. Once he had been like a fun-loving older brother to Annemarie and Kirsti, teasing and tickling, always a source of foolishness and pranks. Now he still stopped by the apartment often, and his greetings to the girls were warm and smiling, but he was usually in a hurry, talking quickly to Mama and Papa about things Annemarie didn't understand.
I have a mental image of Annemarie's kitchen, mostly dark, with her parents and Peter leaning in over the table, having conversations of great import. I always wondered what it must be like to be an adult and to face a huge, cataclysmic situation like that. What kinds of things do you say around the kitchen table?
I know that I don't currently live in Nazi-occupied Denmark. But the gleeful callousness towards the suffering of others that I am seeing in so many of my fellow citizens is disorienting; values I thought were enduring are emphatically not. I've been having dire, unfunny conversations around kitchen tables for a while now, and every time someone leans back, sighs, and says, I just don't know what to do, I think of Peter's hurried visits to the Johansens, and I think of Lise.
Now that I know what adults say when faced with massive political upheaval, I have another question from my youth to wrestle with: would I be like Lise? Would I join a resistance movement if it was likely, or even just possible, that I would die because of it? I'm probably much older, now, than Lise was when she was killed. When I was a child, it was still a possibility that I might grow up to be quick-thinking and coordinated and steel-nerved and become someone like Lise. That did not, however, happen. I grew up to be a writer instead. Can writing be resistance? Is it effective enough to be resistance?
Sometimes I read beautiful, brave books that implore their readers to be their best, most humane selves. When I finish them I think to myself, Well! It's a good thing this book just solved everything! I can't wait for more people to read it so we can end world hunger and redistribute our wealth and start treating each other with loving kindness! And then I realize the book in question was published in like 1934. And it did not change the world. Literature has been such a force in my life, and has shaped me to such a degree, that I am consistently shocked by its lack of global effect. How can Number the Stars exist in the same world as Donald Trump? Don't they preclude each other? If they don't, then what is the point?
Really. What is the point?
Not long ago, I quoted Sarah Manguso: "The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair." That no longer seems big enough, since personal despair is so easily caused by the racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and evangelistic whims of Congress. A novel, a really good novel, a great novel, even The Great American Novel, will do nothing against your despair if you are very ill and you lose your health insurance. At best it will provide you some distraction while you're dying.
What is the point of writing? "To distract you from your imminent death" is not an answer I think any writer is comfortable with. I want writing to change the world, and yet I see language quite literally failing before my eyes. Words no longer mean what they mean. Watching Donald Trump at a press conference is like watching a satire of a press conference. It is in fact almost indistinguishable from Harold Pinter's play Press Conference:
MINISTER. Critical dissent is acceptable―if it is left at home. My advice is―leave it at home. Keep under the bed. With the piss pot. He laughs. Where it belongs.
PRESS. Did you say in the piss pot?
MINISTER. I’ll put your head in the piss pot if you’re not careful.
He laughs. They laugh.
"He laughs. They laugh." is the most chilling thing Harold Pinter ever wrote, and he wrote exclusively chilling things. The Minister goes on:
MINISTER. Let me make myself quite clear. We need critical dissent because it keeps us on our toes. But we don’t want to see it in the market place or on the avenues and piazzas of our great cities. We don’t want to see it manifested in the houses of any of our great institutions. We are happy for it to remain at home, which means we can pop in at any time and read what is kept under the bed, discuss it with the writer, pat him on the head, shake him by his hand, give him perhaps a minor kick up the arse or in the balls and set fire to the whole shebang.
We need critical dissent as long as it doesn't actually exist, is what the Minister is saying. Which is what Donald Trump is saying when he calls CNN fake news. How did Donald Trump happen in a world where Harold Pinter had written this? What was the point of Pinter's having written this if Trump happened anyway? He could've spent the time moisturizing his feet and then at least someone would've benefited.
And yet when I read it over just now, I have to admit that even in the Trump-world where reason and logic have no traction and language is often rendered meaningless, Press Conference still got me right in the gut. It still has power for me. It didn't change the entire world, but it changed me when I was 21 and it changes me a little more every time I read it.
My grandmother sent me a book once that she thought I would love and I did. Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore contains this wonderful passage:
I want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. I want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer's block, the author's panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure he has taken. I want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.
What is the point of writing? I wanted it to be big, to be national, international, galactic, universal, to have effect on a great scale. But perhaps the effective is cumulative. Perhaps the point of writing is to remind us at our individual low points that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it. Perhaps the point of writing is not just to keep us from despair, but to give us hope, give us courage, and strengthen our resolve to resist in whatever ways we can. I don't know what else the point would be. It is the only point there could possibly be now.
Lois Lowry's Number the Stars (Houghton Mifflin, 1989)
Harold Pinter's Press Conference (Faber & Faber, 2002)
Laurence Cossé's A Novel Bookstore (Europa Editions, 2010)
Sarah Manguso's article, "Green-Eyed Verbs," appeared in The New York Times on January 29, 2016.