Hello friendly people. I’ve been feeling anxious lately. It’s okay. My self-medication is reading Nadezdha Mandelstam’s second memoir, Hope Abandoned. It’s basically just about everything she didn’t put into the first one. It’s hundreds of little vignettes about Soviet literary life, organized very impressionistically, with lots of jumping around in chronology. It’s one of the densest reads I’ve ever had. It’s sad and shows humanity at its worst–she’s unfailing in detailing peoples’ hypocrisy and moral cowardice. But I think it’s best when it comes to the question: what is literature for?
In America, there is so much hand-wringing about poetry. Does it matter even though nobody reads it? Can it be revitalized? Can it be made relevant to ordinary people?
This ‘ordinary person’ has become such a fetish in literature. Because almost all writers these days have egalitarian principles, we don’t like to think we’re writing for a rarefied intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union, too, they had this worry. Writing was supposed to be proletarian in character (this is in the early part of the Soviet Union) and the intelligentsia was frequently denounced. Writers and artists tried all kinds of dodges to make their work proletarian. In the early Soviet Union, writers frequently wrote about factories, as in the classic Gladkov novel, Cement.
Mandelstam is contemptuous of this phenomenon, but she’s also contemptuous of elitism, because she sees that the intelligentsia itself is quite stupid and without taste, and that they view literature only as a way to salve their own egos. She sees that, far from prizing individuality and personality, the intelligentsia constantly lays the groundwork for its own demise, that it is wary of the power of ideas, and that it’s always looking for ways of putting down the burden of thinking. She in fact charts the early intellectual currents that led to the intelligentsia’s surrender to Stalinism, and she situates them precisely in this wrecking, and this break with the past, and this distrust of the power of literature itself. Paradoxically, by giving literature a purpose, you destroy its purpose.
In contrast, when discussing her famous husband’s attitude towards poetry, she says, “M never thought about those things.” (I’m paraphrasing). In fact that’s not true, as she describes, he routinely was frustrated with himself for not being able to appreciate the new party line and not being able to write more ‘useful’ literature. Even though he mostly wrote short lyrics, people could tell instinctively that he was a person rooted in Christianity and tradition–someone with a deep reverence for what had come before–which also in turn gave him a reverence for the meaning of individual human life. Unlike the rest of the intelligentsia, he was not so willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater ideal of social progress.
When she thinks about the purpose of literature and poetry, Mandelstam is always drawn back to one thing: the primacy and importance of private life. Under the Soviet Union there was no private life, no freedom of belief. You couldn’t write apolitical verse, because that itself was political. And without the ability to feel what they wanted, peoples’ inner lives either died off or became totally other-centered (oriented towards awards and accomplishments).
Poetry helps a person develop their inner life. Poetry, at least of Mandelstam’s sort, is the record of a person in the world, experiencing life. It’s not like meditation, it doesn’t seek to extinguish the self, instead it celebrates the self and celebrates this life on earth. The purpose of poetry is to put to music the poet’s own personal world-view, and to impart their way of seeing the world, as a guide for people to develop their own individuality.
Seen this way, poetry isn’t broccoli. It’s there for the benefit of whomever needs it. Poetry is like speech. Poetry is like sidewalk scrawls or recipes put on the internet. Poetry is like anything that’s exchanged freely, simply because people are full of joy at being alive.
I loved that, because I see my own work the same way. I know that people often find my work cynical, because I don’t idealize human nature or turn away from the darkness and confusion I see in people, but my work is also about ideals. I never write anything that doesn’t contain a hint of how people can be better and more courageous than they are. I like to think that my work appeals to the best of people–not the part that’s looking for an easy heroism, for some collective victim they can stomp into the floor in some orgy of self-righteousness. It’s for the person who has their own sense of right and wrong, and who is willing to stand up for it.
That’s why my work often doesn’t fit easily into taxonomies of left and right. It’s why even though I’m trans, it’s often ignored by people who love “transgressive” queer writers. There is nothing really transgressive about my work, but it can be very difficult for readers who don’t have principles of their own, and who’ve never thought about the difference between right and wrong–readers who don’t truly have a self.
And I think in our ongoing crisis of liberalism, it’s important to remember the self. For me it’s such a joy to know things. To know very deeply that some things are true and some are false. On a sidenote, whenever I say something like that, I always like to list one true thing I know, so that people know I’m talking about real, concrete things and not just vague feelings. So here’s one true thing I know: it’s that if you’re hiding from the truth, it will hamper the work. You can be a liar in your life, but when you sit down to work, you must be honest. If you try to write a novel about a farm-boy defeating an evil empire, but part of you know that in real life it’s impossible for one person to bring down an empire single-handedly, then your work will not come together. You might write it and sell it, and it might even win awards, but it won’t possess life, and the person who will suffer most from the lie is you yourself, because you’ll have cut yourself off from the source of lasting art.
I know that there’s a wellspring of lasting art that you can train yourself to tap into. I know there is a musical note at the core of each worthwhile piece of prose–something you can train yourself to hear.
This is an aside, but lately I’ve been thinking of something else I know, which is that there is no unconscious mind.
That’s a pretty radical idea. Ever since Freud we’ve accepted the notion that part of you is submerged, and that it doesn’t contribute to your conscious impression of thinking, but that this submerged part nonetheless does a lot of your deciding for you. Many concepts in modern life hinge upon the idea of an unconscious mind. For instance, all our notions of racism hinge on the idea of an unconscious bias: you can hate a certain kind of people without knowing that you hate them.
And yet, is that really true? Does the unconscious exist at all? While it’s true that non-conscious processes take place in our mind (all of our breathing and movement, and a lot of our sense-processing, for instance), there is no evidence that there is an unconscious mind that does our thinking for us. This bicamerality, where you have the thoughts you have access to and the unconscious thoughts that exist off on their own, in a locked room somewhere, like you’re two people sharing one body–there is no evidence for that.
Moreover, what would it mean to not believe in that? Well, it would mean that we are responsible for all of our actions. That we in some sense have chosen all of our actions. We can still make mistakes, we can still be ignorant or thoughtless, but we cannot say that we are ‘better’ than the things we’ve done. We cannot say that our conscious mind knew this was wrong, but the unconscious one did not.
Modern society, by believing in an unconscious, has come to a place where it demands an unconscious. We need a place to put all of our dangerous, unspeakable thoughts and desires. But, really, those things are just as much a part of our consciousness as are all our other thoughts and desires.
The unconscious is really just a way of trying to solve the mystery of free will. Since we cannot imagine the idea that we are truly free, we instead imagine a situation where we are two people, and one of them is mute and in control of our body, while the other can speak but is mostly powerless, and the only job of the second person is to speak to the first person and convince them to do what we think is right. But if we fail to do the right thing, it’s not the fault of our ‘real’ self, it’s because we didn’t convince our unconscious self, which is, at its core, a nasty brute.
But really, we are free. We do choose. The real mystery is that there isn’t a reason why we do most of what we do. We simply do it because we’re alive and you have to do something. People search and search for the meaning of life, without realizing that it’s something they find every single day. Most of our actions are literally without any reason, not even an unconscious one, other than that we willed them.