Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why I Write: Baldwin, Orwell, Didion

The title of this essay is an allusion to two of my heroes who wrote essays of the same name--George Orwell and Joan Didion. (Didion also wrote an essay called "Notes of a Native Daughter"--a response to Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son."

There is this song that have been listening to on repeat throughout this fall to keep myself going. The lyric is: "Dr. King, I think often of you, and the love that you learned from Jesus." It's by Mason Jennings, and it's called "Dr. King." It's a beautiful song, and the message means a lot to me.

Many of my friends and colleagues will see this as an oversimplification of King. But it's an oversimplification that I think is worth remembering, and I try to remember it every day. There is King hagiography and King denigration, and he was a complicated and egotistical man. But King's ministry was a ministry of love.

I am not a Christian. But lately I have been thinking a lot (shout out to my mother-in-law!) about the gospel of love. Baldwin knew that King believed in love and sacrifice, which is why he respected King. But Baldwin wished that King would include more rage in his ministry. Baldwin was, himself, a lapsed Pentecostalist youth minister--he knew a lot about Christian love, Christian hate, and Christian rage. Also he knew that these three things--love, hate, and rage--could exist in one man: his father, and himself.

My friend "Jim" wrote me this note today:
I had an awfully self-helpy thought about "selling oneself" this morning -- at least, it helped myself: it occurred to me that a better formulation than selling, with its connotations of commerce, commodification, prostitution, etc., might be giving an audience or readership permission to find you complex, pleasurable, etc. Audiences are made up of all kinds of people with all sorts of defenses about the prospect of allowing you the quasi-intimacy that reading creates. A writer's job is to contextualize herself in such a way as to make that possible. I realize as I write that sounds weirdly erotic, which is not quite what I mean. Because adapting one's work to a trend, having reputation or pedigree, etc., are all ways of building trust -- and it's very hard to reach people without that. Rambling. But what do you think?
Jim, who is English, always beats himself up for Rambling. He even had a blog once upon a time that made a punny joke about this and what the British call "Rambling," which means walking long distances for fun. But anyway, his point here is a good one--which is that you need to remember your audience, and that the relationship between teacher and student, writer and audience, is a love-hate relationship.

Baldwin knew a lot about psychology, about which I will be posting later this week. But for today, I wanted to answer this question: Why do I write? Why am I writing this way right now?

Didion said: "I. I. I. [...] I write to know what I am thinking." Yes. Writing, teaching, being an academic: these are endeavors in which the human has to balance between feeling selfish (egotistical) and selfless (a martyr). Nobody likes someone who acts like a martyr when they're not literally dying for a cause. And nobody likes an narcissist, either. The humanist professions--writing, teaching, academia--attract people who wrestle with this duality. But we're kidding ourselves if we think that we write only for the sake of our audiences. The problem that Jim is talking about above is the problem of recognizing your audience. Do you write for yourself (narcissist) or for your audience (martyr)?

The answer, of course, is both/and. Martin Luther King may have been quite egotistical. There is certainly evidence to support this. But even people with narcissistic tendencies actually do most of what they do out of a sense of mission. (All ad hominem attacks on Obama aside, no one would run for President of the United States and then keep doing that job unless they actually cared about changing the world. Well, maybe one guy....who ran to please his father. But enough psychoanalysis of the presidents.)

King's mission was not one of self-aggrandizement. Movements need leaders. He knew that. He tried to balance of self-aggrandizement with self-sacrifice. And, since he was murdered at 39, and lived his entire short career of celebrity under the threat of imminent death, I should say that the balance was on the side of sacrifice for him. So it kind of annoys me when people dishonor his memory by talking about what he said in private company, which we only know about thanks to the U.S. government SPYING ON HIM. No one is all good. But he was, on balance, one of the better ones.

Orwell said that he wrote for four reasons: (1) sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. Yes, yes, yes, and yes! Do you, dear reader, see why I love and worship these writers?

So what am I writing about now? And has it changed? My husband pointed out to me that I appear to have taken a slight turn from my previous postings. I can understand his point of view. I rarely used to talk about Foucault in my previous writing on this blog. But, at the same time, I think it is consistent with what I've always tried to do on this blog, which is to create dialogue where I could not find it in my working life.

Dialogue, cooperation, collaboration--I sound like Mr. President! But the man has a good point. We live in a  world right now that is so with-us-or-against-us that we have shut our ears to ideas. A good idea is a good idea, whether it comes from your friend or your enemy.

I don't want anyone who has read this blog before the last week to think that I have stopped writing for you. I don't entirely know who you are, but you are still my audience. Many more of my academic friends have started reading since I posted "A Defense of English." What I have noticed, and I will keep repeating it until it gets heard, is that the dialogue between English Literature departments and English Education departments is pretty impoverished, except at the few universities where these two types of specialists co-exist in one department.

To put this point another way, what I posted about Orwell was somewhat taboo for me, as an academic writer, to put out there, on a couple of levels. As a junior, junior, junior, "jobless," just-about-to-be-minted PhD, it is presumptuous of me to write about Orwell. Orwell, as an author, falls outside of my field of specialization--American and African American literature and drama. And I'm by no means an Orwell specialist; I've just read a lot of his books. I haven't read all of the criticism that's already out there about Orwell. I haven't paid attention to that conversation. So who am I to write about him? Well, I have taught a lot of Orwell to high school students--Animal Farm and 1984; Homage to Catalonia and "Shooting an Elephant" and "Politics and the English Language" and "Such, Such..." and the essay he wrote on the Spanish Civil War. So I've read him pretty carefully; and I've tried to assemble a picture of him that makes him make more sense to other people, younger people. Non-experts.

That's what teachers and critics of literature do: we try to give people a bigger picture.

On a second level, I'm way too googly-eyed about Orwell for this writing to be considered "academic." In the academy, we don't love the authors we write about. If anything, taking a position that shows that we love the author is likely to be challenged--"Why do you defend this person's thinking so much?" "I can understand why you might want to, but it's causing you to be blind to this persons flaws." In academia, we are all about pointing out people's---er, wait, arguments'--flaws.

Critics often feel sad about themselves because they feel so unwanted and unneeded by society. But society needs critics. Critics help us read better. And that's what we need to do. Orwell knew that. He saw--firsthand--all of the madness of modernity, and he wrote about it for multiple audiences. For adults and for children. For intellectuals and for ordinary people. And he wrote in a way that most people could understand, because he prized clarity above many other things (more on that in a future post).

Baldwin believed in love. I want to write like him because he believed in pouring his love and his rage into his writing, which is what I've tried to do on this blog, more than once. Most people now call Baldwin a "liberal" (in a bad way) for believing in love. But he did, and he wasn't wrong to. He was an ex-Christian and he understood the teachings of Jesus better than the people who write about him now. He understood King because he understood Jesus. He believed in love, and was sorely disappointed, because he had believed in Jesus and then watched many of his closest friends die as a direct result of American racism.

I think, in academia, it's time we had a little bit more love, and a little bit less hate from the haters. Paranoid reading is annoying and boring. There are only so many times that you can point out that an author from the past was duped. Hindsight and all that. It is presentist and unfair to judge King's gender politics by today's standards, or Harper Lee's race politics, for the same reason, or Baldwin's politics, period. Most people in this world who aren't psychotic narcissists (like Hitler and Stalin and Castro) have good intentions. In teaching, we call this giving the benefit of the doubt, or assuming positive intent. Baldwin was a liberal because he knew that being one would give him a platform. And he wanted to be heard. That's why he wrote. That's why I write.

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