Angst, activism, and art: Inspiration from Gary Snyder and Aleksandar Hemon

Although we Ethicureans occasionally invite you to examine the contents of our refrigerators, to check out our gardens, and even laugh at our cooking mistakes, this is not a “personal” blog. Or it’s not supposed to be, anyway. So I am hesitant to explain why I have not been a visible presence here of late: suffice it to say that I am really struggling to find a work-life (and blog & volunteer) balance. I apologize to all those whose emails I haven’t answered and for the guest posts I haven’t edited; I hope to resurface again soon and get caught up.

Several people have told me they understand what it feels like to lose one’s mojo, and suggested changes in diet and exercise. Others have shared art that inspires them. Jennifer aka Baklava Queen sent me this poem, which I liked so much I wanted to pass on. I only know Gary Snyder as a Beat poet from my English classes, turns out he is also considered the “poet of Deep Ecology,” which I’d like to know more about.

On Top
By Gary Snyder

All this new stuff goes on top
turn it over, turn it over
wait and water down
from the dark bottom
turn it inside out
let it spread through
Sift down even.
Watch it sprout.

A mind like compost.

Another friend named Jennifer — the fireball Jennifer Nix — has just written a really thought-provoking meditation on the relationship of activism and art for the Huffington Post titled “Resurrecting Literature: Sustenance for the Progressive Soul.” Her essay, which is long but worth reading every word, includes an interview with  Aleksandar Hemon, author of the new novel “The Lazarus Project.” I found this exchange in particular quite resonant:

Nix: W. H. Auden famously said, “Art makes nothing happen.” Yet, I’ve read that Eleanor Roosevelt credited The Grapes of Wrath with helping FDR understand the need for the social welfare programs of the New Deal. On which side do you fall in the long-running argument over whether art should seek to do something to or for the world, or rather that it should exist simply for its own sake?

Hemon: These are not the only two sides of the argument. For one thing, being an artist and being a citizen are not two mutually exclusive things. I can write a sonnet on the beauty of a lake in the morning and then go out and get arrested for demonstrating against the government in the afternoon. Auden was politically active and wrote some beautiful political poetry.For as long as I’ve been writing fiction, I’ve been writing for radio, magazines, newspapers. Even now, I write a column for a magazine in Sarajevo in which I freely let go of my political opinions and try hard to incite some anger, at least in my readers. I think journalism–or at least speaking out in public place–is far more effective as political statement than fiction. It takes me six years to write a novel and I try to make it emotionally and philosophically complex. Activist journalism can be quick and to the point.

Another thing is that I believe in the agency of people, as individuals and as communities. The structure of this agency can be complex and unpredictable. People could be pushed to action by a work off art, or an article or a conversation or a bad hangover. But for this to happen there has to be a pre-existing moral, ethical, political framework which generates people’s agency.

Each work of literature (and art), I believe, is an ethical statement made in public space, which then exerts ethical demands upon the reader. Ideally it helps the reader formulate his or her ethical, philosophical positions. But the agency is with the reader–after reading a book they could turn on TV and forget about it all, or go out and become activists, or descend into suicidal despair, or just hate the book because they think it is trying to teach them a lesson. Or they could be inspired to orchestrate genocide. People live their lives within their ethical and political framework. No work of art can turn a sociopath like Cheney into a decent human being.

We now return to our regular programming. Thanks for your patience.

One Responseto “Angst, activism, and art: Inspiration from Gary Snyder and Aleksandar Hemon”

  1. Annie says:

    The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, while the New Deal began in 1933, and had mostly run its course by 1939.