But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may
be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
The failure to acknowledge that the many global crises we now face are, inherently, crises of capitalism represents a massive failure of the imagination. And without the radicalization of the imagination, we have no hope of overcoming these crises.
Each of us is required, given the state of our world and the transformative possibilities, to consider our assumptions and understanding about who we are as writers, peacemakers, and members of a community of beings.
Once upon a time – and I use that phrase deliberately – storytellers were the ones who spoke their society’s truths. They did so as guardians of history, as carriers of dreams, as enactors of ritual. Their stories embodied beliefs about the relationships between humans and the other-than-human world, though no pre-modern society would have understood such a division. Once upon a time, stories imaginatively enlarged the world by being grounded in the actual – the earth, the sky, the cosmos. Every pre-modern cosmogony grows out of the real; every origin myth describes a pre-existing world into which humans were thrust, breathless, dishevelled, disoriented. The cosmos, in other words, came first. Humans had to be taught, by the animals and the gods, how to behave and what to do.
Current science supports these beliefs. At 13.7 billion years old, the cosmos is an ancient being; the first anatomically modern humans only arrived some 200,000 years ago. But a mere three hundred years ago or so – a blink of an eye in cosmic time – the Enlightenment’s emphasis on man as the rational animal, followed by the inventions of the Machine Age, began dramatically altering our relationship to the other-than-human. In our modern cosmogony, humans have grown larger and larger while the rest of the world has grown smaller and smaller. We have, in creating this grotesque image of ourselves, broken fundamentally with the past. And this grotesque imaginative projection, artificially enhanced by technology, is the source of the Endarkenment of our times.
Earlier writers of the industrial age – Blake and Wordsworth among them – recognized the effects on humanity of our increasing enchantment by the dark spell of the Machine. Later still, writers from the dying empires of the nineteenth century and the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth – Mikhail Bulgakov, Bruno Schulz, Anna Ahkmatova, Paul Celan, Primo Levi – reflected the anxiety, dislocation, and soullessness of what we had wrought. With hindsight, Franz Kafka and George Orwell are the presiding geniuses of the Machine Age (Orwell, interestingly, being one of the few writing in English). Yet since the beginning of the neoliberal onslaught in 1980, and with increasing speed since the beginning of this century, our world has moved far beyond what even Kafka and Orwell might have imagined.
The American cultural thinker Arlene Goldbard calls our world “Datastan.” Datastan is a place controlled by data, by statistics, by the logical mind – a virtual totalitarianism, in other words. It is a world that values only reason, logic, and planning, based increasingly on algorithms generated by machines. It is a world that proclaims the redundancy of the inner – instinct, emotion, imagination, intuition – and the irrelevance of connectedness and nurturing, both toward other humans and the natural world. In Datastan, we do not merely consume products (including the products of the corporate imagination); we become products. We do not merely use machines; we are ingested by them. We wear them, live in them, insert them inside our bodies. Datastan enables the relentless efficiency of the market by turning everything into a unit of information and value, including human body parts, disease, water, even air. (You can now buy canned fresh air in Beijing for four to five yuan – about $0.80 – per can.)
The writer and teacher Henry Giroux calls this world the “disimagination machine.” Despite the fact that Datastan did not exist fifty years ago, we are convinced that it is real. Two generations have grown up in its chilly embrace. Yet Datastan, like all forms of organizing society, is an act of the imagination. We have committed the appalling act of imagining into being a world that acts against the imagination, against creativity, against life. “We have surrendered our lives,” says the American writer and activist Chris Hedges, “to corporate forces that ultimately serve systems of death.”
Imagining an alternative, however, becomes increasingly difficult. It’s like asking a fish to imagine life outside water. In such a time, it ought to be the role of artists and writers to call us to that task of imagination, to wake us out of our sleep. Why, then, isn’t this happening?
Kafka was right: The modern world has made the irrational rational.
We are insane as a culture, at war with reality. . . . The only way adults avoid going utterly insane is through denial, disavowal, and keeping busy.
—Commenter on Guardian article on children’s mental health
To look deeply at what has happened to both public and private imagination is now almost impossible in any public venue – impossible because we are losing the language with which to discuss it. “Unquantifiable arenas like history, literature, religion, and the arts are receding from public life,” says Bruce Feiler in the New York Times, “[and being]replaced by technology, statistics, science, and math. Even the most elemental form of communication, the story, is being pushed aside by the list” [emphasis added]. To quote Giroux again, literacy in North America today is actually “a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self. . . .” When it becomes difficult “to imagine what the other person is experiencing,” as Hannah Arendt pointed out, the stage is being set for fascism.
Universities are eagerly colluding in this denigration of whatever does not serve the logic of the market, helping erode and falsify their traditional role. University of Saskatchewan professors Alexander Ervin and Howard Woodhouse note that “market relations at universities are normalized [by]the mechanistic discourse of corporate culture: Students become ‘educational consumers’; subject-based disciplines and the professors who teach them become ‘resource units’; curricula become ‘program packages’; graduates are now ‘products’; and ‘competing in the global economy’ has replaced the search for knowledge and truth.”
The fact that language itself is being subjugated to these ends ought to be another alarm bell for writers. “Language,” says Chris Hedges, “is used as a mask by the power elite to prevent us from seeing reality.” But writers themselves, far from trying to tear off the mask, seem largely interested in their careers (or lack of them): discussing the latest method for marketing their books, bemoaning their declining earnings. This anxiety is legitimate and understandable; writers, like others, have a right to be paid for their work. But that right is (ironically) being undermined by the very market they are seeking to exploit. The response of many writers – let’s work harder, faster, smarter – is that of collaborationists, colluding with the market appraisal of the value of books and those who write them. The more writers focus on turning themselves into brands, the more invested they are in promotion and readings and conferences and who gets nominated for what prize, the less able, or willing, they are to criticize the hand that feeds them (in increasingly paltry amounts).
We must choose, as the Dylan quote at the beginning of this essay tells us, whom to serve. The late rabbi and historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi said, “In the world in which we live it is no longer merely a question of the decay of collective memory and declining consciousness of the past, but . . . the invention of mythological pasts in the service of the powers of darkness” [emphasis added]. Do we participate in the service of a mythology – for example, the myth that we live in a democratic society – when to do so is to shore up the rickety facades of illusion?
But as Hedges also notes, rising up to resist those forces, in the form of intellectual and moral honesty, comes at a cost. “The corporate assault on culture, journalism, education, the arts, and critical thinking,” says Hedges, “has left those who speak this truth marginalized and ignored, frantic Cassandras who are viewed as slightly unhinged and depressingly apocalyptic.” The result is almost complete silence, in literary culture, around the unprecedented planetary situation we find ourselves in. Paralyzed, overwhelmed, afraid, we do not talk, either in our books or elsewhere, about intensifying climate change, massive species extinction, the corporate stranglehold on the planet. Like everyone else, writers prefer, apparently, to sleepwalk into the nightmare. The stories that are assigned cultural value – literary novels in particular, especially those that win prizes – are especially silent.
“The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence,” says the Guardian columnist George Monbiot. “As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. . . . That’s how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.”
Sometimes a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of that mirror that the truth stares at us.
This deafening silence was only too visible in the choices for 2013’s principal Canadian fiction prizes, the Scotiabank Giller and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. The opening story from Lynn Coady’s short story collection Hellgoing, which won the 2013 Giller, begins this way: “Jane salutes you from an age where to be an aficionado is to find yourself foolishly situated in the world. Where to care a great deal about something, no matter how implicitly interesting it may be, is to come across as a kind of freak. . . . Beanie Babies, say, or Glenn Gould.”
Where does this locate us? We have a point-of-view character, Jane, who believes (or perhaps the narrative voice is asserting) that having passions is currently unfashionable. Being cool and uninvolved, by implication, is the appropriate attitude. Whether this belief is Jane’s or the narrator’s, it is – to say the least – oversold in our culture. But perhaps Coady is satirizing this attitude? Certainly the story as a whole seems intended as a kind of comic riff on drunks, Newfoundlanders, and naive western Canadians.
If satire is the intention, the targets are too easy, the story trite and overfamiliar. Jane is that tedious character in modern fiction, a writer, who manages to finagle a trip to Newfoundland to produce a travel piece. (In a tired nod to postmodernism – or perhaps this is intended as satire too? – the narrative voice reveals that Jane is not her real name.) A naïf as bland as her pseudonym, Jane gets her come-uppance, sort of, but it’s a mere ego-deflation with no real consequences.
Even as a satire of our self-absorption, our obsession with cultural ephemera (Beanie Babies), our inability to invest in anything, what’s the point? Don’t most of us already see this reflected around us endlessly, as in a hall of mirrors? What, then, does such fiction do, beyond reinforcing our knowingness, our sense of recognition? Satire ought to undermine such smugness by upending the familiar order, but this story does no such thing. At a time when we’re in dire need of literary fiction that takes larger risks, we’re presented with a fictional world where the stakes are miniscule and the outcome predictable.
Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries won both the GG for fiction and the UK’s Man Booker Prize. Its ambition is epic, its structural conceit involving astrology impressive, much like 2004’s Cloud Atlas. For all its ambition, however, it is essentially a clever stunt: a pitch-perfect imitation of a nineteenth-century novel. Here’s a passage from page 2:
[Moody’s] . . . grey eyes were large and unblinking, and his supple, boyish mouth was usually poised in an expression of polite concern. His hair inclined to a tight curl; it had fallen in ringlets to his shoulders in his youth, but now he wore it close against his skull, parted on the side and combed flat with a sweet-smelling pomade that darkened its golden hue to an oily brown. . . . He was not quite eight-and-twenty, still swift and exact in his motions, and possessed of the kind of roguish, unsullied vigour that conveys neither gullibility nor guile.
The New York Times saw this as “a lively parody” of a nineteenth-century novel that creates “something utterly new,” though a few reviewers managed to see past the hype. Here’s David Sexton of the London Evening Standard:
Let’s concede that The Luminaries is a stunning feat of construction. The Booker judges knew, whatever else its merits, they were giving the prize to a tremendously technically accomplished piece of work. I suspect some exhausted reviewers praised it for the same reason. It doesn’t necessarily make it any good, of course. A ship made of matchsticks in a bottle is a feat of construction but not necessarily a great work of art.
Such fiction may be technically accomplished, as Sexton points out (note that word technical); it may be intellectually clever; but it challenges neither the reader nor the society we live in. It immerses us in a particular world, but to what end? Does it illuminate our own time? Does it force us to re-examine what reality is? Is it, in the end, necessary?
The American blogger Brian A. Oard refers to “the comforting, overstuffed palisade of our safe, middle-class literature.” He cites other writers, such as W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, who “insist upon the importance of the ‘big questions’ in an age when our fiction has become narrow and domesticated.” Most current fiction, which he terms “suburban realism,” is “a function of America’s economic and geopolitical position as an isolated, affluent, secure, imperial superpower.” (Canada, under the hegemony of that power, demonstrates the same “duvet realism,” to use Mike Barnes’ term.)
But with the U. S. in undeniable economic decline, as Oard notes, the situation is changing before our eyes. “By all rights, 21st-century Americans should produce a 19th-century Russian literature. The America of our time is finally, terribly, a Dostoevskyan place. We are all foreigners now.”
Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.
Realism is also an ideology, one that can obscure reality as much as it can illuminate it.
There are writers who are smashing the mirror and using the fragments to reflect other kinds of realities, or refract back to us our own. The current darkness in juvenile and young-adult novels provides a more authentic reflection of our time than most adult literary fiction, which might be why adults are gobbling it up. The stalwart Ursula Le Guin has long been challenging the false dichotomy between realist and speculative fiction in collections such as Unlocking the Air. Then there’s the prolific British writer China Miéville, whose short story “Covehithe” is set in a future in which deepwater oil rigs gain sentience and march on land – for the purpose, as it turns out, of reproduction. (Miéville’s story was commissioned by the Guardian in 2011 as part of a series called Oil Stories.) It’s a deeply chilling piece precisely because it mirrors our ambivalence about the Machine while creating a fresh, and brilliantly written, take on the development of machine intelligence.
When reality is fantastical, it is fantasy that represents reality. As the American writer Theodora Goss says: “I write fantasy because the reality I see around me is fantastical, so that fantasy becomes a new realism, representing our reality, the reality of the twenty-first century, more accurately than the old realism, which was formed in the nineteenth. . . . It is fantasy that allows us to imagine the world we want to create.”
There are a few contemporary “literary” writers in English who are also shattering old molds. J.M. Coetzee, for one, whose recent The Childhood of Jesus – metaphorical, resonant, baffling – depicts an older undocumented migrant and the boy he has taken charge of, trying to make their way in an unnamed country. In the U. S., Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov shows off its Russian influences in its whimsy, wit, and sly political satire. In Canada there is Kathy Page’s recent story collection, Paradise and Elsewhere, whose mythic, fable-like stories have something of the flavour of Le Guin without the anthropological detail.
Far from reinforcing the current paradigm, these stories step outside it in order to genuinely see. These writers, like those in earlier totalitarian regimes, are using myth, fable, allegory, satire, surrealism, and magic realism to evade the world our rulers have built. Such stories do exactly what Kafka demanded: they are “an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” They force us to crack open, to bend our minds and hearts around a way of seeing and being in the world that once belonged to all of us, but that we can no longer even imagine, let alone live.
Paradoxically they are also more “realistic” because they reflect current science. In his book The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, the physicist Brian Greene says: “Through physical insight and mathematical rigor, guided and confirmed by experimentation and observation, we’ve established that space, time, matter, and energy engage a behavioral repertoire unlike anything any of us have ever directly witnessed. [P]ene-trating analyses . . . are leading us to what may be the next upheaval in understanding: the possibility that our universe is not the only universe.”
Could it be that contemporary scientists have more imagination than contemporary writers?
And if our current stories do not shatter us, do not deliver us into other realms of being, then why are we writing them?
The only viable alternative [to our planetary crisis]is to respond through direct confrontation with that which has been suppressed.
“The Cutting Edge” blog
“Some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency,” say the writers and editors Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Slovic in ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment). “Anything written solely for tenure. Anything written solely for promotion. Any shamelessly solipsistic project. Anything, in short, that isn’t the most significant use of a writer’s life and talents. Otherwise, how could it ever be forgiven by the ones who follow us, who will expect us finally to have escaped the narrow self-interest of our economy and our age?”
Last year Moore and Slovic issued a “call to writers,” asking them to respond to the planetary emergency of climate change. “There is essential work to be done in our roles as academics and writers, empowered by creative imagination, moral clarity, and the strength of true witness,” Moore and Slovic wrote. “[Writers] must write as if the planet were dying.” They continue: “Surely in a world dangerously slipping away, we need courageously and honestly to ask again the questions every author asks: Who is my audience – now, today, in this world? What is my purpose?”
They went on to suggest potential “categories,” including “the drum-head pamphlet,” “the broken-hearted hallelujah” (borrowing Leonard Cohen’s phrase), the “radical imaginary,” the “narrative of the moral imagination.”
How else might we respond to that which has been suppressed? The American writer and storyteller Deena Metzger says: “For every writer, the imagination can be a real place. The real life and our future reside there. Our words can destroy or restore. What we write matters” [emphasis added]. Like Moore and Slovic, but more broadly, Metzger goes on to call on writers and artists “to imagine and commit to a new literature and a new culture so that the lives of the humans and non-humans and the earth itself will be vital again.”
Or a response might take the shape of the UK’s Dark Mountain Project, which describes itself as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself.” Begun as a cri de coeur by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougal Hine, two disillusioned writers and community activists, Dark Mountain “grew out of a feeling that contemporary literature and art were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises.” Kingsnorth and Hine continue: “We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning the foundations of the world in which we find ourselves” [emphasis added]. This initial act of imagination has led to ongoing conversations throughout the UK as well as in Europe, North America, and elsewhere; four annual festivals and six anthologies of prose and poetry; and a number of offshoot events and gatherings.
A story, both true and mythical.
In the 1980s, a small group of people began gathering in a church basement in East Germany. Their purpose for getting together was to discuss what Germany might look like in a thousand years when the Berlin Wall finally fell. It seemed an impossible idea, but the group felt energized and agreed to meet again. Word of their meetings spread. Soon church basements all over Germany were filled with people discussing the same vision. It was a grassroots movement of ordinary people, daring to organize around a dream of change. Then in 1987, seemingly out of the blue, Mikhail Gorbachev announced the economic reforms known as perestroika. And on November 9, 1989 – much sooner than a thousand years – the Berlin Wall came down.
I’m not suggesting that the wall came down solely because a number of East Germans imagined it could. But it’s significant that what people chose was a form of indirect political activism that harnessed the power of the imagination. A small group of ordinary people had the courage to tell a new story about their future. And I like to think that this new story that they dared to tell each other helped, in fact, to bring about Germany’s new reality.
We have yet to fully appreciate that the stories we tell ourselves matter, profoundly, as the anecdote about the Berlin Wall illustrates. The Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea says, “I came to believe . . . that the world was more than a place. Life was more than an event. It was all one thing, and that thing was: story.” We have the power of story the wrong way round. It isn’t that the world is composed of stories; rather, it is stories that make up, that create, our world.
Another story, this time about what we might do here in Canada. In whose interests are we working when our imaginations and our stories are too shallow, too self-serving, too risk-averse? How and in what ways do we achieve radical acts of the imagination? And who are we “as writers, peacemakers, and members of a community of beings,” to quote Deena Metzger?
Several of us who have learned about Dark Mountain, and been published in its anthologies, are beginning to talk about a similar initiative here. We hope to begin with a relatively small and informal gathering in the summer of 2015. Where things go from there is anyone’s guess. We hope the event will serve as a catalyst for new acts of the imagination, as a rallying point for others who “have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself,” as a place for story, poetry, music, feasting, performance, incantation. As a place for old stories to resurface and regenerate, a place for new ones to catch fire.
I also hope that this essay can serve as a jumping-off point for a profound and deeply felt discussion among Canadian writers. I’d be happy to hear your responses at email@example.com. And I’d love to see more essays/ meditations/stories in response.
From CNQ 92 (Spring 2015)