Is it OK to Write?

In an article I first read in "Aeon Magazine" (March 2014) Rhys Southan raises a subject that is hard for me to ignore. He wants to know if writing makes the world a better place. He puts the question more generally: “Is it OK to make art?”

And in the next breath, he answers his question: “If you express your creativity while other people go hungry, you probably don’t make the world a better place.”

How can I possibly answer this question? The obvious answer would leave me up the creek. Down the drain goes the past 20 years of my life.

But really what can I do now at the age I am to improve the world? I taught for many years and I thought I was doing something worthwhile. I did laboratory research all those years whose results I thought might clarify an idea or two and later, field research I thought might in some small measure conserve energy resources.

As I think back on this work, I have to admit none of this research made the world a better place. It is rarely cited in the journals and even it is, it might be read by a half dozen students, at most.

The question, (“Is it OK to make art?”) was posed by Southan as he was about to finish a screenplay he was working on. He decides to travel to a retreat in East Devon with a few other friends who happen to be members of a growing activism movement called Effective Altruism (EA). They tell him its goal is doing as much good as you possible can.

So like Southan, I begin to wonder if anything I’ve written has done any good and by “good” I mean reduce hunger, eradicate disease, improve the world, that sort of thing. Of course it hasn’t. Southan begins to think the same, as he realizes Effective Altruism’s goal threatened to undermine the very purpose of his trip.

“As EAs see it, writing scripts and making movies demands resources that, in the right hands, could have saved lives…From this point of view, the importance of most individual works of art would have to be negligible compared with, say, deworming 1,000 children.”

As I become more and more unsettled in reading this article, I recall something Henry Perowe said about reading great novels in Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday.

“Henry had read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, two acknowledged masterpieces. At the cost of slowing his mental processes and many hours of his valuable time, he committed himself to the shifting intricacies of these sophisticated fairy stories. What did he grasp, after all? That adultery is understandable but wrong, that nineteenth-century women had a hard time of it, that Moscow and the Russian countryside and provincial France were once just so.”

I wonder what Tolstoy or Flaubert would say when asked if their novels made the world a better place or if literature, in general, benefits humanity in any way. Yes, novels may be a pleasure to write and an equal pleasure to read and once in a while enhance the coffer of authors.

Perhaps a few readers were able to make a major change in their life after reading a novel and some may have no doubt learned something or chanced upon a truth that led to a fruitful line of inquiry. But beyond these few individuals, how might literature make the world a better place, as the Effective Altruists ask?

When I was a young man, I learned about an oath that every Athenian male swore to as they graduated from the Ephetic College that was required to become a full citizen of classical Athens. Among other things, mostly military matters, you pledged, “to transmit this city, not only no less, but far greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”

I’ve never forgotten that oath, believe it applies widely, and now, in the context of this article, feel that at least in terms of all I’ve written, none of it leaves the city or any other part of the world, any better than I found it.

Once in a while a novel will be written that really does make the world a better place for a wide segment of the population. Upon Sinclair’s The Jungle is the one I recall most vividly. I led to a radical change in the meatpacking industry in this country and subsequently to the Meat Inspection and Food and Drug Regulation Acts.

And Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is credited with promoting the abolitionist cause and all that ensued from that. Upon meeting Stowe, Lincoln is said to have declared: "So this is the little lady who started this great war." (I also think of Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, which isn’t a novel, but none-the-less played an enormous and continuing role in promoting the environmental movement.”)

And while John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, may have wrestled with the life of impoverished families in the Great Depression, nothing much changed in the life of the poor as a result of it. I don’t know of any novelists today who are writing about the plight of the poor.

At the end of his article, Southan admits he, along with everyone else, could do more than they currently are. “For now that will have to be my justification. I’m not ready to give up writing. I’m not ready to take up some high-paid job that I’d hate in order to reduce the world’s suffering. Maybe that will change.”

My immediate response is: I doubt it will. I suspect every writer will continue to write, as they always have, regardless of the compelling goals of Effective Altruism. Novelists don’t write books to change the world. Why they do is another matter.


Stefanie said...

I think writing and art does plenty of things to make the world a better place. The spirit needs to be fed as much as the body does. And, in the words of Audre Lorde from her essay Poetry is Not a Luxury:

"Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives."

And in the words of William Carlos Williams:

"It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

Also, there is a fantastic essay by Adrienne Rich, "Blood, Bread, and Poetry: The Location of the Poet." She also has a collection of essays with the same title and the whole book is very good.

Does art make the world a better place? Yes, it does. A book doesn't have to be an Uncle Tom's Cabin to make a difference. I've read plenty of memoirs in which the author asserts that reading saved their life. I can't make such a dramatic claim but I can say that reading and writing has kept me sane and makes me a better person who has done volunteer work, who is compassionate, who stands up for civil rights, who is not a burden on society but a contributor to it. Have I solved world hunger or homelessness? No. But that is not for me to solve alone, that is something we all have to solve together and ditching art because its effects are not immediately seen is short-sighted and just plain messed up in my opinion.

So feel good about what you have done. You have no way to know what a difference you have made to someone, but you have to trust that you have.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you for your reassuring words which I will record for those days when I have my doubts.

All I know I could be doing something more useful to more people other than writing or reading. The world is drowning in problems that need to be solved and while my words might be of interest to one or two people, there are far more others who could benefit more.

I feel like the historian of the battle, not the one in the trenches doing the fighting so the historian will have something to write about.

Linda said...

Where there are Hellenes, there also is Hellas.

More on your post later, Richard.


Richard Katzev said...

Perhaps you will clarify your meaning for this ignorant blogger.

Richard Katzev said...

Perhaps you will clarify your meaning for this ignorant blogger.

Linda said...

I should have expanded, but was very short on time at that moment. It was an instantaneous response to your comment about Athenian males taking an oath to "transmit" the city of Athens greater and more beautiful than it had been transmitted to them. The phrase floated up in my mind when I came to that part of your post and I dashed it off.

It is an allusion to the Hellenistic period of classical Greece (Hellas meaning ancient Greece and Hellenes meaning its inhabitants). Who can deny that the art, literature, philosophy, and politics of classical Greece have exerted a powerful influence on Western civilization and that the world is a better place for it? That Greece - that Hellas - exists no more, but its legacy informs the culture and the values of the modern western world. That legacy also lives in the minds of enlightened and principled individuals, the "heirs" of the ancient Greeks, one might say. Therefore, "where there are Hellenes, there also is Hellas."

But, to your larger point, I think Stefanie has defended art, especially literary activities, very well, and I agree wholeheartedly. Reading and writing are consolations in the face of the human condition. They illuminate our pain, thereby making it more bearable.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Linda. I understand the difference between Hellas and Hellenes.

In Classical Athens, it was only the males who could be formally considered citizens, it took centuries to overcome that prejudice.

Yes, Stefanie has made a strong defense of art and writing in general. Still the problems remain as I have replied.

While I agree that reading and writing illuminate "our pain," it is difficult to find persuasive evidence that it makes it more bearable, especially over the long term.

Richard Katzev said...

P.S. See my blogs of long ago on Writing Therapy.

Linda said...

You are right, Richard - the ancient Greeks were men of their time and it was a man's world. I was alluding to their ideals, art, intellectual advances.

I know you have made a study of this. I cannot speak to the lack of evidence, but I personally have found enduring comfort in literature. Maybe it's as simple as the old "misery loves company" impulse. I will definitely read your blogs on writing therapy.

You see? You have made a difference to one human being today.

Linda said...

P.S. Read some of your posts on writing and reading therapy and that reminded me - I am reading The Schopenhauer Cure -which I learned about from your blog. Loving it!

Richard Katzev said...

I am so glad you found The Schopenhauer Cure, an intellectual tour de force. One of the recent bests.

cath said...

A while ago someone emailed me about a managerial promotion made and mentioned her new 'spam of control'. I don't repeat that here to make fun of it, although I confess to have smiled when reading. And then the 'spam' lingered and the more I thought about it the more I liked it. My circle of influence vanished when a car hit mine and losing the potential impact I professionally might have had has caused me much grief. Being very aware of today's world problems doesn't help.
This morning while ironing and reflecting on your thoughts I suddenly thought; what if I am meant to grow, not into the imprint I might leave on this world, but into the becoming ever more transparant of this imprint.
This is not an original thought of mine. It is built on Victor Frankl's who said: 'Man does not simply exist, but always decides what his existance will be, what he will become in the next moment.'
Writing matters, art matters.

Richard Katzev said...

Thank you, Catherine. I am reminded of the commencement speech, It's the Water, Stupid, delivered by David Foster Wallace. To the graduating students he said that the significant education they have received isn’t “really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” This means: “…being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”