POLITICS & ETHICS
Ghost of Writings Past
19 January 2019
For someone who writes, who teaches writing, I wonder how seldom I give myself time to reflect on why I write, why writing is critical, its necessity. Especially as we reduce our composition to Snaps and 140-character tweets, video and spoken word, and especially because I see an emerging tension between a composition of substance and one of efficiency, this space seems a likely one for some exploration.
I’ve made some brief forays into this area through my journaling with my high school freshmen over the past few years, and some of these ideas will re-emerge here, though these were not the inspiration for this post. But, in some important sense, even in this political chaos, there must be an accountability for all composition.
When I blather about out loud, I value my ideas, but I don’t worry so much if everything makes sense, holds together coherently, exists without grotesque contradiction. But by writing, when I inscribe (or in this case digitize) I hesitate and consider. I am not an oral wind which works too briefly to cool or heat, but more a smith working with steel that is quenched the moment I hit “Save” or “Publish.”
Writing is a publishing, then, even when it is written in a journal. Yes, though journals might be my private ideas, they are published to me, they speak back to me. They remind me of who I am and of what I am supposed to be. They make me accountable to them.
This must, then, be something I desire: to be slowed down, to be held accountable, to forge something more permanent about who I am. Otherwise, I am just a wind, a breath of words which last too few decades of lifetime, perhaps cooling or heating the spaces I walk, but to which one may never return.
Too infrequent, a place where there is little call but to write.
Even so, like a blacksmith whose hands work automatically, charred and stained by the tungsten and coal of his craft, if I’m not careful, my writing can become routine, just another craft, no different from a ceramic ashtray, a retweet, or a Transformers 14 film.
And writing shouldn’t be like that. When I stop taking risks, when the writing fails to poke readers straight in the eye like an olive fork, my brain turns off. There is nothing efficient or routine about that sort of mark.
For me, the biggest challenge of writing, then, is the risk of not really writing but engaging only in a composition of efficiency, an exhibition of economy. To write, when I am my best, is to saturate my words with moist layers of meaning, where readers–unable to pull the layers apart–can no longer determine if my idea is simple or complicated. When I am at my best, the moist layers drip with irony, with image, with idea. When I am writing my best, I am thinking my best; and when I am thinking best, I feel the most human.
And writing is the movement of my thinking, the marking that I am here. Artists make their marks in the world: they paint, they sculpt, they dance. Writers–a talent that comes to humans from thinking–write. What the merit of a legacy left of monotony or mutability?
“And writing is the movement of my thinking, the marking that I am here. . . . What the merit of a legacy left of monotony or mutability?“
But I also think that writing tests me. When I don’t write, I am casually comfortable with my thoughts. That is, I’m not forced to think hard, and when I come upon an idea that challenges me, I can just ignore it. But when that idea is written down–like a question about why I yelled while standing alone in my kitchen, just because I dropped a glass–I am not allowed to ignore it. I have to face it.
Writing about that kitchen glass, I have to ask myself, “Who was I yelling at or to?” What was the point of yelling if no one heard me? And, does that mean I’m irrational or worse?
But if I do not write, I cannot know.
Sometimes I wonder how much I know. I mean, when I’m thinking or talking on my own, a single idea comes out, one at a time. When I talk with friends, we talk about one topic at a time, and it’s always the ordinary ones: what kind of pizza to order, where we will meet, what the latest Netflix series is. Over and over.
But when I write, I get to find out that I know or believe something that even I hadn’t recognized. For instance, I had grown up with Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, always the chains of Jacob Marley’s ghost, always Scrooge buying a Christmas Goose, and ever the insipid Tiny Tim blathering away. I don’t think I realized–until I wrote about it–how much I hated that idea of the world. I hated the simple story, the simple idea of good and evil, the simple notion that the world would be made magically transformed by good ghosts or magic powers.
I thought Scrooge was a jerk, but I also thought Bob Cratchit was dumb for simply hoping life would get better. The world doesn’t get better because we hope and wish, offer thoughts and prayers. It gets better when we make choices to be more human, more willful, more resolute, more active.
I guess somewhere in my head I had come to believe this, but until I had written about it, I didn’t really know how much I did. Glasses in kitchens fall and break. The people around us don’t treat us fairly. Charles Dickens is foolish. If I yell to myself, it may be because I see that unfairness all the time. And I write about that, too. Holding my words accountable, I realize my reading of Dickens was itself far too simple.
Recently, I heard two different podcasts relate parts of Dickens’s story that I did not previously understand. One was an economics fight that Dickens had involved himself with as a motivation to write; more, the very concept of Christmas did not make its way fully into the mainstream (city) consciousness until Dickens: that is, few thought the holiday was celebrated if you did not have the fireplace and cetera.
After the British parliament had published a report in the 1840s about the terrible working conditions for children in England, Dickens (and many others) were furious. He saw the torturous conditions as being an extension of the heartlessness of thinkers like Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations) who said that we were driven primarily by self-interest and greed, and Reverend Robert Malthus who argued that our “surplus population” was the result of the pregnant poor and limited resources. When England in 1834 passed the New Poor Laws–effectively making the conditions in workhouses far worse–the good Reverend Malthus supported them.
Dickens determined to write a pamphlet of protest on the issue (Thomas Paine, for instance, had made his career on such things, even arguing in The Rights of Man for a system of welfare for the poor, but Dickens wasn’t looking for a system of government to change: he wanted the people to. Frederich Engels would read the same report and start a philosophy of revolution with Karl Marx, but Dickens believed revolution was a last resort. More, Dickens soon recognized that his fiction had the power of fable, of mythology, that it could develop a life of its own: he described it as a “sledge hammer” blow that would impact these notions of a modern economy through the hearts of readers.
And so Scrooge mutters his “decrease the surplus population” line to imitate Malthus, “business is business,” to emulate Smith, and Tiny Tim becomes the casualty of workhouse coal. Inside the coat of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are two children, Ignorance and Want.
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Not that I wish to argue against Charles, here, but Smith explicitly argues that virtues such as prudence, justice, beneficence, and self-command regulate our behaviors to prevent abuse. And Malthus was largely correct about the relationship between population and resources: he just hadn’t witnessed the Industrial Revolution which would suddenly increase labor and wages for most everyone.
Write for business: Consume the luxury
Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus
If we do not write, we cannot know, can only be held recklessly accountable for the Scrooge-like efficiency of tweet and ‘Gram, Snap and soundbyte. The workhouses and trafficking of children, the appalling politics around immigration and resources, Voltaire’s “price at which (we) eat sugar,” surround us, yet our routine–even common–business of a composition of efficiency denies us both the chance to think richly and to act human(e)ly.
What does it mean when an accelerating world spins so quickly past that its mutable needs become a monotony of repeating news cycles? When what we believe is “true” depends upon an amnesia for what was said a week before? To what can we be held accountable when words are a shift only in the temperature of air?
Cynicism breathes well enough, it requires no assistance; but can our writing erase Doom?
Broich, John. “A Christmas Carol: The True History Behind the Dickens Story.” Time, Time, 13 Dec. 2016, time.com/4597964/history-charles-dickens-christmas-carol/.
“A CHRISTMAS CAROL.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm#link2.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Everyman, 2009.
“Did Charles Dickens Invent Christmas as We Know It Today?” History Extra, 19 Dec. 2018, www.historyextra.com/period/victorian/charles-dickens-dickensian-christmas-carol-scrooge/.
Hawksley, Lucinda. “Culture – How Did A Christmas Carol Come to Be?” BBC News, BBC, 22 Dec. 2017, www.bbc.com/culture/story/20171215-how-did-a-christmas-carol-come-to-be.
Kettler, Sara. “Charles Dickens Wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Only Six Weeks.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 5 Dec. 2018, www.biography.com/news/charles-dickens-a-christmas-carol.
Mulligan, Hugh. “The Story Behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.” Read It Forward, 20 Dec. 2016, www.readitforward.com/excerpt/story-behind-charles-dickens-christmas-carol/.
“The Economic Sensibilities of ‘A Christmas Carol.’” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 14 Dec. 2018, www.economist.com/prospero/2018/12/14/the-economic-sensibilities-of-a-christmas-carol.
Voltaire. Candide; or, Optimism:a New Tr., Backgrounds, Criticism. Norton, 1966.