Monday, August 11, 2014

I guess I had some vague sense of what I wanted, having gathered it up on that fine old New England college campus, a sense that America, the democratic beast needed fine literature.  I suppose I made some connection, while listening to a double album of JFK speeches in the music library through headphones looking out the window at night.  I connected that with that feeling I got in Benjamin DeMott's English 11 classroom the first semester of my freshman year, reinforced by a talk he gave, remarks at a dinner.

There is the moment of redemption in Karamazov, the youngest brother Alyosha bringing a kind of redemption to the smart school kid.  His little group has had a little difference with a particular kid, a sickly towhead who has a great love for his father, such that when they taunt him over his dad, rocks are thrown, etc.  The redemption comes at the sickly kid's deathbed, over the finding of a stray dog that brings peace.  And Kolya, who's been a part of the juvenile taunts, can be freed, himself again, good feelings all around.

"I look forward to an America..." his speech at Amherst went.  Where fine old New England towns are preserved, where poetry is respected...

And so, with some vague idea, I went out into life.  I thought there should be some WPA-like service, a clearing house of ideas, a place where writers could write, paid for their work fairly by a system of government that found forms of creative writing just as important to an informed public as the news, keeping Americans thinking, keeping them open and alive to possibilities such as those written about by Dostoevsky.

FMD may well himself have sensed, knowing from within, that schoolboy's need for redemption.  A nervous man who'd seen a lot, been sent up to Siberia, may well have felt like he'd made a great mess out of life, having to resign himself to the strange work of writing, perhaps he imagined what his own redemption might look like, mirrored somehow in the quiet schoolboy "Hurrah for Karamazov," coming from his little chickens, as Alyosha is set with taking care of his older brother unjustly sent off to prison.  There is in it a glimpse, the vision of the writer as a teacher.  (And thus was the tradition of what is great literature, as if by happenstance and dumb luck, fluke really, reinforced.)

And there is, of course, a need for literature, not just deep in the personal souls of soulful Russian folk, but in America too, gleaming, new, but in some danger of the dark ignorance that rises into political forum.  Everyone is redeemable, everyone is fragile.   Larger questions need to be raised.  Earlier, thinking people were well-read, creatures of the Enlightenment, curious, building a nation.  They read.  And literature needs to be a backdrop of dialog, not just the economy and the bottom line, but what kind of graceful country we are attempting to create and let live in each of our small daily acts.

(Hitler, or course, did the opposite, making art into degeneracy, banishing thoughtful books like All Quiet on the Western Front from the propagandized public mind.  No place would he have had for Winesburg, Ohio or anything by Philip Roth, or Ernest Hemingway, or Fitzgerald, forget Twain, even anything Lincoln spoke.  FDR meanwhile, employed artists, largely to record, to create as they saw fit rather than subject them to a charge to make propaganda like the Nazi ideal.  Indeed, it took a great fellow, who knew that there is nothing to fear but fear itself, to get such a thing up and running, to not let the WPA artist effort get cooped by a faction...)

I can see the need for a writer to want redemption, to feel like there's a Civil War aftermath he wishes to clean up, yes, without malice and with charity.  They don't always do that in other places in the world.

The long weekend before the first therapy session:  what am I going to say, how crazy am I, just where do I stand, where do I begin.  Terrifying, really.  As if an original primal fear, necessary to the encounter in a fight for survival, the sighting of the wild beast in its place.  An agony of ticking clock and slow passing days, the wish to lay in bed, not wanting to face the process, whatever the process is.  It does not always pay to have an imaginative mind, the anxious over-sensitivity.  How not to lie, but speak the truth?  But at least recognizing, as all along in the psyche, a need for redemption.

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