"It is, if you like, the final irony that John's governing love was for a country which is, to say the least, distrustful of those who seem to be both clever and passionate. There is in English public life an implicit assumption that the head and the heart are in some sort of opposition. If someone is clever, they get labelled cold. If they are emotional, they get labelled stupid. Nothing bewilders the English more than someone who exhibits great feeling and great intelligence. When, as in John's case, a person is abundant in both, the English response is to take in the washing and bolt the back door."
Have we come to the same place in America? Have we become so mired in irony that passion and intelligence is no longer an ideal?
To me, these questions are best answered on a generational basis. When I look at my students, the answer would be no, we have not come to such a place yet. While they sometimes adopt a certain ironic detachment as a comic pose, they have a strong commitment to passion and intelligence and when given the chance to express it (i.e., when given a chance to talk about things they care about rather than things teachers tell them they should care about), they sing their hope and compassions with a full voice. However, earlier generations, who are currently in charge of most things, do seem to have been dipped in the acid of irony, and it shows up in our mass media, our news media, and many of our stories. It isn't downright cynicism, which at least would have the power of honesty, but is reflected more in the art of the scare quotes and the eye roll.
In class today, we talked about hope. Despite all evidence to the contrary in our current social landscape, most of my students have a great deal of hope -- both individual and collective. In fact, some of the hope is tied to the negative parts of the outlook: a belief that an economic and environmental collapse might lead us to a simpler, more humane lifestyle. There is a sense of wanting somehow to be allowed to care for each other, to live a life that is more than non-stop work, but that is based in a stronger humanism. I came away from the class feeling more buoyed and upbeat.
We also discussed this story from the book Creative Brooding, which might propose an image of the role of the arts in our contemporary environment:
One day Lauren Isley leaned against a stump at the edge of a glade and fell asleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glad was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light. And there on the extended branch sat and enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak. The sounds that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestlings parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still. Up to that point, the little tragedy had dollowed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties, drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents. No one dared to attack the raven. But the cried there in some instinctive, common misery. The bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling, and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim, intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death, and he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable. The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, thew crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush, and finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song and then another. The song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth, they had forgotten the raven. For they were the singers of life, and not of death.”
I am reminded of the opening paragraph of Jill Dolan's Utopia in Performance, in which she discusses "the potential of different kinds of performance to inspire moments in which audiences feel themselves allied with each other, and with a broader, more capacious sense of a public, in which social discourse articulates the possible rather than the insurmountable obstacles to human potential.”
Transcendence. The transformation of life's pain into beauty. The attempt to make the ordinary extraordinary. National geographic photographer Dewitt Jones, in his inspiring DVD Extraordinary Vision, talks about realizing that his pragmatic orientation "I'll believe it when I see it" needed to be reversed: "I'll see it when I believe it." Perhaps the arts, through the act of imagination, can help people believe it so that they can see it. Might inspire people with what is possible.
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