The Israeli writer and dissident Uri Avnery asked an Egyptian general how the Egyptians managed to surprise the Israelis when they launched the October 1973 war. The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”
The deep malaise, rage and feelings of betrayal that have enveloped American society are rarely captured and almost never are explained coherently by the press. To grasp the savage economic and emotional cost of deindustrialization, the destruction of our democratic institutions, the dark undercurrent of nihilistic violence that sees us beset with mass shootings, the attraction of opioids, the rise of the militarized state and the concentration of national wealth in a tiny cabal of corrupt bankers and corporations, it is necessary to turn to a handful of poets, writers and other artists. These artists, who often exist on the margins of mass culture, are our unheeded prophets.
“What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and most other prophets have in common is a strong ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals—the obvious ones as well as those that lurk beneath the surface,” the painter Enrique Martinez Celaya said in an essay. “They also share urgency. Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving little room for calculation and diplomacy. Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting, and it is not enough to be apocalyptic. Something must be brought forward.”
All despotisms, including our own, make war on culture. They seek to manipulate or erase historical memory. This assault on memory, Martinez Celaya said, is “philosophical violence.” It leaves us with a “sense of being a stranger, displaced, a sense of having no way to check where one comes from because something has been cut and removed.”
When I recently interviewed Russell Banks, the novelist said, “It’s remarkable to me, the speed which memory gets lost in America and perhaps elsewhere. The world has been so decentralized. No one lives with anyone older than they are, generally. It’s only through memory that we can compare the present to anything else, to take its measure.”
“If you can’t take its measure then you can’t judge it,” he said. “You can’t evaluate it. You can’t take a moral position with regards to it.”
Randall Jarrell in his essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket” calls our consumer culture “periodical.”
“We believe that all that is deserves to perish and to have something else put in its place,” he wrote. This belief, Jarrell said, is “the opposite of the world of the arts, where commercial and scientific progress do not exist; where the bone of Homer and Mozart and Donatello is there, always, under the mere blush of fashion, where the past—the remote past, even—is responsible for the way we understand, value, and act in, the present.”
“An artist’s work and life presuppose continuing standards, values stretched out over centuries of millennia, a future that is the continuation and modification of the past, not its contradiction or irrelevant replacement,” he went on.
“The past’s relation to the artist or man of culture is almost the opposite of its relation to the rest of our society,” Jarrell wrote. “To him the present is no more than the last ring on the trunk, understandable and valuable only in terms of all the earlier rings. The rest of our society sees only that great last ring, the enveloping surface of the trunk; what’s underneath is a disregarded, almost hypothetical foundation.”
In his novel “Cloudsplitter,” Banks tells the story of John Brown through the eyes of Owen, a son who survived the assault on Harpers Ferry and the aborted slave uprising.
“White Americans always say that John Brown was well intended but insane,” he said in the interview. “Black Americans don’t think that at all. They think he was heroic. From Malcolm X to Baldwin to whomever you want to ask. W.E.B. Du Bois’ biography of Brown was the first biography of Brown that was sympathetic in any way. It’s very interesting there’s a racial divide on this man that is so extreme, yet no one disagrees about the facts. The facts have been known since 1859. No one has uncovered any new facts. But diametrically two views of history.”
“It began in the 15th century with this power grab that required genocidal relations to people who were not white Europeans,” he said. “It continues all the way to our present. You think of Shakespeare. The Moor becomes Caliban. The rise of the slave trade coincides exactly with that 10-year period [in which ‘Othello’ and ‘The Tempest’ were written].”
The artist makes the invisible visible. He or she shatters the clichés and narratives used to mask reality.
“Whenever they talk about unemployment figures or the state of the economy, you read the comments [about the article],” the poet Linh Dinh said when I interviewed him earlier this year. “The comments are people howling and cursing the article. Most people know these articles are nonsense. If you’re not fighting for your livelihood you tend to believe these articles.”
“What’s most disturbing is the hatred for these people, [the working class],” he told me. “The left always pretends to talk about the masses, the working class, but it really hates the working class. It doesn’t pay any attention to the working class. It mocks their values.”
Banks, in his novels beginning with “Continental Drift” in 1985, has, like Martinez Celaya and Linh Dinh, relentlessly chronicled the economic and psychological effects of deindustrialization on the working class and the deadening effects of technocratic society.
“If you lift the rock of bourgeois respectability, you see underneath these kinds of realities,” Banks said. “It isn’t just particular to small towns in upstate New York or New Hampshire or south Florida. It’s true across the entire spectrum of humanity. Those just happen to be the worlds I know best personally and longest. So my attention tends to focus there. But I know I’m really writing about humanity at large. Jesus said ‘the poor will always be with us.’ I think he was really saying there are more of them than there are of us. I think I’m writing about the majority of human beings on this planet, more than the majority. My attention goes out to those people. They are everywhere. Whenever someone says you’re writing about the minorities and outcasts, that’s not true. There are more people of color than there are people without color on this planet.”
Martinez Celaya said, “We need artists more than ever to be the conscience of the moment, to reflect back to us in the mirror what this society and this moment is, so we can see it. We cannot see it because of the creations, fabrications, and reality TV. It makes it so difficult for us to see what we’re going through. I keep wishing Dostoevsky could be born again so he can actually write a book of this moment.”
The physical decay of towns and cities silences important parts of our past. It allows corporations to create a false history and a false culture that homogenizes our lives into a deadening sameness.
“Stories make a place,” Linh Dihn wrote. “Without stories, there is no place, but without place, there can still be stories. If your stories are not organically grown, but imposed on you by those who hate everything about you, then you’re virtually dead.”
“Everywhere I go, every town I visit, you don’t see any industries,” he said in the interview. “You don’t see any factories. You don’t see anything. We don’t make anything. We are really the poorest country on earth, but people refuse to see that. We are only surviving. We are only looking good because of our military might, because we are an empire. But this force cannot go on forever. It should be so obvious that we’re only chugging along, bullying people into lending us money and sending us stuff that we don’t deserve, that we haven’t earned. How can we survive? Hundreds of thousands of Americans have been reduced to living like savages in this self-proclaimed greatest country on earth.”
The disease of empire, the belief that military power is a virtue, blinds us to the folly of our own hubris, our proclivity for violence and our decline. It leads us, Martinez Celaya said, to create miniature, distorted empires of our own. Donald Trump embodies this yearning for a personal empire as vicious and exploitative as the American empire. Empires create a culture in which people dedicate their lives to building monuments to themselves.
“I’m interested in this fabrication of empires,” Martinez Celaya said. “The implication that we’re always looking at a place that is better than where we are. We’re always insisting on a future that in some ways invalidates our present. Empires are dangerous for many reasons. Empires are dangerous because they ignore the conditions of the present. They are a denial of self. They are a denial of the real conditions of the present. And empires are illusory fabrications, manipulative to one’s self as well as to others. They are projections of human vanity. That’s what they are. The vanity of imagining ourselves better tomorrow than we are today.”
Soren Kierkegaard understood that the fundamental problem of modernity was that people had been deformed by mass culture into non-people. It was the artist-as-prophet who was tasked with exposing the lies embodied in the mindless chants fed to the crowd, he said. Tyrannies always seek to destroy us as distinct, autonomous human beings.
Christ “did not want to form a party, an interest group, a mass movement, but wanted to be what he was, the truth, which is related to the single individual,” Kierkegaard wrote. “Therefore everyone who will genuinely serve the truth is by that very fact a martyr. To win a crowd is not art; for that only untruth is needed, nonsense, and a little knowledge of human passions. But no witness to the truth dares to get involved with the crowd.”
In his novel “The Lost Memory of Skin,” Banks looks at how the alienation and isolation of modernity have been exacerbated by the digital age.
“If you digitalize your erotic life you have a lost memory of skin,” Banks told me. “That’s really central to this story and to the experience of this boy. He’s a 22-year-old boy. That may also be part of it too. Evolution into adult life is made much more difficult through the digitalization of our erotic lives and every other aspect of our lives—our economic lives, our political lives. It is key to that novel. He lives through his screen. Yet it’s not in any sense a book that focuses on that fact of life. It’s his environment. That’s all. I wanted to show what it was like to be immersed in that as an environment. Where you had no point of comparison. Where you had no genuine outside experience that you could compare and see what was going on. I have a 9-year-old grandson. He has no memory of life without it being located on the screen. It’s frightening because it alters one’s brain and whole perceptual apparatus of the world.”
“We have now in place a system that makes a person like Trump not only possible but also probably inevitable as president,” he said. “You can tell by surrounding himself with billionaires and generals, it’s really an oligarchy that’s come into existence. The seeds were there long before Ronald Reagan. Once you no longer have to hide it—because you’re so entrenched in power—then it’s OK to put someone like that up front. Until now, we’ve felt with lesser and lesser degree that we’ve had to hide it. Now we’re in trouble. We’re in deep trouble.”
The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, at the height of Stalin’s terror, was in a visitor line at the prison in Leningrad. A woman came close to her and whispered: “Can you describe this?” Akhmatova answered: “Yes, I can.” “And then something like the shadow of a smile crossed what had once been her face,” the poet wrote.
Between 1935 and 1961 Akhmatova worked clandestinely on her elegy “Requiem.” The 10 numbered poems, which would not be fully published until 1987, chronicled the despair, grief, loss and terror suffered under Stalin’s tyranny. She became one of the most eloquent and powerful voices of the oppressed. Her art was wielded against the brutality of power in defense of the sanctity of life. She wrote:
Then I learned how faces fall apart
How fear looks out from under the eyelids,
How deep are the hieroglyphics
Cut by Suffering on people’s cheeks.
The artist, if true to his or her vocation, recovers the past and explains the present. The artist is the true chronicler of who we were and where we came from. Culture, in times of distress, is not a luxury but a life raft.