I receive many queries from readers via email, and seek to answer most of them (though not the ones from writers who want my help in finding psychedelics). Sometimes the questions stimulate me to develop my own thinking, such as this recent one from a reader in Portland, on the relation of the ideas in 2012 to contemporary literature. I have put his original email and then my response below.
Question from a reader:
I recently caught your reading here in Portland, OR, and I have read both of your books twice. Not only have I enjoyed your books, but they have really spoken to me powerfully in a personal way.
I am a poet, and I understand your frustration and disappointment with most Western intellectuals. I have always felt that myself, and I feel it now more acutely than ever. I see the value in your critique of Modernism (in Breaking Open the Head), and I too feel that poets and artists need to move into a new real realm beyond alienation and pessimism.
However, I also have some questions about your position. I read somewhere your criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. I just read this novel, and I think it is amazing. I think that you criticized it because you feel that he is imagining a bleak, ruined future, and that he might be in some way contributing to the manifestation of that future by imagining it. Okay, I see your point, just as I see your point in your “fight” with Whitley Streiber.
Here’s the problem I have: what is an artist supposed to do? You can only write the visions that come to you. You can’t consciously “steer” the material into positive attitudes unless you want your poem or novel to be some sort of propaganda piece, or some sort of fake smile on the face of a suffering man. I do think that an artist is also a person, a spirit, so he or she should be doing inner work to release that pain or hopelessness–to break down the walls that cause alienation. But in the mean time should artists censor their “negative” thoughts?
Also, I have been to Burning Man, and I must say that I was not as impressed as you were. I saw no one there who was anything like the artist that Cormac McCarthy is. I am open to the possibility that I missed something, that there is something unique to be found there. However, I don’t know how you can hold that festival up as some sort of ideal and knock down an artist like McCarthy. Granted, I hope a new Henry Miller better than Henry Miller will emerge. I hope epic poems of joy and celebration can be born out of the shadow of Allen Ginsberg, but I guess I wonder what your thoughts are on this subject. And I wonder if you have reservations about your criticisms of Artaud and Michaux and other brave pioneers. I offer these thoughts with all due respect to the important work you have done and are doing.
This is a great question, and one that I think about all the time.
I believe that literature and art are crucial in evolving/intensifying consciousness, creating new forms of complex awareness and adding subtle dimensions to human experience. The struggle for women’s liberation for instance was voiced in hundreds of years of fiction – Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, etc – which laid the groundwork for a social transformation in the status of women. Etc for Dickens and Blake and the awareness of industrialism as a destructive force. I agree that artists can be “the antennae of the race” and the conscience of the species.
However, it is in the nature of art to keep changing, as human consciousness changes. “What is art” is different for each generation – if you reduplicate the style or form of past art, it is not really art in my view but more like craft or self-expression, which is not bad but not transformational in the same way art is.
So we are now responding to radically different conditions than people were before, and the nature and potential for transformative work has also changed. We seem to be in a transition between the bourgeois culture of the last few hundred years – with the novel and lyric poem as its expressive forms – and some other form of social existence that would naturally create different expressive forms.
When I look at the function of contemporary lit and art, mostly it seems to be having a regressive effect, reinforcing the old forms of bourgeois identity with sentimental identifications with the ego. I am very concerned, right now, with the seeming incapacity of most people in our culture to awaken to the dire urgency of our present situation, and to move from passive contemplation to active engagement. I feel that not just individual works but the entire construct of the contemporary art and literary worlds are functioning as another pacifying and distracting mechanism – someone may read a novel about war and cry, but that doesn’t translate into organizing to stop the wars we are now waging. It sometimes seems to me that forces have conspired to depolitize culture and make it socially irrelevant.
As for The Road, I agree that McCarthy is a terrific writer – I loved Blood Meridian – who is literally “spellbinding” and “entrancing”. But what kind of spell does he cast?
I don’t know that I agree with you that you can “only write the visions that come to you. You can’t consciously “steer” the material into positive attitudes…” I would just propose to you that this perspective needs to be questioned and examined. There may be a kind of romanticizing of inspiration implicit here. This idea might apply to that romantic/lyrical mode of bourgeois consciousness, less than to whatever new form of consciousness and attitude is now emerging.
I think we can retain the richness and complexity of the Western psyche and sensibility while integrating not only the nondual, non-egoic Eastern perspective but also a sense of creative participation in reality-making that leads to art that illuminates, and helps create a foundation for, the most visionary possibilities of what a human future can be, on the Earth and in the wider cosmos.
At the same time, in this immediate period, I personally would like to see some artists sacrifice their desire for expressing themselves to utilize their gifts for the purpose of planetary (r)evolution. I myself would love to go back to a novel that would take me 3 – 6 months to revise, then would come out a year after that, at the earliest. Unfortunately I cannot spare the time as from my perspective there needs to be an alternative infrastructure in place ASAP, including media and network, that allows for an alternative exchange system, resource sharing, and community organization. Studying works like The End of America by Naomi Wolf (on parallels btw our time and early Nazi Germany), With Speed and Violence (on abrupt climate change), and Chris Hedges’ American Fascists which looks at the Fundamentalist ambition to instate a fascist theocracy in the US, I think we have no time to waste to work together to create a new social system that supports the evolution and elevation of human consciousness, in the near term. It may be that certain types of individual artistic ambitions (which I have as well) could be put on hold until we have transmuted the gathering darkness into light.
Anyway, this is my short answer!