What is a serious writer to do in a culture going off the rails, decadent, un-serious?
Sometimes it's not your own volition that decides the way forward, but external events, History. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- the shock, the deaths, the tragedy -- decided it for me. From our apartment high on Connecticut Avenue in the nation's capital, we could see the Pentagon on fire, filling the sky with black smoke. In that moment of truth I knew: I did not want merely to react, to respond to that historic day as a playwright, dramatizing how fearful we all felt. No, I wanted to act, help make sense of whatever was coming at us next, be a voice of reason in what I felt would be a time of fear and confusion. Turning points can turn you around, totally.
I wrote an essay titled "Reinventing normalcy," submitted it to The Christian Science Monitor-- and spent the next eight years contributing commentary there. Over time my editors and I scoped out my beat, a capacious one -- politics, culture and ethical-moral issues -- written in a style they called "big-think in a personal voice." The Monitor's editorial guidelines stress a "bias for hope": I could paint an issue as bleak as it needed to be, but, please, leave the reader with an action step or a constructive thought. That approach suited me fine, as artist and as American: Tragedy had struck America, but we need not succumb to it. I apply the same guidelines with the same beat writing now for The Huffington Post.
Torture is something I never imagined America, a moral beacon in the post-World War II world, could sanction. When the scandal at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison broke in May 2004, revealing the torture our military engaged in, I felt such overwhelming shame for our nation that I fired off a letter to the editor of The New York Times that day; continued writing for the Monitor on the subject, protesting the Bush administration's practice of torture; and now write on it for The Huffington Post, protesting the Obama administration's decision not to pursue an accounting.
A sensitive point I must raise: I was disappointed that more writers -- putative humanists -- did not protest the human depredation of torture. How could this be? To make a long disquisition short: Some writers pride themselves on pushing "the edge," discovering new depths in human awfulness. Those of us who pursue "the core" would say: No wonder artists peddling edgy anti-human product were silent on torture. One can't create pathology and protest it.
And a note about obsession: I'd like to say that writers, if lucky, have a subject that grabs them and won't let go. But I'm not sure obsession is a lucky thing. Torture was not a subject I ever would have chosen, but it grabbed me and did not let go. As a serious artist, and the moral artist I'd come to see myself, I felt I had to respond. But I also could see, in my anguish, I could make myself sick, give myself a Messiah complex. I had to stop the keening in my heart and convert it to something more abstract in my head -- and I did. After all, we need to live another day to do our work.
Which brings us back to our theme: writing for our post-9/11 times. That historic day, when America was attacked, called forth our most serious, honorable selves. Though the culture had already turned brassy, as discussed, some of us hoped for an American Renaissance, the shock of being attacked forcing us into Truth and Beauty. For a while, a New Day seemed upon us: Irony was declared dead, acts of kindness were reported by the media, Hollywood producers held off releasing racy or violent films, saying it was "too soon." But, alas, soon enough, that unity of serious purpose faded and "smash-mouth" was back with us, and then some.
Distressingly, "smash-mouth" has become permanent. Fourteen years is time enough to recover our senses and build toward a New Day. Instead we have two American-led wars sowing chaos; cowboy capitalism going unreformed; polarization so profound it permits government shutdown; and a public so turned off that voter rates are plummeting and political candidates tout their outsider status and lack of governing experience. And there's the stupid-making fear. This is a nation reaching stall speed.
"But -- but -- but," you might say, "I just want to write about my garden." Fine, all power to you, even though I myself am drawn to the disturbance outside the garden, threatening the garden's very existence. My problem is not with writers writing about their gardens, the beauty and solace to be found there, though I'd suggest that occasional reference to the chaos and noise outside the garden would make the beauty and solace derived all the more beautiful and consoling. No, my problem is with writers, the "transgressive" artists, who feed the chaos and noise, the wild and crazy, who fly their freak flag when coherence is desperately needed.
For example, the creators of the wildly popular TV series Breaking Bad, about a high-school chemistry teacher who, learning he has terminal cancer, seeks to provide for his family "after" by cooking and selling high-grade meth. Seen soberly: In these wild and crazy times, to push stories of characters breaking bad is, frankly, to push at an open door. And this door is held wide open by critics, our cultural gatekeepers, who, not understanding the rise and fall of nations, accelerate our fall by lauding Breaking Bad as "raw" and "daring." I'll grant you "raw," but what is "daring" about an anti-hero pursuing his nefarious ends without serious moral pushback?
Same goes for Tony Soprano, mob boss of the wildly popular TV series The Sopranos, "whacking" his rivals -- to little serious moral pushback.
Notice how seldom today's anti-heroes have an equally weighted antagonist? Recall that Gordon Gekko, mighty financier in the film Wall Street whose motto was "Greed is good," was ultimately brought down not by a heroic type but by an underling even greedier than he who squealed to the feds. Believe it: Some people do want to live heroic and noble lives, and if not that, a morally good life; your characters might, too.
Another example of wild and crazy "art": the bondage novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. I am aware the author is English, but sales of the book in the U.S. have been off the charts. Which is especially troubling because, while the book's characters play at torture, America -- again, no fiction -- engaged in the real thing abroad, to little public protest, certainly little compared to the enormous interest in the book (making its author the world's richest). Naturally I had to write about this moral disconnect in a commentary titled "Playing at Torture: Fifty Shades of Shame."
Culture is key. If a culture signals it's O.K. to, say, play at torture, cook meth to stoke the family coffers, or whack your rivals, then culture becomes very important, as important as politics. And we who create the content of culture are thus elemental.
Of course, if you're a narcissist, as too many of today's artists are, oblivious to our post-9/11 times with its unreason and anxiety and fear -- the opposite of Camus' artist engagé -- you are freed up to imagine whatever you want, following it down, down, down whatever path. I doubt the creators of Breaking Bad or The Sopranos even noticed the downward tilt of the ship of state. But there is the verdict of History and such "artists," I believe, will be found on the wrong side of it. It is good to look inward, as narcissists do, but not at the expense of missing what's going on in the outer world. Recall the root of the word "narcissism" is narke, which means stupor.
Wrong side of History, right side of History: This all bears on the moral point and artists courageous enough to make it. Curiously, at a time when so much is wrong in America, writers are regularly warned against "getting moral," rendering judgment, and critics uphold this injunction. I ran into this injunction in an early workshop: When I proposed my first play, the one about people finding reasons to let a crime go forward, the workshop leader wrinkled his nose, "Ooh, sounds moral." But Shakespeare would no doubt say that moral questions are not only the most dramatic but the most important: See Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear. Writers regularly hear another injunction, attributed to Chekhov, that a writer's only responsibility is to raise questions, not provide answers. All these injunctions against making the moral point leach our work of meaning and profundity and account for cultural drift.
Here's an injunction for the moral point: At a time when stupidity seems on the rise, literary critic Lionel Trilling reminds us of "the moral obligation to be intelligent." That bears repeating: "the moral obligation to be intelligent."
A final consideration for the American writer and bearing on the moral point: As the global superpower, even in decline, we have outsized power vis-à-vis other countries; English is the world's lingua franca, along with American culture. But a superpower also has a moral responsibility to handle its power appropriately. Similarly, its artists have a responsibility to consider the "can" and the "should": Do I write on Subject X simply because my culture is on top and because I can (again, Eve Ensler in monologue with her vagina) or should I, considering the world's sorry state and America's decline, not? A superpower and its artists must be self-critical.
Of course, we must make the moral point with finesse -- subtly, imaginatively, maybe with humor as George Bernard Shaw advises -- but make it. One way is to reintroduce the hero or a character on a moral quest, or give the anti-hero an antagonist. Enough with "breaking bad," the wild and crazy, the transgressive; let's break good, sane, moral. Enough with pushing the edge; let's push core. And let's redefine humanity upward: Countless times I have heard writers explain that, to make their central character "more human," they added a kink, like self-mutilation. Enough with defining humanity downward. At this post-9/11 moment, Americans are already down. Rather than give our audience what we think it wants, spectacle and shock, let's give it what it needs but is not getting of late -- substance, moral meaning, reasons to hope and believe.
For, like that heedless portrait painter in Odd Man Out, do we daub away while our subject lies dying? Or do we recognize the stakes and write to them? Your choice.
Your choice will reflect your definition of the purpose of art. I subscribe to Samuel Johnson's definition: The purpose of art is to help us enjoy life or endure it better.
And a final word about joy: There's a bias in American culture that to be serious and moral is to be grim and unexciting. But hinge historical moments -- which is where we are now -- are inherently dramatic, thus exciting. And there is such joy in contending with questions that matter and pushing yourself, as the late playwright August Wilson urged, to the "limits of your instrument."
With America at a hinge historical moment, the stakes could not be higher. The pattern of great nations throughout History has been one of rise and rise, then decline and fall. America, in decline, can still reverse course and rise again -- uniquely, we believe in reinvention, and we are not fatalists, not yet -- but only if our citizens sober up, get serious, and act. The same goes, doubly so, for our artists.
In sum, American artists must do something both historically and artistically new: Rewrite our unfolding Tragedy and create a New Day. Will we? Can we?
This post is condensed from a speech given at a writers' conference organized by Tacoma Community College and held at its Gig Harbor (WA) branch, Nov. 6-7.
Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is working on a play titled "Prodigal."