05 September 2007

Labor, Poetry, Politics and Uncertainty

Among the attractions of living in Rochester is the film series screened ain the Dryden Theater at the George Eastman House and sponsored by the Rochester Labor Council. The series has been held since 1989 and once again has a strong line-up which you can find here. I highly recommend the series.

Coincidently, I was reading this morning one among the lectures contained in a new book - Nobel Lectures: From the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006 (New Press) - whose title is self-explanatory. I was reading "The Poet and the World," the lecture Wislawa Szymborska delivered upon receiving the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature. If you visit here regularly you will probably know that Szymborska is perhaps my favorite poet [1] [2] [3] (rivaled probably only by her late countryman Zbigniew Herbert).

In any case, it is important, I think, to neither denigrate nor romanticize labor (let alone labor unions). In her lecture Szymborska comments on the way that "inspiration" or its absence connects work and poetry and politics in unexpected ways.

“There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of
people whom inspiration visits. It's made up of all those who've
consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love
and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners -
and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes
one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep
discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never
quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from
every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it's
born from a continuous "I don't know."

There aren't many such people. Most of the earth's inhabitants
work to get by. They work because they have to. They didn't
pick this or that kind of job out of passion; the circumstances of
their lives did the choosing for them. Loveless work, boring
work, work valued only because others haven't got even that
much, however loveless and boring - this is one of the
harshest human miseries. And there's no sign that coming
centuries will produce any changes for the better as
far as this goes.

And so, though I may deny poets their monopoly on inspiration,
I still place them in a select group of Fortune's darlings.

At this point, though, certain doubts may arise in my audience.
All sorts of torturers, dictators, fanatics, and demagogues
struggling for power by way of a few loudly shouted slogans
also enjoy their jobs, and they too perform their duties with
inventive fervor. Well, yes, but they "know." They know,
and whatever they know is enough for them once and for all.
They don't want to find out about anything else, since
that might diminish their arguments' force. And any
knowledge that doesn't lead to new questions quickly
dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required
for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases
well known from ancient and modern
history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.

This is why I value that little phrase "I don't know" so highly.”

I find Szymborska's basic observation - that for different reasons and with different consequences, both the politically powerful and the laboring masses typically are deprived of the necessary sources of inspiration - remarkably provocative. The difference between tyrants and the oppressed, of course, revolves around the hardly insignificant matter of responsibility. The remedy for their predicament, I suppose, is to stop treating inspiration and its sources as luxury goods; to rearrange political-economic insitutions and social practices in such a way that the powerful are compelled to be less certain and self-assured (or, in the words of Amos Oz [1] [2] [3] [4], less "fanatical") and those who work from necessity might enjoy wider opportunities to exercise their own manifest creativity and ingenuity less under force of necessity and more in response to the priviledges of uncertainty and the possibilities it contains.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken Loach is there? Fantastic. Hope you don´t miss it.

06 September, 2007 00:37  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

D - My friend Susan has been similarly enthusiastic about Loach's visit. So we are getting the advanced tickets. It is all news to me though.

06 September, 2007 07:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats, I´m sure you´ll not be disappointed.

If you get a chance in the future... I would sell my soul to, ah, well, someone awful, if you wouldn't love these Loach-flicks (in order):

1. My Name is Joe
2. Land and Freedom
3. Raining Stones
4. Riff-raff
5. Bread and Roses

When you´ve worked your way through this, you need to see some Mike Leigh, if you haven´t encountered him yet.

06 September, 2007 14:33  

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