When the markers of success you’ve picked out for yourself, maybe with a little help from others, simply evaporate, what do you do? This question is prompted by the collapse of the publishing industry. First it rotted from within, like the USSR, commodifying and pandering until the product was pretty much just some paper (hopefully acid-free so it wouldn’t disintegrate) between hinged boards. Then it was challenged by the Great eParadigm Shift, and now it’s a ruin. Everything from marketing to distribution to billing is thrown into a heap. It’s taking about as long to sort and rebuild as the Japanese coastal villages and for some it’s just as painful, represents just as much of a loss.
I do not think I am the only person who has lived a risky life on the premise that I would put it all into a self-justifying book. Sum it all up, prove it, provide a major insight into human life, all in immortal prose. That’s fine and I suppose some people think they are doing it. But I’m not sure it’s possible at the moment. It wasn’t until I began reading Peter Gay’s big book about “The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud” that I began to understand how entangled this idea is in social class. These are the people who enshrined publishing and thought writing a book (that was PUBLISHED !!) meant having 19th century-type adventures around the Empire and returning to have them saluted by the upper classes or professional societies. That’s why they’re so in love with Lewis and Clark, but also have been so determined not to note Lewis’ syphilis or Clark’s slave. It’s why many people own some version of the Journals of the trip but few really read them. They’re generally edited versions anyway. The folks at home don’t REALLY want to participate and would not have survived if they had tried. The same with voyages of introspection that go into uncharted waters. (That’s the Freud part.)
For a while there has been a coherent society, which was pleased to think of itself as “middle” class, and which stabilized in the 19th century because of industrialization, which provided for a great many people enough economic elbow room for a little comfort and leisure. Not everywhere. Many of my neighbors think that both reading and using a computer (except to check the stock market) are “play.” They say, “I wish I had enough time to sit around reading.” As youngsters both of my parents were quickly rousted if they tried to sit and read, so they learned to hide. Both became good students because of their reading but they were curiously passive, both in their reading and in their work lives. My sibs and I followed that pattern, even though we were allowed to read all night if we wanted to -- and we did.
I wasn't always passive, because of marrying Bob Scriver who was constantly on the move. But it wasn’t until I got to Divinity School that I learned how to be an active reader. '78 - '82 was just the beginning of the post-modern theories that have done so much good and so much damage. On the one hand, they properly dynamited the industrial-era assumptions about class and values -- mostly a matter of justifying the luxury of some and the suffering of many -- and on the other hand they were too damned obscure for the suffering to really understand. They just became dull weapons of resistance and resentment. Sharpened and clarified, they might have minced the fascists, once and for all. Revision, revanchement, regret and reversal are what have brought us to political deadlock.
In the meantime the real transformation of thought, the post-industrial, scientifically fueled, HUGE paradigm shift that has not just transformed what is written but also the means of communicating it and who reads it, the reframing that will rearrange the wealth of the world, seed new religions everywhere, and perhaps even dissolve national boundaries, is around us like a wind. It’s not that story is gone, it’s that we’re overwhelmed with stories.
But the old stories are gone. The little oddball who writes a novel that, once certified by a publisher, makes her rich and famous and lives happily ever after is gone. “Anne of Green Gables” is gone. In her place is Lucy Maude Montgomery whose father neglected her, who married a depressed minister and had to cover for him, who hated having to write the same story over and over again for the sake of the money (not just for her but for the Publisher -- an author is like a hen, she must lay similar eggs one after another for the Publisher) and who finally committed suicide, exhausted. Meriwether Lewis died insane, alone. Clark never freed his slave. (He had a name: York.)
Life is tough. It’s not a parlor sport. Prizes mean nothing. Economic security or Victorian privacy are no longer possible. Ethnicity, national allegiance, and squalor are beginning to bore us. Our industrial accomplishments threaten to wipe all life from the surface of the planet and the depths of the ocean.
No one is addressing this in novels. Some are tackling it in poetry, but mostly the story has gone to music: songs are the stories we want now. All the arts EXCEPT published print are making music in the wind now. Those who were readers are now dancers now. The world is no longer a stage, it’s a ball-room and I intend the double entendre. Keep moving. No rest for the wicked.
One of my objections to Christianity (I don’t object to the whole complex) is its constant assumption that everything stays the same, at least as measured by one lifespan, generally the lifespan of the person or persons in power. Christians insist that things have an identifiable beginning and end: a creation and finally an apocalypse, as written in a Book. But I see (often in retrospect because that’s when the phenomena become perceptible and interpretable) CONTINUOUS creation and CONTINUOUS apocalypse. Here a birth and there a death. Always the transformation. The drifting cycle of the seasons, renewal, destruction, winter, spring.
And so it is with the idea of redeeming oneself by writing a book. Instead of the Christian notion of being so virtuous that you will be saved by judgment (always that authority figure) at the moment of death, I move over to the Taoist notion that we are all saved, always were, always will be. We ARE stories. Don’t even have to remember them. Just ARE. No need to write them down. ARE. Robins in the snow. Their cunieform feet imprint melting tales.