Reflections on Writing and Writers

Anyone who writes for attention is not a real writer. Writing is spiritualized hiding. It is no accident that Shakespeare, the greatest of all writers, is the one about whose life and person we know the least. He wrote dozens of the most magnificent works in literary history, and yet we are not certain who he was — or even whether he was. That is great writing, and the ultimate object lesson in what we might call the morality of authorship — the stark example that ought to be always before the mind of anyone who picks up a pen in earnest.

Speaking and writing exist on opposite ends of an ineluctable scale, much like romantic love and friendship. Socrates, who was to conversation what Shakespeare was to writing, could never have been a gifted writer, just as the latter could never have been a brilliant interlocutor. Indeed, Socrates was deeply skeptical of the very use of writing as a method of communication. It seems that he was so confident and brazen in his irony that he felt no need for the extra layer of detachment afforded by writing. He had mastered other ways of hiding.

But without Plato — perhaps Shakespeare’s only rival in strictly literary gifts and achievements — we would know little or nothing about Socrates. This fact provides another indispensable object lesson, this time regarding the ultimate purpose and value of writing.

Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare. Imagining a world without them — which in practice means a world without the latter two, the writers.

Progressivism as a political and educational project has always, at base, consisted of an all-encompassing assault on writing, particularly great writing. The past and all its lessons and wonders must be removed from view, by force or by fog, lest the citizens and students of progressive society chance to notice, to stumble upon, the living refutation of the progressive project that great literature embodies. Aldous Huxley’s most ingenious idea in Brave New World may be the conceit that at first blush strikes the reader as the novel’s most arch and artificial twist, namely the notion that John the Savage, raised outside of progressive civilization on a native reservation, happened to learn to read — and hence to think and feel — almost exclusively through a tattered copy of Shakespeare’s collected works. For John the Savage is meant to contrast with the World State as unspoiled nature contrasts with the extreme intentions of modern progress. And what, after all, is Shakespeare but unspoiled nature in written form? If a book could somehow materialize on a savage reservation, as though having grown from that soil, and affect a boy’s heart as, in effect, an infusion of pure human nature without any admixture of indoctrinated modern convention, like a fresh herb eaten as picked, would not that book be the collected works of Shakespeare?

If we learn to read and write with John Dewey or the Frankfurt School academics, however, the first and most intense lesson of our study is that the soil of past civilization is a poisonous bog, and hence that nothing growing there may be eaten at all without being thoroughly scoured and then pickled in progressive moral platitudes for at least ten years. Progressivism is the philosophy of hatred for nature. Shakespeare is nature in literary form. Huxley’s seemingly artificial plot contrivance was exactly right.

Nature loves to hide. — Heraclitus, DK 121

We live in the age of “straight talk,” “telling it like it is,” and “Just the facts, ma’am.” And we also live in the age of artifice, self-delusion, and an almost complete absence of consuming passions beyond the call of tribal conformity, or of thoughts beyond the lifeless recitation of mass-media-induced bromides.

There is no contradiction here. “Straight talk” is meaningless to those who do not know how to distinguish between the curved and the straight — or who are not aware that the straight has no significance at all independent of an understanding of the curved. “Telling it like it is” only means saying what you see — which, as Plato taught, is likely nothing more than shadows on the wall of a cave that you mistake for the real world. “Just the facts,” in the practice of our materialist scientific age, means exactly what it says: physical evidence devoid of any accounting for the role of the soul that observes.

The world of “just facts” and “straight talk” is thus, paradoxically, the most malleable of realities, almost entirely bendable to the will of those who contrive the social rules of observation. Nature, we might say, demands an equal, but more subtle, awareness of the curved. But who cares about nature anymore? Only a writer would care about that, but we no longer have writers, only attention seekers and straight talkers.

Knowing not how to listen, they know not how to speak. — Heraclitus, DK 19 

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