The world is a confusing place. I am in Ireland for two weeks with the writing program that I direct, and here the recent referendum on same-sex marriage is still very much on people’s minds. In 2015, Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote. The vote, in the end, was not close: 62% voted Yes, with nearly every part of the country voting to support the referendum. Roscommon-South Leitrim, a rural county toward the north of the Republic, voted No by a slim margin. Everywhere else, most voters pulled the lever to approve the constitutional change. In parts of Dublin, the vote to approve same-sex marriage was almost three-to-one.
Caro’s writing is linked to a deep moral obligation to get the story right, not just as an unassailable set of facts, but as something more democratic, as strange as that might be to say about a set of giant books about the elites of the country. His books are ultimately about power. But as Maggie Nelson said during a recent talk at the AWP writing conference, “Every book invokes its own ghost,” and around a book about power lingers the ghosts of the powerless. Caro knows this. He says, “Somewhere in The Power Broker I write that regard for power means disregard for those without power. I mean, we’re really talking about justice and injustice.”
How much should we explain to the reader? This is a question that comes up a lot. In fact, it comes up every single time we write. Writing is a series of decisions of what to explain to the reader, what not to, what leaps and associations we believe the reader can take, should take, or might not be able to take (but do they need to?). It happens, on some level, with every word. Each word in our work is a kind of bet—which readers will recognize what we are trying to do, and which will not? And when that word combines with the next, and spreads its reach into reference or metaphor or anything beyond the basic and denotative, we make an even bigger bet.
By now, I have been a teacher of creative writing much longer than I was a pool lifeguard. I have come to believe that one of the main jobs of literature is to see the present moment—whatever that moment may be, in the context of the text—with focus and clarity. Good writing doesn’t constantly look back or look ahead. Each word is a world, and a good writer puts that world in front of you when you read.
The year 2015 marks a half-century of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. It is a complicated relationship, to say the least. On the one hand, ties between these two countries are incredibly strong; as a recent article in Ha’aretz details, Germany has made key contributions to Israel’s economy, security, and diplomacy nearly since the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. And present day relations have little of the hand-wringing and public back-and-forth that marks, say, Israeli comments about Jewish life in France, or the regular Israel-bashing that is a feature of discourse in many European countries. On the other hand, it’s Israel and Germany. There will always be a lot to say.
The production of what we call art is only a small part of what it means to participate in an art world. There is a core activity, of course: we write, we paint, we make photographs, we dance. But most of our time is spent in associated activities, the most important of which is what Becker refers to as mobilizing resources: supplies, monetary support, distribution, the before/during/after of art-making. Some arts require larger, more visible resources than others. The Metropolitan Opera feels like a far cry from the coffee house poetry reading, but the difference is only one of scale. There is no artistic pursuit that can succeed without mobilizing whatever resources are necessary for that world to exist.
In January, I shared with regular readers of this blog my experience reading as many editions of Moby-Dick as I could get my hands on in a university small town. I found fancy illustrated versions, and even fancier illustrated versions, and modest versions for the 1930s Everyman, and versions that had been subjected to undergraduate scribblings, and even a children’s pop-up version—albeit one so intricately cut and lovely that you would cringe to see a toddler’s hands pulling on its riggings and sails. Each edition different from the next, in its own distinctive way. And yet, they each share one thing in common. None of them know how to speak Hebrew.
When I look around the room, I still see small acts of resistance, even liberation. There are a number of young female scientists in the class; they are preparing for year-long research projects on the habits of a particular freshwater fish, or developing a process related to the physical properties of gold. By definition, as female scientists, they are in the statistical minority. At some point, each said yes to science when most of society pointed them toward no. What moment of learning gave them that strength? They are not alone; there are other moments in which learning, or just reading, provide stability or connection. A young man in the class tells us about reading Harry Potter to his father over the phone after his parents’ divorce. “I am trying to save my life,” Sherman Alexie writes, in regards to his reading. He’s not the only one.
Moby-Dick does not belong to Melville—not anymore. Like any popular or important book, the idea of Moby Dick has long resided at least partially in the public consciousness. But when the text itself is owned by all of us, it becomes as malleable as its wide readership. A recent tour of Moby-Dick editions, many of them from the Rare Books collection at my university library, revealed to me just how varied the textual experience of such a book can be. In the space of a morning, with a book cart in front of you, it is possible to encounter many Ishmaels.
So I agreed to wear the goat. First I was fitted with a yellow hardhat to protect my delicate scalp as the goat was lowered over my head. The goat was massive. In truth, it was (mostly) just a papier-mâché goat head, but it covered the entire top of my body, resting warily on the hard hat, steadied by my hands. As with most of the charming but hastily made Honey from the Heart puppets, I had to wear its imperfections as well. Staples stuck, pointy end out, from where its joints came together. It was lopsided and difficult to balance. And I couldn’t see anything except my feet.