Day after day, hour after hour, on this unyielding horizontal surface, marked by the gashes of hard labor and punctuated by such objects as books, paperclips, and a lamp, I, a red potato of humble origin, desirous of nothing more than a comfortable place to sleep and perhaps room to stretch out a tentative shoot or two, which may, Deo volente, someday grow to become fat and healthy tubers in their own right, after accruing much water and the nutrients necessary to prosperity, lie on my back and wait.
A vast country spreads out in front of me, brown and barren. Ahead, in the distance, a fat, dark line rests against the horizon. I walk for what feels like an entire day, though the sun never moves across the sky. It’s odd. Here, the sun operates as though on a switch, blinking on suddenly and darkening in the same way. My boots scuff the dirty ground, kicking up large flakes that float on the air before settling down behind me that marks my path. Eventually, I come to a collection of towers, hard as mountains and rising up out of the ground far beyond my head. The towers are the deep pink color of Himalayan salt. Several miles beyond them, a cliff rises out of the ground, a cliff of such immense proportions it’s hard to believe that this world has not been split in two.
If I didn’t already know what a potato was, I could easily mistake this object for a rock. On closer inspection, however, it becomes easier to tell that what I’m looking at is, or was, alive. One clue is that it has clearly grown: there are wrinkles in its surface, which you would not normally find on a rock this size. Next to those wrinkles are small divots, and, inside each divot, the light red color that covers the object in patches grows darker, suggesting that pigmentation is gathered in those spots. Again, this is not something you would see on a rock, rigidly structured. Even the brown color is not uniform. Small spots of green and yellow are scattered throughout. And, as I said yesterday, it has some give to it. When I squeeze, the skin bends, ever so slightly. I push my thumbnail through the surface. The skin splits with the sound of a boot stepping into wet grass.
Every day this week, my students will spend a few minutes in class describing the same… potato.
I decided it was only fair that I do the exercise along with them. So, Monday:
It sits in my palm like a baseball, but weighs slightly more. I can feel it tugging groundwards. Large for a red potato, it is covered with eyes, mostly on one half. On the very end, six eyes are arranged in a triangle pattern, like the tip of an arrow. I said it’s a red potato, but it’s more brown than red, whether with dirt or natural coloring, it’s hard to tell. The skin feels like the bottom of a foot, not rough so much as calloused. A tap on the skin tells me the interior is tight and full, not hollow nor squishy. Holding it to my nose, I smell old water, like what you might find in a tire swing. If I found this buried in the dirt somewhere, I wouldn’t immediately think, “Delicious!”
In danger of life, our own or others, in self defense, if it the only way of saving our identity in a crisis. We must speak and write and think and teach and testify when we and our mind would disintegrate without it. We speak lest we go mad.Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Fruit of Lips, p. 30
Speaking for myself, I can say that this is fairly accurate.
A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson called “The Death of the Old Year.” It had the cadences of a ballad, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time (or I was avoiding doing something), so I picked up my guitar and plucked out a tune to go along with the words. I had so much fun, I decided to try it with a few more poems. My wife suggested I write nine more and compile them in an album called TENnyson. Much to her disappointment, I more or less ran out of inspiration after seven. For now, the album has been demoted to an EP. You can listen to demos of all the tracks here.
1. The Lady of Shalott
3. The Charge of the Light Brigade
4. The Splendor Falls
5. The Death of the Old Year
6. In Memoriam
7. Crossing the Bar
In this blog post, Alan Jacobs casually quotes Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Robert Conquest, W. B. Yeats, and Christopher Hitchens, and makes several references to George Orwell. I have benefited from Dr. Jacobs’s writing over the years primarily, I think, because of his incredible range of reading and the ease with which he can tie together disparate threads of thought. It’s a skill to aspire to.
Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (via)
The first issue of my newsletter went out this morning, including a short essay I called “Writing in War-Time.” You can read it below, and, if you so desire, you can subscribe to the real deal here.
In 1939, almost two months after England declared war on Germany, C. S. Lewis gave a lecture about the importance of studying the humanities during a World War. Why waste time with such “placid occupations” as philosophy and literature, he asked, when men are dying in battle and the threat of invasion hangs over the nation?
We’re not in the middle of a World War, thankfully. But many of the same conditions that Lewis was concerned with exist today. A lot of people around the world are in very real danger, if not from the mysterious plague known as COVID-19, then from riots and civil unrest. It’s hard to read the headlines without dread. In such an environment, we may ask the same question Lewis poses: why spend time doing anything but the most essential activities?
Of course, what activities qualify as “essential” changes depending on who you ask (shopping? protest? worship?), but the question remains the same. In extreme circumstances, how do we justify wasting time on non-essentials? In Lewis’s lecture, “non-essentials” include studying the humanities. For me, they include writing children’s fiction and mulling over poetry while staring at the wall.
In his typical fashion, Lewis reframes the whole conversation. It’s wrong to ask whether studying (or writing) is the right thing to do in the middle of a war, he says, because the question assumes that war presents an unusual danger that must be met with an unusual response. The reality is that we are always in danger of our lives. None of us can be sure that he will be alive tomorrow. A better question, then, is whether studying or writing is ever the right thing to do. Why spend time reading Aristotle when you could be protesting? Why spend time writing poems when you could be saving souls? Why not do things that matter?
Lewis answers the question from many angles, but part of his answer is this: we waste time on “non-essentials” because we can’t help it. It’s human nature to play cards on the eve of battle. When city workers tore down a Confederate memorial in Birmingham in the middle of the night last week, they stopped for a pizza break. Even SWAT teams crack jokes on duty.
In the direst circumstances, people stubbornly remain people. They keep on humming, snickering, debating, reading, reciting, and contemplating. This means that they need good songs to hum, good jokes to laugh at, good ideas to debate, good books to read, good poetry to recite, and good art to contemplate. As Lewis says, “You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or in the [battle] line: if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. if you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”
Writing in the midst of pandemics and protests is, from the vantage point of eternity, not that different from writing at any other time. The only difference is that it’s much easier to get distracted. But the importance of the work remains unchanged. The world will have stories, and those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to write them must give the world good ones.
The world is calling us to action. But what should the artist do? Should artists set aside our pens and paintbrushes and pick up swords? The answer is far simpler and far more difficult. In times like these, the artist ought to stick to his work. Are you a chef? Make delicious food. Are you a musician? Play beautiful music. Are you a filmmaker? Capture moments in time. This present moment needs good works of art no more or less than any other, which means that it needs them vitally.