Monday, November 15, 2004

Widening Vision

I'm all for socially engaged writing. And for socially engaged reading, socially engaged work, socially engaged consumption choices, socially engaged conversation. I firmly believe that the comfortable-for-some prison constructed of individualism and alienation, guarded by dogs called Fear and Arrogance, and padded (for the lucky among us) by narcotic consumerism, must be dismantled brick by brick. Love may conquer all and the moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, but not without us naming, sweating, speaking, connecting.

Then I see an interview with bell hooks where she talks about pieces of literary criticism she writes that perhaps only a dozen people will ever read being important, too; or I read an essay by Edward Said that meditates on classical piano performance. From most academics I would likely dismiss such things as frivolous, even careerist or escapist, while yearning for such escape myself.

But partly the jolt I get from such works written by authors of such unquestionable political commitment is not into escape but rather into a fuller kind of connection. It reminds me that the puritanism of mainstream North America is never far away, and it can steal opportunities for joy under the guise of dedication to bringing about a better world. Those of us who try to be allies and do not ourselves bear the brunt of oppression all too easily overdo our need to prove that we're doing the right things in the struggles for bread, to such an extent that we forget that those struggles are for roses, too -- we forget Emma Goldman and fetishize one vision of revolution that almost always turns out to be sadly lacking in dancing.

This is not art for art's sake that I'm defending, but rather art because every engaged, balanced life deserves aesthetic vitality, deserves things done for little reasons, deserves to engage with the spirit and with passions narrowly shared but deeply enjoyed, even as that retains and in an indirect but undeniable way reinforces broad commitment to community and to justice.

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