Chris Hedges | The Artist as Prophet

“Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving little room for calculation and diplomacy. Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting, and it is not enough to be apocalyptic. Something must be brought forward.”

By Chris Hedges  Truthdig  May 28, 2017

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

The Israeli writer and dissident Uri Avnery asked an Egyptian general how the Egyptians managed to surprise the Israelis when they launched the October 1973 war. The general answered: “Instead of reading the intelligence reports, you should have read our poets.”

The deep malaise, rage and feelings of betrayal that have enveloped American society are rarely captured and almost never are explained coherently by the press. To grasp the savage economic and emotional cost of deindustrialization, the destruction of our democratic institutions, the dark undercurrent of nihilistic violence that sees us beset with mass shootings, the attraction of opioids, the rise of the militarized state and the concentration of national wealth in a tiny cabal of corrupt bankers and corporations, it is necessary to turn to a handful of poets, writers and other artists. These artists, who often exist on the margins of mass culture, are our unheeded prophets.

“What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and most other prophets have in common is a strong ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals—the obvious ones as well as those that lurk beneath the surface,” the painter Enrique Martinez Celaya said in an essay. “They also share urgency. Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving little room for calculation and diplomacy. Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting, and it is not enough to be apocalyptic. Something must be brought forward.”

All despotisms, including our own, make war on culture. They seek to manipulate or erase historical memory. This assault on memory, Martinez Celaya said, is “philosophical violence.” It leaves us with a “sense of being a stranger, displaced, a sense of having no way to check where one comes from because something has been cut and removed.”

When I recently interviewed Russell Banks, the novelist said, “It’s remarkable to me, the speed which memory gets lost in America and perhaps elsewhere. The world has been so decentralized. No one lives with anyone older than they are, generally. It’s only through memory that we can compare the present to anything else, to take its measure.”“If you can’t take its measure then you can’t judge it,” he said. “You can’t evaluate it. You can’t take a moral position with regards to it.”

Randall Jarrell in his essay “A Sad Heart at the Supermarket” calls our consumer culture “periodical.”

“We believe that all that is deserves to perish and to have something else put in its place,” he wrote. This belief, Jarrell said, is “the opposite of the world of the arts, where commercial and scientific progress do not exist; where the bone of Homer and Mozart and Donatello is there, always, under the mere blush of fashion, where the past—the remote past, even—is responsible for the way we understand, value, and act in, the present.”

“An artist’s work and life presuppose continuing standards, values stretched out over centuries of millennia, a future that is the continuation and modification of the past, not its contradiction or irrelevant replacement,” he went on.

“The past’s relation to the artist or man of culture is almost the opposite of its relation to the rest of our society,” Jarrell wrote. “To him the present is no more than the last ring on the trunk, understandable and valuable only in terms of all the earlier rings. The rest of our society sees only that great last ring, the enveloping surface of the trunk; what’s underneath is a disregarded, almost hypothetical foundation.”

In his novel “Cloudsplitter,” Banks tells the story of John Brown through the eyes of Owen, a son who survived the assault on Harpers Ferry and the aborted slave uprising.

“White Americans always say that John Brown was well intended but insane,” he said in the interview. “Black Americans don’t think that at all. They think he was heroic. From Malcolm X to Baldwin to whomever you want to ask. W.E.B. Du Bois’ biography of Brown was the first biography of Brown that was sympathetic in any way. It’s very interesting there’s a racial divide on this man that is so extreme, yet no one disagrees about the facts. The facts have been known since 1859. No one has uncovered any new facts. But diametrically two views of history.”

“It began in the 15th century with this power grab that required genocidal relations to people who were not white Europeans,” he said. “It continues all the way to our present. You think of Shakespeare. The Moor becomes Caliban. The rise of the slave trade coincides exactly with that 10-year period [in which ‘Othello’ and ‘The Tempest’ were written].”

The artist makes the invisible visible. He or she shatters the clichés and narratives used to mask reality.

“Whenever they talk about unemployment figures or the state of the economy, you read the comments [about the article],” the poet Linh Dinh said when I interviewed him earlier this year. “The comments are people howling and cursing the article. Most people know these articles are nonsense. If you’re not fighting for your livelihood you tend to believe these articles.”

“What’s most disturbing is the hatred for these people, [the working class],” he told me. “The left always pretends to talk about the masses, the working class, but it really hates the working class. It doesn’t pay any attention to the working class. It mocks their values.”

Banks, in his novels beginning with “Continental Drift” in 1985, has, like Martinez Celaya and Linh Dinh, relentlessly chronicled the economic and psychological effects of deindustrialization on the working class and the deadening effects of technocratic society.

“If you lift the rock of bourgeois respectability, you see underneath these kinds of realities,” Banks said. “It isn’t just particular to small towns in upstate New York or New Hampshire or south Florida. It’s true across the entire spectrum of humanity. Those just happen to be the worlds I know best personally and longest. So my attention tends to focus there. But I know I’m really writing about humanity at large. Jesus said ‘the poor will always be with us.’ I think he was really saying there are more of them than there are of us. I think I’m writing about the majority of human beings on this planet, more than the majority. My attention goes out to those people. They are everywhere. Whenever someone says you’re writing about the minorities and outcasts, that’s not true. There are more people of color than there are people without color on this planet.”

Martinez Celaya said, “We need artists more than ever to be the conscience of the moment, to reflect back to us in the mirror what this society and this moment is, so we can see it. We cannot see it because of the creations, fabrications, and reality TV. It makes it so difficult for us to see what we’re going through. I keep wishing Dostoevsky could be born again so he can actually write a book of this moment.”

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Keep up with Chris Hedges’ latest columns, interviews, tour dates and more at www.truthdig.com/chris_hedges.

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