I woke up several times last night, dread arising before I knew what it was, before the state of our country came entirely to mind. State is not the right word. State is static. My waking mind: a roiling confusion, nothing what it seemed. The core of what I have taken for fact, for truth, has turned molten. I’ve trusted facts the way you trust that a chair will hold you when you sit down. Where shall I sit?
I feel as if I’ve just legitimately won an argument, my facts have been clear, backed up by copious evidence, but my opponent has stuck out his tongue and said “So what?” Imagine Copernicus. Imagine Galileo. I am sputtering and gasping, but all my ammunition, from the Enlightenment forward, is for naught. Burn me at the stake, put me under house arrest, I’m sure I am not crazy. Thank God there are plenty of us who are pretty sure we’re sane. Sane enough, anyway.
Sven Birkerts is editor of the literary journal, Agni. In their newsletter, in an essay called “Onward,” he writes, “Suddenly, in what feels like an interval of unprecedented historical – and moral, and emotional – compression, everything has changed and, to use the cliché, all bets are off. There is so much to contemplate and on so many fronts.”
As an editor who’s selecting manuscripts, he tries to explain what he means. “Again, it’s nothing you can easily circle in marker and say “Here!” It’s not that we’re suddenly looking for expressly political content or assertion. There are plenty of media channels for that, and we all pick up the atmospheric agitation they generate. I’m talking more about a baseline shift, a change in the filtering mechanism – or, to say it more personally, in the reading sensibility. It was not something I imposed. Rather, I went on with my daily business here and almost immediately recognized it. It was obvious, not to be gotten around.”
“There is now a frame around my reading, and that frame is a question, and if the question is not itself political, it has been put into place by events in the world. To that extent it is political.”
Birkerts articulates the feeling I’m having, that inside me is a fundamental shift in the way I view everything. It is as if I’d moved to another country, another planet. I don’t know how to negotiate. Everything I write is fraught. Fraught with a weird tension that has no focus, exactly, within the work. Not a tension that arises from the content of the work but one that seems to be inherent in the speaking voice, the voice’s connection and attitude to everything, every object, every action.
I could say that every word I write feels crucial. Not desperate, but necessary to a whole I can’t see, that I am myself helping to shape. I am the first woman on the moon, every footstep registering in the dust.
Birkerts says, “We know that the rectangular page is a small arena, but we also remember what Isaac Babel wrote: ‘No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.’”
This isn’t an article of faith. It is a truth as sure as the earth is round, as sure as there is global warming, as sure as the Enlightenment signaled a new era of human consciousness. Language is still the sharpest tool we have. Vague innuendo, confused sentences, meaningless phrases, can destroy us.