Word and story can function as an emergency resuscitation for our numbed selves, quagmired in hopelessness and exhaustion, buried in overworking conditions. This rubbing of words generates sparks to illuminate the atrophied mind after a diet of cultural inanity and stale laugh tracks. A fresh story may articulate a need so utterly fundamental to human longing, so deeply repressed and silent that it will resurrect the flame of desire for a different living experience. This fundamental capacity of awakening the human spirit and resurrecting the citizen by naming, remembering, connecting and informing, giving voice to that which was silenced and lies moribund, has always been the spark feared by those wishing the world asleep.
Many have believed that narrative, or any other cultural discipline, was only politically relevant insomuch as it was capable of catalyzing people, a critical mass of the masses, in order to burst the chains that bound them both to the system and to behavioural patterns of oppression.
The irony has been that often the oppressed, hungry, addicted, down-and-out are illiterate, or only functionally literate, and do not have the means or interest to access intellectual cultural tools that supposedly might save them from the bottom of the world. Their hierarchy of needs is more basic and pressing: bread and a bed.
A storymaker and teller myself, I have grown so accustomed to the company of my own head and imaginary worlds that I have developed, at best, my own language tics, or at worse, an insular language understood only by the membership of this trade. Imagine twins in their solipsistic universe of private signals which no one else can access. As for the social or political impact of those of us labouring in these secluded laboratories of language and mind, it becomes a deranged illusion to dream I may draw the interest of others, let alone inspire them to action or change, or for those more inclined to ego-idolatry, to admire an artist’s already self-perceived brilliance as a writer.
Many artists, myself included, spring from a literate class of privilege or semi-privilege, with access to education and the resources or leisure to invent stories, and the self-confidence to believe such narratives could be of interest to others and perhaps make a difference in their lives. This mindset stems from a political model which supposes the citizen will be listened to and hold influence over decision-makers. When one grows up not being listened to and not taken seriously, one believes what one says is worthless, to have zero impact in the world. The maestros of power have been at this cat-and-mouse game from the beginning of time and are no fools. Let us not forget that the first professional resident artists began their lives as entertainers to the elites in the palatial courts, and their work had to please the rulers; otherwise their head might roll or, if lucky, they might only receive the boot and lose their daily bowl. Entertaining was the key word: make people laugh, not think.
More recently the patrons have engineered forums for the storyteller to shout appropriate, sterilized truths in the soundproof safety of palatial or parliamentary courts, university ivory towers; or pit them against each other in the literary casinos of prize-halls where they anxiously await, albeit poised, the Russian-roulette of dispensations in the form of badges of honour and fame. They have packaged us in grants, residencies and scholarships. They have dangled an enticing array of flavourful prizes before our watering mouths to encourage the focus of our careers in the arts and define our literary life’s value. From the smallest tidbit of brie represented by my local literature book prize (not to mention the full spread of actual wine and cheese at its award event), to the largest Caciocavallo cheese wheel of the Nobel Prize for literature, I can identify many tricks of the ruler’s trade, seeking to bribe the artist and divert other possible focuses to their art besides entertainment, career advancement, accolades, ego-stroking. Alas, we mimic the corporate world of ladder-climbing for the sake of ladder-climbing, collecting prizes or bonuses as a measure of professional relevance and opus authority regardless of the incisiveness of the produced content. Most of us writers are also suffering from a crisis of values and of the spirit, a demoralizing decay which has contaminated most of contemporary life.
The social reality painted above presents me with a new truth. I am more effective in affecting the course of events that influence the lives of millions when I direct my narrative efforts at the nice, intelligent, learned, sometimes even sophisticated people who, despite not seeing themselves as oppressors, indeed are. The literate people who accumulate much power and privilege in the world hold the key to fundamental and lasting changes, were their awareness and consciousness to open and be directed by empathy rather than the goal of accumulating profit and amassing power.
I have known at aftershave-range men who have inordinate power over thousands or millions of people’s lives as they collected fortunes beyond my comprehension. Inebriated by power and addicted to amassing wealth, they were well-spoken, practicing perfect manners, able to carry a pleasant conversation. They are also unwell and, as such, lost. Greed is a spiritual illness. Unrelenting power-hunger is an illness. Oppression and control are a illness. All these illnesses of the invisible heart are addictive, and very few addicts will raise their hand in a community and take responsibility for their addiction. They are caught in the thrall of their highs and many will not willingly desist from something they believe offers them a reason to exist, be it a syringe in their veins or more zeros in their bank accounts. They live in emotional and spiritual poverty and, unfortunately, they exert undue influence and direct many strings of the world. Don’t misunderstand me. They can be very intelligent people and dynamic persuaders, which helps explain how they attained their level of wealth. Addicted to the game of arriving, they seem fooled by the deceptive life-map they have carried throughout their lives, and do not appear to mind the hamster wheel in which they live, the hamster wheel where there will never be a final arrival or everlasting apotheosis. Even power and success are ephemeral, as everything is, and therefore, one becomes caught in the unending vortex of cravings and addictions. Yet, they are the last ones wanting to hear they are sick. Denial, alongside a culture of validating and encouraging the illness of greed, will enable these people to continue these destructive patterns and behaviour.
After seven decades of existence, one such holder of inordinate power read for the first time a book of poetry. It happened to be a book of mine, for which he attended the launch out of politeness and in consideration of family ties. I know mine was the first, and most likely the last, book of poetry he read, considering he died a short few years later.
You might argue that having my words touch the ears of the powerful is a more miraculous task than to turn recycled motherboards into gold crucifixes. You might even add that had its rulers been capable of being touched by the words of others, the world would not find itself where the world is, on the verge of environmental and social collapse. People so excessively caught in the illusory game of amassing wealth for the sake of amassing wealth are the busiest of us all, finding little time to read anything but numbers, charts and financial reports, and no motivation to invest time and energy on a reading experience that will not add equity to their portfolio.
Some might have a point when defining these people as impervious and unreachable, although I believe in the decency of most human beings and count on the elites, as they age and mature, to realize there are limits to everything. Mortality approaches, and money, at this point in evolution, still cannot buy them out of everything, including cell degeneration. As they become vulnerable and taste mortality on their tongue, the door to empathize with all the vulnerable in the world may alas begin to finally open. This opening does occur, for most of us, wealthy or not. However, apart from this direct angle, I also see my words affecting the powerful from a lateral angle, even in the safety of their inner circles when they are not on guard. I mean, my stories can also reach their children, their spouses and their extended family networks, therefore influencing their circles of affection and those to whom they may be more responsive.
Perhaps they, and all of us, best remain open and responsive to feedback without the threat of confrontational attack and hateful chastising ringing in our heads. I respond best to change and re-evaluation when inspired by the stories that open my heart and remind me of my humanity and my capacity to connect and love, understand the world and others.
Perhaps I need to write compassionate stories about the hearts and the minds of the powerful so I understand them before the mirror that reflects how much of the world sees them, if they cared to look. We have had more than a hundred ice ages of storytelling and the world has not awakened. We continue to be savages in exquisite wigs or inside polished Rolls Royces; we have re-told every story about the suffering ones, the tortured and the hungry; and today I still count more hungry mouths than ever. Perhaps we need more stories about rapists and murderers, tyrants and torturers, misers and narcissists, stories which show the courage to delve into the depths of their pains and pleasures, denials and escapisms, their minds and beliefs, stories that follow their histories and their family histories, show us how we have or not have cared for their feelings or embraced their wounds, how we have punished and rewarded, as early as in the womb. Perhaps then we will begin to understand the universes they inhabit, to understand how we help create these people by the way we raise and teach them, feed their mind and body, so they act as if the rest of the world does not exist, so they act as if their actions do not destroy, so they act without care for the common good.
It is very possible we have treated these people without much sensitivity and they have never experienced unconditional care, not even in the womb, let alone in their cradle. Therefore they lack models of caring and of being responsive to others. Perhaps when I gather the courage to write about these dark universes that frighten me by venturing inside the horrors that shaped them, I will be arriving somewhere meaningful in my quest to understand these lives—all the while sidestepping the shallow and sensational gore-filled-narratives used to sell more publications by playing on people’s fear.
The wealthy people I have known are not exceptionally crass, mean or monster-like, although they share a common trait. They know best and hold on to a paternalistic vision of the world and see themselves separate from the vast majority. They place themselves at the top of a stratified vision of hierarchies and abilities and perceive the human reality in black and white, in the same way they understand the ant colonies and bee hives of the world; it is incumbent upon them to rule and execute their personal blueprints of existence since they are a superior breed. This outlook separates them in a similar manner as it separates all humans from the rest of existence, with humans deeming themselves superior to other sentient beings and using others for our own means. From this place of separation all atrocities are born. The other—someone of a different colour, creed or sexual orientation; the other: lamb or tree—is always outside ourselves and does not belong to our universe of affections.
essay excerpt ©2005paulodacosta
Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey
208 pages, Boavista Press; (2015)
ISBN-10: 0996051139 ISBN-13: 978-0996051132
Forthcoming in: Beyond Bullfights and Ice Hockey, The Architecture of a Multicultural Identity, (forthcoming)