I am as grateful for this award as I am surprised by it, and I certainly did not see it coming. Obviously, it cannot be easy to feel worthy of an award bearing the name of T.S. Eliot, and so probably I ought to say that I am grateful, but unconvinced. The etiquette attendant upon these occasions suggests that an award is a culmination, a recognition of work done. And that is true, of course, but to the awardee the matter is necessarily more complex. My wish today is to speak as steadfastly as I can from the point of view of the awardee. First, as I have already implied, the awardee had better allow for the possibility that he is being honored beyond his merit. He will recall that error in such a matter would not be without precedent. The awardee must next contend with the implications of the notion that he has “won” the award. The indispensable correction comes from William Blake: “I cannot think that Real Poets have any competition.” And that can be taken in two ways: either one is a Real Poet and does not feel competitive, or one wishes to be a Real Poet and therefore had better try not to feel competitive. Either way, the awardee will remember that however solitary he may be in his work, his art is communal. The work of one writer is made possible by the work of fellow writers, past and present, and by the work of many others who are not or were not writers.
That thought leads the awardee to an embarrassing question—embarrassing because he must ask it, is even fascinated by it, but cannot answer it: Putting aside inheritance, influence, inspiration, and many years of instruction, criticism, advice, help, and comfort from friends and loved ones, who remains to receive the award?
Finally, the awardee must look with some uneasiness on the fact, inescapable for the awarders, that the award is a recognition of work done. He will be aware of the very lively distinction between “going to one’s reward” and receiving an award. He must see the award as a sign of expectation, something still to measure up to—as he must see work done as evidence of the capacity to do work. Where he stands is in his ongoing life, a difficult place, for he knows (by the time he is my age he cannot help knowing) that he cannot live in what he has done. He can live only in what he is doing, and with satisfaction only if what he is doing binds him to an order of meaning, significant to others as to himself, not in his work but in the world. He stands, that is (and here the awardee rejoins the awarders), in need of hope.
Though I am in no position to say how validly, I believe that my work has been in large part an effort to sustain hope. It may be that this is merely the natural result of the perspective that I have necessarily written from: the perspective of a country person attached to a rural community and a rural landscape. That is to say that I have had no subject not in need of defense—in need of far more defense, in fact, than I and my predecessors and allies have been able to provide. Times when the political and business leaders of the country have been celebrating the success of the economy have looked to me like times of catastrophe, for that success has depended upon, has virtually required, the plundering of rural neighborhoods such as my own. This state of things confronts the country writer with a rather bald choice between acceding to the cynicism and contempt with which country people and country places are now generally regarded or taking up their defense. To assume the defensive in a (so far) losing cause is to involve oneself in a long confrontation with despair, and, if one is to survive, in a continuous survey of the ground of hope. I can say that my work has given me some hope, sometimes—and I know that those qualifications are dire. They mean simply that nobody can be the source of his or her own hope. We must look elsewhere.
I was distressed to read in a recent issue of the New Yorker that some of the younger Russian writers are now repudiating their great writers of opposition and persistent hope such as Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, whom they regard as representatives of a dead and irrelevant past. They have given up on hope, and they think they are better off. One of the new Russian writers said of a young man in Zurich who asked him to speak of hope: “I had no idea what this man meant! For me, literature is a game. I said, ‘I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place for hope.’ The poor guy. He’d have been better off in church.”
Does the arrival of capitalism relieve writers of such responsibility? Many of our own writers evidently have come to the conclusion that it docs. But what would such writers make of the example of Edward Abbey who, unaware perhaps of the redemption of capitalism, said of his own books: “They are meant to serve as antidotes to despair.”
Edward Abbey’s work could be described as the record of an uncynical and absolute devotion to the natural world, to a home landscape, and to the culture and tradition of freedom. This is a devotion that modern history perhaps inevitably brings to the edge of despair. Abbey’s determination not to submit to hopelessness led him to write The Monkey Wrench Gang, the story of a band of people willing to do something to head off the destruction of their country. It is a better novel too than a lot of people think, who may be put off by its approval of violence to industrial machinery. An equally good novel approving of violence to people would now receive far more respect. The great virtue of Abbey’s quartet of saboteurs is that they, like Abbey himself, acknowledge freely and without embarrassment their love for the things they arc trying to save. From start to finish Abbey was determined to take lightly whatever his enemies took seriously, including himself, and so there is much laughter in his books, but literature to him was hardly a game. The makers of antidotes to despair tend to be well acquainted with their opponent.
Another source of hope to me has been, and has been increasingly, the work of T.S. Eliot, and by that I mean not the poems and plays individually, but the whole course of his work, from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to The Elder Statesman. I have had trouble finding anybody among my literary friends who thinks as highly of The Elder Statesman as I do, and yet I hold to my belief that, if it is read as the last of a series of works reaching always toward an elusive redemption, a pilgrimage of works, that play must be recognized as a triumph. At the beginning, even in the minor poems, we have the wasteland figures, a dismembered humanity, each one eccentric, alone, anxious, and troubled, tottering on the margin of an emptiness that is both within them and around them. And finally, by difficult stages, we arrive at the concluding scene of The Elder Statesman, which is a dialogue of lovers who are pledging themselves to one another. Eliot, who began with those marginal and fragmented inhabitants of the wasteland, obviously thinking himself one of them, has here made his way to the very heart of his faith and his tradition. The woman, Monica, speaks for him:
Age and decrepitude can have no terrors for me,
Loss and vicissitude cannot appall me,
Not even death can dismay or amaze me
Fixed in the certainty of love unchanging.
If the play were just a love story, it might be accused of sentimentality, but it is not just a love story: it is the story also of deception and confession, separation and atonement, sin and forgiveness. The survivors of the play’s arduous winnowing, by forgiving and loving one another have put themselves within the reach of a love far greater, more compassionate, and more forgiving than their own. And this also Monica confesses to her lover: “Before you and I were born, the love was always there / That brought us together.”
But the play is hope-giving, I think, not just in its message so unabashedly stated at the end, but also in its correct identification of the source of hope in small things such as family relationships. The Elder Statesman. Lord Claverton, finds his redemption in putting things right between himself and his son and daughter, not in the great accomplishments of his public life. This of course follows the Gospels’ insistence that peace with one’s brother, peace even with one’s enemy, must come before peace with God. And it follows Confucius’ axiom, “The government of the state is rooted in family order.”
That ancient wisdom—summed up perhaps in the saying that charity begins at home—is a good guide because it connects feeling with practice, reducing the scale of work and placing it within the reach of affection. One of the characteristic losses of our age has been in the reduction of hope, along with faith and love, to mere feeling, an event of “body chemistry.” We seem to have mostly forgotten that these were once thought of as paramount virtues, requiring practice. It is nevertheless true that hope, if it is to be authentic and if it is to last, must find its work, and this must be doable work, work that one can reasonably expect to accomplish.
This way of thinking, which may be necessary to our survival as human beings, goes directly against the current of our public education and public ambition, which never contemplate the propriety or the desirability or the pleasure of work on a small scale. Wc do not want to find small answers to small problems, or partial answers to parts of problems; we want to find heroic answers, global answers to global problems. We tell our children, “You can be everything you want to be,” which is, in every ease, a lie. We believe that we are entitled to large, spectacular, perfect solutions invented by scientists or politicians. We believe that we all ought to work in an office and receive a large salary.
The result, altogether expectable, is work done poorly by people who think themselves too good to do it. The result is disappointment, cynicism, bitterness, boredom, contempt for ordinary life and ordinary pleasures—a state of mind that has afflicted both life and art.
The result is what my friend Wes Jackson calls “the ain’t-it-awful conversation”—a conversation that Wes says we have got to get out of. But we cannot get out by yet more fatuous self-regard, or by dreaming more of our over-stuffed dreams. We can get out by hoping for the right things, and by doing promptly and as well as we can the modest work that our hope requires.
Lately, as a sort of emblem of my own hope, I have been thinking of a farmer in a poem by the Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. The farmer. Job Davies, 85 years old, is mowing grass with a scythe early in the morning and he is talking to himself:
What to do? Stay green.
Never mind the machine,
Whose fuel is human souls.
Live large, man, and dream small.
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