Jan Clausen is the author of 11 books in a range of genres. If You Like Difficulty (Harbor Mountain Press) and From a Glass House (IKON), both poetry, came out in 2007. Older titles include her memoir Apples and Oranges: My Journey Through Sexual Identity (Houghton Mifflin) and the novel Sinking, Stealing (Crossing Press). She was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, has lived most of her adult life in Brooklyn, New York, and travels frequently to Vermont for her job in the Goddard College MFA in Writing Program.
In this Guest Blog Jan addresses the question of what role we should assign to beauty, humor, and play on the edge of a precipice.
Is it just me?
Is it simply a function of my quirky sensitivity to stories of The End—given that I was born right smack at the midpoint of the 20th century, treated to Cold War terror from kindergarten on, conditioned to taking cover underneath my desk during air raid drills and wishing on a star that we wouldn’t get bombed and drinking Strontium 90 with my milk--or have other people noticed (though we don’t talk about it) that there’s something massively terrifying, stunningly weird, hideously sad, and bleakly exhilarating about living with the overarching fear that our misguided species won’t live to grow up?
Who out there is as curious as I am about what that fear means for our literary culture—and, more broadly speaking, all creative expression? Or, to put it another way: what will be the impact on our survival chances of our success or failure at imaginatively grasping the reality of our status as a uniquely self-endangered and world-endangering life form?
Humanity, dubiously gifted with the power of rational planning, hideously resists all sensible course corrections. We face a new situation for the species imagination: the anthropocene in freefall. Never mind that the End of the World is a time-honored trope, featured by myths and sacred texts of all kinds, whether it’s envisioned as cyclical death-and-resurgence or in the severely linear terms of Christian eschatology. What’s so radically new here is not the dread of world-loss, but the prospect of an avoidable and meaningless extinction.
Talk about existential crisis! We can’t look to a God as our decider and meaning-maker. We can’t look to great Nature to heal the wounds we inflict and, if all else fails, to soldier on without us (at least not on the rhythmic, reassuring terms that pastoral literature has traditionally envisioned, since we’re taking much of the biosphere out as we self-destruct). The whole world is in our puny, dirty hands—and so many hands, such uncoordinated hands, some of them wielding vast destructive powers but many more engaged in modest acts of world-killing that somehow total up to genocide and ecocide.
To put it another way: the narrative and symbolic strategies that human cultures have hitherto fallen back on in the face of ultimate terrors are now largely obsolete. To survive, we have to act differently, yes; but at the same time, we have to drastically re-imagine who and where we are as a species; to whom and with what we connect; and how events are generated. To invent “a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values,” as Muriel Rukeyser wrote. Who better than poets and storytellers to undertake this task?
Given the drastic contours of our species predicament, why have so few contemporary writers taken up the challenge? Never mind that Cormac McCarthy’s The Road won the Pulitzer, or that the term “post-apocalyptic” now apparently refers to a popular narrative genre. My dissatisfaction with the focus on images of catastrophe as a response to our crisis stems from my perception that the contemporary imagination of disaster draws heavily on the old Cold War template of “Nuclear Armageddon”: the story of manmade world-death that itself emerged as a secular update of the Christian’s Bible’s awe-inspiring Last Judgment, in which the “finger on the button” (probably wielded by some overbearing white man, or maybe a small committee) replaces the omnipotence of a patriarchal deity. As critic Frank Kermode argued long ago in The Sense of an Ending, Christian-influenced European culture is steeped in story traditions that celebrate “ending” as the point of coherence, the moment at which definitive, God-given meaning will finally emerge.
I propose that instead of elaborating yet more visions of The End, we feed the imagination of threatened continuity. That means searching out and adding to the store of works that illuminate the psychic and social realities we are living right now, in the shadow of species extinction. This is an experience of radical vulnerability marked by connectedness (for good and for ill) beyond anything we have ever adequately mapped; psychic dislocation we scarcely have language for; a derangement of our time sense (we don’t know if there’s a future); and vertiginously multiplied points of view interacting in unforeseen ways.
In my own reading experience, I get glimpses of what I’m after in poets and novelists whose work seems to grow out of profound meditations on histories of genocide and radical vulnerability. Most often, they are women and/or writers of color. I’m thinking now of the moment when Tayo, the damaged war veteran and apprentice shaman in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, arrives “at the point of convergence where the fate of all living things, and even the earth, had been laid…[T]he lines of cultures and worlds were drawn in flat dark lines on fine light sand, converging in the middle of witchery’s final sand painting. From that time on, human beings were one clan again, united by the fate the destroyers planned for all of them, for all living things….”
How shall we teach ourselves to write from a planet’s point of view?