The artists get there first.
At least that is how I have seen life and the world for a long time now. Maybe it was in my “dropped-out” years, away from college, living in a commune, hitchhiking wherever I needed to go, finally ending up at a place called L’Abri, but I began to pay attention to larger, deeper questions about who we are and how we live. And one of those questions was about culture, especially “what is it and what makes it?” As I listened, it began to be clear to me that the artists get there first. They feel life before the rest of us do, for blessing and for curse. A bit crudely, they are more like the antennae of an insect, touching the world around, knowing what is out there before the body of the bug begins to follow.
That only seems more true to me now, and the front-page headlines in today’s NY Times only echo this reality. I have no way to judge the integrity of the report, or the science behind it. But the story is sobering, and potentially far-reaching in its tragic implications. But “artists get there first”? How so here?
I am reading one more John Le Carre novel, having read many over the years. For a writing project that I am deeply engaged in, I have taken up Le Carre’s work as a window into the incredible difficulty of knowing the world, and still loving it; of taking responsibility for what we know, for love’s sake. For decades he has shown an increasingly complex mastery of the modern world, first in the Cold War years, and now in the post-Cold War, the globalizing political economies of the 21st-century. He understands more than most of us could even ever imagine, with a literary and technical brilliance that is astounding. Yes, he knows.
But he is also a cynic. Again and again, novel after novel. It is hard to argue against his knowledge; after all, he knows so much. Take “The Constant Gardener,” for example. While the film version captures the contours of the story, the book brings a breadth to understanding the complexity of the collision of huge governmental interests, giant pharmaceutical interests and massive disease. I won’t say more here, other to acknowledge that it is a mess.
Le Carre has his finger to the wind. Two weeks ago the Washington Post ran a long story on the very same problem, focusing on some of our best-known drug companies and their complicity in “crimes against humanity,” e.g. “drugmaker Eli Lilly pleaded guilty to illegally marketing its blockbuster antipsychotic Zyprexa for elderly patients.” They paid $1.4 billion in fines. The art with the story showed a giant syringe with little tablets coming out of it.
As some of my closest friends have said to me over the last few weeks, knowing I am reading Le Carre, “That’s just the way it is.” Members of Congress, lifelong employees of “the Agency” (the C.I.A.), senior leaders of global corporations—each one a person who “knows.”
And yet, and yet… I live my life in hope that it is not the last word. I am not a romantic, and refuse to be. But I am not a cynic either. With the novelist Walker Percy, who took on the bleakness of the human condition with a stark if artful realism, I will live my life believing that “a hint of hope” is a meaningful life, a worthy vocation. Or to remember another artist, Bruce Cockburn, differently gifted but equally attentive to the ways of the world, “Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight, when you’re lovers in a dangerous time.” To know the world, and still love it? There is nothing more difficult—and yet, there is nothing that is more important.