“Anything seemed possible, likely, feasible, because I wanted everything to be possible… Because I had no power to make things happen outside of me in the objective world, I made things happen within. Because my environment was bare and bleak, I endowed it with unlimited potentialities, redeemed it for the sake of my own hungry and cloudy yearning.” –Richard Wright*
In our current bleak environment, let us make things happen.
Volition, William James tells us, the power to will ourselves to act toward some future purpose, is what makes humans unique among the animals. As he writes, “the deepest question that is ever asked admits of no reply but the dumb turning of the will and tightening of our heart-strings as we say, “Yes, I will even have it so!”** We are arguably the only sentient creatures on earth who make plans that will not come to fruition until some unspecified time in the future, possibly beyond our life span. (This is a gift and a curse, possibly our greatest folly, as philosophers from the East and the West have rightly noted.)
Now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, it is hard to know what do to. How and where should one will one’s will to act? As a skilled seamstress, should I rush down to the JoAnn’s store and pick up a mask-making kit for medical personnel? Should I take my car, even if I thereby contribute to the traffic jams already happening, due to the abrupt West Seattle Bridge closure earlier this week? Or should I stay home as Governor Inslee has ordered? I am frozen. So I stay home. And I look for a transfusion of hope from beloved books. That in itself is an act of will, and it reinforces the promise I made to you last week.
And that is how I landed on today’s quote by a great American writer (and Francophile), Richard Wright, pictured above, from his powerful and heartbreaking book, Black Boy. His words remind us that today’s struggle, for the millions of people who are healthy, remains primarily a mental battle. If we are lucky enough to have housing, food, and good health, yet we are unable to go out or work in the world, how can we continue to feel purpose? We have to will it into being.
Some years ago, while I was writing a book on literature about the French Revolution, I wondered about the pre-conditions for artistic genius. Would France have seen the great novels of megalomania and disillusion written by Stendhal (b. 1783), Honoré de Balzac (b. 1799) or Victor Hugo (b. 1802) without the Revolution of 1789-93 and the memory of its trauma on their lives? Is there a cause-effect relationship between one’s generation–the time and place where you live, your country’s wars and prosperity– and one’s genius? I was quite taken by the following quote by Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot, about the conditions necessary for an artistic renaissance:
“Poetry requires something enormous, barbaric, and savage. … When shall we see the birth of poets? It will be after a time of disaster and great misfortune, when the beleaguered people will draw a breath. Then the imagination, shaken by those terrible spectacles, will depict things unknown to those who have not seen them.”***
Could the present crisis give birth to a renaissance in the 2020s? Let it be so, and let it begin with us.
P.S. In case you think I’m shirking my civic responsibility by not going down to JoAnns’ in Southcenter to get a mask-sewing kit, please know I have signed up to sew masks (Phase 3) for Sew Loved, in South Bend, IN. (and you can too, by clicking here!) People with pets in their homes are ineligible for making medically-approved masks for Sew Loved (Phase 1 & 2), alas.
* Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth, 1st ed. 1944, (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), pp. 72-73.
** William James, Psychology: The Briefer Course, ed. Gordon Allport (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 326.
***Denis Diderot, « De la poésie dramatique », 1st ed. 1758 in Œuvres esthétiques, éd. Paul Vernière, Paris, Garnier, 1968, vol. 2, p. 2. With thanks to Elena Russo for this translation, from her book Styles of Enlightenment, p. 200.