Commentary Magazine

An Apology for Literature


Statements in literary works are taken seriously and men of letters are invited to confer with experts as if they had something useful to contribute. They are not scientific statements. They are grounded in something, but in what? It is not exactly evidence. What kind of statement is it that men of letters make? What is their warrant for making it? I think the warrant is in the literary process itself.

There are innumerable books on works of literature and the lives of their authors, and there are many books on the philosophy of art. But to my surprise, I cannot think of a comprehensive study of the literary process—what it is to write books—drawn from what men of letters do. Like language itself, literature easily attaches to any subject-matter, yet it is less free-floating than language; criticism deals with whole concrete works. (In this respect, literature is not like grammar, rhetoric, and logic, which are “universal arts,” as Aristotle called them, that are used for every purpose.) And literature has its own specific discipline, of writing the essay through, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Let me spell out these characteristics of literature and compare them with other disciplines, and see if they add up to a warrant for stating anything meaningful and true.

Like everybody else, a writer has a day-to-day life; but unlike any scientist or almost any professional, a writer’s daily life and course of life are relevant to his special work and may at any time appear in his sentences. He may say, “My experience has been that . . .” or “For instance, yesterday I had a quarrel with my daughter and . . .” I can think of only pastoral theology and psychotherapy as professions where this would not be out of place, since they deal face to face with their clients and speak ad hominem. If a social scientist uses such sentences he is at once identified as a writer (and dismissed).

A writer certainly does not deal ad hominem with his unknown readers; yet his readers may take it as if he does and send him letters and so forth.

A writer objectively observes, and so is like a scientist. His method is best compared, in this respect, with natural history or anthropology. A young writer is well advised to learn the geography, botany, and animals—a good model is Hardy—as well as the people and institutions. A writer’s method is naturalistic; he does not intervene experimentally or with questionnaires, though like other naturalists, he may station himself to notice what he needs to know.

But then, unlike scientific naturalists, he focuses on the individual case with its unique characteristics, like a painter painting just this scene, or a physician treating just this patient.

He brings together his personal life and the objective subject matter, and the general class and the individual case.

Writers rely heavily on memory, the mother of the muses, both their own biographies and the cultural tradition. Only law, philosophy, and history itself draw as much on records of the past decades, centuries, and millennia. The faculty of bringing together memory and learning with present observation and spontaneous impulse is a remarkable service for human beings. Man is the animal who makes himself and the one who is made by his culture. Literature repeats the meaning and revives the spirit of past makings, so they are not a dead weight, by using them again in a making that is occurring now.

I would not like to distinguish literature from philosophy, if we take philosophy to be the collecting of wide-flung concrete experience, in principle all the experience there is, and saying what is central in it. There are various methods of philosophizing, for instance logical analysis, phenomenological description, grounding and harmonizing the different sciences. Literature could be called philosophizing by making and experimenting with language.

Writers are linguistic analysts and know the folk wisdom and superstition that exist in common vocabulary and grammar. As general semanticists, they are critical of the rhetoric of the street, the mass media, and official institutions. They understand, more than most people, what cannot be said, what is not being said though it ought to be, what is verbalized experience, and what is mere words. They can detect when there is really an idea and an argument rather than a cloud of phrases. They can date a passage and show a forgery. As psychologists of language they are sensitive to how people come on when they talk or write, the ploys they use, and the postures they strike. They can hear the personal character that is expressed in habits of syntax, and the personal inhibition or freedom that are told by the breathing and rhythm of sentences and the quality of metaphor. They can judge the clarity or confusion or spurious clarity in an exposition. They are sociologists of language and can recognize the social background in vocabulary, pronunciation, and routine formulas.



At the same time as they know all this, however, in their own writing they must let their speech come spontaneously; it is free speech, though they monitor it critically. It pursues tangents that they did not plan, produces metaphors that surprise them, uses word order with an emphasis they did not know they had, argues in a way to contradict their theses, and says ideas that they themselves judge to be unpolitical or immoral. But they do not censor or control this wildness, but do their best to assimilate it and keep going. Sometimes the whole must be torn up because it has fallen apart. For writers, these wildnesses are like the phenomena that must be “saved” by the empirical scientist. There are different ideologies to explain the necessity not to control—it is inspiration, it is unconscious contents emerging, the unconscious contents are the return of individual Hang-ups, or they are images from the depths, the spontaneous is the voice of the people, or universal man speaking through the writer. Whatever the ideology, a writer writes at the boundary of what he knows.

Not to censor is an act of moral will, a commitment. At some point early in his career a young writer must come to it, like a kind of Hippocratic oath. If he can think something, he will say it; if it says itself, he will not strike it; if he can write it, he will publish it. The writing does not belong to “himself.”1 The refusal of censorship and self-censorship is, of course, essential for the use of writing against lying and oppressive regimes; but it also makes a writer a thorn in the side of his own political cause: he gets nice about the slogans, he can’t say the half-truth, he states the case of the opposition better than is convenient, and so forth. A writer might be a fine citizen in a perfect community, to which he would lend animation; but he is an unreliable ally, he is “unrealistic,” in actual politics.

The spontaneity, the free origination, of writing is one aspect of a writer’s disinterestedness; he does not will it but he is present with it. The other aspect is as follows.

He writes it through, from the beginning through the middle to the end. This is a writer’s chief moral virtue, it is an act of will and often requires a lot of fortitude. It is what distinguishes a writer from a dilettante. A young writer is well advised to start on things he can finish and not get bogged down in long novels. By finishing, you learn the habits that work for you and can then set up a bigger structure.

To make a whole work, each sentence follows from the sentence before with “literary probability” and advances the whole, until nothing more follows. In the course of a fairly long work, there are bound to be impasses. The writer must backtrack and choose other alternatives, observe more, and sometimes have bad headaches till he invents something. Here lies the distinction between a good writer and a bad writer. A good writer does not fake it and try to make it appear, to himself or the reader, that there is a coherent and probable whole when there isn’t. If the writer is on the right track, however, things fall serendipitously into place; his sentences prove to have more meaning and formative power than he expected; he has new insights; and the book “writes itself.”

At the end of this process, somehow, the finished work will have been worth doing. If it is a long poem, it will have the kind of meaning that poems have. If it is a prose essay, it will say something true about its subject matter.2

This last is, of course, simply an act of faith, but it is no different in kind from the faith of all who work at the boundary of the unknown, the faith of a physician that, if he pursues his method, nature will heal the patient; or the faith of an empirical scientist that, if he pursues his method, the nature of things will reveal a secret. Or for that matter, the faith of a child who runs across a field and the ground supports him. If they fail, they do not give up the method, because they have no alternative way of being. When they succeed, they get a passing satisfaction and go on to another work.

Finally there is an odd and revealing unilateral contract that a writer makes with his readers. Some writing, of course, like a political tract, an entertainment, or a popularization, is aimed at a particular audience and always keeps them in mind; but much serious writing, perhaps most, is written for no particular audience; and fiction and poetry for an “ideal” audience. Nevertheless, the writer is always under an obligation to make it “clear.” He will explain references that an ordinary literate reader is not likely to know, he will fill out the argument, he will avoid private or clique information, even though his ideal audience would hardly need such help. But “clear” does not mean easily comprehensible—consider Mallarmé, an exceedingly clear and logical writer, but one who cannot sacrifice the conciseness, texture, and immediacy of his style just to be easily understood by readers, so you have to figure it out like a puzzle. My opinion is that, in most cases, the writer is not thinking of a reader at all; he makes it “clear” as a contract with language. Since it is the essence of speech to have a hearer—even though he intends no hearer—the correct use of speech is to be clear.

Let us go back to the question I started with. How do these traits and powers of literary writing add up to a warrant to make true statements, in the sense that scientific statements are true? They don’t. But there is no alternative. There is no other discourse but literature that is subjective and objective, general and concrete, spontaneous and deliberate, and that, though it is just thinking aloud, gives so much attention to speech, our chief communication.

Philosophers have always quoted literary texts as if they provided another line of proof, a special kind of evidence. As a writer, I do not judge that I provide evidence. But I do go through the literary process to produce the text.

Men of letters have definite virtues. They do not wear blinders. They are honest and do not omit the seamy or awkward side. They are intolerant of censorship and skeptical of authority. They work hard to write it through. They disinterestedly lose themselves in what they do and are innocently in love with the product.

But it is not so definite what is the use of their ethic. They are not committed, like scientists, to find confirmable and replicable truth. Politically, they are usually inept at finding ways to realize what they advocate. They are not trustworthy as pedagogues or curers of souls.

Perhaps, in the social division of labor, they are the group to whom it is assigned to make sense. One is reminded of Nestor, the orator of the Iliad. Nestor’s honeyed speech at no time dissuaded the Greeks from their infatuation, but it was no doubt a good thing for them to go to their doom with open eyes.




It has been argued, however, that literature is simply outmoded in modern times. One clamorous line of attack has recently been coming from the champions of multi-media. In my opinion it is nonsensical. They say that writing, and indeed all speech, is “linear,” it pays out its meanings one after another like signals in an unrolling tape. But in fact, speech can be amazingly contrapuntal, more so even than orchestral music with all its voices and timbres. In colloquial speech, the phonetics, grammar, and lexicon can simultaneously have meaning, either reinforcing or shading one another, and to these we must add non-verbal signs and attending to the respondent. Writing, which is more deliberate speech, lacks the non-verbal and the respondent, but it adds contrapuntal voices like a system of metaphor, systematic irony, allegory, subordination of clauses in the framework of an independent clause—consider a paragraph of Proust. In poetry it is usual for three systems of rhythm to be heard at the same time, the meter, the beats of phrasing, and the period or paragraph. Good colloquial conversation or the complex-word of a poem can keep globally in touch with almost every aspect of a situation.

Speech rises from within people; they reach out to say it or to hear it, even when they are reading. My observation is that people are rather passive to multi-media. Multi-media have their own quality, of surrounding the audience spatially and sometimes breaking down defenses, but they are not a substitute for saying. It is possible—I doubt it—that future technological and cultural changes may put writing and reading out of business, but other media will not then do the same job as words. It is hard, if at all possible, for nonverbal means to syllogize, define, state class-inclusion, subordinate, say a subjunctive or even imperative or interrogative, to distinguish direct and indirect discourse, to say I, Thou, or It, etc., etc. Film, music, and space-arrangements have to use indirect means to communicate these simple things. On this subject, people like McLuhan don’t know what they’re talking about, though they have other useful things to say. If they would try to write through a book, they would have to make more sense. A written argument won’t hang together unless it copes with at least the obvious objections. Putting in a picture doesn’t help.

A different objection is to deny that literature as such is relevant, to say that writing is made honest only by its workaday and community use. In its philosophical form, which I remember hearing during the 20′s (e.g., Gebrauchsmusik), this is a profound doctrine. It is close to Goethe’s great sentence that “Occasional Poetry is the highest kind”—the poetry of weddings, parties, funerals, and dedications. Street theater and commedia dell’arte are the utopia of every play-wright. Music and plastic art—though literature less—have certainly flourished in service to religion. It is a doctrine of happy communities.

Since the 30′s, however, and very much nowadays, the irrelevance of literature has gotten to mean that the right use of literary speech is political action, like protest songs and guerrilla theater—we simply don’t have the community necessary for celebration, occasional poetry, and commedia dell’arte. That is, the process of literature is not used in its natural power to find meaning and make sense, so that we can act in a world that has meaning and sense. It is claimed there is no time for this, there is too much suffering and injustice. And only by engaging in revolutionary action can one produce new thought and lively words. But in practice I have found this comes to not questioning slogans that are convenient for an immediate tactic or a transient alliance. The writers tell half-truths. “Action” becomes idiotic activism. The vocabulary and grammar are pitched to a condescending populism, about at the level of junior high school, including the dirty words. The thought is ideological through and through.



There is, finally, a famous analysis of the history of poetry and human speech that in principle makes literature now quite irrelevant. On this view, poetry was the inevitable and appropriate speech of primitive ages, as the only available way of saying reality when not much was known and before the division of labor; these were ages of myth, when people living in a fearful and uncontrollable environment could not distinguish between magic and science, saga and history, dream and empirical experience; the poets were the prophets, historians, philosophers, and scientists. In the course of time, poetry was replaced by philosophy and history; and these in turn have given way to special physical sciences and positivist sociology. In our time, literature can be merely decoration or entertainment or exercises in emotional noises. This was the line of Vico (on one interpretation) and of Comte. And prophylactic empiricist languages, like Basic English or positivist logic, carry it out as a program.

Apologists for literature have tended to regard exactly the same development of language as a devolution rather than an evolution. In his Defence of Poesy Philip Sidney argues that history and moral philosophy are ineffectual to teach the man of action and the warrior—he comes on strongly as the Renaissance scholar-poet who is also soldier-statesman. History tells us only what has been, poetry what should be; moral philosophy is dry analysis, poetry motivates to emulation and action. Sidney would certainly not have been happier with the “value-neutral” language of present departments of sociology. In its high Italian form, Sidney’s argument goes so far as to deny that scientific or philosophical sentences are true at all; only Eloquence is true, for truth resides in right action, not in propositions, just as Nietzsche holds that the only true science is the Gaya Scienza that makes you happy if you know it.

Shelley, in his Defence of Poetry, takes the same tack. He sees the world of his time as fragmented, quantified, rule-ridden; it is only poetry that can liberate and bring the parts together.

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know—our calculations have outrun our conceptions. . . . The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionately circumscribed that of the internal world. . . . The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person. . . . A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively. . . . Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts.

In my opinion, there is a lot of truth in this—it is grounded in Coleridge’s post-Kantian epistemology. It is odd, however, that as a philosophic anarchist after Godwin, Shelley should end his Defence with the fatuous sentence, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What does he intend? That they should be acknowledged? Then what would they do?

Depressed by the passing of Faith, Matthew Arnold—in Literature and Dogma, Culture and Anarchy, and the debate with Huxley—deplores the language of the churchmen, the Liberal and Radical economists, and the scientists, and he turns desperately to literature to give a standard for “Conduct” for the majority of mankind. Astoundingly, this view has condemned him as an elitist—in a speech by Louis Kampf of MIT, the President of the Modern Language Association! But Arnold is explicitly drawing on the Wordsworthian doctrine that uncorrupted common speech, heightened by passion and imagination, binds mankind together, whereas the utilitarian speech of the Liberals or the ideological speech of the Radicals destroys humanity.

Nearer to our own times, bureaucratic, urbanized, impersonalized, and depersonalized, Martin Buber could no longer rely even on literature, but went back to face-to-face dialogue, the orally-transmitted legends of the Hasidim, and the experiences that underlie the text of the Bible. And we see that, in the present deep skepticism about special sciences and scientific technology, the young do not trust speech altogether, but only touching or silence.

In this dispute about the evolution of positivist language or the devolution to positivist language, both sides exaggerate—as usual. It is for quite reasonable human purposes that we have developed languages that are more accurately denotative and analytic and simpler in syntax than poetry. But the broader function of literary language, including poetry, also remains indispensable, because we are never exempt from having to cope with the world existentially, morally, and philosophically; and there is always emerging novelty that calls for imagination and poetry.

Consider the worldwide unease about the technology, the social engineering, the specialist sciences, and their positivist value-neutral language. Suddenly, the line of dissent of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, William Morris, the symbolists, and the surrealists no longer seems to be the nostalgic romanticism of a vanishing minority, but the intense realism of a vanguard. I have found that I can mention even Jefferson and ruralism without being regarded as a crank. To try to cope with modern conditions by the methods of laboratory science, statistics, and positivist logic has come to seem obsessional, sometimes downright demented, as in the game-strategies for nuclear warfare. As in a dream, people recall that technology is a branch of moral philosophy, with the forgotten criteria of prudence, temperance, amenity, practicality for ordinary use; and they ask for a science that is ecological and modestly naturalistic rather than aggressively experimental. But one cannot do moral philosophy, ecology, and naturalism without literary language. It was only a few years ago that C. P. Snow berated literary men for their ignorance of positive science, and now it is only too clear that there is an even greater need for positive scientists who are literary. Unfortunately, since men of letters have for so long let themselves be pushed out, we don’t have relevant literary language and topics to say right technology and ecology; our usual literary attempts are apocalyptic, sentimental, out of date, or private.

A physician, for instance, is faced with agonizing dilemmas: euthanasia when novel techniques can keep tissue alive; birth control despite the destiny of a human being as a parental animal; organ transplants and Lord knows what future developments; the allocation of scarce resources between the vital statistics of public health and the maximum of individual health, or mass practice and family practice. How does one spell out the Hippocratic oath in such issues? How can anyone by his own intuition and individual ratiocination, usually in crisis, possibly decide wisely and without anxiety and guilt? Yet there are almost no medical schools that find time for the philosophy of medicine. And we do not have the linguistic analysis, the reasoned description of precedents, the imagined situations, in brief the literature, for such philosophy.

The social sciences have been positivist only during my lifetime, though Comte talked it up a hundred and fifty years ago. Marx was still able to say that Balzac was the greatest of the sociologists. Comte himself was energized by a crazy utopian poetry. Sir Henry Maine, Maitland, Max Weber, and so forth were historians, humanists. Dewey and Veblen were practical philosophers. Freud and Rank came on like novelists and fantasists and posed the problems for anthropology. It is, of course, a matter of opinion whether, after so many lisping centuries, the brief reign of mature positivist sociology has been brilliant.3

My hunch is that, despite a few more years guaranteed by big funding, it is moribund, done in by the social critics and the politically engaged of the past decades, who have had something useful to say. As one of the social critics, I can affirm that we are philosophes, men of letters.

Humanly speaking, the special sciences and their positivist language have been deeply ambiguous. At their best—it is a splendid best—they have gotten (and deserved) the pay-off of the theological virtues of faith, selflessness, and singleminded devotion, and of the moral virtues of honesty, daring, and accuracy. At their worst, however—and it is a very frequent worst—specialist science and its value-neutral language are an avoidance of experience, a narrow limitation of the self, and an act of bad faith. They are obsessional, an idolatry of the System of Science rather than a service to the unknown God and therefore to mankind. Needless to say, such science can be easily bought by money and power. Its language is boring because what the men do is not worth the effort, when it is not actually base. Being busy-work and form-ridden, it has no style.




I have written forty books. Evidently, to make literature is my way of being in the world, without which I would be at a loss. If I here examine and write the Apology for this behavior, I find that it is not very different from the older Defences of Poetry, but I do not need to make their exaggerated claims since I am just describing my own situation—maybe it is simply that Sidney and Shelley were thirty years old, and I am sixty.

I have a scientific disposition, in a naturalistic vein. I get a continual satisfaction from seeing, objectively, how things are and work—it makes me smile, sometimes ruefully—and I like to write it down. But I do not exclude how I myself am and work as one of the things, unfortunately an omnipresent one in my experience. (I can occasionally smile at this too, but I am happier when I am not there.) God is history, how events actually turn out; but history includes also the history of me. God creates the world and I am only a creature, but I am a creature and He takes me into account, though He doesn’t always know what’s good for me and I complain a lot. Thus, my objective naturalistic sentences are inevitably colored by, and likely distorted by, my own story and feelings. They turn into literature.

I cannot take my wishes, feelings, and needs for granted and directly try to act them, as many other people seem to be able to do. I have to try to make sense, that is, to say my feelings and needs to myself and to other people. It is no doubt the sign of a deep anxiety; I cannot manage the callousness of healthy good conscience, though I do not feel much conscious guilt. I have to justify my needs with meanings. Conversely, I try to translate into action the meanings that I say, for, as with everybody else, much of the meaning that I know is unsatisfactory and something should be done about it. This combination of action and meaning also results in a lot of literature, rhetoric, social criticism, psychoanalysis, pedagogy, and press conferences.



Whether by nature or long habit that has become second-nature, I have that kind of personality that first says and then initiates what it wants, and then knows what it wants, and then wants it. Before saying, I feel just a vague unrest. With most people, it is wise to take seriously what they do, not what they say; their words are rationalizations, pious platitudes, or plain hypocrisy. But writers’ words commit them, marshal their feelings, put them on the spot. I make a political analysis because I have a spontaneous gift for making sense; I then have to go through with the corresponding political exercise, unwillingly not because I am timid but because I am lousy at it. I tentatively say “I love you” and find that I love you. Or very often I have said what seems to me to be a bluff, beyond what I know or want, and it proves to be after all what I mean. Like the Egyptian god that Otto Rank mentions, a writer makes himself by saying.

I am in exile. Like everybody else, I live in a world that is given to me—I am thankful for it. It is not made by me—and that too is very well. But it is not my native home—therefore I make poems. “To fashion in our lovely English tongue a somewhat livelier world, I am writing this book”—The Empire City. In order to appropriate this unfeeling bitter place where I am a second-class citizen. I was no happier when I was young, and I wrote poems; it is no bed of roses when I am toothless and have failing eyes, and I write poems. I never was a beauty, to get what I wanted sexually, but now I am also too tired to seek for it. But even worse than my private trouble is how men have made of the earth an object of disgust, and the stupidity and pettiness of statesmen tormenting mankind and putting additional obstacles in the way, as if life were not hard enough. It does not help, either, that people are so pathetic, the apparently powerful as much as the powerless. To pity is another drain of spirit. But it helps me to say it just as it is, however it is.

Also, I am good at thinking up little expedients of how it could be otherwise. I tend not to criticize, nor even to notice, until I can imagine something that would make more sense. My expedients are probably not workable in the form I conceive them, and I certainly do not know how to get them adopted—they are utopian literature—but they rescue me from the horror of metaphysical necessity, and I hope they are useful for my readers in the same way. When they are neat solutions, they make a happy comic kind of poetry. Maybe they are all the more charming because they are practical, simpleminded, and impossible. It is the use of comic writing.

Meaning and confusion are both beautiful. What is chilling is great deeds that have no meaning, the stock-in-trade of warriors and statesmen, but my radical friends also go in for them. What is exasperating is positivistic clarity and precision that are irrelevant to the real irk. A value of literature is that it can inject confusion into positivistic clarity, bring the shadows into the foreground.

Ancient and modern writers are my closest friends, with whom I am in sympathy. They are wise and talented and their conversation sends me. Maybe I am lonely more than average—how would I know?—but I need them. Books and artworks are extraordinary company—one does not need to make allowances!—and in the nature of the case, they speak more clearly to us writers and artists because we respond to them most actively; we notice how he does that, and if it is congenial we say, “I could do something like that.” Despite its bloodlessness, the tradition of literature is a grand community and, much as I envy the happy and the young, I doubt that they have as good a one. (How would I know?) Freud said that artists, giving up animal satisfaction and worldly success for their creative life, hope by this detour to win money, fame, and the love of women. He was wrong—I never had such a hope—but I have thereby entered a company that has given me many beautiful hours. Often, talking to young people at their colleges, when I quote from great writers whom I evidently treat as familiars, they look at me with envy because I have a tradition which they lack, through no fault of theirs, but I do not know how to pass it on.



And what a thing it is to write English sentences!—rapid in thought, sometimes blunt, sometimes sinuous in syntax. When writing, I take my syntax and words from my colloquial speech; I strongly disapprove of the usual distinction between “standard colloquial” and “standard literary.” I will write the slang that I consider worth using when I talk, for instance in the last few pages I have written “he comes on strongly,” “their conversation sends me,” “I am lousy at it,” “he talked it up.” I have no doubt that my voice can be heard in my writing by those who know me face to face. Lecturing, I just muse along and think aloud in a conversational tone, referring to a few notes I have jotted down. When I read verse aloud, I again use a conversational tone and follow the ongoing prose sense rather than the sonority, meter, imagery, or drama. I do not try to be portentous—

Say my song simply for its prosy sentence,
cutting at the commas, pausing at the

Any poetry in it will then be apparent,
motion of mind in English syntax.

On the other hand, though I follow the sense, I am not intent on conveying any truth or message, but just the beginning, middle, and end of a whole literary work. I will strike whatever impedes or detracts from the whole, regardless of the “truth.” For what I communicate must, in the end, be not anything I know but how I do in getting rid of the poem, putting it out there. Afterward, God help me, I am left so much the less.

I use the word “God” freely when I write—much less freely when I speak—never when I think or talk to myself. I don’t know clearly what I intend by it. I cannot pray in the usual sense, though I sometimes use the awareness-exercises of psychotherapy which, I guess, is my religion. But in writing of the fundamental relations of my soul, mankind, and the world, I find the terminology of St. Thomas or Karl Barth far more congenial and accurate than that of Freud or Reich, who are either too “subjective” or too “objective,” they do not say how it is. To say deliberately just how it is with me is apparently how I pray, if I may judge by the language that comes to me. Especially when I am at a loss for grief, confusion, gratitude, or fear. In moments of impasse—but only when I have earned the right to say it because I have tried hard—I have written “Creator spirit, come.”

Maybe it is that when I think or talk to myself, I am embarrassed, but when I write I am not embarrassed. I now remember that I fell on my knees and said a prayer when I had finished writing The Empire City, and indeed the ending of that book is very good.

When I write public themes—urbanism, psychology, delinquency, the school system, the use of technology, resisting the draft—I of course try to be honest with the facts, to “save the phenomena,” but again I rather obviously put more trust in the literary process, the flow of saying my say, than in statistics. I take the statistics seriously when they contradict me; I modify my line or make a distinction, or I explain how the statistics are an artifact or haven’t asked the right question. I like using abrasive material to work with and I have no impulse to sweep difficulties under the rug. (Sometimes, however, I am simply ignorant.) But when the “facts” run positively in my direction, I do not argue from them but treat them literarily; 85 per cent becomes “a good majority,” 60 per cent is “in very many cases,” 35 per cent is “an appreciable number of cases,” 20 per cent is “sometimes it happens that.” A single individual situation that I judge to be typical and for which I can provide a global, literary explanation to my satisfaction, weighs more than all the rest, because it is for real and must be coped with politically and humanly. Except for rhetorical effect, I usually don’t make generalizations anyway, because I don’t care about them—when I do make them they tend to be outrageous because I am outraged. I do not understand a cause or a reason as a correlation, but animally, as continuous with a muscular push or a perceptual Gestalt.

But when I rely on the literary process, the flow of saying my say, this does not mean that I say what I want to say but what can—strongly—be said. The work has its own discipline, to be clear, to make sense, to hang together, to go from the beginning to the end. For instance, I do not allow myself the usual concessive clause, “Although some cases are not so-and-so, yet the majority of cases are so-and-so.” Such a construction is stylistically feeble. If there are well-marked exceptions or a single outstanding exception, it is better to find the distinction that explains the exception and to affirm it rather than concede it. The difference will then strengthen the explanation of the other cases; it will provide a new reason. Often it provides the best reason, the one I hadn’t thought of till I had to write the sentence. A strong and scrupulous style is a method of discovery.

Commenting on this, an unfriendly critic might say, “You mean that it is true if it sounds good.” To which I would reply, in an unfriendly tone of voice, “Yes.”

My reliance on colloquial speech and the process of literature is certainly closely related, whether as cause or effect, to my political disposition. I am anarchistic and agitational, and I am conservative and traditional. So is good speech. Insistently and consistently applied, any humane value, such as common sense, honor, honesty, or compassion, will soon take one far out of sight of the world as it is; and to have meaning is one of the virtues that is totally disruptive of established institutions. Nevertheless, meaningful language and coherent syntax are always historical and traditional and always have a kind of logic. Speaking is a spontaneous action of the speaker, and he speaks only in a community, for a hearer. Colloquial speech cannot be regimented, whereas even perception and science can be regimented—perception because it is passive, science because they can put blinders on it like a directed horse. But the vulnerability of colloquial speech, unfortunately, is that its freedom is limited to where the speakers have initiative, eyewitnessing, and trust, and these limits may be made narrow indeed. The literary process expands these limits by historical memory, international culture, and welcoming the dark unconscious which common folk prudently inhibit. Common speech can be pretty empty and aimless, whereas to write you must know at least something and try to be clear—it is a profession.

Slogans can’t last long in either common speech or literature. In revolutionary situations, the new people, making bad literature (and sometimes even writing it down), have to recall ancient languages, as the Reformers picked up the Hebrew patriarchs, the French Revolutionists picked up Marcus Brutus, and the hippies pick up various Indians and Amerindians; but the good writers ridicule these too.



Thus, my Apology for the literature to which I have devoted the years of my life is very like the others over several centuries, and it is noteworthy that they are all similar. Possibly if we had a very different kind of community, we would say something different; but possibly it is the human condition—how would I know? Literature confounds the personal and impersonal, meaning and beginning to act, and thought and feeling. In this confusion which is like actual experience, it makes a kind of sense. It imagines what might be, taking account of what is. Using the code of language, it continually revises the code to cope with something new. It is more conservative than science and more daring than science. It makes the assured and powerful uneasy, if only out of powerless spite. It speaks my common speech and it makes human speech noble. It provides a friendly community across ages and boundaries, and cheers my solitude. It is the way I pray to God and patriotically revere my background. It is legitimacy and rebellion.




1 An interesting problem arises with regard to copyright. In principle, what is authentically written is not a commodity bought and paid for, but is in the public domain like air and water and natural growth. Yet as a citizen I object to my writing being exploited for somebody's profit. So I try to set the following conditions: if anybody wants to reprint my writing for non-commercial purposes, they can do so gratis; if the State wants to use it, they must give me safeguards; if a commercial enterprise wants to use it, they must pay the going market price.

2 Schopenhauer or Nietzsche—I no longer remember which; either is possible because both were snappish and down-to-earth—advises looking first at the last chapter and asking “Was will der Mensch?—What's the man after?” He is after where he ends up. But has he gone there? If so, you have to go the way with him. My own usual experience is that I do start out with him frankly on his way; but somewhere along he fakes something, or he doesn't know something that he ought to know; and then I find it hard to continue. My experience also is that one can usually easily recognize the writer who is really in there pitching, suffering, doing his best, finding new things—at least new to himself, and not just working a sewing machine. To him one allows any number of mistakes and gaps.

3 A recent study captained by Karl Deutsch, emanating from the University of Michigan, points to the great advances in recent years made by big teams of scholars heavily financed; and it refers sarcastically to those—namely me—who claim that we don't know much more than the ancients did about psychology, pedagogy, politics, or any other field where they had adequate empirical evidence. When I look at the list of great advances, however, I find them heavily weighted toward methodology and equipment; stochastic models, computer simulation, large-scale sampling, game theory, structural linguistics, cost-benefit analysis, etc., etc.; in brief, an enormous amount of agronomy and farm-machinery and field hands, but few edible potatoes.

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