Why Struggle?

Last week I wrote of the competitive urge to write, to write and perhaps create a monument more lasting than bronze. It may strike some readers that this is a narcissistic desire. Perhaps so, but not as simply as it may appear, because the choice is half-forced.

St. Séverin, Latin Quarter. Photograph by Rachael Alter.

St. Séverin, Latin Quarter. Photograph by Rachael Alter.

Any reader and writer may feel himself inferior to Shakespeare and Dante, and one may think it’s good enough to create something proportionate to one’s intellect in just the same proportion in which one stands in relation to the greats. The trouble’s that artistic space doesn’t give that way. Why read me when you can read Shakespeare, if he’s definitely better? Perhaps just to give me a chance, but once I’m found wanting, what more?

Someone might still want to read my work if I did something different, something that others hadn’t done, something worth getting into. To some, this seems easy: just be different, and really, all men are different, so what’s the problem? Well, some writers are great: their works, not content with some delineated space, swallow field and fountain, moor and mountain. In the shadow of colossi, mere survival is a struggle.

Or one may just stop thinking about this affair entirely. Oh, but surplus! When there’s too much life in us to drop into the void, too much power that otherwise would go nowhere – this surplus is also the reason for civilization, that the human spirit reaches beyond mere survival, because it has more in it to give, and it wants to give, and it procreates, and there’s more, and then it must subcreate something worth having.

And to put all the surplus into the engineering of greater efficiency, though in a cruel world you must do some of this, is to feed a machine: it makes a humanity hungrier but not fuller. Efficiency for the sake of efficiency is a circular, question-begging enterprise – there’s a point of diminishing returns to farming more efficiently, eating more efficiently, shitting more efficiently, procreating more efficiently – and so you stretch out your arm instead to grasp beauty and make it anew. You cannot escape this fate without feeling that you must somehow be doing violence to yourself.

Église Saint-Séverin. Photograph by Serge Melki.

Église Saint-Séverin. Photograph by Serge Melki.

Up comes the column, twisting skyward, like a tree spreading its branches, like the Tree of Life (or the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) in the centre of the forest. And so it must, amid the stained-glass windows splashed with colour. The architect did it.

Paris St. Séverin. Photograph by Alessandro Prada.

So then, do I really have a better choice? To swear off creation is to swear off the way I was created, and under God I cannot do that. If the Creation was gratuitous – a product of gracious love and not just of law – then even these gratuitous things I cannot help doing.

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