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Just as Amanda needs a version the Misfit at her writing desk, threatening to make her a “good writer” by (metaphorically) shooting her every minute of her life, most writers, if we confess it, are paralyzed for minutes, weeks, months, or years by the question: Does writing matter? It’s not that we don’t believe in the art of literature, or that our allegiances waver, it’s that nearly everything in our culture has been mounting for years an argument against the indispensability of literature and the arts. We understand that what writers are left with, most often, is the notion that practicing their art is the height of self-indulgence. Sure, it can be pretty, but is it really necessary?
The other day, in preparing for a class I’m teaching at DU on Lorrie Moore (who–have I mentioned?–is coming to Lighthouse in a couple of weeks!), I assigned her story, “Dance in America.” The story follows a dancer who, through a grant, is visiting a school near an old, dear friend, Cal. His situation captures perfectly one of the truly human forces at work in our framing of the debate:
Cal’s son, Eugene, is seven and has cystic fibrosis. His whole life is a race with medical research. “It’s not that I’m not for the arts,” says Cal. “You’re here–money for the arts brought you here. That’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really–I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”
(The rest of the story can be heard here, if you’re so inclined.)
We all know the emotional fuel here, and we quickly capitulate, most of us, to the notion that writers doing their work are most certainly not curing cancer. You could argue that the cultural shift away from, well, culture, has been evolving for years, and while we’re somewhat inured to it, I’ve sensed an uptick in worry over this trajectory lately. A sampling from the Dupree nightstand backs this up:
In one generation, then, the numbers of those majoring in the humanities dropped from a total of 30 percent to a total of less than 16 percent; during that same generation, business majors climbed from 14 percent to 22 percent. Despite last year’s debacle on Wall Street, the humanities have not benefited; students are still wagering that business jobs will be there when the economy recovers. (William M. Chace, “The Decline of the English Department,” from The American Scholar)
The “why” of this decline is addressed by Mark Slouka in a recent Harper’s article, “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School“:
Many years ago, my fiancée attempted to lend me a bit of respectability by introducing me to my would-be mother-in-law as a future Ph.D. in literature. From Columbia, I added, polishing the apple of my prospects. She wasn’t buying it. “A doctor of philosophy,” she said. “What’re you going to do, open a philosophy store?”
A spear is a spear—it doesn’t have to be original. Unable to come up with a quick response and unwilling to petition for a change of venue, I ducked into low-grade irony. More like a stand, I said. I was thinking of stocking Kafka quotes for the holidays, lines from Yeats for a buck-fifty.
And that was that. I married the girl anyway. It’s only now, recalling our exchange, that I can appreciate the significance—the poetry, really—of our little pas de deux. What we unconsciously acted out, in compressed, almost haiku-like form (A philosophy store?/I will have a stand/sell pieces of Auden at two bits a beat), was the essential drama of American education today.
It’s a play I’ve been following for some time now. It’s about the increasing dominance—scratch that, the unqualified triumph—of a certain way of seeing, of reckoning value. It’s about the victory of whatever can be quantified over everything that can’t. It’s about the quiet retooling of American education into an adjunct of business, an instrument of production.
The play’s almost over. I don’t think it’s a comedy.
And if this trend can and does leave us humorless, as we see critical thought sinking with its concrete feet to the bottom of the lake, we’re cowed when we think back to Cal and his son with cystic fibrosis.
I was mad at myself, when I went back and re-read it after ten years, for having assigned “Dance in America” to students for a session that was going to focus on narrative drive and central dramatic questions. The fate of Cal’s son, Eugene, is not in question in the story. It’s understood that the cystic fibrosis will ultimately win. There’s no central dramatic question for the dancer–or at least that’s what a first scan of the story would tell you. She swoops in, teaches a few dance workshops with the students, sees the heartbreaking plight of her good friend Cal’s family, and leaves. Crap, I thought.
But then I thought again. The story ends in a moment that absolutely captures what the arts have to contribute to life, even the life of someone whose survival relies on science. After dinner each night is “dance time,” in which the family moves into the other room and dances until Eugene is tired enough to go to sleep. The story ends triumphantly (Kenny Loggins soundtrack notwithstanding):
“Come here, honey,” I say, going over to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here…. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn: this is how we offer ourselves, enter Heaven, enter speaking. We say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here, this is all and what and everything it’s managed–this body, these bodies, that body. So what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
“Stand next to me,” I say, and he does, looking up at me with his orange warrior face. We step in place: knees up, knees down. “This is it! This is it!” Then we go wild and fling our limbs to the sky.
Ultimately we meet a dancer who’s negotiating the same doubts as most writers: how has she spent her life? And through the action of the story, the connection between the dancer and this sick boy, we get our answer: science is not going to save Eugene. Art is helping him live the life he has. Our dramatic question, a philosophical one, is answered with four pairs of arms flung toward the heavens.