Celebrating Writers

April 6, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The general public is far more interested in getting and spending than in reading and weeping. A woman wrote a colleague: “I have prayed for the death of two other writers, and have been successful twice.”

Celebrities stalk the land, doing stupid and terrible things. Even our publishers ask, how much dough have you made for me lately? Could life get any better? What’s more, these are delightfully dreadful and vacant times. What brings light to a writer more warmly than a deep and menacing darkness.

Despair, commercialism, philistinism, greed. Life reduced to the bottom line. Love reduced to sex. Everyone isolated behind a computer screen. Man, it’s heaven. Best of all, no one cares.

In the beautifully written new Canadian movie, “The Barbarian Invasions,” there are idolatrous, nostalgic references to the great books born of pain, disgust, and rage. Whence come such works as “The Gulag Archipelago,” man’s fate, and all the yearning, ranting, stormy novels and poems of past. From war, pestilence, oppression, and mass stupidity, that’s whence. It is to say that a writer needs to feel alone and deserted by the world, a station equally depressing and elating in that it allows us to stand in relief of all the baser impulses.

It takes a lot for a writer to feel superior to anything, so it helps to live in a time devoid of taste and inspiration. Jane Austen escaped her hostile world by writing novels so removed from current events one would never know that the Napoleonic wars were going on at the same time.

Matthew Arnold gave his famous lament more directly, when he called his bride to stand beside him in a world shook up by Darwin and doubt and the collapse of tradition: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

In “Body and Soul,” an older film about a boxer, a crooked fight promoter tells John Garfield:

ACTOR: Everything is addition or subtraction. The rest is conversation.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: God bless the fight promoter. Bless the liars, the hypocrites, the scoundrels. Bless the corporate thieves. Bless the celebrities behaving badly. Bless the decivilizing acts and impulses that have replaced people with machines, and thus have suggested that the human heart has had its day, and the world of kindness, honor and principle is lost forever.

And bless Poets & Writers for creating its celebration of very odd and out-of-it folks who stare out the window, note that a tidal wave is about to flood the house, and thank our lucky stars.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.