Active Voice | Jonathan Bower: We Must Revise Our Lives

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Doctor Zhivago by Jonathan Bower
photo by Jonathan Bower

We Must Revise Our Lives
(Vocation, Action, & Duty in the Trump Era)

My necrotic, psychotic age.
More cruel for the weakness that taunts you,
More crippled for the supple animal that haunts you,
You stagger on,
Staring back at the way you’ve taken:
Mad tracks in a land called Gone.
~Osip Mandelstam (trans. Christian Wiman)

Almost immediately after Donald Trump secured the presidency, my social media feeds transformed from a bulletin board celebrating individuals’ mundane activities and enviable accomplishments into a gushing torrent of distressed reports ranging from the absurd to the truly horrifying. The lone, unifying theme wending through all the alarm-ringing since November entirely centers, of course, on the Trump White House.

Perhaps, in these ways, my feeds resemble yours, too.

On the one hand, yes, to borrow from William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep” right now. Unfathomably deep in many ways. Given the platform on which he was elected, the ongoing immigration ban mess, and the spike in hate crimes since Trump’s election, it’s almost tempting to wave off the significance of his efforts to gut the NEA, EPA, NEH, PBS, and more.

Nevertheless, I’ve found it curious and a little unsettling to discover how many of us with a stake in the arts continue to sound thoroughly gobsmacked, hog-tied, and helpless right now. Which is hardly to suggest I haven’t shared in my own wild fits of overwhelm and panic. No, I’ve tweeted and posted within the confines of my social media echo-chamber plenty, and under the mistaken guise that doing so somehow constitutes activism, too.

However, writers and artists of this era have just received a crucible the likes of which many of us in America have never encountered in our lifetimes. And yet, it’s an inheritance for which all our training, education, degree pursuits, publications, book contracts, residencies, grant awards, agent-shopping, and internships have more than capably prepared us.

If we have been paying attention and not sleep-walking—and if we have not solely strived to capitalize on our individual endeavors—then we have probably spent countless hours clarifying, revising, and authenticating our minds and voices in writing. If you have attended to your vocation in this manner, then your skills are needed right now. Clarity, an ability to critically examine the meaning and basis of the information flooding our channels, attentive eyes and ears —all of these seem essential for addressing the tremendous tasks requiring our attention now.

Likewise, it seems important to recognize that while a majority of us may have never encountered challenges of the magnitude that a Trump presidency poses, many of our forebears and most-revered authors in the craft have.

For instance, when I learned a few weeks ago that I share a birthday with Boris Pasternak— Nobel recipient and author of Doctor Zhivago—I picked up the novel, purely from a self-absorbed curiosity of having a literary “birthday buddy.” Aside from possessing a dim memory of my mom watching the movie on TV many years ago, I had no point of reference for the work.

In the preface to Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, Richard Pevear writes that no one was less surprised than Pasternak when, in 1956, the Soviet-controlled periodicals and publishing houses refused to publish his novel, citing that “the spirit of [Doctor Zhivago], its emotional content, and the author’s point of view were incompatible with the spirit of… the Soviet state.”

So, when an Italian journalist visited with Pasternak in Russia and offered to place the manuscript in the hands of a Milanese publisher, Pasternak faced an opportunity otherwise eluding him. Nevertheless, he hesitated. Was publishing the work over which he had labored ultimately worth the risks and costs of subverting Russia’s powers and censors? Then, Pevear writes, Pasternak “went to his study, brought out a copy of the novel and handed it to him with the words: ‘You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.’”

He wasn’t overreacting. Over the years, he had witnessed Stalin’s horrors firsthand. He had followed and witnessed fellow writers’ and friends’ arrests, sudden emigrations, exiles to labor camps, and deaths by firing squad. And while he certainly anticipated repercussions on the heels of the Italian translation, nothing could have prepared him for the vilifying he’d endure from within his homeland following the worldwide acclaim of the work. When the book eventually earned Pasternak the Nobel, the Soviet government demanded he refuse the award, further exploding the international fervor accompanying the novel.

And so, in a decade where I’ve mostly strived to publish freelance pieces that help me pay my wifi bill and afford my smartphone, Pasternak’s risk-taking might seem absolutely mystifying or “Orwellian” if not for the swiftly-dawning realization that we indeed could, in a Bannon/Trump world, risk careening towards similar stakes as authors.

What inner-resource or -fortitude has kept writers from buckling under duress, and to continue speaking truth to power during periods of great upheaval and upset, despite the overwhelming risks and odds? In the age of funneling and projecting our most heated and tangled frustrations and anxieties through Facebook and Twitter, I think these are legitimate and important matters to consider now.

What, for example, possessed Pasternak’s contemporaries, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Ahkmatova, to continue writing poems despite the brutal interrogations, to quite definitively risk their lives resisting Stalin’s regime with verse and rhyme?

Similarly, what drove Neruda to continue composing a form of verse so musical his manuscripts still sing today despite being exiled from his homeland and writing in spite of Pinochet’s threats?

What did Lorca find or access inside himself that, recognizing the stakes, would compel him to continue rebelling against Franco’s tyranny, regardless of what his efforts ultimately cost him?

In a 2012 essay, “Courage and Survival,” the late Jim Harrison shrugs off a lot of what we often consider “courageous” in our times, dismissing most situations as mere “contests” testifying solely to our culture’s “admiration for sheer consumption.” Courage, Harrison argues, is instead “the act of continuing to struggle against unassailable odds.”

Anne Frank, he offers, proves an obvious model of courage in our more recent history. He looks to Lorca, too, “standing there on the mountainside waiting for the bullets.” And finally, he turns towards his beloved Mandelstam, “wandering in winter in Russia with the Stalinists giving chase in order to kill him.” Mandelstam slept in ditches when he was on the run, under his “bulky, warm overcoat… invisible because he was covered with snow.”

Their lives, Harrison notes, were “a far cry from an American poet on a grant in Europe, wishing he had the money for a fancier hotel.” Or, in my case, pining for an iPhone upgrade loaded with more memory.

Do we stand capable of rising to the challenges ahead of us in this indeterminable and thoroughly bewildering time? Every day since the election, following each executive order and appointment since Trump’s assumed the office, I ask myself if I’ll have what it takes for whatever lies in wait up ahead.

I referred to a line from Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” earlier. Do you remember the lines that precede it?

For it is important that awake people be awake…
the signals we giveyes, or no, or maybe
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Be awake. The way many in your writing lineage were.

The way they have taught us and now ask us to be.

Jonathan Bower is a freelance writer and musician living in Anchorage, AK, where he works full-time as an unpaid chauffeur to his two rapidly-growing sons. As opportunities arise, he also enjoys teaching Creative Writing classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. In December, he completed two election-themed music columns for the Anchorage Press, called Coping Skills and Songs for the Darkest Time of Year. In the new year, he began pre-production on the follow-up to his 2014 album Hope, Alaska with Evan Phillips, and will soon launch a Kickstarter to help fund the recording project. 

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