Struggle. Most of us spend as little time as possible engaged in it. Fewer of us still have ever relished it or even delighted in it. Struggle is something forced on us: constantly retreated from, we prefer any kind of anesthesia to thinking, examining, failing. It was perhaps ever thus. Christianity talks about taking up the cross; Hinduism has shraddha (the struggle to maintain moment-by-moment attentiveness to what we are doing and saying); Marxist politics is ‘the struggle.’ Auden, in his poem ‘Spain’, pits against all the mad, wondrous yesterdays and ‘romantic’ tomorrows an urgent, difficult present: ‘But to-day, the struggle’ is his refrain. Struggle, he argues in this poem at least, is essential.
Recently, however, I found myself feeling that somehow the political, the intellectual, even (and, as an agnostic, I use this word gingerly) spiritual imperative to struggle is being slowly washed away. My alarm was sparked when reading about Tibor Fischer’s comment in The Telegraph that he had never managed to finish a novel by Faulkner. Given that I am currently wrestling with As I Lay Dying, I found myself thinking of Fischer as something of a wimp: ‘call yourself a literary novelist and you can’t finish Faulkner? Gadzooks! What is the world coming to?’ Fischer’s comment seemed at that splenical moment to be part of a wider cultural languour, malaise, even. You’ve all seen the evidence. Think of the book bestseller lists where most of the top 20 are cookery books or biographies (don’t get me wrong, I love both genres, but in those lists you can almost smell the fear of the novel). Articles where it’s reported that sorting your rubbish into several categories is just too taxing and amounts ‘to an infringment of my human rights and shit’ (apologies to Armstrong and Miller there). Or that cooking a meal involving the use of a knife and vegetables you actually have to chop (yes, you, Nigella) is positively debilitating. Fischer isn’t the only one, then, to ask ‘bovvered?’ However, his ostensibly innocent expression of defeat pushed me over the edge.
Thus, Fischer reignited my love of the noble struggle (ignoble, often enforced, struggle being the Lemsip Max Strength ideology of the modern workplace, at once sniffy and cowed): such is my competitiveness, that I determined to read Faulkner’s entire oeuvre on the spot. Of course, I can see Fischer’s point: Faulkner is clotted, elliptical, cussed in his lyricism. Reading As I Lay Dying can be as slow and even as treacherous as the journey of Addie Bundren’s coffin to its resting place. But, my God! Treading, backtracking, advancing over this ground of Faulkner’s: what a fight to stay standing! The language masters you like weather: ‘In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep’ is only the beginning of a slippery meditation: Darl floating between is and is not; the whole world in the novel sliding around the same way.
Faulkner confuses the hell out of me, I admit. But trying him on, exploding his words; that’s what we need to do with language if we are to deserve the name of ‘mensch’ (to borrow Primo Levi’s high term of praise). Failing again and failing better is what humans desperately need to do, imaginatively and politically (politics and imagination are not two). Imagination and the struggle to imagine keeps political will alive. I cease to picture what damage is being done by climate change and I am supine, servile, acquiescent, complicit. I see, visualise Bush’s stupidity, Brown’s acquiescence intellectually and emotionally and I fuel my will to act. Imaginative struggle does not guarantee decent political opinion or activism, but it sure helps. It means, at least, I am awake. It means I refuse to let myself off the hook when I fail to act. Try again, fail again, fail better. Struggle is the rudder of the imagination. Struggle is conscience, guttering sometimes, but never snuffed out.