Monday, January 23, 2017

The Most Complete Man

[Obama] was certainly one of the most complete man I'd ever met.
Junot Diaz
For me, particularly at that time, writing was the way I sorted through a lot of crosscurrents in my life — race, class, family. And I genuinely believe that it was part of the way in which I was able to integrate all these pieces of myself into something relatively whole.

People now remark on this notion of me being very cool, or composed. And what is true is that I generally have a pretty good sense of place and who I am, and what’s important to me. And I trace a lot of that back to that process of writing.

[I started to read Shakespeare] tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think, is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play themselves out between human beings. It gives me a sense of perspective.

I think Toni Morrison’s writings — particularly “Song of Solomon” is a book I think of when I imagine people going through hardship. That it’s not just pain, but there’s joy and glory and mystery.

I think that there are writers who I don’t necessarily agree with in terms of their politics, but whose writings are sort of a baseline for how to think about certain things — V. S. Naipaul, for example. His “A Bend in the River,” which starts with the line, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” And I always think about that line, and I think about his novels when I’m thinking about the hardness of the world sometimes, particularly in foreign policy, and I resist and fight against sometimes that very cynical, more realistic view of the world. And yet, there are times where it feels as if that may be true.
Transcript: President Obama on What Books Mean to Him
A dark view of humans, a certain resignation to the imperfectibility of things, is what marks literature out from the idealistic arts [...] It is there — more than anywhere else — in Naipaul, whose circuitous route to Britain via India and Trinidad does not show up in cosmopolitan pieties but almost the opposite: an unsentimental attitude to developing countries, a commitment to the culture he has fought to join.

Graham Greene detected a “splinter of ice” in the heart of a writer. There is sometimes a shard of the cold stuff in an immigrant, as well. To endure the upheaval, to brave the new, to make a success of it all requires (or inculcates) some of that sub-zero Naipaulian attitude. They cannot allow themselves to become nothing. This sentiment is not always captured by the immigrant fiction of the past decade or two, which comes in jaunty multicoloured dust jackets and seems to showcase diversity as an end itself, as if any actual migrant ever has that in mind.

For more than a century, anglophone literature has thrown up masters who look slightly askance at the modern world and its sensibilities. It is not a political conservatism, as such [...] It is something more like a sceptical habit of mind and a preference for dismal truths over well-meaning lies (which is what political correctness often amounts to).

[A] writer must believe that human nature is universal and more or less unchangeable. Most non-conservative schemes — social-democracy, the wilder edges of identity politics — are efforts to refine or deny that nature through bureaucratic tinkering.

As the arts despair of the world, it may fall to novelists to do more than vent. Theirs is the only medium with the scope to air complex ideas, which is why film adaptations feel so diminished. It also has unique conservative pedigree. Do not wait for a film, album or image to do justice to our times. A novel might.
"In praise of literary conservatives" by Janan Ganesh
When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

[...] Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.
President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation—II
Whatever our current travails, we now have a literate president capable of coherent discourse, but too many other politicians are devoid of syntax and appear to have read nothing. Aggressive ignorance in aspirants to high office is another dismal consequence of the waning of authentic education.
"Get Lost. In Books." by Harold Bloom (2008)

Addendum: Every book Barack Obama has recommended during his presidency