Why We Read and Write Hard Things

When I was a kid, I had to write a book report in Senior English. Ms. Southern gave us a list of famous novels and works several pages long, and each student was to choose from among these. I was a rather morose teenager, enjoying moody music and—as with many teenagers, I expect—anything that smacked of resistance for resistance’ sake. As to what we were resisting, who could say? This being the case though, I perused the list and selected the suggestively titled Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

I didn’t know any Vonnegut. The title felt like a fragment of the cultural landscape, like a roadside hillock I had passed a million times without thinking about it. Plus, it seemed to imply violence of a kind, which fit well into my social lexicon. This was the dawn of the new millennium; Gladiator had come out, along with the acrobatic martial arts of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My friends and I had recently discovered Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. I enjoyed Michael Crichton novels and bloody Japanese cartoons. In that instance, violence at least felt like a method of enduring schoolwork’s rigors and ennui.

The novel is autobiographical in many ways, mirroring some of Vonnegut’s own war experiences, and it’s written with the blistering satire of fatalism. The only satire I remember understanding at the time was found in Swift’s A Modest Proposal and in Mark Twain’s overplussed homily on the evils of Fenimore Cooper’s writing. Both of these were foisted upon my class within the tissue-thin leaves of an olive-drab, rebound Norton anthology, a volume which suggested that here were literary milestones best forgotten. Vonnegut’s rather subtler satire flew way over my head, as might be expected. Contrary to my beloved warmongering films, Slaughterhouse-Five approached conflict the way Billy Pilgrim, its protagonist, seemed to approach it. That is to say, with a resigned despair woefully in danger of becoming apathy. The conflict seemed incidental, but not particularly essential, as I recall. I remember being furtively drawn to the sexuality in the narrative—which, here again, was also incidental. I remember not understanding the point. Vonnegut being Vonnegut, Billy Pilgrim likely did not understand the point himself.

Looking back, I can see the existentialism and the focus on Billy’s helplessness. Both are pervasive throughout the narrative, an extrapolation of what Vonnegut himself must have felt as he was trapped in a meat locker in the literal slaughterhouse during the Dresden firebombing. I can also see that it was important for me as a reader to grapple like Jacob with something I didn’t understand—something potentially dangerous.

Why is it that we do hard things? Especially in the realms of art, what value do we attach to engagement with works beyond our ken? English teachers and art teachers have understood for years: we engage, because, if we don’t, we won’t learn. English, like Spanish, French, Mandarin, and any other language, is nobody’s native tongue. All of these are learned. Before we as children speak, our native language is weeping. That is the noise we make as we enter the world. Language as a construct can only be taught, and it is best taught through experience.

It’s a laborious road to walk. People laugh at you. Thanks be to God that children are so guileless, else they should be ashamed when we cackle over their precocious malapropisms and Freudian slips. It literally takes years to master intelligible speech. We take the process for granted, because we’re so familiar with it. Young ones all around us toddle behind their parents in the grocery store, rattling off nonsense. It’s full of hilarity, but without this difficulty, we would never learn language.

Indeed, the value of slow, measured strife is not limited to speech. We also take for granted the labors of walking, standing, sitting, and even breathing. All these are exertions of the body’s musculature against gravity. From conception, we are drawn downward, toward the center of our native sphere. Yet Earth’s ubiquitous tug sculpts our physical framework in irreplicable ways, even down to how our eyes focus. Astronauts who spend time in microgravity lose muscle mass and bone density at alarming rates. The pull of gravity is actually the force that fosters the body’s physical ability. Without it, we atrophy until our bodies fail to accomplish the simplest involuntary tasks.

Neither is atrophy limited to the musculoskeletal system. It affects our minds. I have friends who have been to my house but cannot find it without cell phone GPS. There are people who don’t know their own phone numbers, nor those of their spouses or children. This gap in their knowledge is due not to apathy, but to dependence upon a crutch. If you relegate the normal activity of the brain to a device outside the brain, the brain will cease to fire down those synaptic pathways, eventually leading to a relative inability to access the information. There’s a temptation to let our machines do the work for us. We have not yet learned from all the lost jobs and brain cells that our ever-advancing ingenuity often replaces us with robots and gizmos. You recall: all American presidents tend to promise more jobs, and some make a fair game of delivering on those promises. Yet, in the meantime, I still go to the self-checkout at Kroger—that section of the store where, thanks to a bank of faceless computers, one languid employee can do the work of six more industrious souls. Now who’s to blame for the lost jobs—and the lost humanity? It’s harder for me to face the pimply, apathetic teen or the over-enthusiastic woman doing actual work behind that single cash register. That would require me to be social—an invaluable endeavor I don’t always cherish. But what is lost when I refuse? What realms of the heart wither and die through disuse?

Madeleine L’Engle, in Penguins & Golden Calves, writes:

When I asked why, in the Prayer Book General Thanksgiving, God’s inestimable love had been changed to immeasurable love, I was told that the laity found inestimable difficult. That’s pretty condescending, in the nastiest sense of the word…When I asked a multi-PhD-ed clergyman why the quick and the dead had been changed to the living and the dead, I was told that the young people did not know the word, quick. I asked, ‘How are they going to know it if you take it away from them?’

How, indeed? We often make changes for the sake of ease or preference without thinking of the extended consequences. I grew up amid the hideously named Worship Wars, with the unique perspective of being in the family of a Southern Baptist music minister. Was there ever a month in which someone did not slip my father an anonymous note complaining about this thing or that thing? We want more hymns! We want more choruses! Or no drums. Or less music. Or more organ. Or a different color tie for you, Reverend. Change this. Change that. One imagines people braying like taxpayers for a new highway. Dad was gracious; I was not amused.

We weren’t the only ones struggling with change. These were common problems across the Bible Belt. It seemed that we were all testing the spiritual value of these things. Maybe the conflict wasn’t all bad. If not wars, perhaps we could have had discussions.

I enjoyed playing guitar, and I liked the backbeat of a drum kit. We played many songs in youth group meetings that came from the Passion band and Rich Mullins. A number of them were lyrically worthwhile. If the music is dated now (because it very much is), the lyrics still stand the test of being not only Scriptural, but pedagogical. That is to say, when mulled over in the mind, these songs are vehicles of spiritual learning. I enjoy hymns for the same reason. “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a poem worthy of much explication. “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” wrongly or rightly associated though it may be with patriotism-based faith, is a dense tapestry of lyrical evocation. “Amazing Grace” continues to weather the ages, though we try to water it down with a modern chorus now and again for palatability’s sake, today’s pop-music mind not being accustomed to strophic form lyricism.

These songs are lyrically dense. They keep giving as you continue to sing them over and over. But what would happen if we took these things away? What would happen if we limited ourselves only to what was immediately comprehensible to all? Is it that bad a thing to be forced to ask a question about meaning, or to take the time to discuss some difficult thing with a neighbor? Must we instead wear the unholy mantle of appearing to know it all? A teachable spirit used to be a virtue. Should we give that up in favor of a surfeit of immediately accessible literature, music, and visual art?

I’ve been accused (in kind jest) of writing songs that are like novels—songs that require multiple hearings to understand. I suppose that’s because those are the sort of songs I like. I enjoy considering lyrics from Paul Simon, or from Steven Delopoulos. High school and college saw me digging through Caedmon’s Call albums, full as they were of metaphor and literary reference. The thickly woven verses of old and new ballads are endearing to me, just like the archaic language of hymnody and (gasp!) the King James Version of the Bible.

The best art, including art like congregational music that is widely participatory, keeps us coming back for more. It never reveals itself in one sitting. Relative maturity is also a big help. After these many years, I’m able to understand even Vonnegut better. Having gone through a difficulty or two, myself, I’m now a little more able to bend my imagination to the vicissitudes of the author’s life—better able to see what might cause him to turn his genius to a scathing commentary on the fruitlessness of war. I still tend to enjoy morose things once in a while anyway.

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