Paul Auster on protest and writing

Silliman pointed a recent NY Times column by Paul Auster, “The Accidental Rebel,” in which he reflects on his experiences as a student protester in the 1960s.

It’s a well-written piece throughout, but I think it’s interesting primarily for the conclusion he offers:

What did we accomplish? Not much of anything….We at Columbia were powerless, and our little revolution was no more than a symbolic gesture. But symbolic gestures are not empty gestures, and given the nature of those times, we did what we could.

I hesitate to draw any comparisons with the present — and therefore will not end this memory-piece with the word “Iraq.” I am 61 now, but my thinking has not changed much since that year of fire and blood, and as I sit alone in this room with a pen in my hand, I realize that I am still crazy, perhaps crazier than ever.

I’ve attended a number of anti-war protests in recent years, including some enormous ones, and (rather obviously) none of them brought about an end to the war. Nor did any of the petitions I’ve signed, or any of the letters I’ve sent to my representatives. But all the same, I do have my voice, however ineffectual it ultimately may be. And as Auster points out, the creation of art is much the same. A book isn’t likely to change the world, and the gesture of writing one is largely symbolic. Your voice probably won’t be heard at all, and even if it is, it almost certainly won’t change anything. But all the same, you must not be silent: it’s important to speak out, and to struggle to speak the truth as you understand it, because to do otherwise is to cede whatever small powers you may have.

And though Auster doesn’t discuss this, it’s probably worth noting that the student protests of the 60s did ultimately help to bring about change—they even helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the siege of Columbia University accomplished little; but at the same time, it was part of a much larger movement, involving many sieges, and many protesting voices, that did, in fact, make a difference. And again, it’s much the same for the creation of art: all you have to offer is your one small voice, but many voices together make a culture, and do, indeed, shape the ways in which people act and think.

Or at least I hope so. I think the romantic and the cynic in me do battle on this kind of question—as to what real power, if any, art and political protest might have. Though I can tell you that making art and participating in protests for a just causes are both things that make me feel more alive, and more deeply connected to other people.

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