Ladies and gentlemen,
I feel that this award [the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1949] was not made to me as a man, but to my work — a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
From Nobel Lectures, 1969
by Jim Harrison
This year we have two gorgeous
yellow warblers nesting in the honeysuckle bush.
The other day I stuck my head in the bush.
The nestlings weigh one-twentieth of an ounce,
about the size of a honeybee. We stared at
each other, startled by our existence.
In a month or so, when they reach the size
of bumblebees, they’ll fly to Costa Rica without a map.
Generally, I do not write about politics, but my often deeply personal writing is always deeply political, if by “political” one means rooted in larger forces, both seen and unseen. That is to say I am incapable of separating who I am, what I believe, and what I have lived from the historical, social, economic, and cultural influences that have shaped me.
As a young girl and then as a grown woman, I suffered considerable emotional, sexual, and physical abuse — perpetrated, also, by a few doctors. Yet, while it is true that I have been badly wounded by these abuses, my deepest scars come from the violence my soul has had to endure. Those who are violent, even (or perhaps especially) if it is emotional violence they inflict, are incapable of seeing the humanity that animates their victims, and they lack the capacity for self-awareness and self-honesty that would enable them to do so. How else could they justify the pain they cause?
I grew up in an extended family of arrogant, self-deluded, cruel misogynists; even the women hated women (or, more precisely, they hated themselves). So when I listen to Donald Trump speak hatefully and cruelly about women — and speak grandiosely and with high regard about himself — I have to admit that I feel right at home. Although he is as much a victim of history and culture as my family is and was, he nevertheless is a bankrupt and soulless human being who, if elected president, God forbid, would have me waxing nostalgic about those very dark Reagan and Bush years. And, while I am as left of left as they come, last night I was giddy to learn of Ted Cruz’s victory in Iowa because perhaps it means that Trump will soon be down for the count — though Cruz is only slightly less reprehensible than his rival.
Four years ago, when I started my blog ruminationville, the word “blogger” was often used to disparage someone who either had limited writing skill or who thought more highly of his or her skill, personal magnetism, and importance than others might have done.
While the term still manages to purse some lips (as in “She’s not a writer; she’s just a blah-gger.”), and while a needless blog is born just about every second, I’m not much taunted by the negative connotations the word can conjure.
Starting a blog (and then having to call up enough discipline to maintain it week after week) has given me more moxie than I could have imagined for myself. Whereas before I couldn’t even see myself writing for an online audience of one, now I think along these lines: Come one, come all. Read me or don’t read me. Follow me, don’t follow me, or unfollow me. Like me or don’t like me. Just don’t land on this wobbly little planet of me looking to make a bit of stupid trouble. I’m shy and yielding, yes. That’s my nature. But when it comes to stupid trouble, I can be fierce.
So, what have I learned while I’ve been blogging? These things:
- People in this BuzzFeed era have become accustomed to headlines that seduce and alarm (as in “This One Ridiculously Crazy Idea Will Scare the Holy Bejesus Out of You!”), but I won’t write a ridiculously shocking headline unless I have something ridiculously shocking to say, which so far is never.
- In this age of online news-bite consumptionism, people have come to adore lists. I have come to adore lists, and I can be drawn to an article that promises I will discover the meaning of life if I follow six simple steps.
- Still, I try and stay away from giving easy, empty, unlived advice.
- I have absolutely no way of knowing, or predicting, if what I have written will appeal to readers. I can post something I think no one will find interesting, and my “like” stars will light up like tiny, pointy Christmas bulbs. Or, I can post something I am certain everyone will think is pure genius, and the only response I will get is nothing.
I’m not good at making resolutions. If they involve a bleak self-denial, such as when I try and say no to a food group, or if they require an inner tamping down, such as when I try and say stop to a pining, something from down deep rises up and digs in—leaving me starved for the very thing I think I should deny myself. Really, I find it’s best to pretend there is no hunger at all and to go about my business as if I were able to manage myself.
Still, it is a new year, and I feel obliged to reflect on the past 12 months. This has always been true of me during January, at least since I have been an adult, but as I get older it is even more crucial to consider who I have been during the previous year and who I will be bringing into the new year—these two seeming so much more important, in fact, than what I might, or might not, have accomplished. Accomplishments, like bones, fall to dust, and in the end who is going to care about what I have written here? I’m not even certain if I care about what I have written here.
Yet something in me does care about the fact that, in a week’s time, ruminationville will turn four, and I cannot help but ask myself what I have to show for these years. Certainly I could count the number of posts, or poems, or photographs, or movie reviews, or comments, or likes, or absences of likes. But there is such emptiness in this kind of exercise, and I have come to the end of my own emptinesses.
What cheers me now is the knowledge that I have all along tried to be genuine with you and that I have allowed you to see who I am, and who I love, if only a small bit. Nothing else much matters.