Creatures of Culture

Creatures of Culture

“You don’t write a novel to salve a wound, but to bear witness.”- Jane Smiley

It’s a big concept, Culture; a very large balloon surrounding the social behavior of human societies, as well as the laws, knowledge, beliefs, arts, traditions, abilities and habits of the individuals in these groups.  In the past, I’d usually thought of it in its bigger umbrella context rather than as the sum of its parts. But that is, quite obviously when you pay it full attention, the most important way to look at it, because that’s how the individuals in social groups affect the larger balloon.

It never occurred to me that I could be a part of affecting my Culture. Some other, larger, more powerful people and events would surely be the influencers most likely to bring about change. But recently I watched a segment repeatedly called Brief but Spectacular that had been on the PBS Newshour, and it offered me a revelation about Culture that had me digging for explanations for weeks. I’d seen it when it first aired, but continued to watch it on YouTube, as you can, here, if you’d like to understand what I’m marveling over.

Ronan Farrow, the journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein expose for The New Yorker after being harassed and fired from his job at NBC, spoke about many things in the video, all worthy of discussion. But his last comments introduced our responsibility to contribute positively to our culture in order to prevent it from becoming something we don’t want. I found myself instinctively agreeing with him about all his precepts, but was surprised by the idea that this big concept of Culture could be affected by what individuals in the group do. I suppose my grandmother would have chortled at my naiveté, reminding me of the adage that the dollars will take care of themselves if we take care of the pennies.

The further I dug into this concept Mr. Farrow reminded me of, the more I began to feel how blessed we all are to have people who prompt us to create a culture we want to live in, as well as leave for those who come next. I certainly see that I have a very direct and obvious connection as a writer, and in particular a novelist, because as Jane Smiley points out in her book, 13 Ways to Write a Novel, “. . . artfulness in the novel lies not in the product, but in the process and in the cultural position of the artist or novelist. The making of art, the writing of a novel requires the artist to exercise free choice in what to depict and how to deploy his materials. Even in societies that don’t prize personal and political freedom—”

I can see more clearly now that all the other contributing categories of Culture are the many other ways we can all give to the way we want to live together in our world. Those who are particularly adept at controlling languages certainly make a difference, just as those who affect our values, our food, our knowledge and how its passed on to succeeding generations, our social work and of course, the arts, all help us form the way we interact with each other and our world. Each one of us can have a profound influence, but along with that power comes the responsibility to use it wisely.

It’s true, we are most certainly creatures of culture, or we never would have evolved on our planet, because we are social by nature. Jane Smiley assures us that, “. . . the logic, of the protagonist’s relationship to the group must express some explicit or implicit theory, and inevitably many of these theories are political, because politics is about the division of power in human groups.” Ah yes, we’re all aware today of how important the division of power is, and therefore we must also acknowledge the responsibility to promote the values we treasure even if we think we’re alone in our beliefs. We creatures of culture must all be as brave about what we do as possible, telling one’s own honesty rather than the accepted truth.  The importance of free choice is monumental, and I certainly intend to use that gift to full advantage in my writing.

4 Responses to Creatures of Culture

  1. And that’s how it starts. We need others to accept and support as we try the hard task of stepping beyond the mainstream cultures that surround us and move toward the more humane.

    One of the most inspiring observations Smiley made is that no matter how powerful and ruthless, books will always surface and censoring only creates more passion for readers to get to them. A privilege writers who write for the sake of connecting with readers rather than for commerce is the chance to ponder, question, and highlight negative and positive attributes of culture.

    Thanks for provoking us.

    • It’s up to us, every one of us, to make the culture what we think it should be. We help form the social groups with their values, and that’s truly political, just as Smiley said. Thanks for getting it so perfectly, Paul. As you always do!

  2. Sidney, as a member of your writing group that you created with Paul Pitcoff, I want to express that I feel blessed to be able to live in a culture I want to live in for three hours every other Monday. I’m with committed and creative writers who seek the good of the other writer and who are able to be honest and kind at the same when expressing differences. Where else in New York City — or perhaps any where else in the world — does a prose group of writers begin a session with a poem? Looking forward to yours next meeting!

We welcome you to the conversation! Please share your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.