by Karen Wills
What is the role of an artist in turbulent times? Human history is an almost unbroken line of wars, both civil and international, and coping with natural and man-made disasters. Yet in all these struggles artists come forth to acknowledge our common “error bred in the bone” as well as the capacity to “love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.” My title and these phrases are all from the works of W.H. Auden, a homosexual poet who lived through World War II and never let its fearful horrors quench his spirit or ability to care about other people.
I’ve also just read a lovely and thoughtful novel by Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow. It begins after the Russian Revolution. Count Alexander Rostov is declared a “former person” and put under house arrest in a luxury hotel after being judged guilty of writing a poem critical of the Bolsheviks. Established in a small garret room, but with freedom to move about in the hotel, his credo is that we “master our circumstances or our circumstances will master us.” The author goes on to show how his protagonist creates a life of humane purpose and grace under a regime that crushed the lives of so many others.
And so I believe that not only poetry, but stories and novels can be a wonderful way to show Auden’s affirming flame. My novel, River with No Bridge, will be published in 2017. My protagonist experiences an Irish immigrant’s loneliness, losses, and gains while never giving in to America’s racial and class prejudices at the turn of the century. She is capable of empathy and that in itself shows one of the crucial forms Auden’s “affirming flame” may take.
As artists and readers, let us keep it burning.