This week, rereading the Brueggemann book for my Creativity, Spirituality and Transformation class, I've been especially struck by his statements about hope and compassion:
The task of prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there. Hope . . . is an absurdity too embarrassing to speak about, for it flies in the face of all those claims we have been told are facts. Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion; and one does that only at great political and existential risk. . . . The language of hope and the ethos of amazement have been partly forfeited because they are an embarrassment. The language of hope and the ethos of amazement have been partly squelched because they are a threat. (65)
Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness. . . . Thus compassion that might be seen simply as generous goodwill is in fact criticism of the system, forces, and ideologies that produce the hurt. (88-89)
In other words, rickety contrivances of Doing Good aren't trivial. They're subversive. And one way to disarm and dismiss the subversive is to trivialize it.
Brueggemann's comments resonate very strongly with Jane Tompkins' Sensational Designs, which had a huge effect on me when I read it in graduate school. Tompkins defines literary modernism as a reaction against the nineteenth-century domestic novel produced by the "damned mob of scribbling women:"
In modernist thinking, literature is by definition a form of discourse that has no designs on the world. It does not attempt to change things, but merely to represent them, and it does so in a specifically literary language whose claim to value lies in its uniqueness. Consequently, works whose stated purpose is to influence the course of history, and which therefore employ a language that is not only not unique but common and accessible to everyone, do not qualify as works of art. Literary texts, such as the sentimental novel, that make continual and obvious appeals to the reader’s emotions and use technical devices that are distinguished by their utter conventionality, epitomize the opposite of everything that good literature is supposed to be. (125)
According to this definition, if a book's accessible and has emotional appeal, it's Not Art. And if a book talks about changing the world, or descibes a world that's not a mimetic representation of everyday life, it's Not Art either. Well, so much for SF and fantasy, not to mention any text with political or potentially didactic content (feminist, Marxist, fill-in-the-blank-ist). This one paragraph helped me understand why nearly all of my high school teachers, many of my college professors, and too many of my professors in graduate school dismissed genre fiction, sometimes even as they were embracing feminism: they'd absorbed modernist biases they didn't even realize they held, because their own teachers had accepted and taught those biases as self-evident truth.
I entered graduate school in 1990, and things have changed quite a bit since; popular culture's now a respectable academic discipline with its own conferences and journals, and previously marginalized texts and autbors have been reclaimed and energetically scrutinized. I received tenure at a state university on the basis of my publication record in SF/F -- fiction, not criticism -- which would have been impossible twenty years ago (although I don't know how many places it would happen even now; I'm acutely aware how lucky I am to be at UNR, for many reasons!). These are all very healthy developments.
And yet I still sense that hope and amazement are undervalued and in short supply, both in the academy and in the larger culture. I'd love to be wrong about that, and if any of you have evidence otherwise, please share it. Of course, from the perspective of many of us, these are very dark days indeed politically: but Brueggemann would argue, I think, that such days are precisely when it's most crucial to offer hope in the form of alternative futures, rather than succumbing to despair.
So here are my questions: What hopes and yearnings have you denied, suppressed, felt embarrassed for holding? How can you make those hopes and yearnings visible, in artwork and other creative activity if not yet in direct political action? How does your own compassion represent a critique of Things as They Are, rather than a purely personal emotional response, and how can you imagine rehaping the world into Things as They Could Be?