The job isn't much., but it pays and every once in a while someone gives me pizza. The problem with lifeguarding though, is that you are forced to listen to conversations you would normally run from. Look, you're stuck in the stand and people tread water in groups beneath you, talking about medicines and strokes, celebrity gossip, or what local newscasters they believe to be womanizers. Sound echoes off of water...
Yesterday, I was stuck in the chair while a trio of women were plodding along and talking about music. The conversation turned toward rap/hip-hop music. None of the three listened to it. America or the Eagles, yes, but hip-hop and rap, absolutely not. And one of the women, turning slowly on her water noodle, said: “I can't understand what they are saying. I just don't understand it. But when I think about it, I don't want to understand what they are saying.”
It occurred to me then, that this is the problem with literature and ourselves today. That is, perhaps we see a large quantity of fiction that is neither demanding nor moving because a large reading public is asking for just that. They don't want to be challenged or moved. They don't want to understand what the words mean.
Let me approach this from a different angle. Frederick Douglass wrote in his autobiography that his owner, upon finding his own wife teaching the young Douglass to read, said, “ 'If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.'” Douglass reflects on this statement then by saying that, “it was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty---to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass realized that he had been shut “up in mental darkness,” as he writes. What the slave owner was able to do was to keep his slaves from knowing the words that would set them free: freedom, abolition, rights. If a slave were to not know the word for freedom then how could they voice what they wanted? How were they to know it even existed? By controlling the language, by controlling language's use, slave owners were able to bind other humans into a controlled existence. Douglass' struggle to read is both a struggle to be able to perform the act of reading, but also to understand the words. To understand the words that were being withheld from him. His freedom was predicated on his ability to understand the meanings of the words he encountered and how to use those words on his own terms.
The reader who does not wish to understand what the words mean, who does not seek in either music, the visual arts or literature the meaning of the words that they read is prescribing themselves to a life of control by others, a life of mental servitude. If a reader does not seek to understand then any amount of information could be, and is, withheld from them. This argument is not new, George Orwell made it most famously and repeatedly. But it warrants looking at again, in light of the comments I heard offhand—the most telling time---and in light of our current sociological, political and environmental climate.
The fact that rampant human rights abuses, rising poverty and economic pressures upon the lower and middle classes, environmental disasters of cataclysmic scales and political scheming and money grabbing are not being screamed about en masse, is emblematic of a general desire to not understand the words that are being used around us. Call it a lulling, a refusal, malaise---what have you---it still stands that a lack of vocalized resistance coupled with actions to achieve the positive aims of that resistance would imply that certain words are neither being understood nor used in our common dialogue. We have refused to speak because we don't know the words to yell. We don't know the words because we don't want to understand what they actually mean. It cuts too close to home.
The phenomena of “summer reading” reinforces this argument. At the dawn of each summer we are inundated with lists showing the best summer reads. Often, these lists are accompanied by pictures of prone, tanning adults or teens, soaking in the sun on a beach. Behind the register at the bookstore we are often asked for “a good summer read. You know, nothing depressing. Something with like, a happy ending?” It is interesting to see this happen, this buying of books that are supposed to avoid any and all social realism and instead are meant to serve as “breezy” interludes before school starts again. Here, when people actually have the time or are making the time to read in quantity they do not want anything that reflects their daily lives, or the lives of others, accurately. But why not spend the time and effort to read David Simon and Ed Burn's “The Corner” or George Pelecanos' “Drama City” while sitting in the lawn chair with a beer?
It is easy to blame social media, the internet, bad parenting and poor schools for all of this. But those are institutions run by humans and so humans are still at the root of the problem. And since not choosing is still a choice, to paraphrase the band Rush, humans still seem to choose to not look deeply into others or themselves. This in turn feeds the market, since so much of capitalism is built upon demand.
The problem has been shown, but the question still remains as to why. Why the refusal to want to understand the words? Perhaps because looking this closely at our selves is the hardest thing to do. Perhaps because truths that are uncomfortable and difficult may be exposed. Perhaps because upon knowing we will want to act, as Douglass did, and then we will be forced into another confrontation with our own hearts. It won't be easy, for as Douglass wrote, “as I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” But then he realized that he “wished to learn how to write, as I might have an occasion to write my own pass.”
No, it won't be easy. And in doing so we will see our wretched condition. But then we can move from seeing to action, from reading to writing, from reality television to living our own lives.
We need to learn to read first. Then we can write our own passes instead of having them written for us. We can become unmanageable in a middle-management world.
It begins with wanting.
Essay by William Hastings
Quotes taken from Frederick Douglass. “The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass.” Dover Publications, New York. 1995.