Writerly Ambivalence

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

A quotation from Thomas Mann, via Alan Jacob’s eNewsletter:

I do not think that it is the essence and duty of the writer to join “with great fanfare” the main direction the culture is taking at the moment. I do not think and cannot from my very nature think that it is natural and necessary for the writer to support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy — as a solid knight of the times, without scruple and doubt, with straightforward intentions and an unbroken determination and spirit for it, his god. On the contrary, authorship itself has always seemed to me to be a witness to and an expression of ambivalence, of here and there, of yes and no, of two souls in one breast, of an annoying richness in inner conflicts, antitheses, and contradictions.

As a writer, this strikes me as absolutely correct.

As a churchman, with firm convictions on particular questions, this is a personal challenge.

Writers can be ideologues, and many certainly are. But in my experience weighing and evaluating arguments, there has been that pull of “yes and no, of two souls in one breast,” etc.

Those who “support a development in a completely positive way by direct, credulous-enthusiastic advocacy” may not be thinking at all, or at least not thinking very clearly. They may be caught up in the spirit of an age, possessed, and in need of exorcism.

Good writing makes plain the tensions and trade-offs in any given debate. That doesn’t negate the necessity of plainly stating one’s conclusion, strongly and solidly. But after tracing out the contours of any given divide, stating your position can be offered with greater understanding, and more humility. Maybe that doesn’t get as many readers. Maybe the take won’t be as hot. But who cares about that, anyway? What matters is whether or not what one writes is true.