Sometimes It Is The Knowledge That We Have Helped Which Has Far More Weight
Most of us want to be remembered in one way or another after we have left this life, want to be seen as a force for good, or as an influence, or merely as a person who has done the right thing and not wasted their short time on this planet. How that recognition comes is another matter entirely: for some it is then fame of having a statue and a name in the history books; for some it is the constant use and recollection of their works; for some it is the memory of a child, of a grandchild. The idea, in my opinion, that the greatest form of memory is to have your works looked upon as classics down the ages, is false. There are many different levels of fame, after death, and many things which are roughly placed upon the same level, depending on who makes the evaluation and how this evaluation effects their life, their outlook, their path into the future.
In another way, every single one of us is immortal, even if our man-given name does not live much longer than we do. We are a part of this Earth for eternity, whether it remains here and in this form or goes back to its origins as a cloud of gas in the distant future. No matter how famous a person might be, no matter how easily their name is recognised, that memory is of limited duration when compared to the universe. Far better, I believe, to aim for the sort-term memory, for the next two or three generations, and to be remembered as the person who created, who helped, who was there – no matter the difficulties – for other people in their time of need. This, of course, covers far more than just immediate family, far more than just the people we know and come in touch with over any period of time. What we do, how we handle things, how we react and relate with other people affects not just us, but those people they meet, those people they react with, those people who are imbued with an idea we have sown, passed on by a third, fourth, fifth party. Sometimes it is the knowledge that we have helped which has far more weight – both for ourselves and for that person or group of people – than the knowledge that our name has been attached to one single action, rather than a string of events which progress from our act, from our initiation but which, through distancing from origin, no longer relate to ourselves.
Yesterday I wrote to Ismail, who is in Pennsylvania, on the subject of Hope. I am constantly amazed, no matter how often it happens, when two or three people write to me who have no connection one to the other whatsoever, but the same interests, and who write about the same subjects. His question on Hope (capitalized through relation to the subject) was whether Hope could be used by a person outside of religion, whether religion had usurped Hope for itself and left those who do not believe in the proscribed way outside the circle, outside the small band of those allowed to hope for a better future, for whatever their heart desired, to cherish Hope. He is not at the same stage as you are, his thoughts and learning are limited by upbringing, by what is available to him in Pennsylvania – as a Puerto Rican – and to the level of concentration he can bring to any subject according to his – similar – circumstances. Rather than looking at the possibility of immortality, he is exploring, as in your essay, the idea of Hope and of hope, and the possibilities it brings to those who are in a situation not necessarily of their own making, but relying on the good will and attention of other people nonetheless. Each case is a separate subject, as each person is an individual. What one person sees as hope for the future, another will write down to divine intervention and Hope – today I saw a woman thanking her chosen deity as her child was able to walk using a baby stroller, and leaving out all those who had worked ceaselessly to massage muscles, to prepare thoughts and kindle hope and determination within the child. For me, as an outsider, it is these people who worked quietly in the background, who prepared, who hoped themselves, who live on within this child and its successes. What one utilises through hope for their future, another will rely on Hope to get them what they want, but not take any active part in gaining it themselves. The latter, as I am sure you will appreciate, gain my approbation far less than those who are actively seeking a way forward and forming their own future with more than just hope, but with actions, with thought and planning, with determination.
The other thing about Hope, of course, is that when something fails, it is not the person who did nothing but relied on a deity or another person who is at fault, it is the Will of a god, or the failing of someone else. For those who use and appreciate hope, it is a different matter. As your essay suggests, it is those who will strive further, who will not succumb to hopelessness, but will learn from their mistakes and seek a better way to achieve their aims. There are many very religious people mentioned and noted down through the annals of history, but mainly for their pious lives, not for the betterment of others. There are also many pious people who are noted for their care and attention, for their love and dedication to and for other people, with religion coming a close second in the ratings, and that is how it should be. We take what we have learned, be it on a religious level of some other form of educational learning, and use it to help others. The source of our determination, or of our knowledge, is of lesser importance, be it the teachings of a god – or as his / her earthly believers wish us to believe this deity teaches – or the concentrated teachings from many varied sources. The end result, the good that we do, whether big or small, is our destination.
I also wrote that no matter who a person is, the chances of them succeeding on their own are very small indeed. Every good action needs more than just one person to make it work; every good idea needs those who promulgate it, who work upon it, who improve it and make it, the original rough draft, ready for society. Anyone who works exclusively alone, in the belief that their idea is theirs alone and credit for it should not be shared among others, is more likely to sink into the depths of despair and hopelessness than a person who works with others, who is open to learning, to taking suggestions, to the experience and knowledge of third parties.
But, of course, hopelessness, or the feeling of desperate loss, can strike absolutely anyone at any time, and especially those who are presented with great barriers to their ambitions, regardless of how great or small that ambition might be. Here the society of friendship, which exists – as you write – in all levels of society, in all forms of community, comes into play. The presence and aid of others in a time of need – something which is being pushed in academic circles at the moment, especially when it comes to mental health – can bring new light and new hope into a life, and show that a person is not alone, that others have had similar feelings and moments of desperation too. The chance to talk and to share, to be listened to, makes a difference; perhaps initially only in a small way, but – cliché, I know – from tiny acorns the mighty oak grows.
Publishing serious articles, or even works of satire, is a deadly business, and certainly cutthroat at the very least. There is definitely a market for some types of work, but much of what is demanded today has to be immediate, news-related, and easy to read. We are told time and time again that the manner of reading has changed, that we no longer have the levels of concentration our grandparents had, and need sound-bites and snippets to draw our short-span attentions. I first noticed this back in the Eighties, when a scholarly work I had written on Afghanistan was returned as not being immediate, and this was a military periodical which only appeared quarterly. What people want – meaning what the editor wants – the editor wrote, is writing which is relevant to the here and now, and not something which happened a few months ago. Strange for a quarterly, but something which can be found across the entire spectrum of publishing. And that is even more so today, as online publishing and the immediate availability of the latest news has swept the longer think pieces under the carpet. An opinion piece in a quality – read heavy-weight – publication must be not only up-to-date, but also so controversial that it will attract the wrong sort of attention as much as the right sort. Articles need to create discord to stand out from the mass, they need to be controversial, biting, and easy to skim through. Internet articles on some of the better publishing platforms today even have a reading time included: this article will take up ten minutes of your time, as if they are asking will you be able to handle that?
Publishing is also something which has to cater for the right form of public, without alienating too many people. It is all very well creating a controversy so that people discuss a work, but it has to be the right form of controversy, with clear-cut sides, and obvious which side has the upper-hand, which side is correct and honest. Creating a controversy over a minor sideline, over a choice of words, damns the content, the message, the heart of a piece of writing, to oblivion. One of these minor irritations which destroys is gender, believe it or not. Today, if you write something based around the He / Him / Male / Masculine aspect of the subject, which could just as easy apply to the She / Her / Female / Feminine or even the They / Gender-free / Trans / Queer, you will be knocked out by arguments about privilege and supremacy, Himpathy (a wonderful term created, I believe, by the scholar Kate Manne), ignorance of the position of minorities, discarding of ethnic rights and education, the furtherance of the systematic, white-privilege-based erasure of parts of our society. Regardless of who you are, or where you come from.
At the same time people are being accused of writing outside of their own experience, which tends to negate may of the arguments highlighted against a writer in my last paragraph, or stealing the identity of others for their own selfish ends.
Many years ago – I could write decades or even centuries, all would be correct – there was a trend of writing books, articles, and letters to a person of younger years which contained learning, wisdom, advice for the future and, especially when it came to the higher ranks within the aristocracy, advice on how to be a good person within (the limited) society they were to find themselves a part of. You can go back to the writings of Cicero and Quintilian as prime early examples, and follow the trend through to modern times; although modern writing of this nature tends to be internet-based and aimed not at one person, but at anyone who cares to read what has been written, and help further the financial position of those writing by being accosted by advertising, newsletters and bargain-basement offers any sensible person would refuse.
The earlier – and better – forms of this passing on of knowledge and education tended to be written as a series of letters, although you could count Michel de Montaigne’s excellent Essays here too, addressed to a child or young adult. They contain, of course, far more than just the normal earthly ten commandments on civility, deportment, fashion and rhetoric as these subjects would be exhausted fairly quickly, and were often far more than simply advise. Autobiographical events and philosophical ideas would be included too, and had the effect of making a simple letter or short article a vital piece of social history. Not, perhaps, immediately, but after many years when society and its ways had changed beyond recognition. Likewise books on the Grand Tour, undertaken by young aristocrats from England to the classical sites of Europe as a form of world and social education, and various tour guides influenced the times, and do so today. Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World, as one example, portrayed society through the eyes of an outsider – although Goldsmith, taking on a Chinese identity, could hardly be called an outsider – and had a form of educational effect by highlighting the obscurities, the obscenities, the infidelities of a society otherwise overlooked or taken for granted. Many others followed his idea – which was also probably not original – with mixed success, right through to the Forties and Fifties, when a real Chinese person – Chiang Yee, the Silent Traveller – wrote of what he saw and experienced in England. Some of these writings have lasted far longer, and become more revered, than their author’s could ever have imagined at the time.
And then there are people such as Samuel Pepys, Jane Welsh Carlyle, Horace Walpole. They are possibly reasonably well-known for some of the things they did during their careers, during their public lives, but these diminish to obscurity when it comes to their private writings, to their letters. Admittedly it is unfair to include Carlyle here as being in the public sphere, as she most decidedly was not: a Victorian woman married to an eminent Victorian historian would be noted far more often than most other women, but she was only a women (the fashion of the times), and had her place in society. Revelations of her value to society came only after her death, firstly with publication of some letters to her husband and others and, more recently, with a very wide-ranging selection of publications over her life, the lost possibilities of her intellect and education, as well as her letters. She, incidentally, wrote on the pressures of subduing her own intellect and assuming a social position according to the standards of the times, and the impossibility of suppressing her “I-ity”, her Me, her Self (quoting Goethe’s “I too am here” in one letter).
What do these people and the people who wrote treatises on knowledge, wisdom and self-improvement have in common? They did not write with the aim of becoming famous, of having their name remembered through all eternity through these writings. They wrote privately, aiming for specific people and specific fields of endeavour, and their words have been gathered and made immortal – or perhaps longer-lasting – by those they wrote to. The good works and their name have been preserved without any more effort on their part than writing their thoughts, their dreams, their desires and experiences down to the benefit of other people. And their success, so unexpected and, perhaps, even undesired, has been far greater as a result. Sometimes it is far better to aim a little lower and to be concentrated, rather than to aim for the bright lights of the big city and gather continual disappointment.
Another correspondent wrote to me, a long time ago, that these letters should be gathered into a book and published after my death – which can be taken in many ways! – and perhaps that is the destiny that awaits my writings, rather than the short-lived and dubious flash of published fame. Can you imagine that for your writing?