Zadie Smith’s essays are so great. They’re collected in a book called Changing My Mind, a phrase that beautifully captures the tentative quality of the essay form: a literary gamble, an attempt, child of the French word essayer, “to try.” I’ve spent a year and a half essaying, on this website and sometimes elsewhere, and I’ve never changed my mind so often or been so full of doubt.
In the spring of 2014, I launched a dangerous little experiment on this inch of online real estate: I began to write long-form critical essays about dramatic art and mainly about the work of my own theatre community in Toronto. Soon after I started the project, I decided to package those essays as open letters to the theatre artists about whom I wrote, with the guiding principle that I’d include in the essays only such thoughts as I might otherwise share with those artists directly and privately — over e-mail, say. The letters would be overheard speech, governed by roughly the same social rules, the same codes of omission and inclusion, that mark any frank but respectful conversation with a peer.
Though the initial public reaction to the project was largely positive, in the spring of 2015, almost exactly a year in, it received a fundamental critique from a local artist who argued that it, and I, as a straight white man, take up too much space in the Canadian theatre landscape. That critique, which took the form of a discussion of the aesthetics and ethics of one of my own plays, positioned me at a distinct point along a spectrum of ideas about the politics of identity. The critique staked out political territory, drew a line, and located me on the other side of it. To be fair, it did invite me to reform my views and switch camps. But in the process it established, by implication, that there were camps, and that I was, at least for the moment, in the wrong one.
And a funny thing happened: I was rather persuaded by those who told me what I am. I hadn’t been quite sure precisely what political territory I occupied, my sense of such things felt pretty contradictory and experimental, but my critics seemed certain about how to identify me, and their confidence overwhelmed my doubt. Perhaps, I thought, they saw me more clearly than I saw myself. Perhaps I was, unambiguously, an aesthetic and political conservative (an inadequate term, but I’ll use it as a shorthand); others seemed convinced of it. My choice, it seemed to me, was either to concede that that conservatism was a moral/ethical failure or to defend it, somewhat experimentally, as a legitimate stance.
A few months later, emotionally raw from a breakup, with a sensation of nothing-to-lose freefall (misleading; there’s always plenty to lose), I gave unusually polemical expression to that stance in a variety of public forums. I published essays that elaborated quasi-libertarian arguments; I contributed more or less reactionary thoughts to social media conversations. Influenced by what I happened to be reading at the time, I tested in public a set of ideas that had my qualified support.
I no longer bent my political questions into critical writings about art; now I wrote about those questions explicitly, an approach that culminated in a 7500-word essay about the politics of diversity in the theatre and the industry’s economics. That essay spurred angry polemics and I responded with angry polemics. But when I get angry, I get stupid; soon I felt I shouldn’t have responded at all. I found that the gladiatorial pitch the argument reached, however legitimate, was untenable for me. Feverish with anger, then depressed, I couldn’t think clearly. Depth of reflection became impossible. So did its preconditions, like stillness. So did its fruits, like poetry.
I have a lot of respect for the political pundits of the world, those who build careers on opinions owned in public; I think they fulfill an important democratic function, even or especially the brawling contrarians whose dissent is a check to the tyranny of the majority. But increasingly I do not believe that art that fulfills the deepest human possibilities can grow from the spiritual soil of such assertion. For conscientious people to engage with political power is important; only by such work may some balance of power be found that approximates, however imperfectly, justice. But for the artist, as for any individual who wishes to live in peace and with a heart as open as possible to the needs of others, a commitment to direct political assertion and confrontation has begun to strike me as dangerous.
Dangerous, in part, because its adversarial pressures discourage the expression of ambivalence and doubt, which seems to me essential for both the life of the mind and the possibility of ethical relationships. Rarely in public political controversy do we get to observe a thinker changing her mind, or being of two minds. And political arguments on the Internet exist in a perpetual Now; they may remain highly ranked on Google even when the writer has long since amended or repudiated them. The ritual of the public apology for regretted speech is, in many cases, just an inversion of the same problem: it too is a kind of expression of certainty, a sureness that the previously held idea was wrong and the new idea is right. Intellectual honesty performed that way, at least for me, would require an endless stream of apologies and apologies for apologies, a decades-long recantation of previous affirmations that what was once recanted should be affirmed. Maybe that’s always the private shape of an intellectually honest life.
But how exhausting, publicly to limp from humiliation to humiliation even more than privately we must do, which is quite a lot — to choose such a performance of such a life. Better, at least for me, not to try to resolve doubt into assertion but rather to leave it knotted and make the knot the basis for art. To attempt to create art that contains multitudes, that seeks to embody all the assertions and recantations and somehow to give voice to the love that may transcend them.
Here’s to a continually deepening tradition of theatre criticism in Canada, practiced by a diversity of voices. And here’s to more conversations offline, guided by the vulnerability, the irreducible humanity of the other person’s face.