The deep malaise, rage and feelings of betrayal that have enveloped American society are rarely captured and almost never are explained coherently by the press. To grasp the savage economic and emotional cost of deindustrialization, the destruction of our democratic institutions, the dark undercurrent of nihilistic violence that sees us beset with mass shootings, the attraction of opioids, the rise of the militarized state and the concentration of national wealth in a tiny cabal of corrupt bankers and corporations, it is necessary to turn to a handful of poets, writers and other artists. These artists, who often exist on the margins of mass culture, are our unheeded prophets.
“What Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and most other prophets have in common is a strong ethical outlook and a heightened sensitivity to attitudes and morals—the obvious ones as well as those that lurk beneath the surface,” the painter Enrique Martinez Celaya said in an essay. “They also share urgency. Prophets are not inclined to wait for the right time. Their prophetic vision demands action, leaving little room for calculation and diplomacy. Truth, for the prophets, is not merely a belief but a moral imperative that compels them to speak and act with little regard for convenience or gains. But prophets need to do more than speaking and acting, and it is not enough to be apocalyptic. Something must be brought forward.”
“Whenever they talk about unemployment figures or the state of the economy, you read the comments [about the article],” the poet Linh Dinh said when I interviewed him earlier this year. “The comments are people howling and cursing the article. Most people know these articles are nonsense. If you’re not fighting for your livelihood you tend to believe these articles.”
“What’s most disturbing is the hatred for these people, [the working class],” he told me. “The left always pretends to talk about the masses, the working class, but it really hates the working class. It doesn’t pay any attention to the working class. It mocks their values.”
The physical decay of towns and cities silences important parts of our past. It allows corporations to create a false history and a false culture that homogenizes our lives into a deadening sameness.
“Stories make a place,” Linh Dihn wrote. “Without stories, there is no place, but without place, there can still be stories. If your stories are not organically grown, but imposed on you by those who hate everything about you, then you’re virtually dead.”
The disease of empire, the belief that military power is a virtue, blinds us to the folly of our own hubris, our proclivity for violence and our decline. It leads us, Martinez Celaya said, to create miniature, distorted empires of our own. Donald Trump embodies this yearning for a personal empire as vicious and exploitative as the American empire. Empires create a culture in which people dedicate their lives to building monuments to themselves.
The artist, if true to his or her vocation, recovers the past and explains the present. The artist is the true chronicler of who we were and where we came from. Culture, in times of distress, is not a luxury but a life raft.