Year-End Reflections: The Great and The Good

December 30, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 1 7 min read

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

William Butler Yeats, from “The Choice”

I.  Art & Life
If you’re like me, your year-end mail and email are filled with requests for charitable giving.  As I consider all the different organizations pleading their cause, I realize that they are basically divided between two types of missions: artistic and social.

For many years I worked as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for nonprofit organizations.  I started out working for social-change groups and gradually shifted to the arts.  While seeking funding for the latter, an inevitable obstacle presented itself in the form of funder requirements that the organization address “poverty, education, or underrepresented groups” in some direct, demonstrable way.  We’d sit around conference tables talking about how we might incorporate a “social component” or “education project” into the arts program, only to (wisely) realize that such a project would just be a poorly-executed pinky-finger effort, a tacked-on afterthought. (Similarly, I once took the lead on an arts education program for a community development organization, which promptly dissolved once I left.)

The undercurrent of these discussions was that carrying out a program or a mission required both intention and expertise.  It wasn’t that we weren’t genuinely excited about being challenged into new territory; but we knew our own expertise, and we’d witnessed the pitfalls of breadth over depth which many growing organizations fell into.

II. Greatness & Goodness
coverA graduate school professor said to our class on Day One of our writing workshop: “The Great is the enemy of The Good.”  I’m not sure if he was coining his own expression, or perhaps paraphrasing Voltaire’s, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” (Dictionnaire Philosophique, 1764) — literally translated, “The best is the enemy of the good.”  In either case, I couldn’t help, in my youth, but be a little offended; it was Day One, after all, and you’d think he might at least get to know us a little before discouraging too-high writerly aspirations.

Over the years, however, that expression has stuck with me, and its meaning has morphed into something quite different — the conflict in my mind now not one between artistic brilliance and mediocrity, but between created and creator.

III. Lou Kahn and the “Inevitable” Conflict Between Great and Good
coverI recently re-watched the film My Architect, a bio-documentary on Louis Kahn, written and directed by his son Nathaniel Kahn.  Lou Kahn was a visionary architect, well known for completing just a handful of monumental masterpieces, including the National Assembly Building (Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban) of Bangladesh, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, two buildings at Yale University, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Phillips Exeter Academy library.  Such celebrity architects as I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Moshe Safdie have praised Kahn as the quintessential architect-as-artist — a brilliant but oddball character who stayed true to his aesthetic visions at the expense of commercial success.  Indian architect B.V. Doshi described Kahn as a guru, a yogi.  Kahn was found dead of a heart attack in a public restroom at Penn Station one night in 1974, at the age of 73; it took three days to identify him.  At the time of his death, he was deeply in debt.

coverNathaniel was Lou Kahn’s third child, each child born of a different mother; only Sue Ann, the eldest, was “legitimate.” Nathaniel was 11 years old when his father died and made the film, 30 years later, as a way of finding and knowing his father.  Through the film we come to learn that Lou did not suffer much over his three-family situation, while the women and children involved did.

This is not at all a film about villain and victims; avoiding such maudlin simplicities is perhaps its greatest accomplishment.  And yet the film’s core inquiry does seem to be this question of whether or not a great man is capable of also being a good man.  In the film’s emotional climax, Bangladeshi architect and teacher Shamsul Wares, who worked closely with Kahn on the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, says to Nathaniel, teary-eyed and overcome with both admiration and sadness:

It was almost impossible, a building for a country like ours; 30-50 years back, it was nothing, only paddy fields… he gave us democracy…he has given us the institution for democracy… he paid his life for this.  And that is why he is great, and we will remember him.  But he was also human. Now his failure to satisfy the family life is a [sic] inevitable association of great people.  But I think his son will understand this and will have no sense of grudge or no sense of being neglected…. He cared in a very different manner, but it takes a lot of time to understand that… He has given us this building, and we feel all the time for him… He has given love for us.  He would not probably give the right kind of love for you, but for us, he has given the people the right kind of love… you have to understand that.  He had an enormous amount of love.   He loved everybody.  To love everybody he sometimes did not see the very closest ones, and that is inevitable for men of his stature.

The transcript alone might be easily dismissed as thin justification.  I recommend watching the film, or at least the scene here at YouTube, for full effect.  That scene, and Wares’s deep conviction, haunt me.

IV. Literarians Who Embrace Both/And
coverMeanwhile, most of us try to do Good, even as we grapple with Great.  Theologian and Harvard Professor Peter Gomes noted in his book The Good Life that his students were impatient with an either/or conception:

One student asked me at the [public service] summit meeting, more in sadness than in anger, “Why can’t Harvard be both great and good at the same time?”…The question is neither peculiar to Cambridge nor to this generation, but in this generation the search for goodness, both institutional and personal, has reappeared as a defining characteristic in young people’s renewed search for the good life.

It’s a thread I sense in most writers I know — that if a good amount of our first-fruit time and energy are going to be spent either in solitude or promoting our own work, we want also to make sure we are not atrophying in our human connectedness.  On these last days of 2009, as we all go forth into 2010 with our optimism tainted by the realism of the past year — and perhaps vaguely haunted by the Lou Kahns of the world, great artists at odds with The Good — here are a few inspired/inspiring folks for whom The Great and The Good are on better-than-friendly terms:

Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of the popular Six-Words Memoir series, and senior editor at SMITH, also wears the hat of Director of Events at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a nonprofit whose ultimate mission is to generate proceeds for nutrition, shelter, housing, health, and employment services — provided by its parent organization Housing Works, Inc. — for homeless New Yorkers who are HIV-positive.

I really believe  [the Six-Words Memoirs projects] help people. I’ve gotten hundreds of emails about contributors reigniting their passion for writing, families brought together in brainstorming each others’ memoirs, and even teens claiming they’re alive today because the community of friends they found on smithteens.com brought them back from edge… Still when I’m staying in the Marriott Courtyard in Brookline Massachusetts raiding the minifridge and obsessing over why some other author got on The Today Show and I only got on The Early Show, it can all feel a little superficial. Housing Works’s mission is essential on a basic level: food, shelter, medicine. The unique position I’m in — that I can use my skills in organizing cultural events to effect those things (rather than, say, writing sometimes and ladling out soup sometimes) — makes me feel especially lucky.

Mary Ellen Sanger, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in such Mexican publications as Luna Zeta and Zocalo and in the anthology Mexico, a Love Story, was a finalist for the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) Foundation’s Gift of Freedom in 2007, and winner of AROHO’s Fall 2009 Orlando Poetry Prize.  She is currently writing a collection of stories inspired by the women of Ixcotel State Penitentiary in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she spent 33 days and nights falsely imprisoned in the fall of 2003. Mary Ellen leads a writing workshop for Mexican immigrants through New York Writers Coalition and another for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, and volunteers as a mentor in the PEN Prison Writing Program.  She writes:

I joined NYWC and the PEN as much out of a search for communities that reflected my social interests, as for a selfish desire to be with writers who were not caught up solely in the mechanics of craft and publication. I was into renewal at that point – and preferred communities where the simple rush of creativity was the glue.  My experiences in Mexico brought me close to marginalized communities where I witnessed that “outsiders” are not doomed to a sentence of silence. Both PEN and NYWC facilitate creativity from strong voices that are not always the first to be heard… My work with them…has more than once pulled me through… moments when I wonder why I bother to write at all.

And finally, Masha Hamilton is author of four acclaimed novels, most recently 31 Hours, a Washington Post selection for one of the best novels of the year and an Indie Choice pick by independent booksellers.  Hamilton founded two world literacy programs: the Camel Book Drive, begun in 2007 to supply a camel-borne library in northeastern Kenya, and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project:

…being an active part of the world is something I am passionate about. Each of my novels was torn directly from the world, from the things that scare me and thrill me and make me laugh. For my work to be part of the world, I’ve always thought I need to be part of it too.

Of course, everything we do conflicts with our artistic impulses, because the day only has so many hours and the body only so much energy. But even as my active engagement with the outside world takes time, it also feeds my engagement with my inner world, how I understand both myself and what it means to be human.

So starting [the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project] has occurred naturally—they have sprung out of what already excites me. My involvement with both projects has been an enormous gift.

“Lucky,” “pulled me through,” “gift.” There is the commonality of inner imperative here, the give impulse and the receive impulse bound into one.  Your goodness must have some edge to it, wrote Emerson– else it is none.  That edge, perhaps, is an understanding — an indulgence — of this two-way engagement.

And the world engagement of the artist has, I think, particular power in its passion for seeing and knowing the human condition at its truest and most bare; an artist’s compulsion (maybe “selfish” at its core) for authentic meaning coupled with a love for the good can’t help but translate into work that addresses the profound basics of human existence, body and soul.  Yeats’s “perfection” and Voltaire’s “le mieux” are perhaps where we get tripped up; to be alive, after all, is to be a work-in-progress.  Who knows how Lou Kahn may have evolved had he lived, what Nathaniel and his mother and his half-siblings may have learned of him, this special love of his, over time: “…but it takes a lot of time to understand that…”

[Image credit: Photography Burns]

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016.  She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.  Learn more about Sonya here.

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