Winter, for me, is a period of reflection and regeneration, of withdrawal, reminiscent of a time when humans were forced to be more malleable and responsive to the seasons. Each year, I long to see the landscape around my home in Germany transformed by the cold: frost-limned trees, crisp air, and snow shrouding everything, muffling every sound, as if covering over the acoustic evidence of humanity.
But human intervention will affect the phenomenology of winter. This is not just because of meteorological change. Knowing that the caprices of the weather are caused by us, as much as by any ‘natural’ process, changes how we experience the seasons: our relation to them, the respect and interest we accord them, and the way that they affect our perception of our place in the world.
Writers Group, as it’s known in the community, is a space for the homeless writers of downtown Boston (“homeless, transitional, or recently housed” is the rubric), and we meet every Tuesday morning at 9:30, in the basement of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul on Tremont Street. Out of Writers Group comes The Pilgrim, a literary magazine that I’ve been editing for the last five years.
Disenchantment had been becoming more and more apparent in Western culture for a long time, Weber believed, yet at the turn of the 20th century it had become a defining trait of modernity. To be a modern person meant, and means, first of all, not to trust in magic, prayer, ritual, sacraments, or anything of the sort; more than that, though, it means not to allow oneself to be enthralled by anything at all, at least not for very long. Anything that appears mysterious can be shown, by careful methodical investigation, to have a rational explanation. A century after Weber’s lecture, the West is divided over the success of disenchantment. True enough, there are many scientists, many philosophers, and of course many Marxists, who prize one or another version of a world that has been thoroughly demystified. If there is wonder, it is no more than a prompt to explanation. Yet there are many other people for whom calculation does not give the whole story about our world, or perhaps even the most important parts of it.
All of this finally left me thinking that if what Hoffman says is right, then the answers to all our big questions are so far beyond our perception that all we can do is steal tiny glances at them, carve new edges as we evolve. And at that exact point aren’t science and art the same? The pursuit of knowledge is an edge, and language is an edge, and poetry lives at the edge of language. The poet Elizabeth Willis wrote two lines that I like to come back to: “a word is a symptom/ of what can’t be described.”
I am both a singer-songwriter and a writer of prose. I quit drinking nine years ago. My life has gotten significantly better since then, which is to be expected. I released one album while actively drinking. I recorded my second record sober, but about half of the pieces on the record were written while I was more than half in the proverbial bag. I recently released my third album; all of the songs were written after I quit drinking. My material has gotten better over time. Whether this is because I’ve aged and matured as an artist or because I’m now writing sober, I’m not sure. I think it’s possible that both are true.
Raduan Nassar was forty-eight and at the height of his literary fame when, in 1984, he announced his retirement. He wanted to become a farmer.