During this season when politicians end every ratty moth-eaten political speech with a threadbare allusion to God and country, and at least one even warbles “America the Beautiful” uncertainly in public, a little shot of scepticism is a tonic. Here’s one answer novelist Don DiLillo sent by Fax to PEN America in response to interview questions:
“The Latin mass had an odd glamour–all that mystery and tradition. Religion has not been a major element in my work, and for some years now I think the true American religion has been “the American People.” The term quickly developed an aura of sanctity and inviolability. First used mainly by politicians at nominating conventions and in inaugural speeches, the phrase became a mainstay of news broadcasts and other more or less nonpartisan occasions. All the reverence once invested in the name of God was transferred to an entity safely defined as you and me. But do we still exist? Does the phrase still soar over the airwaves? Or are the American People dead and buried? It seems the case, more than ever, that there are only factions, movements, sects, splinter groups, and deeply aggrieved individual voices. The media absorbs it all.” From “Best American Fax from Don DiLillo.” The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Edited by Dave Eggers. Pp.3-4.
Unless a writer expresses a unique take on the world, the expression won’t be worth much. I was happy this week to read a critical essay by our Hamline MFAC student Shelley Jones, where she took apart the notion of “setting as character,” turned the idea over and over in her hand, and examined it sceptically–as critically as one ought to do in a critical essay. Her questioning stance gave the phrase new meaning, her own meaning. What pleasure the essay gave its reader, the pleasure of seeing mind at work.
All of us do well to entertain doubt about supposedly settled truths and to think about them anew for ourselves. I intend to examine received wisdom as a regular exercise in my journal.