On Disagreement and Everyone Being Real

It pretty much goes without saying that these are difficult times. There is almost no direction to face in without seeing something appalling. There is a temptation to despair. Especially in the past week, I’ve been feeling the full force of our human catastrophes. Of course, all times have been dark times. Perhaps it’s just a perverse narcissism to look around and think this is the worst. And yet.

When following the news, I usually find myself (narcissistically) wondering what art actually does, if it does anything, if there’s any point to pursuing it, given more urgent demands. I am embarrassed and discomfited by grand claims for art: that it will change the world, bring about the desired revolution, educate everyone into holding right-thinking views, etc. This just seems self-serving. On the other hand, art for art’s sake, the idea that art can be divorced from political realities, is absurd. “Politics” is just a lively and flexible and sustained attention to what is. Like it or not, everything is political, not in a shallow sense of the demand for agreement, for ideological coherence, but in the sense of noticing all the contours of the world, all the different ways we try and fail to do right, all the ways we seize or abuse power, all our failures. Art isn’t very good at social transformation. But it’s good at noticing what’s there, which perhaps can add up to small transformations.

I am obsessed with a line from a short story by the American writer Sam Lipsyte: “Either everyone is real, or no one is.” Because I think what art does, the way it intersects with both politics and ethics, is show us, truly, that everyone is real. No character, no human person, even the most reprehensible, is without their own reality, their own interior life. Art occupies an ambivalent space, a middle space, in which no single viewpoint triumphs over the rest, no single person is “right.” Rightness is not the point. The point is to know, when you read, when you write, that everyone you will ever encounter, on the page and in the world, is as fully real as you are yourself. You can disagree with what they say and what they think. Sometimes you should disagree. But you still know that they are real, and that you have a right to expect the same understanding from them. Even if you will never agree. Especially then.

This is all very pat, of course. In practice, this knowledge is almost impossible. I fail at it, spectacularly and all the time. Which is why I think art is helpful, in this small, specific, almost impossible way. It leads us to at least attempt to live in the truth that either everyone is real, or no one is.