On Chicago and Literary Life -- Russell Block
I am lost not in mystique, that quality one navigates in writing art, a quality that holds in artistries other than writing, which allow, through their expression, for the capability of life to extend itself past the mundane. My purposes are essayistic, perhaps though no more fundamental than art, and perhaps not simpler than art. Ends in themselves are the most rewarding pursuits for a writer. Expressed suitably, those ends enamor and animate the passage of words into weighty considerations. I am more purposed with my thinking I am to put down here. The language of literature itself has not been denuded by way of the ruination that has left us, as individuals, in states of aesthetic disrepair. Today’s author, in the task of expressing in language literature’s continuity, faces a struggle to amend said environment in ways more advantageous to thought. With the book written, the play done, the poem captured, these tasks organize the sensibility of the writer. If they are ambitious, they come to the conclusion exactly as it has been stated. The language of literature itself retains its preeminence and value in relation to experience. The environment that has been left for the author is almost past enduring. The pursuit of institution for the sustainment of literature is worth every effort therefore, and that is the purpose of these notes. A polemical essay about the institutions available for literature and literary life in Chicago resists easy terms. As with all experience, as with this purposed application of experience, my difficulties are likely my very purpose. Should my experience be sufficient for daring the world, which I trust the case to be, with the evidence of self books and plays for my assurance, writing myself to the full perils of national discourse would only masquerade in the fulfillment of my vocational imperative. It would seemingly accomplish everything while saying nothing of note. And no few essays and opinion pieces of recent vintage solve issues far afield their topic with the utmost efficiency. I am to be discerning through my craft, not charlatan in my elocution, but to be purposed to an end that life has been my tutor in perceiving. The true tenure will discover its currency in a pose and tone set in perfect indication of the lessons I am to bring to bear, their formulations long arranging, long coming to pass in this. If anything national begins to feel familiar in this document, it is because writing on the detriments to being faced by those in removes more provincial underlie much of our difficulty as a nation; and the familiarity between one and the other is where the fundamentals of progress might well be earmarked.
The dregs of ambition are always brewed into a tonic by the new light of the morning. To realize the utility of actions that were commanding at one time, but for their material failure, is to rediscover the worth in undertaking those same principles, perhaps though in a new form, and with new purpose. Casting aside the frets of the night, the minuscule occasion given outsized due, its terrors not without their lessons too, a truer distillation has been won. The greater, more enduring interest in the world can be won so long as I am confident somewhere remains in people’s attentions where thinking can be accomplished. It becomes engendered for the benefit of anyone who discovers resolution in its sieve, peace in its unruliness. By we I mean to say writers, and we are discovering the breadth and implementation of our purpose, from sojourn gleamed, from nothingness snatching back delight, life.
My concerns are with the erosion of the public sphere, the benefactors and devices of which need not be harped on. Their burn into the fabric of our tacit bonds and social contracts are glaringly subtle, their means of dissolving the unity of the individual experience apparent, and their dissolving of the occasion between individuals apparent as well. I would, rather, attest to the darkly subtle, to the importance of a peoples coming to grip with their own qualities. Literature provides the actual substance of this progress. Those peoples in this case are the Midwestern, less than the Midwestern, the Chicagoan and people of the Chicagoland. We are united in our mutual benefit, that on whatever staging ground a peoples should resolve themselves to new paradigms and to obtain new circumstance, the rest of the country follows. In this way, through the persistence of our differences, the notions that unite are selected from the seeming virtues that produce sectionalism and are discarded. Many one-time locales of guiding vibrancy, swaddled in their importance, or won over by their pre-eminence in monetary matters, have ceded their causes. I see nothing worth there or in living there. I see my purpose here, where the people, in their wants, and in their detriments, are clearer to me. The role of the writer leads onward. Beliefs are the fiat of this present imperative, and they, and their demonstration, must be suitably strong to give some select people their conviction.
With the erosion of the public sphere has come the erosion of values. If life is to not be let go meaningless, whereas all things pass, they may reserve tenure in their passing. The struggle falls upon those that have honed their inspection of the world to overcome and alter the weakness of institutions. By failing, one comes to see that the offices and arbiters that should be promulgating the ideas and promoting the lives of our age that seek greatness, those institutions that should be taken over to the greater task, they have allowed the logic of erosion and dissolution to creep and creep. Restoration to example dignity need be the pursuit. The game of culture and counter-culture must be laid away. For restoration, the struggle of writers ought to be purposed to create the counter-climate. The transcription of reality must be antagonistic to the continued encroach along the paths of least resistance it has so far profited by, while the substance of art, in itself, must be clear and ennobling. A new world awaits, a stronger world, won at the expense of the retrograde. Won’t it be exciting? Will it not be worth enterprise?
Enough now with the devilish smirk. To begin, a few words will not reconstitute the encouragement tacit in our culture which suggests you need not think or feel, but they are necessary. Literature is a way of life. The adoption of literature as a practice into one’s life feeds the most egalitarian of all the parcels of our existence. Almost perpetually, each of us will be tested. Our individualities come against the world’s inconsistencies and its meagre excuses, and, to survive, it requires an idea of what the forces of life are and how one should act when faced with circumstances we could only have a vague understanding of. With humor and great subtlety, we often-times find an appropriate measure in our bearings to persist in life by way of the trifles humor and subtlety. One not only gets by on these amusements but discovers their engagement to be life in all actuality as well. Crisis will find one, in the unspoken reserves of life, where one would best have a well-hewn understanding of character and a faith founded on anything capable of matching crisis. The erosion of literature becomes more egregious in light of this reality, because attempt to imagine what happens when someone succumbs to crisis, and you will know the substance evil takes for sustenance.
In a society that has no institutions to evaluate and value significant contributions of thought and creativity, you receive a demagogue, and a slavering mass of reactionary lunacy. One must laugh at this dumbshow, while at the same time, almost at the pitch of amusement, come to feel how truly painful this makes existence. We are enduring the tacit silencing of a generation. We require institutions and literary life. Rather than address the notions behind it directly, I will first do as I am responsible to, and address life. I wish to offer reassurance in literature as a way of life. Whatever natural attraction to reading I have, I doubt I can fully understand the advantages reading does for me, in my purpose, my likelihood of success, my ability to love, and to understand my role in the lives of those I am to love. To endure what I have endured up to the present will be means found out in literature, and to assure me that everything in the time to come will not be past enduring is to be found there also. Literature, if adopted as a way of life, assures me my time will come. The habit extricates one from the embodiment of hell in living existence, putting one in deeper harmony with the qualities of life that are not ease, but, perhaps for this, for that they do not require endurance, they are impermanent.
The means at present readiest available for the exposure of thought preclude wit and exceptionalism. Based on the poor example a generation makes of itself, one can readily discover the danger in a cadre of your peers, if those peers, by their mistaken perception, snuff out its constituents of greatest vitality. We are fast becoming a generation exemplary only in the negative. There is but one public sphere. It is that which accords authority to the most developed, adroit, capable, and human among us. Notice that sphere’s minuscule contribution to our society, and that it must be the least technological sphere, populated by stalwarts the least endowed by the factors of the spheres of hyper-attention that encourage the least possible engagement. To put it bluntly, the supposed sphere of communication that involves the setting up of accounts, reducing the potential in the use of these accounts by making an economy out of their habits, and by engineering these habits to advertise more and more effectively, the sphere in which, likelier by the day, you spend most of your time, is not in any true or practical sense the public sphere. The perverse instruments of their operations would be the subject for another essay.
Our society continues its investment in the wrong commodities. That is the case of something like a theatrical brand, and what follows pertains to that case. The institutions need to be organized in a way that benefits culture and acts as a bulwark against the poor speech that these platforms allow for. The struggle with the adherents of literature could mirror the process the author goes through in their struggle to write a work. The least extreme or radical course of action would be to fundamentally undermine the use and efficacy of the platforms on which these brands have built themselves up on. If one’s institution is liable to collapse under the open critique on the platforms they have built themselves up on, it would be an indicator that they, as an institution, do not provide value to the marketplace of ideas, not to the art of writing, and not to the art of performance. The gap between what an institution actually offers and its following robs beauty from the world. The system creates bad incentives such that the institutions that rent theatrical space have it in their best interest to not evaluate nor value work. It is the tacit silencing of a generation. As ever, an advantage persists in understanding the disconnect between apparent worth and underlying value. For this process, the systems do not provide a button. It will only take one luminary institution and some luminaries to convince those that now sit through school on daily doses of medication to conceive that there are alternatives. It will only take the proof that literature is a living quantity, and that is the vocation of the writer, today, and as ever. That is the task, and that necessitates the effort, expenses, and the long hours to accomplish this end, such that ends in themselves may be found. I know that the education around where I now attempt to establish myself is incomplete, the youth, its students, left too with incomplete means to realize their individual integrity, the greatness lingering with them left in reserve; and it is that education I set forth once to garner for myself, coming away, in all, through hardships, with the book.
In recommending the practitioners of literature as a way of life, recommending that they readers, writers, actors, audience, and the like, take control of the quantities that are a detriment to their greater esteem, I had to pause to consider my culpability. To this end, I have posed some of these tenants to operators of these theaters, mostly those of the Belmont Theater District, and subsequently discussed these matters with the very individuals who propitiate these qualities that are adverse to the marketplace of ideas. I am glad to say I did not fail my moment in this case. It must also be said that the individuals I spoke with were receptive and considerate, and it must be the mark of any of a new class of intellectuals that they understand the difference between the logic of an office and the people in those offices, and that one never adopts a misguided course of action directed against individuals. There are other movements that have been mobilized and weaponized in the society that would do well to abide by a similar principle. For the more intelligent class, the imperative must be held. When one finds that their means are insufficient, it is up to us to discover better means, means that are likely to be more demanding of us as agents of progress and restoration. One also must be settled and have faith that the content of what one has said has its utility, even if its effect cannot be immediately witnessed. It is a faith in others, and that makes it a substance the world is badly in need of. I learned from my conversation with the managers of these offices items that will be of use to me in the pursuit of my career. One of these was their perspective that they had only responded to conditions as they exist, and I take this as true. It should only take the clear demonstration that conditions are becoming different, that the audience is more articulate of its wants, in order to make some changes effective toward the end of facilitating the marketplace of ideas. The condition of audience-ship is an open roll, awaiting only the impetus and engagement of those that desire more, more from life, and more of themselves. The strifes between artists and arts administrations, or else between people with the capacity to provide restoration and progress, the artists, and those that maintain a tepid status quo, the bureaucrats, has been ever-present issue in society. Every creative worth their salt I have known has come up against this problem precisely when their work has become such that it is valuable. I have musician friends, often slighted by Luminarts and Jazz Chicago, that have left the city due to lack of opportunities, and I think we are the worse off for this. I must refine my previous statement that served its turn to begin this essay, but that has a higher principle, now stated, that beyond any effort, the true mission is to leave for those that are to come after me the benefit of my having gone before. There have been a few artists before me that showed me the way, and I carry on that tradition. It could be said that these offices and individuals own their follies to a far greater extent than they own their following on digital platforms, and their ownership of those unsavory details of the former, and the responsibility that comes with those of the former, I respect the limits of, whereas the latter they possess no ownership over and cannot hold expectations for. In all actuality, these institutions are like horses that can be lead to water and can be expected to drink. For that they are not creative entities in their own right, they need not be prideful. The actual interest and engagement of an audience and a readership will be the only lever in this case, and so I entrust them with the public sphere, extend them faith by continuing to publish and produce. Song of the Broad-Axe Publications can be engaged with in a direct way, such that one may discover, although the conditions limit our capacity to stage our material, that the material does exist, and that it, in turn, can be demanded. The systems allow for this, and the understanding of the gap in offering and liability should be made fall toward the advantage of the writer capable of perceiving these disparities.
What are the issues at present? As it stands, the system of theater in Chicago, from Steppenwolf, to Second City, and in a severe case in the rental theaters, a system of pay to play persists, outright or in shades. American ideals are best expressed in its institutions when the institutions are prepared to meet the pioneer, the drop-out, the individual with an outsized merit, if, and especially if, that person has no contacts and no advantages other than their merit. In Chicago, the script from nowhere has nothing to value and evaluate it. Thousands of dollars spent, or, in some sense, wasted, in the university hierarchy to gain an MFA would be a means into the upper-tier of organizations, like Steppenwolf, or a seat in one of the production companies, where, I take it, the least merited individuals enjoy an outsized fiat. In the event of self-production, the same script, and its writer, will need to pay steep rental costs, have all the liability and risk forwarded upon them, and not receive any assistance. The operations of renting theaters derives its revenue up-front, and it encourages empty seats, and those empty seats increase the costs on productions of greater merit. By forwarding these costs, the public cannot participate. Theater therefore is unable to become popular. By that I mean it is unable to reflect the conversation at large in the populace, that lingers in the public, and that wants for its sphere. It could only be sectional or narrowly interested, and not entire. This is unideal to say the least . A new class should not sit by, but they should take cares to constitute entities that prize thinking at its worth. They should seize the prize offered by the liability of these systems.
Now, as to why the operations as they stand have a vested interest in failing to evaluate and value contributions of though; the matter may be far from clear, but to elucidate it will be important. The most expedient example would be the gardener, or else a kind of gardener salesman. If one discovers from their clients that they do not distinguish between the weeds that grow alongside the blooms and the blooms themselves, a pessimistic business model presents itself. So the gardener begins to bundle together nothing but weeds and maintains an uncultivated mess in what was one a flowerbed. Should a flower spring up there, it is no offense to the business of selling weeds - that is capitalism - but the gardener need not sustain it so long as everything can be shuttled off at the same price. In this case too, I should suspect the gardener would claim, coming to believe it themselves even, that they had only responded to conditions as they perceive them to exist. If the customers do not make a distinction between a weed and a flower, then the weed or the flower must look exactly the same to them on the mantle. The situation goes practically beyond belief, but, still, that is the case with the operation of Chicago’s theaters. We know of plots where weeds are cultivated for a profit while the investor waits for the development on the land to become profitable. Perhaps this is neither right nor wrong in itself, but circumstances neither right nor wrong in themselves must be tended to discerningly. A flower from a weed, worth from worthlessness, the failure to distinguish between the two has been allowed to reign only because the machines used for the harvest have become interesting in themselves.
I have been organizing my fellow writers and producers so that we might make consistent demands on the bureaucracy that benefits from our ambitions, so that we might regain some of the esteem that has been robbed us by the organization of the institutions at play. Nowhere can come into its own if the ambition of its best examples are exploited. One of these recommendations would be to constitute a fund, to make this fund public facing, and to use this instrument to provide the public a stake in the public sphere that has been denied them. The pursuit to impel that change, or the actual realization of the change, are alike in that they are worth the endeavor.
I have settled in Chicago not because it is the best environment for literature. I see, however, as has been said before, that it is like a farm. The institutions that operate on the aforementioned liability gap are like farms that are too large and unwieldy, and their acreage becomes more of a burden than productive. These will fail at some time, and the acreage will be parceled out to those that may be more thorough by virtue of their wielding effective implements. That is the case I stand in, with my literary estate to my name, with my publications and productions the example of this estate and the estates of my contemporaries. And when my patch produces, I see that it will only take removing the stones from the earth of the acres around my plot to service the community in the end in itself of making hay.