Are Novelists Writing While the World Burns?

As I write these words the radical Islamic group, ISIS, continues to unleash untold barbarities upon the portion of northern Syria and central Iraq that it controls; conflict persists in Ukraine between pro-Russian revolutionaries and government troops despite the declaration of a ceasefire almost a month ago; Ebola spreads across West Africa claiming as many as 3,091 lives (according to WHO) despite efforts to contain it; and tens of thousands of Hong Kong activists gather as part of a pro-democracy movement.

Meanwhile, I linger in the safety of my office, a cup on mango tea steaming at my elbow, penning fictitious narratives at the whim of inspiration, and to what end? While I want to contend that ‘creating for creation’s sake’ is a worthwhile endeavor, the inevitable question must be begged:

In a world ravaged by butchery, conflict, disease, and revolution, are we as novelists not fiddling while the world burns

The seeming futility of writing in light of the events erupting across the globe should spur novelists to question the purpose behind our art. I recall, albeit likely not verbatim, my Oxford tutor’s answer when I posed the question, “What is art’s purpose?” He responded:

“The point of art is to redeem humanity, to offer hope and not to revel in the ugly, even from the dark side.”

We write then, not for our own sake, but for the sake of the broken world in which we find ourselves, to make sense of what it means to be human despite the perpetual inhumanity unleashed around us. Beautiful narrative can restore “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility,” transcend ugliness, and allow us to see things not as they are but as we were meant to see them as apart from ourselves (Lewis, Perelandra; Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories). Stories offer humans an avenue of expression to release the emotions of a suffering and anguished mankind, and an inspiration that, despite the bleakness of reality, transcendental beauty does exist.

Philosopher and author of Beauty, Roger Scruton, writes:

“Art answers the riddle of existence: it tells us why we exist by imbuing our lives with a sense of fittingness… Loss ceases to be an accident, and becomes instead an archetype, rendered beautiful beyond words by the music that contains it, moving under the impulse of melody and harmony to a conclusion that has a compelling artistic logic.” 

Yes, ISIS is wreaking terror, Ukraine is engaged in violent conflict, Ebola does continue to claim lives, and political tumult persists in Hong Kong. But the place of the novelist is not to save the world. The place of the novelist is to persuade the world that it can indeed be saved, that hope exists amidst the hopeless, that beauty shines within the ugly, that evil does not negate the existence of truth, that suffering is not eternal, and that goodness prevails in the face of atrocities.

C.S. Lewis, in his essay ‘Learning in Wartime’, says:

“Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself… Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes…The war will fail to absorb our whole attention because it is a finite object, and therefore intrinsically unfitted to support the whole attention of a human soul.”

In a world ravaged by butchery, conflict, disease, and revolution, novelists don’t write while the world burns. Novelists write because the world burns.

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