The unbearable lightness of writing

May 10, 2023 08:37
Photo: Reuters

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” Mr. Bennet remarked in Pride and Prejudice.

I suppose the same question could be asked of writers, and the same commentary would apply. After all, it does appear that the primary duty of the writer in the modern era is to “make sport” - that is, to provide mirth and entertainment for those who would read; and, in turn, to reciprocate through mocking and ridiculing their audience.

At face value, writing does appear to be dying. It is dying with the advent of multi-media communication platforms - TikTok and Snapchat, or, worse yet, obscure photo- and video-editing software that has come to supplant writing as the primary media of communications for Gen Z and Generation Alpha (yes, they exist) youth. Even where the power of language yet prevails, it is flaccidly exploited for a ruse through multi-hundred-character ‘Tweets’ and short quibbles on online forums.

The days of long, serious writing are over. Long reads are dead, long live long reads.

Then there’s the politics. Societies across the world have turned to censorious control and restrictions over writing - and it’s not just authoritarian or autocratic states that have gleefully dabbled in ideological curation. It’s also mob sentiments and populist echo chambers in leading ‘democracies’, transforming their civil societies into anything but civil, and their governments into but parroting vessels AND vassals for vested interests that push them in all sorts of incoherent, oft-inchoate directions. Writing has become subservient to the money, and money to the power, to brute force, to the red, soggy jelly shoved down the throats of all who refuse to listen and capitulate.

The days of independent, autonomous writing - however fleeting that moment for which it existed may be - are over. Independent writings are dead, and soon, too, independent writers.

We must come to recognise the unbearable lightness in writing. You could write thousands of op-eds, but nothing really matters - for no one reads them, and those who do seldom end up making a difference. You could be a distinguished columnists, raking in thousands if not millions of dollars as you speak, and yet you’d fundamentally be no different from the character of Bing in Fifteen Million Merits - yes, that Black Mirror episode that is eerily realistic and resemblant of events that could well soon befall us all in this world.

There is thus an odd dualism of ‘light’ within contemporary writing. On one hand, journalists and pundits alike enjoy positioning themselves as ‘bringing to light’ or ‘shedding light upon’ core issues of social interest and grievance. It is imperative that we ensure that problems are not swept under the carpet, and that they can see the light of day.

On the other hand, the impact-lessness of this all renders our actions ‘light’ in their end outcomes - ‘lightweights’. Not heavyweights. Light because people may be hearing, but seldom listening (thanks, Simon and Garfunkel). Light because it leaves us light in our heads, dizzy and spinning from the utter futility of it all. As writers, we have come to experience both sides of the ‘light’ - though we have rarely, if ever, seen the true light.

The above has painted a pretty sobering picture of the present state of writing. Is there room for hope? Is there hope still in a world where writing has become but a tool of molly-cuddling, mollifying, and placating the powers that be? Or, alternatively, a cheap instrument to court popular favours and monetary gains, even at the expense of the truth?

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being remains one of my favourite novels of all time, alongside 1984, which was also, coincidentally, when Kundera’s work was published. Both point to the importance of living truthfully under calamitous circumstances. Yet both seem to fundamentally neglect that there are times when writing tactfully and instrumentally can have its uses. Oblique and esoteric writing, as Leo Strauss put it, is not a crime.

When we write, we must reflect carefully upon the real reasons and intentions undergirding our writing. And there is absolutely no shame, no embarrassment that should come out of those amongst us who wish to write for cathartic purposes - to vent, to express, to recant and articulate, to question and interrogate for our own self-aggrandisement.

Yet we should also think carefully about how our words can, despite all the constraints governing and superimposed upon them, make the maximal impact. Who are our audiences? Who would read our writings? Can they be convinced? Or are they already converts? Do we write to preach to choirs, or do we write to change choirs into soldiers, soldiers into poets, and poets into thinkers? I have long struggled with answering questions such as these myself, and thus, I suppose, we must continue to forge our paths ahead - boats against the current.

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Assistant Professor, HKU