Lovers of literature, like me, may ask how their artistic or literary pursuits fit into their daily lives. Does literature have to be a career to be a true passion? What can career literati offer to society? The question quickly becomes, in making literature an isolated pursuit, has the answer been lost?
Go back to the late fourteenth century, to Ming China, another context in which “literati” attempted to carve out and define their niche. (See this overview of the period from Washington State University’s World Civilizations website.)
For this ProfoundNet, I’ve chosen The Flowering of China’s Scholar-Artists, a Gallery View piece published in 1987 in The New York Times. The exhibit in question is “The Chinese Scholar’s Studio: Artistic Life in the Late Ming Period,” at the Asia Society.
The article, quoting James C. Wyatt, defines literati as a “highly cultivated group of men in the late Ming whose basic training was in literature but whose major achievements were in almost any artistic activity outside their field of professional competence.”
As artists in a highly structured, orderly society, “everything had a place but nothing quite fit.” They looked to intuition, spontaneity, and nature for inspiration, but they also valued order, structure, and establishment.
As intellectuals, they were treated with alternating generosity and suspicion. Their culture was embedded in everything they produced.
Spontaneity and restraint. Order in chaos. Reaction and convention. Thinking and feeling.
In order to offer a constructive model of change, one must take into account these dichotomies. Politics, at the forefront of civil debate today, requires foresight and balance between the short-term and the long-term vision, between reform and steadiness. Education, another important issue, requires a blend of creativity and conten or structure. Economics is measured by subtle shifts along a range of curves: supply and demand, productivity, balances of trade and currency.
So much of literature is about finding balance (comedy, romance) or exploring the consequences when balance is lost (history, tragedy).
One of my favorite movies is the 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof. Consider this quote: “You might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.”
Is Tevye’s statement still relevant? Think back to the comments of the Nobel Prize Committee about American literature.
Perhaps American literati, like Anne in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, need a Josie Pye to push us to take risks and climb out of our comfortable box; because while the literati of America may no longer seek out the ridgepole on a daily basis, we come from a heritage of innovation, of effecting change while still balancing tradition.