Nothing we do, of course, is entirely beyond the reach of "social and moral categories" if we choose to employ them. But why must we always do so? Why is it necessary to subject that human activity we call "art" to relentless political and cultural analysis even when the artists themselves reject such an analysis as a willful distortion of the purpose of their work? Because we can? Can we not also choose to preserve an aesthetic space for works of literature? Besides, if you really are most interested in sociopolitical or moral interrogation in the first place, why spend your time trying to whip poems and novels into some suitably discursive shape? [...]It looks as though I may be teaching 8th grade English next year (news which fills me with equal parts joy and terror). The above issue is beginning to take on a whole new meaning.
Wellington admonishes Ellison for "brandish[ing] a vision of Art with a capital A," for encouraging a fruitless debate that just goes "round and round." But the argument is not circular. The dispute between the view that art is "truth telling" and the view that art is art could be settled if the parties agreed that "Art with a capital A" can exist if we allow it to (that it has its own kind of value if we allow ourselves to find it), but that this doesn't foreclose the possibility that "truth" will emerge for some readers as well (perhaps not so forcefully for others). Those of us who agree with Ellison simply don't want to rush quite so quickly from the immediacy of art to its supplementary implications.
I was given this year's Scholastic catalog in order to help select novels and picture books for 2006. Although it's been a lot of fun, I couldn't help but notice how most of the titles are either historical or social novels. That's all well and good (I remember enjoying quite a few of them when I was a kid). But I know it will take special effort to extricate the "immedicacy of art" from its "supplementary implications."
When I was in 8th grade, I fell in love with Jack London. Although it's true that I first heard the term "survival of the fittest" and learned about the Yukon while studying The Call of the Wild, this wasn't what drove me to read White Fang, The Sea Wolf, and To Build a Fire and Other Stories on my own. I had encountered a startling form of beauty that sparked a love of ineffable "wildness" and set me adrift among the ever-growing concentric circles of the immense ocean that is literature.
Four years later, I stumbled upon this:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
...and haven't been the same since.