The last two posts (part one and part two) have been built on John Ralston Saul quotes from a short essay he wrote in 1997 for the book “22 Provocative Canadians: In the Spirit of Bob Edwards” In the first post I mentioned that one of his themes was the role of the wordsmith in today’s culture. Here are some direct quotes that speak about the power of the wordsmith:
“In their [writers, poets, wordsmiths] rush to become part of rational society, which means to become respected professionals in their own right, they have forgotten that the single most important task of the wordsmith is to maintain the common language, as a weapon whose clarity will protect society against the obscurities of power. The professional, by definition, is in society. He has his assigned territory over which his expertise gives him control. The writer is meant to be the faithful witness of everyman and should therefore be neither within society nor without. He must be of society – the constant link between all men.”
I work in a vocation that has gone through a rapid professionalization in the past 60 years. It was considered – at one point – an “everyman” type role where a key element was to help create and find language to express a shared humanity, a shared hope and shared reconciliation. However, with widespread professionalization and specialization of work, there also came a desire for credibility and prestige among vocations that had been considered “soft” or “creative” or whatnot. Writers wanted the same respect and stature as academics; counsellors and psychologists wanted the same clout as physicians; and so on and so on. It is crucial for the wordsmith to position themselves in interstitial space between the elite and the populace – it is their role to live in space of tension in order to move people together…or forward. Becoming entrenched in either “camp”: completely enamoured by the sweet stroking of the elite to become the truly dignified professional OR becoming so mired in the thick, mythology of the past that he/she no longer serves to craft hope and generative momentum in the lives and hearts of people.
“The wordsmith – prophet, singer, poet, essayist, novelist – has always been either the catalyst of change or; inversely, the servant of established power. He breaks the old formulas of wisdom and truth and thus frees the human imagination so that individuals can begin thinking of themselves and their society in new ways, which the writer must then express in new language. He may also put himself at the service of the new power in the order to build linguistic cages in which that freed imagination may be locked.”
As a wordsmith, I have to choose where I will locate myself within my communities. I have to understand that my role is to be in a position of discomfort and dissonance. Either I am to be an encouraging and motivating force for a community – that often finds itself in entropy – towards new spaces of life and faith and change. Or, I am to be using language to call into account the powerful movements of CEO’s and managers that seek to bring fabricated order to a system that is not designed as an economic or social vending machine. Anything else is the prostitution of my calling as a wordsmith.