Madeleine Thien is worried that it's all just a little bit of history repeating

An original essay by the acclaimed author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Madeleine Thien is the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (Babak Salari)

Human and Wilderness

For years, I misremembered a quote by Hannah Arendt. In my memory, she described the act of writing as a way to "humanize the wilderness of experience," but the source is now lost to me. Why did the words stay with me in this form? Year after year, I have been thinking about those two ideas, human and wilderness. Wilderness and human.

I can't pretend to know the wilderness, but can I pretend to have any understanding of what it means to be human? When I think of everything we've accrued, all the books and poems and equations and knowledge, I can't square the wisdom we know with the world we've created. Did we believe that knowledge would lead us from the wilderness? When I was young I thought knowledge would show the way to goodness, and help me answer the question of how to live. But now I am not so sure. Maybe knowledge, from technology to science to art, will always be used, finally, in the service of conquest and power.

I understand why religions and mystics throughout the ages have turned to the transcendental and the metaphysical. Maybe our minds are the last things that will help us understand our condition. What if there is nothing to understand? What if we pass through our lives doing harm, receiving harm, and little more? What if we are only becoming what we already were?

Here is something personal: sometimes I don't want to be part of this world. All the anger and division are too much, and my barriers against them are weak. Like so many, I have struggled with suicide, depression, grief. Literature and the make-believe are my anchor. Take away writing — just as music is taken away from the characters in my novel — and I will buckle. Lately, I have wanted to leave the human behind and give in to the wilderness, the non-human world. The callousness of the animal and plant kingdoms seems predictable, even eternal; we don't ask why. But human cruelty feels pitiless. Human cruelty leaves unanswered and unasked questions in its wake.

Maybe literature begins with a fall from grace. In the aftermath of this fall, we need different questions: we don't ask why the catastrophe happened. We diligently map the question of how. In our novels, we walk through history once more, we walk through it many different ways and, to our sorrow, we recognize the path is well worn. Civilization is desperately fragile, a greater illusion than we dare admit, a poor fiction. Maybe the knowledge accrued by literature has more in common with the wilderness. Maybe, despite our capacities for empathy and joy and care, the instinct for cruelty never diminishes. We will always be the wilderness sitting in the room.

For me, the way forward is the private map, the private self. For as long as I can remember, I have longed to disappear, and in disappearing, into fiction or art, live with the human in myself. I would like to sit and simply consider all the things we do not categorize as ourselves, that we have cast away as sub-human. They show me that there are other ways to be alive. They are full of complexity and history and the spiralling continuity of DNA, which links all of us, plants and animals, human and wilderness, the good and the monstrous, beloved and rejected, to a common ancestry and destiny.

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Author's note: "In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a small story gives way to a larger one, and the larger one — set during China's devastating Cultural Revolution — gives way to the idea of a recurring story, the rise and fall of revolutionary idealism and action. I think there's a fractal structure about this novel, and the shape and movement are those of histories hidden inside other histories. To quote the Chinese novelist Ma Jian, 'Inside my reconstructed wooden house / I try to forget the wood / And the window / And accept there is no road that will lead from my two hands.'

The stories within stories, the continuous spiralling of beginnings and endings, have led to a question that haunts me. Despite all our aspirations for good, why do we act in ways that result in such catastrophic harm? The future and the past feel too inextricable, leaving us turning in place, endlessly seeking refuge from ourselves. With every birth and death, every return of the story, what if we are only becoming what we already were?"


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