A few weeks ago in class I was trying to draw the distinction between ‘very difficult’ and ‘too difficult’, gently suggesting that very difficult are problems that, with patience and work, can be resolved, whereas something that is too difficult really means that the problem (however temporarily) is impossible to solve. It felt important to point out this small but significant difference to the students because I hear, far too often these days, the whine, ‘Sennnseeeeeeiiii, it’s toooooooo difficult!’ and while I try to show the value of patience and taking time to chew something properly rather than just opening your throat and slurping down some noodles that will slither down easily, this notion does not exactly catch fire. Who has the time?
Darlings, I want to say, you must learn to weather difficulty. I am not training you for karōshi, nor even for enjoyment; I’m preparing you for joy.
“You’re only prepared to enjoy what you already have a taste for: whereas joy is shocking and surprising”
I find myself these days re-reading bits of Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I came back to it when I’d heard that the poet Geoffrey Hill had passed away and I wanted to re-read “In Memoriam: Gillian Rose”, a poem Hill wrote, that appends the NYRB edition of Rose’s stunning autobiographical gift to the world. I confess I am not very familiar with Hill’s poetry, a lack I am looking forward to filling. I am slightly more familiar with Rose who is brilliant and demanding (and, if I’m honest, a little frightening). Both Hill and Rose enjoy the reputation of being ‘difficult’ writers. Both use language consciously, carefully and to powerful effect. Both engage with the pressure language exerts in a struggle for truthfulness knowing that, as Hill writes, ‘. . . There are achievements/ that carry failure on their back, blindness/ not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably/ far-seeing.’
Getting rid of difficulties by way of simplification is often insidious. Hill writes: ‘Art that keeps us alive to the moral ambiguities of life is the best protection against the slogans of ideologues and tyrants.’ How else do we avoid Brueghel’s tragic line-up of the Blind Leading the Blind? ‘Tyranny,’ Hill declares, ‘requires simplification. Genuine art is truly democratic.’ Thus, Hill’s ‘difficult’ language, Rowan Williams reminds us, far from being ‘a mark of elitism or contempt for the simple and innocent, […] is a fierce defense precisely against the worst kind of contempt–self-interested or manipulative collusion with what you imagine is the capacity of your public.’ (Darlings, I want your capacities and skills to exceed what your government seems to believe they are.)
Reading Rose and Hill I am cognizant of the fact that there are life-giving and productive difficulties of the soul-expanding kind. And also, that failure and frailty are part of the human condition. Sometimes radical suffering, pain and loss are the only way that we can come to know certain things about ourselves and the world, about its fragility and our own. Sometimes we must ‘recognize devastation as the rift/ between power and powerlessness.’ Sometimes we must simply go on wrestling in the dark, all through the night, and hold: ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’ Perhaps then we may find our heart(h)s, return to Love, know
This ending is not the end,
More like the cleared spaces around St. Paul’s
And the gutted City after the fire-raid.
And then, waking up, keep trying to ‘stay in the fray, in the revel of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, responding–in this sin of language and lips’ (Rose, 144).