Friday, August 31, 2012

"Radiant Things"?

Yesterday I redid the header for this blog. I considered scrapping the title entirely. It seemed kind of pretentious to call your blog after a quote, especially the kind of 19th-century quote that capitalizes important nouns.

But I couldn't let it go. First, because Emma Goldman is one of my favorite people. When she gave lectures about birth control (which was illegal at the time under "obscene speech" laws) she always carried a book so when she got arrested she would have something to read in jail. How could you not love her?

The full quote from Goldman's autobiography:

At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.

I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face.

I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it. "I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.

I love the passage (often misquoted as "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution"). To me, it's an echo of the "Bread and Roses" motto popularized by striking millworkers.

The phrase came from James Oppenheim's poem, now better known as a song:

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!

We need bread to survive, but without love and beauty, there's not much to live for.

A couple of years ago, I remember thinking how stupid it was for a depressed person to have a blog with such a happy title. I was too sad to go out dancing, and here I was preaching "life and joy" to others? And yet I wanted to have that effervescence again. I held onto the title in hopes that something would budge. And it did: my brain chemistry has been kind this year, and I'm a pretty happy person these days.

For Goldman, joy was apparently just waiting to burst forth. That's not how I experience life. Anarchy is not my Cause. Global inequality is. But I agree with Goldman that we've got to fight the tendency to view all such causes as joyless. The day I heard a friend dismiss Toby Ord's plan to give away a million pounds during his lifetime as "dreary", I knew I needed to write about the joy that can be found in this life. Thus my second blog, Giving Gladly.

Find your cause, or even your Cause. Make it dance. Make it shine.

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