in pushing at the limits of language and imagination
The etymology of ‘radical’ is in notions of being rooted, embodied, grounded in earth and in our ancestors, the traditions we emerge from whether of lineage or of the ideas that have been generously exchanged more widely.
The Latin radicalis/radix meant ‘having roots’ and this continued through mediaeval iterations of the word, relating to what originated in the ground, including the ground of the body. The word wrād also came to mean ‘branch’ as well as ‘root’ and, by association with how roots hold us and reach deeply, it acquired the more modern meaning of ‘thoroughgoing’ or ‘extreme’ so that by the late 17th century the sense of something that goes to the core or origin provided the basis of the 18th century adaptations and from there it entered early 20th century parlance as ‘unconventional’, a meaning that was picked up by 70s surfers talking about waves at the limits of their control and so entered wider youth slang in the early 80s.
Along the way, ‘radical’ acquired other associations. From the early 17th century use in etymology to discuss the roots of words to the mathematical symbol of the late 17th century. From William James’ use of ‘radical empiricism’ in the late 19th century to the ‘radical chic’ of the 70s.
And it was, perhaps predictably, in the 19th century that ‘radical’ also took on overtones of extremism, someone following a theory or ideology to its limits took hold in the chemistry of the day and soon became a metaphor for the political world. The Century Dictionary of 1895 noted that a radical
desires the establishment of what he regards as abstract principles of right and justice, by the most direct and uncompromising methods. … The name Radical is often applied as one of reproach to the members of a party by their opponents.
Being radical can feel uncomfortable but when we consider our tools as writers — language and imagination — how can we do anything other than honour this dual pull of being deeply rooted in where we have come from, while also pushing the boundaries of form and communication to their limits in the attempt to offer new perspectives?
The process that we are engaged in as writers simply is radical in many senses —
- rooted and embodied in our material lives
- rooted in the earth and the life of the interconnected world
- standing on the shoulders of giants as we take the stories of the past and insights of those who came before us and make new patterns of them in stories for our time
- surfing the waves of language and form to their outer edges
- willing to stand on the edges of or even outside of conventions to witness and prophesy in the times we live
All of this is radical and can make us, as other creators are, radical …
in our aloneness
Works of art are an infinite loneliness
Most creators, perhaps all creators who are serious about their art and craft, know this deep interiority that can sometimes feel like a nourishing dive into the depths to return with treasure and at other times can feel like we are so ‘out there’ that we’re the only one on the planet to have been to these inward caves of making.
And the more we value our creating, the more we are likely to find ourselves slightly, or even radically, out of step with mainstream thinking. Writing about his creative process in a letter, the jazz musician, John Coltrane, noted,
Truth is indestructible… History shows (and it’s the same way today) that the innovator is more often than not met with some degree of condemnation; usually according to the degree of his departure from the prevailing modes of expression or what have you. Change is always so hard to accept. […] Innovators always seek to revitalize, extend and reconstruct the status quo…
Yet people come to art — whether it is stories, poems, paintings, sculptures … to help them make sense of the world and to reflect on their place in it. People come to art for prophecy, witness, new perspectives … So our radical aloneness is never wasted and, as is the way with most significant truths, it is never ‘only’ aloneness.
When we create we may feel like the only one doing so in the universe. And when we dare to let our work make its way in the world it can sometimes feel like we are unheard, unseen or misunderstood. And yet the vulnerability of sharing what comes from our radical aloneness also leads to moments of being radical …
in our connection
Because although creating can be a lonely process and there are times when it demands solitude and going into inward spaces where no one can follow, nonetheless, others also go into similar caves and, when we emerge with the writing we mined down there, we make a host of connections. Connections to our embodiment, which open us to connect with others in radical generosity and give us the courage to write as radical witnesses.
which begins with radical self love
On the day my father-in-law died in late June I wrote in my journal:
All losses are body losses.
At the time I was reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s powerful This Body is Not an Apology, in which she talks about how every living thing has a natural intelligence of its body. An oak, she points out, doesn’t try to become an oak or to be a better oak, a sentiment that echoes Hermann Hesse’s 1920s writing about trees in Wandering: notes and sketches. But we humans, with our sophisticated capacity for self-reflection, that is both an enormous creative strength and yet sometimes drives us wayward, see purpose not as an oak does, but as something altogether more aspirational and distant. Something we might never achieve at all. ‘You already have within you all that you need to be the expression of yourself’ is a wonderful affirmation, but how many of us believe it in our guts?
Yet it is precisely this natural intelligence, this radical self-love, that enables us to ‘to love what the soft animal of the body loves’ , in the inimical words of Mary Oliver. Moreover, as Sonya Renee Taylor argues, radical self love is not something that relies on gargantuan acts of willpower like ‘self-esteem’. Nor is is something ego-driven like confidence.
and leads us to radical generosity
We’ve probably all noticed at some point that those who are consumed with self-loathing, who are uncomfortable in their skins or who are always trying to ‘earn’ attention because they are so permanently hungry for some love to fill the void, are also those who find it hard to show love with any consistency. This is not evil, it’s trauma, but the sad result of it is that those who don’t love themselves don’t love others well either. Healthy self-love is not narcissism, which is a gnawing self-obsession that arises from a sense of terrible lack.
Self-love is radical and it’s rare. In the world that has shaped us, humans, unlike oaks, have to constantly re-orient and support one another to experience it. But when we do, even a little, and when we remind others as well as ourselves that their bodies are not ‘wrong’; that we already have within us all that we need to be the expression of ourselves without trampling on others, then powerful connections are forged.
We stand at a point in history when we either speak up for our embodiment and intimate connection to all that is alive, to all that is material, or we face extinction with it. If we are to be writers who make a difference to the world’s story, we need to feel ourselves part of all nature.
I wrote in an earlier blog on embodiment. And it is true also of our human connections. When we feel at home in our own bodies it brings an abundance of empathy that makes us radically aware that all the ills of the world are experienced in bodies. Poverty, violence, hatred of anyone who seems ‘other’, torture, disease, fronting the most brutal effects of ecological derangement … these are not abstracts. They effect bodies. And when we love ourselves, body, soul and every drop of life, how can we not respond in compassion and solidarity to others?
which spins into radical witness for justice
When we value our bodies and value our lives, then we cannot accept injustice and environmental degradation with a shrug. The warnings of how dire this can become are legion but they do not have to be overwhelming.
All of us can speak truth to power in some small way and do the good that is in our gift. All of us are intersections of complex identities — all the ways we express ourselves in the world and in our relationships, and each of us has the capacity to hold a space for all of those identities in ways that allow others to take spaces for their own intricately woven identities. This is how justice and participation is built.
Some of us are fortunate to have options in life that enable us to inhabit other forms of radicalism as creators. I’m always wary of writers or any kinds of creators who appoint themselves as ‘voices for …’ any intersection of identities they do not themselves share or express. It feels presumptuous, condescending and disempowering. It is reminiscent of the title of a 1970s-90s BBC radio 4 programme: Does he take sugar? which focussed on disability issues and made that poin that services so often ignored the people being ‘helped’. But writers, particularly those with huge imaginations, high-quality self-love and generosity in their tool kits, can and do speak with and alongside others — and can and do break down some of the awful fears of ‘otherness’ in its many guises.
To write in this way takes a lot of processing of our inherited and encultured prejudices and obstacles. It takes a huge amount of listening — whether to the documents of history, the reports of ecologists or the voices of those being seen as ‘other’. But if we’re fortunate enough to have the time to write, however squeezed that time might get, then we’re likely to have the great fortune to be able to do the work to move from radical self-love to radical humiltiy and empathy.
All of which requires another radical stance from writers, that of accessing radical rest.
in our radical restoration
Over the last eighteen months my daily mantra has been:
slow down, listen, connect — it is enough.
Self-love, generosity to others and to the earth that sustains us, and developing any kind of artistic practice and process require these three things (at least):
- time that only comes when I’m not zooming from task to task like a mad thing
- listening to my body, my rhythms and to what I hear from others, those I love and those I encounter in all kinds of ways
- and connecting — connecting the time to the practice, connecting what I hear to how I live
I’m immensely fortunate that I have choices over how I can use time. I might have periods when I work most days, but I can still schedule in reading and learning and the periods of big chunks of work can be balanced against blocks of time given to writing. I might not be wealthy in Western terms but I’m sheltered, have food and the considerable privileges of books, music, a garden … And if my work can sometimes be a million miles an hour, I also know that I chose it, that I work with authors and words, not being pushed around by some major corporation where I’m a mere cog.
Across the world millions of people don’t even have even the most basic necessities. The World Bank’s figures are that 2.8 billion people live on less that $2 a day. And in the United States 38 billion people (11% of the population) live in extreme poverty. So those of us who have choices and some measure of security, as uncertain as the world is, are also those who have the opportunity to model something more radical for this amazing planet, in whatever small ways we can.
And one of those ways is not to become so exhausted, fatigued, frazzled and fragmented that we can’t focus on our creativity. The last few centuries are, amongst other more positive things, a history of colonisation — not only of land but of values and ways of life. And more recently history has seen other forms of colonisation —
- of the body through the kind of media and cultural pressures that Taylor documents in This Body is Not an Apology
- of leisure time through social media that has replaced organic and haphazard community ways of interacting online with megacorporations in which the users become the product
- of time itself for those work has incrementally crept into their ‘off-duty’ hours through 24/7 emails and apps that keep people always available
- and even of sleep — every decade we, on average, have less sleep than previously so that we can fit in all that media, work and product-social time.
Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, who is a fan of binge-watching and the ‘sport’ of watching a whole series on the day (or evening into night) that it is released, has said that Netflix is not merely in the business of competing for people’s viewing time — will they watch Netflix or Amazon or …? And not merely in the business of competing for people’s leisure time — Netflix vs getting together with friends, reading a book, going for a walk …. But rather:
You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep. And we’re winning!
This year I’ve been training as a yoga nidrā teacher with three amazing mentors who talk regularly and passionately about the need for modern society to decolonise sleep. Being rested, being able to replenish and restore, not just to make us more productive when we get back on the hamster wheel, but to make us more human and humane, is crucial to deep connection.
We’ve just had the season of autumn equinox, a time when the light and dark are in balance for a brief period before we move toward winter. Finding that kind of finely balanced centre point in our lives is hard amidst all the strangeness and stress of the time we live in and it’s made so much harder if we don’t get enough rest. One of my mentors delights in saying that in the world as it is, just taking the time needed to lie down and sleep deeply — just getting horizontal, is a radical act. She recently used the wonderful phrase
Setting the world to rights by resting
Uma Dinsmore Tuli
It’s a wonderful image. And it takes us back to the root meaning of radical — knowing ourselves to be deeply grounded and earthed, building on traditions but also questioning stories that no longer serve, dwelling in our bodies with some self love and compassion so that we can show the same to others and the world.
Writers should be radical in our imaginations and in our willingness to ride the edge of language. We should be radical in our ability to negotiate the aloneness that our art demands and in the connections our art enables us to make. And writers should be radical in refusing to be co-opted into a state of exhaustion that leaves us so fragmented and overwhelmed that we have no resources left from which to create a different story.
Here’s to all the ways that writers need to be radical in pushing the limits of our language and imagination in our aloneness and in our connection, which begins with radical self-love and leads into radical generosity, which spins into radical witness for justice, all of which requires us to take radical rest for our radical restoration so that we can create radically different stories for this planet.
Mair De-Gare Pitt says
Your thoughts are much needed, Jan, and greatly appreciated.
Many thanks Mair
Heather Prendergast says
Wow, Jan. This is, appropriately enough, a very deep piece which I will re-read several times because the words are reverberatng in my soul. It’s like a coda in music. Thanks.
Thank you, Heather — a coda in music is a fantastic metaphor and so glad it’s struck a chord
Lizzie Eldridge says
Jan, I love your blog. Your words give me nourishment and help me feel grounded. Thanks for this beautiful piece and for reminding me of the roots of the radical.
Thank you Lizzie
Mark Charlton says
I did not know that radical came from ‘having rooots’ – perhaps it is having those roots which give sus the confidence to be different and bold. And perhaps too, those with the deepest roots do the truly radical things; not just transitory or ephemeral gestures…
Coindidentally, I have been talking pictures recently of tree roots; their strength lies in branching again and again – always probing in new directions but always connected too.
I love the idea of photographing tree roots, Mark
And yes – I think it’s definitely one of the way we build confidence — feeling rooted.