“The most difficult thing for any human being to accept is powerlessness. It is such a terrifying condition that we will resort to all kinds of magical thinking and conspiratorial fantasy in order to imagine we possess some kind of control over events. But in the words of the poet John Berryman, ‘We must travel in the direction of our fear.’”
Kirsch’s essay makes the point that art—and artists in their capacity as such—have no power to alter or influence the political landscape hardly at all, especially in a time as ours which pays so little heed to artists and philosophers; however that each of us holds such power in our individual and collective capacity as conscientious citizens.
How much sway any of us holds in any given situation may be hard to measure, however I am reminded from a book on negotiating which once fell into my possession, that it is always more than we think we hold. The example given by the author was of an adult spanking a child: the adult holds superior force in that situation, but the child can make the encounter so difficult and uncomfortable to the adult that he is loathe to rely on the method.
Something similar sounds in Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” or in Lysistrata’s suggestion to her cronies that their men will not enjoy it (the sexual act) if they have to resort to rape.
Berryman speaks of something different: the internal conditions which hamstring and debilitate individual effort.