“In a media environment where heady intellectuals spray the air with heady jargon, it is a joy just to have people who keep the spirit of human aspiration alive through art and creative representation.”
An unfailing point of confusion on the question of what makes for a great writer comes from the fact that there are two distinct moulds of writer: the polemicist who makes arguments to persuade—and the artist who gives voice to human feeling. Of course, there is much overlap between the two, as one naturally bleeds into the other; but it is fairly straightforward to distinguish between the op-ed columnist who renders logic to express a social or political perspective and the novelist or poet who tells a story through the articulation of a particular experience. But then there are instances when a writer cannot be neatly placed in either category, with their ideas pouring into their art and their art pouring into their ideas (James Baldwin, for instance, comes to mind). Sometimes it is difficult to satisfy our need for crisp boundaries and clear definitions. The challenge in grasping the social impact of such figures is to clarify the line between the specific arguments they make and the broad sweeping sentiments to which they speak, despite how blurred that line might become. Indeed, because of how blurred that line has become.
The Water Dancer
A recent example of this confusion comes in response to the fallout from former Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates’ first novel: The Water Dancer. Coates is a journalist turned political advocate, turned comic book writer, now turned novelist. The quintessential anti-racist writer, whose memoir Between The World And Me became a worldwide best seller and national book award winner, left the proverbial spotlight as a public intellectual in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in order to pursue more creative endeavors, which culminated in the release of The Water Dancer. Though despite the fawning praise Coates has received for most of his career from progressive pundits, the release of the book was met with much gnashing of teeth from certain corners of the cultural Left. In a Vox article written in review of the book, Constance Grady writes:
“Ta-Nehisi Coates is not quite there yet. He doesn’t have the kind of command over the novel as a medium that will let him meld disparate genres together; he doesn’t seem to care about his characters as people rather than as devices he can use to convey ideas; he doesn’t really understand how to keep a plot moving.. What Coates can do—and what he does better than nearly anyone—is build an argument that resounds with clarity and moral urgency, and craft a sentence beautiful enough to take your breath away. It will be incredible to see what he can do with those tools a few books from now.”
However, by my lights, Coates has gone above and beyond in showing exactly what he can achieve artistically and literarily, both in his Atlantic essays and his new novel. I think much of the disappointment with The Water Dancer stems from the inability or unwillingness to distinguish Coates-the-sage from Coates-the-pundit. On some level, the same commentators who propped up his political worldview are miffed that he is better at making things up than making clear, rational arguments with self-evident conclusions; perhaps his imagination played into his politics more than the media elite would be willing to admit. And now, because of this, I find myself in the odd position of defending a writer whose politics I loathe and whose public impact I despair.
The Water Dancer follows the first person narrative of a supernaturally gifted young slave named Hiram living in antebellum Virginia. In striking detail, the novel chronicles the daily toil of slavery in scattered and hermetic moments. Although it is never named as such in the book, the narrative transports the reader to the abominable plantation life first unearthed by Frederick Douglass. Although Hiram is endowed with perfect photographic memory, the metaphoric gravitation of the book revolves around his inability to remember his mother—and the burning desire to seek flight that her absence provokes. That is about as much of the plot as need be described, for the most compelling aspect of the book was its subtle in-depth description of the character’s moment-to-moment experience. Coates has the remarkable ability of making the reader feel at home in the particular place in time that the story occurs, as though the lives of long deceased slaves and masters were relatable to our own. He makes it feel like real life.
And despite my political disagreements with Coates in his past essays, I always appreciated his unique ability to transmute the lofty into the earthly, reeling heady ideas back down into the realm of the human.
I liked the book. It reminded me of the storytelling of E.L Doctorow, a writer whom Coates cites as a major influence. Compare the opening stanza of The Water Dancer to that of Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate.
Coates: “And I could only have seen her there on the stone bridge, a dancer wreathed in ghostly blue, because that was the way they would have taken her back when I was young, back when the Virginia earth was still red as brick and red with life, and though there were other bridges spanning the river Goose, they would have bound her and brought her across this one, because this was the bridge that fed into the turnpike that twisted its way through the green hills and down the valley before bending in one direction, and that direction was south.”
Doctorow: “He had to have planned it because when we drove onto the dock the boat was there and the engine was running and you could see the water churning up phosphorescence in the river, which was the only light there was because there was no moon, nor no electric light either in the shack where the dockmaster should have been sitting, nor on the boat itself, and certainly not from the car, yet everyone knew where everything was, and when the big Packard came down the ramp Mickey the driver braked it so that the wheels hardly rattled the boards, and when he pulled up alongside the gangway the doors were already open and they hustled Bo and the girl upside before they even made a shadow in all that darkness.”
The coiling of the sentence structure into deeper and deeper expanses of narration—flooding the world with color—is awesome. But it is the interior workings of the characters in The Water Dancer that breathes life into the narrative. The line needn’t be complicated, merely accurate: a recognizable experience that can be felt in our bones. Take for example, “I looked at him blank-faced, concealing my confusion. I simply nodded, waiting for the thing to clarify before me.” and “I walked in and looked to my father, who regarded me as he often did those days—as though he was between two notions and could not decide which to give voice to.” I love these sentences not because they are beautiful, though there are no shortage of beautiful lines in the book, but because they are correct: they accurately graft onto the contours of human experience. And despite my political disagreements with Coates in his past essays, I always appreciated his unique ability to transmute the lofty into the earthly, reeling heady ideas back down into the realm of the human. It is the mark of a seer, someone who can intuit broad emotions and streamline them into a form that is readily discernible.
The Line Between Art And Polemics
I’m not surprised with the reaction on the part of some progressives to his conversion from intellectual to artist. After all, Coates was a hero of the progressive Left and is still considered as much; his “The Case For Reparations” near single-handedly made the unlikely policy into a serious proposal. To admit that Coates is better at painting a mental portrait through metaphor than knowledgeably assessing a political or social issue would be a dagger to the heart for the media glitterati that swallowed his thesis whole. Of course, as I said before, the two are not mutually exclusive, but having read everything Coates has ever published (except for some blog posts from his early career), I would postulate that what made Coates an effective polemicist was his capacity to draw from the artistic and capture the bigger feeling that so many felt but could not articulate. This also helps explain why so few mainstream analysts were willing to seriously challenge his arguments, for the breadth of the notions he was presenting was far too broad and ill-defined to attack on specific points. The writer and philosopher Coleman Hughes put the nail on the head of this clandestine quality, “The trick behind such arguments, whether intentional or not, is to specify the debt owed to black Americans in just enough detail to make it sound reasonable, while at the same time describing the debt with just enough vagueness to ensure that it can never decisively be repaid.”
Uncoincidentally, Coates’ essays most known for their political import were also the ones heaviest on the kind of quasi-religious ambiguity that Hughes describes. For instance, in “The Case For Reparations,” Coates defines the prospect of allocating resources to Black Americans for historical crimes as “a national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal” and a “full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” In his testimony before congress on reparations, right beside Hughes incidentally, Coates says of the era of white supremacy that it is “so broad” that it could never be captured in one essay or idea, a rather convenient position to nestle yourself in come to think of it. I’m sure that any op-ed columnist would be happy to say the same of his subject matter, but he is usually forced to argue from a stated and specific point of view when taken to task. Coates had the luxury of summoning gravity and scope that, in effect, morally censures the interlocutor who dares call his claims into question. He has argued that racism is not merely a “tumor that can be isolated and removed from the body of America” but “a pervasive system both native and essential to that body” and “a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” and that “that white supremacy was so foundational to this country that it would not be defeated in my lifetime, my child’s lifetime, or perhaps ever.” In his essay “Donald Trump Is The First White President,” Coates speaks of whiteness as a “glowing amulet” full of “eldritch energies.” I’m obviously nitpicking here, but you get the point: Much of Coates writing, even his polemics, is more symbolical than literal. What he is doing is a kind of performance art, an exhibition.
It’s a fruitless exercise because only someone who holds artistic expression above logical coherency, like an actor or painter or musician, would ever say that of their work.
If you still don’t buy the idea that Coates’ writing is more artful than logically sound, listen to him describe his own writing style in his 2017 essay collection We Were Eight Years In Power,
“This was the voice in my head I was constantly trying to unlock, to get out and onto the page. I wanted to produce writing that was not just correct on its merits but, through its form and flow, emotionally engaged the receiver, writing that was felt as much as it was understood. I could hear what that voice sounded like in my head. It was a blues with a beat dirtier than I had ever heard anywhere in the world. I did not know then that the music was unattainable, if only because it is imagined and real, its own dream.”
Now try to think of any op-ed columnist, blogger, pundit, policy wonk, or social commentator who would detail their writing as such. Try to imagine a Paul Krugman of The New York Times or David French of National Review describing their writing this way, or an Ezra Klein of Vox or Charles Blow of The New York Times even. It’s a fruitless exercise because only someone who holds artistic expression above logical coherency, like an actor or painter or musician, would ever say that of their work. Of course, this is not to diminish the inroads Coates has made at The Atlantic and elsewhere towards propelling his anti-racist vision of society, but this phenomenon helps explain the controversy surrounding his work, along with the ripple effect it has had on public discourse. Coates is more artist than polemicist, and his art bled into his polemics and made them stick in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise, at least in my view.
Another figure who garnered a comparable ripple effect and abounded controversy, though in a very different way, was psychologist and culture warrior Jordan Peterson. The dynamic is weirdly similar. Peterson might not be an artist in the modern sense in that he doesn’t make literal art, but his depiction of archetypes and religious allegories brings an aliveness and universality to his talks and writings that could certainly be described as an art form. What I’ve always found strange about the criticism of Peterson is that it tends to be overtly political, despite the fact that much of his appeal is overtly non-political. But, as many commentators have noted, this is a trope to avoid responding to real criticism. It can’t be denied that many people love Peterson exactly and explicitly because he is anti-social justice warrior and critical of the modern Left (I have posted videos of him on my YouTube channel that have amassed millions of views, and I’ve read the comments). This is similar to how many people love Coates not because he is poetic and arty but because he agitates for a specific political narrative; both his religious zeal and appeals to metaphor lend credence to and undergird his political points. In an interview a few years ago, Peterson invoked remarks that seem straight from the lips of a spiritual guru as opposed to a polemicist: “I don’t know what happens to a person if they bring themselves completely into alignment. I’ve had intimations about what that might mean. We don’t understand the world very well. We don’t understand how the world could be mastered if it was mastered completely. We don’t know how an individual would be able to manage that. We don’t know what transformations that might make possible.”
I’ll ask you to repeat the same exercise as before: Imagine a pundit at MSNBC saying something like that, either publicly or privately. You probably can’t because it is far too weird of a thing to imagine. And as much as I feel inclined to defend Peterson from bad faith critiques of his work, I’m forced to concede that it would be a convenient and extraordinarily weak defense to say that he is talking about something that dwells “beyond politics,” and the same should go for Coates. Indeed, I wouldn’t be the first to dub Coates the high priest of modern anti-racism. If we’re truly beyond politics, than we should probably tread lightly when discussing politics; otherwise, when disputed on a specific point we can simply draw gravitas from a larger narrative or collective feeling that avoids addressing the actual point of contention. It’s a feedback loop, and one both Coates and Peterson have been caught in.
The meeting ground of art and polemics can be extremely powerful, but it can also be extremely dangerous, as both critics of Coates and Peterson can attest to. The heavily racialized and intersectional radicalism of Coates mirrors the views of white nationalists and risks breaking society down into ill-defined identity categories of warring enmity; Peterson’s compulsive defense of Western Civilization can align his sympathies with far-right reactionary populists and risks misperceiving the natural flow of change as some grand cosmic mistake (history has not been kind to this blind spot, or rather this blind spot has not been kind to history). But at once, one can’t help but feel a deep appreciation towards both figures for having reached for a transcendent ethic in an increasingly complex world where it is hard enough just to find something to anchor yourself to. In a media environment where heady intellectuals spray the air with heady jargon, it is a joy just to have people who keep the spirit of human aspiration alive through art and creative representation. Whether for good or ill, they are the ones that will be remembered.
Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.