Apathy, Heaney and the need to write

What is the point of writing? Greater minds than mine have tilted at this particular windmill in the past, but it seems to be something worth considering at the inception of a new project designed to bring bloggers together. We may like to think that we can change the world with our opinions, given sublime expression. But the simple fact remains that there is only so much that one can do.

Northern Ireland is a place of entrenched ideas, be they political, cultural or social. It is a society based around apathy, indolent thinking and hazy recollection. Our legislative establishment finds expression in division, and the social quarantine we live in is reinforced in our schools and homes and our perceptions of history. Frankly, there is only so much a website run by a collection of twenty-somethings can do to redeem this.

This is not, however, a nihilistic call for the rats to quickly abandon the sinking ship while they still can. At the very least, the first step towards fixing a problem is recognizing that it exists in the first place. Writing is, if anything, more important in a place like ours; if only to show that people do have something to say, even in the face of this crippling inertia.

We are not – and, consequently, should fight against the label of – ‘Generation Apathy’: too lazy to vote or seek to do anything about the divided place we happen to hail from. It is important to give expression to how we view the world, if even for its own sake. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher widely seen as the father of existentialism, wrote in 1843 that a poet is simply an ‘unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music’. Salient advice, then, for what we are trying to undertake: that much of the importance lies in the very act of verbalizing, and not in its outcomes.

The late Seamus Heaney. Image taken from www.theparisreview.org

A great deal of digital ink has been spilled following the death of poet Seamus Heaney, Nobel Laureate and Ireland’s most famous poet in living memory. Perhaps his most prominent work – and that which gave expression to his whole modus operandi – is the 1966 poem Digging. It includes the famous last stanza: ‘Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests/I’ll dig with it.’ Set in the context of the whole poem, this is Heaney’s lament that he, unlike his father and grandfather, has left the land; he now finds himself with ‘no spade to follow men like them.’

Here, Heaney gives his answer to why he writes: the pen is the only tool available to him, and so he does what he can with it, digging into the past. His example is one to be followed – we should all do what we can, with the tools we have around us. And that, to me at least, is reason enough to write.

About Andrew Carruthers

Andrew is a final year History student at Queen's University Belfast, focussing on the social history of the modern USA...