An Unacknowledged Legislator Speaks Out
Percy Shelley is known for (among other things) declaring in 1821 that “poets…are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” an iridescent expression of faith in art that lives most naturally in the irrational, deeply interconnected realm of dreams and metaphors.
In maybe 2009, during a visit to a high school, a young student quoted Shelley and asked me if I believed that of fiction writers. I paused and said that I thought it was true when he said it, of both poets and fiction writers. But, I went on, I think now it’s more like fiction writers are the unacknowledged taxi drivers of the world. Because you get in the car thinking you know where you’re going and sometimes you have a conversation that takes you on an unexpected side trip. Because taxi drivers (who are often incognito lawyers, teachers, doctors or just alert humans from far-away countries) sometimes say piercing things, things that sink into your consciousness and resurface years later, having mysterious influence on thought which in some invisible, slow-rippling way influences action.
I think the student thought I was being self-deprecating and/or downgrading writers. I wasn’t.
Last week I was in NYC and I took a taxi across town. Roe v Wade had just been overturned and the driver was listening to radio coverage of the story. The broadcaster’s tone was neutral; I was in no mood to find out the driver’s opinion because I didn’t want to get into a thing with a possibly gloating stranger. We rode in silence until we came to my stop when, to my surprise, the driver turned fully in his seat and said “This is terrible. First they relax gun laws in the city. More guns than people. January 6, now this. I been here 30 years and I never seen anything like this in America.”
We both started talking then. I said they’re like that about guns because they want their side armed when they take hold of the government which they could do this fall. They want overwhelming advantage. There’s no other rational explanation for it. Sometimes when I say that, people act like I’m being dramatic—not this guy. He agreed. He said he couldn’t recognize the country any more, that it no longer made sense to him, that he had become afraid. Because he had an Eastern European accent, I asked him where he was from. “Prague,” he said, “And I’m going back there. I came here for a better life and for awhile it was. But now, its going down fast and I don’t want to be here when it hits bottom. I don’t want my grandchildren to be here. I think it’s going to be bad—bloody.”
He didn’t say anything I haven’t already thought. But coming from a guy who grew up in the former Eastern Bloc, in a city maybe 700 miles from Ukraine, it was sobering.