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Sarah Perry: what good are books, in a situation like this?

Some months ago I stood in the pulpit of Lancaster Priory and spoke on the virtue of art. What do we mean, I said, by “a good book”? I proposed that literature had use beyond pleasure, and that moral purpose was intrinsic to any book worth the cover price: the only way is ethics. I quoted Aristotle; I burnished my halo. My duty, I said, was to write good books, and this was an act of love. Well, a haughty spirit comes before a fall, and I tripped on a virus, and fell into believing that literature was useless and I’d wasted my life in its pursuit. Even before the lockdown began I could not write. It baffled me that I’d ever done such a trivial thing. I have a banner hanging on my study door: “L’amour c’est tout”. It bloody isn’t, I thought. I never went in.

This is not to say I have been unable to create at all. With the privileges of comfort and time, I sew patchwork quilts, make bread, play the piano. This is common: “Everybody is feeling the same thing,” wrote Virginia Woolf of Londoners in the second world war, “therefore nobody is feeling anything.” Social media has become a village hall for the display of sourdough loaves and cross stitch samplers: fear and love sublimated into all the things we think our mothers did. What else can we do, inhabiting a place of present or anticipated grief?
But these are crafts, which distinguish themselves from art by their utility. A quilt will keep you warm; a book can do so only if you burn it. What I felt when I looked at my shelves was not consolation, but contempt. What good were books, in the end? Nobody calls for a writer when their leg is broken; nobody wants a story when they cannot breathe. I am capable enough, I thought: I could have been a lab technician for a brilliant virologist, I could have administered a hospital ward. Meanwhile writers pleaded the case for literature’s place in a catastrophe, and pleaded well. I admired them as I suppose an atheist might admire a priest’s sincerity, and the manuscript of my novel remained unopened.

A woman emailed: volunteers were sewing scrubs for medics, she said, and could I help raise funds? I could, and I did; but what I wanted was to work, and be tired. I wanted to tell her that I had a useful life before this: I’ve cared for children and the very elderly and thought this work was precious. I’d willingly do that again, I thought, I’d mop a hospital floor, but I have an autoimmune disease and no sensible institution would hire me. I have a friend who is a doctor. I envy how much he matters, while I might evaporate off the earth and go more or less unmissed. All day I cart my worry from room to room: my shoulders ache.

But recently I have concluded that all this amounts to a kind of failure of courage. As lockdown continues, I find my imagination has not faltered against this hard reality, but has itself grown harder. Everything which was sad before is sadder now, but everything which was wonderful is more wonderful. Imagination roots itself in feeling, and the novel I’d been working on grew larger and more vivid while my back was turned. I cannot help the sick, but I can give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Might this matter, in its way? Slowly I come to believe there is usefulness in art not because it is necessary, but because it is entertaining, and because one mind communicating its daydreams to another, through marks on a page, is the closest thing to magic I know.

In her poem “David’s Boyhood”, Adrienne Rich writes: “Lying against the throne-room wall, / Let David play the harp for Saul”. I put these verses where I see them every day. David played for the consolation of the king, and in due course wore the crown himself, and in this way the music did the rounds and comforted its maker. So I am going to tune up my harp, I’m going to keep my hand in. I grieved because I thought I had nowhere to put my love and my duty, but what I write now might find its use in the weariness and sorrow of the aftermath. I open my study door. Sometimes the banner falls off and I pin it up again. Love isn’t everything, but it presses me on.