Have you noticed how human beings usually organise themselves?
Throughout history, hierarchies tend to develop, whether tyrannical, as in ancient times, when a pharaoh or equivalent had the absolute power of life and death over the masses underneath him, with no recourse to any system of law or appeal, or mediaeval and Renaissance times, when the notion of monarchy grew gradually into the ‘divine right of kings’, or more modern times in which chief executive officers wield power over thousands of employees. We take this pattern for granted: that a few people should ‘lord it over’ the many, having risen to their supposedly higher position through a use of force, guile or some measure of merit.
Human organisation therefore is like a set of solar systems, with the planetary bodies of the many orbiting the suns of the few, whether on a large scale, as in nations, or a much smaller scale as in neighbourhoods or even families. Sometimes we are a planet in one system, but a sun in another: we might be a supervisor at work, for example, but a servant at home. In some cases we fall into these patterns unknowingly, simply going along with them because ‘that’s the way things are’; in other cases, we find ourselves trapped in them, perhaps resenting them and nurturing rebellion against them. Either way, these constellations of hierarchies are there, all around us, from our lives at school (where there is normally enforced deference in the classroom and totally different power structures in the playground) to our lives at work and at home. We tend to ‘fall in line’ a lot of the time, not questioning our places in any of these patterns - they seem so natural.
And so they are, if by ‘natural’ we mean universal or commonplace. But if we mean by ‘natural’ that these patterns are somehow inbuilt into the way things work, and are part of the world as it must be, then I think we have to look a little closer at what is going on. And in this, the writer (and more broadly, the artist) plays a key role. For what if we imagine a situation or condition in which the notion of hierarchies was undone?
The person at the ‘top’ or ‘centre’ of a hierarchy, whether it be a tribe, a nation, an institution, a corporation or something else, is considered to be ‘in power’, and often has access to the use of force to maintain that position, whether through the deployment of an army or police force or through more subtle devices like contracts, procedures and protocols. Those ‘lower down’ or ‘further out’ are considered to be relatively power-less, the mechanisms for ordering other people about being removed from them. But I wanted to see what would happen if for a moment we imagine that these dimensions of ‘up and down’ or ‘in and out’ were set aside and we could be placed alongside each other with no such hierarchy present, as we are supposed to be in Britain, for example, before the courts of law or the NHS: all with the same ‘rights’ to justice or healing, no preferences given. However this may work in practice, for the purpose of this exercise let us concentrate on the idea of equality - not so much ‘equality before the law’ as equality before each other.
Odd, isn’t it?
One question which arises for me is how, given this abstract situation, in reality things organise into hierarchies? Some drift into thinking of themselves as lesser in nature or less deserving than another; some like to measure themselves by some criteria as superior to others. In other words, from an imaginary starting point of equality, humanity then moves according to some kind of unseen principle into alignment with itself with some at the centre or top and others around the edges or below.
At the bottom would be those who have no real knowledge of their worth or perhaps even interest in it - they sink to their position through ignorance or neglect or indifference.
Above them, we have that layer of individuals who are all too aware of their situation near the bottom of the ‘pile’ but who feel that they can do little about it except resent it.
One step up brings us to the group who are still effectively ‘trapped’ by one factor or another into a subservient position, but who have some inkling of that and some hope that it might not be permanent.
Then we come to the artists, the writers or those people who make a choice: to go along with the ‘way things are’ or to make inroads against it; to choose to be in eternal orbit around a sun of some kind, or to strike out on their own.
That gives us the frontier people, the ones breaking away from established hierarchies and systems of organisation and thought, the ones moving on to new areas, new worlds to explore, owing nothing to anyone.
If they make it, if they reach ‘escape velocity' and break out of the gravitational field of historical systems, they become the free artists and creators of their own worlds.
If they are writers, they then have a crucial choice: do they create something that derives its power and meaning from the hierarchical structures that they have left behind? Or do they treat their readers with respect, as equals? In other words, are readers to be no more than ‘customers’, paying their money and falling into orbit around the writer and thus evolving into a new hierarchy all their own? Or is it possible to burst out of this kind of pattern altogether and be part of a universe in which ‘tops’ and ‘centres’ are things of the past?
A writer and an artist has a choice. They have broken free to the degree that their writing and their art comes from the heart and is unique. Having broken free, do they turn and shine their light on the way out for others? Or do they bring those others into a new subservience?
Honest art, great writing, has only one way forward.