It isn’t a stretch to assert that literature is an art of solitude. This especially true in comparison with other creative practices: many more individuals participate in the making of a play or a film than in writing a book. The fact that reading constitutes a writer’s primary activity naturally amplifies the practice of literature as one of constant isolation. If we apply the military saying: “hard in training, easy in combat”, then reading can be seen as an author’s training and writing as their battle. At the same time, reading is bound to writing by its dual requirements of separation and seclusion. Watching a film is undoubtedly a much more fitting social activity than reading a novel. 

But what if we inspect reading closer and more comprehensively? Isn’t reading a book part of a greater uniting force – the ability to listen and truly hear? In this case, reading can be regarded as listening with one’s eyes. In conversation, I often enjoy adopting the listener’s role, because it is only superficially more passive than speaking. When listening to people and comparing their notions to your own, patterns composed of differences and generalizations will form.

Listening, including listening with one’s eyes, is a form of openness. Why read an unusual book? To open yourself up to something unfamiliar. Rein Raud, a colleague, writer, and philosopher, has said: “People enjoy reading about that, which they are not.” Whether a broadening will necessarily accompany openness is a question of its own, but it’s clear that reading does not only mean the opening of a book, but that of a mind.

This openness is very important to me in a practical sense as well. Let me try to sum it up: I do not want to be a specialist. I’m referring here to José Ortega y Gasset, who wrote in his The Revolt of the Masses: “The specialist ‘knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.” I, in contrast, regard myself as a professional amateur. Naturally I am in no way satisfied with my own amateurism – on the contrary, the consciousness of my amateurism only amplifies a desire to find out more about a sweeping range of things, turning that desire into a perpetual fascination with the world. The world itself is made fascinating by the impossibility of ever fully grasping it; by the fact that the spatial and temporal finite nature of the individual prevents them from experiencing reality as a whole. In order to be open to the inexhaustibility of the world and the diversity of human knowledge, and to broaden one’s own openness, one must first comprehend the unsolvable natures of global discovery and self-broadening in turn. It is impossible to satisfy the dissatisfaction caused by the thirst for knowledge – only knowledge of the dissatisfaction can be satisfied.

As I mentioned earlier, openness matters to me, not only as an idea or an attitude, but also as a practice. Practice what you preach. Put your money where your mouth is, as they say. Truly – it’s not simply how you think of the world that is important, but whether and how those thoughts are executed. Thinking is one thing, acting in accordance with those thoughts is another, and a step above that is changing your actions. That is why, slowly but surely, collaboration has grown in importance to me over time – exiting the solitude of writing, writing with someone else, writing in someone else’s field of influence so as to entwine your worldview with that of another, searching for the overlap of different approaches and attempting to express that artistically. I’ve been involved in several supra-literary collaborations this year, one sample of which you can find in this very issue of ELM.

It began with Margo Orupõld, the charismatic and hardworking director of the Pärnu Women’s Support Center, reaching out with a proposal to write a number of prose poems based on stories shared by women who have turned to the center for help. Margo wanted these tales of domestic violence to be told in an original, artistic way. Since her daughter Flo Kasearu is currently one of Estonia’s most unique and outstanding artists, she suggested we work on the book together. My poems and Flo’s illustrations – two different styles of expression and manners of observation moving parallel in a common direction.

Yet aesthetic openness is not the only reason why I find collaboration with Margo and Flo to be so important. To this day, I’ve yet been unable to untangle the connections between a writer’s social openness, creativity, and civic duty – I oscillate between serenity-seeking escapism and determined social combativeness. Every now and then, I step into public discussions, only to withdraw just as quickly as I came, because preaching isn’t really my thing – I find it odd to teach people how to fly when you yourself occasionally crawl across level surfaces on all fours. I’ve reckoned the best way to influence society is by doing so “concentrically” – eschewing doing the things I publicly condemn when in the company of friends and loved ones. I acknowledge that part of this stems from my powerlessness before the magnitude of societal challenges. When I’m unable to fight the manufacturing of plastics, I clean up litter from the park across from my house or around the nearest bus stop. When I’m unable to have any impact on industrial water wasting, I, at least, conserve water at home. My wife is fondly entertained by my habit of pouring excess boiled water down the drainpipe from our skylight instead of into the sink, so that it runs through the gutters and down into the garden. Occasionally I donate money to one cause or another. To compensate for the destruction of Estonia’s forests, I take precious care of the trees in my own garden and mournfully pat the birches and pines growing in the park. Microscopic, substitute actions such as those.

But then, opportunities also arise like the one that Margo offered. Ones that allow you to step into discourse, but to do so in your own element; to write on a topic that is extremely pressing and topical, one that makes my pulse quicken, and in facing I feel mostly powerless – domestic violence statistics are disheartening, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, I can present my stories to counter that violence. One may, of course, scoff that those stories have just as much of an effect as the half-liter of water I stop myself from pouring down the drain, at the same time as a nearby manufacturing plant is consuming thousands of tons of groundwater to produce plastic fire pokers. My act of resistance is one drop in the ocean. Yet I cannot help but to respond with the words with which David Mitchell concludes Cloud Atlas: “Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”

Jan Kaus (1971) is a writer, essayist, and performer. Amidst his multitude of projects, Kaus is also a former editor of the Estonian Literary Magazine.