The Theme of REFUSAL

Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago….Evil has always been here. - Teju Cole, “A Time for Refusal”

The topic of refusal was inspired in part by Teju Cole’s essay titled “A Time for Refusal.” “Refusal” probes deeper than the ubiquitous “Resistance” in that it invites an assessment not only of men and their regimes, all temporary. It also invites an assessment of everyting that allows political, social, and moral disaster to transpire. Resistance is easy, an outlet for sanctimonious outrage. Refusal brings enduring requirements, not the least of which is to become, at last, the change we wish to see in the world. The imperative of refusal will remain long after the push for resistance subsides.

In Berlin, an artist has stenciled the phrase “Is this the life we really want?” on sidewalks around the city. Implicit in this question, I think, is the deeper one: “Is this the life I really want?” I know few people who would respond to that question with an unqualified “Yes.” But then again, almost everyone I know, even parents, has the luxury to refuse. Refusal is a feature of our comfortable life, which is predicated on flexibility and freedom, or illusions thereof. When we think about what to refuse, however nobly, would that we do so mindful of those who lack luxury of any sort. When addressing this artist’s question, we can therefore ask another question, also raised by Cole: We who? Posing this question can re-orient the parameters of refusal.

The characters in these stories do not have the luxury to refuse. Their refusal may cost them their lives, or, more, their souls. We can address these stories asking more questions about refusal. What does Elizabeth Bennet really refuse in her rejection of Mr. Darcy? What “food” would satisfy the Hunger Artist? Do we accept the conditions of creation that Ivan Karamazov so vehemently denounces, conditions predicated (it seems) on violence against innocents? What would Bartleby prefer to do? These questions invite more questions, about ourselves. In refusing, what do we embrace? In denouncing, what do we affirm? In rejecting, what do we accept? In opening a new page, what stories do we tell? The characters in this series have brought the question of refusal to the altar of their true selves. What about you?


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  • I think it’s important to realize that Elizabeth’s refusal is as much a threat to her family as to herself. By refusing to marry the man who will inherit her fathers estate, she has effectively disinherited her sisters. By exercising her right of refusal she is affirming her individual right to happiness, and privilging that over the communal good. This is what makes her such a modern heroine she loves her family but she refuses to sacrifice herself for them.

    Lesley Williams

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