‘Prison Literature: Constraints And Creativity’ Up At Three Quarks Daily

My essay, ‘Prison Literature: Constraint and Creativity,’ is up at Three Quarks Daily.  Here is an introduction/abstract:

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll attributes “great sociological and psychological insight” to Hegel in ascribing to him the insight that “the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration” and that “where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought.”

In my essay I claim that the perspicuity of this “insight” of Hegel is best illustrated by a species of intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. The list of this genre’s standout items–The Consolations of Philosophy, The Pilgrim’s Progress for instance–is populated with luminaries–Boethius, Bunyan, De Sade, Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Jean Genet etc. Here, constraint is conducive to creativity; the slamming shut of one gate is the prompt to the unlocking of another. For the prison writer, confinement may produce a search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not appropriately directed toward alternative artistic expression it can become pathologically repressed instead (as the Nietzsche of The Genealogy of Morals indicated.)

For the prison writer, freedom has changed from being a purely practical affair to one grounded in the act of writing. I explore this stance of the prison writer, its resonances with the perennial struggles of all writers, everywhere, and the truth of the claim–to which Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism and the Orwell of 1984 resonate–that those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for oppressors: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to totality. I explore this via a consideration of the relationship between repression and creativity–a general one, and the  more specific variant to be found in Nietzsche and Freud.

The Distinct Relief Of Being (Partially) ‘Off-Line’

I’ve been off blogging for a while, and for good reason: I’d been traveling and did not bother to try to stay online during my travels. Interestingly enough, had I bothered to exert myself ever so slightly in this regard, I could have maintained a minimal presence online here at this blog by posting a quick photo or two–you know, the ones that let you know what you are missing out on, or perhaps even a couple of sentences on my various journeys–which might even have risen above the usual ‘oh my god, my mind is blown’ reactions to spectacular landscapes; network connectivity has improved, and we are ever more accessible even as we venture forth into the ‘outdoors’; after all, doesn’t it seem obligatory for travelers to remote ends of the earth to keep us informed on every weekly, daily, hourly increment in their progress?  (Some five years ago, I’d enforced a similar hiatus on this blog; then, staying offline was easier as my cellphone signal-finding rarely found purchase on my road-trip through the American West.)

But indolence and even more importantly, relief at the cessation of the burden of staying ‘online’ and ‘updated’ and ‘current’ and ‘visible’ kicked in all too soon; and my hand drifted from the wheel, content to let this blog’s count of days without a new post rack up ever so steadily, and for my social media ‘updates’ to become ever more sporadic: I posted no links on Facebook, and only occasionally dispensed some largesse to my ‘friends’ in the form of a ‘like’ or a ‘love,’ my tweeting came to a grinding halt. Like many others who have made note of the experience of going ‘off-line’ in some shape or form, I experienced relief of a very peculiar and particular kind. I continued to check email obsessively; I sent text messages to my family and video chatted with my wife and daughter when we were separated from each other. Nothing quite brought home the simultaneous remoteness and connectedness of my location in northwest Iceland like being able to chat in crystal clear video from a location eight arc-minutes south of the Arctic Circle with my chirpy daughter back in Brooklyn. This connectedness helps keep us safe, of course; while hiking alone in Colorado, I was able to inform my local friends of my arrivals at summits,  my time of commencing return, and then my arrival back at the trailhead; for that measure of anxiety reduction, I’m truly grateful.

Now, I’m back, desk-bound again. Incomplete syllabi await completion; draft book manuscripts call me over to inspect their discombobulated state; unanswered email stacks rise ominously; textbook order reminders frown at me.  It will take some time for me to plow my way out from under this pile; writing on this blog will help reduce the inevitable anxiety that will accompany me on these salvage operations. (Fortunately, I have not returned overweight and out-of-shape; thanks to my choice of activities on my travels, those twin post-journey curses have not been part of my fate this summer.)

On to the rest of the summer and then, the fall.

George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

Writing And Therapy

Writing can be therapeutic. Not just autobiography and memoir, the obvious venues of this particular kind of clinic; letters, novels, short stories, poems, screenplays, can all enable a ‘working through‘ because they call upon a kind of ‘remembering,’ a dynamic ‘free association,’ unprompted and unbidden, that trawls through the various levels and layers of our consciousness. Writing is a form of communion with oneself, so it is not surprising that self-discovery and its partner, self-construction, take place at the writing desk, on the writing pad, on the word processor screen, through the pen and the cursor. To find ourselves returning to the same themes again and again in our writing is to learn a great deal about ourselves; the avoidance of particular topics can also serve a similar function. (Unsurprisingly, writers are often finicky about where and when they choose to write; patients and therapists often are. Peter Gay‘s description of Freud’s clinic in In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture [Oxford University Press, New York, 1978] is instructive and revealing.)

Therapy is a kind of story-telling with two authors engaged in the co-construction of a narrative that works for both: the patient emerges with a ‘new’ tale trailing out behind, and slowly taking shape in front; the therapist’s tale of healing receives a new twist, even as it sets the healer on a new path. Writers take this dual task on themselves; as a ‘story’ emerges–whether ‘fiction’ or ‘nonfiction’–they engage in forms of ‘transference‘ and ‘countertransference‘ with themselves, letting a new self emerge.

Full disclosure: I write here, on this blog, because in addition to serving as a scratchpad for test driving thoughts that sometimes find their way into other writings–academic and nonacademic–of mine, I intend this activity to serve as a therapeutic exercise. Unsurprisingly, many of my posts are self-indulgent reminiscences, unapologetic exercises in nostalgia mongering, tales of times and people long gone. But they have often provided a great deal of understanding to me, enabling me to view the past through many different perspectives, often helping to dredge up dormant memories and making associations and forming conclusions that would have otherwise remained inaccessible to me–and my family, which now includes my daughter. Among the many writing projects that await completion by me, three are memoirs of one sort or the other; I look forward to working on them and completing them not just because I will have completed a writing task, but because I expected to be transformed by the experience.

Note: Writing and art as an ‘official,’ institutionally recognized form of therapeutic modality–for PTSD, for instance–has a fairly distinguished history. In my remarks above, I’d wanted to indicate that all those who write are engaging in–whether they know it or not–a similar activity. We all need–whether we know it or not–some kind of therapy. We just get it in different ways. That is why, among other reasons, that human creativity takes so many different forms.

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.

 

Taming The Beast: Writing By Deleting Text

Some six or so years ago, I began work on a book. I’m still not done and the end isn’t in sight either. I’ve alluded to this state of affairs on this blog before: on my About page where I make note of the extremely impressive and portentous title the book bears, and once, in a post on the anxieties of the ‘creative process’ when I confessed I seemed to be permanently adrift in that terrifying stage where you feel like a dog’s dinner is considerably more promising in its appearance than your dearly beloved project. In the intervening years, I’ve finished other books, so all is not lost, but this unfinished work is now an albatross and a millstone and several other metaphorical burdens to boot. Almost three years ago, as I returned to teaching after my academic and parenting sabbatical, I realized my ‘book’ did not deserve such a dignified title; it was merely a file containing some ninety-five thousand words of notes culled from various sources and some assorted ramblings scattered throughout, posing as commentary and annotation and critique.

This morning, during my hopefully daily editing session that I’ve set aside to work on my book, the word count approached sixty-nine thousand. I’ve finally begun to tame the beast, in the best possible way, by cutting it down to size. Twenty-six thousand words have bit the dust. The file might grow again but for now, matters appear considerably more tractable than they did three years ago.

There is some deeply satisfying about deleting troublesome text, words and sentences that refuse to behave, to make sense, to conform, to fit in. Negotiations have failed; expulsion is the only way out. And so it happens; I highlight the block of text, and Ctrl-X the sucker. If it’s lucky, it goes into a separate file called ‘bitbucket,’ possibly to be salvaged for future use and reintroduced into another version of the manuscript; if I’m feeling particularly ruthless, I do not bother with such niceties. History informs me that I’ve never, ever, reused anything from a bit bucket file; it’s merely there to provide a kind of security blanket, a fallback measure of sorts; but once you’ve moved on, you’ve moved on, and that’s that. There’s no looking back. (There are, of course, many deletions that occur because I’ve carried out an efficient rewrite of the same material; that’s satisfying too in its own special way; the succinct, sharp, expression of a thought in a sentence remains an aspirational ideal and much brush needs to be cleared to bring that about.)

Deleting text is an old writing technique; it’s one of writing’s great pleasures. Sure, there are times it’s agonizing–thus leading to the sober gnomic advice to not be afraid to kill your darlings–but truth be told, very little regret ever evinces itself. The text to be deleted stands in the way, obscuring the promised view; shoving it aside gets rid of the dross, letting the gold shine through.

I really should have been working on my book instead of writing this post. Tomorrow morning, and more deletions beckon.

 

The ‘True Image Of A Writer’ And Online Writing

Shortly after I first began writing on the ‘Net–way back in 1988–I noticed that there was, very often, a marked contrast between the online and offline personas of some of the writers I encountered online. (I am referring to a small subset of the writers I read online; these were folks who worked with me in campus research labs but also wrote actively on Usenet newsgroups.) One of the most stunning contrasts was provided by a pair of young men, who were both brilliant programmers, but also afflicted with terrible stutters. Conversations with them were invariably affairs requiring a great deal of patience on the part of their interlocutors; their stutters very frequently derailed their attempts to coherently communicate. (I had suffered from a stutter myself once, as pre-teen, so I instantly sympathized with them, even as I did my best to decipher their speech at times.)

This was not the case online. Both wrote brilliantly and voluminously online; they wrote long and short pieces; they wrote on politics and technical matters alike with style and verve; they possessed a caustic sense of humor and were not afraid to put it on display. Quite simply, they were different persons online. One of them met his future wife online; she wrote from South America; he from New Jersey; she fell in love with ‘him,’ with his online persona, and traveled to the US to meet him; when she met him in person and encountered his stutter for the first time, she–as she put it herself later–realized it was too late, because she had already fallen in love with him. The unpleasant converse of the situation I describe here is the internet troll, the keyboard warrior, who ‘talks big’ online, and uses the online forum as an outlet for his misanthropy and aggression–all the while being a singularly meek and timid and physically uninspiring person offline. The very anonymity that makes the troll possible is, of course, what lets the silenced and intimidated speak up online. Without exaggeration, my memory of these gentlemen, and of the many other instances I observed of shy and reticent folks finding their voices online, has informed my resistance to facile claims that traditional, in-class, face-to-face education is invariably superior to online education. Any modality of instruction that could provide a voice to the voiceless was doing something right.

In Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (Penguin, New York, 1986) Primo Levi writes:

Anyone who has the opportunity to compare the true image of a writer with what can be deduced from his writings knows how frequently they do not coincide. The delicate investigator of movements of the spirit, vibrant as an oscillating circuit, proves to be a pompous oaf, morbidly full of himself, greedy for money and adulation blind  to his neighbor’s suffering. The orgiastic and sumptuous poet, in Dionysiac communion with the universe, is an abstinent, abstemious little man, not by ascetic choice but by medical prescription.

The ‘true image of the writer’ is an ambiguous notion; online writing has made it just a little more so.

Note: I wonder if Levi had Nietzsche in mind in his second example above.