‘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.

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.

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.


Freidrich Hebbel’s ‘Profound Question’

In ‘Notebook 11, February 1817’ from Writings From The Early Notebooks (eds. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009, p. 81), Nietzsche cites “a profound question of Friedrich Hebbel” [link added]:

If the artist made a picture, knowing that it would last for ever,
But that a single hidden feature, deeper than any other
Would be recognized by no man living either now or in the future,
To the end of time, do you think he would omit it?

Well? Do you write for an audience or do you write for yourself, to bring ‘a work’ to fruition, whether or not anyone reads it? I write because I like to write; because I like to express, verbally, on the written page, thoughts and ideas that seek expression; because I enjoy watching the written word appear on the page and screen; and so on. But I like readers too–and their responses to what I write can affect what I write, in both form and content. I’d like to think this is not the case, but I’m not sure I’ve always resisted this pressure. I do not disdain the praise and appreciation some readers occasionally send my way; I might even ‘crave’ it, turning it into a stimulus for writing. And of course, I make efforts to secure readers for what I write: I send links to posts I write here to folks who might be interested (and in this desperate world of social media ‘promotion,’ I hope they ‘pass it on’); I participate in marketing efforts for my books; I am disappointed by poor reviews and sales, by the lack of critical attention sent my way by those well placed to ‘promote’ my writings; and so on.

Still, to address Hebbel’s question, which is more narrowly pitched than my question above: I would incorporate that ‘single hidden feature’ into a written work, even if I was sure that it would never be read by anyone till the end of time. This is because, more often than not, I write simply because I want to, because I have convinced myself that I am ‘a writer,’ and thus, I must write as often as possible. Whether or not anyone reads what I write. Bizarrely enough, I do not always hate what I write, and sometimes even do enjoy reading what I’ve written. (Yes, I know, this is terribly arrogant.) The presence of that ‘single hidden feature’  provides, crucially: a sense of completion, because that piece might be ‘incomplete’ without it, and the knowledge that it has found its ‘appropriate’ place within a larger whole, a sensation familiar to all kinds of creators, ranging from those who paint to whose who write computer programs. This could give me all the pleasure I might want out of a piece of writing–readers or not.

Note: Characteristically, Nietzsche precedes the lines quoted above with “[W]ho would doubt that the world of the Greek heroes existed only for the sake of one Homer?” and follows up with “All this clearly shows that the genius does not exist for the sake of mankind; although he is definitely the peak and the ultimate goal of it.”

V. S. Naipaul On The Supposed ‘Writing Personality’

In The Enigma of Arrival (Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 146-147) V. S. Naipaul writes:

It wasn’t only that I was unformed at the age of eighteen or had no idea what I was going to write about. It was that idea given me by my education–and by the more “cultural,” the nicest, part of that education–was that the writer was a person possessed of sensibility; that the writer was someone who recorded or displayed an inward development. So, in an unlikely way, the ideas of the aesthetic movement of the end of the nineteenth century and the ideas of Bloomsbury, ideas essentially bred out of empire, wealth and imperial security, had been transmitted to me in Trinidad. To be that kind of writer (as I interpreted it) I had to be false; I had to pretend to be other than I was, other than what a man of my background could be. Concealing this colonial-Hindu self below the writing personality, I did both my material and myself much damage….Because of my ideas about the writer, I took everything I saw for granted. I thought I knew it all already, like a bright student. I thought that as a writer I had only to find out what I had read about and already knew….It was nearly five years…before I could shed the fantasies given me by my abstract education. Nearly five years before, quite suddenly one day, when I was desperate for such an illumination, vision was granted me of what my material as a writer might be….I wrote very simply and very fast  of the simplest things in my memory. [paragraph breaks removed; link added]

Indeed. The confusion Naipaul speaks of is engendered by several factors here. There is, of course, some of the oldest misunderstandings of the creative process, with its suggestion that the ‘creator,’ the artist, either manufactures something out of thin air, or gives birth to that which already resides within them. But there is too, a suggestion that the writer steps into this world as writer, as finished product; but does not become one. Furthermore, because the writer is identified as an existent type, and because the exemplars available to the colonial subject would have been that of samples drawn from the colonial masters’ land–or those like it–the writer acquires a form, and his or her writings acquire their content. Now, all is clear: to be a writer one must write like one, one must write on what ‘writers’ write on; inauthenticity is the natural result of the mimicry forced upon, or readily taken on by, not the colonial subject. (Nostrums such as ‘to thine own self be true’ and ‘no man can give that which is not his’ instruct us similarly.) But others too imagine that the writer is a pre-formed type that must be instantiated. They would do better to think of the writer as something in the process of becoming over time, worked on by the labors of all those who write. By their form and content alike. Who knows what forms yet writers and writing might yet take, and what they might write on?

G. H. Hardy On The Supposedly ‘Second-Rate Mind’

In A Mathematician’s Apology G. H. Hardy wrote:

It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find himself writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings: there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of the men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.

I make note of this famous excerpt today because I saw it, again, on a friend’s Facebook status. As I noted in response then, “Hardy says ‘second-rate mind’ like that’s a bad thing. I’d love to have a second-rate mind.” (A response stolen from George Mikes‘ ranking of writers where he says something like “I wish I was at least a fourth-rate writer.”)

But less facetiously, there are two confusions that afflict Hardy’s claim above.

First, Hardy is caught up in the mythology of the lone creator, artist, genius, whose thoughts and works spring ab initio from his or her mind alone, independent of history and context and antecedent work. Such a creature is entirely mythical; there is no fallow ground in the arts and sciences to be worked. All has been worked and tilled before; the creator, the genius, the artist builds on what came before. In one crucial sense, all supposedly ‘creative’ and ‘original’ work is exposition and explication and criticism and appreciation; departures depart from somewhere, they do not find an Archimedean point for themselves. (And can the genius’ work be understood without it being explicated?)

Secondly, a mathematician who writes about mathematical work may be doing philosophy of mathematics or perhaps noting connections between bodies of work that are not visible to those who might have worked on them individually. There is ‘insight’ here to be found, which might be as penetrating in getting to the ‘heart of the matter’ or in affording us a new ‘vision’ as the work of the ‘original creator’–perhaps achieved with flair and style that might lift the work out of the realm of the ordinary. Such might be the case with other kinds of explicatory work. Writing about writing is still writing, and still subject to the critical assessment we direct at the written word; we might find brilliance and innovation and style there too.

Ultimately, Hardy’s view speaks for too many, says too much, and yet manages to convey an impoverished and narrowed vision of the creative mind and its various endeavors. Moreover, it betrays its own trivial concerns in attempting to devise a hierarchy of values for such forays of the intellect: unsurprisingly, we find the work that Hardy saw himself as engaged in placed at the top of this hierarchy.   Philosophies are disguised autobiographies indeed. (My defense of the explainer now suddenly becomes comprehensible.)