‘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.

Hegel’s Stoic and Prison Literature

In his Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics (University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp 30-31), Ivan Soll notes that,

With great sociological and psychological insight Hegel says that “stoicism, the freedom which goes back into the pure universality of thought, could appear as a general form of the world spirit only in a time of general fear and servitude but also of general education, which had taught men to think” (Phenomenology of Spirit, 153). The point seems to be that the frustration of the freedom of act results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration. Where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought. Hegel seems to suggest that the stoic’s freedom is what Freud might call a substitute gratification.

While Soll goes on to argue–in the very next sentence–that,

However, this suggestion, interesting and true as it may be, is not completely consonant with the genesis of stoicism in the Phenomenology. Although stoicism arises from servitude rooted in fear, it does not arise because the servant is not allowed to act freely, but because all action proves ultimately futile.

it is still worthwhile to think about why this “insight” of Hegel might be thought perspicuous independent of the particular theoretical standing of “stoicism” in Hegel’s system.

This perspicuity 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 etc–is truly staggering and populated with luminaries–Boethius, John Bunyan, Marquis De Sade, Jean Genet etc–seemingly beyond count. Here, constraint becomes conducive to creativity; the slamming door of one gate is merely the prompt to the unlocking of another. It is not a conceptual necessity associated with the act of confinement, but rather, a very particular, contingent reaction by some. For this actor, confinement does produce the search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and, to continue to use Freudian language, the channeling of the drive toward freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Where freedom to act is not so appropriately, powerfully, and masterfully, directed towards the substitute activity of alternative expression it can, of course, become pathologically repressed instead. (The Nietzsche of the second essay of The Geneaology of Morals would nod his head at this point, I think.)

The prison writer is, like the Hegelian stoic, still a seeker of freedom but, unlike the Hegelian stoic, not one that considers all action futile. Rather he has come to see that actions are still available to him, even if not those that had previously been available to him as a fuller mode of physical expression. So, like the Hegelian stoic, he has moved from considering freedom to being a purely practical affair to being a “peculiarly theoretical and epistemological one” (Soll, 30) but one still grounded in the activity of writing.

Those that place prisoners in solitary confinement are onto a vitally necessary piece of knowledge for the oppressor: if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to as much totality as possible.

Update: Just chatting with Corey Robin over on Twitter, who suggested adding Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn and Bukharin to the genre of prison literature, and also noted the relevance of Hannah Arendt’s remarks about totalitarianism to my last sentence.  Good points of course; my small list above merely scratches the surface, and I would even supplement Arendt with the Orwell of 1984.