‘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.

Oscar Wilde’s Nietzschean Notes In De Profundis

In ‘Suffering is One Very Long Moment‘–part of a series of essays on prison literature–Max Nelson writes on De Profundis–“a letter written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas)”–and makes note that:

Certain passages in De Profundis do seem to credit prison with strengthening and deepening their author’s nature, but only to the extent that, by subjecting him to intolerable, constant, and thoroughgoing misery, it gave him something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers. “The important thing,” he writes himself telling Douglas at one of the letter’s turning points, “the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance.”

There are two Nietzschean notes at play here.

Nelson suggests that for Wilde, prison has become that form of adversity which enables a kind of ‘overcoming’; it is that zone, that space, within which Wilde is able to express himself through ‘his creative energies’ and ‘verbal powers,’ thus enhancing them, and thus too, enabling a kind of self-discovery or transformation on his part. It is within this space–with its provisions for ‘testing’ him–that Wilde might find out whether he is a ‘noble soul’ or a ‘slave.’ (This is a point made in many forms and locations in Nietzsche’s writings; in the The Gay Science for example, Nietzsche had made note of the relationship between pain and profundity, suggesting that ‘great pain…the ultimate liberator of spirit’ could make us ‘more profound.’)

The Wilde quote that Nelson points to seems to invoke Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati‘: Wilde is determined to integrate into himself his experiences, his fate and to not reject them; these experiences are part of his life, they are matters of record, they have left their imprint, one which must be reckoned with and incorporated into his life’s economy. To walk away from them, to fail to acknowledge them, is to merely initiate pathology: perhaps of repressed memories, sublimated into self-destructive behavior, perhaps of futile, life-wasting rage. We must accept all that is our lot, all that is a component of our lives; to do otherwise is to be inauthentic, to be unfaithful to oneself. Wilde must have been aware that anger and bitterness and resentment could continue to imprison him even after he had left Reading Gaol; the very thought of that continued incarceration of his mind, must have struck him as a terrifying burden for the creative person to carry; it would mean the end of his life, or at least, that component of which mattered to Wilde, its productive, artistic one. Perhaps it might also have occurred to Wilde, even as he wrote De Profundis, that his attempts to integrate his life’s experiences to his notion of himself had already proved creatively and artistically fruitful; after all, it was making him write about that attempt.

 

Debating Teams And The Prison-Industrial Complex

The news that a team of prisoners–incarcerated criminals from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility–had beaten, in debate, Harvard’s team, was not slow in spreading. After the initial informal reactions on social media–many of which expressed glee at Harvard’s comeuppance by plebes–had died down, a more measured response followed, one which stressed that such a result was entirely unsurprising, that to entertain such surprise was to entertain stereotypes of prisoners being merely dangerous and stupid.  (An old friend who teaches at San Quentin told me her students are highly intelligent and motivated, among the best students she has ever had.) Several articles–in The Washington Post, The Harvard Crimson, and The Guardian–made precisely this same point. In these commentaries there is another common theme: that these results confirm the value of reform programs like Bard College’s Bard Prison Initiative, which offers an undergraduate education to about 300 New York State prisoners.

These two issues–the intelligence of the incarcerated and the success of well-planned and executed prisoner reform programs–highlight once again the tragedies of the prison-industrial complex as it currently exists today in the US. The US’ incarceration rates, as of October 2013, at 716 per 100,000 are the highest in the world; with 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the US houses 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. This imprisonment does not come cheap; in 2007, the US Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that its costs ran to an annual $74 billion. (Wikipedia source here.) But these costs are severely understated if one takes the talents of the imprisoned population into consideration.

The grim reality of a stint in prison is that–despite the fact that behind-the-bars activities have resulted in  musical albums and literature–they are finishing schools for criminality. Many an amateur checks in, only to check out as a seasoned professional. His or her time will have been marked–in most cases–by rape and assault, and by participation in criminal activity of one kind or the other. Mild forms may involve the smuggling in of contraband; less benign activities include the remote control of external criminal actions and participation in gang activity–very often violent–within the prison. (Bureau of Justice Statistics reports on the rates of recidivism among prisoners make for depressing reading, indicating as they do, rearrest, reconviction, and return to prison rates at or over fifty percent.)

The net result is the situation at hand today: hundreds of thousands of young men and women, rotting away in jail, tossed into a trash heap of sorts, forgotten and condemned, deemed unworthy of reform, guarded by correctional staff who over the years have had their humanity leached out of them, subjected to violence from within and without, and taught, ultimately, all the wrong lessons. This reckless wastage of ‘human resources’ would be considered profligate and indulgent at the best of times, an indication perhaps that the nation in question had recklessly determined it had ample talent, enough to spare in a gigantic, misbegotten criminological experiment. But of course it doesn’t; no nation can afford such squandering of talent, such locking away of so much potential, often fueled by racist tilting at windmills like the war on drugs.

Not every criminal is a budding debate champion or writer or artist; reform remains difficult, a challenge for sociologists, psychologists and criminologists alike. But whatever those challenges, we also know what doesn’t work: the penal system we have now.

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.