‘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.

Political Pathology And The Inability To Accept Love

In a post on ‘the underestimation of the capacity to love‘ I wrote of its converse, ‘the inability to accept love’:

That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

This inability has a political dimension to it, which is alluded to in my original post: those suffering from it–that is, most of us–render themselves susceptible to political pathology. We cannot imagine ourselves the subjects of a state underwritten by benevolence; we do not imagine ourselves worthy of such an arrangement, part of a community founded on the desire to work toward a common, shared good; instead, we cast ourselves adrift, sometimes seeking the fool’s gold of ‘liberal’ political goods like ‘self-determination,’ ‘individuality,’ ‘independence,’ and ‘autonomy.’ Because we think we are unworthy of care and affection directed at us by others, we valorize instead the solitary, turning a self-imposed necessity into a virtue.

And because we imagine ourselves unworthy of ‘political love’ we are afraid to ask for what is our due; we accept all too readily the abuse of those who govern us. We imagine we deserve no better; we are sinners, always begging for forgiveness; we dare not ask–or fight–for our rights. We accept the handouts sent our way, the grudging political pittances that we imagine are our actual dues. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are sometimes surprised by the ready acquiescence of those they seek to rule; their rule is underwritten and facilitated by this kind of ready acceptance of their peremptory commands.  Rule us; for we are unworthy of anything else. We will not even ask for the satisfaction of our most basic human wants: a roof over our heads, clothing, shelter, and care of us when we are sick and infirm. The political subject who imagines himself unworthy of the love of his fellow citizens is all too ready to be possessed of a vengeful, retributive, spirit; he is all too ready to believe tales of the wickedness that surrounds him. I am fallen among the fallen; do with what you will; like me, they are unworthy of love, of giving or receiving it. The political self-abnegation here is complete.

Note: The political and psychological phenomena described above are exceedingly familiar. Humanist criticism of religion and the state begins from such standpoint; it urges us to view ourselves in a more kindly light, to accept ourselves more readily as a preliminary to letting our fellow political and social subjects into our homes and hearts.

Writing Too Strong, Too Talented, To Endure

In Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International, New York, 2002, pp. 230), Martin Amis writes (on Maxim Gorky‘s relationship with Stalin and his death following his return from exile in Sorrento to a period of ‘recantation’ and self-debasement):

Writers were pushed, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, into all kinds of unfamiliar shapes by the Bolsheviks….Some more or less genuine writers tried to work ‘toward’ the Bolsheviks. Their success depended inversely on the size of their talent. Talentless writers could flatter the regime. Talented writers could not flatter the regime, or not for long….In general, writers never find out how strong their talent is: that investigation begins with their obituaries. In the USSR, writers found how good they were when they were still alive. If the talent was strong, only luck or the silence could save them. If the talent was weak, they could compromise and survive. Thus, for the writers, the Bolsheviks wielded promethean power; they summoned posterity and inserted it into the here and now.

 Amis’ description of the writer’s fate is romantic and optimistic in suggesting that a postmortem investigation into their lives and talents-by their erstwhile ‘audience’–is ever undertaken. Au contraire, sadly enough, even death does not rescue the writer from obscurity, it does not find the writer the readers he did not have while living. A great deal changes when a life comes to an end, but a writer’s anonymity endures. The few exceptions to this rule give us no reason to imagine that the stony silence which was the norm in a writer’s life will change to a clamoring reception in the graveyard; they merely highlight the fate of most.

This fact makes the possibility of an environment like the one Amis makes note of even more intriguing. It emits a reception so acute that it provides to the writer the most immediate, powerful feedback of all; it summons up the writer’s ultimate fate and makes it proximal. The proof of the writer’s talent lies in his ability to provoke a response, which such an environment provides: a gratifying confirmation–even if at some cost–that most other writers pine for. In such circumstances anonymity is precious, in ensuring the continuance of one’s life but it is also damning: every second of this stretched out existence is a perpetuation of a tale told by this world about your incompetence, your lack of talent, your inability to provoke a reprisal of any kind. Stick your neck out: this fame is the axe that does not fall. Imprisonment for the writer in such circumstances cannot be ‘enough’; he must be forced to stop writing, by death, or by solitary confinement. The restriction must be total; the freedom to be taken away must be the one that matters, movement of the mind, and not just the body, must come to an utter halt.

Here then, lies the most vivid confirmation of a writer’s greatness in his art: the enforced demand that it cease and desist.