Paper Tiger, Burning Bright

Do you worry about writer's block? When Camus had it he rushed to his then mentor, Andre Gide, who said "you mean you can stop writing yet you still complain? What's up with you Albert?"

Camus' problem was that he had decided to be a writer. He was, after all, an existentialist. Why do you write? Did you jump or were you pushed? Who do you write for? Thomas Love Peacock said that poets are wasters of their own time and robbers of that of others. Is writing by its very nature a selfish activity, a solitary sin? With the need for voluntary tutors to help illiterates, with Africa starving, with the Samaritans understaffed handling all the young poets that phone in, can locking yourself away ever be justified?

Some justify their selfishness by emphasising that their sacrifice is for the benefit of all, because they are society's antennae, the nearest to prophets and telepaths that this nihilistic age has. These starving artists in their uniforms from Oxfam charge over the top in a daring raid on reality and return with their wounds which they invite us to lick. Do they write to express, confess or merely impress us with their Angst threshold when they tell us that "lonely clouds make shadows on the wind", that "roses reek of mortality" and that "life's a sexually transmitted disease"? Others use philosophy to back themselves up. Wittgenstein thought that language and reality shared a logical form and that by exploring one mode, the other was enriched, and that man's instinct was to explore. Mumble his name repeatedly next time the spouse wants to drag you away from your garret.

But let's not dismiss this latterday pretension until we've heard from the Greats. Plato, in The Republic, said that "Poetry is not to be regarded seriously as attaining to the truth". Goethe thought that words were 'foppish' and he would have preferred to "speak like nature, altogether in drawings". Despite these warnings, so many wordsmiths carry on thinking that they will find something. Tolstoi knew a bit about finding things but he thought that the only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. Is this where the path of discovery leads? Wherever it goes, Shakespeare must have got there first. We know very little about the man but we do know that at the age 46 he decided to pack it all in. Where does that leave us?

It leaves many of us sitting at writers' workshops. Hemingway in his Nobel acceptance speech said that "writing is at its best a lonely life. Organisations for writers palliate his lonliness but I doubt if they improve his writing." But we try, don't we? I wonder why. There's no hope for most of us. One friend told me that writing was her life and she didn't want to talk about it. Another pointed out that art in general makes us more observant about the world; that, for instance, people only fully appreciated sunsets after Turner had painted them. There's something in this, I think. The observation and analysis necessary for writing can bring details to our notice and add new perspective. And what holds for sunsets holds for self- portraits too, I guess.

Writing can also be a refuge from the hurly-burly, a way to distance ourselves from some unwanted episode, analyse it, make it bearable. In the jungle we would scream in terror from a tiger. With it behind bars we can admire its sleek fur, its powerful musculature. Writing provides the cage but for whom? Us or the tiger?

A survey of famous twentieth century people has shown that writers resemble each other more so than artists, politicians or any other group do. They tend to be only children who disliked school, often had a chronic childhood illness, came from unhappy homes, entered insecure marriages and were prone to suicide, drink and crashing their cars into trees. Writers, perhaps through the isolation of their working conditions are frequently misanthropic, the best of them especially so. Henry James died a virgin. Tolstoi died wishing he could become one and Marcel Proust... well we all know about him.

My friends have had less troubled lives but well over half have suggested that writing is a substitute, the imaginary playmates of childhood rationalised beyond the fantasy lovers of adolescence into almost believable characters. As Mauriac said, "A writer is essentially an inadequate man who doesn't quite resign himself to lonliness". And since so many inadequate people are attracted to writing it's no surprise that literature destroys so many of them. If you want to know why there's so much sick literature around, just look at who writes it.

But don't despair. You can of course become a critic. You lose the thrill of doing an emotional striptease but if writing is your life you can still contribute indirectly to upholding the standards of literature. Writers need all the help they can get. However, a critic has to ensure that he is more than just a back seat writer, he must at least be widely read. Only a writer can afford to have a narrow range. I talked to a critic once whose mouth broke the speed limit while his brain was stuck in reverse and soon realised that the only way to broaden his mind would be to put his head through a mangle. The casual critic can indeed palliate loneliness and if that's what you want them fair enough but if you take writing seriously then perhaps you should go the whole hog and take heed of Jean Cocteau's words. "Literature is impossible. We must get out of it. No use trying to get out of it through more literature; only love and faith allow us to get out of ourselves."

A society called EXLIT, soon to open a branch near you, exists to help you through the difficult period of withdrawal. It is too painful to endure alone. I wish you luck.


Published in Jennings, issue 7
tpl@eng.cam.ac.uk

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