How jiu jitsu helped me become a better writer

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The handshakes, that’s how I first know I’m in trouble.

I’m at a Jiu-Jitsu class. Wednesday. I’m recovering from the usual winter cold, have even opened my email twice that day to compose an excuse.

Sorry, Kev. I’m feeling under the weather – can I rearrange for next week?

Delete. If I send that I won’t ever go.

Down a coffee. Get in the car. Drive to the gym.

Now, the handshakes. There are ten men and each greets me by gripping my hand and telling me their name – I forget the names but remember the grips. I don’t know if it’s the coffee or the panic, but I don’t feel ill any more.

What followed was like a nature documentary, but instead of Attenborough’s voice putting the gazelle’s death into perspective, it was the sweaty grunting of ten men and me making noises like Kermit with tuberculosis. They choke me out, one after the other but are very polite about it.

I learn a few techniques and try to use them, without much success – still, I am getting better, surviving longer before they politely choke me. I start to figure that it’s about strategy, not just muscle and reflex. I have been using all of my strength and “gassing out,” while these men, some in their sixties, are effortlessly squishing me like soft cheese. Then they reacquaint me with their grips. Around my neck this time.

I stay on for the advanced class and start to last a little longer before tapping out. All the while, there is a strange thought in the back of my head: if these were fights to the death, I would be dead twenty-six times.

By the end it’s more like thirty.

I shake Kev’s hand, tell him I’ll be back for the next class, and leave with a smile. I am sore all over, have burns on my fingers and toes, but I keep replaying what I’ve learnt as I drive home, and later, when I’m lying in bed, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking of how I will improve next time, how I will change my game.

Now, I have been to four Jiu-Jitsu classes. I know nothing. But already, I’m noticing how it affects other areas of my life – my writing in particular. So… why?

Failure. Nothing acquaints you with it better than Jiu-Jitsu. You will be choked. But after a while, that becomes not so scary. And then, once failure is accepted as a necessary step for growth, once it is seen that the only way you learn is through doing something wrong in the first place, there is a feeling of freedom. Get choked. Get up. Go again. You know better this time. If you aren’t afraid to fail, you are willing to try new things, to play risky, to be interesting. Same with writing, and everything else worth pursuing, failure is inevitable – bad drafts, abandoned projects, rejections. Every novelist I know has a project-graveyard file on their computer. That is no source of shame. It is a mark of craft. Lose the fear of losing. A winner is someone who never let loss stop them.

Struggle. We as human beings are not built for sitting on beaches with cocktails. That is nice for a while, but only for a while. We need a target. Something with which to contend. Placing happiness as all important is wrong – better to pursue something difficult, something worth the struggle, something with meaning. Often it isn’t pleasant, but in pursuing that target, you are fulfilled. Do something difficult, just to see if you can. You will surprise yourself. Struggle upwards, towards a goal, and you’ll have something better than brief happiness. It’s why we run marathons, why we climb mountains, and it is why we writers choose to sit and write every day when we’d much rather be somewhere else. We turn up, at the desk, ready to contend. It requires an immense amount of work and effort – the trek out into that hinterland of composition. We are grappling with plot, emotions, ideas, and that greater thing, that unconscious current which dictates the direction we pursue, which word follows the previous. Jiu-Jitsu is just a physical manifestation of that which happens every day at the desk. You are willingly contending with something difficult, and it is often painful, but once it is over, you know it was worth it, and you can’t wait to go again, to see if you will be better. To see what you will learn this time.

A piece of writing is just a by-product of this process of struggle. This contention with the unconscious, the constant working and re-working. If something is jarring with the rest of the work, try something different. In doing this, the process itself will become rewarding – the pursuit of the target. The journey becomes what is important, that process of learning. Like Jiu-Jitsu, if something isn’t working, adapt and find the right technique, be satisfied with the journey, the constant reshuffling of set-ups and finishes. Maybe you will be choked in the end. Who cares? A novel is a by-product of the process of contending with the unconscious, of reshuffling and learning. The process is paramount. The pursuit. You don’t make a sandcastle, you abandon the sandpit.

Tenacity. The most important thing. In my last class, Kev, the instructor, rolled with me for the last thirty minutes. My ribcage is still bruised. At one point I think he just sat on me, but I can’t be certain. What I do know is that I didn’t quit. He asked if I wanted to stop but I caught my breath and carried on. And at the end, after my total annihilation, he called me “strong as an ox.” That felt good. Still, I think Kev could easily choke out an ox. I left that class aching, but proud that I had not given up. It’s rare today to encounter that kind of situation, but its good to know that if one were to arise, you have the ability to survive, the tenacity to continue. This directly correlates to writing – 40,000 words into a novel, it will feel like Kev is sitting on your chest. Be an ox. Kev will still sit on you, but the important thing is that you aren’t quitting.

Aggression. Everyone harbours it, no matter what they tell you or themselves. It’s normal. However, it will manifest itself in other, unwanted, parts of life if not acknowledged and integrated. Jiu-Jitsu lets you channel that aggression, and in doing so, gives you the confidence to integrate that assertive side in your life, when people might try to take advantage, when you need to stand up for yourself. It becomes a tool rather than a hindrance. There are circumstances where being nice just isn’t helpful – that isn’t to say that everyone should be an ass all the time. But for those of us who struggle to say no, whose first instinct is to be agreeable, this integration is life-changing. It’s a confidence. A self-belief. Again, an important quality for writers, who are (myself included) some of the most self-critical people around.

Humility. Try enduring a ritual strangling twice a week. It quickly teaches you humility. Appreciate that you will always be learning, that there are others who know more, that cockiness is laziness. If you are humble you are active, always trying to improve the work, but someone who believes they know everything has given up their desire to learn. Inactive. “There are no egos here,” is the phrase they use like a prayer or affirmation. It is a constant reminder that we are all learning, that we are all on the path – as Ursula Le Guin says so perfectly, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

I am halfway through writing a novel at the moment. Kev is sitting on my chest, but I am not quitting. So, on Wednesday, I’ll be back for another choking, and when I get home, I will write my 500 words.

Both are painful, but worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

About the author of this post

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Christopher Baker is a writer, published in the Writers of the Future 35th anthology and with theatre work that has won The Stage Award at Edinburgh Fringe. He graduated from the Warwick Writing programme with a First Class BA Hons in English Literature & Creative Writing. He has three dogs and is often covered in their hair. His twitter is @CSBker

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If language is a drug, Sci-Fi is crack-cocaine

 

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Peacock IV (2016), by Victoria Stothard – cover designer of new speculative fiction project, ‘The 8th Emotion’ 

“Science-fiction [is] the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.”

            — Arthur C. Clarke, “Of Sand and Stars”, 1983

First off, apologies for the title. It’s a shameless piece of provocation. Obviously, crack destroys lives, and I wouldn’t want to equate it – in all seriousness – with an addiction to spaceships, lasers, and aliens. Nonetheless, the title sounded good, and it does get at what I want to discuss.

Sci-fi is not as narrow a set of parameters as perhaps many believe. It is not really just “lasers, spaceships, and aliens”, although I imagine this is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear the term.

Culture shock

Sci-fi, if anything, is about culture shock. It’s a form that implicitly dictates that something new be brought to the table, whether it’s a new world, a new species, a new technology, a new psychology… you get my drift. Some sort of breach with our everyday reality, our everyday culture, is required. Therefore, it is a form which, at its core, is built on the notion of a culture shock.

At this point, I’d like to make a distinction between the Arthur C. Clarke quote with which I began this article, and my own belief (although his wording is probably just a by-product of his time). I believe ‘speculative fiction’, though a tad clunky to say, is a better term to use when considering the most potent type of mind-altering fiction, encompassing as it does science-fiction, fantasy, and everything in-between. ‘Science-fiction’ – to me at least – has a degree of prescriptiveness: it’s exotic worlds, final frontiers, and advanced technology. ‘Speculative fiction’, as long as it’s a break from our current world, can be anything. It has a less restricted sense of what a story can be. And as the most drug-like, visionary fiction can come in a variety of guises, that seems like the safest term to use here.

So, to my original point, now amended – speculative fiction relies on culture shock. It can incorporate any genre within it (see the beautiful romantic plot thread in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, or the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise) but it must always, even in a very watered-down form, contain this key ingredient.

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Speculative fiction can incorporate any genre within it – including the noir detective elements in the Blade Runner franchise. 

However, this isn’t quite the culture shock we get when we go on holiday and think, “oh, so here the steering wheel’s on the other side”, profound though that is. Culture shocks in the real world occur in a state of flux: we’re being bombarded with from all sides by ever-changing, multi-sensory stimuli; incessant distractions that diminish each other and compete for our attention. Prose is very different: it’s a very controlled reality, experienced moment by moment, word by word. With a painting, you can look around the canvas, your eye roving across the detail in whatever order it pleases; an order that is unlikely to be the same from one person to the next. Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality I can think of. As a writer, it lets you specify the exact stimulus for a brain at any given moment (through a word-form), and precisely how that flow of impressions should be arranged. It’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.

“Prose is the only truly linear experience of reality […] it’s a very effective and finely-tuned means of interacting with another human consciousness.”

On a broader level, purely verbal communication is as close to telepathy as we’ve got. It’s mind communing with mind, the whole material world stripped away, leaving just information: the best rendering of our thoughts that we have. And in my opinion, the better the thoughts, the better their drug-like effect when expressed. Trite thoughts, captured in words, dull the mind. Numb your senses. High-grade thoughts can excite and elevate you, sharpen your mind, make you see the world in a whole different light. This is euphoria. And, at an extreme end, they can even produce physiological side-effects – but I’ll come to that in a second.

Really, it’s the thought, conveyed from one person to another, that is the drug. The language is just the necessary packaging; the means of transmission.

The power of language

There are two stand-out instances in my life that drove home how powerful language can be. The first was the most physiologically striking: it was after I’d been to see a live performance of Alan Moore’s spoken-word piece Unearthing, which was accompanied by music and a photographic slideshow. All these components worked in synchronicity, informing each other, vying for pole-position in your awareness, impossible to follow in their totality. I had to leave the event two-thirds of the way through, rushing to get my coach home. I remember sitting on it, staring at the passing traffic lights: they were glowing slightly but distinctively brighter than usual, like psychedelic blurs of luminosity. I felt stoned. And exactly like someone in that condition, I barely blinked for the first forty minutes of that trip.

(Later, when Unearthing was available to download, I listened to it again, this time the entire way through. Again, I felt stoned, unblinking, although here the effect lasted for more like three minutes. I imagine familiarity wore away some of its impact, as did the lack of a multi-sensory presentation.)

This is probably the peak version of language-as-drug: when it works in tandem with other art forms (like henchmen backing up a criminal mastermind) to overload your senses and mind.

The other stand-out instance utilised words alone. I was in a café, above a bookshop, in a busy central area of London. A long-term friend and I had been talking, for a couple of hours or so, about concepts like time and the quantum world. Then, in the space of a few seconds, reality got strange. I felt light-headed, trippy, as if I could happily stare at any part of the world; as if it was all full of fascinating detail. It also felt like I could sense the atoms that made up the table we were sat at, their energy; and consequently, I had the bizarre impression – while knowing it was false – that I should be able to pass my hand, ghost-like, through that solid block of wood. Between its atoms.

Like I say, this only took a moment to kick in. I asked my friend if he felt it, without specifying what ‘it’ was. He said he did. Switching back and forth, without – as far as I can recall – any leading comments, we described what we were feeling. It seemed to be identical; more than that, it had been induced synchronistically during our conversation.

Obviously, this may all sound crazy. And although, certainly on that latter occasion, it felt like I was in a heightened state, I’m not saying there was any objective validity in my sensations. But you can’t deny that’s pretty trippy.

(And no, smart-arse, I hadn’t taken any drugs that day, or even that week, and at neither event was I sat in a fug of second-hand marijuana smoke. Otherwise, these anecdotes would be rubbish).

As I mentioned, similar effects have happened to me at other times after some sort of intense interaction with language; but these are the two most pronounced cases. And what’s great when this state hits is, unlike with conventional drugs, you retain full cognitive and motor facilities. It feels like you can put the energy you have to much better use.

So if language operates exactly like, or at least has the capacity to be a drug, as these experiences have pretty firmly led me to believe, then there’s an immediate implication for prose. Seen as a psychedelic chemical compound, with words forming the atoms of the overall substance (work with me here) then the less extraneous words there are to dilute the compound, the purer and more intoxicating the final result will be. Think of it as an alcohol with a higher proof. This would fit in with the Hemingway school of writing, where you pare away every unnecessary word until the minimalism almost drives you mad (there is a daily holocaust of adverbs in his name).

Where this perspective cleaves away from that orthodoxy is in the potential of chemicals, mixed correctly, to trigger fizzing and spectacular reactions in each other. So while the spare approach of Hemingway may state that sentences should be short and sharp like a gun report, with all floridity excised, this drug metaphor would argue – and I’d agree – that words can have some of their most exciting effects when the unfamiliar collide. Three adjectives where one would do? Yes, cut that down. But three adjectives that you’ve never seen together before, which spark off one another in interesting ways, like James Joyce’s description of a woman’s body in his short story The Dead as “musical and strange and perfumed”? Keep it. That’s up there with the best of literature.

What this means is that the dictums ascribed to Hemingway and Orwell aren’t the be-all and end-all of prose style. There’s a wider palette of possibilities on offer.

However, what I’ve just said applies to all writing. And I know what you’re thinking: I began this essay in good faith expecting to learn about sci-fi and where I can get a fix of crack cocaine before midnight. Cut to the chase already!

Okay. Geez. I was just about to get there.

The other key thing that the conversation in the café above the bookshop implies is that, for language to get you into a trippy, altered mind-state, this comes easiest when you’re discussing big ideas. Ideas that feel bigger than your brain; like it can’t contain their magnitude. The concepts of time and the quantum world were the examples in that instance, but there are plenty of alternatives: space; the ancestral path and all the DNA matches that, after millennia, led to the creation of you; parallel universes; how different the universe would be if light only travelled at 30 mph; what the psychology of a deity would be; what the ramifications would have been, big and small, if that pivotal historical event had never happened/gone the other way.

All of these notions involve a large sense of scale regarding either time or space, so maybe that’s the key to spinning out your own mind with concepts alone. What they also have in common is that, though such ideas could appear in any genre, they are very much the province of speculative fiction, with them and their ilk having formed the basis for countless stories in that ideas-obsessed narrative field.

A genuine, mind-altering drug on the page

Speculative fiction is where such concepts are literalised, are given concrete form so that the reader can have – on an imaginary level – a visceral engagement with them. It is where such abstract, mind-altering notions are brought to life.

Although most speculative fiction may not reach the giddy, psyche-warping heights I’ve expounded upon here (perhaps a lack of finesse in the prose; perhaps a failure of sustained intensity of imagination) I believe this area of literature, more than any other, has the potential to do so. And the evidence is plentiful and wonderful.

There is the cosmic, puzzle-like world building of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, whose grandeur and intricacy dawns on you like a creeping madness; the fecund neologisms and innovative typography of China Miéville’s Embassytown; the screaming, horror-drenched, pioneering and unmistakable purple prose of Lovecraft; the magisterial and idiosyncratic visions of William Blake. And hopefully, in a hundred years, these authors will be seen as the mere vanguard of what was to come.

Speculative fiction is where you can unite the experimentalism of the modernists (form, language, story content, narratorial and character voices, imagery, setting, etc.) but justify it for narrative reasons, and tie it into a ripping yarn. It can be a genuine, mind-altering drug on the page.

It is, I believe, where the next level of literature lies.

About the author of this post

FullSizeRenderAttempting to practice what he preaches, Josh Spiller has written his own speculative fiction novel, entitled ‘The 8th Emotion’. He is currently trying to fund it through Kickstarter, and you can check it out – as well as get your own signed first edition – here.

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Poetry as protest

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We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery.

The cries against this state of affairs are often silenced or minimised precisely because there is a lack of available tools to articulate an effective challenge. Beyond the obvious decline of trade unions and collective action, there is also a lack of control over language itself; we are unable to change the terms of argument because we are not in control of the narrative or discourse in which we find ourselves.

The reason for this is two-fold.

Firstly, the mainstream media is controlled by elite corporate power – 6 corporations own 90% of the media in the USA, and just 3 corporations control 70% of the media in the UK. The media therefore has none of the independence or freedom that is supposed to make it a tool of the people to challenge power. Noam Chomsky explains this problem pretty succinctly:

“The media serve, and propagandize on behalf of, the powerful societal interests that control and finance them. The representatives of these interests have important agendas and principles that they want to advance, and they are well positioned to shape and constrain media policy.”

Secondly, the rise of social media – which was trumpeted by many as a means of empowering the people and removing the power of corporatized media – has not delivered an age of enlightened thought. In fact, the opposite has occurred; with a rise of misinformation, and the creation of siloed communities of likeminds who more often than not confirm, rather than challenge, existing biases held by individuals. Rather than open people’s minds to new ways of thinking, social media reduces our willingness to be open minded and reinforces our entrenched opinions. Recent studies have shown that documentary maker, Adam Curtis, was perhaps right when he claimed the internet and social media were doing the opposite of what they were created to do:

 “[They] facilitate communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each other’s assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits.”

If the problem lies within articulation of thought, therefore, the solution must be one which enables effective expression of ideas just as effectively as the political language of our current demagogues currently delivers a succession of political victories for neo-fascists like Donald Trump and the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party that currently finds itself leading the UK with an unelected Prime Minister.

And so this leads us to poetry – which perhaps may be surprising, given we live in a time when poetry is so often dismissed as being irrelevant.

Yet while poetry may now be found on the margins of public discourse, it is no less important. This is because poetry, like political language, is rarely spoken without intention. Furthermore, poetry has advantages and intrinsic attributes that political language and rhetoric lacks: including – but not limited to – a drive towards articulating a truth that is universal. Consider the words of the brilliant activist and poet Audre Lorde:

“Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Rather than seek to confuse the listener and disguise meaning in order to achieve malicious objectives, in the way politicians so frequently use ‘triangulation’ and jargon to cover their true intentions; poetry by contrast seeks to make clear that which was uncertain or hidden.

Unlike political speech, poetry cannot afford to misuse language. Should a poet do otherwise, they sacrifice the very reason for a poem’s existence. Because above all else the language used in a poem must be precise and accurate. Every word must be chosen with the utmost care. Every word must count towards an ultimate goal – which is the delivery of meaning to the reader or listener of the poem. Above all, this goal must be towards truth – as Wilfred Owen wrote: “true poets, must be truthful”.

The poet must therefore labour over exact, precise articulation – since the poet understands that every word used creates a world, creates a meaning (to follow Derrida and Lacan), and that each word added or removed alters this meaning, and alters the world.

This touches upon what makes poetry so powerful as a tool of protest – as a weapon we can use to challenge the malicious powers that have risen to prominence in this age. Because poetry is far more than grammar and syntax – the terms and measurements that help us identify and discuss language scientifically. It is more than copy on a page. It is rhythm; it is sensations; it is incantation. And, through this, poetry becomes meaning. It becomes truth.

Poetry’s essence, therefore, produces a visceral effect that can inspirit, inspire, and transform those who read and hear it. And it is this that makes poetry such a powerful tool for speaking out against the wrongs of the day – for channelling the universal human feelings of every man and every woman into something meaningful and real, into a form of protest and resistance.

Of course, the idea of poetry as protest is not new. In 1819, for instance, Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre. The Masque of Anarchy advocates radical social action and non-violent resistance: “Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many — they are few”.

More recently, the swinging sixties and the Vietnam war also saw protest poetry emerge and blossom. See, for instance, Adrian Mitchell’s Tell me lies about Vietnam (available for free via The Guardian), a few lines of which are printed below:

“Every time I shut my eyes, all I see is flames
I made a marble phone-book, and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam”

Then you have the searing, satirical masterpiece The Revolution Will Not Be Televised by Gil Scott-Heron, featuring lines that simultaneously call for change while comically critiquing the current state of affairs:

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
Thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

Scott-Heron’s lines work on the page; but they are also made more powerful by his own incantatory delivery of them. His voice electrifies the poem and gives it new meaning, and – for some – makes the possibility of revolution and protest more real.

Yet the performative element of spoken word poetry perhaps is also one of the charges sometimes levied against it. Scott-Heron’s poem even serves as an example here: precisely because his call for the revolution not to be televised will for most people be watched on television screens (or, in this age, on computer screens). There is a touch of cynicism to Scott-Heron’s poem, too – an acknowledgement that his poetry lives in a world in which a protest against mainstream media is the exact sort of thing that will be broadcast across mainstream media.

This, of course, is a paradox of modern capitalism, touched upon by the late, great political theorist and writer Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, who uses the example of Kurt Cobain to illustrate the point:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”

Fisher’s outlook on our future hinges on our ability to effect radical social change. Yet he is pessimistic mainly because he does not identify a clear tool or solution to help us achieve this. He does, however, hint at what any theoretical tool must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

The final sentence is crucial, here – because it highlights the way forward. In order to overcome the capitalist system that has produced the age of Donald Trump and ‘alt-facts’, it must be shown to be unreal – it must be shown to be false.

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Will writers lead the next revolution against the world of alt-facts? Photo credit: Ed Lederman/PEN America

Once again, poetry appears as a real solution – for it is perhaps only poetry that has the ability to reveal this reality effectively. To return once more to Lorde, by revealing those in power for what they really are, poetry can become more than protest – it can incite the radical change needed for revolution:

“I want my poems–I want all of my work–to engage, and to empower people to speak, to strengthen themselves into who they most want and need to be and then to act, to do what needs being done. In other words, learn to use themselves in the service of what I believe. As we move toward empowerment, we face the other inseparable question, what are we empowering ourselves for? In other words, how do we use this power we are reaching for? We can’t separate those two. June Jordan once said something which is just wonderful. I’m paraphrasing her–that her function as a poet was to make revolution irresistible. Well o.k. that is the function of us all, as creative artists, to make the truth, as we see it irresistible. That’s what I want to do with all of my writing.”

Regardless of whether the revolution is televised or not, if it is poetically led, it will become irresistible; and if it becomes irresistible, then perhaps it will also become inevitable.

So, where is this poet-warrior-led revolution going to start? And where are the poems to inspire it? Well, we’ve launched our Haikus for the NHS’ poetry project to – hopefully – ignite the initial revolutionary flames. Why not let the spirit of poetry as protest burn in your inkwells and get involved ahead of the national demonstration in support of the UK’s National Health Service on 4 March?

Rewriting fairytales: the bloody chamber

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These are no children’s bed time stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic and gothic. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

“I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode” -Angela Carter

Reading Angela Carter’s collection of opulent short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), is like riding an exhilarating roller coaster. You think you can predict the twists and turns of the ensuing ride, but are instead taken on an electrifying, exotic journey that will stimulate you from beginning to end. The Bloody Chamber injects new energy into traditional tales and motifs by deconstructing and transforming some of the core elements that support such stories. This essay intends to explore how Carter’s text presents us with a complex and original expression of a forceful feminist vision. It dismantles and explodes long-established depictions of women within the fairy tale genre, which “encoded the dark and mysterious elements of the psyche” (Makinen).

By re-shaping these tales, Carter was “deliberately drawing them out of their set shapes, out of the separate space of children’s stories or folk art and into a world of change” (Sage); these are “no children’s bedtime stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic [and] gothic” (Gamble).  This is specifically achieved in the intense and vibrant title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which tells the story of a young woman’s seduction into – and escape from – a deadly marriage. Subsequently, Carter also “attempts to decolonise our habits of thought” (Makinen) by working within and against fairy tale conventions in her bid to expose how Western culture has “shaped limiting concepts of gender and sexuality” (Bristlow and Broughton).

As a woman who personally and publically identified herself as a feminist, it comes as no surprise that Carter’s stories within The Bloody Chamber are informed and influenced by her feminist principles. Indeed, she has declared:

“It’s been amazingly difficult… trying to sort out how I feel that feminism has affected my work, because that is really saying how it has affected my life and I don’t really know that because I live my life, I don’t examine it” (Carter ‘Notes’).

Indeed, as Alison Easton has noted, it is important that we understand Carter’s explorations of gender and female sexuality in The Bloody Chamber within “the context of the many different, contested positions that feminism has taken over the past thirty years”. Within this continual feminist debate, issues surrounding pornography, sexuality, violence and the representation of women intensified in the late 1970s and 80s which would have significantly influenced Carter’s work and prompted critics to readily respond to The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, which were both published in 1979. While many feminists agreed that pornography “reflected a sort of distilled essence of the entrenched binaries of patriarchal gender relations, the conflict revolved around the extent to which pornographic representations could be appropriated” (Benson 37) to adequately critique it and suggest alternatives. Subsequently, for many feminists who saw pornography purely as the eroticization of male power and female weakness, the stories in The Bloody Chamber, which are permeated by sexual violence, sexual gratification, erotic desire and sadism, were unsuccessful in achieving a feminist objective.

The question of what precisely Carter’s objective was with The Bloody Chamber, has also divided critics. Never occupying a particular or specific feminist position and being continually influenced by contrasting ideas and notions relating to gender and sexuality, Carter was able “to critique phallocentrism with ironic gusto and to develop a wider and more complex representation of femininity” (Makinen). Yet some early critics, such as Robert Clark and Patricia Duncker, saw her wide ranging feminist agenda as too ambiguous, the latter felt she was “rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures” (qtd. in Makinen) and remained unconvinced that Carter was able to completely escape the conservative gender stereotypes often exemplified in traditional tales and motifs. Others stated that she failed to make the old bottles explode in the spectacular way she had hoped and “gets locked into… conservative sexism despite her good intentions” (Makinen). Also, that the strong pornographic nature of her tales and the fairy tale genre itself, could not be appropriated to critique and map alternatives to gender binaries, especially considering the role of fairy tales “in the installation of these very traditions” (Benson).

Nevertheless, such evaluations of Carter’s work can be seen as dangerously missing the powerfully ironic point she puts across in her transformation of traditional tales and motifs. Yes, she uses narrative structures that are based on old-fashioned notions of women and men’s sexual roles; but Carter utilises such story lines as working construction sites in her renovation of such concepts. Carter chose to use elements from fairy tales because those were the stories that developed through oral tradition and she saw them as “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world” (‘Virago Book of Fairy Tales’). Therefore, by tackling such deep rooted customs and concepts, the reader is forced to respond due to familiarity with the old story when faced with the implications of the new one.

Moreover, considering patriarchal distain for the proto-feminist actions of the witty, salon women of the 17th Century, from which fairy tales began to circulate, “it is ironically apropos that Carter, a feminist, should now speak through Perrault’s tales” (M. Roemer and Bacchilega), and cleverly undermine their core principles. Although her intense and colourful writing style may not suit everyone and “the savagery with which she can attack cultural stereotypes [is potentially] disturbing, even alienating” (Makinen), it nonetheless remains brilliantly perceptive and invigorating to read. Makinen also argues that those critics who fail to understand Carter’s subtle ironies do so because they fail to “position themselves outside phallocentric culture”.

Angela CarterFrom the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality

 

Carter’s marvellously gothic title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist re-write based on Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy tale, ‘Bluebeard’. Her story also heavily draws on the eccentric life of the French aristocrat and sexual libertine, the Marquis De Sade. The Marquis’s chamber is also “that private slaughterhouse of his” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and signifies the dark, fetishized world of Sadeian erotic fantasy. Carter expanded on representations of sexual violence and her interest in the Marquis de Sade in The Sadeian Woman (1979). This too received mixed criticism from feminist critics, and Susan Kappeler condemned her depictions of women as mere objects of male pornography. However, what Carter depicts in The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman is an alternative view of women’s sexuality as entirely unrelated from their reproductive and biological role. Indeed, “during the 1970s, Carter had been re-reading fairy tales and Sade in tandem and bleakly contemplating the fate of good, powerless girls, the Red Riding Hoods and the Sleeping Beauties of the world” (Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale’) .

‘Bluebeard’ is a well-known European folktale which has contrasting characteristics depending on its origin, “in Norway the husband is a troll, in Italy, a devil, and in an ancient Greek version, death itself” (Lokke). However, Carter uses the basic elements from Perrault’s tale, namely the rich and powerful man who marries a series of young wives, gives them the key to a forbidden room but prohibits them from entering it, thus testing their obedience to him. Each woman gives into her curiosity which is revealed by the blood stained key, yet while the previous wives are killed by Bluebeard and locked in the chamber, the cycle is broken when his current wife is rescued just in time and he is then killed.

In comparison to ‘Bluebeard’, then, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is far more sexually violent and pornographically explicit. Carter once said “you mention folk culture and people immediately assume you’re going to talk about porridge and clog dancing” (qtd. in Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy tale’) and that in actual fact, “the latent content of those traditional stories… is violently sexual” (qtd. in Ozum). Indeed, similar to many fairy tale motifs, the ‘Bluebeard’ story is “grotesque in essence” (Lokke), so as readers we are prepared for the evil in the narrative. Carter then cleverly uses these inherent expectations to alter how we view the intensified sexual descriptions and violent images in her tale; subsequently we are forced to question rigid sexual binaries and gender definitions.

bloody-chamber

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. Photo via Spike_dennis via photopin cc

 

In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, though the female protagonist is potentially a victim to male pornography and is an object of male property at first, she is able to surpass this oppression and realise her own potential for independent sexuality. Moreover, the Marquis’s “victimisation of women is overturned and he himself is vanquished by the mother and daughter” (Makinen). The traditionally old, domesticated fairy godmother who solves all the problems in fairy tales such as Cinderella, or the valiant hero or future lover who saves the day is transformed and rewritten in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. In true feminist fashion, it is the fearless, Amazonian mother who rides to the rescue, “a wild thing… skirts tucked around her waist… as if she had been Medusa” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). This intervention of the mother is unusual in The Bloody Chamber and in Carter’s other work where mothers are typically absent from the plot. The other stories in the collection contain either a lost mother or no mother at all, similar to her novels such as Wise Children or The Magic Toyshop in which the former skips a generation to focus on grandmothers and the latter deals with mother figures in place of biological mothers.

Unlike in ‘Bluebeard’ where the bride’s brothers come to the rescue, the Marquis is overcome by female autonomy, he is “impotent at last [as the] dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Indeed, “with his removal, the rigid dichotomy of his eroticised power games is shattered and the space he once occupied is recovered and reconfigured” (Gamble), the female protagonist comes to realise that she does not need a rich husband and refuses to be the victim of a “puppet master” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). By contrast, in the original ‘Bluebeard’, the woman immediately marries “an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she had with Bluebeard” (Perrault) emphasizing her continual reliance on male authority. Therefore, as Lucie Armit argues, it is critics like Duncker “who remains ensnared” in patriarchal narratives, through their inability to recognise the powerful transformation the female protagonist undergoes in this story.

Furthermore, while Perrault’s tale is narrated in third person and we remain relatively distant from the woman in the story, Carter’s story is narrated retrospectively by the woman herself. This shifting focus towards the woman’s physical and mental journey is “foreign to the traditional fairy tale” (Lokke) and provides us with an exuberant reading experience that “actively engages the reader in a feminist deconstruction” (Makinen). We experience the protagonist’s transition from innocence and dependence to maturity and independence. When initially asked by her mother if she is certain she loves the Marquis, she replies, “I’m sure I want to marry him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), thus demonstrating her initial fixation on marriage because it is the next stage in her socially conditioned female role. However, by the end of the story she is happy to give away the inherited money from her dead husband to various charities and runs a school for the blind at the castle. Therefore, the typical fairy tale journey of poverty and unhappiness towards wealth through marriage is here remodelled so that female autonomy rather than wifely subservience is the happily ending.

Moreover, while in Perrault’s tale the woman accepts she “must die”, in Carter’s, she tells the piano tuner “I’ve done nothing; but that may be sufficient reason for condemning me” (‘The Bloody Chamber’), she shows a lot more female gumption and is less prepared to receive punishment for her curiosity. Therefore, while Perrault is warning his readers or listeners against over inquisitiveness and wifely disobedience, Carter is conveying the opposite. The murderous Marquis also represents all symbolically murderous marriages where the man destroys independent female desire for his own corrupt purposes. Indeed, Carter is redefining the basic associations of women in fairy tales, innocence is inferior to knowledge, sexuality is empowering not degrading and the knight in shining armour may be a “indomitable mother” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) riding to the rescue or even the heroine herself in her conquering of individual fears or social convention. Such deconstruction results in an entirely new collection of stories which convey liberating realities for women, where they can live independently of patriarchal dominance or exist simultaneously through mutual desire, as shown in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘The Company of Wolves’.

The Red Riding Hood character in ‘The Company of Wolves’ displays confidence and self-assurance. She bursts out laughing and says “she knew she was nobody’s meat” (Carter) in response to the traditional exchange between the wolf and herself over the animals large teeth which are “all the better to eat you with” (Carter 138). By utilizing the older tale and transforming the meaning of such fundamental elements to convey the sexual freedom of the modern Red Riding Hood, we can see how Carter enhances her own feminist narrative by such recognition and transformation. Subsequently, she critiques conservative and limiting depictions of women and gender notions through a complex interplay of old and new.

The Red Riding Hood of Perrault’s tale is described as an innocent, little girl whereas we are told that the girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ had “just started her woman’s bleeding”(Carter), that “her breasts have just begun to swell” and though she is a virgin, “she has her knife and she is afraid of nothing” (Carter). Therefore, Carter remaps the stereotypical female victim into a woman who is in control of her “magic space” (‘The Company of Wolves’). In her assertion that she is “nobody’s meat” (‘The Company of Wolves’), she refuses to be the victim or prey, she gives in to her desire “freely” (‘The Company of Wolves’) and therefore embodies independent female desire. Moreover, the female protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is arguably more ignorant and passive at the start of the story, before she has come into contact with sexual violence, however she soon possesses a “dark new-born curiosity” (Carter) about the forbidden chamber after her first sexual experience. E.B.Manley argues that she is “a woman in process, someone who is exploring her subject position and beginning to tell her own story” and this desire for knowledge and truth is empowering. It allows her to eventually recognise her potential for corruption if she remains the female object, she does this by discovering what lies inside “the kingdom of the unimaginable” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and eventually overcoming her husband’s patriarchal power games.

Furthermore, once the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ and the wolf have recognised and fulfilled their mutual desire, when she has “laughed at him full in the face” and “ripped off his shirt for him”, she is able to sleep sweet and sound “between the paws of the tender wolf”. This is because she is not a female victim or object; she is an independent sexual woman who has transcended the traditional, subversive woman commonly depicted in traditional fairy tales and it is clear that “both male and female benefit from the transformation of the old power relations” (Gamble).

Despite Duncker’s opinion that the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ simply sees rape as inevitable, “she wants it really, they all do.” (qtd in Gamble) and that Carter fails to transcend ideology, this particular reading of sexual awakening feels incomplete and limiting. Robert Clark also maintains that though the Red Riding Hood figure embraces her sexuality, she does so at the cost of “accepting patriarchal limits to women’s power” (qtd in Gamble).  However, it is important to remember how “later re-writings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions” (Makinen). Indeed, Carter is showing that the women in her tales do have autonomous desire. At the end of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the tiger’s licking of the woman’s skin causes the woman who was “unaccustomed to nakedness” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’) to expose the female tiger that lies within her as an individual. She is left with a “nascent patina of shining hairs” and sees her new fur as incredibly beautiful, unlike her culturally constructed, innocent skin which she was so “unused to” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’).


So, instead of giving into male desire, Carter is showing how the woman in this tale is satisfying her own polymorphous desire, so it is “not women re-enacting porn for the male gaze, but…woman reappropriating libido” (Makinen) for themselves.


While mirrors are only mentioned briefly in ‘Bluebeard’, they play a vital role in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as the female protagonist transitions from female object to female subject, E.B. Manley argues that “the mirror scenes establish the protagonist as oscillating between girlhood and womanhood, between a patriarchal view and her own definition of herself”. Indeed, they force the protagonist to reflect on her innocence and increasing desire as the story progresses. On the night before her wedding, at the performance of Tristan and Isolde, she catches herself in the mirror and sees herself through the eyes of her fiancé who watched her “with the assessing eye of a connoisseur” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), a gaze which suggests his carnal desire to consume and feed off her innocence.

She sees:

“the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood… [and] sensed in [herself] a potentiality for corruption” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’).

This image also forebodes the Marquis’s wish to decapitate her at the end of the story. However, even at this stage she realises it was “my innocence that captivated him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and it is all part of his plan to corrupt her for his own pleasure. Attraction to innocence and naiveté is perhaps a reflection of mankind as a collective and is a motif which is traditionally represented in many fairy tales. I believe the protagonist is representative of the female collective in the mirrors of her bedroom, indeed, she watches as “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber), thus insinuating an entire history of women who have been victims of unhappy marriages or violent abuse and therefore signifying a universal need to alter the way society understands female sexuality.

Recognising the innocent image in the mirror as one that has been socially conditioned to meet the needs of a phallocentric culture which itself desires domination over the female object, along with her increased knowledge of sexuality and violence due to her experience in the chamber, all help to increase her female independence. She almost succeeds in seducing her husband, by using the male desire for innocence against him, “a dozen vulnerable, appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors… if he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Faced with the reality of death as a result of female submission, she is no longer naïve.

By contrast, Perrault’s female character “almost fainted with terror” and flings herself at her husband’s feet, “weeping and imploring him to forgive her for having disobeyed him”. Consequently, Carter portrays powerful female sovereignty through the heroine and her brave mother, and therefore reconfigures the traditional motif of female weakness in traditional fairy tales.  Though both women are frightened by their experience, Perrault’s heroine does not progress as a character, unlike Carter’s.

The protagonist of ‘The Blood Chamber’ is extremely isolated in “the faery solitude of the place…cut off from land for half a day” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), whereas in ‘Bluebeard’, the woman is continually surrounded by “amusements…hunting and fishing parties, banquets, dances and suppers” (Perrault) and therefore has less need to soul search. Carter’s protagonist is forced to face internal conflicts and confront the woman in the mirror. Moreover, although we are told that the woman in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ goes on to live with her mother and the blind piano player, she is not reliant on either of them and is not victimised by the male gaze due to his blindness. Therefore, “the marriage of wealth and power, standard goal for fairy tale heroines, is rejected. She has been allowed through her initiation in the chamber, to understand and survive the deadly peril that kind of marriage holds for her” (Renfroe). By contrast, in Perrault’s tale, the young widow immediately “married an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she has with Bluebeard” (Perrault) conveying the notion that dependence on a man was a traditional motif that Carter wanted to eradicate.

Nevertheless, the end of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has caused some debate among critics. The red heart imprinted on the woman’s forehead due to the blood stained key causes her shame, but shame over what exactly is open to interpretation. It may well be the mark serves as a reminder to all women to never become victims of the bloody chamber, if indeed it represents sexual confinement or dominance by men. Lokke argues that the heart is a “badge of courage” and the shame can therefore be seen to result from her initial subservience to her violent and unemotional husband. The mark is a constant reminder of her knowledge of the human heart and forces her to realise she need not give into marital convention just because it is socially acceptable or economically beneficial. Indeed, even though her innocence becomes “subtly tainted” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), this realisation and knowledge leads to her “recognition of the evil within her” (Lokke), that all men and women have the potential to succumb to, embrace or resist. Coming to terms with her potential for corruption signifies her maturity and “acceptance of responsibility rather than destructive self-depreciation” (Lokke). Therefore, the heroine’s experience of violent and sexual perversion, followed by her ability to recreate the castle into a school for the blind, shows how Carter is metamorphosing traditional images of the heroine marrying the prince charming, into modern projections of female knowledge and independence as the perfect happy ending.

Indeed, Carter takes emotions that have simmered just below the surface of classic fairy tales, of suggested carnal desires and sensuous cravings, of cruelty that is left to the readers imagination, and presenting them to us in rich, juxtaposing ways. We are thus forced to question the depictions of gender, violence and sex in traditional tales and motifs. The grand castle we see in numerous fairy tales is redefined and here becomes the larger container of the bloody chamber itself, it is seductively captivating, yet eerily isolated, it seems to exist “neither on the land nor on the water, [it is] a mysterious, amphibious place” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’ 9), illustrating how Carter re-appropriates core elements of traditional motifs for her own purposes.

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. The awakening of desire is felt from the very first sentence when the protagonist tells us how she “lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, [her] burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow”. She also says how the pounding of her heart mimics “the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train” as she is borne away from Paris, “away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage”.

The protagonist’s experiences in the castle continually transition between the sensual and the violent and the language is extremely perfumed and poignant. As the story goes, our senses become even more heightened to the evocative language on the page, much like the vivid colours of a Disney fairy tale; we are drawn into the this particular story by vivid descriptions and intense images, which combine to produce an unnerving, yet exhilarating effect. The uncanny, sallow descriptions of her inhuman husband’s “waxen face”, which seemed like “a mask”, his resemblance to “one of those cobra-headed, funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum, his leather covered, pornographic library with its “rugs…dark panelling…lulling music…flames” and the “ruby necklace that bit into [her] neck”, are all images that heighten our horror and anticipation due to the foreplay of sensual language. The husband’s association with lilies which have phallic and death like associations, and the way he makes the bedroom look like “an embalming parlour” conveys his overall destructive nature and oppressive sexual perversion, in stark contrast to the heroine’s vitality. The protagonist is eventually able to overcome sexual perversion and defeat death and her husband, who is the embodiment of death itself. Lokke argues that by “acknowledging the glamour of sado-masochist self-annihilation as well as its ultimate brutality, ugliness and misogyny”, Carter maps before the reader how imperative it is that both female and male sexual desire is redefined on the grounds that the women is not the objective victim as she is often depicted in traditional tales, she should have control over her own sexual desires rather merely playing the sexual role a man has assigned to her.

In conclusion, by writing stories about fairy tales, which each reader would have previous assumptions and associations, then subverting the original messages, Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality. The fixed gender binaries and stereotypes often depicted in oral and literary tradition are exploded in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the rest of the short stories. While new wine in old bottles was a motivation and underlying principle in all her work, this logic was epitomised in these revolutionary tales which are incandescent throughout. Despite the ethereal quality to her work, Carter once wrote that she was “in the demythologising business” (‘Notes’) and was determined to break down the “lies [which are] designed to make people feel un-free” (Notes). Indeed, by critiquing and transforming traditional tales and motifs, The Bloody Chamber forces us to interrogate conventional narratives and decolonise our ideas surrounding sexual freedom and the depictions of women within the fairy tale genre.

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Reading as an art form – how to be a good reader

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“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours,” the character of Alan Bennett says in the award winning play, The History Boys.

It is a vivid and moving description of the connection between human beings and literature – or indeed, art in general. And this connection has been mused upon by countless great artists throughout the ages: “Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her extraordinary essay collection, The Faraway Nearby. Meanwhile, Herman Hesse argued that it is possible, when reading, to discover such a powerful imaginative connection to the words on the page that “we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.”

This transcendent relationship between human beings and literature has been described by Umberto Eco as almost being driven by some biological impulse as yet undescribed by science. Yet in order to reach the most rewarding of reading experiences – as described by Bennett, Solnit, Hesse et al; there is often a role that we, as readers, must play. Indeed, it is not enough to simply open a book and scan the page – we must do so with effort, dedication; even skill.

The art of reading

This is something that W.H. Auden – one of the most celebrated and successful poets of the 20th century – discusses in his collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays.

One of the most striking observations in this fascinating collection is Auden’s assertion that reading should be regarded as an art in its own right:

“The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.

[…]

To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.”

An intriguing part of Auden’s central argument is that becoming a “good” reader ultimately hinges on our ability to discern for ourselves what we find to be enjoyable. Reading and literature therefore become as much a part of our life-long process of self-discovery as anything else as we traverse the inevitable change that takes place over the course of our lifetimes. Just as David Foster Wallace surmises that we as human beings “get to choose what is and isn’t important […] get to decide what we worship”, Auden argues that it is critical that we do not read something because we think we “should” read it, or because we are told to – but because we want to:

“Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

[…]

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.”

Decide what books you worship

This ability to choose for ourselves what we read – the ability to say clearly that we enjoy certain books and writers but not others, regardless of what others may think – is vital, Auden suggests, not just to reading but also to writing. Because a problem many writers frequently encounter is a feeling that they should be writing for a specific group of readers:

The challenges of being a reader in many ways parallel those of being a writer, particularly when it comes to these tyrannical shoulds — nowhere more so than in the perennially asked, perennially answered with ire question of why a writer writes and for whom. Auden offers the most beautiful answer I have yet encountered, at once utterly grounding and utterly elevating:

“A writer … is always being asked by people who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.”

From the philosophical to the practical

And what of the practical art of reading? While Auden provides fascinating musings on how we decide what we read, and our mental approach to literature, other great writers have examined the art and process of reading in even further detail.

Vladimir Nabokov, for example, writes in his Lectures on Literature that, when it comes to literature, “the mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is the only instrument one should use when reading a book.”

He further adds that reading is not a singular act but part of a long-term cycle or process:

“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

Perhaps some of the finest advice on the subject, however, comes from legendary writer Virginia Woolf, who addressed the issue in an essay rather appropriately titled ‘How to read a book’, found in her essay collection The Second Common Reader.

“The only advice … that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.”

Perhaps this is the central trick, therefore: in order to be a good reader, it is critical that we are open to all the possibilities in the world.

It seems as though the same advice could be applied to life more generally – as this sort of openness is surely a critical part of what it takes to be a good person.

What is the point of creative writing?

Creative writing

“Creative writing is not just concerned with competence in replicating a practice, its students are not just learning craft, but flexing their muscles as entrepreneurs within our cultural future […] We defer inventive thinking at our peril.” (Munden, 2013, p1).

 

Ever since the University of East Anglia established the first MA in creative writing in 1970, there has been extensive debate on whether creative writing should be taught as a distinct discipline within education. Many writers and teachers have voiced their opinions over the years; John Barth (1985, p3) argues that creative writing “can be learned, by the able; it can be studied, by everybody and his brother; it can even be taught, even in school,” while in contrast Kay Boyle (1975, p1) dramatically asserts that “all creative-writing courses should be abolished by law.” Hanif Kureishi (2014, p4) offers more balanced advice for contemporary students, stating that “aspiring writers who wish to be taught plot, structure and narrative are not mistaken, but following the rules produces only obedience and mediocrity.”

Despite this controversy, the number of universities that provide degrees in creative writing continues to grow, with over one hundred courses currently being offered in the UK alone. More students than ever are leaving secondary education to pursue a degree in this subject, which implies that there is something inherently essential about the place of creative writing within the curriculum of our schools as forerunners to these institutions.

However, in September 2015 the Department of Education (2015, p11) announced that they are axing the Creative Writing A-level – bringing the subject’s value into question. Having only been established in 2013, it is currently the only recognised qualification for creative writing in secondary education, and by discontinuing it, the DfE has effectively undermined its worth. The DfE explained that “it became clear that for AS and A-level in creative writing […], it has not been possible to draft subject content in accordance with the department’s guidance and Ofqual’s principles for reformed AS and A levels.”

Ofqual’s dilemma about subject content highlights a conflict within the subject; the assessment of something that is essentially a social practice and not merely a skill. As Anderson (2014, P97) states, “problems can arise when writing is approached as a discrete, individual skill to be learned in school, primarily in order that it might be tested. This is because writing is a socio-cultural practice, or set of practices. It involves people making meaning and getting things done within a cultural context…” By its nature, writing is universal, all-encompassing and intentionally broad in order to evoke higher order thinking.

The challenge of assessment also appears to have had a deeper impact in the development of the creativity within the whole curriculum according to Ferrari, Cachia & Punie (2009, p26). Assessment was reported as having a restricting impact on the educational process, endorsed by the work of Wyse and Jones (2003). They stated that “testing has narrowed school provision at the expense of creativity.” We are made to ask whether children should be encouraged to foster a curiosity that enables a freedom to be creative, rather than restricted by conformity that is so often created by the system of assessment?

But what exactly does it mean to be creative, particularly in regard to writing?

Goodwin (2004. p2) describes creativity in literacy as “the ‘effective surprise’ that occurs when the unpredictable connections of otherwise unrelated bits of knowledge or experience spark new insights and understanding.” By this definition, creativity is often impulsive and random, which implies that it is unfeasible to assess every learner in the same way. It is something often noted by teachers and students; assessing creative “worth” is subjective.

This, surely, is to be expected. Creative writing is about imagination, being original/innovative, breaking conventions, going beyond the obvious. Robinson (2013, p 5), the former national advisor on creative and cultural educations, argues that “creativity is not a linear process, in which you have to learn all the necessary skills before you get started. It is true that creative work in any field involves a growing mastery of skills and concepts. It is not true that they have to be mastered before the creative work can begin […] The real driver of creativity is an appetite for discovery and a passion for the work itself.”

Robinson’s definition seems appropriate for two reasons. Firstly, it accepts the notion that creativity is inherently inside all children; that it can be nurtured and encouraged, mastered and honed, but initially, the innovation must come from within. The second reason is because his definition keeps a love of learning and intellectual curiosity at the heart of what it means to be creative.

Corbett and Strong (2011, p2), argue that breadth of reading is crucial to the development of creative writing, which contradicts Ofqual’s current narrowing of the curriculum. They assert that “Unsurprisingly, the best writers in any class are always readers. Reading influences writing – indeed the richness, depth and breadth of reading determines the writer that we become.” It is important that we actively encourage pupils to read widely in order to support their creative development in writing and also across the curriculum. Blythe and Sweet (2008, p310) warn us about the dangers of a narrowly prescribed reading list stating that those “who assign the great works can perpetuate the cloning effect,” where the writing of all pupils in a class begins to conform and mimic the work of a studied author(s). They also question the legitimacy of the assigned literature, asking “Who, some ask, determines what makes a great work “great”?” By avoiding a prescribed reading list, the creative writing A-level enables pupils to discover ‘greatness’ for themselves based on their exposure to a plethora of different writers.

Furthermore, it is important to distinguish the synergy between the knowledge acquired through reading and pupil development of creativity through producing original writing. It is   the role of the teacher to enable an environment where students can effectively analyse other writers’ works and then apply their individual creative talent. As stated by the author and teacher Gibbons (2009, p10), “There has to be a balance between teaching features of writing and leaving a space within which the child can experiment, yes, play with language.” This balance between effective experimentation and teaching writerly techniques is essential for children to productively channel their creative playfulness and take ownership of their work.

What might an appropriate creative writing reading list look like? A short, reasonable list might include a variety of authors, poets and playwrights, in a plethora of different forms and genres – for instance, Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Harrigan, Huxley, Orwell, Ford, Thomas, Salinger, Lee, Durrell, Bryson, Donne, Elliot, Fitzgerald, Moore, Bradbury, and Atkinson. For AS and A-Level students, such a list may be more extensive than they’d encounter even in English Literature, yet there is no limit to the number of writers students of writing should read. As Corbett and Strong assert: the “richness, depth and breadth of reading determines the writer that we become.” It also promotes a holistic approach to creative writing as this emersion technique encourages a limitless horizon for pupil learning. By setting challenging goals, we can create learning that stretches every pupil by offering a syllabus with an infinity rich list of literature to suit the strengths of each child.

Part of the risk of teaching creative writing in schools is that a medium that is supposed to free the student – the writer – from constraints can become restricting, when the only focus of the course is to pass exams and fulfil pre-set criteria. Yet the value of teaching creative writing does expand to other areas of a child’s – indeed a person’s – skill set and development. In particular, the innovative thinking and inventive assertiveness that children foster through creative writing seems to be fundamental across the curriculum. Poetry written in creative writing classes becomes the lyrics to songs used in Music lessons; while essay skills are improved in History or Business Studies; investigative, innovative thought applied to Science experiments; grammar and vocabulary skills improve in Foreign Languages. In short, teaching creative writing helps pupils become students not just of writing or of literature; but of the world.

Creative writing is rooted in having original ideas. Therefore, how can we expect pupils to flourish imaginatively and artistically by conforming to narrow assessment objectives? As Paul Munden, the director of National Association of Writers in Education, warns us, “We defer inventive thinking at our peril.” (Munden. 2013, p1).

It is only within a safe and supportive environment that pupils are able to cultivate their flair for expression in a manner of different mediums to produce overwhelmingly imaginative, thoughtful and evocative writing. What is the point of creative writing? Everything.

Bibliography

Anderson. G. (2014) ‘Writing’ in Davidson, J. and Daly, C4th edition,’ Learning to Teach English in the Secondary School, A companion to school experience.’ Suffolk: Routledge.

AQA Subject Content:

http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/english/as-and-a-level/creative-writing-2750/subject-content  [15/12/15]

Barth, J. 1985, ‘Writing; Can it be taught?’ The New York Times 16 June. Available from: < http://www.nytimes.com/>. [15/12/15]

Blythe, H & Sweet, C. (2008) ‘The Writing Community: A New Model for the Creative Writing Classroom’ from Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture Volume 8, Number 2.  Duke University Press

Boyle, K. 1975, ‘New printers, new writers and a new literature’ The New York Times 14 September. Available from: < http://www.nytimes.com/>. [15/12/15]

Corbett, P & Strong, J. (2011) ‘Talk For Writing Across The Curriculum: How to teach non-fiction writing.’ (London). Open University Press.

Craft, A. (2002), ‘Creativity and early years education’ (London) Continuum. Bloomsbury Academic.

DfE (2015). Additional reformed GCSE and A level subject content consultation:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/459669/Additional-reformed-GCSE-and-A-level-subject-content-consultation.pdf  [15/12/15]

Ferrari, A. Cachia, R. & Punie, Y. “Innovation and Creativity in Education and Training in the EU Member States: Fostering Creative Learning and Supporting Innovative Teaching

Available from: < http://ftp.jrc.es/EURdoc/JRC52374_TN.pdf > [15/12/15]

Frater, G. (2004) ‘Improving Dean’s writing: what shall we tell the children.’ Literacy. 38, 78-82.

Gibbons, A. (2009) ‘Back to the Future – Or Putting the Creative Back in Writing.’ National Association for the Teaching of English. Classroom Issue No. 8.

Goodwin, P. 2004 ‘Lieracy through Creativity.’ (Oxford) David Fulton Publishers.

Kureishi, H. 2014, ‘What they don’t teach you at creative writing school,’ The Telegraph 25 January. Available from: < http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10594606/Hanif-Kureishi-What-they-dont-teach-you-at-creative-writing-school.html>. [15/12/15]

Kroll, J & Harper, G. 2008. ‘Creative Writing Guidebook.’ London: Continuum.

Minot, S. 2003. ‘Three Genres: Writing Fiction/Literary Nonfiction, Poetry, and Drama’ 7th ed. (London) Longman.

Munden. P. 2013. ‘The Rise of Creative Writing’. SecEd Magazine 2/05/13.

Available from: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/the-rise-of-creative-writing [15/12/15]

Ofqual. ‘Further Decisions for Completing GCSE, AS and A Level.’ 2015. Available from:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/479635/2015-05-14-reform-of-gcses-as-and-a-levels-in-2017-may-2015.pdf  [17/02/16]

Robinson, K. (2013) ‘To encourage creativity, Mr Gove, you must first understand what it is.’ Guardian. 17 May 2013.

Available from: < http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/17/to-encourage-creativity-mr-gove-understand > [15/12/15]

Wyse, D & Jones R. 2003 ‘Creativity in the Primary Curriculum’ (London): David Fulton Publishers.

 

About the author of this post

11920594_10153537595492145_200658208_nGeorge Vernon is a writer and English teacher based in the UK. He graduated from Warwick University with a first class (hons) degree in English Literature and Creative Writing in 2012, and completed his MA with distinction in Creative Writing from Chichester University in 2013. He has been shortlisted for the Almond Press Dystopian Short Story competition and won the Kate Betts award for most promising piece of fiction. When not teaching, George can be found writing; learning; living; loving. He tweets as @MrGeorgeVernon

We’re breaking up: how technology is dampening our creativity

foliosociety_1984_3

Reading the wonderful exchange of letters between Pulitzer Prize winning author, Willa Cather, and her friend and fellow writer, Sarah Jewett, one is struck immediately by how rare such thoughtful examples of communication have now become. Where once it was common to place such great thought and care into penned – or pencilled – correspondence, we now find ourselves changed by our electronic, immediate communications.

Why is it that our personal identities seem to shift when moving between these mediums? And what does it mean for us as individuals, and as a species?

These questions have in part been answered by Rebecca Sonit, one of the most incisive thinkers and exquisite essayists of our time, in her essay “We’re breaking up: Noncommunication in the Silicon Age”. Indeed, Solnit believes this shift and change began at a very specific point in the summer of 1995. She writes:

“On or around June 1995, human character changed. Or rather, it began to undergo a metamorphosis that is still not complete, but is profound — and troubling, not least because it is hardly noted. When I think about, say, 1995, or whenever the last moment was before most of us were on the Internet and had mobile phones, it seems like a hundred years ago. Letters came once a day, predictably, in the hands of the postal carrier. News came in three flavors — radio, television, print — and at appointed hours. Some of us even had a newspaper delivered every morning.”

Newspapers every morning! An unbelievable concept for so many of us living in our digital bubbles.

Some here might logically play the part of Lawrence Robertson – the fictitious CEO of USR, the massive Robotics conglomerate of I-Robot – who asks “Would you ban the internet just to keep the libraries open?” And sceptically suggest that worrying over technological progress has been the past-time of thinkers since time-immemorial. Italo Calvino, after all, bemoaned newspapers themselves as a worrisome distraction from what was really important: and one twelfth century Zen monk railed against books because they were “annoying”.

On the shredding of the fabric of time

Yet at the heart of Solnit’s argument is a discussion of the far more insidious effects of our modern communication technologies on the human psyche. These subtle changes, she argues, are beginning to shred the very fabric of time – or, at least, our perceptions of it – and beginning to blanket our daily lives and dictate the rhythm with which we live:

“Those mail and newspaper deliveries punctuated the day like church bells. You read the paper over breakfast. If there were developments you heard about them on the evening news or in the next day’s paper. You listened to the news when it was broadcast, since there was no other way to hear it. A great many people relied on the same sources of news, so when they discussed current events they did it under the overarching sky of the same general reality. Time passed in fairly large units, or at least not in milliseconds and constant updates. A few hours wasn’t such a long time to go between moments of contact with your work, your people, or your trivia.

[…]

The bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common. I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my mail while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone. Phones were wired to the wall, or if they were cordless, they were still housebound. The sound quality was usually good. On them people had long, deep conversations of a sort almost unknown today, now that phones are used while driving, while shopping, while walking in front of cars against the light and into fountains. The general assumption was that when you were on the phone, that’s all you were.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Solnit considers how correspondence changed from the thrilling event of receiving a letter — “the paper and handwriting told you something, as well as the words” — to the task-oriented pragmatism of fielding a demand or relaying one for the recipient to field:

“Letters morphed into emails, and for a long time emails had all the depth and complexity of letters. They were a beautiful new form that spliced together the intimacy of what you might write from the heart with the speed of telegraphs. Then emails deteriorated into something more like text messages… Text messages were bound by the limits of telegrams — the state-of-the-art technology of the 1840s — and were almost as awkward to punch out. Soon phone calls were made mostly on mobile phones, whose sound quality is mediocre and prone to failure altogether (“you’re breaking up” or “we’re breaking up” is the cry of our time) even when one or both speakers aren’t multitasking. Communication began to dwindle into peremptory practical phrases and fragments, while the niceties of spelling, grammar, and punctuation were put aside, along with the more lyrical and profound possibilities. Communication between two people often turned into group chatter: you told all your Facebook friends or Twitter followers how you felt, and followed the popularity of your post or tweet. Your life had ratings.”

But, says the content marketer, the SEO optimiser, the social media specialist, the digital executive, the blogger, the vlogger, the Instagram star, the Twitter hero (incidentally the new cast of the upcoming Breakfast Club sequel) – But, but there are so many benefits of our modern communication technologies! They are democratic! We can create our news ourselves! We self-publish, self-publicise! We spread ideas! Railing against change is as futile as Cnut trying to hold back the sea.

It’s true that there are a great many benefits – or at least, perceived benefits – of our modern communication technologies. Not least of which (of course) is this site itself (not to brag or anything), which without the immense power of the Internet would simply be a group of creative giraffe-aficionados writing long letters to each other that may never be read by more than a dozen souls. But perhaps there are costs to these new technologies that outweigh their benefits. Consider, as Solnit does, the following:

“Previous technologies have expanded communication. But the last round may be contracting it. The eloquence of letters has turned into the nuanced spareness of texts; the intimacy of phone conversations has turned into the missed signals of mobile phone chat. I think of that lost world, the way we lived before these new networking technologies, as having two poles: solitude and communion. The new chatter puts us somewhere in between, assuaging fears of being alone without risking real connection. It is a shallow between two deeper zones, a safe spot between the dangers of contact with ourselves, with others.”

Digital isolation

A familiar concept in this digital era is the strange isolation that modern communication models create for individuals – distracting them from real life and real-lived conversations and human communication. This is perhaps best depicted in the increasingly familiar sight of a group of people seated together at a restaurant, each staring into their phones instead of conversing with one another.

But what do such scenes mean? Perhaps we are only just realising that human beings are less interesting in person than they are online. Or perhaps it is symptomatic of a restlessness which has seized so many of us – a fear of missing out on news or updates; or else caused by a new era in which we are continually distracted from real life. Solnit suggests it is “an anxiety about keeping up, about not being left out or getting behind.”

Of course, the tragedy here is that, however discomfiting such anxieties are, the sense of missing out is in fact essential to a full life – and indeed a creative life. As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips notes in his book “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life”:

“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”

And something as simple as heading outside to sit quietly by ourselves and embracing boredom can in fact enhance the creative’s ability to produce new art, new thought, new ideas and formulate better answers to the questions they contend with as they attempt to write their novels, or paint their masterpieces.

Yet the new mediums of the digital era seek to disable this, and distract us. Our time no longer comes in large, focused blocks, but rather in fragments and shards. As Solnit notes: “We’re shattered. We’re breaking up.”

She continues:

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there, alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded those open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void and filled up with sounds and distractions.”

When we are constantly driven to check our social media apps for notifications, and compose the shortest and most succinct emails and social media statuses, which, by design, must be created almost without thought or any real deliberation or consideration – we are distanced from the ability to think hard about something for the length of time necessary to ponder important questions. We can no longer contemplate the essential mysteries of the universe – or express these creatively – when we are too busy trying to write a funny tweet about Donald Trump in 140 characters or reply to Jeremy in HR with an email that treads that fine-line between snappy and rude.

Such a scenario was perceived way back in 1948 by Henry Beston – a rather adroit bridge-builder between humanity and nature – whose bewitching work “Northern Farm” features a timeless meditation on the relationship between humanity and technology:

“What has come over our age is an alienation from Nature unexampled in human history. It has cost us our sense of reality and all but cost us our humanity. With the passing of a relation to Nature worthy both of Nature and the human spirit, with the slow burning down of the poetic sense together with the noble sense of religious reverence to which it is allied, man has almost ceased to be man. Torn from earth and unaware, having neither the inheritance and awareness of man nor the other sureness and integrity of the animal, we have become vagrants in space, desperate for the meaninglessness which has closed about us. True humanity is no inherent and abstract right but an achievement, and only through the fullness of human experience may we be as one with all who have been and all who are yet to be, sharers and brethren and partakers of the mystery of living, reaching to the full of human peace and the full of human joy.”

The context of reality: straight outta context

The loss of our sense of reality, which Beston touches upon, of course can be traced through the many existentialist writings and musings of essayists and commentators, writers and artists throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 1980, for instance, George W.S. Trow penned his seminal essay, ‘Within the Context of No-Context’, a terrifyingly prescient doomsday prophecy about the corrosive effects of electronic media.

Of course, what is so worrying for a modern reader of Trow’s essay is just how prescient the essay is. It predates the blogosphere and social media. It’s pre 24 hour News, pre-reality show. Yet Trow still sees cognitive and psychological destruction at the heart of ‘new media’, which Trow suggests exists solely to “establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it.”

Just as the television Trow derides holds “no history”, so too do modern forms of communication and new digital technologies bring with them nothing constructive, but rather only destructive: the annihilation of cognitive thought and well-argued expression in favour of those curt emails and meaningless social media status updates. In this world, it is reality, as well as our own minds and thoughts, which is fractured, which is lost.

Reclaiming reality

To reclaim reality, and once again piece together our lives and sense of time, which have been fractured by the new digital technology, perhaps the answer is to slow everything down. To contemplate and articulate the value of the real world outside electronic chatter and distraction. To find alternatives. To put the world and our lives back together again.

As Beston writes, this may begin outside:

“Oh, work that is done in freedom out of doors, work that is done with the body’s and soul’s goodwill, work that is an integral part of life and is done with friends — is there anything so good?”

So, if you’re still reading this, close your internet browser and throw your smartphone in the nearest stream. Quit your office job and see if the local farmer has any jobs going. You never know, it might just give you the ideas and freedom you need to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on.

 

The tricks of the essayist; a sympathetic summary

Essay

In his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation – Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and a Guide to True Politeness –  Arthur Martine provided the following advice for those who find themselves in “disputes upon moral or scientific points”:

“Let your aim be to come at truth, not conquer your opponent. So you shall never be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

In these heady days of the babbling Twittersphere and online trolls; of half-baked, half-formed comments on the echo chambers of Reddit and Facebook; it is fair to say that such advice is rarely heeded. Indeed, the artillery we deploy when hidden behind computer screens and keyboards is less reasonable argument and more simple menace: it is reaction, rather than response. They are opinion, rather than critique.

Yet it needn’t be this way. Rather than believe the falsehood that we must be right at all costs, it is surely preferable that we all engage in active discussion and conversation – and look to deploy skills that enable us to better understand the world around us, and in turn advance the collective understanding of humankind.

Into this may step the non-fiction essay. The written argument or critique, which unfortunately often shows signs of disintegrating in response to the culture of the online newspaper comments section. Indeed, with a few exceptions – most notably the Guardian’s George Monbiot, perhaps – the opinion or comment pages on most of the UK’s newspapers, from the Guardian and the Independent on the so-called establishment left, through to the corporate propaganda at work in The Times and The Telegraph, are increasingly falling short of the high standards necessary for advancing human thought and consciousness through debate, discussion and reasoning.

What is lacking in so many of our debates and so many of the essays available to us, is the necessary rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the art of countering potential criticism, which takes charge of conceivable counterarguments and thoroughly challenges them, seeking ultimately to debunk or disprove them. This is a problem for thinkers of all philosophical and political persuasions, because they are neither able to refute the arguments of others effectively, nor have their own arguments held up to the necessary scrutiny. How can Owen Jones, for instance, improve his argument when the only charge levied against him from those who disagree is that he is “a loony lefty”? Equally, how can those who challenge him hope to advance their own opinions instead, when Jones can easily dismiss such charges out of hand?

As is often the case, there are countless examples from history that illustrate how we can reinvigorate our arguments.

That’s so Blaise

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the ‘three elements of persuasion’ – attunement, buoyancy and clarity – French physicist, philosopher, mathematician and inventor, Blaise Pascal, intuited these same mechanisms as he arrived at what he saw as the great truth about the secret of persuasion: that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping it in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In his work Pensees, he examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion into its essence:

“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

On the origin of effective argumentative strategy

Two centuries on from Pascal’s intimations, Charles Darwin – who surely needs no introduction – provided supreme practical proof of the French philosopher’s insight, as he changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth.

Indeed, Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of pre-empting criticism and effectively countering counter arguments before they are levied at our arguments, is explored by New Yorker contributor and essayist, Adam Gopnik, in his book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterworkOn the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

“The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.”

As the book progresses, Gopnik advances in more detail his thoughts on what lies behind this habit of “sympathetic summary”, and considers the essential principle, which lies at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical excellence, which in turn illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

“A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.”

The marriage of ideas and argument

What Pascal and Darwin illustrate in abundance, then, is the necessary ability to marry visionary ideas with a mastery of argument. But of these two aspects, it is perhaps the latter that is the vital requisite to convincing others that your argument bears most weight.

Think, for instance, of Alfred Russel Wallace, known for arriving at the same conclusions of Darwin – concerning natural selection and evolution – but failing to take any credit for this discovery for decades after his death.

The idea both men advanced upon is fundamentally the same: but could Wallace have posited his thesis as effectively as Darwin, and brought about the cultural revolution in thinking that Darwin did? He might have written the words and evidence in support of his own idea, but could he have answered the objections Darwin faced? The likelihood is not: because at its heart, the Origin of Species is a book of answers to questions that are expected to be asked, but have not yet been spoken, and it provides examples and evidence and counter arguments to faceless opponents yet to emerge.

An act of charity

Daniel Dennett, described as “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russel”, picks up on some of the elements present in Darwin’s and Pascal’s works, as he probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics necessary within essay writing. Most pertinently, asking the question “just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?”

In his work, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, Dennet offers what he calls “the best antidote for the tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a set of rules, or steps, laid out below as a simple starting guide to all aspiring and established essayists.

“How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

Such a strategy is ultimately simple in its theory, yet remains cuttingly effective. For it transforms your opponents – faceless or otherwise – into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion, and the argument. Thus avoiding the risk that all philosophical and political debate becomes the sound of a single record stuck on repeat, exposing retried and reconstituted, regurgitated facts, figures and opinions round and round on a ceaseless merry-go-round of nonsense.

At its heart, this strategy is about seeing what people might say, turning it into what they ought to say, and then answering.

If only such a code of conduct could be advised and followed to all critical commentary online – though doing so in 140 characters might be a feat too far.

 

How not to write about music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. "

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. “

Firstly, gratitude: Extensive thanks to Dan McGurty for his help with this piece.

Musical epiphanies

Musical epiphanies are fun. I mean specifically like when you just get a song where you never did before, which I often find happens when listening to the song in question out of its usual context – say you always listen to the whole album and this song’s maybe three-quarters through by which point you’ve stopped properly paying attention how you do to the openers, or you haven’t listened to this band in years and back when you did this was one of the ones you skated over, or, or – but whenever it happens, at least that first time, it is an out-of-nowhere fist clenched round the sternum, is like a body of water you long since convinced yourself was placid empty now suddenly come thrashing all leviathan, and all you can do is sit back and behold. But this I tend to find comes mixed in with a kind of regret, and also a kind of anxiety: lost time, coupled with the possibility that this is only temporary, the attunement will pass, and both of these down notes are maybe not just inevitable but actually necessary for the proper shape of the rush in that they make it that much more vital, immediate. And this is all pretty much instantaneous, which is kind of trippy. So: fun.

I’m pretty shit at listening to music so I’ve had probably six or seven musical epiphanies with Don Caballero (or Don Cab, if you prefer, which I do) alone, two of which were with the same song (The Peter Criss Jazz.) (Both of them, incidentally, happened when I was falling asleep; I don’t quite know what that says about me, or it, or anything, but probably not that much.) The first one – which was during the second movement – I was on a train, (somewhere in Yorkshire I think,) and actually it wasn’t so much that I was falling asleep as I was shifting back and forth between sleep and not, where you don’t entirely know where you are, or what that would mean, and then it doesn’t matter because where you really are is carried on the movement of this music, fluting and wind and gorgeous in the way of something behind glass and refracted and then I properly woke up. The next one – the first part of the song – I didn’t get until probably a couple of years later; I was mostly asleep on a floor, (in Edinburgh this time,) drifting again, and I think one of the speakers was like right next to my head which probably influenced matters somewhat, but the song it just opened up like I’d never quite heard before; like the mouth down into a cave, or I guess like a story.

*

I don’t know if this is a particularly common thing or not – based on the (again kind of few) people I’ve spoken to about it, I’m not sure that I know anyone else for whom this is true, but that might just be me explaining it badly – but I tend to (kind of, sort of, a bit) experience or conceptualise music visually. As far as I can tell this isn’t synaesthesia; there aren’t actual sense impressions or associations, particularly. More it’s as shapes, or as a series of lines. Picture an xy line graph, like plotted from a polygraph or a richter scale in many films. The line shifts over time, peaks and troughs, goes back on itself, overlaps, evolves. It’s like that, only it’s not the same because a graph is just that – is a graphical representation of data, which data is something and somewhere else. The graph is a signifier; the music – the image – is itself.

Only that seems somewhat incomplete, at least in that music itself doesn’t just exist; somebody made it, or somebody made the instrument that made it, or the device through which you listen to it, and so on and so forth but which would mean that the shapes are, in fact, a representation of something else: some data, or else information, whatever was in the musician’s head when they made it. Crappy morning. Argument between the bandmates. Relationship: complicated. Financial pressure. Producer’s insane. Extensive drugs. Any and all of these things are there because nothing about music – as all art – is inevitable, and however much it’s refined, however much that which is not the statue gets stripped away, it’s still fundamentally contingent. Only I’m not convinced that matters? However too much coffee the drummer had before the band started jamming, whatever phone call the singer got, the pianist’s sister’s pregnancy, it is or it can be basically meaningless in the listener’s experience of the music. (You don’t have to ignore biography, but it helps.) So at least in the event of experiencing, the shapes are shapes; are music; are themselves.

*

Depression is a funny thing. (Debatable). (But it kind of really is). There are explicable, empirical reasons for it, and it (both the state and specific episodes, or bouts) can be traced to triggering events, and to an extent it can be understood, sometimes fought (if that’s a useful way of describing it, which it may well not be) or otherwise dealt with, but I can’t help feeling like these are to depression – the experience of it – as the hangover the band had when they went in to record is to the experience of listening. The state of depression is itself. A concrete phenomenon, yes; separate from the fact of the chemical imbalance (or possibly more accurately the altered chemical balance,) the sensation itself is (sometimes, for some people, maybe) all but physical – something like nausea, but also something like pressure, and also like you exist twice: you are, and you are slightly – say five centimetres – shifted left, occupying or overlapping the same physical space, pulled simultaneously toward and against, unable to reconcile and unable to maintain that tension, but it’s really not as if you have much of a choice. (Whether one or the other of these iterations takes precedence – is the “real you” – is I guess up for debate, but me personally, I would say not.) But it is a dislocation beyond or beside the physical, as well; a separation from time into only moment. There is this, now, and it is unconnected to any then, because to suggest that there even could be a then in any direction would be to imply that now, that this, could be other than it is. Could be not this adrift. And colourless; or not so much colourless as no colour in itself but a muting or a greying of others, dragging all surrounding into its own leaden unevent. Flat, but also warped; wrong like an angle but at the same time inexorably right. This is it. This is what you are. Do I contradict myself. Very well I contain zero. I contain entropy. Depression is a slowing; is the inside of a collapsing mouth.

The first full movement of The Peter Criss Jazz – after the intro with the harmonics (I think that’s what they are) over the drums, in I think 6/8 or possibly 4 with a triplet feel, with the drill-sound tremolo bass hits underneath the layered guitar, at the edges the chords bleeding in, and over the top, around, the throughline guitar melody, coiling and fractured and barbed like a voice, like someone saying I can’t go on I’ll go on I can’t I’ll on I can’t I will can’t I: this – if music is noumenon, or is as close as we can get to direct experience – is the sensation of depression. Or if depression refers not specifically or not solely to the emotional state, but – as a clinical diagnosis – the concomitant physical effects, the triggers, all of it, then those two and a half minutes, stumbling and cyclical and subdued and a lurch through tangled water and with no promise of an end, are despair.

The second section’s something else. Tenser, more urgent, I think; the bass loop through the whole is nervy, hunted, and above that mark the repeating four-note melody colliding with itself in bent reflections on like a wire-edge balance, dancing round a vortex, step to keep above, always on, and it’d be frantic enough without the drums in cardiac landslide under, beating from the wire, but see where in the first section they were a structure underpinning, were the bones, here they pick up where that chanting melody left off: centre-stage, a torrent dragging through and where despair strips you of time, anchors you in windowless grey, here in this stretched-shape anxiety you’re hyper-aware of the passing, it’s all you can do to keep moving, to find anything like a stable footing, to keep up to the impossible evershifting now with the blood like caustic blink thrumming in your ears and your chest gone echo and your eyes patchwork out until it settles.

Which is in itself a key difference: in some way, this section resolves. Where the first movement spirals on itself, layering chords and loops and shaded by the leading melody but never really undergoing any fundamental change from where it starts, the second stays more stripped-down the whole way through while the drums build into a climax; and then there is a shift, and that four-note melody, at the end, has moved forward by one beat from the off- to the on. Surer footing, maybe. A different balance achieved. Story: someone climbs up a tree, comes back down from said tree having changed. It arcs out, this part, held just together with the loop but it’s an orbit deranged to shatter, to battering cascade and when it comes back round it has learned something out there in the dark.

*

The whole album is a classic

It sounded like a narrative to me, I guess is what I’m getting at, when I was mostly passed out on the floor. There’s a third movement to the song – after an interlude with these ghost-colour harmonics that curve and pan from left to right – and it is maybe best described as happy. All major-key swung rhythm and clatteringly bombastic fills over walking bass and the melody tangling over and this would make sense, as a conclusion, or a reward; through despair, then panic, into primary-colour relief. But it’s not; there’s no resolution, no single cathartic moment, it just continues into fade and the melody never exactly repeats but works through the chord always off-kilter, pushed back to where it nearly falls off the beat every time but just about makes it. Not calm; happy, sure, but no less tense, no less of a balancing act than ever before. It’s work; it is always going to be work. – but I mean this is projection, this is all subjective, this was no insight into the true nature of anything it was just I was half-awake and stoned and dumped and fucked up, and no one experience of anything whether music or depression or any anything can necessarily ever meaningfully map onto another, so, like, what the fuck. But then if music is a direct experience of some kind – not an expression of any one person’s particular emotional state, but a capturing of something that actually is – even then it doesn’t follow that we can hear it as such. By what mechanism could anyone, observed as we are, actually grasp it? Wouldn’t we just fit it as best we could into the shape of our own experience, twisting it where we have to, maybe widening ourselves where we can? Or: you hear what you hear; I guess I heard something that sounded familiar, and maybe some thoughts about getting better. Or maybe not so much getting as staying. (Which – to be clear – most likely requires somewhat more than a song.)

It is a bit of an odd one, though, even-especially within the context of the rest of the band’s music; I guess embedded within/necessary for the idea of a musical epiphany is the fact of not initially being that into the music in question, and I strongly did not get this song for, like, a while. (As previously noted: shit at listening to music.) You can maybe hear aspects of it prefigured in the stuttered, uncertain close-out of No-One Gives A Hoot About Faux-Ass Nonsense, or the swirling-embers-into-night end sequence of In The Absence Of Strong Evidence To The Contrary, One May Step Out Of The Way Of The Charging Bull but I don’t know you’d ever guess that they’d lead into this. Ian Williams (guitarist) has talked fairly extensively about taking influence from composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, particularly in terms of cyclical structures; he and Damon Che (drummer) famously despised each other, and given the different musical directions they pursued after Don Cab’s breakup – respectively, Battles, and a reformed (and significantly more straightforward math-rock) Don Cab – it’s difficult, as much as anyone might want to ignore biography, not to hear a tension in the architecture of the song. Personally I always visualise it as a line, and horizontal. Overhead are brief lights, like moments of frost formed and then gone in the air, which silvers at its edges; the line is both black and white at once, and it rises at intervals to the glow but always returns to flat. In between the line and the light are, variously, empty space; interruptions of tangling, like minor clouds by cross-hatching, and dense; an asemic scrawl of one symbol insistent, and repeating, and lit; and another line, like a ribbon, maybe paper and with both edges torn, and unfurling.

About the author of this post

David Greaves

David Greaves’ poetry and fiction has appeared in ‘Valve’, the ‘Verge’ anthology and ‘From Glasgow To Saturn’ journal, and his prose-poetry pamphlet, ‘Hinged’, was released by the New Fire Tree Press in 2011. He mostly doesn’t tweet at @dgrbolith