Literature and Anti-Literature
Books Beyond Therapy
There must have been little to keep Nelson Mandela hopeful throughout his 27 years in prison. One of his few consolations was the poetry he had memorised. It’s said he would recite Invictus by William Ernest Henley to his fellows:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
At its best, literature can speak to us from a world beyond our own. It can liberate us from our immediate circumstances. It can educate and humanise, and bring us flashes of hope, freedom, wisdom, and happiness.
But literature doesn’t always have the effect it seeks. Something which is meant to be inspiring may sound flat. Moral instruction could fail to raise above the level of judgemental preaching. What’s meant to be spooky could just be cheesy. Attempts by the author to write characters that don’t reflect their own personal life may be inauthentic or offensive.
Yet for literature to have a serious effect on us, it has to risk this failure. The writer has to be wiling to use his imagination to transcend his limited perspective on his immediate surroundings, so in the process of writing he can discover things as they truly are. If he limits himself to the material of his own life, he is depriving himself of the tools he might use to attain a richer understanding.
Some American writers in the 1970s sought to weave literature, autobiography, and journalism into a new literary genre. At its best, this allows a writer to tap into the psychological currents flowing through his life, extracting them for literary purposes. At its worst, this became a literary self-indulgence, what Christopher Lasch called anticonfession:
Instead of fictionalizing personal material or otherwise reordering it, they have taken to presenting it undigested, leaving the reader to arrive at his own interpretations. Instead of working through their memories, many writers now rely on mere self-disclosure to keep the reader interested, appealing not to his understanding but to his salacious curiosity about the private lives of famous people.
This echoes Mark Schorer’s criticism of Thomas Wolfe. At one point a literary star, Thomas Wolfe is now one of those writers that is relatively unheard of. His former celebrity meant nothing for the quality of his work. He is not especially popular anymore - there are other literary celebrities now - and his works have not been held in great esteem. Numerous copies of his books now line the tables at the yearly Tawa Rotary Club Book Fair, which the grannies pass by in apathy.
This is what Mark Schorer wrote about him:
Talent there was, if one means by talent inexhaustible verbal energy, excessive response to personal experience, and a great capacity for auditory imitativeness, yet all of this has nothing to do with the novelistic quality of the written result; until the talent is controlled, the material organized, the content achieved, there is simply the man and his life… Our response to the books is determined, not by their qualities as novels, but by our response to him and his qualities.
That last sentence suggests a particular way of reading, in which our impressions are formed by the personal life of the writer. This is a limiting perspective, one which prevents us from seeing a work of literature for what it is, because we are instead evaluating it according to the social circumstances it reflects or informs. We are giving up on literature when we do this. We are stripping it of its power to speak beyond the immediate.
There are many more temptations to do this now - in 2021 - than Mark Schorer - in 1948 - could have imagined. Numerous calls have been made for more diversity in the literary and scholarly canon, so that races, ethnicites, and genders that have been underpresented can have their own voices heard. Yet a sensible suggestion - to broaden our literary horizons - too easily flips into a fear of writing beyond our immediate experience, viewing literature only according to the world view which generated it. This has the ironic effect of narrowing and confining the subject matter of writers, rather than broadening it. And readers become conditioned to only read works according to the identity-based strictures they place upon the writer.
Literature has much more to offer than that. It is not just journal-writing or creative non-fiction. It’s not just the expression of a particular world view. We should not evaluate it purely on those terms.
When Mark Schorer criticised Thomas Wolfe, he was grappling with an age old question: how do you evaluate a work of art? On what basis can we say one book is good and another bad, one art and another pulp fiction?
All writing has a subject matter. And the writer uses various techniques in order to reveal his subject matter as faithfully or expressively or exactingly as possible. These may be narrative techniques, story-telling techniques, careful word-choice, arranging the words to give a particular rhythm, writing in different ways at different times to reflect what is happening in the story. All of this is available to the writer:
And surely it follows that certain techniques are sharper tools than others, and will discover more; that the writer capable of the most exacting technical scrutiny of the subject matter, will produce works with the most satisfying content, works with thickness and resonance, works which reverberate, works with maximum meaning.
This may sound like the subject matter is a static object and the writer is picking up a bunch of different paint brushes with which he sketches a representation of the object. Writers aren’t just examining their subjects; writing is a dynamic process, wherein the writer plots out the terrain of their subject matter, giving it a structure within which the reader may experience it. This is not mere representation or mimesis, but exploration; hence the name of Schorer’s essay: Technique as Discovery.
On this view the author himself is basically irrelevant when we are evaluating the quality of his work, and I don’t see a problem with that; if a work of art can produce a certain emotion or understanding - if it can see Nelson Mandela through 27 years of misery - what does it matter if it was written by someone utterly unlike him in the Victorian age?
It’s more obvious how little the author matters when we remind ourselves that we have no idea who wrote some of the most transformative works in history. We have no idea who wrote the books of the Bible, nor who the real Homer was who composed The Odyssey and The Iliad. That doesn’t prevent us from getting everything we’ve gotten out of them, which includes a religion and most of the parameters of western literature.
In the age of social media, authors now have brands and images. They are minor celebrities. They post on Twitter accounts and network at events for writers. Many of them come out of the same writing courses, or are closely involved with the journals in which their work is published. This may be necessary to sell books, but it’s a distraction to their actual work, and by fixating on writers like this, we are disposing ourselves to evaluate their books by things which are not actually contained within them. Books become irrelevant, except as a way to access an author’s intellectual celebrity. Our response to a book is actually a response to the author’s social message or public brand or personal life or stance on the culture wars - and this is a response that is manipulated by the channels of mass media and mass culture, formed before we have even read the book.
Which brings me back to Invictus. Do you think it’s a good poem? It’s a poem of big emotions, not all of which I feel when I read it. But let’s compare it to i will find my way out of you just fine by Rupi Kaur:
when they buried me alive
i dug my way
out of the ground
with palm and fist
i howled so loud
the earth rose in fear and
the dirt began to levitate
my whole life has been an uprising
one burial after another
Like Invictus, this is a defiant poem. The narrator, who has been “buried alive”, was so psychologically powerful that he was able to dig his way back out. His voice made the world tremble and he was able to levitate dirt with it, like he had magic or supernatural powers. His whole life has been like this; he calls it an “uprising”, a word with political connotations, which invites the reader to feel like they’re part of the mob breaking out of the ground. “One burial after another” suggests he will be in this situation again, but it will be overcome in the same way.
This poem is a bit all over the place. While the title suggests this poem is about a relationship, nothing in its body reinforces that. Magical and political and physical imagery intermingle. The language is not particularly fresh: “buried alive” is a cliche, and the dirt “levitating” is quite odd. Rupi Kaur describes the dirt levitating right after she describes the earth rising - isn’t that the same thing? The narrator shows no weakness or vulnerability. There is no struggle to fight, no adversity to overcome; only other people to mentally overpower. If the narrator is so powerful he can levitate dirt and move the earth like some kind of X-Man, then the poem comes off more boastful than hopeful.
In Henley’s poem the narrator must overcome many things. He doesn’t just overpower them with magic, but struggles against them, and survives. He has come “out of the night”, thankful for his existence. When he is strong, he is also on the verge of being defeated: “bloody but unbowed”, “the menace of the years/Finds and shall find me unafraid,” etc. He lacks control over his battles, being “In the fell clutch of circumstance.” This makes him seem vulnerable and therefore human. It sharpens the poem’s conclusion, when he declares: “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.” The repetition is simple. It almost sounds like a prayer or a karakia or a Hail Mary - something he might chant to himself in times of evil.
I don’t think Invictus is an amazing poem. When it’s not inspiring, it’s cheesy and sentimental. But it takes the risk of making you feel big emotions, and in doing so it has the possibility of rising above being more than just the author’s psychic self-assurances. When we’re not entranced by the celebrity of Rupi Kaur, we are more likely to be moved by William Ernest Henley. Maybe you could put the difference by saying: whatever its flaws as a poem, I can imagine Nelson Mandela surviving 27 years in jail with only Invictus to recite to himself. I can’t imagine him doing that with i will find my way out of you just fine. If that’s all he had, he might well have just given up.
"Invictus” is a Latin word, meaning “unconquerable”.
Christoper Lasch. The Culture of Narcissism. Published by W. W. Norton & Company in New York, 1979. p. 17.
Mark Schorer. Technique as Discovery. Published in The Hudson Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1948. p. 81.
ibid. p. 67.