The Products of Writing While Angry

I've just finished reading 'Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman', an unfinished novel by Mary Wollstencraft, and there is something that has been gnawing at me, an idea that Virginia Woolf presented in 'A Room of One's Own.'

Let me preface by saying that I'm glad I read this book, although it was VERY unfinished. But, the thing that gnawed at me was that the plot, while marvelously creative, is sometimes hijacked by the writing, and that this particularly gives one the feeling that, sometimes, the players in the book are there, sometimes, simply because there is another wrong Ms W wanted to display. There is no median life, there is no examination of an issue, simply a recitation of the author's opinion. And if the book was completed in the vein it was going (understanding of course that it WAS unfinished, and so this is only the bones of the work), I'm not really sure it would have been as powerful as she wanted - at least in the way she wanted. Reading it, I didn't feel a lot of emotion for the characters in the book, simply emotion for the woman who must have lived a life to inspire her to write the characters in the book (so, her anger on the pages DOESN'T come across as distant or sanctimonious the way that, say, Dickens does to me sometimes). At some level, the book is simply a melodrama, and a didactic melodrama at that. And this isn't in spite of, but rather BECAUSE you can feel how much the writer WANTS you to understand what it is she's trying to say.

So this returned me to Woolf, who in A Room of One's Own, at one point basically goes to explain why the writing of women over the last several hundred years was inferior to that of men (leaving aside, for a moment, whether this supposition is even true). One of the explanations she came up with was that a writer like, say, Charlotte Bronte had so much a sense of injuistice and anger that it imbued into her work and left it imperfect. Her basic point (and I'm wildly parpahrasing, and not a scholar to start with, so please correct me) was that someone like Shakespeare could only write what he wrote because he was comfortable enough and lived a just enough life that he need not feel anything that got in the way of his execution. (the idea of this is particularly fascintaing to me reading Woolf's own work)

This was a troubling idea to me when I first read it, and it's only become more troubled over the years. Something like, say, the poetry of Shelley is powerfully imbued with his own emotions, and this is part of why it's so powerful. It's difficult for me to imagine, say, Ozymandias being written without the fire of revolutionary fervor that sustained Shelley's life. This fire isn't subdued to keep it from tainting his work, it's instead the flames of it that burn bright enough for him to write by, in a way. This is true of any of the romantics to my mind, or as another example, to the Beat writers of the 50's.

But at the same time, one is left with the nagging question - why is it that feeling somethign powerfully can get in the way of expressing it? At some level, one CAN imagine it being easier for, say, Wollstencraft's romantic partner, one level removed from the problem of woman but still interested in the question, to write a powerful novel decrying it than she did (I speak this with some ignorance, I haven't read his novels that deal with anarchism and other ideas, yet, but the point I hope stands). I've done this myself - writing poems about things immediate and pressing can sometimes trick me into just shouting, instead of taking the time to consider and think. The more feeling, the more the lips are shut, in a sense.

But then, on the other hand, how are the problems in Maria more immediate to Wollstencraft than, say, the problems in 'Daddy' or 'Lady Lazarus' are to Sylvia Plath? And with Ms Sylvia, it's the immediacy and inevitably that reality imbued in her that MAKE those poems powerful, I think. If she had been writing about someone else's problems, as it were, she wouldn't have written as well.

Sometimes, I think, this is simply a matter of temperament. There are those tho feel things in such a way that the very feeling of them clarifies them, and then there are those who must muddle through a feeling, and look at it in hindsight before they can describe. The one can write something more fiery and scorching (say, Lady Lazarus), the other perhaps something with the power of nostalgia and hindsight, slower and more balanced (a good example might be A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or even in a different way, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man), and still others may be better of writing about the problems of others, playing advocates better than confessionals (maybe Les Miserables).

Another  idea, maybe, is simply that we've learned to write the fiery present better over time. The confessional poets are, after all, in many ways a break from the past, as were the Romantics. But this is always a troubling idea - expressing what you feel is, after all, one of the oldest human urges, and it isn't too hard, no matter how far back one goes, to imagine that there are contradictions to a line of 'when people figured it out'. There is, perhaps, something to be said for the older literary bias against emotional writing (which does, after all still exist - how many scholars out there still think Plath is only beloved because she killed herself, and is in fact only a minor poet?). But it's difficult to make this a blanket reason.

Perhaps a better explanation is in the idea of literary crticism itself. I have over the past year read some Plato, and his quotation of Socrates, and one of the things that continously gnaws at and bothers me is this emphasis on 'perfection' and the ideal. Read, for instance, Socrates almost gleefully discarding 95% of the mythological, musical, and literary traditions as one of the precursors to describing the perfect state in 'The Republic', and if you love diversity of voices like me, you'll shudder a bit. So much of the ancient philosophy centers on teh ideal, the perfect. There isn't any such thing, and NOT for the reasons I was taught as a child I think, not because we're not CAPABLE of perfection the way Christianity has taught through the years. One of the reasons, at some level that it's difficult for me to imagine a fair version of Christ or Heaven is that is impossible for one person or place to be just what every human being would want it to be - one cannot hold that many contradictions in one object. Christianity classically took this issue and flipped it upside down, just as Plato does, and says that htis is simply because most people have not discovered, or fully understood, what it is that is ideal for them. IF we all knew everything, and understood fully the plans of God, we would all want the same thing - to sublimate our individuality, and become a piece of god, having sacrificed everything, including our selfdom. I can see the nobility in this idea, but I can also the vice in it - it is painful for me to read the Odyssey right now, and see how, for instance, the swineherd is praised for essentially becoming no more than an extension of his master.

It is my supposition that perfection cannot exist, becuase there IS no ideal, no one perfect state. Happiness is intrinsically contraidctory when described as a universal state, and there is no recipe for it, or even any universal test to see if it has been attained. This is, after all, the root of what makes human existence so isolating - each of us is prisoner of our own head, unable to open the door sufficiently to crawl out, or let anyone else crawl in. All we can do is hold things up to the bars so that the prisoners nearby can see them, perhaps occasionally reach something through so that someone else can touch them. For us, then, to assume we know the outlines of happiness, then, is to assume that each mind is essentially identical - it is to assume that difference is intrinsically wrongness, imperfection. The closest, after all, that the greeks seemed to come to appreciating difference, was in describing friendship or the idea of a soul mate - which is not so much saying difference is good, as that difference is something that can only be overcome by borrowing things from each other - that the differentness of the two individuals is a wrongness, but a remediable one, if only they can find each other.

But, this wrongness-feeling is deeply embedded in our culture, perhaps one might suppose looking at the behavior of animals sometimes towards their own outliers and freaks, genetic. And when it is inculcated day to day, it's very difficult to overcome. Looking at Maria through that lens, you can see Wollstencraft (or Dickens in some of his work, or Shelly in Prometheus Unbound, or Browning in her social justice poetry, or a thousand other examples) running against the edge of a cliff that she has been taught never to look past, for to look is to desire something wrong, it is to step over that cliff, and surely die. So, they stand at the edge of the cliff and wail that they cannot step off it, struggle to understand how to consign their 'imperfections' to a world that demands a standard they (or others whom they defend or love) are ill-suited to. So, to read the book with no appreciation of it's context, is to read dull, noisy circles, whirlpooling around a vortex that we want to understand, but never allowing itself to be sucked in. But, to read Maria, understanding how it must have felt to want to write it, but to be unable, to wish to be and not be all at once the thing that you are, that's a very different experience, and one I'm glad I had. After all, it's not so different from what some of us do now

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Lovebirds Challenge

First of all, I'm sorry I haven't been very talkative for a very long time. It's been a wild year, but I won't do a long, tiresome 'guess what I did last indefinite-time-period' post for you, I promise. 

Instead, I wanted to let you know, Amanda and I are doing a little challenge together. Of course, I imagine you all already know that, since you posted it on her blog already, here. But I'm telling you again. So there. 

Amanda and I have WILDLY different tastes, at times, so picking lists for her was somethign of a challenge, my sense of defeatism tells me she'll probably hate the two books I shouldn't have put on there... :D. But, I am excited about the ones she chose for me! I am so horrible about reading anything contemporary, it's fun to have someone push me into it in spite of myself. So I will be reading:

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi - I've heard from everyone and their dog that this book is wonderful, so I'm looking forward to it. I really don't know that much about Iranian history, either, so it will be good to brush up.
Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn - I honestly, intended to read this anyway. Word play, parable, semi-dystopia, epistolary, messages about what language means, cleverly funny title...
Plain Kate by Erin Bow - It's a fairy tale retelling, with a talking animal, that Amanda liked. Honestly, this is a confluence of factors so rare as to make the book valuable with no further explanation.
Little Children by Tom Perrotta - I don't know a lot about this book, but I do know it has a pedophile that is apparently an actual human being instead of a soulless monster, and it has Kate Winslet on the cover... I like Kate Winslet. She just seems like such a wonderful person.
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - The only one of Mr. Neil's books I've ever read is Blueberry Girl, and one book of Sandman comics. Mr Pratchett, I only know that Ms Nymeth loves him to death. And this book plays unshrinkingly with Christian Eschatology, which is awesome.

So, we'll see. I'm MORE worried Amanda will be coming to me in March, going 'Oh God, Jason, do I HAVE to finish this challenge?" ;P

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God Desires, but Cannot Yearn

Each single soul for a thousand thousand years
Has longed for something.
Six billion tiny vials of desire
That yearn and grasp
At something, something, something.

A thousand thousand years ago,
When first a creature
Something like a man,
Stood up and stared across a lake, alone.
We yearn to remember what he had,
To reclaim the secret germ
Of what-we-cannot-name.
The fruit of a tree in a garden
We wish we could vomit back up --
The burning flame of sword set
Tight in an angel's fist --
The flutter of a fig-leave
Across a lover's thighs --


"A thousand thousand years ago," we cry,
"You, man who stood and looked across a lake, alone.
Who first could hear the echo in himself
When a gull cried out,
What did you know that we forgot?""

He does not answer.

But, I will tell you.
I will tell you what his secret was --
For I dreamed him up,
I wrapped my legs around him as I slept,
And murmured in his ear.

He murmured back, the primeval rolling gurgle
Of a voice choked in the dust his cattle stamped into the air,
A voice soaked deep with the sweat of his brow,
Soaked in the blood of the sacrifice,
Soaked in the moans of a woman giving birth.

And I will tell you what he said.


He woke the first time, long ago,
Before the serpent or the fruit,
Before the lake or gull or cooking fire.

He woke in a garden laid rich with all
The things God left nameless.
God asked him to go out and name these things --
But he would name nothing, but the little stream.
He looked at it, and ached,
And named it "I-have-longed."

It was then god thought to lay him to sleep,
To shiver out his rib,
To draw it long and flesh and bone.
And then to slip away while still his little playthings slept.

He woke, he told me, and saw her,
Sitting close,
A moan trapped in her throat,
Her eyes trained on the stream.

She turned and looked into his eyes,
And murmured soft as the young and tender sun,
"Come brother, come.
Come yearn with me -- I do not know what for."

And they sat together by the banks of "I-have-longed",
And yearned for something,
Something they could not name,
From a thousand thousand years before they came.

(Image by Madamepsychosis)

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