11.29.2010

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

6 comments:

Amanda said...

"why is it that feeling somethign powerfully can get in the way of expressing it?"

That question is exactly the reason why I find Maugham's Theatre so interesting. I won't go on at length, since we've spent quite a lot of time discussing this point this past summer when I reread Theatre, but in any case, that's what I always think of when it comes to the balance of emotion vs art. It's interesting, because something like Sonnets From the Portuguese is MORE beautiful because of the emotion in it, whereas I was less enthralled by EBB's other poems which were stripped of emotion. Maybe it's different with poetry than prose? I don't know enough about poetry to answer that question.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - I don't think it's different with poetry. Ms Woolf certainly didn't think so - Shakespeare was her example of dispassionate good writer, after all. The mention of Theatre is an interesting one - what is the post where you talked about that? I'll have to edit and put that in my post :).

Amanda said...

I'm not sure I talked about that part specifically, but we talked about it at home. My Theatre review is here though: http://zenleaf.amandagignac.com/2010/08/theatre-by-william-somerset-maugham.html

Sara said...

I teach Wollstonecraft's "Vindication on the Rights of Woman" in my Women's Lit class, and, although I'm hardly an expert (more poet than critic, anyway) I suspect some of the faults of her novel are just that it is attempting to be didactic, which is different than being emotional. Perhaps the novel was a 'safe' way or perhaps a cloaked way, or her hope for a more powerful way to say what she wrote in "Vindication"--that is, if those political and very angry ideas were present in fiction, in a (fictionally) lived life, then an audience might differently see how they affected women (and men's) lives.

I'll admit, I've only read "Vindication" by Wollstonecraft, so haven't actually read her novel, but I do believe that didacticism is fatal to good art. To sit down and say to one's self "I'm going to write a poem about how the Bush Presidency was anti-woman and anti-freedom" might generate a timely if two-dimensional work that would have a short shelf-life. But to write a poem out of emotion--which would be nuanced and without clear absolute answers--would be to perhaps dilute or diffuse or otherwise cloud (yet make more real, more human) the author's intended message. For example, I certainly believe in, and would preach (if given the opportunity) a fairly radical feminist political line. However, my life experience, my emotional needs and desires are also part of this world (I want to be thin, I want a romantic relationship with a man, I've fallen prey to the old stories of romance and gender, etc. Which are emotionally true for me, if not politically expedient or parallel with my intellectual beliefs.)

Anyway, to end this rant, I don't think it's writing while angry, or emotional that's the issue, but attempting to force one's writing--particularly 'creative' writing to fit a didactic theme or idea, rather than to allow it the kind of human, intuitive and contradictory nuance that makes all of this living business so damn difficult.

That's my two cents, anyway.

-_Sara, who was formerly at Femme Fatale, but has moved to La Belle Dame Sans Merci (tuliptreeandsycamore.wordpress.com)

Trapunto said...

Thought provoking post, thought provoking comments. My only acquaintance with Mary Wollstencraft is her fictional representation in the novel Passion.

Re "two cents": Isn't it funny that you only get a penny for your thoughts when somebody asks you for them, but if you offer someone your thoughts without being asked, you give up two cents' worth? (That felt like a revelation, but it is looking very Reader's Digest in print.)

I am glad you're back to blogging, Jason. I should follow your example.

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - I thought you had a post where you talked about that, apart from the review, like a Sunday Salon, or something. Oh well!

Ms Sara - I agree the didacticism is part of it, no question. But there ARE sections where she forgets to do the sunday school lessons and tells the story, and it's STILL very cold and distant. But maybe this is because the story ITSELF is made to be nothing but a vehicle for the point, perhaps you're right. Though I would point out that sometimes people 'force' their art to match their feelings, to the same degree that they 'force' it to match a theme - is this better, and if so, how come? I am not saying it isn't, just not sure why it is?

BTW - thanks SO much for leaving the address for your new blog. I did not ask for it in time before your old went private, and was sad to not hear your voice every little while. It's nice to have the luxury again, to say nothing of being trusted with it. :)

Ms Trapunto - I laughed aloud at the Readers Digest comment. I think I may have seen that very joke in a forward from someone... :D. I'm trying, but I warn you I'm a frequent false starters, so don't buy stock in me, or anything :P.