Monday, April 24, 2006

Idler or rambler?

I'm putting together a list of revised and unfinished projects from the long eighteenth century for my oral exam reading list (including Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub ; Alexander Pope's preface to his translation of the Iliad and his satire on scholary editing, The Dunciad; Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy; the multiple editions of Shakespeare by Pope, Lewis Theobald, Samuel Johnson, and Edmund Malone; some Wordsworth; and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein). I'm reading these books as experiments in genre, attempts to reorganize knowledge in different forms like the novel or a scholarly reference work. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Francis Bacon attempted a great reorganization of knowledge (Instauratio Magna) and revised it in several different versions, but some sections remain as fragments or lists of what he planned to do. I thought of Bacon's fragments as I read this article about writer's block from the Sunday Morning Herald (link from the Elegant Variation). I wanted an antidote, or at least an alternative, to the psychological reading of writer's block offered in the article:
Yet the concept has been around for some time. Writers, like other artists, have probably always struggled with their work, but the notion that an inability to write might be a specific affliction dates back to the romantic period when the whole notion of writing changed. Before then, it was understood to be the product of effort and discipline, much like tanning hides or embroidery. The romantics, however, recast it as a gift bestowed in moments of inspiration, which had the corollary effect of making the writer less an agent and more a receptacle of a kind of divine grace. The failure to write thus became strangely externalised and largely beyond a writer's control. Before then, he or she simply wasn't working hard enough.

It fits, then, that the first great poet of writer's block was Wordsworth, whose Prelude is part of a paradoxically rich tradition of writing about the difficulty of writing. Wordsworth, like Keats, often battled with block, though neither was floored by it as spectacularly as Coleridge. The poems for which he is remembered, such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan (another classic of writing about the impossibility of writing), were all written when he was a young man. He remained a prolific letter writer and journalist for the rest of his life but he became increasingly unable to write what most mattered to him: poetry. He penned twice as many lines between the ages of 18 and 26 as in the following 36 years.

It is impossible to give across-the-board explanations for why writers get blocked. There are so many reasons for writing and, presumably, just as many for giving it up. Modern theories, such as that espoused by Bergler in his book, are often psychoanalytic and tend to emphasise factors in the personal past. But Coleridge, like many writers, saw himself as crippled by the weight of the artistic past, by what critic Harold Bloom would later call the anxiety of influence.

These psychological readings of Coleridge's blocked inspiration and the anxiety of influence aren't very productive in accounting for the revisions that Coleridge and Wordsworth made to the poems in Lyrical Ballads and other works over the years. Can we separate Coleridge's work from his self-presentation as an anguished poet, say in "Kubla Khan"?

There may be a reason I get sometimes fed up with the Romantics: the inspiration stuff just sounds too fuzzy. I'll nominate Samuel Johnson as my favorite author afflicted with writer's block. I quoted his preface about completing the dictionary in an earlier entry. Here's a section from Rasselas, a short novel about a prince who's unable to complete projects, in which Rasselas berates himself for his idleness:
The consciousness of his own folly pierced him deeply, and he was long before he could be reconciled to him self. 'The rest of my time,' said he, 'has been lost by the crime or folly of my ancestors, and the absurd institutions of my country; I remember it with disgust, yet without remorse: but the months that have passed since new light darted into my soul, since I formed a scheme of reasonable felicity, have been squandered by my own fault. I have lost that which can never be restored: i have seen the sun rise and set for twenty months, an idle gazer on the light of heaven. In this time the birds have left the nest of their mother, and committed themselves to the woods and to the skies: the kid has forsaken the teat, and learned by degrees to climb the rocks in quest of independent sustenance. I only have made no advances, but am still helpless and ignorant. The moon by more than twenty changes admonished me of the flux of life; the stream that rolled before my feet upbraided my inactivity. I sat feasting on intellectual luxury, regardless alike of the examples of the earth, and the instructions of the planets. Twenty months are past, who shall restore them!'

These sorrowful meditations fastened upon his mind; he passed four months in resolving to lose no more time in idle resolve, and was awakened to more vigorous exertion by hearing a maid who had broken a porcelain cup remark that what cannot be repaired is not to be regretted.

Rasselas then spends a paragraph regretting his regret, several weeks wondering how he'll escape from his present situation, and ten more months searching for an exit, "rejoincing that his endeavours, though yet unsccessful, had supplied him with a source of inexhaustible inquiry."

And here's a section from one of Johnson's Rambler essays, "The Need for Enterprise," (no. 129, June 11, 1751) in which he tries to prescribe a cure for idleness:
But whatever pleasure may be found in the review of distresses when art or courage has surmounted them, few will be persuaded to wish that they may be awakened by want or terror to the conviction of their own abilities. Every one should therefore endeavour to invigorate himself by reason and reflection, and determine to exert the latent force that nature may have reposited in him before the hour of exigence comes upon him, and compulsion shall torture him to diligence. It is below the dignity of a reasonable being to owe that strength to necessity which ought always to act at the call fo choice, or to need any other motive to industry than the desire of performing his duty.

Reflections that may drive away despair cannot be wanting to him who considers how much life is now advanced beyond the state of naked, undisciplined, uninstructed nature. Whatever has been effected for convenience or elegance, while it was yet unknown, was believed impossible; and therefore would never have been attempted, had not some, more daring than the rest, adventured to bid defiance to prejudice and censure. Nor is there yet any reason to doubt that the same labour would be rewarded with the same success. There are qualities in the products of nature yet undiscovered, and combinations in the powers of art yet untried. It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happines. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope; and of every honest endeavour it is certain that, however unsuccessful, it will be at last rewarded.

I should take Johnson's advice and not be so slow about writing these blog entries. I've had this one in the queue for weeks.