On Friday evening, I listened to the end of A Point of View; Will Self pontificating about the pointlessness of theory and its uses in the humanities, and the pointlessness of academic interrogation, culminating in his usual polemic stance, which is currently anti-humanties; he literally rubbished them; this is ironic, since virtually everybody is writing; we have a writing revolution on our hands, dear readers. If you wish to listen to Will Self, the link follows. I warn you, you will be angry:
I used to share a small portion of Self’s concern and self-righteous pomposity, partly; when I first attended university, and began reading theory. I thought, this is too exclusive; why doesn’t the general public have access to all this thought? Why can’t you get these books in your local library? Have you ever heard of Roland Barthes? My guess is that the answer is no, if you have not completed a degree in humanities. I was initially angry because I had been denied access to this wealth of knowledge which, it seemed, was the privilege of the wealthy. All my life (I was 42), I had questioned, first religion, then science, and here, at last, was an alternative way of looking at the world; through psychology; through the mind; through reading psychology and philosophy, and through using it to interrogate fiction. Here, at last, was a way to write that nobody had ever acknowledged.
It happened that I was going through a very traumatic life-changing event at the same time. Except that now through theory, creative writers, philosophers such as Barthes, psychologists, such as Freud and Jung, slowly, gently, carefully took me by the hand and taught me how to survive.
I began to write a book, it was in the style of an essay. This was deliberate. The book turned out to be a literary sequel to Jane Eyre, and after a couple of titles, ended up being called Bertha’s Journal, after Jane’s alter ego, Bertha, dubbed “the mad woman in the attic” in Bronte’s epic tale about self love. ( My take was that Bertha was not mad, just unacceptable in the age in which she lived.) There I’ve stated The fundamental premise of the story, life and the love story with the self.
My finished product had moved away from the original essay style – largely because I recognised that it would not be well understood by the average reader not used to the essay form (which would defeat the object of writing it in the first place), to what is called a short story or novella due to its length. When I finished writing the book ( I have never liked genres and categories, but I bend like the willow and work with them), I still did not understand fully what self love was. However, one thing I did know was that my character had not fully recovered from whatever it was that was ailing her. She was exactly the same, even though I had written her out of me, and she would repeat her mistakes. This repetitive mindset was included in the text of my book. Had I pretended that Bertha was cured, my book would have been false; and since Bertha might be a metaphor for the masculine “female” (Jung writes this as the anima and animas), my book might be historically incorrect (I have known I am non-binary since I was ten), perhaps, since we are only just reaching a point where we might allow the feminine in the masculine, and if we can do this then we might allow the masculine in the feminine by 2050, or wherever my book projects we will; the date is a guess, and like Orwell I changed it, as I wrote the book; originally the date was 2015 and then it became 2050.
What has this got to do with theory, the humanities, Will Self, or university lecturers? Everything, because without my education, without my humanities degree, without reading Freud’s work on creative writing, Barthes’s theory on place, and the effect on our emotional life of things, even Jung on relationships, I could never have written it, and I could never have healed. It strikes me that the Biblical phrase, “the former things have passed away ” is significant. This is because the subject is things. We are living in a post-things age where everybody is writing creatively, talking about story and writing stories. 4 years ago my area manager suggested I tell my staff a story in order to motivate them; storytelling is becoming ubiquitous.
My work as an undergraduate, reading theory, Jung, Freud, Barthes, Kristeva, Derrida, etc., reading creative works, such as ‘Heart of Darkness,’ written by authors who had experienced traumatic events, and writing my novella as an attempt at writing through and out of an intense period in my life when I survived an identity crisis, a depression, and the end of a 25 year relationship (a 21 year marriage), led me to understand the value of creative writing as a tool to heal the mind, led me to understand that through creating an untruth, a lie, if you like, through story, a person can literally write out trauma. I began to write this theory out as a PhD, but it needed to be either quantitative or qualitative research, and was too epic to narrow into something small enough to be a theory, or perhaps reduction is not my thing (anyway, expansion is); Freud had already done it, despite what Self posits. He is not very well read, I would posit, because Freud discovered all there was to know about creative writing many years before we began to admit to these deep psychological transferences.
My idea about creative writing is not novel. Freud more or less stated it in his work on creative writing. He also invited students to challenge his work. In fact Freud admitted that his ideas had already been visited by creative writers, which suggests that his idea of allowing patients to talk as a cure, was created while he was aware that writing creatively is a form of safely re-living traumatic events in a medium not dissimilar from the talking cure he based on it even though he never completely and cohesively acknowledged this. He left very large signposts.
Of course writers have long protected their work with denials about their work bearing any, for example, “relation to persons living or dead” to protect themselves from litigation or interrogation. As I have already stated, their work was not truth, verbatim; that is the beauty of creative writing; it is an intelligent form of reworking something in order to safely dispel it from memory.
Truth through journey stories:
Projection is the other, as the classic story of The Ugly Duckling shows us. The job of the protagonist is to journey, whether that is physically or psychologically, the result is the same. The role of the story, and the imagination, is to show the reader that it is possible to lose projection, and to triumph over the false perception, if it has been absorbed into the psyche; this is because it was never real. Works such as ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Waiting for the Barbarians illustrate this psychic battle of transformation within the self. The ugly duckling persona created in these works (which is the falsely projected character that we see and follow with disgust, admiration and pity), is not really ugly, in fact, never was. The same premise is at work in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The outcast child Jane Eyre resists the negative energy of Mrs Reed and her son John. However, it is not until Eyre became a governess and runs away again from her lover/suitor Rochester that she experienced a catharsis; a coming together of peace with herself, and knowledge that she is Ok; although this is realised through marriage, which is in some ways problematized by Rochester’s status as a cripple, it is still a good example of what I will call, the ugly-duckling-syndrome in story.
Charlotte Bronte first wrote Jane Eyre as an autobiography. Whether we read it as a creative autobiography, or a powerful work of literary fiction then we can see how Bronte used her imagination to create a story which allowed her to explore themes of control and subjugation in the work, and to explore what Bronte must have recognised as this latent ability to break free from the present, through the employment of the preconscious ability of the mind, which is illustrated in the quote that follows this paragraph. Profoundly and bravely, Bronte’s narrative was not binary, and she did not demonise men over women; there was a female character in Jane Eyre, Eyre’s aunt, who subjugated her; as I have already discussed elsewhere, the plot of Jane Eyre is blatantly aligned with Rapunzel a fairy tale about the power of a mother figure, and significantly ends in the same way as Rapunzel, with the female protagonist’s suitor blinded; this physical impediment is metaphoric. In Jane Eyre, significantly, when enduring a punishment, a co-pupil, Helen Burns deflects this by taking herself somewhere else, mentally, since she cannot leave the home, she retreats inwards without seeing:
‘How can she bear it so quietly—so firmly?….She looks as if she were thinking of something beyond her punishment – beyond her situation: of something not round her not before her. I have heard of daydreams – is she in a daydream now? Her eyes are fixed on the floor, but I am sure they do not see it – her sight seems turned in, gone down into her heart: she is looking at what she can remember, I believe; not at what is really present…..’[i]
To show the reader how it is possible to overcome negative energy Bronte casts her character down into her subconscious, then goes on to describe how her protagonist, Jane Eyre, evolves, resists and forgives; makes peace with her aunt, Mrs Reed, on her death bed, in spite of her faults and errors. The whole work is a psychological journey towards self love and acceptance.
Since stories of abuse offer alternative views of history which challenge received perspectives on the past, since it turns out that the past is based on beliefs or his(stories) which are potentially flawed (The Catholic Church is beyond criticism, Christopher Columbus discovered America, butter is bad for you and fruit juice is good), perhaps because they rely on patriarchal—I use the term patriarchal to include the potential collusion of women in being incarcerated in this system of hierarchy ‘I am the generic he’[ii]. Reading texts that refer to both men and women as he, such as The Bible as well as the existence of theory by scholars such as Edward Said and Declan Kiberd on, for example, the behaviour of colonised peoples, their lack of resistance to, and their participation in their incarceration and appropriation.[iii] tends to disprove that the use of he is patriarchal; rather, I would suggest, it is a non-binary term.
As I drew this research together, I was interested to hear another standing essay on Radio 4’s, A Point of View in which the essayist, Howard Jacobson— suggests that he himself was the potential victim of the gaze some years ago from a woman who commented on his looks, referencing Said’s Orientalism[iv] as he iterates and deconstructs exoticism; yet he fails to address the problem of complicity—raised by Said and other scholars—completely, offering only a passing suggestion that the object of his gaze in this standing essay is engaged in play as an actress might be. Of course writers understand the meta-fictional quality of fiction, and many refer to their writing whilst in the process of writing it for this very reason; writing has a self conscious quality which is impossible to ignore. For example, When Breath Becomes Air, essentially a book about dying of cancer by a novice writer and qualified surgeon, has within every page, a unwritten subtext, a ghostly theme of lack of sleep and poor diet, never fully and consciously written as significant to the narrative, I would posit, because the writer was unaware of the potential for it, simply because, I would posit, he had not studied theory. He was able to write, but not to explore and stand outside his writing as he wrote as great writers like Jean Rhys, Bronte, Charles Morgan, Joseph Conrad, and great books such as Waiting for the Barbarians, The Comfort of Strangers, The French Lieutenant’s Woman do; this quality is meta-fiction (sur-fiction in America), and unless you have read English, done a humanities degree, you would be ignorant of this potential in your own writing.
Models of truth, such as history and sometimes colonial narratives legitimise the mantra, “our perspective is the right one and they are just barbarians”—a perspective which for example, the imaginative text Waiting for the Barbarians disrupts and challenges, since it demonstrates barbaric behaviour on the part of the, so called, civilised, coloniser, and therefore, might it be possible to find complicity in all appropriation, disrupting the truth? The Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians wishes to discover truth, ‘His work is to find out the truth.’[v]—often fiction serves to leave us in the difficult predicament of looking back on our history with the sense that the perspective of our forebears was coloured by their prejudices and projections. Paradoxically, this phenomenon forces us to return to our fiction to revisit the truth—for it is only the writers, humans such as Bronte, Conrad or Coetzee, who have resisted a purely historical narrative in order to achieve something we call fiction, that offer up more fluid and multi-faceted, more accessible versions of truth, perhaps because they are professional theorists.
It cannot be an accident that whilst uncovering stories of institutional abuse, we are undergoing a writing epidemic, whilst recovering from our attempts to annihilate the non-binary essence of our humanity we experience a witch hunt for adults we call men who might be overtly heterosexual and desire all women. ( I do not attempt here to make a judgement about behaviour, since acting on feelings is different from having feelings.) The Trumpism, “Fake News”[vi] takes on a whole new meaning under this new post-truth, systemic-institutionalised-abuse narrative, and deserves to be reappraised as a form of resistance; the fake and the fiction being revisited as the new truth.
Since we are only at the genesis, as far as we are aware, of a period in our history of abuse narrative; previously (in 2003/4), I would attend writers’ conferences and listen to writers who voiced their need to write about sexual trauma who were hushed up by women in the publishing world. This was a taboo subject. Even women would not allow other women to speak of it. We are only just beginning to see the complexities of the psychology of sexual abuse, sexual power and the dynamics of flirting, which can be transgressive, being played out in our media since the debate was entered into by notoriety such as Catherine Deneuve and others in France, and evolved into a dialogue about the dynamics of power; women controlling their own sexuality. The language used in the following quote is significant because it challenges perception directly in the moment:
“we intimidate people into speaking ‘correctly’, shout down those who don’t fall into line, and those women who refused to bend [to the new realities] are regarded as complicit and traitors”…[vii]
—representatives (who identify as women), who are arguing for flirting rather than against, went on to articulate the idea of a Victorianism, defined thus, women “as poor little things, this Victorian idea that women are mere children who have to be protected….”[viii] Creating an anti-abuse narrative whilst an abuse narrative is in the process of being written, which is a common theme of our Age of the Imagination (we are living through this age right now, although only a few people like Sir Ken have recognised this, and fewer still are awake enough to recognise that, increasingly, we are “living for the day”). Yet what else is significant? Perhaps the Biblical phrase, “you will bruise him in the heel.” I have alluded to this power struggle in my work Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immleman Turn thus:
I waited for him at the window, standing there, half dressed, not knowing when he would come home, but waiting until he returned to his chair, then removing his boots and tending to him like a maid. I washed his back, enjoying the splashes on my skin, my hair tumbling loose and wild to my waist, and wondering whether my appearance excited him, guarding the bruises jealously.[ix]
My Post-Post-Modern sci-fi metafiction (which is sometimes called horror by readers), writing back to Jane Eyre, demonstrates the sexual and transgressive nature of female sexuality, presenting an alternative narrative which throws light on the themes in Jane Eyre which disrupt the feminine as refined, pure and chaste.
Re-visiting the truth about the male, female dynamic, and re-appraising male vulnerability, might help us to overcome polarizing opinions which can only entrench binary perception.
Bertha’s Journal: A Perfect Immelman Turn originally disrupted the essay form, bringing creative writing into the light as more than a work of fiction; more than catharsis; as a form of interrogation using theory, such as Freud’s theory of what creative writers do, which has been largely ignored by academics; interrogating Jane Eyre, as more than a work of fiction, as fundamental to our understanding of the psyche and the self; as a battle of epic proportions, a battle of self love, fought by a man and a woman, who were non-binary in some respects, since Rochester cross dresses during the denouement to interrogate the feminine, and Eyre is not your archetypal feminine since she is not described as beautiful, and yet there are other women in the narrative that most certainly are.
There is evidence that both Joseph Conrad and Bronte experienced forms of intense stress during their lives; it is my theory that their creative works were forms of talking cure but in the written form; there is much evidence for this; there are other writers with similar biographies, not least Jean Rhys who burnt her initial manuscript and would not publish her prequel or prelude to Jane Eyre (Wide Sargasso Sea) until after the death of her husband. Her friend and herself daubed slogans about truth on the wall; all this suggests that truth was hidden in the author’s writing.
In my position as chair and secretary of competitions for a writers’ society, I once assisted in hosting P. D. James at a writers’ function for Hampshire Writers’ Society, shortly before her death; whilst giving her long and lucid talk she admitted to using her own life as research for her creative fiction. This was neither reported nor recorded and so sadly it is lost, but there are many writers prepared now to admit that their writing is based on fact. There will always be those who are unable to admit to this. However, if literature is therapy, the theoretical interrogation of it is fundamental to it. Therefore, there is a point to theory and the humanities. Our very sanity, in other words, our mental health, and therefore our very survival, as emotive beings in search of truth, depends on it.
Indicative Primary Texts:
Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma and Emotional Upheaval, Pennebaker, JW. (2004) (18-26).
The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, (Free Press 1992).[xi]
The Confessions, Jean Jacques Rousseau , [xii] (London, Penguin Books, first edn, 1782).
Sparkenbroke,[xiii] Charles Morgan (New York, The Macmillan Company, 1936).
Jane Eyre, [xiv] Charlotte Bronte, (London & New York: Penguin, 1849).
Heart of Darkness, [xv] Joseph Conrad, (London & New York: Penguin, 1899).
Waiting for the Barbarians, [xvi]J. M. Coetzee (Great Britain: Vintage, 1980).
Dances with Wolves, [xvii] Michael Blake (London & New York, Penguin, 1998).
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi (London, Random House, 2016).[xviii]
[i] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (London & New York: Penguin, 1849), p.62
[ii] https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/10/17/ursula-k-le-guin-gender/, accessed 25/07/2018
[iii] For a more in depth look at this see Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin, 1991) & Declan Kilberd, Inventing Ireland (Vintage, 1998)
[iv] Howard Jacobson, A Point of View, Daring to Marvel, Radio 4, January 19th 2018
[v] J. M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians (London: vintage Books, 2004), p.3
-Agnes Poirier, Accessed 20-01-2018
[ix] Hermione Laake, Bertha’s Journal, A Perfect Immelman Turn ( Strategic Book Publishing Rights and Co, 2012), p.60
[x] C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, (London & New York: Routledge, 2002), p.67-68 C. J. Jung writes about a collective culpability that is inherited, an inherited consciousness, that can only be healed by recognition of that shared responsibility as opposed to projection onto the other of all the ills which the collective psyche refuses to acknowledge in himself.
[xi] This work expands on the author’ essay, “The End of History”, and is relevant to this enquiry.
[xii] Huck Gutman has written an essay—which highlights the aspects of Rousseau’s work which focus on the individual as at the heart of this work. There is a dialogue in literature, starting with David Hume and continued through the work of many literary writers about the dialogic between the a priori (what Coleridge called the “already known”), and the empirical, which is also relevant to the individual versus societal influence upon the self, discussed by Jung, and is relevant to the work that writers do—http://thinkingtogether.org/rcream/archive/Old/S2002/Gutman.pdf
[xiii] Sparkenbroke is an adult version of Little Red Riding Hood; a work which makes an analysis of two different kinds of love of the same woman; one which empowers and one which devours. This is a surfiction, and as such contains many self-conscious references to finding or obtaining access to the self through love.
[xiv] Jane Eyre was originally penned as an autobiography, and the author herself had a similar history to her protagonist, which makes it interesting and reliable as a work which relies on the author’s own experiences as a reference point upon which to build her story.
[xv] In The Norton edition of this work there are accounts of the author’s own experiences in The Congo, and his subsequent illness when writing the work; there are also references in the work to sickness and a strong sense that this work has been written as a form of self-psychoanalysis or psychic healing process due to the Buddha-like pose of the protagonist at the beginning and end of the story, and due to the approach of standing outside the story, which the writer often resorts to when describing the protagonist, Marlowe as though he were seen from a distance.
[xvi] Waiting for the Barbarians is striking in that it investigates the life of The Magistrate, a person in a position of authority and his identity crisis when he is faced with several moral dilemmas.
[xvii] This book is overtly about the self, and the difference between being labelled and accepted as “one of us,” and living a life which is consciously separate from any creed, religion, or socially accepted way of life. Interestingly the protagonist in this story is not ultimately interested in the life of the Sioux Indians or the life of the so called, “cultured” Americans he encounters and lives with; this is challenged right at the beginning of the novel, when John Dunbar is confronted with a very uncivilised driver.
[xviii] Both of these works are self-conscious. When Breath Becomes Air is striking because the author appears to work himself to death, and constantly refers to lack of food and sleep without realizing the cause of his distress. Positing this may be controversial, and I am not sure how I would go about interrogating this text, although it would be a very worthwhile exercise. It is possible that an author who is less aware of his craft might blindly document his own demise, whilst not fully recognizing the psychic wound that he is experiencing and thus not fully achieve for himself a katharsis.—.
If you enjoyed this essay which is morphing into a PhD thesis, or have any comments, I would very much appreciate them. Thank you.
Current indicative Bibliography
Barthes, Roland, The Pleasure of the Text (UK, New York: Routledge, 2006).
Barthes, Roland, S/Z An Essay (Canada, USA: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1974).
Ed. By. Boylan, Clare, The Agony and the Ego, The Art and Strategy of Fiction Writing Explored (London, New York: Penguin, 1993).
Booker, Christopher, The Seven Basic Plots, ‘Voyage and Return’ London, New York: Continuum, 2004).
Boulter, Amanda, Creative and Critical Approaches (Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
Bronte, Charlotte, Jane Eyre (London & New York: Penguin, 1849).
Brooks, Peter, Psychoanalysis and Storytelling (Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1996).
Clark, Timothy, The Theory of Inspiration, (Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press, 1997).
Coetzee, J. M., Waiting for the Barbarians (London: vintage Books, 2004).Conrad, Joseph, Heart of Darkness, (New York, London, Norton, 2006).
Felman, Shoshana, Literature and Psychoanalysis (London, New York: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989).
Freud, Sigmund, The Ego and the Id (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychology, 1962).
Freud, Sigmund, The Uncanny, ‘The Creative Writer and Daydreaming’ (London, New York: Penguin, 2003).
Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: New York, Oxford University Press, 1999).
For a more in depth look at this see Edward Said, Orientalism (Penguin, 1991) & Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland (Vintage, 1998).
Howard Jacobson, A Point of View, Daring to Marvel, Radio 4, January 19th 2018
Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (Volume 1). (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 2007).
Jung, Carl Gustav, Aspects of the Feminine, (London and New York, Routledge, 2010).
Jung, C. G. The Undiscovered Self, (London & New York: Routledge, 2002).
Laake, Hermione, Bertha’s Journal, A Perfect Immelman Turn (Strategic Book Publishing Rights and Co, 2012).
-Agnes Poirier, Accessed 20-01-2018