A few weeks ago, following a link posted on a comments board at Overland, I encountered an essay by the US writer Robert Cohen, ostensibly on literary style. As far as I can tell Cohen seems to be trying to get his head around what style is, and particularly ideas of ‘middle’ and ‘late’ style, and what they both might mean in the shadow of the inevitability of ageing and our inevitable deaths. To this end Cohen looks at the work of (mostly white) male writers: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cheever, McCarthy and so on, though Flannery O’Connor does get a look in at one point.
Though I’d like to, I’m not going to look at literary writing as a gendered thing. A lot of other people can do it a lot better –
– and this is only a blog, ephemeral and transient and about as resilient as tissue. I want to look at writers madness, a topic that Cohen also raises, and might be a better fit for a writing format that floats around in cyberspace like a loose idea looking for a home to shout from.
Two comments in Cohen’s essay caught my attention. One from John Cheever and the other, Cohen’s own. Cheever said, writes Cohen:
As (the writer) inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety and inevitably becomes the victim of crushing phobias that can only be allayed by lethal doses of heroin or alcohol.
Cohen’s own comment in the following paragraph is:
To write we must sit alone in a room for hours, and conjuring ‘plots’. How closely this resembles mental illness – or yields to it – is something we’d prefer not to think about.
These are reasonably provocative statements that beg a whole lot of questions, questions about writing and about madness and what it means to do, or be, both. Writers always seem to have had an association with madness. Whether it’s a kind of religious madness of the kind preferred by Robert Graves or whether it’s the madness of Malcolm Lowry or Virginia Woolf, madness comes hand in hand with inspiration, beckoning seductively to the writer. Apparently.
Graves thought he could enter into a trance and go back in time, say a couple of thousand years, and actually be present at a historical event. Virginia Woolf, said that No-one lives for himself alone, and then went and died alone. There’s also been something of a myth among writers that if your madness was ‘cured’ (whatever that means), your creative wellsprings would dry up. And in this sense writing has sometimes become an elaborate way of describing all the ways in which we prefer to be crazy, as opposed to all the ways in which we are crazy.
Cheever seems to be claiming that using your imagination sends you nuts, and Cohen similarly seems to be saying that writing is a kind of mad activity anyway. So whether writing drives you mad or you’re mad to write, the only way into and out of writing is through deranged mental states.
If my imagination is a mad thing, it follows that to be sane – to be unimaginative – one cannot write literature. (Perhaps the sane just write tabloid journalism). It could be that to think of our imagination, like Cheever, as an inflator of anxiety is indeed a mad thing, a kind of paranoia of daydreaming. To write as a mutterer of plots could be one way to write. It seems odd though that muttering about plots is privileged for writers and the mad when it seems that virtually all of us do our share of imaginative plot-muttering throughout the day. And what is dreaming but a kind involuntary muttering of plots?
Writing could be a lot of other things though. Writing might grow, not out of a solitary muttering in the dark, but of a different kind of daydreaming, one that we might look at as symptomatic of a madness, but also as an attempt at self-cure as well; an attempt to bring down the panopticon, not live in terror of it.
John Cheever’s comments seem to say a lot more about Cheever than they do about writing, and perhaps more about Cheever that we would care to know. But given that they are Cheever’s own words, they probably tell us a lot less than Cheever would like us to know.
Knowing your own madness, not being by fooled by it all of the time, is maybe a kind of sanity in its way. The times when I feel most mad could be the times I’m closer to being sane. Perhaps to be mad means being absorbed by my madness, thinking in a sense that I am sane, that my definition of the world is the definition of the world. When we are truly mad we don’t know that we are. That could be what it means to be mad.
An artist whose work I have followed for a long time is the Sydney-based new media artist, Linda Dement, whose beautiful, violent and sometimes hilarious images have said more to me than any visual artist has for some time. Her memoriam to her friend, writer Kathy Acker, still astounds and moves me. Dement has been sceptical of a male-dominated narrative of artistic practice, and indeed sceptical of a lot of ideas about art – its marketing, its branding, its privileging of genius and so on. And she’s a lot more prosaic about madness too. Referring to her early work, such as cybergirlfleshmonster and Typhoid Mary, she says:
What I’m doing at the moment is the interior of a virtual wound. My work’s always been about exactly the same thing. Making the unbearable visible. A wound I think is just a way into the body. So it’s like, I’m thinking in that really literal way of wanting to go inside and bring stuff out and make some sense out of it. And I had to cut the skin open first in order to get in there.
Writing, too, could be a lot concerned with making unbearable things visible. It could be a lot of things we haven’t let ourselves think about yet. There could be a lot of ways into and out of our wounds, and daydreaming our way into ourselves might have something to say for itself, something that madly impersonating madness doesn’t. Wrestling with our tormented inner demons is one thing. Daydreaming our way into being might be something else entirely.