Is there a deep deep down, writer? Is that where we are driving with our words and sounds and paper and scratching?
Thinking on the process of thought, John Robert, the philosopher in Iris Murdoch’s novel The Philosopher’s Pupil says he, “descended into primeval chaos and rose grasping some encrusted treasure which instantly crumbled. He pursued quarries into thickets, into corners, into nets, and at the end found nothing there. … If only he could get down deep enough, grasp the difficulties deep deep down and learn to think in an entirely new way.” (Emphasis in original.)
Is it a folly, or mere romance, to contemplate thinking in an entirely new way? Not thinking ‘about’ but thinking ‘how’. How does the wind think? How does a galah think? How does thinking think?
Following his early career success, a fictional revolutionary poet in Nabokov’s short story A Forgotten Poet, grasps for straws in the pond of ineptitude in his follow-up collection.
“… he had got hold of some German philosopher or other, and several of these poems are distressing because of the grotesque attempt at combining an authentic lyrical spasm with a metaphysical explanation of the universe…”
Do you, or someone you know, suffer from lyrical spasm? Are you tempted to dot your poems with the names of philosophers or literary theorists? It’s not too late to stop. Help is at hand. Just say no.
Writers need tactics. Tactics is the only known surviving work of philosopher Asclepiodiotus (c. 1 BCE – unknown). The text focuses on the titles and formation needed in the phalanx, including the use of chariots and elephants. Chapter V details the character and appropriate size of arms including the use of bronze shields and spears of varying lengths.
“And the Macedonians, men say, with this line of spears do not merely terrify the enemy by their appearance, but also embolden every file-leader, protected as he is by the strength of five…”
καὶ Μακεδόνες μὲν οὕτω τῷ στοίχῳ, φασί, τῶν δοράτων οὐ μόνον τῇ ὄψει τοὺς πολεμίους ἐκπλήττουσιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τῶν λοχαγῶν ἕκαστον παραθαρσύνουσι πέντε δυνάμεσι πεφρουρημένον
The things you fear in your writing, the things you are afraid to write are also the things that give you courage. Your greatest enemy, writer, may be you. Embolden yourself.
The grace of writing is an allowance for change.
You, writer, are not stuck.
You are not trapped.
Take, for example, Dionysius the Deserter, sometimes also called Dionysius the Renegade (330-250BCE). He was a Stoic philosopher, poet and author of multiple books on apathy, training exercises (askesis), pleasure (hedone), freedom from the passions (apatheia), how to live, prosperity, kings, praise and barbaric culture.
Confronted with the pain of severe eye inflammation, Dionysius renounced stoicism. According to the biographical entry in Diogenes’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Dionysius “suffered so severely, he could not pronounce pain a thing indifferent.”
Instead, Dionysius concluded that pleasure is the chief good of life. He indulged his remaining years, as a Cyrenaic, in all manner of bodily luxuries and sensual pleasures.
And he wrote.
Disband the canon. Appraise the things you were told have significance. Read for yourself.
Poetry does not begin with the Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis. It begins, says Robert Graves in The White Goddess, with the Song of Amergin, an ancient Celtic calendar-alphabet.
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope.
What are you, writer?
In Book II of Lives of Eminent Philosophers Diogenes recounts a story about Anaxagoras (500 – 428BCE), a Pre-Socratic philosopher who adopted Athens as his home in his twenties.
“When someone inquired of Anaxagoras, “Have you no concern in your native land?”
Gently, he replied, “I am greatly concerned with my fatherland,” and pointed to the sky.
Anaxagoras was tried for impiety and Medism in 450BCE. The accusations were based on his claims that the sun was a red, hot stone and that the moon was made of earth. Following the trial, ostracised from Athens, he returned to Iona and settled at Lampsakos where the anniversary of his death was marked as a holiday from school for all children of the region.
What claims do you own in your writing?
What statements do you utter that could befall trouble?
What lands do you call father?
What do you stand for, with your words, so that a public holiday may be named in your honour?
As a writer it is your privilege to privately write whatsoever you wish about whomsoever you choose. You can write bad things happening to bad people. And in doing so, know you are in fine company.
Lucian of Samosata wrote satire, his work often targeting public figures. In the quote below, taken from The Passing of Peregrinus, Lucian recounts his version of the life and death of the cynic Peregrinus Proteus (100-165CE). Lucian witnessed the suicide of Peregrinus when he set fire to himself at the 165CE Olympics.
Thereafter he went away a third time, to Egypt, to visit Agathobulus, where he took that wonderful course of training in asceticism, shaving one half of his head, daubing his face with mud, and demonstrating what they call ‘indifference’ by erecting his yard amid a thronging mob of bystanders, besides giving and, taking blows on the back-sides with a stalk of fennel, and playing the mountebank even more audaciously in many other ways.
If you feel blocked in your writing take these words as permission to privately write all the things you think you ought not.
Write your foe into the town-square with a shaved head and dirty face. Write them ‘erecting their yard’ in public. Write them taking blows from vegetables. Expose them as the fraud you know them to be.
Rebel. Be bold. Write what hurts so that you may write free.
It took three hefty gods to chain and rivet the Titan Prometheus to Mt Caucasus. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound (430BC), the gods of strength (Kratos), violence (Bia) and black-smithing (Hephaestus) fix Prometheus to the rock.
Kratos says to Hephaestus, “Now drive the adamantine wedge’s stubborn edge straight through his chest with your full force.”
“Alas, Prometheus,” says Hephaestus shortly before exiting the scene, “I groan for your sufferings.”
Defying Zeus, Prometheus gave us fire. Yet, in a speech delivered to the choir of visiting ocean spirits, chained painfully to the rock, Prometheus declares that he also gave us writing. He gifted us the stringing up of letters with which to hold all things in memory.
From Prometheus, we are able to write things down so we will not forget them. Over space and time the things we have written persist.
Do not struggle with your writing. Do not feel it has left you. In a brave and selfless act writing was given to you by a noble hero. It is yours for the taking.
There is a curious story about Zeno of Citium (333-261BC, founder of the school of Stoicism) told in a collection of philosopher’s lives by biographer Diogenes Laërtius (Lives of Eminent Philosophers).
Zeno “…consulted the oracle to know what he should do to attain the best life, and that the god’s response was that he should take on the colour (complexion) of the dead. Whereupon, perceiving what this meant, he studied ancient authors.” (7.2)
What does it mean to take on the colour of the dead? And how could this lead to reading the Classics?
One interpretation, in the context of ancient Greece, is that it meant to retire indoors and conduct intellectual pursuits thereby avoiding the effects sun exposure. Another interpretation is that of mimicking the dead. To ‘take on the colour of the dead’ is to be like the dead (Socrates being the obvious model here).
Oracles are not straightforward speakers yet Zeno knew what do to with the advice he’d been granted. Perhaps he was going to read the Classics all along and saw confirmation in the oracle’s words?
Could we, then, be our own oracle? Can we predict our future path by doing exactly what we already know we want to do? Can we bring about our possible written works as though the oracle had uttered our course of life?
Ἑκάτων δέ φησι καὶ Ἀπολλώνιος ὁ Τύριος ἐν πρώτῳ Περὶ Ζήνωνος, χρηστηριασαμένου αὐτοῦ τί ράττων ἄριστα βιώσεται, ἀπο-κρίνασθαι τὸν θέον, εἰ συγχρωτίζοιτο τοῖς νεκροῖς· ὅθεν ξυνέντα τὰ τῶν ἀρχαίων ἀναγινώσκειν. τῷ οὖν Κράτητι παρέβαλε τοῦτον τὸν τρόπον. 7.2
Let divine madness take hold.
But they who without the divine madness come to the doors of poetry, confident that they will be a good poet by expert knowledge, meets with no success. And the poetry of the sane person vanishes into nothingness before that of the inspired mad-person.
Those of us who write in the grip of divine madness will always outshine the beige university professor.
Thank you Socrates, through Plato.
ὃς δ᾿ ἂν ἄνευ μανίας Μουσῶν ἐπὶ ποιητικὰς θύρας ἀφίκηται, πεισθεὶς ὡς ἄρα ἐκ τέχνης ἱκανὸς ποιητὴς ἐσόμενος, ἀτελὴς αὐτός τε καὶ ἡ ποίησις ὑπὸ τῆς τῶν μαινομένων ἡ τοῦ σωφρονοῦντος ἠφανίσθη.