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?
To the Philosopher
I have brought out two books this year. One of them as I was moved thereto by God Himself, the other because of the slander of men.
Some of those who wear the white or dark mantle [Pagans and Christians] have maintained that I am faithless to philosophy, apparently because I profess grace and harmony of style, and because I venture to say something concerning Homer and concerning the figures of the rhetoricians. In the eyes of such persons one must hate literature in order to be a philosopher, and must occupy himself with divine matters only. No doubt these men alone have become spectators of the knowable. …
A letter from student to teacher; Synesius of Cyrene (370-413) to neoplatonist Hypatia of Alexandria (355-415)
Through these years of the Christians’ brutal attempts to dismantle philosophy, and the violent abuse and murder of philosophers such as Hypatia, Synesius wrote.
He wrote homilies. He wrote letters. He wrote speeches. He wrote essays.
There is no excuse not to write, and every reason to do so.
It’s not you, it’s them; words. Have you ever noticed how words will not stay in place? Will not stay where you set them? Will not grind as you command?
You are not alone.
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still…
(T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’ 152-156)
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.
Again, have you never perceived the neck of the dove changing colour so as to assume a countless variety of hues in the rays of the sun? Is it not by turns red, and purple and fiery coloured, and cinereous, and again pale, and ruddy, and every other variety of colour, the very names of which it is not easy to enumerate?
Philo of Alexandria, On Drunkenness 173
What can we be sure of?
What can we be sure of about our writing and about ourselves as writers?
Is our writing good? How do we know?
Are we brave writers? Do we write hard and clear?
Aenesidemus (founder of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, 1CE) was a member of Plato’s Academy led by Philo. Frustrated by dogmatism in the Academy he developed a foundation for the idea that the judgements and knowledge we claim about things is dependent on a series of contingent and changing conditions. For example, people perceive the world differently to other animals, people perceive the world differently to each other, our own bodily senses offers us differing perceptions of the same thing and so forth.
For Aenesidemus, this flux means we cannot unconditionally confirm most of the claims we make about the world, ourselves and others. We can say some things that may be true in particular circumstances, but nothing holds true outside the conditions, or modes, he describes.
What happens if we see our writing as the neck of a dove? Letting it change in the light; seeing with all our senses, not restricting ourselves to the narrow mutterings of our internal one-eyed critic.
Can we now sit and write?
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
There is an appeal against the worth of words, placed in the mouth of Ajax by Antisthenes (c. 445-365 BC, founder of the Cynic school of thought).
In an instructional speech delivered against Odysseus, the mythical character Ajax says,
Do not look at words when judging heroic virtue but, rather, at deeds. For war is decided not by word but by deed: we cannot compete in debate with our enemies, but must either conquer them by fighting or be slaves in silence (53.7)
What, then, can words do? What can we judge from words? When might a word have worth? Are not actions, after all, nothing more than the meaning of a word?
My name, for example, is a word, not a deed. It has worth, to me. My name will tell you things about me and only the one who knows it can call me home on the wild nights.
One of our tasks, as good writers, is to choose words more sturdy than the deed.
Prove Ajax wrong.