In discussions about writing, Maja Djikic and I found ourselves wondering about living as compared with telling about living. Virginia Woolf turned this issue over in Orlando, published by her own press (the Hogarth Press) in 1928, and Jean-Paul Sartre made it a crucial issue in his first novel, La nausée (1938).
I said that in my experience of writing fiction this issue was not an occasion for anguish but that, rather, there was a moving back and forth. I have been influenced by what my friend Brian Stock has written about the tradition (reviewed in OnFiction in December 2008, click here) of reading in the West from late antiquity to the Renaissance as having some of the characteristics of Eastern meditation. When one reads a book, one removes oneself from the ordinary world as one does in meditation. Brian Stock describes how, in medieval times, readers would read the words of a text to themselves and then enter a period of reflection in which they would make the meanings part of themselves. Although for some monks and nuns such practices became the centre of life, for other people reading became a matter of moving back and forth between sequestration and life in the world. Reading and meditation are not alternatives to living, but ways of living that include reflective practice, and strive towards living better and more harmoniously with others.
I started to think of my own writing of fiction in a comparable way. I need a certain amount of quiet, a room of my own, a mental state in which my own concerns are not too pressing, and then in my writing I can enter into the life of a literary character about whom I am writing. In doing this, I think I become better able to understand both others and myself. I can't always achieve a state of apartness but, when I can, the idea of putting aside my own concerns and entering reflectively into the life of another seems an apt description. I can sometimes lose myself in a novel or short story I am writing. In Eastern meditation, thoughts are allowed to enter and move through the mind without one becoming attached to them. Writing isn't non-attachment. Instead, thoughts of a certain kind, for instance those of a character in a novel can become central. They are pursued, expanded, and can find their way onto the page.
I asked Brian Stock whether medieval Christian monks with their incessant copying of manuscripts might be doing something of the same. "I don't think so," he said. "The monastic idea was self-denial. Monasticism wasn't about educating the self, but abolishing it. Self was the principal impediment to enabling God to fill the mind. If you found yourself imaginatively expanding ideas from reading, this would be regarded as the work of the devil."
Brian went on to explain that, after Classical times, it would not be until well into the Renaissance that any kind of expansive reflection seemed to occur during writing. He suggested that I watch Fred Zinnemann's film, The nun's story, and read Johan Huizinga's biography of Erasmus. I did so.
The nun's story is a brilliant and absorbing film about a pious young Belgian woman who enters a Catholic nunnery. The first half of the film depicts her induction into becoming a nun, the aim of which is to enable her to give up memories and imaginations of selfhood, and to replace them by obedience and ritualized practice. She is trained by her order as a nurse and sent to the Congo. Although she feels she doesn't have the personality for the obedience of a nun, she perseveres in her nursing work until World War II breaks out, when she is sent back from the Congo to Belgium just before the Nazi invasion, when an event occurs at which she feels she can no longer continue her vocation.
I found Huizinga's Erasmus totally absorbing. In it, the great Dutch historian of the middle ages and Renaissance is able to enter into the psychological life of Erasmus, analyze his mind and character, relate them to the practice of printing as it developed, and to the waves that spread from this availability of printed books, which culminated in the Reformation. Erasmus was the first writer who became widely known through the coming of printing. In his early life he had become a skilled writer in Latin. He made available to others thoughts and ideas of antiquity, and with his translations he brought people closer to the texts of the Gospels. He thought of himself as a kind of conduit for ideas which, in his writings, he could pass onto others. He never lost the shame of his illegitimate birth. He made friends, but always wanted more. He wanted people to appreciate and praise what he'd written. He hated conflict but constantly got into difficulties with sharp things he sometimes wrote about others.
Huizinga quotes the following, written by Erasmus towards the end of his long and productive life. It offers a glimpse of his personality and preoccupations.
I am daily thanked by many, because they have been kindled by my works, whatever may be their merit, into zeal for a good disposition and sacred literature; and they who have never seen Erasmus, yet know and love him through his books (p. 191).If anyone, five hundred years ago in Europe, might have found that in his writing he could enter into a reflective state and thereby lose some of the shame and yearning of his selfhood, it was Erasmus.
Johan Huizinga (1924). Erasmus and the age of reformation. New York: Harper Torchbooks (current publication 1957).
Jean-Paul Sartre (1938). Nausea (L. Alexander, Trans.). New York: New Directions (current publication 1964).
Brian Stock (2007). Ethics through literature: Ascetic and aesthetic reading in Western culture. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.
Virginia Woolf (1928). Orlando. London: Hogarth Press.
Fred Zinnemann (1959) Director. The nun's story.
Illustration: The printing press of Josse Badius, printer and publisher, with whom Erasmus worked in Paris on publication of several of his books; woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (1520-1521)