The Physiology of Creativity
Irony versus mystery. Is this a false dichotomy or an inevitable choice one makes in trying to sum up a life in the former instance, and investigate one in the latter? The question comes to mind when thinking of Javier Marias's short book, Written Lives, an ironic account of various writers, including Turgenev, Mishima, Stevenson and Emily Bronte. At one moment in the book he talks of Malcolm Lowry and notes, "Lowry does seem to have been the most calamitous writer in the whole history of literature, which is no mean feat, given the intense competition in the field." The tone is aloof and amused, as the tragic details of Lowry's life get incorporated into the comic perspective that Marias adopts. One isn't suggesting there is no place for comedy in biographical lives, but one of the problems of a 'tonal assumption', if you like, is the narrowing of the investigation. Marias's book is exhaustingly chirpy in the face of insistent misery, and thus arrives at a strange form of dehumanisation that feels like the epistemologically blinkered: as if the book couldn't find the empathic wherewithal to enquire into the life, and so settled for the comedic distance that meant the only details that mattered were not those that took us more deeply into the specifics, but left us amusingly outside of the existence.
This may lead us to think of biographies more generally, and though a book is unlikely to be ironic or mysterious, perhaps we can note, in the general sense of enquiry, whether it is interested in investigating the biography or somehow taking that life for granted. Does the biography merely reiterate existential assumptions, or investigate the originality of a life? What is limiting about Marias' book is the general absence of the telling detail. When commenting on Mann's diaries, he notes the numerous comments the writer makes about his bowel movements and his irritable stomach. This seems to have no place in Marias' notion of posterity, for he sees Mann's diaries as serving little other purpose, insisting, "what strikes one most is that he obviously felt that absolutely everything that happened to him was worthy of being recorded, from the time he got up in the morning to what the weather was like". We're not suggesting that Mann's diaries are interesting, but Marias seems to assume that certain information is a priori significant and other details not. For Marias' detached tone it is as though only the outside of the body interests him, and not the subtle shifts of the internal that can include anything from the physical details of the body, to the strange, elusive thoughts of the mind.
When writing on Djuna Barnes he says "sometimes she would work three or four eight hour days just to produce two or three lines of verse, and the slightest noise would ruin her concentration for the rest of the day and plunge her into despair". An interesting anecdote like this though can often be reduced to a comic example of neurosis, or an awed account of perfectionism. Marias seems to offer it as a bit of both, but he doesn't interrogate the mode, the nature of this approach to writing. Out of all those hours were there maybe numerous lines of poetry, of which many were rejected, or, did she spend hours and hours looking over the same few lines? Later in the book Marias quotes Oscar Wilde's famous observation about the writing life: 'this morning I took out a comma, and in the afternoon I put it back again." This is a good one liner, but to investigate the writing life what counts is the sense that every detail is existentially pertinent, and yet with Marias's book the detail often gives him the opportunity instead to be intrigued or bemused, but rarely investigatory. When he says of Rilke that he had shown Andre Gide "the lyric notebook, with a number of poems "improvised on a bench in the jardin du Luxembourg" with barely a word crossed out", we have an example antithetical to Barnes's approach, but Marias shows no interest in investigating such different methods of working.
What we may basically ask from Marias' slender volume is that if it calls itself a book at all, and wants to examine numerous writers' lives, then to do justice to the subject it needed to offer two things: singularity and multiplicity. Singularity in the sense that it brings out the specifics of each writer's life and work, and at the same time shows the connections between different writers. At the beginning he states his interest isn't in the quality of the work, and that is a fair line to draw, but in drawing it we want it replaced by an enquiry into those lives. For from an existential point of view the writing life is interesting. It is a mode of living that is without given form, as is the job of a bank manager, a teacher, a milkman or a postman. Much of its day to day doing resides in the nature of the doer as much as in the nature of the task to hand. For a milkman to deliver milk in the late afternoon or for the postman to drop off his letters when he feels like it, is to work against the demands of the job, but what are the demands placed upon the writer in terms of creative activity?
William Trevor in a Guardian interview informs us he used to get up at four every morning, as if with the milkman and the postman. Hemingway would also rise at dawn according to the Paris Review. In another Paris Review interview, Georges Simenon would talk of working on a novel solidly for two weeks, reclusively, not even answering the phone. "I don't see anybody, I don't speak to anybody...I live like I am monk."
Such biographical remarks can allow for portals into the life, and this is a life explored not in terms of the quality of the work produced, but the singularity of the life led. If Trevor was seen as a terrible writer the comment about getting up at four would lend itself to a decent joke about a routine that might be better suited to delivering milk or the post, but an inquiring mind may wonder what sort of obligation rests in so early a rise. The postman and the milkman has an obligation to the demands of the job and the demands of his customers; two interwoven demands that leave the task outside the subjectivity of the person doing the work. But one reason why we may be fascinated by a writer's life is the choices made in living it and creating within that existence. In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant addresses this in a short chapter on the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce, where Durant talks of Michelangelo and da Vinci, with Michelangelo saying "one paints with the brains and not with the hands", while da vinci notes 'the minds of men of lofty genius are most active in invention when they are doing the least external work.'"
What interests us about both statements is the gap between the work and the person doing it, to the point that both artists talk of the work as no more than a by-product of the thought. With most forms of employment there is the work that is more important than the thought behind it (the craft is more important than innovation), and this is true also of the work being done and how to do it. Obviously many lovers of literature insist the life has nothing to do with the art, and that the public's fascination with the artist intrudes on seeing the work on its own terms. In general this is a fair claim, and the insistent need by many biographers to see the art in terms of the life often tells us almost nothing about the work to hand, and instead generalises about emotional and social conventions. The way a lonely childhood leads the writer to express himself on paper; how a troubled upbringing means the writer spent years trying to get it out of his system by telling oedipal tales. The problem is that complex art gets turned into the simplifications of an emotionally and socially complexed person.
Philip Roth answers this question well in a passage from Deception, where a character says that "students [were] all reading Kafka's 'Letter to His Father' and explaining exactly how 'Metamorphosis' and The Trial derived from his relationship with his father", and another character noted that it was the other way round: "his idea of his relationship to his father derives from 'Metamorphosis'." "By the time a novelist worth his salt is thirty six, he's no longer translating experience into a fable - he's imposing his fable onto experience." As Ronald Hayman notes in his Kafka biography, "writing...sustained the kind of life he was living 'on unsteady or non-existent ground, above darkness from which the dark powers emerge whenever they want to, ravaging my life without paying any attention to my stuttering.'" At a certain point the person doesn't explore certain thematic concerns because he wants to exorcise his childhood, but that thematic concerns become his aesthetic universe, his method of creativity. The critic needs to explore the complexity of that relatively self-contained universe; not constantly drag it back to the norms of social living, and the aberrations of the writer's upbringing. Kafka hints at the broader metaphysical problem of being a writer; Roth of the largeness of the work next to the smallness of the life.
Yet the artist's life is at the same time very interesting, but not psychologically so; much more existentially significant. The artist hints at the sort of life that is not given; neither given by the expectations of bourgeois life, nor by the demands of the profession. Of course there will always be writers determined to turn their work into a nine to five, insistent that they labour like everybody else does. But is this true, and though one remembers hearing once that someone used a grant she received for writing a novel to kill time while she tried to decide what she was going to do with her life, there seemed such a built in irony to her claim, that it was surely the exception that proved the rule? For most, writing the novel would be the opposite of killing time: it would be finding oneself - finding a purpose to one's existence. When someone says they are waitressing or even teaching, or even working as a doctor, to pay the bills, this still makes sense. But creative activity would seem to be such an opportunity for subjective exploration that the idea of doing it to fill one's day sounds like a joke. As Sartre says in Literature and Existentialism, "...if we ourselves produce the rules of production, the dimensions, the criteria, and if our creative impulse comes from the very depths of our heart, then we never find anything but ourselves in our work."
So what fascinates us here, but what is generally missing from Marias' book, is the aesthetic investigation as existential experience, and this is where the sort of details Marias tends to find dull requires a mysterious rather than ironic tone. It is as though the ironic requires big events; the mysterious the minutiae. Maybe it is too much to get lost in the specifics of Thomas Mann's bowel movements, but is it totally irrelevant to wonder how many writers work in the morning, and whether the emptying of the bowels has anything to do with the release of thought on the page? Someone used the term visceral sensitivity to describe what is medically loosely referred to as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and in an article in the Guardian by Brian Dillon several years ago he talked of the links between creativity and illness. By the same reckoning can we not speak of creativity and evacuation, and think of visceral sensitivity as the relationship between one's nervous system and one's creative output? Suddenly such an approach finds meaning and purpose in the bowels of Thomas Mann, just as one may choose to link it to D. H. Lawrence's short book on psychoanalysis where he counters Freud by emphasising the importance of the stomach over the brain. What a viscerally sensitive approach to creativity can do is wonder how closely the art is linked to the biology and the physiology of the artist. It becomes not the biographical path of least resistance like the psycho-biological approach, but a way into viewing the artist as a body in creative and social space.
In a Paris Review interview, Norman Mailer was asked if he ever practised writing as an athlete would work out, and replied "No, I don't think it's a proper activity. That's too much like doing a setting up exercise; any workout which does not involve a certain minimum of danger or responsibility does not improve the body - it just wears it out." Here we have a good example of the body used as metaphor by the interviewer that Mailer comments upon as if the use of the body needn't be metaphorical at all. A moment later he is asked if he tends to do research. "Occasionally I have to look something up. But I'm always unhappy about that and mistrust the writing which comes out of it." He then adds in many ways it might be better to have not an expert on Jewishness writing a novel about a modern Jew, but someone who is himself slightly ignorant of Jewishness because that is generally the nature of the modern Jew - and Mailer sees himself as such an example. In other words better to be existentially alive to one's given moment, than research one's way out of that moment and into expertise that can be an obstacle to the living reality of writing. Though obviously Mailer would presumably have done plenty research on some of his later big books, about Gary Gilmore in The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost, about The Central Intelligence Agency, the point isn't to show Mailer's contradictions (some of which he addresses in a much more recent Paris Review interview; more to understand the importance of writing from the body in all it manifestations. Whether he is drawing upon the physical body to be true to the experience of writing, or the social body to be true to his status as a Jewish American, Mailer is interested in the sort of authenticity that a writer like Nabokov, would, as Marias notes, find irrelevant. When Marias says Nabokov "got annoyed with people who praised art that was "sincere and simple", or who believed that the quality of the art depended on its simplicity and sincerity", one can see that this is a position very different from Mailer's, and the position generally expressed in this piece. Yet one doesn't want to praise the sincere; for this isn't especially about the quality of the work under scrutiny: and a novel written in a draft and half has of course no intrinsic merit over a novel that took eight or nine. It is to enquire into modes of creativity; not comment on the quality of what is produced.
Each writer has their mode, and the question is what approach does the writer take not only in formal terms - first person or third person; realist, surrealist, satiric - but in modal terms also. When the Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe in a recent Paris Review is asked how he works, given that many writers are obsessively solitary when they write, he says, "I don't need to be solitary to work. When I am writing novels and reading, I do not need to separate myself or be away from my family." "Usually", he says, "I work in my living room while [my son] Hikari listens to music. I can work with Hikari and my wife present..." "I have a study on the second floor, but it's rare that I work there." If we proposed that Mailer's philosophy on fiction is the opposite of Nabokov's, so we may note that Oe's is far removed from Simenon's. There may even be reasons for their approach that gets reflected in the work. Simenon says he needs to be reclusive during the eleven days that he writes his short novels because "...most of my novels show what happens around one character. The other characters are always seen by him. So it is in this character's skin I have to be." For Oe the first person structure can nevertheless develop out of the social environment in which he lives, evident when he says "all my novels are somehow about myself, about what I am thinking as a young man, a middle-aged man with a handicapped child, an old man." For Simenon the third person narrator is nevertheless still a singular perspective, but it is as though while Oe needs the immediate social environment to dilute the first person; Simenon needs the solitary life to concentrate on the third person character. Yet interestingly both deny being professional writers or seeing writing as a profession. Oe says "a really good novelist is able to write well in the third person. In that sense I am an amateur novelist". Simenon believes "writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else."
Can one imagine such comments being made by a lawyer or a doctor? It is as though intricately interconnected with the result of writing is the mode of the writer themselves. A doctor won't fail to see a patient because it doesn't feel right; he himself would have to be ill. He would require an objective reason to be unable to treat the patient; a subjective response wouldn't be enough. Central to the failing of Marias' book is that instead of exploring the modal possibilities within the writers' lives, he works with the tonal demands of his own prose. When he says "Vladimir Nabokov probably harboured no more obsessions or antipathies than any of his writer colleagues; it may just seem that way because he was prepared to recognise, proclaim and continually foment them", he isn't enquiring into the mysteries of the writer and his work; more settling for a certain ironic distance that makes the book curiously easy to read yet at the same time devoid of the engagement that makes you want to go on.
Once you've read his take on Faulkner or Lowry, Mishima or Mann, you know there isn't much left to engage; only a few idle facts to feed off. There is false sense of nourishment; we find ourselves reading to alleviate boredom rather as one eats on a full stomach, with each fact nicely phrased like a dainty morsel we slip into our mouths. Marias takes an ironically objective approach to the information he delivers as if assuming the reader has a much cleaner bill of health than the writer under scrutiny. When Marias says Mishima "had few relationships with women, apart from his grandmother...his mother, his sister, his wife and his daughter, the essential female elements not even a misogynist can dispense with", the fact serves the phrasemaking. The tone superimposes itself on the mode.
Such a tone tells us almost nothing about the mode, however, and it possesses some of the same chirpiness a doctor might offer when proposing that a patient is given to hypochondria instead of asking the sort of questions that would make the doctor seem vulnerable in his own enquiry instead of assertive in his diagnosis. Yet at the same time we're not saying that the biographer needs to deny his own identity for the purposes of pursuing the facts. Indeed Mailer writes interestingly about how writing non-fiction bears similarities with factual work, saying of The Executioner's Song that "these facts, if very closely examined and re-examined and reduced and refined, would begin to create a manifest of the given that I would call fictional." Perhaps it requires a certain type of fictional tone that avoids the ironic: close to what Julia Kristeva called in Black Sun, in relation to Marguerite Duras, an 'aesthetic of awkwardness', as though the life isn't given but there to be explored, and the exploration needs a hesitancy of tone to investigate that life.
Now taking into account what we were saying earlier about the idiosyncrasy of the aesthetic existence, the detached tone of the norm gives way to the slightly dispersed attention to the detail. As the life is possibly meaningless, so every aspect becomes potentially meaningful. Though like Marias the biographer concentrates on the life over the work, he constantly accepts that at a certain point the work gives birth to the life, creates a new perspective on living. Obviously the aesthetic critic looks at how this new approach manifests itself in fictional and poetic form; the biographer in the form of life lived. If however the biographical tone is constantly pointing up the inadequacy of the alternative life, then all it manages to show is that despite the incompetence of the individual, there was competence in the art work produced. What we are suggesting is slightly different; that in the life there can be a search for form, as if out of the realization creativity comes from the being of the artist, and not especially the objectivity of the craft, new modes are created at the same instance as new forms. Surely the biographer should attend to the new possibilities in the life as the critic should attend to new developments in structure.
Out of such an approach of course the biographical writer will themselves become artists, for they too will have to find not the conventional form of biography in which to fit the life, but a new creative method of their own to follow the existence of the artist. If for example a biographer concentrates on the big events of the person's existence - their marriages, children, novels, awards, feuds and despair - then the large-scale nature of the events requires no justification on the part of the biographer. This is once again the biographical path of least resistance. Yet the biographer who will devote pages to the nature of a writer's headaches, to their weariness walking up stairs, to their attentiveness to people the writer passes on the street, can fashion a work that gets at the singularity of a life, and produce a key work at the same time. No doubt one reason why writers are so reluctant to see biographies of themselves appear isn't only that they have much to be ashamed of, but also because they will be written about in a way much less subtle and nuanced than their own approach to character. This is the irony of ironies - that a writer who wants to get underneath the skin and the fabric of someone's life, then finds his own explored with all the finesse of a pulp novelist in search of the big events of character. Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations wrote that he always wanted to write on writers, artists and philosophers so that they wouldn't be turning in their grave. Marias often writes about some of the self same people as if goading them into clambering out of their coffins ready to write their autobiographies.
© Tony McKibbin