Simon Lee-Price returns to answer our questions about his academic research, writerly inspirations, and the role that philosophy plays in literature. How do Romantics like Lord Byron inform the trope of the suffering writer? Moreover, what can we learn from Henry Miller about writing? And how does habitual creativity inspire writers and artists to carry on creating? See below for Simon’s answers. You can read his previous essay ‘A writer’s work is never done’ here.
Simon hails from Liverpool, writes short fiction, and lectures on literature and philosophy. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Prole, Prose and Poetry, Interpreter’s House, The Caribbean Writer, and in several horror and speculative fiction anthologies. He tweets from time to time: @SimonLeePrice.
Your research looks at representations of the lone, suffering writer at work. Are you such a writer?
I am interested in how representations of authors, particularly in the visual arts but also in fiction and biographies, feed into our own self-fashioning as writers. I can still recall a scene from a TV drama I watched as a child: a ravaged-looking Lord Byron storms into a manor house, bearing a manuscript (probably Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage) and declares he almost died writing it. This melodramatic moment made a deep impression on me. I felt that in order to become a writer you must experience hardship. This conviction was intensified in my late teenage years by Colin Wilson’s account of sleeping rough on Hampstead Heath and cycling to the British Library each morning to work on The Outsider.
For several years, I travelled and worked abroad in a variety of unglamorous jobs, a victim of the romantic myth of the writer. But my capacity for suffering is very British. A single night on hard ground and without access to running water zaps my creative energy. While hitchhiking across France in search of casual work, I scribbled in my notebook: ‘There is no poetry in filth.’ Yet to this day, I can’t entirely shake off the belief that for a book to be worth reading the writer must suffer.
Where does this trope originate and how do you think it has evolved since its inception?
I associate the trope of the suffering writer with the Romantic Era and the notion of tormented genius. But as with all ideological formations, the trope did not appear full-blown from nowhere: everything has its precursors. Chatterton, who perhaps more than any other figure has come to symbolise the suffering writer, died in 1770, before Byron was even born and decades before the Romantic Era proper began.
I think we can detect the trope, if not in Shakespeare himself, then in arguably his most famous character, the brooding existentialist Hamlet, who, if you recall, is the author of a play. I am sure the trope also drew on existing representations of alchemists, mediaeval scholars, mystics, hermits and can probably be traced back to the wandering Cynics of antiquity. Already by the Romantic Era, the figure of the struggling and suffering writer had become a cliché and was parodied in the contemporary literary journals.
Modernists writers, among whom I would include Baudelaire and the Decadents, with their themes of alienation, outsiderness and anomic existence in the metropolis, might be said to have refined the trope into the form we know it today. Linda Brodkey calls it the trope of the ‘solitary scribbler’, which represents writing as an occupation requiring isolation and self-sacrifice that can cost writers their lives.
Kafka embodies it to perfection. What is remarkable is the influence this austere trope continues to exert on our self-perceptions as writers, even in this digital age with all the opportunities available for global communication and pursuing writing as a collaborative practice.
History is replete with suffering writers, from Thomas Chatterton to Lord Byron, and from Virginia Woolf to Ernest Hemingway. Do you think the creative process inspires mental illness, or are troubled people more likely to express themselves through art?
I like the question but we need to be cautious when we use terms like mental illness. It is important to consider how and by whom mental illness is defined, who gets diagnosed as mentally ill, and how concepts of ‘the normal’ differ across time and culture.
In the UK until at least the 1960s, homosexuality, especially among men, was considered by the psychiatric profession as a treatable mental illness. Should that lead us to examine the creative process of authors such as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, E M Forster, W H Auden, James Baldwin (the list could go on) through the lens of mental illness?
But if I interpret the question as asking whether the creative process can bring on troubling mental states, I would answer, yes, definitely. I would go even further and say it is not just great writers of imaginative works who are at risk.
As part of my university job, I help students develop their academic writing and I have grown convinced that all forms of extended writing that require critical or reflective thinking have the potential to take a toll. Writing a 9,000-word undergraduate dissertation is enormously stressful, and a few students do experience mental health problems (thankfully usually short term) in the process. If I had more time, I would elaborate on the factors that I think contribute to these troubling mental states, something Ann Cvetkovich does excellently in Depression: A Public Feeling, where she analyses her own experience of writing a PhD. But I will limit myself here to saying that serious writing is a mental struggle because it involves a confrontation with the self – a most terrifying entity! This is the central message of creative writing teacher Ralph Keyes’ insightful book The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear.
To what degree is creativity idealistic? Can we compare the Romantics’ pursuit of moral/spiritual development to the Nietzschean Over-Man (Übermensch)? In what way were Byron, Shelley, Keats, et al, precursors to Nietzsche’s vision?
There is material in that question for a shelf of PhDs! And I am no Nietzsche scholar. I am also aware that the Übermensch (for which there is no universally agreed English translation) is a deeply problematic concept and lends itself, sadly, to crude and supremacist interpretations.
But I think there is some similarity between the scene I described earlier of Byron returning to the human world, brandishing the fruits of his writerly struggle, and the story Nietzsche tells about his eponymous prophet in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Zarathustra is introduced as having spent ten years alone in the mountains and deciding to go down among human beings to share the wisdom he has gathered.
But Nietzsche comes from a German dialectical tradition and thinks in paradoxes. Zarathustra is never satisfied and repeatedly returns to the solitude of his mountain for another round of ‘self-overcoming’, following which he descends once more to the human world with a reformulated message. This pattern of ‘eternal returns’, so to speak, could stand for the career of the idealistic writer, who after finishing one work regards it as a failure and is self-compelled to start the writerly struggle all over again.
On a slightly different note, Nietzsche particularly interests me as an author who wrote philosophy in the form of experimental literature and autobiography. These days I have little desire to read or write imaginative literature which is not at the same time also doing philosophy. The ‘horror’ author Thomas Ligotti does philosophy and so does W G Sebald . . . It has just occurred to me that Nietzsche would be a good candidate for any study of ‘madness’ and the creative process.
How does Henry Miller’s writing resonate with you? What can writers learn from Miller?
It will always strike me as ironic that I discovered Henry Miller at around the age of fourteen while staying with relatives and thumbing through Kate Millett’s feminist classic Sexual Politics. This was in Britain in the predigital age, when to see the word ‘fuck’ written anywhere except on a toilet wall was rare. Let’s just say I sought out Miller’s books with less than the purest of motives.
But what I found in the first title I read, Tropic of Capricorn, was not the anticipated pornucopia; instead, I encountered an ordinary man baring his soul as he narrated his struggle to become a writer. These days when I read Miller it is difficult to get past the overt misogyny and racism or Miller’s (or his narrator’s) appalling neglect of his young daughter.
However, I would quickly add that if you feel tempted to judge Miller then you need to locate him in his world. Such contextualisation is unlikely to exonerate him, but it may lead you to wonder how the future will judge your own attitudes and behaviours. Miller’s great theme is the writing life as vocation. I am tempted to say his work provides literature’s most extensive phenomenology of writerly existence.
From Miller we can learn about the ongoing struggle to carve out the time and space to write, often in the face of indifference or opposition; the process of creating with words, which is both mysterious and banal; the highs of inspiration and lows of rejection; the role of the antagonist, the mentor, the muse; and above all, perhaps, Miller can encourage you to take that leap of faith, repeatedly, and keep on writing no matter what. Still, we should resist making Miller into the archetypal writer. True, Miller struggled and took risks for his art; nevertheless, he also enjoyed certain social advantages which enabled him to succeed and at the same time indulge in his fantasy of the suffering artist, something of which Miller himself was aware and that is suggested by the ironic title of his trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.
It can be instructive to compare Miller with a contemporary of his: the female African-American author Nella Larsen, also born in 1891, who achieved brief success during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance and died in obscurity in Brooklyn, Miller’s old stomping ground, in 1964. Miller and Larsen may even have crossed paths on the bustling streets of interwar New York or while riding in a crowded trolley car. (Now there’s an idea for a Woolfeqsue short story!) It is difficult to imagine Larsen, like Miller, blagging her way into a management job at a branch of Western Union in the process of purging its Jewish staff, or slumming it, free and unmolested, among the artists and sex workers of 1930s Montparnasse.
What drives your own creative work? What inspires you to write?
At this stage in my life, writing has become a habit. After spending so many years clearing space for writing, often at the expense of career and friendships, you’ve got to keep on writing or you’d have nothing else meaningful to do with your time.
Writing, for me, tends to be an ongoing response to living and reading (and watching films) that helps keep me sane – or at last a functioning neurotic. I can be inspired by almost anything: a dumb comment, a pun, a distant memory, rustling leaves in a wood, an old London pub, the words of another writer, a philosophical paradox, a dream fragment, an obscure fact, unfinished conversations, atrocities, a Daily Mail headline, a rat in a rubbish bag, my own mistakes, and many other things I would never divulge online.
Underlying all of that, I suppose I am driven by a vain desire to bring ideas into the world that have not yet been expressed.
Written by Simon Lee-Price and Michael Conroy.