Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, September 05, 2011

Dear Professor Currie...



This morning I read “Literature and the psychology lab” by Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham. Among other things, he suggests that writers may be not more but less reliable than others at understanding the minds of others because they are so often a tad schizoid or bi-polar, an increasingly common way of investigating the artist these days. He believes that literature in general is not such a great measure of human understanding and that human imagination is not very accurate—even that creators don’t actually care much about other people, a thing I find manifestly wrong when looking in my own heart. (I note, as he does, that the research on writers and psychology he cites comes from male writers.)

Having come from neurologically strange stock myself, I find these sorts of arguments to be interesting but not very useful. Yes, someone with a dash of something or other may be looser on the mental leash that others are, may have access to rather different ways of thinking and, more importantly, to different ways of clicking words together. I may have had what is called a “splash” of something myself, having been notable as a child for a scissors phobia that eventually gave me hair that could tickle the backs of my knees when unbraided, an extreme aversion to tags and often seams, an ability to talk in paragraphs before the age of one but delayed walking (luckily I could tell people where I wanted to go), odd food proclivities (obsessed with raw veggies, I was an early raw foodist), etc. I certainly had a deep rage to read that caused me to read everywhere and at all times (a young mistress of how to read during class.)

We still live in an age when educators insist on justifying literature and finding a “reason” and purpose for art and when researchers are constantly whittling away at the artist’s “authority” as a voice for his or her fellows and times.  I am afraid that I don’t care a whit for these sorts of difficulties. They mean very little to me, even though I could make a perfectly fine argument for the tragedy of Oedipus as having great meaning and purpose, showing us the deep need for repentance and that even the most ignorant of evils must be accepted and borne and by the doer.  But all these avenues for discussion are lesser ways of talking about art, and they are insufficient for any artist. Writers do sometimes talk about literature this way, but writers often say silly things in audio interviews. If you want to ask a writer something, hand a question to him on a piece of paper or send it by email.

When I make something, it is because I am absolutely in love with the sensation of words rising from the fount and flooding through me, sluicing and driving, carrying me away, out of myself and into a larger and brighter realm.  The intense and piercing joy of making and word-twisting is what draws me on, what makes me sacrifice a good portion of my life to sitting in poky corners tapping at machines. And you know, I still hew close to the ancient idea that beauty, truth, and the often betrayed need for purity of soul (i.e. goodness) shine through the best works.

Perhaps I am a little bit mad, although I would be surprised to find it so: since about the age of thirty, I have lived a fairly quiet and perfectly ordinary life, the sort of life one needs to live in order to write. Like many people in the 21st century, I am often too busy. I have all the usual demands of a mother of three, and I meet them as they come, just like other women. I try to help my publishers by doing events and publicizing my books, and like most other writers, I wish that the books would just sell themselves so that I could have more time to write.

At the same time, I am doing something that pushes against the norm and is counter to the rather trivial, noisy, game-like culture of our day.  I am accreting the pearl of what I call my soul (you may call it whatever you like), in great part by making poems and novels, lapping nacre over the grit of my life. And in defiance of Professor Currie (forgive me, my book-loving professor!), I would say that far from not caring about other people, I consider everything I have made as a gift tossed into the sea of humankind. (Admittedly, they sometimes pay for that gift, and I am grateful to those those who by doing so vote for the continued publication of my work, supporting me and my publisher.) It makes me glad when people fish up one of my poems or stories or novels and like it and say so. I often have a strong feeling for people I have never met and may never meet because I know that they have walked with me through forests or city streets, just as surely as if we were the dearest of friends and had gone for a “real” walk, hand in hand.

11 comments:

  1. The trouble with Professor's of Philosophy is that they so often wear rather awful shoes and chaotic ties.

    Writers are communicators, and the communicator's job is to show us their worlds, not necessarily our own.
    Do I need a writer to understand me? No, not really. I need to understand the author, and be transported into THEIR world, thank you very much!

    I have discovered, that if I can be transported into another world by the writings of a writer, the likelihood is that they understand much about my world also.

    With Philosophers I am not so sure.
    If a tree falls in a wood and no-one is there, it will usually be the philosopher who is absent also - but has the most to say about it...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Love the bad shoes and chaotic ties and the talkative philosopher at the close... I am afraid the philosophers will be wroth with you, Paul!

    I think one issue regarding the whole business of the various madnesses of writers is that, well, we're all on a spectrum. For example, I often think that boys with Asperger's seem to be just boy with certain traits taken to the Nth power--many of the things that are difficult about or for the opposite sex (not you, Paul, of course) magnified.

    That's a good response.

    But philosophers must talk, else not get tenure and promotion, poor things! And whatever shall we do with them if they do not talk?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rather than make another quirky (most of the time fallacious) argumentum ad hominem to answer Prof. Currie, I will simply remind him that Philosophy and Psychology would be poorer without the witness of literature---surely still the best materials of how the human mind works. He would not go far in understanding the human psyche,either,simply relying on lab evidence as if that could be pinned down like a worm.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Most often, they write.
    Deeply suspicious, that is....
    Probably as mad as the rest of us!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Albert,

    Well, he certainly argues against that idea. Though you can find plenty of support for your side of the argument among fellow poets and elsewhere.

    Paul,

    My father used to draw out that Alice caterpillar quote quite often: "I'm mad. You're mad. We're all mad."

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think that the good professor, in positing that writers and artists are self-centred to the point of not caring a fig for the rest of humankind, may merely be using the time-honoured trick of projecting his own prejudices onto others in order to prove that that his theory is more valid. The only creative mind the workings of which he can have complete access to is his own. He can't possibly know what goes on in the minds of others. Ergo it is he who doesn't give a fig for anyone else, and tries by accusation to justify his own misanthropic attitude.

    I really don't want anyone speaking in generalities about what I'm supposed to be thinking when I stand at the easel. Professor Currie would do better to write honestly about his own failings, rather than distract attention from himself by accusing others of the shabby way HE views the world.

    Bravo Paul. We read and look to discover new worlds in literature, music and the visual and performing arts, and in them find ways to understand the many conditions of humanity, and ways by which we may negotiate this endlessly challenging and largely unknown terrain.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Clive,

    No one could ever call you an artist who has no heart for other people. Never.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Missed this somehow. How interesting that you wouldn't allow people to cut your hair when your son apparently also had that feeling as a child! This indeed advocates for heredity as a guide to behavior and strange desires and phobias. As for the aversion to certain textures, that is very common among people with neurological differences. My son had it in spades! People generally grow out of it.
    I too totally disagree with this wrong-headed argument Currie makes. I don't have the slightest how he reached this conclusion, when it is novels and fables that clearly led to the creation of psychology itself and still provide the best guide to the human mind.
    As for writers not caring about others, I am sure there are some who do not care. I don't know any though.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You know, I completely forgot about how my eldest refused to have his hair cut and wanted "big hair" when he was little!

    Robbi, I do think that I know one writer like that--one so absorbed in "making it" that he has not time for people who cannot assist him on the way to his proper recognition. But that's just one. And I find him interesting all the same, though he has hurt the feelings of people I know. He's very obvious about it, and one tends to think that he was another one of those "syndrome" kids who is obsessed and wholly self-absorbed as a result.

    I guess what it boils down to for me is that I find people rather fascinating. And I think that's often true of writers. However, they often have a sense of wrongness about observation--that they are removed from life. It's rather like carrying a camera for most people--to experience the event fully, does one want to keep peering through a lens?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Well perhaps, but for me, I find that it takes an instinctive understanding of people to write. One finds this in the best fiction, for example. Poetry is different, but it is good at getting to the reality of emotions and finding concrete approximations of these.
    Perhaps you have a point about the person with the camera, but still, the person with the camera knows what to put into the picture and what to crop, what to enlarge, and what subjects have the most inherent interest. He couldn't know that without having some kind of instinctive understanding of people.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Well, that idea doesn't bother me, but it has bothered a lot of writers--my favorite one so obsessed being Hawthorne.

    ReplyDelete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.