“Strip away the sonorous rhetoric of nationhood and bogus history, and you have the neoliberal project at its purest and most explicit… Behind every populist assertion of Britishness stands a smiling Old Etonian with an offshore account.”
In a recent conversation, a friend talked about the kind of writing that is like an iceberg: there’s the obvious bit, the part you can see; but below the surface there’s so much more. He was referring, of course, to Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” –
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon – see Note 1).
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway, an aficionado of Spanish bullfighting, “explores the metaphysics of bullfighting – the ritualized, almost religious practice – that he considered analogous to the writer’s search for meaning and the essence of life” (Wikipedia).
Just as only about one-tenth (Hemingway says one-eighth) of an iceberg is visible above the waterline, the bulk of an ‘iceberg’ text – its substance, its depth, its connotations and cultural context – lies submerged beneath the surface of the printed words. Although often complex and richly layered, any ‘meaning’ the reader derives from such a text is invariably apprehended largely at the level of the unconscious; most readers will not think to investigate or question the unseen portion.
A SparkNotes essay on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” states that “[the author] firmly believed that perfect stories conveyed far more through subtext than through the actual words written on the page. The more a writer strips away, the more powerful the ‘iceberg’, or story, becomes.”
Of course, not all writing is deep and dark and difficult; much of what is written is more-or-less direct and straightforward. In earlier life, when my work was largely in the field of public sector communications, most of what I wrote was as straightforward as I could make it. I recognise that much of my writing now tends, and intends, to be less unequivocal.
Among the kinds of text that qualify as iceberg texts, we would probably want to include many (though not all) works of literature – poems, prose, plays, essays – whose intention is, as Roland Barthes puts it in Essais critiques, “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15 – see Note 2 below). But since writing now takes so many forms – including, of course, the still-proliferating variants of social media, web logs, web sites, and ‘apps’, the set comprising all possible types of iceberg text must, in a sense, remain open and incomplete.
As Barthes confidently asserted, “the text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes, cited by Jonathan Culler – see Note 3). Barthes’ approach to literary criticism thus entails “[treating] the work as an intertextual construct – a product of various cultural discourses on which it relies for its intelligibility – and thus consolidates the central role of the reader as a centering role” (ibid).
My friend’s background includes sociology and psychology, so it was not surprising that one of the central metaphors employed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was soon part of our discussion: “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” (Haidt, 2012 [p xiv] – see Note 4).
It goes without saying that each reader sitting down with a book, or opening a web page, brings their own elephant into the room. My immediate question is, who is going to ride the elephant? – the reader or the writer? Will the reader surrender to the writer, and allow the text to influence and persuade the elephant? or will the writer and the reader struggle for control?
Assuming Haidt’s hypothesis to be apt and its details accurate, one would expect the reader’s “conscious reasoning” to take in the writer’s text and work with it, integrating it into “the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware”. Uncontroversially, then, the reader is the elephant’s rider. Sometimes, though, we find a text difficult to read – perhaps because it is poorly written; or because it is dense and complex; or because it contains material that disturbs and distresses the elephant. We do well to remember that “the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” So what, then, is the writer’s job?
Before answering that question, it might be worth explaining that, so far, I have treated the reader as the one with the elephant and the rider. But of course, all writers have elephants of their own, and their own riders. We are reminded that each text the writer produces is a product of conscious and unconscious thought processes. Bearing in mind the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious”, we can confidently affirm, at least, that a shared heritage of unspoken things lies deep within the interior of all language-based communication. Whether assumed (and taken as read) or signalled (however subtly or overtly), there is much that writers and readers share – archetypes, icons, histories, mythologies, memes, and cultural norms.
It occurs to me that what is apprehended by the unconscious mind of the reader has not necessarily been formulated by the conscious mind of the writer. Some of its references and inferences will have been included deliberately; others will have insinuated themselves into the “multi-dimensional space” – between the lines, as we say – without conscious intent. Other elements of a text may serve as triggers for the reader, who embroiders, interweaves, or overlays threads drawn from their own experience, with no involvement from the writer at all.
I cannot avoid mentioning, at this point, something that has recently been termed “dog whistling” – the use of particular vocabulary, phraseology, connections, and connotations to alert and arouse “those who have ears to hear”. Whilst dog whistling is not new, its role in the transmission of meaning has come to prominence in recent years. And it’s one of those things which detractors (and even some practitioners – albeit speaking behind their hands) take delight in bringing to the attention of readers.
Urban Dictionary gives an example: “Republicans say they want to make civil rights for gays a state issue, which is really just a dog whistle strategy for saying that they will refuse to grant equal rights on a federal level.”
Writing is, as Roland Barthes reminds us in Writing Degree Zero, “an ambiguous reality: on the one hand, it unquestionably arises from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time; on the other hand, from this social finality, it refers the writer back, by a sort of tragic reversal, to the sources, that is to say, the instruments of creation” (Barthes, 1982: p36 – see Note 5).
And now, once again, that question: “So what, then, is the writer’s job?” Various authors have framed their responses to this question in very different ways. For the moment, I find myself focusing on words from Anaïs Nin: The role of the writer “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 6).
- Hemingway, E. 1932. Death in the afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Barthes, R. 1972. Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.
- Culler, J. 1983. On Deconstruction : Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge. “First published in Great Britain in 1983 : Reprinted in 1985 and 1987 by Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd.”
- Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The righteous mind. New York: Pantheon Books; Toronto: Random House of Canada [p. xiv]. “I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.” In an endnote, Haidt credits Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books, a division of Perseus Books Group.
- Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ‘Part One’, from Writing Degree Zero. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Translation copyright © 1967 by Jonathan Cape Ltd; Preface copyright © 1968 by Susan Sontag; translated from the French Le degré zéro de l’écriture, copyright © 1953 by Éditions du Seuil.
- From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.
Happiness is the light shining on the water. The water is cold and dark and deep. (William Keepers Maxwell, Jr.)
Happiness – however we define it – is something we generally agree we’re seeking. But it seems elusive. In fact, it’s the pursuit of happiness, rather than happiness itself, that is the third thing on the familiar list – after life and liberty. In my ongoing contemplation of the role and function of writing – what it intends, what it affords, what it achieves – I have been thinking about how writing contributes to happiness. And of course, I’m interested in how the pursuit of happiness inspires, motivates, and stimulates writing.
Susan “Honey” Good, who writes for Huffington Post, recently shared a conversation about happiness: “I know I am at my ‘happiest’ and most productive,” she told a woman she had met, “when I am surrounded by places and people that are in sync with me … where I can recognize myself.” Her new friend agreed, adding that “a feeling of compatibility” also made it easier for her to reach out to new people and new places.
This notion of a world that supports us, mirrors how we see ourselves, and reflects who we say we are, is a cultural artefact. Camille Paglia’s succinct assertion serves my argument well: “Civilized life requires a state of illusion” (see Note 1 below). In Paglia’s view, the construct we call society is “a defense against nature’s power. Without society, we would be storm-tossed on the barbarous sea that is nature.” Whether it intimidates and troubles us, mystifies, perplexes, overwhelms us, or simply presents hurdles we must leap over as we race towards our bliss, nature is a force to be reckoned with. And writing is a crucial component of that reckoning – especially since the role of the writer, as Anaïs Nin reminds us, “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 2).
An earlier post on this blog argues that writing is, among other things, a response to the realisation that “we are not really at home / in the interpreted world” (words from the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies – see Note 3). The title of that post was borrowed from the Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, who declared: “Writing is a struggle against silence.” As I said in that piece, the struggle to utter the unutterable is one thing; the struggle against the things that silence us is something else entirely. In our efforts to make sense of the world, writers often find it necessary to grapple with both.
“Perceptual relations are at the heart of [western] culture,” according to Camille Paglia, “and they have produced our titanic contributions to art. Walking in nature, we see, identify, name, recognize. This recognition is our apotropaion, that is, our warding off of fear” (see Note 4) – which fits with Honey Good’s testimony of happiness and productivity around people and places where she can recognize herself.
Ultimately, the ability to ward off fear is crucial to our freedom to write. “Here is the world,” says Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” For many of us, that’s easier said than done. Rather than clinging to my fear as if it were my precious treasure, and protecting it against those who would steal it from me, I call to mind the wise words of Walter Lippmann, who considers we’re all captives of the pictures in our heads, and caught up in “our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.”
Alongside those words, it might be prudent to place this passage from Rilke’s Seventh Elegy:
Nowhere, beloved, will world be, but within. Our
life passes in change. And ever-shrinking
the outer diminishes.
From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
- Paglia, Camille. 1990 [page 1]. Sexual Personae : Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. London & Newhaven: Yale University Press.
- From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.
- Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. [The cycle was begun in January 1912, and completed a decade later.] The version cited here was “Translated by A. S. Kline ©Copyright 2004 All Rights Reserved. This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.”
- Paglia, 1990 [page 5]. The word apotropaion links to a page in the German Wikipedia, which includes the image shown above.
- William Keepers Maxwell, Jr. The words at the head of this post are cited from Over by the River and Other Stories (1977).
“What this means, then, is that Apple is engineering a future in which rare, or varying, mixes and versions of songs won’t exist unless Apple decides they do.” A freelance composer discovers that Apple Music deletes music files from his hard drive.
At Vida, writer Dallas Athent confronts one of the thorniest issues plaguing the literary scene: the unspoken nepotism-fueled culture of connections and reciprocal favors that determines who gets published where.
In her novel, The strange letter z, Debra Daley puts into the mouth of one of her characters an apt insight into what readers require from writers: “If you insist that the world is complicated you could at least offer an explanation or some dumb comfort.” Because it is, isn’t it? Complicated, I mean.
A precocious and mouthy boy, I quickly learned that the answer to certain questions was “Yes and no.” More perplexing, however, were those conundrums for which no meaningful explanation could be formulated. Memories of the prickling of childish truculence return to me now as I write.
Roland Barthes (see note below) asserts that language is neither an instrument nor a vehicle: it is a structure. “[Language] can never explain the world,” he writes, “or at least, when it claims to explain the world, it does so only the better to conceal its ambiguity” Does that perhaps count as “dumb comfort”? reassurance? inspiration? Or is it deception and treachery?
Susan Sontag, reminding us of Barthes’s assertion that the aim of literature is to put ‘meaning’ into the world but not ‘a meaning’, also warns that “Barthes is always after another meaning, a more eccentric – often utopian – discourse.”
The rhetorician Quintilian (c 35–100 AD) famously asserted that we should not write so that it is possible for our readers to understand us, but so that it is impossible for them to misunderstand us. That’s okay, as far as it goes; as Dada poet Tristan Tzara scornfully declares, “Any work of art that can be understood is the product of journalism.” Not all writing is intended as art, of course. But Tzara is pointing to something else: rather than telling readers what to think, literature must give them something to think about.
“Here is the world,” says Frederick Buechner. “Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” John Cage captures something of this when he writes: “There is nothing we need to do that isn’t dangerous.” Jesus, at his last supper with his disciples, said something similar: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:31, NRSV).
In the first of Rilke’s Duino Elegies,
………. … For beauty is nothing but
the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,
and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.
So writing is, among other things, a response to the realisation that “we are not really at home / in the interpreted world” (ibid). One might ask, at this point, whether it’s the world itself that scares us, or our interpretations. For me, some of the most satisfactory answers to such questions come from Zen, which teaches that “Things are not as they seem, nor are they otherwise” (from the Lankavatara Sutra). Alan Watts puts it another way: “Whose mouth could possibly be big enough to describe things as they are? (cited by Timothy Freke – see note below)
“Nothing but lies come out of my mouth,” said the master. “There – see! I’ve just done it again.” (ibid)
American writer, reporter, and political commentator, Walter Lippmann considers we’re all captives of the pictures in our heads. In his view, we’re all caught up in “our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.” Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R Powers, writing about what they dubbed “the global village”, braid threads from Lippmann’s thesis together with the ancient Buddhist teachings when they assert, “We make ourselves, and what we make is perceived as reality.” Which is a neat fit with words from the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.”
For Carlos Fuentes, “Writing is a struggle against silence.” But I think he’s referring to something other than the silence Ludwig Wittgenstein meant when he wrote: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 7). The struggle to utter the unutterable is one thing; the struggle against the things that silence us is something else entirely.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” (Sylvia Plath)
The image “Z grand rouge” comes from a web site calling itself New Z Testament. It’s a web-based game of some sort, but seems to be updating its server at present.
Daley, D. 1995 [“Copyright © 1995 by Debra Daley”]. The strange letter z. Auckland: Penguin Books. [p54]
Roland Barthes’s essay, ‘Authors and Writers’ dates from 1960. Published in Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil. In 1982, it was included in A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. Translated by Richard Howard; translation copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
Susan Sontag’s words are cited from her Introduction to A Barthes Reader [pp x-xi].
Freke, Timothy. 1977. Zen wisdom : Daily teachings from the Zen Masters. New York: Sterling Publishing Company Inc.
McLuhan & Powers. 1992. The Global Village : Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century. Marshall McLuhan and Bruce R. Powers from Oxford University Press Canada.
There are times – yes, you know them, you have them, too – when the world clicks into a new position and nothing can ever be quite the same again. Or maybe it isn’t the world that goes ‘click’. Maybe it’s something that happens in the mind, as a response to or a consequence of one’s experiences. Okay, I need to be specific.
For more than three years I have been professing that I’m writing a novel. It’s not the first I’ve attempted – my personal history is littered with the wreckage of those failed projects. My previous major writing effort – ‘clinically obese’ might be an appropriate diagnosis – boasted double the planned word-count, and it was only halfway through when eventually abandoned.
In recent days I’ve been looking back over the text which purports to be the stuff of the ‘new’ novel (working title: You Wouldn’t Dare). The opening scene I wrote on ‘day one’ is delicious, delectable. I’m really keen to continue. But aside from a few promising scenes, very little of the rest of it will find itself in the final draft.
So what’s clicked? what’s shifted? It’s something I’m still fathoming. In the meantime Vincent van Gogh’s advice is pertinent:
“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint … and that voice will be silenced.”
“You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. “
1. You are the work. The work is you: both an articulation of the self and a possibility for self-reflection. Be honest in creation: allow yourself to bleed into the work, but also allow it to work on you. Your work can show you things: illuminate and clarify your own thoughts, motivations, actions. If you do it right, you will find the work changing you, too.
2. Thinking is process. Laying on the floor. Sitting on park benches. Getting lost on purpose. These are all working. Learn the difference between mindless distraction and mindful wandering.
3. Go down the rabbit hole. Sometimes the work isn’t about what you think it is. Allow yourself to get lost down alleyways, to follow a train of thought around a corner. Don’t feel you need to reign yourself in. Too much focus squeezes all the possibility for revelation out of the work.
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The reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid of ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde)
“Oscar! I don’t get it. Please explain!” That was my reaction when I recently encountered again these words, spoken by Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s famous novel. But with time to think, I’ve come to the conclusion that I really don’t do optimism. I’d say I’m a realist. Life is tough enough without setting myself up for disappointment.
You know the old saying referred to in the Grammarly meme: an optimist sees the glass as half full whilst a pessimist considers it half empty. I don’t think that’s the kind of optimism Wilde had in mind: his words (in the mouth of Lord Henry) align optimism with something akin to hope − but a hope predicated on a terrifyingly low self-esteem.
For many of us, optimism is about making the best of a bad situation – it is what we opt for when our circumstances are far from optimal. But hoping for the best is tantamount to fearing the worst. That’s why the words “think positive” so often jar with me: they invariably send the signal, “There’s something wrong here” … or, “They won’t like me” … or, “I’m not good enough”.
“Blessed is the man who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed,” was, according to Alexander Pope, the ninth Beatitude (see note below).
All too few of us can meet every situation with equanimity – acknowledging feelings, but not involving them in the decision-making process. So now I’m pondering what Marianne Williamson means when she declares:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
Feeling insecure is hardly unusual among human beings. We’re generally not so much scared of other people, per se, as afraid of not fitting in. But, as Williamson explains, “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
On the other hand, St Paul warns his readers “not to have exaggerated ideas about your own importance. Instead, develop a sober estimate of yourself based on the standard which God has given to each of you, namely, trust” (Romans 12:3, Complete Jewish Bible).
That word, trust, is akin to confidence. And confidence seems to work, even when it’s a con. Coco Chanel put it well: “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”
But, as is so often the case, it is to Lao-Tzu we can turn to sum it all up for us: “Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.”
Read the Wikipedia article about The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
Alexander Pope (in collaboration with John Gay) wrote his “Blessed is he …” in a letter to William Fortescue (23 September 1725), declaring it “the ninth Beatitude which a man of wit (who, like a man of wit, was a long time in gaol) added to the eighth.” (Wikiquote)
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) Copyright © 1998 by David H Stern. All rights reserved.
The Coco Chanel quote appears in Believing in Ourselves: The Wisdom of Women by Armand Eisen (editor).
Williamson, Marianne. 1992. A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles. New York: Harper Collins. [Chapter 7, Section 3 (p190-191)]
Note About Nelson Mandela: The quote from Marianne Williamson is often found on the Internet incorrectly credited as being from Nelson Mandela’s Inauguration Speech, 1994, especially the last sentence, “As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing
and right-doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
It seems to me there is so much clamour in the world today. So many urgent cries; so many fervent voices clamouring to be heard. So much talk about justice and injustice, rights and wrongs. Our ears overflow with claims and counter-claims; we can no longer be sure who to believe, who to trust.
When the world-weary soul lies down in the grass of Rūmī’s field, “the world is too full to talk about.” Ah! The bliss of silence.