A Brief and Incomplete History of Writers’ Inner Voices, Part 4: The Twentieth Century

(Perre Borrell del Caso, Escaping Criticism)

In the fourth and final post of our series on the history of writers’ inner voices, John Foxwell writes:

Perhaps the best way of characterising the Twentieth Century is to say that it’s busy. There are all sorts of movements, counter-movements, divisions, groupings, etc. which have been used to try to make sense of the enormous volume of literature that was produced over the period, to say nothing of the para-literary developments that were also taking place (such as the establishment of literary criticism as an academic subject). So although the kind of linear narrative we’ve been tracing through time was already something of a fiction, it quickly becomes impossible to maintain just because there are so many things going on. What’s more, even if we did have the space to try to tackle everything, it might not actually be the best way of dealing with all the cultural developments that took place over the last 120 years (as we’ll see shortly). Instead of sticking to a strict chronology, then, we’ll just focus on a few things that seem most relevant.

First off, we can’t really deal with the Twentieth Century without at least mentioning Sigmund Freud. Whatever you think of Freud’s theories, it’s fair to say that some of them have worked their way into how many people think about artistic creativity today.

In general terms, Freud doesn’t depart from the idea of creativity involving both an ‘uncontrolled’ part of the mind and a ‘controlling’ part of the mind, which we’ve encountered time and again across the centuries. That structure is actually the basis of the architecture of the mind that he puts forward: splitting it up into its ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’ parts, and giving them their own functions and activities. In terms of what we’ve been looking at, then, what’s ‘new’ isn’t the split itself, but the additional theories Freud puts forward to account for how these different parts of the mind worked.

When dealing with artistic creativity, and the creativity of writers in particular, Freud suggests that it essentially involves a kind of carefully modified daydream or ‘phantasy’. As with most phantasies, its ‘driving power’ is a wish or desire that remains unfulfilled in reality, and which is thus pseudo-fulfilled in the phantasy. However, since for most people listening to the daydreams of others is apparently unpleasant or uninteresting, the artist manages to alter his or her own daydream into something more palatable:

The writer softens the egotistical character of the daydream by changes and disguises, and he bribes us by the offer of a purely formal, that is aesthetic, pleasure in the presentation of his phantasies.

(Freud, The Relation of the Poet to Daydreaming)

This initial ‘aesthetic’ pleasure acts as a way of enticing the reader or audience into hearing out the whole artistic daydream, which then provides the greater overall wish-fulfilment which daydreams ordinarily give us. What’s more, since the artist ‘possesses the mysterious ability to mould his material until it expresses the ideas of his particular phantasy faithfully’, it provides more gratification than our own lesser daydreams, and often targets more hidden and repressed desires.

It doesn’t take too many steps to get from here to the widespread idea that misery and suffering are necessary requirements for artistic creativity. There is, after all, a fairly strong implication in Freud’s theory that the drive to produce art comes from some kind of conflict within the unconscious that needs to be resolved or ‘discharged’ (see John R. Suler, Primary Process Thinking and Creativity, 1980). To be fair, though, Freud himself didn’t suggest that writers had any kind of monopoly on psychic conflict – for him, everyone had repressed desires and unconscious conflicts that needed resolution. What made the artist able to create art as opposed to just an everyday daydream was something he didn’t really try to delve into; it remained a talent, or skill, or ‘mysterious ability’, and it’s unclear whether he thought of this as something the artist consciously controlled or not.

At around the same time as Freud was writing, we have the rise of literary Modernism. As with the Victorian novelists, we continue to find talk of characters’ voices and characters’ independence. For example, Henry James describes how his characters feel ‘always well in advance of him’, so that he is always breathlessly running to catch up, while Virginia Woolf talks about seeming ‘only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker’. William Faulkner, meanwhile, is recorded as having excitedly rushed to his friend Phil Stone, saying ‘“Guess what Flem Snopes did last night!”’ (Flem Snopes being a character in Faulkner’s The Hamlet).  E. M. Forster describes his own experience even more extensively:

The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They “run away”, they “get out of hand”; they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.

(E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel)

We don’t, however, need to stick too closely to the various lines along which the Twentieth Century has been carved up (e.g. modernism and postmodernism, pre- and post-war literature, or the ever-problematic division of ‘highbrow’ and ‘popular’ culture). This is because the experience we’re looking at doesn’t appear to have any relationship to these lines, and completely cuts across them. How else are we to make sense of a list that includes writers like Iris Murdoch, Enid Blyton, John Fowles, Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, J. K. Rowling, Elizabeth Bowen, Sue Grafton, Hilary Mantel, Philip Pullman, Harold Pinter, and Quentin Tarantino, all of whom report some kind of sense of their work being outside of their conscious control? Even when some of these writers acknowledge that talk of ‘independent characters’ doesn’t quite do their own experiences justice, the trope is still often invoked as a kind of shorthand or placeholder – not entirely unlike the way the early modern writers treated the idea of the Muses.

There’s one other interesting development which we need to cover before we close (well, there are probably more, but this one is perhaps the most noteworthy): the way that this whole business of independent characters became incorporated into fiction itself. A fairly straightforward example is that of writer-as-protagonist – not necessarily a self-insert, by the way – who then has to go through the business of creating their own story or poem. For instance, there’s Orhan Pamuk’s poet Ka in Snow, for whom writing is ‘like copying down a poem someone was whispering in his ear’.

Yet perhaps more striking are those novels and short stories where the characters start breaking the ‘rules’ of the narrative they’re in. They might rebel against the plot, becoming aware that they’re trapped in a story, as happens in Muriel Spark’s The Comforters. Alternatively, they might do something which prompts the author to suddenly interrupt the story, informing the reader that their character has done the wrong thing, as in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. They might somehow become or prove to be ‘real’ and end up meeting their author (as in the 2006 film Stranger than Fiction) – or, in more extreme cases, trying to kill off their author so that they can be free to live their own lives (Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds).

What these experimental fictions are often doing is taking the trope of independent characters to an extreme to tease out some of the questions it raises: questions about how stories work, about how the imagination works, about how our minds work, and so on. Of course, that’s not to say that these fictions actually answer these questions (which, arguably, isn’t really the purpose of fiction anyway), but they do serve to bring these questions to our attention.

So there we have it: a very brief and very incomplete history of writers’ inner voices.

If you’ve missed any of the previous posts in the series, you can find them here:

Part 1: The Muses and Classical Literature

Part 2: Medieval and Renaissance Writers

Part 3: The Romantics and the Victorians

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