Friday, September 16, 2011

Research at Banff

Doing research as a scholar and as a creative writer are very different processes.  When I work on my book about Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I'm absolutely fastidious:  I read everything I can get my hands on and document every half-idea that interests me.  Creative Writers, however, need to allow their impressions more sway.  I've heard at least one writer remark that you have to immerse yourself in a topic and then forget most of what you've learned when you bring research into your creative work.  This is because you don't want you characters to sound like lecturers--something I'd find particularly easy, I'm afraid.  It's one of the discourses I live inside

In the next chapter of Soul Weather, I'm introducing a young character who is in the last year of her undergraduate degree and is beginning to work on a history honours paper on Simone Weil.  Samantha is borderline anorexic (so I've been learning about anorexia too, mostly by reading people who've been anorexic:  experts are no help here at all!) and is drawn, consciously or unconsciously, to Weil because of her anorexia.  I've read a couple of biographies, but today it was time to begin to read Weil's own work.

There are many interesting facets of Weil's thought that might attract a young person, though one element of her character informs all of them.  Even as a child, she felt a remarkable sympathy for those less fortunate than herself, whether for soldiers at the front during World War I, for her lycee students, for French industrial workers--and workers everywhere, for those fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and later for a humanity in the midst of anti-Semitism and of Nazi Germany's overrunning of Europe as its individuals struggled to define their relationship to God and to what was ethical.  For a while I wondered which of Weil's personae Samantha would find most powerful.  I think this would be Weil the mystic, but since that's all but impossible to write about in a brief honours paper, Samantha will look at Weil's political thought from an earlier part of her career.

Because I didn't want to bring a ridiculous number of books with me, I ensured that Weil's Oppression and Liberty was available as an eBook.  Wanting a different view from that in my forest cabin and thinking that a larger screen would be better for reading (I was wrong, it turns out), I took myself off to the Paul D. Fleck library here at the Banff Centre that they make available to anyone with an artist's card.  As you can see, the scenery is stunning, though because it dwarfs you it may encourage you to pay more attention to your work rather than less.

Weil's Oppression and Liberty is remarkable, not least because she insightfully critiques her own historical moment in 1934.  Unlike most of the French Left, she can see even then that the communist experiment in Russia is more oppressive than the Czar and is horrified that the German working class--the best-educated in Europe--has embraced Hitler.  Her analysis of Marx's errors will only be fully revealed in a couple of years when she begins working in French factories and realizes that the working conditions of the proletariat--the noise, the long hours with few breaks, the physical demands and danger of the work, the quotas set by management that she felt forced you to put aside your very soul and every feeling or individual thought you had in order to survive a day as an automaton--so exhausted the workers that they had no energy left for rebellion.

Interestingly (and I have no idea what this says about my current frame of mind or my own working conditions), I found startlingly incisive her critique of bureaucracy.  She described government in the Soviet Union this way:  "there is a professional bureaucracy, freed from responsibility, recruited by cooption and possessing, through the concentration in its hands of all economic and political power, a strength hitherto unknown in the annals of history."  They were entering, she felt "the age of the technicians of management," and felt that they produced nothing but their own hegemony and control.

More philosophically, she equated human individuality with our own determination to insist that our actions echo our beliefs.

And perhaps, to beleaguered environmentalists who can't convince North American governments to take some leadership on environmental issues, she had this to say:  "There is no difficulty whatever, once one has decided to act, in maintaining intact, on the level of action, those very hopes which a critical examination has shown to be wellnigh unfounded; in that lies the very essence of courage."  Facing the fact that her own historical moment was on the edge of war and that workers would soon be sent to die at the front, facing governments indifferent to high levels of unemployment (which stood at 20% in the early Thirties) and to the working conditions the remainder had to endure, she wrote these remarkable words:  "Nothing in the world can prevent us from thinking clearly."

As you see, I've done exactly what a Virginia Woolf scholar would have done:  I've copied out the great quotations.  How am I ever going to translate this into a young woman's passion and thought?  Keep reading!  Maybe stop taking notes!


  1. It's so true that researching for creative writing is very different from researching for critical work. I've been revising my Honours paper for the Literary Eclectic conference, while Christian has been writing a critical paper, so I've been seeing two completely different processes for writing. I'm often surprised at what sources turn up in my creative work, whereas critical writers know their sources while they're writing. You really do have to "forget" your sources before writing because creativity happens at such a subconscious level. Anne Simpson explains it as 'duende'--that we have to be 'open to risking oblivion, while at the same time resisting it.'

  2. Thank you for the Simpson quotation; she's always insightful. Finally I've gotten far enough into Weil that I'm "forgetting" lots, but the important elements of her character and thought are becoming illuminated. There's something to be said for being overwhelmed.

    I hope your conference presentation goes well.