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Literature's power is in self not identity



'I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?'

— Emily Dickinson, Poem 260

'Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one's nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one's nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one's robes.'

— James Baldwin

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson circa 1850. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Two plane trees near the front gate of the Lu Xun Academy in Beijing are coming into leaf. When I ask what she would call these trees, one young woman studying here tells me 'white poplars'. A family of azure-winged magpies is at play in them this morning, their wings first cousin of the early spring sky. I know them as plane trees — Eastern Plane trees (Platanus Orientalis), a quick Baidu search tells me. Endemic to northeastern China. But I have known them all my life.

These are trees that travel. They've been planted around the world. Many line the streets of towns and cities where I come from, where we call them London plane trees (because, I guess, they followed Marco Polo back and found their way to England — this was before Brexit). I wonder if these trees know they are not London plane trees. I wonder if they know they grew in my childhood. I wonder if they know they're not western plane trees (Platanus Occidentalis), often called sycamores, which may well have been the trees I grew up with. For all I know, these two plane trees think they're white poplars.

No matter what others call us, we are what we are. One person's occident is the other's orient. And what they are, these trees, is how they are — the way they are only and always themselves. And that is what they teach us. Along with beauty and persistence — and most of what literature is an attempt to fathom.


Most of who one is, I want to say, cannot be explained, or contained, or in any sense captured by a cause, or a gender, an ideology, or a theory or a tribal affiliation. There is something irreducible in each of us — and in our being, each of us, unique, we are the same. Each a unique instance of the human. Deeper than identity is the self.

And I think it is the life of the self that literature plumbs and charts. And I think a writer can only write that territory — she can only induce the contemplation only literature can conduct into what a human life is, into how one might lead it with dignity in conversation with the past and the present and in the face of power — and I think the writer can only hope to redeem and do justice to human life, if she writes from that realm in herself — as free as she can set herself from all other belonging — except to love, except to nature and to language. Literature shows us our selves. To make it, one will need the freedom of one's own self.


The writer will likely be the partisan of the powerless, of the broken, of the beautiful and the mysterious and the damned — his kin. The writer will likely write the flawed majesty, the bewilderment, of people caught, without a script, without their clothes, on the stage of their everyday lives and griefs.


"No one may listen, but no one will likely kill me for speaking out. My country is careless of literature, innocent of its magic, but I won't be tortured or spat on for making it."


But she had better not — unless she has no choice — join a church or a club or a sect or cause; he'd better not peddle a program. For literature is the discourse of the soul, it is the idiom of being, and that kind of language, like love itself, will not prosper in captivity. No matter how kind.

I don't wish to speak against identity; it has its many advocates. I wish to speak a word for self.


One thing literature is for is freeing language from writing. So Robert Bringhurst puts it. It is for conserving in language all that is human and mysterious in it, and in us. The discourses of commerce and faith and theory and ideology and politics tend to strain all the voice and place and texture and sex and music from transcribed speech. We'll want those in our work — those mammal strains, those local lyrics — if we hope to do the work that literature does, catching the felt sense of any human life, the inner life of the actual world, the music of the intelligence of things. The writer, then, can be faithful only to her fathomless self.

Freeing language from banality and cliché, literature frees us, too; it keeps all those who read it free, in mind and spirit, at least. Live, it says, the way these stories go, these poems, these sentences: live each phrase freshly, make each day by hand, refuse the vapid and all that offends the beauty of the earth. Do no harm, in particular to language. And each other.


I am a lucky man. If it is hard for me to speak and write freely, it is only because living is expensive where I try to live. One has to do a lot to stay alive, and all of it crowds the poems out. I am not censored; I am simply ignored. No one may listen, but no one will likely kill me for speaking out. My country is careless of literature, innocent of its magic, but I won't be tortured or spat on for making it.

I'm a white man in a white man's world, his mother tongue the lingua franca everywhere. I may not be rich, but I am more or less free, and my calling has let me travel the world. I have had to pass lately, as all of us must, through some grief and loss and damage. But, still, I am a lucky man. And it's easy for me, not having had to fight for mine, to ask us to go deeper than identity when we write.

But when James Baldwin says the same thing, it compels. Nothing in Baldwin's America made the examined life — any kind of life — easy for a black man (or woman). Baldwin had to fight hard not just for his writing life, but his life. A novelist and a black man, a boy from Harlem, a gay man in a straight world, Baldwin was drawn into the centre of the civil rights movement in the US in the 60s. He was a reluctant, but a lyrical, hell-raiser. In speeches and appearances that spoke truth to power, Baldwin prosecuted a vital cause, but he would not let himself be recruited to it. His language must be his alone to choose. His life must be his own.


The kind of writing that makes most difference identifies with humanity, with all beings, in their beauty and in their need and in their contradictions.

Rising from an open heart, good writing tends to open hearts — and minds and sometimes doors. I have a feeling that when a writer imagines her identity too narrowly, when he wears his identity too tight; when one holds a position too hard and too fast, the heart will harden, the mind will narrow, and the world view one forges and voices will more likely identify against than for or with. And the art you make will likely clang with the kind of discourse — the politics, the ranting, the judgment and prejudice — all art should best cry down.

Sometimes literature must throw stones, as Seamus Heaney put it. Let's go throw some: against tyranny and inequity, against cant and rape and child abuse, against exploitation of every kind. There are indigenous languages being lost and wetlands being drained and migratory birds disappearing from the earth. The world's bee populations are in collapse. Let's make a noise about it. Let us as writers identify with and speak for the powerless and the abused, the neglected, the invisible, the exploited, and the poor.


"We are the singers of hymns and the finders of ways. We are baffled mystics, failed skeptics. We are thieves and angels. We are humans, creatures of the earth, incarnated and fallen angels, and without literature, sometimes we'd forget."


But there are instruments sharper than poems for making social reform, for performing regime change.

There is work that only literature can do, and that work is what Keats called soul making. Literature's work is to keep us human, and it is to forgive us for being human, and it is for asking more of us as humans, and it is, as Frost said, 'a stay against confusion'. For that we'll need our souls and we'll need our language free.


'Life is a spell so exquisite,' wrote Emily Dickinson, 'that everything conspires to break it.' Literature recasts life's spell.

Literature's politics is this: its refusal to accept, or allow us to accept, that we are the unmysterious entities we are reduced to in prevailing discourses, east and west.

We are instantiated spirit; along with the magpies and the cherry blossoms, the mountains and the rivers, we are inhabitants of places. We are not brand managers or student numbers; we are not units of labour or consumers or rate-payers — or not merely. We are lovers, and we are walkers and we are mammals and we are laughers and mourners and singers and fighters; we are numinous heathens; we carry our traumas and our grandparents' traumas in our cells and live them out each moment inside the work we must get done notwithstanding; we are children and we are parents and we are friends and we are makers of beautiful and useless things like sonatas. We are the singers of hymns and the finders of ways. We are baffled mystics, failed skeptics. We are thieves and angels. We are humans, creatures of the earth, incarnated and fallen angels, and without literature, sometimes we'd forget.


Belong like a lover, then, to your subject matter. Identify with the dead; talk with them, ask them for their help. Witness your times, but do not belong in them too well. Belong, instead, to your afflictions, your affections and addictions.

James Baldwin candid portrait session circa 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)Identify with your readers, by all means; be the words you think they'd love to hear. Identify with writing, itself; believe in well-made sentences, right rhythm, cool metaphors. Be, if you can, what your ancestral place is. Catch the lyric, if you can, of land you love and serve. Remember the earth in every phrase you make. Live like a river; write like a plateau. Be the country of who you are, the country of where you are.


This self that Baldwin speaks of is very large. As Whitman puts it, it contains multitudes. I believe Rumi's right when he says, 'there is a way of passing away from the merely personal, of dying and coming back plural'. (The self, it turns out, is a choir; all one has to do is learn to sing.) If a writer is going to identify with something, then, let it be that way. And let her writing practise it, this coming back plural, this being any one of us.


'Witness is a solitary game,' I wrote in a poem once. Writing, we all know, is witness, and one must stand a little outside one's life and times, one's people, one's society and its norms, to get that witness done. What you identify with you struggle to see. A little outside is where the writer belongs. Stand a little outside your life, so others may find their way home to theirs. Live on the threshold, then, and make of it a hearth of words. Let your passport name you Anchorite.


'Read and read well, and learn from good writing how good writing works. Go outside. Fall in love.' That was advice I gave once to a student newspaper in Cardiff, I think, when the young interviewer asked me that old question: what advice do you have for young writers. As if I'd know.

Don't identify as a writer, I might have added; identify with writing.


Poetry, all literature may be a trick humanity evolved to keep us sane. 'Human culture "invented" or evolved the personal lyric,' Gregory Orr has written in Poetry as Survival, 'as a means of helping individuals [the writer and the reader] survive the existential crises represented by extremities of subjectivity and also by such outer circumstances as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one.'

Orr goes on: All lives include chaos and disorder, 'but in certain existential crises, disorder threatens to overwhelm us entirely. In those cases, the very integrity of the self is threatened, and its desire or ability to persist is challenged. Survival begins when we "translate" our crisis into language ... The poem arrays the ordering power of our shaping imagination [perhaps, our access to Self] against the disorderings. (And in the poem, order wins.)'

If what poetry is chiefly for is helping restore to unravelling selves their integrity, and if one is a writer, one had better know a little of the self. And one had better learn a little lyric craft, so that the poem now and then lets the order win — stays the confusion, recasts the spell.

Cultivate the self, then. Start with your own. Include all selves. Especially the dead and the voiceless. Remember the earth. And identify with language itself, the work that literature does, which is your inheritance. Get as good at it as you can. In case it helps.




Mark Tredinnick is a poet and essayist. The above essay is taken from his lecture 'I am nobody; who are you? The writer as anyone of us at all', written for a seminar on 'Identity and the Artist' at the Lu Xun Academy in April 2019.

Main images: Emily Elizabeth Dickinson circa 1850. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images); James Baldwin candid portrait session circa 1965. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Mark Tredinnick, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson, literature, poetry



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Existing comments

No matter what we write, it seems inevitable that there is a self-revelatory element to it (at very least, as sub-text).
However, for the most impressive writers I'm familiar with, writing doesn't end there: it transcends self or pure subjectivity, as Mark Tredinnick suggests, and resonates with others.
The writing process may well start with self-aware application, though external stimuli can be the catalyst and even sustainer of a literary momentum that ends up on the page, especially in poetry.
Ancient Greek and Roman poets recognize a degree of passivity in the writing process - a givenness or receptivity inspired by divine "muses" beyond the self. Their accomplishments would suggest there is more afoot in writing than self-generation and willing oneself to 'be a writer'.

John RD | 03 September 2023  

Tredinnick writes beautifully about the difference between the self and the individual, the prior emphasis being on the soul and the latter on what the Canadian political scientist, famously parodied as 'possessive individualism' in his book, 'The Real World of Democracy' (Google Books, 1965).

Tragically, the spread of identity politics, which has replaced the culture of possessive individualism, doesn't fully address the telling of the human story either.

A student of the literary theorist, Terry Eagleton - and noteworthy critic of postmodernism - Mark's voice reminds me of Alan Wall's, who teaches English at the University of Chester.

How I wish I wrote like both of them!

Michael Furtado | 10 September 2023  

This is a terrific essay. Thanks heaps, mark.

Michael McGirr | 14 September 2023  

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