Procrustean Taste versus the Proust Crustacean

Usually what you want to do, creatively speaking, is so compelling and necessary an action, that you rarely know or think of why you’re doing it.

Theory, in that flattened-out sense of the term which opposes it to practice, is for someone else, perhaps the someone who isn’t sufficiently interested in practising (in both senses of that word), or even the Early Decider, who first makes his or her system (hitting the sweet spot on their influences’ trendy/abstruse graph), then either composes according to it, or arranges other writers so that they fit neatly within or outwith it.

But before your purist prejudices run away with you, you must also admit it could equally be the someone else who happens to be you when you’re not composing.

Usually you do keep a kind of sidelong eye on things, and increasingly you pick up that not only is the theory/practice opposition not as hard and fast as many writers like to make it, but that you have recurrent tendencies that might well be looking for conceptual motives.

One idea which I notice I keep on testing in my work, and indeed in the way I choose to present it (in print, certainly, but also through blogs and social networking sites), is a sort of supersaturation of taste. What happens if, as I often seem to be doing, you start anywhere you can, and then proceed in every direction possible to you?

The first thing that happens is you get lost quite fast, or write a lot of work you need to lose, or literally lose a lot of work. The second is others lose sight of you: you become indistinct to them, except as a type of loser.

But getting lost is one way of evading the too-pat conclusions of the Early Decider. What theoretical me supposes creative me must be seeking to emulate can be heard happening in the music of Monk, Sun Ra or Zappa; it can be read in MacDiarmid’s poems ‘de longue haleine’ (a sort of prophesy of the internet), or in the staggering productivity of Bolaño, Browning, Morgan, Musil, Pessoa, Urquhart, and, of course, Proust – a cornucopious inventiveness, rather than the invention of a means of production that results in copiousness.

It feels like a bursting of the mould of good taste without stopping to épater any of the bourgeoisie, a working toward fluency that seems in itself to require new categories to describe it, but is actually and actively a critique of categorisation itself. It is, after all, theory’s way with the category that many writers fear, the way it drops them into boxes they don’t want to acknowledge let alone agree or disagree with, forgetting that theory is also about critiquing why we build those boxes in the first place.

While we’re trying to think outside the box, we need someone to worry about what ‘outside’ means. If that someone turns out to be us, then the two aspects of our intellect and sensibility can either stare at each other in a stupefied paralysis of self consciousness, or get on with things. They then might well find themselves in agreement: categorisation tends to set things up for the commodification of the thing that’s being categorised.

Such behaviour frequently manifests itself as a Procrustean plea for less, for constraint, for selectivity, for discipline. The ascetic impulse, the iconoclastic, Calvinist, Zennish tendency in us, bows to such a plea, but without sufficiently acknowledging that it can be and often is a covert apologia for the way the world regards creativity as a fundamentally unprofitable excrescence.

By ‘the world’ of course, I mean the way the world is today, or Capitalism, which must induce in us a simultaneous creative and critical inertia to keep its own wheels turning. The assertion that there is no money in the arts leads to a perversion of our aesthetic impulse toward economy, and produces a narrow austerity of the imagination: the short poem, the slim volume, the marketable oeuvre.

This narrowness, it seems obvious to us, leads to its failure to explain the crisis of presence we experience outside the various acts of creation and performance, of reading and perceiving. That it is the nature of such a prescribed world that we can never be fully in it, or, put simply, ‘here’.

How copiousness opposes this is by, in theory, pointing out such crises, connections and commodifications, but, in practice, by bursting the category of restraint itself. By requesting the impossible as a first principle. By inhabiting the Rabelaisean, the baroque, the Proustian, the rococo, the Wildean, the wilderness, as a shell we both generate and grow out of.

By wielding excess as a counter to the censorious – as we observe throughout history and the history of art, catholicity, the Byzantine, the Beat, the outsider, the barbarian, are all repeatedly arriving at the gates, designing the gates, defending the gates; conquering or failing to conquer, setting up their salons de refusés, or becoming the mainstream; remaining neglected all their lives or selling out; producing tired old parodies of themselves, or being reinvented or reassessed or rejected by further Young Turks or YBAs; piling up in second-hand shops, junk-shops, the neglected sheds of eccentric collectors; being burned, lost, recovered, made legendary or loathed royally.

They do everything that creativity is renewed by, short of controlling it; not second-guessing posterity, or else getting it ridiculously wrong; never academicising, but always influencing the academic; never getting the credit, but always getting the job done; not sorted but always sorting; sacked and head-hunted with equal vehemence; tinkering not tailoring, soldiering on and sailing through; rarely rich but, when so, behaving like a poor man, often a beggar, always a thief.

The paradox such a way of working shows up is that there never was an ‘us’ that couldn’t be in the world, nor a ‘here’ for us not to be in. In the act of creation ‘we’ are gone, lost, in the zone, a pretext become context, out of time – or at any rate out of chronological time, within kairos, a realm in which we are no longer what we recognise as ourselves, even though all the attributes of that self seemingly remain present. We exceed the boundaries of the self.

If there is a motive in such a circumstance, something that drives us to experience it, a drive to oppose the urge to control, to parsimony, or to rival those for sex or death (or indeed to suggest what might lie at the base of both of these), it is the need to be challenged about our identity at the most fundamental level. This could be seen as the religious impulse, stripped of its dogmatic shroud, and doctrinal accretions: an impulse hardwired into the brain to get round the biggest category of all, consciousness itself, a not-to-be-evolved-out-of desire, finally, to wake up.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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6 Responses to Procrustean Taste versus the Proust Crustacean

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. True self-expression is self-obliterative in the best possible way, making room for experiences and selves so much vaster than our own. Of course, there are neo-Romantic tendencies that we might also be wary of when celebrating the transcendent aspects of creativity–but that’s for a different post, I suppose. This one is superb!

  2. awax1217 says:

    Entering your world was refreshing, thanks for the dip in the cool water.

  3. jamesroom964x says:

    I often find myself brought out of time and place when I write, only to be dropped back in at strange moments of lost creative impulse. I never really thought of the creative process in terms of literally losing one’s self, but it is certainly an interesting perspective. I wonder if it has something to do with pouring so much of oneself into the work that it necessarily destroys some element of Ego.

  4. toemailer says:

    Excellent article – “leads to a perversion of our aesthetic impulse toward economy, and produces a narrow austerity of the imagination: the short poem, the slim volume, the marketable oeuvre.” really resonated. 🙂

  5. I’m just proud of myself for being able to follow your beautiful prose. Well said.

  6. androidbethy says:

    Reblogged this on Android Bethy.

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