The Source of Great Literature and More (Part 4)

Guest Post by Mary Martin

So far, I’ve thought about great literature as coming from the unconscious, but surely there’s more to it than that.

Take, for example, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Ghosts from the past, present and future show Ebenezer Scrooge his way. A good story—lots of drama and thought provoking bits. But why do we read it or watch that movie every year—especially when we know exactly how it ends?

Maybe it’s because Dickens touched upon something universal in each one of us—that it really matters how we live our lives and that even someone as mean as Scrooge can be redeemed. It’s a story of hope for even the blackest of souls and it tells us something about how hard it is to be a human being. Definitely, Dickens triggered something in us in a very powerful way. And, apparently it’s not a simple lesson easily learned, so that we remind ourselves of it each year. After all, Christmas is supposedly about redemption.   

Jung talked a lot about archetypes. I’ve spent quite a lot of time trying to grasp just what these archetypes are. I suppose one could say that they are aspects of our human nature. Hard to define but easy to spot—especially in others. You can’t see the wind, but you can see what it does. 

There are plenty of examples of archetypes, especially in Shakespeare—King Lear tells us much about the folly of pride and Macbeth about disasters of ambition.  All very human failings and strengths!

How did these works come to be created? Did Dickens or Shakespeare dredge in their respective unconscious and simply toss up what they found? Hardly! I suspect that they allowed their characters to appear to explain a bit of themselves and then the “real” work of the skilled craftsman began.

What do I mean by allowed?  I doubt that they sat down, quill pens in hand  and thought—How can I create a person who typifies meanness of spirit [Scrooge] or How can I create a character who illustrates the terrible consequences of ambition running amok? I don’t think they created them with the force of logic.

Likely, both great writers were “visited” by their characters. How can a character visit? I expect that Macbeth or Scrooge pretty much floated up to these writers and started telling them about their natures and lives. Where did these characters come from? They drifted up to the writer from his unconscious where all the archetypes are in play. If you should be so fortunate to have a character visit you in such a fashion, best pay close attention.

But do you just write down whatever comes into your head? Maybe at first. But this is where the craft, the artistry comes into play. If you just write down a bunch of raw stuff from the unconscious, you’re likely to have a mishmash.

One of my favourite writers, Robertson Davies, has said it best in his lecture Jung and the Writer,

Anyone who wishes to do so may enter into a friendly association with his Unconscious, but that will not make him a writer. Dredging up stuff from the Unconscious may put some ingredients on the kitchen table, but without a gifted cook it will never be turned into a meal that anybody wants to eat. 

So what will that skilled chef do? First of all he will have the greatest respect for the raw material he has been given. He will know just when to throw what out. When to trim and when to preserve. He will know what combinations to make of his material. He will know precisely what flavours and textures of the “food” to combine to give the greatest effect. And he will have the imagination to put everything together into a satisfying whole. That is the task of the artist.

But here’s another aspect of the artist to consider. Does he see the world differently from us? I was intrigued in reading Alain de Botton’s book How Proust Can Change Your Life. It’s described by the New York Times as “A self help manual for the intelligent person.”

At one point, de Botton is discussing the ideas of Marcel Proust, the novelist, and the artist Chardin. One of Proust’s characters is awakened to his surroundings by the still life paintings of  Chardin.

Chardin sees a loaf of bread or a salt cellar as beautiful and in his paintings he makes these commonplace items truly gorgeous. No longer must we search for paintings of beautiful vistas of ancient Rome or some truly exotic place to find beauty.  We can find it right under our noses in our very own kitchens. If only we will look!

So, besides opening up communication with the unconscious, bringing the skill of a great chef to the “ingredients” we find, all a great writer or artist need do is bring a different perspective—or way of seeing—to his creation. All of this assumes that the writer has mastered all the skills of his craft.

Is that too tall an order? Many of us write but few of us are remembered down the centuries. It is a very high standard, indeed, but to which a writer should at least aspire. 

MARY E. MARTIN is a lawyer, happily turned author of The Osgoode Trilogy and The Trilogy of Remembrance. Please visit her at The first novel in the trilogy is The Drawing Lesson and the next one, not yet published, is The Fate of Pryde.

“The Drawing Lesson” has been selected for inclusion in the Barnes & Noble Rising Star Collection and is available in print copy and download throughout July. It has also won an Honorable Mention from both the Reviewers Choice Award for general fiction 2011 and The New York Festival of Books 2011.



Posted on August 24, 2011, in Education, Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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