The Consolations of Writing announces itself early and late (pp. 3, 16, 307, 309) as a ‘politics of prison writing’. It is a rhetoric of prison writing also, perhaps more so, at least inextricably so. In this book, political writing is writing that moves the heart, soul, and will. The Consolations of Writing advocates for an authoritative rhetorical force inherent specifically in writing from and about (usually political) imprisonment, in part because ‘in the literature of the West, material prisons are frequently made into figures for existential states’ (p. 14). Prisoners are representatively human at a pitch of intensity few humans reach, experiencing in their bodies high humanist questions and quandaries (ethics and evil, artistic creation, community and isolation—in sum, the meaning of life). Writing in and about their authoritative experience in a form others can receive reclaims and exercises their humanity (often at risk from dehumanising treatment), but that turn towards others also reconstitutes that humanity. ‘Without … “kindness” we are not human beings’ may be the ethical core of the book (p. 283). Zim finds that certain formal and thematic features typically deploy prisoners’ potent synecdochic authority, whatever genres the prisoners use or ideas they espouse. Her introduction and opening discussion of Boethius anatomise these features: dialogue and lyric (especially ordered metre), allusions to authoritative and foundational texts and images of nature, ‘the paradox of gain by loss’ (p. 6), dialectic and binary structures, and privileging of reason and the rational over irrational emotional and political turbulence (a strategy that paradoxically carries a strong affective force). Thus, by means of representative case studies grounded in historical particularity, Zim aims to be the first to define and comprehend the entire topos of prison writing in Western European politics, history, and rhetoric. Zim orders this capacious account with an ambitiously wrought structure accommodating 11 case studies of ambitious range: from Latin, German, English, French, Dutch, and Russian; from the fifth-century CE to the 1980s. She divides the texts into three sections, corresponding to three fundamental rhetorical purposes of prison writing: defence of civilisation, preservation of self, and testimony to mankind. Within these sections, her individual chapters pair authors and texts (often diachronically and mischievously) according to subthemes. Boethius and Dietrich Bonhoeffer work from prison in both cognitive and affective genres: philosophy/theology and lyric (ch. 1). Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci deploy the intertextual voices of a wide-ranging education for edification and community in their carceral isolation (ch. 2). From these authors, intent on civilisation in crisis, we move to John Bunyan and Oscar Wilde, both intent on consolidating their personal moral authority after a conversion experience (ch. 3). Marie-Jeanne Roland and Anne Frank explore what kind of woman it is possible to be when hemmed in by the French Revolution and the Nazis (ch. 4). Jean Cassou and Irina Ratushinskaya compose lyric in prison for their own sakes and for others, constructing and inflecting a variety of subjectivities through the imagination (ch. 5). Primo Levi, Zim’s Boethius redivivus, gets a section and chapter all to himself, and his retrospective writing about Auschwitz permits the book’s elegiac and conclusive account of why authors and audiences return to prison writing outside the immediate urgency of its experience. Confinement’s scandalous particularity haunts us with its universal truths. So then, this book has a lot to do. It must argue for the cohesion of its topic across country, language, genre, historical period, and academic discipline, and in so doing create an interested audience rather than find one ready-made. Because few if any readers will be familiar with the majority of the 11 works it studies, it must introduce each of those works with summary detail sufficient to orient and tantalise the uninitiated. But it must also offer a reading of each individual work complex and original enough to engage specialists of that work who have found their way to the book’s generalisations because of specialist interest, and must do so by entering into specialist conversations through select but thorough secondary source citation. It must make meaning in each case study, within each pairing, within each section, and as a whole monograph. All this is too much for 323 pages including index. They best fulfil the first two requirements. Key terms and themes do recur and recombine across chapters into a fugal unity. Zim’s historical contextualisation and generous quotation (of the lyrics, in particular) give readers an affective way into each case study. Particularly in the early chapters, analysis develops a cross-hatching of allusive comparison and contrast, within each pair and sometimes beyond: ‘Bunyan, like Gramsci’ (p. 125), ‘Boethius would have understood’ (p. 162), ‘unlike Boethius, More, and Gramsci’ (p. 284). At times the comparisons and pairings carry felicitous force, for example, that grace for Bunyan and disgrace for Wilde lead to functionally similar conversions and postures of moral authority. At other times suggestions flash by, undeveloped, in a sentence or transitional paragraph. Particularly rueful are the promises (in the introduction and the title of Chapter 4) to introduce a gender analysis that never quite gets synthesised as such in the chapters themselves. Religion and theology are frequently present in these pages, never disrespected, mostly out of focus: as alternative explanations of or approaches to the data (pp. 2n2, 250n89), as introductory sentences and concepts away from which the paragraph squirms (p. 242), as footnotes (pp. 250n89, 275n19), as topics more satisfactorily addressed in other texts (p. 204). Save for the Bunyan chapter, ethics and not theology more naturally fits this proudly humanist volume; according to Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature, the terms ‘human’ and its cognates ‘humanist’ and ‘humanity’ appear 172 times. The book concurs with the opinion it attributes to Primo Levi: religion is easiest to handle when it is categorisable in terms of political ethics. Most of the authors Zim examines do profess or interrogate religious faith. It would be easy to ask theological questions of this book, and have it yield answers. The title, The Consolations of Writing: Literary Strategies of Resistance from Boethius to Primo Levi, conflates ‘consolation’ and ‘resistance’ as functional near-synonyms. From its spine and front cover, the book fuses the affective rhetorical purpose of consolation with the activist political and psychological purpose of resistance. A politics, and a rhetoric, of prison writing. I suspect the issues are not reducible so simply to one another, but this book introduces us to and moves us with their considerable overlap. A theology of prison writing has yet to be written, but it will have to reckon with this politics and this rhetoric, these resistances and consolations. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 23, 2017
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