Of all the questions authors get asked, the most puzzling but persistent concerns that which others might think of what the writer has produced. These others – these potential disapprovers – might be the writer’s spouse, her family, her colleagues, community or neighbours. It doesn’t matter exactly who they are. Yet the question of these opinions is clearly a crucial one for apprentice artists.When they begin to work, a chorus of censure and dissent, if not of hate, starts up. The writer becomes inhibited by concerns about the effect his or her words might have. The writer could become anxious, stifled or blocked. She could begin to hate her own work, or become phobic about beginning.
Here the artist is generating a kind of lurid fantasy, and not one which is of use to writing. In truth, when you begin writing you will have no idea what anyone will think. If the writer has some level of integrity, he or she will always do her best work and will eventually discover whether others are indifferent, wildly enthusiastic or something else altogether. But the assumption of the nervous writer engaged in this doomscript – this omnipotent view – is that she has already aggressively provoked or hurt someone. Not only that: these ‘neighbours’ will retaliate. There will be guilt and a terrible conflict, so why bother at all?
This rigmarole implies that words are dangerous – that they can upset, thrill, provoke and change lives, which is useful knowledge. Good writers are aware that they work not for themselves, but to do something to a reader: words are powerful magic which must evoke strange and terrible worlds.
But what of these ‘neighbours’? What are they doing in this internal scenario? Will the wrong words persuade them to abandon you? La Rochefoucauld describes this fallacy well. ‘That which we call virtue is usually no more than a phantom formed by one’s passions.’
Good writers are aware that they work not for themselves, but to do something to a reader: words are powerful magic which must evoke strange and terrible worlds.
From one point of view, this virtue could be called conscience. To put it kindly: here the writer is considering others,and how could anyone argue with such benevolence?
Nevertheless, conscience is a less effective description of what is taking place than the notion of the super-ego, an idea Freud developed after the First World War, linking it to hate, depression, masochism and what he called the death instinct. Conscience implies concern, if not decency. The notion lacks the devilish, if not sadistic dimension which the idea of the superego has, where the ‘good’ becomes an obstacle to the truth. It is not that the writer has committed a crime of speaking, but rather that she is already guilty and always will be.
Ultimately this is not a moral question about doing harm to others. It concerns self-harm, the enigma of self-persecution and how you can begin to fear your own imagination. The writer might be a voyeur who likes to exhibit herself. This is partly what it means to present something to an audience – the wish to be known, to inhabit a persona, accompanied by a certain shamelessness.
But even as we speak we also wonder, according to the logic of the superego, if we are more monstrous than we can bear.We believe that if we were good we wouldn’t have aggressive or violent thoughts, forgetting that monstrousness is useful in art, which, to be effective, has to be pushed to an extreme, making the audience tremble. Art emerges from what Nietzsche called ‘inner anarchy’ and never from so- called decency.
A critical faculty, one of judgement, is essential. Any artist must be able to look over their work with a clear, non- dismissive eye, reading it through and dismissing this or that, and retaining the other. But the form of ferocious super-ego activity which Freud noticed is not part of the interesting difficulty of the work. It is not part of the struggle all artists have with their material and subject. It has nothing to do with the engineering of art. It is outside it, throttling it before it begins, telling the writer that she must always produce brilliant work and that she cannot make mistakes or endure failure. It is only destructive.
But why would anyone have such a killing machine inside them? For Freud, one of the most fascinating and impassable enigmas was people’s self-destructiveness, their masochism and their sadism. Indeed, he called the death drive ‘mysterious’. And you only have to look into the mirror to see it.
You’re in a dark forest with just a torch. If you know what you’re doing, it isn’t art.
The ears have no lids. It is not just the so-called mad who hear voices. Who isn’t possessed by them? The super-ego isn’t just an obscure psychical function, it is more like an involuntary voice of command, involving a threat which states that if you think or do a particular thing, you will be punished. And imagined punishments are always worse than the real thing.
The super-ego is not only concerned with prohibition. It has many faces, for it is also a devil of temptation, pushing us to go further, to enjoy wildly while telling us that we can never have enough pleasure. Like capitalism itself, it wants us to consume continuously, while leaving us dissatisfied. Nevertheless, excess can never be excessive enough; we always fail.
Art emerges from what Nietzsche called ‘inner anarchy’ and never from so-called decency.
Not one of us didn’t spend years of our young life under the command of others, an order of adults which guaranteed our safety. It is important not to forget the sheer amount of fear all children endure. So the origins of this ever-present threat are our parents and other authorities, plus the fury we felt about their instructions, particularly since we imagined they secretly enjoyed torturing and mistreating us.
This conjunction resembles the creditor\debtor dyad, the paradigmic relationship of our age. The creation of unpayable debt is a characteristic of the super-ego; but, as with fascism, it has to promise enjoyment as it works.You get hooked on failure since the super-ego is always sexualized. It is as if you is in a perverse relationship with yourself, where pleasure, as a last resort, is extracted from suffering.
This internal social order is a narrow sharia-like zone within which disruption and unpredictability – speaking or writing freely – is continuously punished. It is hard work being an oppressed victim of your own internal savagery. Parent-like, the super-ego appears to provide a form of protection, a limit, a boundary to what might be experienced as a spiral of endless pleasure. But this promise of stability is of less use to the adult artist who must work with uncertainty,clearing a path for the new.You’re in a dark forest with just a torch. If you know what you’re doing, it isn’t art.
Liberating oneself from self-slavery cannot be a permanent achievement. But good things get done, terrors are overcome, guilt is borne and these ‘persecutors’, or self created phantoms, are chased away, at least for a while. If we have some intimacy with ourselves it is possible to track these persecutions and dispute with them.
Knowledge may, on occasion, trump the promise of terrible enjoyment. The return will be a clear channel of good communication between the unconscious and the conscious. This is where the work is achieved.