The Consolations of Writing

The Consolations of Writing: Literary Strategies of Resistance from Boethius to Primo Levi

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 334
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  • Book Info
    The Consolations of Writing
    Book Description:

    Boethius wroteThe Consolation of Philosophyas a prisoner condemned to death for treason, circumstances that are reflected in the themes and concerns of its evocative poetry and dialogue between the prisoner and his mentor, Lady Philosophy. This classic philosophical statement of late antiquity has had an enduring influence on Western thought. It is also the earliest example of what Rivkah Zim identifies as a distinctive and vitally important medium of literary resistance: writing in captivity by prisoners of conscience and persecuted minorities.

    The Consolations of Writingreveals why the great contributors to this tradition of prison writing are among the most crucial figures in Western literature. Zim pairs writers from different periods and cultural settings, carefully examining the rhetorical strategies they used in captivity, often under the threat of death. She looks at Boethius and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as philosophers and theologians writing in defense of their ideas, and Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci as politicians in dialogue with established concepts of church and state. Different ideas of grace and disgrace occupied John Bunyan and Oscar Wilde in prison; Madame Roland and Anne Frank wrote themselves into history in various forms of memoir; and Jean Cassou and Irina Ratushinskaya voiced their resistance to totalitarianism through lyric poetry that saved their lives and inspired others. Finally, Primo Levi's writing after his release from Auschwitz recalls and decodes the obscenity of systematic genocide and its aftermath.

    A moving and powerful testament,The Consolations of Writingspeaks to some of the most profound questions about life, enriching our understanding of what it is to be human.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5209-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    For centuries the experiences of European intellectuals in prisons of various kinds stimulated them to reconsider aspects of the human condition in their responses to personal crises, and Europe’s turbulent history of wars, persecution, and revolution. While these writers’ circumstances and contemporary attitudes to prisoners have varied greatly, similar forms, themes, and functions tend to recur in their prison writing. The structure of this book, juxtaposing different pairs of writers across national and period boundaries, from late antiquity to the late twentieth century, gives form to this aspect of its argument. Yet, while individuals have reacted to pain, loneliness, fear,...

  5. Part I. In Defense of Civilization
    • CHAPTER 1 The Disciplines of Reason and Lyric Poetry
      (pp. 21-78)

      Power politics, court intrigue, forged letters, and no opportunity to mount a defense against lying informers led Boethius, by his own account, to a death sentence in a “lonely place of banishment.” He complained that he had inspired hatred for “freely follow[ing] his conscience” to “resist evil” and “defend justice.”¹ The condemned man’s suffering is always an intrinsic part of the message ofThe Consolation of Philosophy,which offers readers a defense of Boethius’s ideas of Roman culture and civilization: self-sufficiency, religious devotion, book learning, imitation of ancient Greek ideals, and a strong tradition of public service. Boethius echoed and...

    • CHAPTER 2 Creative Dialogues with Textual Partners, Past and Present
      (pp. 79-118)

      Much of the writing produced in prison by European intellectuals originated as reactions to extraordinary crises, yet, as we have seen, their various forms of resistance to these situations demonstrate their clarity and rigor of approach to common concerns. The writer who is a prisoner because he or she is a writer and a humanist (of one sort or another) has a special claim on us. Such writers put their lives, liberty, and happiness at stake for ideas about how people should live. Thomas More and Antonio Gramsci would each have been appalled at the other’s philosophy of life and...

  6. Part II. Preservation of Self
    • CHAPTER 3 Memory and Self-Justification: Images of Grace and Disgrace Abounding
      (pp. 121-165)

      The first part of this section explores the use of confessional modes of writing. It argues that the stories John Bunyan and Oscar Wilde told themselves and their readers about their different situations were forms of self-justification based on personal memories of past events that had either caused or directly contributed to their imprisonment. Yet, as in any life-writing, the construction of a readable image of self had to be shaped by received conventions derived from other writers’ cultural (as well as personal) memories in order to be accessible to others. This act of creation was therefore never purely personal...

    • CHAPTER 4 Memorial Narratives as Salvation for the Feminine Self
      (pp. 166-212)

      Marie-Jeanne Roland (1754–93) and Anne Frank (1929–45) wrote memorial narratives to preserve details of their lives because they believed that writing about their ideas, experiences, and feelings would help to sustain them in the exceptional circumstances of confinement. While they wrote, their lives were subject to arbitrary violence, uncertainty, injustice, and the danger of imminent death. Subsequently, both writers have become popular heroines: their prison writings have been continuously in print since shortly after their deaths. Yet their personal memoirs of different kinds have been read and valued as historic witness accounts of wider, catastrophic events: the French...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Consolations of Imagination and Lyric Poetry
      (pp. 213-264)

      This chapter explores the personal and the political tactics of two remarkable, yet little-known, twentieth-century poets who survived their imprisonments in life-threatening conditions and emerged from confinement to find that their prison poetry had been published and circulated widely, carrying political messages that went beyond their authors’ initial situations and declared purposes of resistance and self-preservation.

      Jean Cassou’s thirty-three sonnets are signs of a private inner world that enabled him to resist the psychological pressures of his imprisonment during the winter of 1941–42. The memories and impressionistic dream world that had sustained Cassou in an intense and disciplined life...

  7. Part III. Testimony for Mankind
    • CHAPTER 6 With Hindsight and Beyond Resistance
      (pp. 267-301)

      Primo Levi’s revisions of his experiences in Auschwitz stand alone. He wrote with hindsight because during his thirteen months in Auschwitz he was unable to write: normal life was brutally suspended, and he poured all his physical energies and intellect into the struggle to survive. Traumatic memories are especially persistent and Levi’s various forms of memoir and reaction to his experiences have come to represent the most developed and searing Holocaust testimony that since the later 1940s has evolved in many different forms.¹ Levi’s writing epitomizes the ethical incentives of prison writing as testimony for mankind that not only engages...

  8. Conclusion: Beyond Testimony
    (pp. 302-310)

    In the preface to his last book,The Drowned and the Saved, Levi acknowledged, “the truth … has come to light through a long road and a narrow door” because “the best historians of the Lagers emerged from among the very few who had the ability and luck to attain a privileged observatory.”¹ This paradoxical “privilege” of higher ground above the flood—finding “a way, granted or conquered, astute or violent, licit or illicit, to lift oneself above the norm” (p. 26)—explained both the narrowness of the door and its restricted viewpoint. Although the metaphorical Drowned and Saved of...

    (pp. 311-318)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 319-324)