Recreation before creation

As Wikipedia says … I know this isn’t a promising beginning, but actually, most Wikipedia entries seem to me to be more comprehensive and accessible than other enclopedia entries, and in some biographical instances, more accurate than the DNB, and I mean the new edition, not the old one … anyway …

I was browsing the web in that idle way one does, having remarked to a colleague that I once saw Borges. It was in 1970 or 1971, and he was present at a dramatisation of Labyrinths, which was remarkable for its set – a sequence of mirrors, so that the performer kept appearing in the last place you would have expected, a nice visual analogy with Borges’ ideas. It was an intensely visual piece. Quite what Borges made of it, I cannot imagine, since, as far as I recall, he was even then unable to see very much, if anything.

Anyway, to backtrack along this corridor of thought, I was thinking of Borges’s story of Pierre Menard, which alwas struck me as – amongst many other things – a brilliant analogy for the process of learning. In the story, narrated by a fictional academic, we are told how Menard has lived Cervantes’s life as closely as possible, so that he may write Don Quixote – and extracts are given from Cervantes’ version and from Menard’s. They are identical. But the narrator claims Menard’s is better, because the life has been lived more fully. The idea of learning about writing by writing (not quite as dramatic as Menard’s approach!) is what’s informed all my teaching career, literally, and I mean literally, from the first day I set foot in a classroom. I always aimed to anticipate with students something important about what they would read, so that they felt a sense of belonging in the writing when they arrived at it, rather than the sense of hostility often associated with the act of opening a book in a classroom. Their reading re-enacted the process of writing which had led them to the text.

So it was interesting, while e-foraging, to come across the story of Hunter S. Thompson having, before writing his first books, typed out both The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms in their entirety, to get a sense of what might be good writing. I can see the point of this entirely (even if there are lingering echoes of that moment in The Shining when the frustrated author is found to have typed the same sentence over and over again). I think you do learn by copying (and copying was central to Elizabethan ideas of education), not least about the rhythm of prose. It’s also like learning poems, or reciting them. You get a sense of what is possible. (I’ve also done this as a parodist, for instance, watching two hours of Delia Smith talking before parodying her for an Independent Christmas special. The smallest tics are what make a good parody believable.)

Must dash. I think I will just type out the complete works of Proust. Or maybe The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, unmysteriously the favourite ‘novel’ my students ever encountered, rather as ‘the complete works of Emily Bronte’ was my specialist subject in my first year at university. At the time I didn’t think it was quite so tragic that she destroyed her second novel.


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