I begin with Jorge Luis Borges’ quotation from “a certain Chinese Encyclopedia” in which it is written that “animals can be categorised into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies”. This passage is quoted by Foucault (1994) at the beginning of his book, The Order of Things, and that would in itself be a pungent title for Borges’ list.
What is this list? Is it Chinese thinking? One commentator on modernism, Louis Sass, has suggested, in response to Borges’ list, that such ‘Chinese’ thinking shows signs of typical schizophrenic thought processes (1992: 119-122). I am reminded of the story about Jacques Lacan’s search for a stenographer in the early 1960s. He wanted a stenographer who could record his words accurately as he delivered his famous seminars. He hired Maria Pieracos who later reported,
How much room would there be for a Chinese Encyclopaedia in a creative Ph.D. thesis? What examiner would not want to untwist and flatten out Lacan’s ‘Chinese’ prose?
In Perth, there is a magazine produced for street kids and for teenagers in detention centres. It is called Gibber. The magazine receives some funding from the West Australian State Government. Recently, the editors were told that they must not print swear words and must not write about drugs or crime if they want to continue to receive funding. They produced one clean issue, which they titled The Loved-Up Issue, and it was condemned by Perth’s graffiti artists and street people, but the funding source was satisfied.
Questions of censorship, discourse boundaries, legitimacy, and access to funds will always be with us. More and more frequently now, literary-theoretical-philosophical writers claim to be working creatively, and indeed set out to produce creative, anarchic, personal, but still highly sophisticated theoretical works – and this is something for all of us who live the life of writing to celebrate. Derrida writes that he wants to move towards the text of fiction with a violence “that matches it in intensity” (1987: 153). This annexation, this inspiration, is fascinating and exciting. Literary Studies and English Literature Ph.D. students are writing fictionalised biographies, theoretically informed autobiographies, long novels in response to the novels and texts they have studied in their undergraduate degrees. This movement towards creative and personal and even confused reactions to their study and reading is a marvellous turn for the academy to be taking. Academics who have never written a novel can now supervise the writing of them. It is an unexpected and stimulating turn of events. And besides, it is what students and scholars want to do; in fact, insist on doing. They want to try their hand at the ‘creative thing’.
However, other students have come through undergraduate creative writing programmes and do not want to come at creative work through a canon of literary-theoretical-philosophical texts. They want the discourses of commentary and theory to remain below the text, beside the text, deep inside the text – somewhere else. Their work is not less sophisticated, less researched, or less creative for that. But nowadays in the academy, they find their work is only encouraged up to a certain point. Then they are told that, if their work is not ‘loved-up’, it will not be assessed as a work of research or as the product of a scholar’s life. Creative work must be ‘loved-up’ with theory.
Is this censorship? Is this brute politics? Is it a predictable contradiction for large, conservative institutions which grab opportunities to enrol high numbers of students in creative writing programmes, but then refuse to follow through with that commitment when students, naturally, inevitably, want to pursue their discipline through all the levels of postgraduate study? Those with control of the funds and the certificates insist that they have a right to maintain university standards, that, if they want ‘loved-up’ versions of knowledge, then that is what will be produced.
(II) Throwing Poems at Theory
What happens when the poet walks into a seminar on poetry? The American poet, Billy Collins, gives us a portrait of the tensions and the stimulation this can lead to. His poem is called, Introduction to Poetry (1988: 58):
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk into the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
(III) Marking Time Blues
An anecdote. This year I taught a graduate diploma class in fiction writing. One student submitted a draft of a story set in Melbourne’s criminal underworld. The story involved conversations in pubs and the procuring of a gun, but there was no explanation of how the gun was acquired, what kind of gun it was, and no sense for me as a reader that these characters shared a sociolect, a set of particular values, and plausible methods for commiting crimes. I thought the story needed more research, considering the kind of story it was. When I told her this, she said she was surprised. She thought that fiction writing was about letting the imagination go and that research was for journalism and other kinds of writing.
Another anecdote. I marked a fourth-year honours thesis this year. It was a creative thesis, a fifty-page collection of poems centring on questions of sexuality with an attached fifteen-page exegesis. I was pleased and impressed with the poems I read. They were vibrant, carefully crafted, original, and at times as awkward as creative work must be. The exegesis was disappointing. It was badly proofed, casually expressed, and gave little indication that questions and problems to do with boundaries between pornography and erotica had been thought through. The thesis was 80% creative and 20% analytical in its construction, so I marked accordingly. I am a poet, so I was marking the work as a fellow practising poet. I was, in addition, convinced that this was essentially a creative thesis and should be judged on its creative merits. So I gave greater weight to the creative work and much less to the exegesis. I gave her 86%. The same thesis was marked by a colleague who did not see the marking as a matter of weighting between creative and theoretical despite the way the thesis was constructed. My colleague took it as a whole and considered whether this writer would survive the scholarly standards set at postgraduate levels. My colleague gave the work 70%. Where does this leave us?
(IV) Writing after Writing
After completing a scholarly PhD in 1996 and sending it off to examiners, I found myself writing a sonnet called, How to recognise an academic thesis of outstanding merit (1997: 47):
Apparently unhurried and innocent of malice;
Deep inside it an enemy recently swallowed.
Its unblinking eye must follow the examiner
Who must be too intimidated to deliver the usual blow.
At one fanged end of this snake there is an argument
From which its body grows seamless and compelled.
Its surface must be etched as finely as a totem
And when the examiner turns to go
He must find the snake wound tightly round
His cracking torso
So that he gasps and scribbles a final note:
On how the tail of the snake so fittingly enters its own deadly throat.
Brophy, Kevin (1997) Seeing Things (Wollongong: Five Islands Press).
Collins, Billy (1988) The Apple that Astonished Paris (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press).
Derrida, Jacques, Bloom, Harold, de Man, Paul, Hartman, G.H., & Miller, J.H. (1987) Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Continuum).
Foucault, Michel (1994) The Order of Things, tr. A.M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Vintage).
Sass, Louis (1992) Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought (New York: Basic Books).