In reading a genre-confused book by a wannabe author called Bleaker House, in homage to the bleakness of her nearly uninhabited island (named Bleaker) in the Falklands and to a late-period Charles Dickens novel called Bleak House, I was struck by what it was that made the experience of the author so bleak. The author, someone I had never heard of before, had the mistaken notion that the reason she could not write compelling novels was because she was too distracted by being around other people and so she sought isolation as the cure for distraction. It would be hard to pick a more isolated place than she chose, to her credit, but she soon finds out to no one’s surprise but her own that the real hindrance to her writing is herself. And so she tries to write a novel (also called Bleaker House) about a young scholar seeking information about his father who has run away from any responsibilities involving him to the ends of the earth, and finds herself unable to create a compelling resolution to this bleak personal drama of flight and irresponsibility. Meanwhile, the author’s fragments of other writings detail a high degree of self-absorption, which is admittedly not too rare to find in contemporary authors.
This is, perhaps surprisingly, part of the subject matter of Bleak House itself, the novel which serves as an inspiration and ur-text of the book I was reading. Already in the mid-Victorian era, sensitive souls who wanted to write about other people already found themselves writing about different versions of themselves. The author of Bleaker House clearly has this problem, and it is telling that Charles Dickens was aware of the problem enough to have written about it using a thoughtful character that serves as his own stand-in in the plot as a way of pointing out this personal insight. It must be pointed out that simply writing about oneself in one’s work does not mean that work will be bad. Jane Austen, for example, famously wrote about young (but increasingly aging) gentry women looking for husbands, and managed to keep the tone of her works light despite the tragic circumstances of her own life and that of her sister Cassandra that kept them poor and isolated, and that killed off Austen barely in her 40’s. We may ponder how it is that Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot and Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse are somehow versions of her and that she is writing the story of a witty but proper gentry woman seeking happiness and material security in a marriage that she would simply not be able to find for one reason or another. Yet in the case of Bleaker House, it is clear that the book suffers because the author is writing about thinly disguised versions of herself, namely because she is not all that interesting of a person to read about.
The French playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famous wrote in his most famous play No Exit that hell is other people. As is frequently the case with philosophers, though, he got the matter exactly wrong. We can only achieve salvation through our connection with God and we can only achieve happiness in harmony with others. To the extent that we are isolated and alone we are not secure but rather vulnerable to the hostility and enmity of a cruel world and the cruel people within it. What makes the author’s experience on Bleaker Island so, well, bleak, is that she is trapped within her own mind and her own worries and anxieties about whether or not she is a good author. It is her own subjective world that harms her existence, and there is nowhere on this earth or in the universe at large where we can run to escape from ourselves. We carry our hearts and minds within us wherever we go, and if it is they which cause our trouble then we are bound to find trouble wherever we go because they are precisely what we cannot leave behind. The fact that the author appears to have learned this lesson bodes well for her future works. She has learned an insight which will fortify her from the illusion that a change of scenery will lead to a change of her essential nature as a self-absorbed writer with a flighty, artistic temperament and may, God willing, become more interested in other people as beings in their own right rather than as the fuel for her own rumination and writing. I’m still hoping the same will be true for me personally in that regard.
And this led me to think that there is a deep flaw with regards to our education of writers. It used to be that we considered it important for students to learn a great deal about other times and other peoples that were not like ourselves, so in the course of learning how to understand texts written in other languages by people who did not think like we do and whose lives were very different than our own we could be well equipped to deal with the others in our own lives, namely everyone who is not ourselves. If someone is equipped to understand the speeches of Cicero or the diary or personal correspondence of a lady-in-waiting at the court of Charles II of England, then they are well equipped to ponder the influence of society upon the literary self and able to question the distance between the presented self of the writings they are working with and the actual self as we judge them from centuries or millennia in the future. And, if we are the sort of people who are reflective at all, we can take that insight and use it to better understand humanity in general as being a species devoted to self-justification and prone to massive self-deception, and may in turn recognize that we are no different than the rest of our species in that regard ourselves and be both fair-minded and just as well as merciful in response to that insight.
Our generation, though, and perhaps even the last few generations, has been educated instead to look within ourselves for wisdom and insight. This is dangerous on several levels. On the merest practical level it is dangerous because we are not well-equipped to provide insight because of our blind spots and self-deception and generally fallen state. That which we need to grow and improve and mature must come from outside of us, and fortifying the innately conservative tendency of humanity to resist change as a general policy is deeply unwise, if not monstrously wicked. In terms of providing insight it is positively counterproductive, because we have with regards to self-reflection and rumination a major advantage that we do not possess when it comes to other people. Namely, we have knowledge of the subjective world that is inside of us. We know, or at least can know, our characteristic weaknesses and the personal experiences and family backgrounds and prejudices and blindness that has led us into our mistakes and errors and blunders. We do not have any insight into the subjective worlds of other people though, except based on our inference from our judgement of their words and deeds, and we are not inclined to be accurate judges of these things, in large part because we so desperately want to be deceived that the most cynical and wicked among our kind will happily oblige us by deceiving us and exploiting us for their own selfish benefit. And thus we have politicians and other predatory people among us. The interior prison of the self-absorbed is the bleakest house of all.