From Iceland — Experimentalism is a Humanism

Experimentalism is a Humanism

Published September 7, 2010

A few days ago (the rather awful) writer’s magazine Writer’s Digest tweeted the following: “Free short story competition to raise awareness for those suffering from depression”. Followed by a url. Now, being the cold-hearted asshole I am, this made me chuckle. I’m sorry for it, I truly am – I don’t mean to belittle the people suffering from depression, nor the writers who’d like to support the depressed, or even Circalit and the publishers at Little Episodes, who so graciously decided that their contest should be “free”. [This is where I meant to insert a “but”, halfways excusing myself – but unfortunately there is no honest “but” to be found, I seem to be nothing short of an asshole. We’ll go on without a but then – bear with me].
Writing short stories (or poetry) is of course highly therapeutic, as a cure not only for depression but also for various other mental ailments. Literature is a powerful tool for catharsis – it is prescribed by licensed psychiatrists as a means to purify the soul, to get stuff out there, to grasp emotions and thoughts before they flutter away, to gain self-understanding. Formulating thoughts in non-linear (and even non-logical) texts can furthermore bring about harmony, coherence and satisfaction for the practicing writer, as well as uncovering hidden bits you’d never have dreamt you were feeling and/or thinking. This, despite the fact that the result may also be quite the opposite; writing can make you predictable and cause you nothing but anguish.
In international avant-garde circles the cathartic powers of writing are traditionally derided – which is sort of why I chuckled. They’re seen as an evil force hellbent on destroying all that’s good about literature, transforming it into a support group for the mentally needy. And in all truth, cathartic writing is often not very good – it’s extremely self-centred, it’s rarely performed with much artistry (in 9 times out of 10 the cathartic writer never passes the novice phase) and it’s overtly melodramatic. None of which retracts from the fact that it’s highly therapeutic and healthy. But people don’t seem to have the same hesitancy about publishing their therapeutic poetry as they have about, for instance, recording and publishing their songwriting. Quite simply there doesn’t seem to be much of a border separating the presentation or reception of serious and therapeutic poetry, which perhaps tells us something about either the literacy of the poetry reading masses or the quality of the so-called serious poetry.
And yet. As mentioned earlier, one of the consequences of the less than artistic nature of therapeutic writing is a growing disdain for anything resembling a humanist tendency within more serious (and/or experimental) literature – and what gets lost in this desperate f light from the horrors of sentimental confessionals, is the reader’s catharsis (as opposed to the writer’s catharsis) and the notion that literature can help in explaining “the human condition” – or god help me, provide a (much needed) radical approach to social commentary.
This isn’t necessarily so much seen in the work, as it is seen in the critical reception of scholars and the poetics of the writers, who choose to frame their works outside a humanist context (even when such a context seems self-evident, for instance with Christian Bök’s The Xenotext Experiment – a humanist feat comparable to the moon landing, a sentimental march of hope – or better yet, Kenny Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, a raucous and daring take on Sartre’s maxim that “hell is other people”, without the “other people”).
On the other hand, the writing deemed “humanist” or even “confessional” is often mechanistic, foreseeable – as if written by automatons; its main collective feature is a massive sameness with a dystrophic feel.
The dichotomy of humanist writing vs. experimental writing needs to be put to rest – because just as obviously as therapy isn’t necessarily art, experimental writing is, through it’s radical political and social approaches to language and creative living spaces, inherently a humanist act.

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