Thursday, 30 May 2013

A rejected essay

A few months ago I mentioned how I entered an essay prize competition organised by the University of Cambridge. Sadly, but to no great surprise, I didn't get anywhere with it. Dissapointing though I found this, I completely understand that I'm probably not as good a writer as my ego ocassionally tricks me into believing. Suspiciously however, all of the winners (I shan't name them; there's already a big enough witch hunt occuring in this country at the moment) come from (I know this, I checked each one) highly selective, fee-paying, altogether priveleged 'schools', meaning I have no doubt that each and every one of the fuckers had specialist help*. Now I'm not bitter, clearly, but I'm quite adamant about the fact that I had no help whatsoever. I approached no teacher at my modestly funded, local comprehensive sixth form college, and as for my parents; well, they're morons, which rules that out. Am I a victim of inherent class prejudice? Or was my essay just not that good?

*I should probably point out I'm (probably) joking.

For you to come to your own conclusion, have a read;

‘How often one hears a young man with no talent say when asked what he intends to do, “I want to write”. What he really means is, “I don’t want to work”.’ (W.H. Auden) Discuss the ways in which two or more literary works have reflected on the labour and/or playfulness of writing.


While the composition of literature has remained a revered artistic institution, the nature of its creation is still a cause of dispute and mystery. Though divides over many aspects of literature can be attributed to difference of interpretation, that is regarding the connection between the text and audience, establishing the connection between the author and text proves to be a far more challenging task; one, it seems, that cannot be fully explained by purely examining contextual evidence or autobiographical account. The two texts explored for this essay, Oscar Wilde’s epistle De Profundis, and George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, are both surrounded in infamy pertaining to the life of the author at the time of writing and are, to varying extents, textually reflective of their own creation. 

Conversely, to answer a question stemming from a perceived youthful attitude, both examples were written towards the end of each author’s life, yet their respective personal circumstances reflect great relevancy particularly in the question of labour; De Profundis was composed during Wilde’s imprisonment at Reading Gaol, where he suffered from harsh conditions, an incompatibly regimental lifestyle and dwindling health, while Nineteen Eighty-Four was written by Orwell while he was experiencing grief for the death of his wife in addition to the debilitating effects of tuberculosis, the disease which would result in his death; effects so profound that the novel has been dubbed ‘the masterpiece that killed George Orwell’ (McCrum, 2009). Both examples succeed in challenging Auden’s sentiment, yet through them writing can also, perhaps equally, be perceived as some form of release, pleasure or simply playfulness. 

The question of artistry in De Profundis; duty or pleasure?

In his portraiture of Jesus Christ as an artist, while drawing comparisons to his own artistic identity, Wilde perhaps inadvertently examines the creation of art in itself, thus providing potential insight into the nature of writing. He describes Christ as ‘one with the artist who knows that by the inevitable law of self-perfection, the poet must sing, and the sculptor think in bronze…’ Through these analogies Wilde alludes to a sense of duty within an artist, and by extension writer, to achieve ‘self-perfection’, which entails some extent of dedication. Whether such dedication, or indeed vocation, is of toil or of pleasure is further questioned by his view that ‘to the artist, expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all’. Though this introduces an element of necessity to this artistic duty, it is still unclear whether writing merely satisfies this requirement, devoid of surplus attachments, or carries with it additional pleasures; a pleasure reliant on knowing one has conceived such life, perhaps. 

This confusion may be solved by assessing the description of art Wilde proposes in De Profundis; ‘the conversion of an idea into an image’. The act of conversion denotes labour, or at the very least a process that requires an external or indeed internal catalyst for it to occur. Regardless of the nature of this catalyst, this remains a prominent allusion to the notion that the creation and act of writing, or at least writing that can be considered art, does not come without burden or the requirement of an effort of some kind. The status of writing and art continues to be explored in De Profundis as Wilde, intentionally or otherwise, initiates a reflection of the relationship between the two. ‘If I ever write again, in the sense of producing artistic work…’ he begins, implying a distinction between the creation of ‘artistic work’, previously defined by Wilde as the conversion of ideas into images, and a form of writing that it is not artistic; therefore, one that does not follow this process. 

If ‘ideas’ and ‘images’ were to be taken in a broad sense, disregarding qualitative merit, then this sentiment seems unfathomable. As this supposed non-artistic alternative contradicts the very act of writing, extending to the most rudimentary of text, it is safer to assume that Wilde has, quite contradictorily, altered his aforementioned definition of art, elevating it to ambiguous heights beyond the conversion. Otherwise, all writing would be art, conflicting with the common perception that the production of art requires a degree of cerebral labour; far surpassing, it should be stressed, the basic capacity to formulate written communication. It could be said, then, that Wilde acknowledges the fluidity of the nature of art and the artist in relation to writing; maintaining that while art in its purest definition is the formulation of images derived from ideas, to be an artist requires a demonstration of endeavour to achieve self-perfection through art; clearly, a labourious task.

Nineteen Eighty-Four: self and circumstance 

Though Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four does not address the concept of art or its creation per se, the nature of writing is implicitly referenced through the device of protagonist Winston’s secret diary. The creation of the diary is highly forbidden under the heightened ideological suppression citizens of the fictional continent Oceania are subjected to, as administered by the fearful ‘Thought Police’; which in itself predisposes Winston’s writing as dangerous, thus unavoidably necessary and unlikely to hold the potential of playfulness. Winston’s attempts are indeed tumultuous, yet on one occasion begin with startling finesse and sensitivity as ‘his pen had slid voluptuously over the smooth paper’, a distinctly romantic description with lavish, arguably sexual connotations; both pen and paper are given archetypal feminine qualities of voluptuousness and smoothness, indicative that the act of writing is of an intimate and pleasurable nature. 

Notably, this act of writing proves to be, initially at least, unaffectedly exuberant even when its occurrence is surrounded by circumstantial hostility and is itself ultimately futile; critically so as Winston realizes ‘whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same.’ Reality takes hold over Winston’s emotions, and he experiences a ‘twinge of panic’, one that is ‘absurd, since the writing… was not more dangerous than the initial act of opening the diary’, which momentarily suggests a detachment between the act of writing and intent behind it, whilst also affirming the gravity of the former’s potentiality; so much so, that merely opening the diary is a cause for alarm. At this, Winston ‘began writing in a hurried untidy scrawl’, a description containing a semantic field of agitation noticeably contrasting with the romanticism previously employed. 

This drastic change reflects a notional strong influence of the author’s current mood upon his writing; it is apparent Winston’s mood affects not only the quite extraneous fact of the quality of his handwriting but the content and style of his work. While calm, Winston ably prints the capitalized words ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER’, ‘over and over again, filling half a page’; the meaning behind his words are clear and encompassing. Whilst ‘seized by a kind of hysteria’, he writes ‘theyll shoot me i don’t care theyll shoot me in the back of the head i don’t care down with big brother’ and so on. The punctuation suffers and he fails to make necessary capitalizations, and the words used are considerably more emotive, stark, and reflective of Winston’s paranoid mentality. If this link between the author’s temperament and constitution of their writing is to be accepted and believed to possess the strength exemplified here, then writing appears an extension of the author; neither a chore nor a pleasure, but a necessary manifestation of their disposition amalgamated from both the conscious and subconscious recesses of their psyche, it would seem. Such a proposition is encapsulated by the moment when Winston ‘discovered that while he sat helplessly musing he had also been writing, as though by automatic action’. 


Though not always obviously, both of these literary works evidently reflect on the labour and playfulness of writing to an insightful degree. Wilde’s contemplative epistle De Profundis suggests the writer must oblige to a certain duty; a distinctly laborious duty of dedication which, if followed, should grant the writer artistic capacity. Wilde does not appear to prohibit enjoyment gained from writing; though according to this deontic proposition it would seem that doing so, to jeopardize said duty by compromising attempts of self-perfection in any way, may never result in work that can be considered truly artistic. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell explores the relationship between writer and text in a particularly intimate sense; not necessarily defining the purpose of writing, but by dwelling on how writing reflects its author’s emotions, circumstances or even existential state, and consequently whether this manifestation can be regarded as labour or playfulness; it would seem, perhaps both, or something else entirely. 

If the concepts of labour and playfulness are not assumed to be mutually exclusive, then perhaps these texts support the view that writing may be simultaneously both a pleasure and a chore. However, such a premise would raise the question of which may outweigh the other; a question which can only be answered by close analysis of a text itself coupled with a knowledge of the text’s creation, and clearly, this does not agree upon a universal nature of writing. What can be concluded, however, is that these examples have shown that writing is a truly unique human experience, its complex nature resultant of numerous factors thus not easily divisible into ‘labour’ or ‘play’. There is only so much that can be deduced from the product of writing, this being the writing itself; the process behind it, though indeed reflected copiously, is ultimately only ever experienced by the author, thus understanding of it is unique to them and indeed differing for each authorial individual. As for Wilde and Orwell, their long-deceased state renders such a mystery all the more elusive. 


BBC Berkshire. (n.d.) Oscar Wilde: Prisoner C33. Retrieved 5 January 2013, from the BBC Website:
Bowker, G. (2004). George Orwell (New ed.). London: Abacus Publishing. 
McCrum, R. The Masterpiece that killed George Orwell (2009 May 10) The Observer. Retrieved 6 January 2013, from the Guardian Website:
Orwell, G. (2009). Nineteen Eighty-Four (Paperback ed.).London: Penguin Classics
Wilde, O. (1973). De Profundis and Other Writings (New Impression ed.). London: Penguin Classics.