16 FEBRUARY 1991, Page 28

You worse than senseless things

Peter Levi


by Zachary Leader

Johns Hopkins University Press, £19.50, pp. 272

titer's Block has been familiar as a W phrase since the Fifties and, I think, earlier, though Zachary Leader dates its origin to the New York psychotherapist Edmund Bergler in 1950. He has delved deeply into its literature and all thesis writers will have to use his heavy book, in which the footnotes are more interesting than the text, a rare quality nowadays. He even feels he contracted the disease him- self, as a thesis writer, but almost all graduate students go through a stage like that, and I do not think it counts. Leader is resolutely clinical, and he masters the diagnostic magicians in a rational spirit, as we shall see. But the sheer variety of the phenomenon eludes him: I can count five kinds of block, perfectionism and fear of one's success being the worst. That is one he spots in the Romantic period and later. Depression and humility, whether justified or not, constitute another, exaltation and the manic cycle leading to mad scribbles and incoherence is a third. Sudden realisa- tion of the truth about oneself and what one was writing is a most interesting fourth, which dried up Hopkins in mid- poem and R. L. Stevenson in mid-novel (The Weir of Hermiston); the external block when it is internalised, which stop- ped women in their tracks for so long, is the fifth. He quotes a crucial quatrain by Emily Dickinson:

They shut me up in Prose As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet — Because they liked me 'still'.

Although I am lucky enough never to have suffered a block, even an external one, except for the technical failure to write what lay beyond one's abilities, a type of silencer over which Leader psychologises needlessly, I have thought and believe known something about block- ed writers, particularly poets, ever since reading Freud as a student. Freud on Leonardo is well known to be based on a mistake, but it fits some poets well. Freud's Moses is a help, too, though I do not really believe in its central thesis. Still in my generation one took Freud and Jones on Freud seriously, and even in this book it seems that the successors fall away from that ability to stir and inspire. A similar process in literary criticism ends in / swarm of midgets. W. J. Bate on The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970) appears to be the most serious scholar in the field.

The Romantic movement, with the poet as hero, with the cult of Eeyorish intro- spection and Germanic self-importance, might well have produced poets blocked by trembling before their own futures, but the same thing had happened earlier. Leaving aside the famous slowness of Virgil and Horace, which may be self-mockery, Mar- ston, who suddenly retired young as a poet and became a clergyman, is a curious example. He was a younger kinsman of Shakespeare. The Swan himself seems just to have retired with enough money, utterly exhausted. Gray is another case, and Matthew Arnold another. Wordsworth is quoted about Gray on the back of the cover of this book, but his diagnosis is wrong. If Milton had died before Paradise Lost, he would have been thought the most convincing case of all.

When Leader gets among the achieve- ments of modernists, confusion occurs. Poor old Adrian Stokes was urged by Ezra Pound to solve the riddle of the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini, and failed to do so. Many better men failed too, and the right solution was produced only rather recently by Professor Charles Mitchell of Bryn Mawr. The sculptures had been re-arranged in the wrong order when the builders changed their minds about the architecture, thus rendering those ex- quisite marble reliefs enigmatic as well as beautiful. Dr Leader can hardly be blamed for missing that. But the introduction of the alphabet confounds him where it need not. He forgets the use of syllabic scripts for Greek, and the strange circumstance that so far as we know they recorded no poetry at all, no mythology and no narra- tives.

He has some interesting things to say about the kind of block that inhibits one from getting started on a great work, but here he allows perhaps too little for the difficulty of organising vast knowledge. I remember an old scholar on his knees for weeks at a time, winter after winter, browsing and rebrowsing his way through a spaghetti of galley proofs. I heard it said of Tarn's Greeks in Bactria and India that his notes were uncontrollable for years, until he hit on the solution of making piles and publishing each pile or manila envelope as an appendix. There are surely poets like that, and certainly a prose writer in the 17th century who, complaining that 'my spaniels had got in among my papers', produced the text as he printed it.

Writer's Block is a good subject. Like the brain drain, it has probably done us more good than harm, having rid us of a number of undesirable people. Kingsley Amis writes well about it in an early poem. Laurence Durrell in a poem about Horace catches it perfectly. Is it an external block or a psychological inhibition that saves us from the 40,000-line epics of writers like Alfred Dornett, a friend of Browning? Is the slim volume in itself a sign of block? Philip Larkin's is an interesting case, though there is more of him than we used to imagine. Leader discusses him, but he does not really understand poets, not being one, any more than Freud did. It was folly anyway to discuss Larkin before we have seen his biography. At least he never suffered from 'generic inhibition', which blocks one from entire types of writing; I suppose his poems were a substitute for what went into the novels, and his jazz criticism a substitute for literary criticism, but why not? He chose his objectives and hit them exactly, and in his lifetime he tried as many literary kinds as anyone could wish. No doubt everyone is blocked about something; personally, I cannot do cross- words.