Writing in a “Phrensy”

Guest post by Greg Schutz

In Book II of his De Oratore, Cicero stages a dialogue between Marcus Antonius, Caius Julius Caesar, and several other figures, one of whose subjects is the evocation of emotion in the audience and the consequences of emotional speechmaking on the orator. According to Cicero’s Marcus Antonius, it is unthinkable that an orator might make an effective emotional appeal upon an audience without feeling some of those same emotions himself: “I never yet, upon my honor, tried to excite sorrow, or compassion, or envy, or hatred, when speaking before a court of judicature, but I myself . . . was affected with the very same sensations that I wished to produce in them.”

Before long, the conversation–as classical treatises on rhetoric seem apt to do–turns to poetry and drama, the arts of ancient Greek and Roman narrative. If orators are vulnerable to the very emotions they seek to instill in their audience, Marcus Antonius observes, this should come as no surprise. After all, actors, dramatists, and poets are deeply moved by their own material–which, unlike the orator’s material, is “fictitious.” In fact, he continues, such emotional engagement with the material is absolutely necessary. “I have often heard,” he says, “that no man can be a good poet (as they say is left recorded in the writings of both Democritus and Plato) without ardor of imagination, and the excitement of something similar to phrensy.”


Phrensy. I love the word in this spelling, and yet I can’t help but feel a little indicted by it, as well. After all, the kind of writing sessions I tend to have hardly feature the crackling synaptic lightning of a Muse-stoked phrensy. I write slowly and deliberately, mulling over each sentence, even in first drafts. When I’m writing at my best, my state of mind could be described as calm, tranquil, and meditative. I am deeply but dispassionately interested in the scene I’m envisioning and the words I’m using to evoke it. I’m certainly never swept away on currents of emotion.

The closest I come to a phrensy–or even a regular, run of the mill frenzy–is the molar-grinding frustration of an hour spent in the chair with only three mediocre sentences to show for it. And when this happens, I know it’s time to stand up, stretch, and take a break.

In other words, the closest I get to a phrensy is the furthest I get from actually being able to write.

The passages in Plato to which Cicero is most likely referring appear in the Ion. In this short dialogue, Plato’s wise, irascible Socrates engages Ion, a young rhapsodist–a professional reciter of poetry–in conversation. One of the dialogue’s central concerns is the question of just what poets and rhapsodists actually know. How do the artists of narrative speak so convincingly on such a wide variety of subjects? In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Homer speaks as a general, a charioteer, a ship’s captain, a god. (It’s no coincidence, then, that Plato’s Socrates compares Ion to Proteus, a shapeshifter.)


Once again, the artist is depicted as sharing deeply in the emotions of the material. Asked to describe his gift for recitation, Ion admits, “Listen, when I tell a sad story, my eyes are full of tears; and when I tell a story that’s frightening or awful, my hair stands on end with fear and my heart jumps.” And, once again, divine inspiration is invoked as explanation. The epic poets, Socrates asserts, “are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all those beautiful poems.” The poet, in this conception, is ecstatic–in the original, religious sense of the word.

* * *

For me, as a writer of fiction, the most interesting question being raised here has to do with control. How much of our conscious minds must we give up when composing? How much sway ought the emotional content of our work have over our own emotional state? How much should we feel, as we write, what we want our readers to eventually feel?

In the Ion, conscious control and emotional detachment are portrayed as the enemies of the narrative artist. “As long as a human being has his intellect in his possession,” Plato’s Socrates avers, “he will always lack the power to make poetry or sing prophecy.”

I want to write stories that “sing prophecy”–don’t we all? But if Plato’s Socrates and Cicero’s Marcus Antonius are right, I shouldn’t be able to. Because unlike Ion the rhapsodist, my eyes don’t fill with tears when I’m trying to fill my readers’ eyes with tears. When I write, I do not “abandon [my] intellect”; on the contrary, I’m thinking as hard as I possibly can.

* * *

Of course, these rhetorical and philosophical approaches to discussing narrative art have their problems. An orator or a philosopher, looking at narrative, is going to find his point of view limited by his angle of approach. In De Oratore, for example, Cicero talks about “the argument of a play,” as if a play were no different from a lawyer’s closing remarks. (Whereas I’d contend that the distinction between a play and a closing statement is similar to the one I drew between academic essays and artful literature in a previous post.) And Plato, meanwhile, has always been suspect on the subject of poetics, going so far as to banish poetry from his ideal republic. His philosophy is like a jealous god, condemning all other arts as idolatrous. Plato never “approach[es] poetry from an aesthetic perspective,” as Dr. Jean Nienkamp puts it, “but as an occasion for coming to knowledge about ethical matters.”

Such blinkered perspectives on the narrative arts might well breed distorted pictures of the intellectual and emotional relationships between the artist and her art–which is to say nothing of the extent to which two millennia of social and cultural upheaval might influence popular conceptions of how narrative artists work.


In any case, however, some writers’ experiences seem to bear Plato and Cicero out. Listen to one of my favorite authors, Robert Stone, talk about composing a pivotal (and brilliant) scene in one of his novels: “I remember finishing one section of Dog Soldiers–the end of Hicks’s walk–in the basement of a college library, working at night, while the rest of the place was closed down, and I staggered out in tears, talking to myself, and ran into a security guard.”

Staggering, weeping, talking to oneself: these are the symptoms of a phrensy.
Stone goes on to talk about the exhilaration of writing, which I suppose I have felt from time to time. It’s an uncommon pleasure, though, that exhilaration, and I know better than to count on it for motivation. Besides, for me at least, the exhilaration of writing is like a runner’s high–a sweaty, exhausted, woozy happiness, less a product of the writing itself than a product of having written.
Meanwhile, however, there’s still Stone’s phrensied example–not to mention the examples of any number of other contemporary writers who describe the same altered state–to contend with. I once watched silent tears slide down a friend’s cheeks as she read from the emotional climax of one of her stories. I was proud of her, of course–the story was superb–but there’s no gracious way of describing what else I felt. I was jealous.

* * *

I don’t really believe Cicero or Plato when they say that phrensy is necessary to art, that the artist at work must submerge herself beneath a flood of divine inspiration. My own experience simply doesn’t bear that out. And besides, there voices far more authoritative than my own that speak on behalf of the intellect and conscious control. Take Alice Munro, for example–who, when asked whether her characters ever surprised her, coolly replied, “Yes, I guess sometimes. There are certainly some things that happen that get incorporated. But mostly I keep them in pretty good control. Mostly what’s interested me before I ever started writing stays what interests me.”

Or consider Katherine Anne Porter, who says, “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is.” This doesn’t mean that Porter assembles her stories like pieces of Ikea furniture–“How I get [to the predetermined ending] is God’s grace,” she adds–but merely that the cool, rational, unphrensied intellect has an important role to play in her writing process.

This reminds me of Mary Oliver‘s description of writing a poem: “a kind of possible love affair between something like the heart (that courageous but also shy factory of emotion) and the learned skills of the conscious mind.”

Yes, I think, that sounds about right.

Still, am I wrong to envy Robert Stone and Ion the rhapsodist?


Images: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

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