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Thoughts on Matthew Lewis's The Monk (1796) and freedom in writing

Thursday 8/17/23

What I like about Matthew Lewis's The Monk is his attitude of "Fuck it, I'm going to put that in there, too."


It's a zany book--and you don't get a lot of zany Gothic horror. But it has a spirit of madcap invention, and thus a certain energy. It's Gothic and not Gothic simultaneously. There is something of the elasticity of Sterne in it, and the speed of Voltaire. In Candide, someone will nearly die, be smashed all but to bits, recover, come down with a deadly disease, get well again, and all of it will transpire in half a page.


The commanding work of art determines what natural order will be within its own world. It's like a planet--this is how the weather is here. You get a lot of lightning storms. That's how it is. A matter of being, not making excuses for, or allowances, or explaining away like that world requires an apology for its existence. Do that, and you're done. Something has to be. Fully. Then it requires no caveats, no footnotes, no asterisks. They would have no place. And then we buy in. We accept. There's no process to that acceptance. It doesn't take time. Something is, and now we're in that world, and we're reading, and reading doesn't feel like reading. We are experiencing. We are a part. And this can happen immediately. From the first part of the first line.


The Monk doesn't go as far as Candide does with pacing--it's doing something else--but it embraces writerly and creative freedom in a similar way. It's itself. And it has no problem being itself. When Poe was writing The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, he began by writing something that wasn't really itself. It was kind of a straightforward sea yarn. Poe didn't really have that in him. It's not who he was, and it wasn't a strength.


As he got going, the book became less and less that other kind of book, and more and more a Poe work. It got wild and weird. Reviewers didn't like it at all. They didn't get it. There were all of these errors of basic seamanship. This was no yarn. It wasn't how things were done. Satisfied no preconceptions. If a reader or reviewer went in with a checklist of what they expected to see, the pencil was going to remain tucked behind the ear, unused.


Fuck it, Poe thought. Technical minutiae wasn't the point. Ancillary stuff. To focus on it or care much about it was to miss the point. Poe looked back on the book as a silly piece of writing and an artistic failure, and would never again to return to the long form, focusing instead on short fiction. Poe's short stories also have elements of that Sterne/Voltaire/Lewis elasticity, pace, freedom. The stuff of a dozen novels can take place inside a single Poe work. Those novels that go from generation to generation, even.


So what is length? The better you are, the less it means. It can mean absolutely nothing, if you're good enough, because the units of measurement are different than page and word count. Those units of measurement are instead things like how much meaning does a work contain, how much life, depth, revelation, value, substance. How many portals for important means of passage are offered? How many curtains are pulled back? How much that is otherwise in darkness and mystery is revealed and illuminated? To what degree is the change to how one sees the world? One's self? A 500 word story can be the longest novel. A 60,000 word novel can have the totable/carry-it-around-with-you-forever precision and perpetually recallable totality and immediacy of the most memorable single sentence a person has ever encountered.


Terms don't mean a lot in life. Or they only do--and it's simulacrum "meaning," not actual meaning--if you are defined by limits and not possibilities. Every writer I see right now is defined--is wholly about--the former. When I was in college, having realized that my time was being wasted, that there was practically no one there with anything to teach me about anything--whether that was writing, art, film, music, literature--I was writing on my own. Reading on my own. My education has always been my responsibility and doing. No one would be able to provide for me nearly as well as I could. People--and teachers--had limits--and usually very limited limits--and I understood early on that not only did I need not have any limits, I potentially didn't have any. That was in me. It was who I was. Allowing that I grew and evolved. Mastered.


I remember a conversation with the rare useful professor who said to me--as if it needed saying--"Don't ever worry that you've gone too far, just because you've never seen it before. There is nothing that will be too far for you. And no one is going to be doing what you're doing. Don't back away from that."


This was after I got out of college and we were talking. I was in my career at that point. I had written key works. I'm sure this person didn't think they had to say this to me. But it still had a purpose. Obviously--I'm mentioning it here. Because I think it espouses something vital, and it's not how any other writers think. They all think alike, to borrow a line from Melville's Typee. They answer to what they think are expectations. They don't think about the work first. They don't think about readers first. Those two go together. What they think about--and answer to--is whether something is allowed, if it's authorially kosher, if it's what would go over favorably in their program, if it's what the people in their writing community are doing or will recognize as what is done, etc. They play it safe. They play not to lose. They write without a wit of imagination, and see imagination as risk. They come to hate imagination and what it represents. They come to hate it when they see it displayed, and they hate the person who both displays it and shows how writing cannot be anything of any consequence without it.


You can't write well and be a coward, and this is how cowards create, for lack of a better term. Now, there are matters of ability and effort and production and working your ass off at writing every day of your life and all of that, but you also have to be willing to go where no one else goes. More than that, you have to be someone who doesn't think twice. Who expects others to follow because an amazing way has been shown, rather than someone who cowers in doubt and worry.


The Monk is no masterpiece. It's fun. It has excitement. I don't just mean in the plot or primarily in the plot. It's someone going for something. Stravinsky went for something with The Rite of Spring. That kind of going for something. Answer to your work. The work is the master. It's the boss. If you're thinking about the people in your class and your instructor, you're not completely focused where you should be, and that's on the work.


Just because something hasn't been done before doesn't mean it shouldn't be. Nor does it mean it can't be what everyone else wants to do. Nor that it can't followed because it led the way, and that way wasn't down the same old road that had been picked dry and didn't offer a ton even back in the day. It was just the easiest one to get to.



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