The Second Innocence of Genre
All our lives we are beguiled and bewitched by form: some forms, like the ever-changing shape of the moon, we count on as kinds of reference points for the tides that claim us, that move through us and show us who we are at different times in our lives. Other forms can exercise a powerful attraction on us that can be both astonishingly beautiful and sometimes troubling for the dubious and even disastrous influence they can exert over us, such as Aschenbach’s fatal obsession in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice. But each of us is in one way or another attracted and repulsed by myriad different forms that fill up the world with marvelous and teeming diversity, and this ongoing tension never stops as long as we’re alive on this earth.
But I wonder what the implications of form are for writers in the oft-contested field of genre - and, furthermore, why some writers work in multiple genres and some stick to primarily one, like Emily Dickinson. I’m curious about these questions for many reasons, not the least of which is my own tendency to roam among genres, which usually occurs with little or no forethought: I’m drawn into a different one periodically according to some inner imperative that I must yield to eventually for all of my belief in and exercise of free will. I almost never sit down and declare, “Now I will write a poem” - because if I do, it won’t be very good. And believe me, I’ve tried to enforce my will time and time again, with very brittle and unsatisfactory results. All I can really do is try to be present each day and show up for that period of writing - and, if it’s a longer work like a novel or a play, recognize that the work has its own unique lifetime and urgency I must succumb to in order to realize whatever potential it has to offer. So I think something else is going on when it comes to writing in a particular genre, as each one seems to carry its own imperatives and life-span that bend the writer to its territory and tone (at least this one anyway), even as the writer strives to bend the form to his: it’s almost like living different creative lives within one lifetime as each requires a different emphasis and even mode of being.
For me, I inhabit genre as much as write in one, which is an odd thing to admit but also the most accurate way I know in describing what happens when I transition, say, from writing short stories to poems or plays or essays, which takes place like a movement of the spirit all its own. I live and work inside the peculiar and mysterious dictate of an overarching tone that colors and sounds through the writing as if I were somehow inside the lingering echo of a bell, that beckons and requires a certain kind of writing until I or the tone move on according to that same time frame that probably has nothing to do with time at all but some other as yet undiscovered dimension altogether.
Nor is this seeming habitation of genre the whole story, as I’m coming to suspect that the deeper motive for moving and working between genres is a way of trying to reclaim, however tentatively and imperfectly, a second innocence or rebirth as a writer, a way to become a beginner again with a clean slate in the ongoing process of discovery, which never gets old because it always seems to be happening for the first time. This process of discovery is the major reason why I regret that I won’t live to be three hundred years old, as there is so much more to discover about writing in each and every form and I often feel like I’m just getting a small understanding and taste of one before I move on to the other - or, perhaps more accurately, it moves on from me - with so many other wellsprings left untapped, which is probably just a wistful delusion on my part.
I can’t claim full credit for this idea because it comes out of reading about the visionary English poet William Blake in Robert Inchausti’s fascinating book called Subversive Orthodoxy that addresses this aspect of the poet’s artistic credo: “The aim of human life, Blake insisted, was not to become docile believers, but to become capable of acts of spiritual genius made possible through the attainment of a second innocence.” Inchausti goes a bit further to also add this about Blake: “Blake understood that when the spirit loses confidence in itself, the mind falls into the objective world and begins to see creation as something independent. It stops participating with life, stops perceiving beauty and possibility, and, instead, stands in judgment of everything, measuring differences, contrasts, as opposition. This false objectivity can only be transcended through a return to visionary experience, which alone can restore us to our true, imaginative selves.”
Can it be that a little of this happens when a writer turns to a new genre, that he or she is trying to get away from the “false objectivity” that is the death knell of the imagination and art in general? Because it seems that in all imaginative writing there is a crucial imperative to keep working away from easily defined categories, to plumb the depths in ways the writer may not even be fully aware of herself, to grow and stretch beyond genre itself. This may also be why, to go back to an earlier and seemingly contradictory example, Emily Dickinson’s poems were met with such incredulity in her own time and age, as they were so radically strange and new that the few readers she shared them with didn’t know what to make of them, as they couldn’t be easily labeled in any known categories of poetry at all: maybe she didn’t have to turn to other genres because she was so fruitfully busy, in a sense, writing her startling poems, the likes of which no one had ever seen before.
But regardless of the accuracy of these speculations, Blake’s idea of a second innocence could be a helpful notion for understanding why some writers move between genres and why, ultimately, genre may not matter very much at all, at least from the writer’s perspective, or this one’s anyway: because working in different genres can be a fruitful and hopeful way to get back to the possibilities of the many splendored garden that lent impetus and yearning to one’s first artistic aspiration and utterance that have an untainted purity about them, the reason why so many of us started writing to begin with and keep going back to it every day. Most if not all of us, of course, live with a sense of time and lived experience that moves in just one inexorable direction forward, dragging us into middle age and old age with no means of stopping or delaying the process.
The only recourse, it seems, is to somehow find a way of regeneration and even rebirth that keeps us in touch with the purity of heart and intention that Blake was so certain is one of our transcendent birthrights. W.S. Merwin in his poem “The Child” puts it this way: “If I could learn the word for yes it would teach me questions, I would take it up like a hand and go with it, saying, This is at last yourself, the child that will lead you.” The child in Merwin’s poem is just another incarnation of Blake’s second innocence, the one that teaches us how to say yes over and over again, no matter how baffling or strange the circumstances wherein we must learn to utter this crucial yes.
To use a personal example, when I first started writing, all I wanted to be was a poet: then one morning after two or three years instead of trying to write poems, I found myself writing dialogue between the lines of notebook paper. And I said: Now I am a playwright. After a few years of writing plays, I found myself one day turning to nonfiction prose of a meditative kind. Then I said, I am an essayist. A few years after that an agent recommended I try writing a novel - on that same day I started working on my novel. So I said: I am a novelist. Then I moved to a small town in Michigan and to my everlasting surprise - because I was absolutely sure, almost determined to believe I could never, ever write short stories - I started writing short stories. Then I said: I am a short story writer.
So what have I really learned about this surprising development, especially considering how the rug keeps being pulled out from under me with such startling regularity no matter how hard I try to declare a certain allegiance, a development so surprising that sometimes it almost feels like someone else is writing in these different forms while I look over his shoulder? And how does it square with the whole notion - and, in some quarters, fierce debates - over genre? To be honest again, I don’t know, but I can say that after almost twenty years I no longer identify myself as either this kind of writer or that kind of writer: more and more, I’m even hesitant about calling myself a writer at all, or anything else definitive for that matter. Labels or any kind of taxonomy, no doubt helpful in very many ways, ultimately rob us of energy and possibility. The truth is I am all of them and I am none of them, which is another way of admitting what a truly slow learner I am and, much more importantly, that such distinctions may not really ultimately matter all that much.
Mevlana addresses the question of form in his own characteristic wise and even radiant way: “Deem your form to be the tent, your real essence the Turcoman; regard your essence as the sailor, your form as the ship. How long will you play at loving the shape of the jug? Leave the shape of the jug; go, seek the water.” Unfortunately, when it comes to the subject of genre in American academia, many battle lines have been drawn and boundary lines demarcated to sometimes such a fierce and baffling degree that one would think that fidelity to a particular genre was equivalent to defending a kind of quasi-nation state whose boundaries are constantly in thread of being overrun.
The old bugaboo of classification reels its ugly head everywhere we turn, even in the humanities and literature, but at the highest or deepest levels, especially in the act of writing itself, do we really need it? At the risk of courting outright absurdity, for example, why is it important to call a novel a novel and a play a play? These are important, perhaps even essential, questions for a writer to ask in order to stretch and to grow away from the known. And even as a reader they might important to keep in because when I read Shakespeare’s plays, for example, I find myself reading them more for the poetry of the language than for their theatrical value: we’ve all heard that he pretty much lifted the plots of his plays whole cloth from other sources anyway, so they’re not exactly original. I also think that As I Lay Dying is one of the greatest American plays, though of course it’s considered a novel: and ditto for Robert Frost’s poem “Home Burial,’ which is really a perfect one-act play though it’s called a poem - or Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner, which contains no theatrical action whatsoever and could easily be construed as a kind of live performance of philosophical essays on poetry and the destructive forces of mass or popular culture.
After a certain point, or the point of no return as Kafka put it, the point that must be reached, the whole idea of classification and, therefore, genre begins to breaks down, and once it does, there’s just no stopping it. And this point of no return is important for a writer to reach because it means there’s no going back to any safe categories, and one is free to explore the full range and possibilities of one’s imagination and spirituality as much as possible. What sounds like a heretical breakdown and loss of faith may, in fact, be the way back to the one radiant source that makes every true poem or any other work of art possible and one of a kind, its own kind, which need not be categorized by the writer, only written by him or her.
This is one reason why I am increasingly drawn to the novel (and here I go contradicting myself: calling a novel a novel) because of any genre it defies the whole notion of genre itself in that it’s capable of absorbing every other genre even as it morphs into something else itself. It’s very true that we need containers for the water that Mevlana speaks of, but no container as far as I know ever saved a person dying of thirst, so perhaps our fidelity should be to the water first: we can fashion and come up with containers just about everywhere. And I think it’s interesting too that water, as Mevlana implicitly gives us to know in the section I quoted, is the true life-giving source, not the form in which it is contained or carried. And where there is true life there is also surprise and constant renewal, making possible the second innocence Blake champions as our truest and most important life task whatever our age, making the ongoing and sometimes raging debates over genre what they are in the light of these visionaries, a sometimes petty squabble between mortals when the immortal has been calling our names all along.
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