Flawed Endeavours: The Marvell Conundrum

There is a problem with writing that has been going around and around in my head ever since I wrote the Endtroduction to the Decapaphiliac. It's a problem with writing, or creating in an discipline, something that aspires to be 'good' for something. Even now that phrase 'good for something' makes me shudder a little because it smacks of self-righteousness. Hey buddy I can tell you how to cure all you woes. Reading an article by Geoffrey Hill on lesser-known poets I was brought back to the same problem taken to its furthest extent. Whether the Endtroduction itself will ever see the light of day with the anthology, who knows, but in this line of reasoning I think there is an alternative gambit which gives a possible solution to this thorny problem. Follow it through and see what you think.

   Hill is talking about an Andrew Marvell poem 'The Coronet' and wrestling with Marvell's Conundrum which involves the poet seeking to make a piece worthy of Christ (you can replace this with any ultimate target you find appropriate), he excels in his work and uses everything at his disposal, only to realise on inspection that the inevitable impurities of ambition and pride can't be kept out. It's an odd arrangement of the Heisenberg principle, what we create we also polute. In any ordinary writing this would be fine, that what a write is a product of me, but in this case it voids the whole endeavour (being unfit for divine consumption).

   If you would like to follow Marvell's reasoning here is 'The Coronet'.

When for the thorns with which I long, too long,
  With many a piercing wound,
  My Saviour's head have crowned,
I seek with garlands to redress that wrong,—
  Through every Garden, every mead,
I gather flowers (my fruits are only flowers),
  Dismantling all the fragrant Towers
That once adorned my Shepherdess's head :
And now, when I have summed up all my store,
  Thinking (so I my self deceive)
  So rich a chaplet thence to weave
As never yet the King of Glory wore,
  Alas ! I find the Serpent old,
  That, twining in his speckled breast,
  About the flowers disguised, does fold
  With wreaths of Fame and Interest.
Ah, foolish man, that wouldst debase with them,
And mortal glory, Heaven's Diadem !
But thou who only couldst the Serpent tame,
Either his slippery knots at once untie,
And disentangle all his winding Snare,
Or shatter too with him my curious frame,
And let these wither—so that he may die—
Though set with skill, and chosen out with Care ;
That they, while thou on both their spoils dost tread,
May crown Thy feet, that could not crown Thy Head.

   Now for a good poetic analysis perhaps you can find Hill's article in the Mill or some internet article -I'm not qualified to break it down, if I manage to track the man down I intend to ask him about the curious use of capitals and I'll append anything I find to this post. The logical conundrum involved is what I intend to grapple with.


Common enough but not very humble you might think. You can find this habit smattered all across the history of literature and generally a tendancy of the suicidal. Joyce and his happiness in constructing a single good sentence. Johnson and his dictionary. I'm sure that you can provide more for yourself. 
   It would be difficult to level the accusation that in the above two cases the writers actually failed, quite the opposite, Johnson may by many yardsticks be said to have succeeded as the English language did begin to come under control after his publication. My point is that the failure was in the eyes only of the creator, the only person who could hold the work up against those secret inner-ambitions they had hatched before anyone else knew that they were pregnant with the idea.
  So over-reaching in itself is not a crime. It's not even a crime when you know you've only got humble talents: we're not Joyces or Johnsons but we have the right to dream.

Possible Outcomes

Here, as of writing, are a selection of possible solutions that help (there is no cure, this a condition that can only be managed with the aid of Guinness and royalty cheques) the Marvell Conundrum:

  1. Do not attempt to write anything that is 'good' for something. Art for art sake, the thing is its own justification. P.S. I hate this outcome, it smells of defeat but that doesn't mean it's wrong.
  2. Fight on in the knowledge that truth, success and failure are not absolutes. You may not construct the work, but you may eventually create a work that is, say, 30% a shadow of the work. At least this is 30% worthy? Can you take heart from this? Could you live with that?
  3. Marvell's outcome. The abject failure of the creation itself is a marker - a signpost - pointing to the object it aspired to. Time to unpack the existential toolkit: Emil Brunner, Pierce or Micheal Polanyi would have loved this one.
  4. The author should die. It doesn't matter what he feels he has achieved. We can put this answer firmly at the feet of Umberto Eco and his kind. (One moment while I scavenge the book from the floor-based system I'm developing). In Confessions of a Young Novelist and many other places the question of the ownership, interpretation and meaning of a work is dependent on the reading ecology. The reader can correct the author on things he had not even thought of: p.62, 'I hope you will agree that I have introduced the Empirical Author in this game only in order to stress his irrelevance and to assert the rights of the text'. There's no balm for the wounded writer here - he's victim just like Frank Rose in the Sestina (work in progress).
  5. It's all about the author. If you look at Ray Bradbury's interview on the short story The Lake, you see that the purpose of that was all for him. The beautiful thing is a by-product of his cathartic experience. This is really specialist version of item 1:  "Do not attempt to write anything that is 'good' for somebody else." 

Oysterish Ideas

I don't apologise that this post isn't a complete worked out systematic philosophy of human creation. Notions or idealets like these are slippery things, we all have fifty to umpteen of them whirling around as we trog on through our grind. This is just a little more flesh on the bones, certainly no where near the final clothing of me taking a position and saying: this is what I think - come and have a go at me. Still - feel free to have a go.


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