‘Written Out’: The Autobiographical Novelist-Character and Writing as Catharsis in Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and Muriel Spark’s The Comforters

Rachel Darling, King’s College London

Writing is a form of therapy; sometime I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.1

Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (1980)

This article offers an analysis of ways in which two writers have transfigured traumatising experiences from their own lives into fiction, with a view to exorcizing the memory of disturbing events. Both Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and Muriel Spark’s The Comforters were published in 1957; both deal with novelist-protagonists who suffer psychotic episodes, in which they hear voices persecuting them, drawn from remembered events in the authors’ own lives. They also both end with the protagonist sitting down to write the narrative we have just read; indeed Douglas Lane Patey holds that Waugh, who had read and admired the proof of Spark’s novel, ‘was probably inspired by Muriel Spark’s first novel, The Comforters […] Waugh added Pinfold’s ending only after reading Spark.’2 Both novelists are also Catholic converts, Spark having only recently converted when she wrote The Comforters, something most of her critics (as well as Spark herself) believed instrumental in her career as a novelist. Graham Greene’s identification of writing with therapy perhaps touches on a significant aspect of Catholic authorship: the importance of writing confession as cathartic practice. Whilst enquiry into the religious aspect of confession in writing fiction is outside the parameters of this article, the notion of catharsis in authorial creation does merit examination. Aesthetic catharsis connotes ‘a purgation or purification of emotional states,’3 and originates in Aristotle’s Poetics, where it is used to describe the effect of tragedy (within the dramatic arts) upon the audience. In Catharsis in Literature (1985), Adnan K. Abdulla traces the changing meaning of catharsis, finding that:

 In the Romantic period, both literature and criticism made the poet the center of imaginative activity. Consequently, for the first time in the history of literary criticism we hear of the “author’s catharsis.” The poet relieves his tension by writing out his worries […] in most cases, the Romantics thought that art basically served as a means of personal therapy.4

Abdulla follows the evolution of the term to T. S. Eliot’s Tradition and The Individual Talent (1920), where he identifies the notion of what he terms ‘author-catharsis’ in Eliot’s statement that ‘poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape of emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.’5 Arguably, by looking at author-catharsis in this way, it is possible to see it as writing-as-therapy and even as the ‘writing cure,’ which developed from what Bertha Pappenheim – better known as Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud’s ‘Anna O’ – termed the ‘talking cure.’ In psychoanalysis the ‘writing cure’ has been set down by Mark Bracher in The Writing Cure: Psychoanalysis, Composition and the Aims of Education (1999) and by Stephen Lepore and Joshua Smyth’s 2002 The Writing Cure: How Expressive Writing Promotes Health and Emotional Well-Being; it’s basic tenet is that (creative) writing can be used as a form of therapy in which the writing down of painful memories and emotions can alleviate a wide range of medical conditions, both physical and mental. Of course writing-as-therapy is not a new concept. For example, Liz Burns discusses specific writers, such as Virginia Woolf, finding that:

The coincidence of literary inspiration and mental distress has a long history. Many writers […] have lived simultaneously with outstanding creativity and profound mental distress. The nature of the relationship between disposition and artistic productions […] is often characterised by an urge and search for self, a struggle (sometimes mortal) for survival and expression.6

Traditional associations between madness and artistic creativity exist in ‘ancient ideas of the poetic frenzy of the rhapsode, in the figure of the prophet, in the myth of the mad artist, in the notion of the writing cure.’7 Expelling an episode of mental disturbance by fictionalising the actual events has a basis of justification within the concept of writing-as-therapy. Waugh was only too happy to admit that the story of Pinfold was explicitly based upon his own breakdown, announcing ‘at a Foyles literary luncheon on the day of publication: ‘Three years ago I had quite a new experience. I went off my head for about three weeks.’8 Spark, on the other hand – although it is evident that she used her own experiences as a basis for those suffered by her protagonist Caroline Rose – ‘stated that the novel is not about her own breakdown and illness.’9 Spark uses her breakdown as inspiration for her novel, re-writing her own memory, making it into a part Caroline’s story and thus creating a parable of the relationship between artistic creation and reality. Waugh makes a more explicit use of his trauma in Pinfold in that his narrative sticks very closely to the established facts of his illness, openly inviting readers to directly compare him to the titular character. Arguably the circular ending to Pinfold demonstrates the importance of purging, purifying and clarifying Waugh’s experiences, which Martin Stannard calls ‘a form of exorcism’10: he uses the novel to draw out the poison and contains it by making the narrative into an ouroborus. Waugh’s own act of cathartic expulsion through his reconstructed memory is mirrored in the creative act which ends the novel: Pinfold sitting down at his desk and deciding not the finish the novel he had been working on, but to begin afresh with a new story:

He took out the pile of manuscript, his unfinished novel, from the drawer and glanced through it. The story was still clear in his mind. He knew what had to be done. But there was more urgent business first, a hamper to be unpacked of fresh, ripe experiences – perishable goods.

He returned the manuscript to the drawer, spread quite a new quire of foolscap before him and wrote in his neat, steady hand:

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

A Conversation Piece

Chapter One

Portrait of the Artist in Middle-age.11

  1. Graham Greene, Ways of Escape (London: Vintage, 2002), p.275. []
  2. Douglas Lane Patey, The Life of Evelyn Waugh: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p.339. []
  3. Alan Paskow, ‘What Is Aesthetic Catharsis?’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Autumn, 1983), p.59. []
  4. Adnan K. Abdulla, Catharsis in Literature (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p.19. []
  5. T. S. Eliot, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), pp.48-9. []
  6. Liz Burns, Literature and Therapy: A Systematic View (London: Karnac, 2009), p.105. []
  7. ed., Corinne Saunders and Jane Macnaughton, Madness and Creativity in Literature and Culture (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p.2. []
  8. Patey, p.339. []
  9. Valerie Shaw, ‘Fun and Games with Life-stories,’ in ed., Alan Bold, Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity of Vision (London: Vision, 1984), p.49. []
  10. ed., Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), p.47. []
  11. Evelyn Waugh, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (London: Penguin, 2006), p.132. []

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