Writing the Limits of Freedom

by Daniel Hartley

Wordsworth

Wordsworth

I was struck by this remark from Graham Harman:

Remember, you have two major enemies when approaching a writing project: zero, and infinity. The zero is the anxiety of the blank piece of paper. The infinity is the gigantic expanse of reality that you cannot possibly exhaust in any piece of writing. Your initial goal is to make the project finite, and hence manageable.

This is the best articulation I’ve ever come across of the dread that haunts all writers at the outset of a project. The task any text has before it is to aim at the infinite through the finite. No wonder, then, as Harman goes on to observe, that limits (word-number, titles, themes, target audience etc.) often provide comfort: they bear the brunt of infinity on our behalf. Indeed, in a very real sense limits – no matter what Americans or hedonists might tell you about them – can be freeing. Absolute freedom, paradoxically, is not free, since it has nothing against which it can feel the exercise of its freedom. It engulfs itself in its own abyss.

This is one of the reasons why poets keep coming back to the sonnet form. On the one hand, it tests their versatility – can they, for example, respect the (14th-century) Petrarchan rhyme-scheme whilst still managing to sound modern? On the other hand, those strict limits of form, line-length, rhyme, and so on, constitute familiar walls on which to bounce their measured words. This was probably what Wordsworth had in mind when he wrote the following:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.