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Prisoners and captives

01 May 2015

Terry Waite admires an analysis of writing for freedom of spirit


The Consolations of Writing: Literary strategies of resistance from Boethius to Primo Levi
Rivkah Zim
Princeton University Press £24.95
Church Times Bookshop £22.45

IT IS evident on first picking up this book that the author has deployed her skills as a researcher to produce an erudite and scholarly volume on prison writings. Despite my amusement at being designated an "Anglican priest" in the introduction (I am both an Anglican layman and a member of the Society of Friends - a Quanglican, perhaps?), I have nothing but admiration for the depth of analysis which the author brings to this creative and thought-provoking area of literature.

Making it relatively easy for the reader to explore different aspects of prison writings, Rivkah Zim conveniently divides the book into three main parts.

In the first section, "In Defence of Civilization", she discusses the writings of Boethius, Bonhoeffer, Thomas More, and the Italian writer Antonio Gramsci. One could fill a volume on commentating on this section alone but one remark struck me in particular. Acknowledging that Boethius's Consolations of Philosophy represents the dominant cultural premises of his time, she makes the valid point, which rings true across the ages, that Boethius regarded himself as being liberated mentally while remaining physically bound. There, in that one simple statement, lies the key to remain- ing relatively sane and potentially creative in captivity, and voices a theme that runs through this volume.

In the second section, she begins by discussing the works of such diverse and memorable characters as Bunyan, Oscar Wilde, and Anne Frank. Although I have never found Bunyan's writings to be compelling reading, I have to admit a certain debt to him. During my long years of solitary confinement, I was completely isolated from the out-side world. One communication, however, reached me in the form of a postcard from Bedford portraying the prisoner in his cell overlooking the town. I remember thinking how fortunate he was to have his own clothes - and to have books, paper, and pen and ink, all commodities denied me! All my writing had to be done in my head and transcribed years later after my release. But I digress.

Perhaps I have been a little hard on Bunyan; for who can fail to be moved by his short verse, quoted in this section, in which again the understanding of mental and spiritual freedom is reiterated: 

For though men keep my outward man 
Within their Locks and Bars
Yet by the Faith of Christ I can
Mount higher than the Stars. 

It is difficult to imagine two more disparate characters than Bunyan and Wilde, and yet from both their prison writings there flows a profound wisdom. Wilde treads a pathway familiar to many captives, that of self-examination and evaluation, and the attempt to create a new image of himself.

The premise "Where there is sorrow there is Holy Ground" expresses an understanding that has been invaluable to countless thousands of sufferers. Suffering is a part of life, and difficult, if not virtually impossible, to under- stand; and yet it need not des- troy. In many cases, as demonstrated throughout this book, it can be faced and turned to creative end.

Both the writings of Marie-Jeanne Roland and Anne Frank are examined as examples of the desire and importance of preserving an image of self. While this might be considered by some to be "selfish", the author says that it is far from that. Instinctively, many captives recognise the importance of identity for survival, and attempt to retain it in a variety of ways, ranging from violent behaviour to the deployment of creative imagination. A secret of survival is to maintain an active inner imagination and thus enhance one's identity and inner harmony. I have said on many an occasion, when asked about the workings of the mind in solitary confinement, that the recollection of good language has the capacity to breathe harmony into the soul.

It is not surprising that poetry features highly in prison writing, as is pointed out in the last part of this second section. One only has to take a look at the inner pages of the newspaper distrib- uted throughout British prisons, Inside Time, to see how poetry plays such an important part in the lives of many civilian prisoners today.

The widely respected and universally quoted Primo Levi is the subject of the final pages of this fascinating book. The author quotes Levi, who in one of his writings states: "the truth . . . has come to light through a long road and a narrow door." And "the best historians . . . are from those who had the ability and luck to attain a privileged observatory." This is a hard road indeed, but a road that has produced many literary and philosophical gems.

This book clearly demonstrates the profundity of much writing from prison and is packed full of fascinating and, in my experience, accurate observations. Every prison chaplain ought to have this book on his or her shelf. 

Terry Waite was the Assistant for Anglican Communion Affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, in the 1980s.

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