The Consolations of Writing: Literary strategies of
resistance from Boethius to Primo Levi
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
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
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
For though men keep my outward
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
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