Paul Johnson

An operation for fistula and its creative aftermath

An operation for fistula and its creative aftermath

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My book Creators was finished some weeks ago and whizzed off to the publishers without my having fixed on any theory of the creative process. But the problem continues to nag at me. Take this example. In October 1841, Dickens was operated on for fistula. This piece of surgery was then horrific and extremely painful, performed without anaesthetic, of course, and often unsuccessful. Macvey Napier, editor of the Edinburgh Review, told Dickens that he had twice been ‘done’ for fistula but twice ‘bungled’, and only on the third shot had it worked: ‘My flesh still creeps at the recollection.’ Dickens was lucky for his surgeon was the remarkable Frederick Salmon (1796–1868) who, despite opposition in his own profession, opened in 1835 his ‘Infirmary for the Relief of the Poor Afflicted with Fistula and the Diseases of the Rectum’ (it is now St Mark’s Hospital). Working over 20 years almost single-handed, he carried out more than 3,500 such operations without a single fatal result. There ought to be a book about him. The operation on Dickens was, characteristically, a success. But the patient said, ‘I suffered agonies ...and did violence to myself in keeping myself to my seat. I could scarcely bear it.’ He made a remarkably rapid recovery all the same, though for a time he could not hold a pen and had to dictate his work to his wife, Kate.

Dickens described vividly to his friend Forster the business of getting back to work after his ‘terrible, frightful, horrible experience’, adding he hoped to be forgiven ‘for thinking it a wonderful testimony to my being made for my art, that when, in the midst of this trouble and pain, I sit down to my book, some beneficent power shows it all to me, and tempts me to be interested, and I don’t invent it — really do not — but see it, and write it down.’ He added, ‘It is only when it all fades away and is gone that I begin to suspect that its momentary relief has cost me something.’

After Dickens’s death, Forster quoted this letter in indignant refutation of an attack on Dickens by the critic G.H. Lewes, in the Fortnightly in February 1872. Lewes, seeking to contrast the ‘vulgar’ and plebeian Dickens with the work of George Eliot (his mistress) with her ‘fastidiousness’ and ‘cultivated’ mind, said that the power of Dickens’s imagination lay in ‘the phenomena of hallucination’. Lewes said Dickens had once told him ‘that every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him’. To this Forster replied, ‘All writers of genius to whom their art has become of a second nature will be found capable of doing upon occasion what the vulgar may think to be “hallucination” but hallucination will never account for.’

Dickens’s belief that he ‘saw’ what he wrote is common enough among the fiercer kind of imaginative writer — Poe for instance, Baudelaire and Maupassant are other examples — but does not mean that Dickens merely copied down the words that were somehow made visible to him. What he meant, rather, was that he ‘saw’ the action he described and the faces of his characters. This is confirmed, for instance, by the eye-witness description by one of his daughters of watching him leap up from his desk to pull faces in a mirror, and then sit down again to describe the faces he pulled. The truth is also, I suspect, that an author, writing at the full pitch of his imaginative intensity, is so absorbed in what he is doing that, afterwards, he cannot actually remember how it was done.

I believe that lapse or distortion of memory is the explanation of the phenomenon of ‘a person of business from Porlock’ who interrupted Coleridge when he was writing ‘Kubla Khan’. I have been to Ash Farm, above Culborne Church, where Coleridge is supposed to have written the poem, and examined all the circumstances surrounding the production of this magical piece of verse (they are described in detail in the first volume of Richard Holmes’s admirable life of Coleridge, pp. 162–8). In the earliest known manuscript of the poem (the Crewe Manuscript, now in the British Library), Coleridge appended a note: ‘This fragment with a good deal more not recoverable, composed, in a sort of Reverie brought on by two grains of Opium taken to check a dysentery, at a Farm House between Porlock & Linton, a quarter of a mile from Culborne Church, in the fall of the year, 1797.’ He blamed the interruption by the ‘person’ for the fading from his mind of the rest of the poem. But the different things Coleridge said about ‘Kubla Khan’ persuade me that the poet had forgotten when the words we have first came into his mind, probably long before he wrote down a single syllable. I am as certain as one can be, two centuries after the event, that there was never any longer poem, clear and present and written in his mind, merely a cloudy vision, from a dream, which reflected things Coleridge had read in Purchas’s Pilgrimage and other source-texts. The poem (as it has come down to us) may have been composed swiftly in his mind, before it was written, but it was nonetheless the product of his brain, as is all great art, and involved hard work as well as inspiration. I suspect, indeed, that the genesis of ‘Kubla Khan’ was much more mundane and quotidian than we are allowed to think. But Coleridge’s description of how it came about was a piece of poetry in itself.

There is a key to the process of creating something in a comparison between the art of painting and of writing. In painting, and especially in watercolour, about which I know most, there can never be any question of the work proceeding automatically or by a process of hallucination. The concentration required is terrific. The co-ordination and interaction of eye, brain and hand — the registration of the thing seen and its transference to paper or canvas — is such a practical, almost prosaic activity that magic never comes into it (though sheer accident, especially in watercolours, may play a part). At the end of the operation, when the work is done, there can never be any doubt in the painter’s mind about how it was accomplished. At least that is my experience, and that of all the artists with whom I have discussed it.

With writing, however, there are mysteries. I have been a writer for over half a century (my first professional printed piece goes back to 1949), and I have published tens of millions of words. But my memory of how most of them were written is dim or non-existent, even when I have kept in their entirety the notes connected with the work. For instance, when I sit down to write one of these weekly essays for The Spectator, I have a distinct knowledge of the subject I am to treat, and usually a detailed idea of the first paragraph or so. But by the time this section is complete, the creative machinery (if I may call it that) is humming, rather like the engine of an aircraft, the essay takes off, and it is fuelled by all kinds of half-remembered or vivid incidents and points from reading, experience and past visions, and navigated by the expertise (I do not call it wisdom) born of long practice. Is this like switching to automatic pilot? It may be so. At the end of two hours, the time it usually takes, the thing is finished, and it is not quite clear to me how the words got on to the paper. I once asked Aneurin Bevan about the creation of his speeches, which were truly marvellous to hear (there’s nothing like them now). ‘Oh, I tug the thoughts about in my mind, and at the appointed time the words march into my mouth. I never fear. The words come.’