Image: poetry embroidered on medical gauze, white on white, by a physician detained as a political prisoner at Sighet Prison, Romania, used with the generous permission of the Sighet Memorial.
Around twelve years ago I began reading Romanian prison memoirs from the 1950s and 1960s. This was not a natural pursuit for a medievalist, but I wanted to see what happened to the humanities in moments of unbearable personal and political crisis. Perhaps, too, I wanted to remind myself that there was more to doing humanities than jumping through the institutional hoops of a university, more than tenure tracks and referees and digital activity reports.
The Communist government that came to power in Romania in the late 1940s under Soviet coercion, suppression of opposition parties, and a falsified election, consolidated their power by purging potential dissenters. They cast a wide net, but the most interesting to me for this project were the intellectuals: professors of history and literature, philosophers, artists, theologians, jurists, and economists were among those sent to work camps or political prisons. Some of these prisons merely had harsh conditions – cold, meagre food, isolation. Others were dedicated to “re-education” – often of university students – a program of torture and psychological degradation intended to break down victims’ identities. I knew from conversations with Romanians that people who had passed through this system sometimes maintained their sanity by teaching one another foreign languages and poetry. Some of the survivors even went on to write memoirs about their time in prison, which were published abroad or, after the 1989 revolution, in Romania.
What I found in these memoirs was a wide range of activities that prisoners used to hold on to their sense of self, to communicate, and to endure the sheer boredom of imprisonment. Many of them, instructors in their former lives, continued to teach behind bars. The former professors who were incarcerated in Sighet (in northwest Romania) held seminars in their areas of expertise: history, geography, literature, all from memory. Historian Constantin Giurescu, who was jailed for five years, describes some of the courses he offered there: “Foreign travelers in Romanian provinces” (twenty-five lectures), “Surcouf, the French Buccaneer,” (one lecture) and “My biography” (twenty lectures). Faculty taught literature too, presumably composing their reading lists according to what they could remember: the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Tristan and Iseut, and Gone with the Wind. Giurescu himself spent a great deal of time planning scholarly works he would write once released. He fantasized about producing translations of his History of Romanians, into “French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian and Turkish, each translation having new information about the respective people.”
Language teaching was also a frequent pastime, with prisoners using any means possible to write: tying knots in string, scratching words onto scraps of soap, and in one case, covering empty medicine bottles with spit, sprinkling them with DDT they had received for their lice, and scratching words onto the powder. Prisoners practiced thinking and speaking foreign languages even when they were in solitary confinement. A number of the memoirists I read referred to prison as their “second university,” describing fervent intellectual activity and vast amounts of time to do it in.
The other major pursuit that comes up in these memoirs is literature. Prisoners tapped out poems in Morse code, and sewed them in white string onto medical gauze. They drafted memoirs and plays in their memory, some of which they wrote down later, some of which they forgot. The artist Lena Constante writes about recollecting lines of French poetry she had learned when younger, scanning and deducing poetic technique from those lines, then composing her own verse according to the rules she had worked out. Indeed, many prisoners composed poetry, or recited it to one another to communicate in code. A typical way of passing the time was to recount stories they had read, or the plots of movies they had seen. The former faculty members at Sighet sang, too: Romanian songs, and Italian canzonette.
I come back to this moment in my own intellectual life often, because it proved so formative for the years that came after. During my tenure track, it was made clear to me by some of my more influential colleagues that any intellectual activity other than the production of literary scholarship would be counted against me, interpreted as a lack of seriousness about my profession. But reading these memoirs, I saw that while institutions of higher learning were essential in training and fostering the arts and humanities, they were not the only places where those pursuits could be of value. I also came to believe that the distinctions between creative and scholarly work were artificial, or put differently, that they made sense only in the university. And while literature, scholarship, and foreign languages were the main sources of succour I found in these books – perhaps due to the kinds of people who later went on to write memoirs – they were not the only activities that sustained people in this way. Prisoners played chess, worked on mathematical problems, prayed, gave one another dance lessons, and described favourite meals.
In these years of crisis, all of these arts served similar ends: they helped people reflect on their experiences, temporarily escape their circumstances, connect with one another, forget their hunger and their cold. They reminded prisoners of their own humanity and of their former lives and identities. They allowed the imprisoned to measure their present time and to imagine a future. The work of thinking and creating sustained them – some described it as food that filled their empty bellies, like cakes.
A couple of years later, I would go through a crisis of my own, one that would teach me these same lessons in a different way. After giving birth to my son, I found it impossible to write scholarship for about two years. The person I had been was dead, or so it felt, and her place had been taken by someone could certainly photocopy scholarly articles, might even be able to underline interesting passages and scribble a few notes, but simply could not write a sentence of literary criticism. This problem was nothing compared to the suffering of political prisoners, but given that I was still untenured, it did feel like a matter of personal survival.
What I could do, I found, was to create in other ways. I took every dance class I found and learned to crochet. And when I simply could not see any other way out of my writing block, I decided to sign up for a creative writing course. I had no ambitions to write fiction or memoir. I was simply desperate to finish my tenure book, and thought that if I could write anything at all, it might be a help. It was, and I ultimately finished that book. But I also discovered that I had other things in me wanting to be written: memoir, cultural criticism, book reviews, the occasional poem or flash text, and a surprising number of essays about sausage products. So over the coming years, as I jumped through the hoops of a new tenure track position, in Germany, I also devoted more of my energy to other kinds of writing, writing that still didn’t “count.”
I noticed a few things as I did. One was that all of my writing became easier – if blocked on a scholarly project, I could begin it in a playful style, or I could get the creative juices flowing by writing in another genre first. Or: I could do something creative with my hands or with my body, and allow my subconscious to do the work. Writing began to feel less like something I had to do in a way that would not offend my harshest critic, and more like something I could do to please myself.
The borders between different parts of my life began to blur. My scholarship became more experimental, and medieval literature seeped into my creative work. Perhaps as a result of this, I gradually lost some of the distance I had learned to cultivate between myself and the literary texts I study. I noticed how the fifteenth-century mystic Margery Kempe struggled to craft a new identity after a devastating postpartum depression, how Heloise managed Abelard’s ego while gently drawing out the guidance she needed from him for the convent she managed, and how Chaucer’s (fictional) Wife of Bath found a way beyond the perfectionistic ideas to which women were held in her time. While I had begun my career interested in male scholars, I now shifted my research to look at women, both historical and fictional, who faced challenges and crises much like my own. Saying this reveals something which I still find difficult to admit in polite academic company: while I had plenty of questions about medieval texts that fit into larger scholarly conversations, I was now also reading them as sources of guidance and comfort.
There is an irony to my occasional discomfort with all of this, to my fear that I was straying off of the straight academic path into a wilderness filled with the bogeymen of amateurism, triviality, and ahistoricism. In the period I study, there were no firm lines drawn between creative and analytic work, or between the aesthetic qualities of art and its practical uses. I think of Bede, who was a biblical scholar, a historian, a biographer and a poet. Or of Abelard, a philosopher, a memoirist, and if we are to believe him, an accomplished composer of love songs in his youth. We remember Chaucer for his original poetry, but he was a translator too, including of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. The great Italian humanists – Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch – were scholars as well as artists. Of course, poetry had, as is well known, a greater purview at the time than it does today, and could be used to teach rhetoric, philosophy, theology, history, and morality. Eventually I realised that many of the texts I encountered and taught as a scholar – devotional treatises, mirrors for princes, and conduct manuals, to name a few – would be classified as self-help today. In short: scholars wrote literature, and literature was written for many reasons: to instruct, to delight, to comfort, to move to action, to inspire awe, to celebrate the seasons and their maker, and even, according to late medieval medical thought, to provide recreation after a hard day’s work.
Eventually, I gave up trying to keep my interests neatly separated, and decided to write a book on perfectionism that blends memoir and medieval literature. This has been, hands down, the most challenging project I have ever taken on, partly due to the academic hang-ups and writing habits I still bring to creative work. I have never failed so often, for so long. But even in the failures, especially in the failures, I have learned much. At first, I thought that I could decide on a point I wanted to get across, find a medieval text that illustrated that point, and write an entire book that way. The result was flat and unconvincing, a pedestrian version of literary criticism. I tried to focus only on the medieval texts, and to draw out what they had to say about perfectionism, but got caught up in textual details. Both of these approaches were too academic, I think, because I still kept myself at a distance from the medieval material. Only when I let my questions about perfectionistic ideals, medieval literature, and my own experience bounce against each other did something new begin to come out. I began to read myself and my own past through the texts. The writing took on an energy of its own, began moving into unexpected directions, sometimes directions that were painful, but productively so. When I finally allowed my academic interests and my personal obsessions to meld, writing became a process of discovery.
I began this talk by reflecting on the practices of people in some of the direst possible circumstances and have ended it on a note of creative play and exploration. This feels strange, until I remember that my work on this book has largely taken place during ill health, then a pandemic, and that much of the medieval literature I study, and especially that by women, was also written in the wake of pandemics or occasioned by traumatic illnesses. In her book of religious visions, Scivias, Hildegard of Bingen relates how she was only given the courage to write by a vision that occurred in one of her many illnesses. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love open with her sick, half paralyzed, and near death. Margery Kempe was delusional and suicidal after giving birth to one of her children, a postpartum psychosis that only ended with a visitation from Christ. Perhaps most famously, Boccaccio’s Decameron begins with a horrifying description of the Bubonic Plague, before segueing into the lively stories a group of young people tell to pass the time in quarantine. With these examples in mind, the distinction that now counts for me is not between critical and creative practices, or between aesthetic and other uses of literature. It is between work done to please power, and work done in the face of death.
Irina Dumitrescu is Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn and a co-editor of Creative Critical.