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Coping with stagnation in the time of coronavirus

Our popular culture’s most famous image of writer’s block comes to us from Stephen King by way of Stanley Kubrick:

Jack Nicholson-as-Jack Torrance’s tense, disheveled frame hunched over the void of an unfed typewriter, the words repeating over reams of pulp, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, all work and no play . . .”

For as long as creative types have existed, we’ve had some artistic vocabulary with which to judge their apparent unproductivity. In the Biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, set somewhere between two and three thousand years ago, the philosopher-king Kohelet bemoans that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The phrase has become so representative of the artistic question that it proves its own significance.

But to return to Nicholson.

There is something archetypical now about the struggling, starving, self-torturing writer, or indeed the artist in general. A perennial struggle of creativity, old as art itself, pupates into something far more grotesque in isolation. In extremity. What makes Nicholson’s descent into madness in The Shining so disturbing is how convincing it is. What more, Jack Torrance must wonder, is there to say, in a world as free of distraction as stimulation? Anyone, we readily accept, would lose their mind in such a setting.

A perennial struggle of creativity, old as art itself, pupates into something far more grotesque in isolation.

And what a setting it is: an enormous, baroque summer lodge deep in the Rockies of Colorado, isolated by hours and miles from settlement, its most attractive feature turned into its greatest off-season challenge. For a writer, the prospect of caretaking seems natural, a blessing, even—no interruptions or distractions, significant even in an era before the Internet and mass telecommunications. What better environment could there possibly be to accomplish work?

I need not belabor the point; the end is, as the saying goes, in the beginning. King and Kubrick make Jack Torrance’s descent so clear as to be a virtually foregone conclusion. And that is if one were not already familiar with the story, as so many are.

There is, however, a second edge to this all. Perhaps Jack was right; perhaps isolation would have been the cure for his artistry, were he someone else, were he better equipped to handle the challenges, were the spirit of the place not enthralling him more than the work.

But Jack is, alas, human, and he cannot escape his basic need for humanity any more than Kohelet could—Kohelet, who also gives us, perhaps in irony, “There is nothing worthwhile for a man but to eat and drink and be merry.” We must make meaning for ourselves in isolation of a kind, but that does not require isolation in perpetuity. Neither of our stoppered, angsty protagonists realizes this before it is—perhaps—too late.

You can imagine my shock, then, for us to have this stretch of time before us, the kind of uninterrupted chance to write and study that I would, strangely enough, never have had we entered a normal Carleton term (or had I not graduated early).

In some ways it has been tremendously productive for me. The concept of productivity, of course, has no merit on its own. Jack Torrance was, in a manner of speaking, productive when he copied the same sentence down to fill volumes, as was Kohelet in his solitary revelry. No, I would much rather be able to achieve something meaningful and limited in scope than set grand, impossible goals for myself, whether I were in quarantine or not.

The concept of productivity, of course, has no merit on its own.

Of course, I would much, much rather not have this time. I would prefer beyond all dreams to be at Carleton now, living in Wellstone House, taking the classes I desired, seeing my friends and enjoying the two-week-long Minnesota spring. But given that this time is here, and cannot be otherwise, it is difficult to get past that ancient desire for productivity, for novelty, for accomplishment.

I want, as I suspect many do, to be able to leave this stage of life feeling that I have improved myself in some way, that I have become a better, more whole person in at least minor stages, as I tend to feel after a Carleton term. I cannot say whether I will accomplish that. But I can say with certainty that I am trying.

Yet the thought remains in my mind: is that attempt, that aspiration toward creativity, merely another manifestation of the Jack Torrance within us all? Who is to say that there is, after all, any sense, any meaning, any artistry to be made from this mishigas?

I cannot answer that question, because it does not have an answer. And yet, as maddening as it is to try to stay busy, to avoid that stagnation that so many of us already feel, weeks and months into this event, I suspect I would feel less sane still if I did not attempt to do something.

Fiona Apple’s newest album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, came out last week. I need say little about the burning reception it has, rightfully, received. What is more significant to me is the uncanniness of it. I have been a fan of Apple’s music for some time, but hadn’t listened to her in a while. Then, only two days or so before the album came out, I began circling through my old-fashioned library of her albums on my computer.

When Bolt Cutters did arrive I felt as though this absurd universe, somehow, could anticipate the paths of my consciousness. The album has sat in production for nearly half a decade, unsurprising given Apple’s fractious connections to the music industry at-large. Coronavirus did not produce this album.

When Bolt Cutters did arrive I felt as though this absurd universe, somehow, could anticipate the paths of my consciousness.

And yet, in sense, it did: I cannot separate my re-experience of Apple’s art from the isolated, scornful, assertive world of the present that it depicts so well. Just as Animal Crossing or, regrettably, Tiger King have spoken to threads of our present psyches, so too has this album spoken to mine.

Perhaps whatever creation came our way would spark something in us; perhaps we would apply it to our shared moment like some elaborate apperception test. But I prefer to believe that we cannot separate these creations from the stagnations that surround them.

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, in my mind, will always carry the associations of coronavirus. But more importantly, it will always show me that huge yawns of apparent stagnation—years, in Apple’s case—can at the hollowest and least likely moments provide insights into our own cruel lives that we would have never anticipated.

There is a harsh beauty, of a kind, in making sense of this world, not because its suffering is beautiful—I refuse to believe that—but because despite that suffering, despite the emptiness it makes us feel, despite the chance that it will drive us despondent as Kohelet or mad as Jack Torrance, despite all of this, we continue, to create as to consume, and we cling in desperation to the scraps of meaning this creation provides us, the treasures of our truth.

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