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Around the Block a Few Times : WRITER'S BLOCK By Zachary Leader (The Johns Hopkins University Press: $26.95; 313 pp.)

December 30, 1990|Judith Gingold | Gingold is a free-lance writer.

When he was a graduate student sweating out his dissertation on Blake, Zachary Leader got the idea for this multidisciplinary exploration of writer's block. This dread literary ailment afflicts lowly Ph.D. candidates no less than great authors, often driving victims crazy or to drink.

Coleridge took opium. Hemingway shot himself. Leader took himself in hand and wrote what may be the first book on the subject that doesn't attempt to be helpful; it is a theoretical and historical account, bristling with footnotes and erudition, none of it intended to increase your productivity.

Instead, Leader, a lecturer in English at London's Roehampton Institute, raises a series of questions about writer's block: "At what point--and why--did the term come into existence, and what were the terms it replaced? How was it to be distinguished from the sorts of difficulties most writers encounter in the act of composition? When, in other words, did a problem with writing become a block?"

Leader looks for answers in psychology and literary history, "but also in a long philosophical tradition of distrust of the written word as well as in more general social and cultural speculation." He covers a great deal of very rugged ground, quoting an eclectic assortment of thinkers, ranging from Plato and Melville to Mark Twain and Julia Kristeva.

The term "writers block" was coined in 1947 by Dr. Edmund Bergler, a largely ignored but extremely prolific psychoanalyst who published 25 books and more than 300 articles before his death in 1962. By then the phrase had entered the language, spread by word of mouth, a sign of a time in America of intense faith in psychoanalysis and intense psychoanalytic interest in creativity. These origins explain "the air of medical substance, of a treatable condition, assumed by writer's block; hence also the suspicion of something bogus or unearned about its claims."

Because of its connection to a particular place and time, a writer like Philip Roth might think of himself as blocked, while Philip Larkin, who wrote no more than four poems a year, simply considered himself unprolific. Earlier writers "dried up" or "froze" or were "stuck in a rut," metaphors that imply internal deficiency, rather than external impediment, as the source of the trouble. Locating this outside the individual shifts responsibility away from the self. No doubt this is one reason "writer's block" caught on.

Whether you call it block, desiccation, frigidity or stasis, it's hell on Earth. The complaint entered literary history in the 18th Century, according to one theory, when modern technology--paper and the press--inundated writers with the work of their betters. Since Shakespeare and Milton are tough acts to follow, Romantic poets suffered from "the remorseless deepening of self-consciousness before the rich and intimidating legacy of the past." They lost the power to write, and made that a subject of literature. When truly stuck, they invented the fragment as a poetic form.

The new self-consciousness of the mid-18th Century also may be interpreted as just one episode in the recurring history of writerly difficulty, which goes back at least to the acedia suffered by medieval authors. Then as now, it was considered a sin, although an unenjoyable one.

The book also focuses on various psychoanalytic explanations of creative inhibition, emphasizing Freud, several post-Freudians and especially the British Object-Relations school, which explains blockage in terms of unresolved conflict between the primitive internal forces involved in self-differentiation.

Leader stresses the affinities between post-Kleinian theory and the testimony of Wordsworth and Coleridge, the great bards of blockage. He analyzes a number of Wordsworth texts--including the first 285 lines of the "Prelude," which are explicitly about being unable to write--and details the extravagant agonies that led Coleridge to plagiarism and worse. Coleridge's poetry, particularly "Dejection: An Ode," documents his struggles, as do his notebooks and letters. In one of many tormented moments, the poet wrote a friend, "I wish I had been a tanner."

After his consideration of these psychological, historical, and literary aspects of his subject, Leader adds a sociological dimension with a discussion of the cultural taboos that may produce blockage, devoting a chapter to women writers and theories about them.

This approach is coherent but arbitrary, since the themes that emerge are dictated by the author's choices. These reflect his interests and a predilection for complexity, as when he summarily dismisses non-psychoanalytic psychology as "theoretically threadbare."

This book is knotty as a Persian rug, and will be of interest primarily to scholars of psychoanalysis and literature. Writers avoiding the blank page might be better off with Mozart, though Leader's analysis is finally encouraging. Creative impairment "can be a necessary precursor to health," he concludes. "Blockage itself can bring insight, and with it the power to write."

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