The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Jeanette Winterson on How Art and Storytelling Redeem Our Inner Lives

“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world,” Saul Bellow proclaimed in his spectacular Nobel Prize acceptance speech. “There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”

Few writers have given voice to that other reality and to art’s vital role in human life more eloquently and ardently than Jeanette Winterson, who has contemplated with uncommon insight the question of how art transforms us — a question the varied facets of which Winterson explores in a fantastic talk from the 2010 Edinburgh Book Festival.

Jeanette Winterson (Photograph: Polly Borland)

Seven decades after Rebecca West insisted that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Winterson frames the question of art’s existential function with a foundational refutation of the cynical charge that art is a luxury, separate from the real world:

Art is such a relief to us because, actually, it’s the real world — it’s the reality that we understand on a deeper level… Life has an inside as well as an outside, and at the present, the outside of life is very well catered for, and the inside of life not at all… We can go back to books or pictures or music, film, theater, and we can find there both some release and some relief for our inner life, the place where we actually live, the place where we spend so much time.


We do have an an inner life, and that inner life needs to have respect and needs to have some nourishment for itself. And that’s why art can never be a luxury — because, if it is, being human is a luxury; being who we actually are is a luxury. Life can’t be about utility — it has also to be about emotion, it has to be about imagination, it has to be about things for their own sake, so that this journey of ours makes sense to us and is not simply something that we’re rather fretfully trying to get through another day, another week, another month — that pressure that we so often feel… Reading books really does take your hand off the panic button, it allows your breathing to return to normal, it allows you to occupy the space isn’t entirely ruled by other people’s demands and by utility.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

In consonance with Chinua Achebe’s observation that storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches and with James Baldwin’s conception of the artist as “a sort of emotional or spiritual historian,” Winterson considers how storytelling helps us survive our personal histories:

There are stories that you can write, and there are stories that you can’t write. And, in the end, you write the ones that you can, and that allows you to bear the ones that you can’t. There’s nothing, I think, particularly upsetting about that — it’s simply a strategy of survival. And it’s also how we allow ourselves agency in the world, instead of being completely overwhelmed by the things that happen to us. We are, by the writing of that story, by the way that we tell what’s happened to us, giving it back to ourselves instead of being powerless within it.

A generation after Adrienne Rich observed that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire,” Winterson considers the singular power of poetry in giving shape and voice to our unspoken and often unspeakable inner realities:

Language fails us … in times of great grief, in times of extremity, in times of stress. What can we say, where can we find the words that will somehow make bearable the pain that we’re in at the time?

That’s why I always go back to the poets, or I turn to some of my favorite passage — because there are the words. Somebody has deep-dived them for me and brought them back to the surface, and deep-dived them in the place where there are no words, that awful place where language doesn’t take us, where we cannot say, where we cannot speak. And the reason why we can trust our writers, our poets, our artists is that they are able to deep-dive those place and bring it back up, so that you can find it, so that you are not without language, so that you are not in that terrible place where there’s nothing that can be said.

It’s very good to have those poems, those passages in our minds … to find a language that we can use at those times, because we can’t trust it to the soap opera clichés of television, we can’t trust it to soundbite journalism, we can’t trust it to that volume of data lacking all meaning that invades us and bombards us every day. For the real things in our lives, the deep things in our lives, we have to find a language which is an equivalent to the emotions that we feel. And that’s really only possible through literature, through poetry, because their language is working at its most powerful, is working at its height. It’s not that it’s artificial — it’s simply that it’s the place we cannot find in the normal discourse of everyday. It’s a heightened language because it speaks to us in those heightened situations.

Illustration from The Book of Memory Gaps by Cecilia Ruiz

In a sentiment that calls to mind Jane Hirshfield’s wondrous definition of poetry as “the clarification and magnification of being,” Winterson adds:

At the moment of real stress or distress … you need to find that language, and then you can create your own. And it’s kind of homeopathic, isn’t it? You only need the homeopathic dilutions of poetry — a line of poetry, sometimes even a single word — and that then seems to effect great change within the body and the self, even if these tiny, little quantities.

In her magnificent memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (public library) — which gave us Winterson on belonging and how we save ourselves through storytelling — she further probes the existential function of art as a mediator between the two pillars of human life: consciousness and time. She writes:

Creative work bridges time because the energy of art is not time-bound. If it were we should have no interest in the art of the past, except as history or documentary. But our interest in art is our interest in ourselves both now and always. Here and forever. There is a sense of the human spirit as always existing. This makes our own death bearable. Life + art is a boisterous communion/communication with the dead. It is a boxing match with time.

Complement with Marcel Proust on what art does for the human spirit, Robert Penn Warren on its role in a democracy, and Alain de Botton on its seven psychological functions, then revisit Denise Levertov on poetry’s power to awaken society’s sleepers.

Published June 1, 2017




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