Prison Literature: Constraint and Creativity

by Samir Chopra

4000prison1The American philosopher Ivan Soll attributed "great sociological and psychological insight" to Hegel’s remarks that "the frustration of the freedom of action results in the search of a type of freedom immune to such frustration," that "where the capacity for abstract thoughts exists, freedom, outwardly thwarted, is sought in thought."[1] The perspicuity of this insight of Hegel—one found in Nietzsche and Freud’s explorations of the depths of human psychology too—is visible in a species of literary and intellectual production intimately associated with physical confinement: prison literature. This genre is populated with many luminaries: Boethius, John Bunyan, Marquis De Sade, Antonio Gramsci, Solzhenitsyn, Bukharin, Elie Wiesel, Henry Thoreau, Jean Genet—among others. These writers found constraint conducive to creativity; the slamming shut of one gate prompted the unlocking of another; confinement produced a search for “substitute gratification”–whether conscious or unconscious–and the channeling of the drive to freedom into the drive for concrete expression of abstract thought. Like Nietzsche in The Genealogy of Morals these writers argued—by the act of writing their works—that if pathological repression is to be avoided, our drives must be appropriately and masterfully directed toward alternative, creative, expression. The prison writer thus demonstrates the truth of the claim—with which Hannah Arendt and George Orwell’s visions in The Origins of Totalitarianism and 1984 resonate—that the prison officials who place prisoners in solitary confinement convey crucial information to future oppressors: mere imprisonment of the political or moral gadfly is not enough; if confinement is to work as a mode of repression, it must aspire to totality.

The Peculiarities of Prison

The central irony of the prison—as the prisoner quickly discovers—is that it is a zone of legal enforcement and lawlessness. Prisoners confront unblinking, resolute bureaucracy, beholden to its procedures and their utter rigidity, all the while knowing their guards—the corrections officers who can ‘correct’ them at any time—can violate them with impunity. The incarcerated are always aware they are powerless, that their guards can exert all manner of power over them. Prisoners do not just fear other prisoners; they fear the lawless application of the law too. Any formal legal redress available will not diminish the terrifying powerlessness in the face of a guard exerting total and final control over body and mind. The long arm of the law rarely reaches out to accost a prison guard; the prisoner is at the guard’s mercy.

Questions are treated with a blank stare or a noncommittal reply; little clarification about procedure is offered. Prison guards are taciturn and reticent; requests for the lessening of personal discomfort are responded to with visible reluctance; the prisoner is figuratively and literally forced to his knees. The swagger, the cockiness, the brusqueness of the prison guard; these are external manifestations of the confidence they possess in their imperviousness to pleading or redressal. The prisoner senses the guards are bound by procedures of the prison, but also that they may, at their own whim, decide not to follow them. Terrifying uncertainty is the distinctive state of mind of the prisoner. The irony of the co-existence of the arbitrary with the rule of law is reinforced.

The prison then, is where we learn about the terrifying contingency of the law, that it is man-made and profane, that all the powers of the social and political world may be found here, in the power wielded by man over man. Here in this zone of coming face to face with the apparently endless, varied, and infinite power that may be wielded over humans, the most fundamental existential reckonings of all take place: the meaning of life and death when waiting for death to be administered, coldly, efficiently, bureaucratically, by strangers and functionaries of the state; the meaning of freedom when it is denied; when the life of man is turned into the barest essential of all, the survival from day to day. The progress of life through the marking of daily time, the passage from dawn to dusk of every day, is highlighted in a space where routine and order are marked out. If hell is other people, then prison is a close approximation; it thrusts its residents into the close proximity of subjectivities, it forces them to encounter the unbridgeable gap to their hearts and feelings and perceptions; a prison allows another human to exert their will over another’s in novel and disturbing ways.

The prison is a place like no other; it demands writing about, and it produces writing.

Prison and the Sublimation of Repression

Nietzsche claimed in his searing masterwork The Genealogy of Morals that “All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inwards…. The entire inner world…expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, width, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited.”[2] These instinctual drives may find their outlet in a disguised form that contradicts their nature: Christian ‘brotherly love’ is a transformed expression of hostile drives to dominate fellow human beings; the weak preach brotherly love and enable their oppressors to disarm themselves and become subservient to their values instead.[3] ‘Repression’ happens when a drive is denied its aim and struggles unsuccessfully—and neurotically—to achieve expression. In ‘sublimation’ the stronger drive co-opts a weaker drive and allows it expression, deflected from its original aim. So sublimation is a productive form of repression, where a drive’s ‘primary aim’ is replaced by a ‘secondary aim’ that allows for alternative expression of the drive.[4] (Freud formally defined sublimation as a “kind of modification of the aim and a change of object” of the drive.[5]) In “Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood”[6] Freud claimed that Da Vinci’s repressed homosexual desires were sublimated and transformed into a drive directed into scientific inquisitiveness, inventiveness, and artistic activities, into a tremendous outpouring of creativity. Leonardo was a psychic prisoner of his time, of his place; his diverted desires found expression through his artistic and creative activities.

In the case of the prison writer, the drive to write diverts the drive to freedom toward writing’s own end, so that the drive to freedom is able to participate in writing.[7] Writing thus dominates the urge for freedom, turning it to the blank page where it finds expression. Writing, for a writer, is the strongest urge of all; it seeks expression and will enlist all and any allies, including the now-frustrated drive for freedom. The prison writer is no exception. The prison writer’s desire for freedom is not repressed by him psychologically, but the physical repression of his movement toward freedom bids him turn his energies elsewhere, sublimating his drive for freedom into the creative energies of writing.

The modern writer faces a figurative prison, that of distraction. The modern writer is perennially distracted, finds writing almost fiendishly difficult for that reason, attempts to impose ‘Internet-fasts’ in order to ‘produce,’ and needs to be ‘restrained’—not distracted by the perennial seeking for ‘notifications’—to be truly free when it comes to self-expression. Struggles with working in the presence of the distraction–a ‘freedom’ that detracts from the ‘freedom’ of writing–are constant; sometimes those distractions are mundane responsibilities, sometimes willful procrastination; these are experienced by almost any one that sets out to ‘create’ in any shape or form whatsoever. In those moments of struggle to get to work, where a particular freedom awaits us, we always struggle with the call of the alternative ‘freedom.’ The peculiarity of it all, when we do manage to get to ‘creating,’ is a sense that somehow, restraint is an inseparable part of being free. To create. To write.

The relationship between constraint and creativity has not gone unnoticed. For Nietzsche, it was essential; as he memorably wrote in Beyond Good and Evil: “The curious fact is that all there is or has been on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness, whether in touch itself or in government, or in rhetoric and persuasion, in the arts just as in ethics, has developed only owing to the tyranny of such capricious laws.” And as Goethe noted in his ‘Nature and Art’: “All struggles to reach the perfection of airy summits/Prove useless to spirits feeling only liberty/Whoever wants what’s best seeks combination/A master first reveals himself in limits/And law alone can truly set us free. Goethe’s suggestion that untrammeled enjoyment of liberty is corrosive and his invocation of ‘law’ is suggestive. Do we ‘sentence’ ourselves to the lakeside cabin, the garret, the lonely hours in our study before the rest of the house awakens, imprisoning ourselves to set ourselves free to write?

Lessons from Great Works

For the prison writer, writing is deliverance, a distraction from the bare and terrible facts of imprisonment. The common understanding of it as a whiling away of time behind bars does not do justice to the extraordinary productivity and creativity of those who write when imprisoned.

Writing of Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead, Max Nelson notes that prison literature is produced in zones of regulation where “self-willed display of personality… is considered a crime.”[8] While we might wonder how writing could emerge in such domains we also notice that it could not fail to. Prison life is sustained by fantasy, by wishful dreaming; the waking hours consist of wish-fulfillment, a fertile field for the growth of writing. Writing in prison, as evident in Dostoyevsky, allowed a flowering of precisely those qualities prison was supposed to punish and ultimately quell; the central irony of the prison was its liberation of a peculiar and particular striving for inwardness. Writing in prison provided ample affordances for experiments with the self, and subsequent self-discovery and self-making, to emerge “powerfully and digressively on the page.”

Turning to Oscar Wilde's De Profundis, written during his internment in Reading Prison,[9] Nelson suggests that prison gave Wilde “something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers.” Nelson notes a letter from Wilde to his lost love, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas in which he writes, “The important thing, the thing that I have to do, or be…maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance.”

There are two Nietzschean notes at play here. First, for Wilde, prison has become that adversity which enables an ‘overcoming’ of sorts; it is that zone, that space, within which Wilde is able to express himself through ‘his creative energies’ and ‘verbal powers,’ thus enhancing them and enabling self-discovery or transformation on his part. It is within this space–with its provisions for ‘testing’ him–that Wilde will find out whether he is a Nietzschean ‘noble soul’ or a ‘slave’—a strong, hard, master of his own destiny, or a weak, effete, mere follower. (In The Gay Science, Nietzsche had made note of the relationship between pain and profundity, suggesting that ‘great pain…the ultimate liberator of spirit’ could make us ‘more profound.’)

Wilde also invokes Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati,‘ the love of one’s fate: he is determined to integrate into his ever-evolving self his experiences and fate in their tarnished totality, and to not reject them; these experiences are part of his life, matters of record, their imprint must be reckoned with and incorporated into his life’s economy. To walk away from them, to fail to acknowledge them, is to initiate pathology: perhaps of repressed memories, transformed into self-destructive behavior, perhaps of futile, life-wasting rage. Wilde saw quite clearly that we must accept our lot, all that is a component of our lives; to do otherwise is to be inauthentic, unfaithful, to oneself. For a writer, the best way to do so would be to continue to write, perhaps about the lessons learned, or of his ongoing struggle to reconcile himself with all that had befallen him. Wilde was aware anger and bitterness and resentment could imprison him even after he had left Reading Prison; the very thought of that continued incarceration of his mind must have struck him as a terrifying burden for the creative person to carry; it would mean the end of his life, or at least, that component of which mattered the most to Wilde, its productive, artistic one. It might have occurred to Wilde, even as he wrote De Profundis, that his attempts—during his imprisonment—to integrate his life’s experiences in his notion of himself had already proved creatively and artistically fruitful; they were making him write about that attempt.

As Nelson notes, Wilde’s writing was subject to the restriction that “each day’s pages be collected at nightfall.” This implicit censorship might have forced Wilde’s prose into patterns of thought that would not have resulted had he been working with more sympathetic editors. Prison thus exerted a transformative effect on Wilde’s writing turning its voice from that of “a snobbish aesthete” to “that of a survivor…a sufferer…a prophet…an educator.” As Wilde wrote to Douglas “You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art….Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.” That was only possible when Wilde had entered prison, whose constraints had forged this new creativity and its allied artistic vision, and turned the sensual aesthete into a contemplative, tragic person.

Elsewhere, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich makes note of how time becomes immaterial in prison because prisoners “are not allowed clocks.”[10] There, Vdovkushin the medical orderly who is writing out his “long new poem” is doing “the sort of thing that happens only in camp”: he is compelled by the doctor Stepan Grigorich to “write in prison what he hadn’t had a chance to write outside.”[11] Even as we notice Solzhenitsyn claiming that the “convict’s thoughts…always come back to the same place, worry about the same thing continually”[12] we notice too, that writing displaces the worn grooves of these thoughts; it is the interruption and disruption that enables sanity in a maddening monotony. (Of course, some kinds of prison writing—like letters, where dialog and replies are expected—are futile, they are akin to “throwing stones into a bottomless pool” which sink “without trace.”[13]) In prison, the prisoner’s senses are sharpened and dulled alike; the inmate Shukhov learns to dampen his imagination, his dreams of the food he once ate “outside,” because now, having been inside, “he knew better.”[14] The perceptions of the prisoners acquire clarity as new details spring into view; they “get to know every inch of the wall,”[15] every fine detail of its blocks, every “kinky edge or…blister.” The writer’s acute attention to detail, sometimes sought to be evoked by inducing concentration on the most insignificant or trivial detail, is sharpened by the pushing away of the distracting world made possible by the walls of a prison.

Prison can dull the senses too; the days roll into each other, becoming monotonous and gray; the writerly imagination finds in this sameness the diversity and variety to fill the blank page. Sometimes work takes the prisoner’s mind off the cold and the brutality of the guards so that “not even that thin nagging wind” can distract.[16] The central work for a writer, of course, is writing; behind the walls of a prison it becomes distraction and task alike. The world outside appears absurd to the inmates, a better subject for writing: the prisoner comes to notice that “some people with nothing better to do run races in stadiums of their own free will.”[17] The acute contrast the confinement of the prison provides with the liberty of the world outside offers the best inducement to write: a perspective altering shift that offers an opportunity to document the novel view made available in this new location.

Prison, Distraction, and Writing

Writers do need not be imprisoned to make them write—but think of those who claim they would like nothing more than to be locked up in a room and left alone to finish their work in indefinite, frustrating, progress. The refuges imagined are varied: a log cabin in the woods, a lakeside abode, a locked room. A cell. These protestations grow as the world’s distractions grow. ‘Imprisonment’ suggests itself as salutary ‘relief’ from distraction, away from the world’s demands. The modern writer begs: take me away from the beep, the click, the ping, the notice that something, someone, somewhere needs to communicate. The modern writer needs something like the Freedom Program—an Internet access denier—to be confined to work, to be set free from the freedom of being distracted, of being free to procrastinate. The prison is the ultimate ‘freedom program,’ the ultimate banishment of your internet privileges; a prison cell, not even the modern ones, does not have an internet or wireless connection. In prison there is nothing to do but write: shut up and write. There is little need to remind yourself you should be writing. It can come to seem, perversely, for the writer, the best idea of all. The idea that a prison is a form of escape is a modern fantasy–found notably in post-apocalyptic horror fantasies like The Walking Dead–that the outside world is so dangerous–read ‘distracting,’ that the safest (most productive) thing to do is lock yourself in and deny yourself freedom.

Prison forces a reckoning with oneself, a time and place in which to study the difference between solitude and loneliness, to learn how one can be insightful and the other crippling. (This is a distinction that those fortunate enough to be on the ‘outside’ rarely learn.) The prisoner best able to master his circumstances regards his time in prison as the former, not the latter. The prison writer, the one able to sublimate his frustrated drive for freedom, productively dreams of the outside in ever more fervent and perfervid form; he may, through privation, imagine more fantastic worlds outside than had ever existed. Their colors appear brighter, their edges sharper. Here, the political writer can write about power’s diverse manifestations and forms, the family man can write about the love he misses, the gourmand can write about the food he cannot taste, the tortured can wax lyrical about the qualities of the pain endured, and the artist can write about the greater vividness of a sky glimpsed through bars.

The prisoner might, as a battle against the loss of memory, write to preserve the world which now appears as a dream. The world outside whose freedom was taken for granted is now a distant ideal, one to be thirsted for and aspired to. The spur of this denial brings into existence worlds previously unrealized; the enforced silence forces engagement with acts of self-discovery. Prison breeds discipline not found elsewhere: the relentless counting of days through tally marks, the emphasis on the physical strength of the yard, the counting of the steps paced in a cell, these speak to a focusing, a laser beam of attention not available to those free, distracted souls not so confined. (It can breed too, a fatal boredom, a suicidal depression, and ultimately, insanity; small wonder that solitary confinement is reckoned torture.) The prison writer tells us what is possible for the mind when the body is confined.

Prison forces meditation, time alone with body and mind. Sometimes with others; the prisoner is forced to reckon with the company of his fellow humans and to finally, painfully, pay attention to them and to their interactions with him. He is forced to become an observer of the human condition; he cannot afford to be a solipsist. He becomes an anthropologist, a sociologist, a naturalist. In prison, with walls closing in and the deprivation of the most basic kind of liberty—that of the non-denial of movement and motion—finally made visible, the prisoner realizes that fundamental privations lead to fundamental reckonings. This has always been the secret of travel and escape literature; denial in one form makes another sense acutely sensitive. In prison, there is the denial of movement, of food, of company, of power. The acute, painful, hypersensitivity this creates provokes words. This denial, this restraint, this repression of desire, is sublimated into writing. Within prison, the rage of the writer—expressed in words and sentences—acquire points and edges and serrations and sharpness. Rage and frustration go together; productively sublimated, they sharpen the poisoned or nectared pen of the writer.

The mere act of punishment is not conducive to creativity. We go to prisons for a reason. Sometimes we are proud of our imprisonment, proud of our actions that sent us to jail, proud to have broken laws; sometimes memories of what brought us there can prompt us to write. For the political prisoner, imprisoned for his politics, for his actions, deeds, and words, the prison is the perfect venue for writing; there, the political struggle continues. There, the pulpit occupied by the writer can become a particularly exalted one of precisely the right kind. India’s first post-independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote prolifically while serving time in prison for his subversive activities against English colonial rule; he was aware his words, from beyond prison walls, carried a new expressive weight. The writer who might not have been heard ‘outside’ may be heard clearly when writing from ‘within.’ The writer has acquired the station, the soapbox, the pulpit so fervently desired. The readers of the prison writer are aware they are reading the works of a person denied a gift they take for granted. When I teach Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, I do not fail to mention they were written in jail; my students read the text anew with an acknowledgement of its labor pains, of the difficulties of its provenance.

Writing And Imprisonment: Total Repression Or Go Home

The prison writer shows that confinement cannot work as repression if the mind is not repressed. It is not enough that the prisoner be stopped from speaking or writing; the mind must be stopped from thinking; it must be denied sustenance; it is not enough that it be denied sunlight and air; it must be denied companionship and conversation. As Winston finds out in 1984, it is not enough that he be imprisoned, his mind must be changed too, a transformation which provides an appropriate coda to Orwell’s bleak novel. Totalitarian regimes quickly realized the prison writer’s mind remains his. Solitary confinement, which denies communication, first with others, then, slowly with oneself, and thus corrodes, as John Dewey termed it, that primary mode of discourse called ‘thinking,’ presents itself as the right way to oppress such a being.

The imprisonment of the writer shows that to truly repress imprisonment is not enough. Utter isolation—or death—is the only solution, a fact totalitarian governments figured out as an essential component of their repressive arsenal. As Arendt notes in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is not enough that the body be confined, the mind must be too. The terror must be total. The mouth must not just utter the pieties of the new regime, it must think them too. Complete isolation, no libraries, torture, sleep deprivation, the list is endless. Otherwise the writer’s mind continues to think, and write.

[1] Ivan Soll, Introduction to Hegel’s Metaphysics, University of Chicago Press, 1969, pp. 30-31.

[2] As cited by Gemes (below): (Genealogy of Morals, II: 16)

[3] Ken Gemes, ‘Freud and Nietzsche on Sublimation,’ Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 38, 2009, 38-59, p. 46

[4] Gemes, p.

[5] (S.E. 22:97)

[6] (S.E. 11:57–137)

[7] Paraphrase of Gemes’ citation of: John Richardson, Nietzsche’s System, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 33.



[10] One Day In The Life, 21

[11] Ibid., 23

[12] Ibid., 40

[13] Ibid., 41

[14] Ibid., 50

[15] Ibid., 97

[16] Ibid., 101

[17] Ibid., 114