The Pressing of the Social Fabric on the Written Word

Despite ourselves and any great imagination we might purport to have, can we only ever really write within the parameters of our own time? That is, we may write outside of own century (backwards or forwards), or even our own decade, or closer still, yet are we always bound by the present of our own realities seeping into what we’ve written? Is there no escape?

I’ve recently been reading some 12th century romances, as you do: the type that comes ready installed on e-readers. I’ve waded through Erec et Enide (‘waded’ being the operative term) by Chrétien de Troyes, and am stealing myself for single sitting attempts at Cligès, Yvain and Lancelot, by the same author. I prepared myself, as it were, with the reading of Tristan and Iseult, albeit an early 20th century interpretation written by Joseph Bédier.

The story of the story, the legend, the tale written on top of the tale, all interests me and has done for some time. That we’re comprised of stories is something I come back to time and again. I’ve written my own modern-day take on Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) and so felt compelled to go back again to see how my version builds out from others’ takes. After due settling periods of written pieces, these comparisons are interesting exercises in themselves.

What struck me in the reading of both of the above authors’ works was how much a product of their (assumed) time they were. That is, Chrétien de Troyes attempts to deliver an idealised 12th century society, grafting on his Arthurian ideal; Bédier’s 1900 Tristan and Iseult resupposes the romance for his period. If Arthur even existed at all he may well have been some 6th century Romano-British chieftain; his ‘Round Table’ is actually a late 13th century or early 14th century artefact, created on the instigation of Edward I, later appropriated by Henry VIII who depicted himself on it as Arthur. In short, the Arthurian ideal was just that.

From such stirring stuff of legend comes tales that keep getting re-told. However, in both eras read of recently, the ideal is less than so when seen in our modern terms: women, for example, largely come across as merely objects with little or no desire other than to serve the ‘noble’ lords, knights and fathers or father figures. The idealised French chivalry depicted by Chrétien de Troyes leads this reader to actively want his Enide to show a spark, any spark, of life. This only happens when, forced to marry the Count of Limors after thinking Erec dead, she verbally attacks him. That she gets slapped for her efforts is fitting for how I feel about her, but doesn’t do the perspective on womankind any good at all. I very much needed Enide to punch the Count back (and wage some retributory action on many of the male characters too); sadly though, these are just not in keeping with the social mores of the time.

Herein lies the rub: despite Enide’s role in the middle section of the story as someone who warns Erec of dangers he hasn’t yet seen, albeit meekly, and against Erec’s explicit demands, and despite the author’s apparent message that women should, in fact, speak up, Chrétien de Troyes can only really write whilst pressed upon by the social layers of his own time. Women are loyal trophies; all noble men’s deeds are most excellent (even when slaying and butchering); defeated opponents become subservient unquestioning ‘servant friends’: the servitude of women should be matched by their pleasing physical attributes; the butchery of men should be seen as noble; the righteous defeat of opponents should result in effectively enslaving them under the guise of ‘friendship’.

It is an idealism based, perhaps, as a reaction to the immediate times. Scroll forwards to the 20th and 21st centuries. As an example of such rootedness, I think back to the first of the Star Trek franchise: Kirk et al regularly tackled matters pertaining to the social issues of the 1960s, yet those storylines were projected onto a 23rd century future.

Is it possible to write, be it for television or film scripts or for books and the like, outside of our own time? That is, the social mores of our own place in time press on us and, no matter how subtly, influence us: we may be blessed with great imaginations, but can we use those to leap out of everything that surrounds us in the now?

5 thoughts on “The Pressing of the Social Fabric on the Written Word

  1. You pose an interesting question. Maybe recognizing what our ideologies are and how they shape us may be the first step to writing beyond them.

    • joelseath says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Karen. Yes, recognition of the social ideologies of our local and global cultures would set us in good stead in this respect; appreciating that we may well be unable to resist their influence on us may also be another important part of the thinking. I posed the question because maybe I’m wrong: maybe it is possible to write beyond this social fabric we’re in; maybe it’s been done. I’m building up out of interest in the stories upon stories/legends theme, so it’s an investigation that’s ongoing.

  2. I thought your post was very well thought out, and as for writing beyond our time, I think we can get close at “mimicking” the subtle nuances of a period but we will never truly be able to speak to it. Any good writing, even that which is fabricated, is based off of some type of preconceived notion whether that is an advance or retraction in our understanding of how our lived reality looks. I think the day to day stressors and social expectations that accompany a decade or century or millennia need to be physically lived to some degree if there is any hope of catching its brilliance. It’s like in philosophy when we learned about the “forms.” The form of a triangle is completely perfect, with every angle and line acting in synchrony to build the “form” or unquestionable standard of what a triangle should be. Though you can draw this silly little shape again and again you will never EVER be able to capture the perfection of the triangle’s form in your hand. So a period in time that is not our own, that does not define and shape who we are, is just like the form of the triangle. We can study about it, we can watch documentaries, and delve into interviews and diaries of people who were there but we will never truly be able to definitively say that we KNOW what that time was like because we had no experience and or emotional investment in the defining situations or mores of the time.

    SO I will end with a quote from the fabulous movie Goonies, which was both prophetic and enchanting even though it was a kids movie…and it goes like this “Up there…Up there that is their time. But down here…down here this is our time…”

    Don’t get hung up on the idea that we as writers are unable to write within the times that we weren’t living because that belongs to all of the author’s who went before us…that is their time. The very fact that we can never go back fully is what makes their accomplishments so special and so brilliant…so rare. Give that to them and let those revolutionary women and men who broke the boundaries of the written word own that….because when you really think about it, that’s what makes them a legend.

    But right now…this is our time and it’s up to us to leave our mark. Though we can be inspired by what these titan writers have left for us to read and grow with, it is our duty to speak to our generation and what our society has produced. It keeps forward momentum within the craft. It’s not a bad thing to be influenced by your experiences and let that flow into your writing even if it is set in a period because though subtle nuances are what give new life to an old classic.

    But I’m nuts so take everything I said with a grain of salt ;O).

    • joelseath says:

      I thank you for your reading and the time taken for such a detailed response. Of course, you’re absolutely right in what you say about never truly being able to write of another period because we ourselves were not there. We can only ever write with some small authority what we know of our now. We could go further and say that we can only ever write our own particular subjective interpretation of this particular now (the experience of experience, the phenomenological stance, interests me). What you write about the perfect triangle also strikes a chord: my thinking here, following this, is that the very ‘truth’ of my perception of this place I currently write in, or of any given character, or of any given time I choose to devise, is only ever ‘true’ in one point — that precise moment of its conception; thereafter, committed to the tangible shape of actual words, the ‘truth’ distorts with others’ (and my later and new) colourings of what it is that’s written there.

      This all said, it’s the social layerings (those social mores we might not fully appreciate), which either become deliberately or unconsciously written into any given writer’s work in time, that I’m concerned with most here in this post. Despite our rootedness in the very now of where and when we are, could it be possible for us to strip those layerings from our conscious writing selves to create an alter ego writer who is capable of writing outside of his or her own time? It is with some small authority that we write in our present because of the ‘truth’ or otherwise of our subjective interpretations, but what if it were possible to — in effect — cleanse ourselves of the social layerings that taint us? Can our imaginations be strong enough to step out of the skins we wear (sullied by the current affects of our cultures, histories, geographies, etc.)?

      This is the extension to my thinking brought on following your reply.

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