What wonderful minds.

[photo credit]

I have always said 20th century American literature is my favorite.

Something — the disillusionment, the concurrent hope — spoke to me as true. The protagonists’ pursuits of true freedom in this “free” country resonated. Further freedom from government, from confines, from boundaries, and — as they got freer and freer and recognized the thing that still trapped them — from themselves.

Tim Parks, essayist for The New York Review of Books, published “The Chattering Mind” in June to reveal what he says is the true protagonist of 20th century literature — “the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.”

Here are a few notable quotes from the essay:

Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray…

It’s all quite reassuring, even self-congratulatory. What wonderful minds we have, even though they don’t seem to get us anywhere, or make us happy.

…at least I’ve understood and brilliantly dramatized the futility of my brilliant exploration of my utter impotence.

It is hard not to congratulate oneself on the quality of one’s unhappiness.

Is this true? Can it sum up an entire century of writing?

Whether or not this is overly simple — and I’d argue that mostly it isn’t — I see myself so much in these observations. Postponing action, occasionally with something as worthwhile as poetry but usually with somethings much less meaningful and much more tedious and maddening.

And the love, too. The love of brilliant dramatization, of wonderful, dissatisfying minds.

And here I am again, the mind that can’t make up its mind.

More on this to come. Thoughts?


  • david

    Hi Brynna,

    I enjoyed reading your post, and “The Chattering Mind” was a fascinating read as well. Your description of literary characters seeking “freedom from government, from confines, from boundaries, and — as they got freer and freer and recognized the thing that still trapped them — from themselves” reminded me of a theme I’ve been thinking about lately from Kafka’s writing. It is the idea that people feel compelled to comply with the spoken and unspoken commands from the sources of authority in their lives, and they forget they have the power to not comply. I wonder if this self-imposed feeling of impotence results from a reluctance to make choices and to be held personally responsible for the consequences, as Tim Parks mentioned in his character study of Hamlet.

    Were there any specific protagonists you had in mind when you wrote this entry? Thanks for posting. : )


    • http://www.brynnabegins.com/ Brynna Lynea

      Hi David! Thanks for commenting.

      I have yet to read any Kafka but I’ve been curious… I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on what you’ve read. I think the idea of avoiding any and all consequences for actions is fascinating and definitely true — it’s hard to fault someone for indecision. Ironic that within the “chattering mind” there can exist a worse consequence in imagining possible consequences than there would be for just acting…

      I think the protagonists I had most in mind were some Parks mentioned — Hamlet, Faulkner’s characters and Dostoyevsky’s — as well as characters from Fitzgerald (Gatsby/Nick/Daisy), Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, Hemingway’s Jake Barnes from The Sun Also Rises and some female protagonists from 20th century feminist lit (esp. “The Awakening” and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”) These add another dimension since much of their contemplation is basically forced — anxiety diagnosed as an illness and treated with isolation and inactivity, which drives them to insanity or suicide.

      • david

        Hi Brynna,

        I’m only familiar with a couple of the names on your list (evidence of my lack of literary sophistication). But Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” is probably my favorite literary protagonist, so I can relate in that regard. Your description of the “Yellow Wallpaper” sounded interesting, so I read a pdf version of the short story online. The feeling of isolation and helplessness Ms. Gilman’s protagonist experienced is actually quite similar to the feelings Kafka’s Gregor experienced in “The Metamorphosis,” as he transforms from a human into an insect. In reading the “Yellow Wallpaper” I kept thinking about how awful it must have been, and how awful it must still be in many places, for women to be treated as children.

        As for my interest in Kafka, I admire how he is able to quintessentially describe the paradoxical nature of human reasoning and bureaucratic functioning. I’m not sure if he intended for his writing to be humorous, but I’ve found myself laughing out loud when characters make gross misinterpretations of each other’s words because of the ambiguity inherent in language. Kafka also does a good job of describing the great deal of confidence people place in absurd ideas and the resiliency of the absurd ideas in the face of contadictory evidence. Kafka writes in a logical, rather than a poetic, way, which is probably why I’m drawn to his novels. “The Castle” is my favorite so far, although I haven’t finished it yet. : )

        • http://www.brynnabegins.com/ Brynna Lynea

          You’ve convinced me… I’ll get my hands on some Kafka soon.

          Agreed, about the women-as-children comment. The Awakening is a novella, so also not long — check that out, too, if you get a chance. I guess both were technically written in the 1890s, but I think that’s close enough to the 20th century. :)

  • Vsurg

    Briefly, you have eloquently elaborated what I refer to as “the paralysis of analysis”.

    Reminds me also of the “Harvey” quote.

    “years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say: Elwood…in this world…you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.” well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

    • http://www.brynnabegins.com/ Brynna Lynea

      Ha. Oh, but why can’t we be smart AND pleasant? :)

  • david

    oh, I meant “a reluctance to make decisions,” not a “reluctance to make choices.”