OUTSIDER WRITING: The Healing Art of Robert Walser.

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Date: Spring-Summer 2021
From: Biography(Vol. 44, Issue 2-3)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,331 words
Lexile Measure: 1220L

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What happens when literary creativity is constrained? I do not have in mind the kind of playful constraints strategically chosen by the Dadaists or the Oulipo poets--analog algorithms that have expanded the space of art and writing. Rather, I have in mind a mental or physical barrier that is externally imposed. I have in mind a suffering that many writers and academics have encountered at some point in their life: writer's block, or the painful inability to write. There is nothing to write about. Or the body refuses to write. There is a cramp, hernia, or inflammation that hurts and obstructs the flow. The hurt signals a limit to what the mind may have taken to be an infinite space--a space of thinking that writers and academics like to live in and that they feel is real and exciting and important. They disappear into this space, and create many wonderful things in it. But then something comes knocking at their door. It is life, or a body they left behind in their abstractions. This body is far more intelligent. It has archived layers of memories that the mind cannot access or control (Heller). So, the world of thinking and writing as pure construction breaks. It is nothing.

At some point in the 1920s, the body of the Swiss writer Robert Walser came knocking at his door. Writing literature with a pen, he had developed a cramp in his hand. The cramp was physical and mental, and paralyzing in both ways. Battling with a spasm of my own, I became intrigued by Walser's cramp, especially by the remedy he developed for it. He started penciling texts in a miniaturized version of a medieval German script called Kurrent. Transcribed years after his death in 1956, these microscripts were mostly composed in mental institutions where Walser stayed for the last twenty-seven years of his life. Because of this lengthy stay the scripts have often been approached as outsider art: an "other" art made by creators residing in institutions of care, outside the bounds of the art world (Cardinal, Outsider Art). Outsider art, as Cardinal explains, is a form of artistic expression that willingly or unwillingly shuns the "public sphere." Such art is "other" insofar as it is singular: it "can be highly idiosyncratic and secretive, and reflects the individual creators attempt to construct a coherent, albeit strange, private world" ("Outsider Art" 1459). Outsider art is outside not because it springs from a mental condition, but becauseit has the power to decondition our expectations about art--to ask what is art, what is creativity?

Walser'smicroscripts can be considered outsider art--outsider writing--on many of Cardinal's grounds: they were self-invented, created in private, partly kept a secret, and they present the kind of "anti-conventionality" that outsider art is typically expected to display ("Outsider Art" 1460). The scripts are unreadable with the bare eye in their original form, and the style can be off-putting at first sight: digressive, chaotic, and seemingly uncommunicative. Indeed, reading the scripts initially made...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A707075977