Thinking in Zebra Mode – and Literature

Neuroticism isn’t a stranger to the realm of Literature: the tortured artist has become an archetype enduring for more than a century or two.  I can testify to having such tendencies myself, being a literature student and a writer hopeful. Contemplating my way to world justice, moping because of my inability to bring about such a change, and struggling to match up to my idealistic whims – these are all activities which I have been guilty of falling into more than once, with the subconscious consolation that these were typical of those in the creative endeavor. So far so vain: from my own experience though, the reality of these “neurotic” thinking patterns can be far from romantic or helpful to producing creative work. 

Take for example the phenomenon of black and white thinking, otherwise known as ‘splitting,’ in psychological terms, which I fall for almost every time. Unusual, you would think, for a writer to divide the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘saints’ and ‘sinners’, ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’, when their very work involves being sensitive to the many shades of human experience. And yet these dichotomies (opposite extremes) are the stuff of the very first stories we read – villain meets hero or heroine, crisis followed by happy ending. This familiar formula is quite the temptation for writers/readers like me – words are a way of controlling the messy world, arranging events in a way that can never be possible in real life. But what happens when this transfers into real life? Ironically, there’s a book which is my answer to that question – ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan. His heroine, Briony is a young girl growing up in the 1930s, a writer hopeful with the uncontrollable imagination that comes with it. Her gift becomes her curse when it makes her misinterpret the adult world, with fatal real-life consequences – people are not just themselves in her eyes, but cast in one of the many stock characters that she reads about – the likes of friendly woodcutter, male predator or damsel in distress. McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ showed me what could happen when a writer’s controlling imagination comes into collision with the real, but unspoken prejudices of our society: a grave miscarriage of justice. I see myself in Briony – the same attraction to extremes, neatly tied together with a resolution at the end – satisfying, but a delusional way of thinking given that real life is nuanced, unresolved and uncertain up until death. 

Black and white thinking is often linked to mental health difficulties. To lighten up the mood, I like to refer to it as thinking in zebra mode.
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There is nowhere to hide in the study of Literature and even in creative writing: every word of analysis, every word on the page, is a reflection of your value systems and worldview. In some ways I can say I am grateful to study such a self-conscious subject, because it makes it necessary to be aware of the flaws in my own arguments. Yet when you have black-and-white tendencies like me, it can make reading an exercise in presumptuous judgement: is this character clever or foolish? Should I like them or dislike them? What does this say about the author? While I don’t think these questions are worthless, it is important to be aware of the assumptions that come with them. 

Now comes the difficult part, once I finish this blog post and get back to reading Howard’s End by E.M. Forster, and Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’. I was recently making notes on ‘Howard’s End’ and I immediately recognized the familiar theme of class tensions, the bitter working class man aspiring for greater status: yet there were other elements in the narrative which are worth noting: the German origin of the upper class sisters which this working class man idolizes, for example, is something that sets them apart from purebred Englishmen.  I read ‘Gitanjali’ as a collection of poems written on the poet’s spiritual seeking rather than to a lover, but that’s an interpretation with many pitfalls – perhaps what Tagore has written is neither in any way connected to real life or representative of himself, nor addressed exclusively to God. 

I will end this long and inward-gazing post with this inconclusive conclusion: through Literature, it is possible to face ideas and assumptions that are different to our own. My interpretation of class differences in Howard’s End may be typical, but at least I am compelled to experience Forster’s writing, and how his depiction of class alters the voice of the characters; uncomfortable, but a way of reading that I have to accept if I want my reading experience to go beyond oversimplifying zebra mode (aka that unhelpful comfort of black and white thinking).  Thanks for reading – please like if this article was insightful to you in some way and let me know in the comments section about your ways of reading, however different they may be!