Joyce Carol Oates’ Soul At The White Heat

The title of Joyce Carol Oates’ latest collection of essays, Soul At The White Heat, comes from an Emily Dickinson poem beginning, “Dare you see a soul at the white heat?” It is a poem about the nature of creativity – it is the inspired mind that knows the “white heat” – and a fitting title for a book that, at least in part, deals with the creative process. What is it that compels writers to face a blank page? What is the nature of inspiration? What of its antithesis, that horrible barrenness colloquially known as “writer’s block,” but for which Dickinson substitutes the much more poetic phrase “zero at the bone”?

The opening essays address these questions. The first is cheekily entitled “Is The Uninspired Life Worth Living?” – playing off of Socrates’ oft-repeated assertion that “The unexamined life is not worth living” – and opens by quoting Alexander Pope’s famous lines, from his “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” asking “Why did I write? What sin to me unknown / Dipt me in Ink, my Parents’ or my own?” The writing life, for all its rewards, is a strange and lonely one. It exacts a steep price in time and energy from its devotees, and almost certainly dooms them to a life of, if not isolation, than separation – an ever-present sense of their own difference. This Oates well knows, and she takes us on a literary tour to show how common this feeling was, and how different writers found unique responses to it, from Pope, Dickinson and Woolf, to Hawthorne, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. The theme continues in “Why I Write,” where it becomes a five-point manifesto. Writers, Oates argues, write either to commemorate – to immortalize a thought, a moment, a person or an idea; to bear witness – to force the public to see what they have persistently avoided looking at; to express themselves, when no other avenue for making the self known or communicable seems open to them; to propagandize – to advocate for a cause, whether moral or intellectual or political; and finally out of a pure appreciation of the aesthetic, to create some lasting object of beauty. On this point, she quotes Freud approvingly: “Beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. Yet civilization could not do without it.”

The remainder of the book is divided into two sections, “Classics” and “Contemporaries,” collecting book reviews and essays Oates had written for The New York Times, The New Yorker and the New York Review Of Books, among other famous journals and literary magazines. These cover the usual suspects – modern masters like Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Joan Didion, J.M Coetzee, and Colm Tóibín – and an impressive amount of, for lack of a better term, genre writers: the crime writer Derek Raymond, famous for his Inspector Maigret character, France’s answer to Sherlock Homes, and H.P. Lovecraft, that literary oddball whose science fiction writings still attract a cult following, both receive a full and laudatory appraisal. Perhaps the most surprising revelation from Soul At The White Heat is that Oates is something of a boxing aficionado. An essay covering Mike Tyson’s memoir Undisputed Truth, and a review of David O. Russell’s film The Fighter, show that Oates has an appreciation both for boxing’s rich history and the intricacies of fighting technique.

What these collected essays demonstrate above all is Oates’ lifelong love of literature, evidenced by her wide-ranging reading and reverence for the craft of writing, and there is always delight in the vicarious experience of another’s passion.