This morning I came across a BBC Radio documentary on “criminal-turned-journalist” Erwin James. The documentary is an interview of Mr James by a criminologist. It was broadcast in July, 2017, thirteen years after Mr James was released from prison.
Almost immediately I went through Erwin’s columns for The Guardian, especially his column on April 23, 2009 titled “The Real Me”.
Mr James was imprisoned for committing two murders in 1982. During the interview and in his April 23 column, he recalls how he fled to France and joined the French Foreign Legion. Later, Scotland Yard traced him and he came to know his co-accused was being convicted. He left the Legion one evening and handed himself over to the police. Back in England, he served a long twenty-year prison sentence. During the trial, he was described by the prosecution as ‘brutal, vicious, and callous”.
In prison, a psychologist helped him to come to terms with his guilt. He began to study, and gradually turned into a writer, and began expressing his views on prison life. The Guardian allowed him to write, and he wrote.
Listening to James’ interview was a very emotional experience. You can sense his guilt and his desire for redemption as he speaks about his life in prison. There is neither sensationalism nor overt sentimentalism.
His interview made me think about the concept of self-culture and self-cultivation. What James could do inside prison was cultivation of the self – something very few indulge in. It is a method of reflecting, analyzing and evolving one’s perception of oneself. As you analyze yourself, you may move from self-pitying to self-aggrandizement to self-sympathy.
What is self-cultivation? There are several philosophical treatises on this. For me, self-cultivation begins with self-analysis.
But of course, cultivation of the self has been part of grand cultural projects in Europe and Asia. Michel Foucault’s last phase of thinking was a series of analysis on “technologies” of the self in ancient Greece. What could be the relationship of self with self? What would be the method of self- engineering a good citizen in a republic?
Renaissance painters assimilated cultivation of the self in their art.
Consider the serene glow in Da Vinci’s portraits of women. Mona Lisa is the most popular, but my favourite is Lady with an Ermine. Renaissance portraiture followed strict rules of aesthetics – a visual grammar that
emphasized perspective, body posture and mathematical relationship between visible body parts. In portraits, the subject must be surrounded by a spiritual glow that came from one’s social position, but above all self-cultivation.
Da Vinci had painted an old man (widely recognized as a self-portrait) with red chalk on a paper, which today is speckled with marks of time. This sketch is so organically linked to the medium, that it looks as if the face has emerged from the paper itself. To a discerning eye, this portrait is a signature of Vinci’s self-cultivation as an artist – as someone who has spent hours practicing art, trying to control light and shadow. And now, in the solitude of his studies, he was reflecting on the contours of his face.
A person who has cultivated oneself through methods of grammar, aesthetic rules and good thinking is a person given to creative empathy. When you can produce your thoughts in an organic narrative like Da Vinci did, you know you have achieved a sense of confidence over the serenity of your inner being.