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The imagination as gaoler and as escape

Fiction is more effective than autobiographical non-fiction when it comes to conveying the sensation of enforced solitary confinement. That is the conclusion of writer and lawyer Maarten Asscher in his study 'Het uur der waarheid. Over de gevangenschap als literaire ervaring' (The Moment of Truth: Imprisonment as a literary experience.) PhD defence 29 October.

Literary devices

Over the centuries, countless texts have been written by authors who were being held in prison, penetrating autobiographical works that portray a harsh and lonely existence in a God-forsaken penitentiary. At least, that is what you would expect. But in fact it is the authors who write about solitary confinement from their imagination who successfully employ literary devices to construct the damp prison walls, as if the reader him/herself is also imprisoned for a time, held captive by the text.



Escape literature

People actually writing in a prison cell create a kind of escape literature with the written word, says Maarten Asscher. For his research, he studied texts by Silvio Pellico (1789-1854), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and Albrecht Haushofer (1903-1945), all three produced in involuntary solitary confinement. Asscher: ‘In Haushofer’s series of poems Moabiter Sonette (Moabit Sonnets) (1945), you can see how limited our reflection on our own experience usually is. Most of the text is a contemplation on the loss of German culture.’

The reader in front of the firing squad

Asscher compares the autobiographical texts with fictional texts, in which the authors have to rely on their imagination. ‘Although you can see that those texts are less “true” in terms of the actual circumstances of imprisonment, they come much closer to the truth in terms of intensity and threat, the essence of a prison experience. The poem  Het lied der achttien dooden (The Song of the Eighteen Dead) (1943) by Jan Campert, who was just sitting in his living room when he wrote it, places the reader him/herself, as it were, in front of the firing squad, while Haushofer’s work comes across as a cultural testament of someone who is saying farewell to an era.’

It's not about the bars, it's about the door

The PhD candidate also devotes a chapter to the delineation of the concept of ‘prison literature’. To regard the writer’s study, filled with iron discipline, as a prison is, in Asscher’s view, pure coquetry. ‘Self-chosen solitude is in no way comparable to solitude as punishment, where the prisoner’s entire identity is on the line. In that situation, the person has no control whatsoever over their own solitude. With literature, it’s not about the bars, but the door.’


With this thesis, Asscher is combining two life-long fascinations: literature and imprisonment. ‘I was brought up to be interested in the legal aspect, but even as a child I was also intrigued by prisons themselves. They are often silent, frightening buildings; prominent landmarks in a city.’ Asscher would really have liked to take a close look at those buildings from the inside, but legally and practically this was not possible. ‘Fortunately there’s always literature that can teach us something about everything. Just take  Little Dorrit (1857) by Charles Dickens; once you’ve read it, you’ll never be able to look at a prison again without thinking of that book.’

PhD defence by Maarten Asscher on 29 October: Het uur der waarheid. Over de gevangenschap als literaire ervaring (The moment of Truth: Imprisonment as literary experience)

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