Truth and Coldness: Intensity, Christmas and ‘Love Actually’

On Saturday I was at the Showroom, attending a listening session and discussion around Justin Barton’s work with Mark Fisher.

After an afternoon of listening to both On Vanishing Land and LondonUnderLondon, Justin talked about the connections between the two pieces before bringing in Dalia Neis and Pete Wiseman, who had contributed to one of the pieces, to discuss its inception, development and unpack some of what is packed inside these two relatively concise audio works.

Justin spoke a lot about “intensity”, as explored through L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, Ballard’s The Drowned World and Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. In each, heat becomes an intensifier, partly to blame for the strange events that affect each of the characters.

In The Go-Between, the heat is made synonymous with the affair that is the novel’s central focus. Unfolding over a summer in 1900, once the summer fades, so do the feelings involved. Hartley writes:

In the heat the senses, the mind, the heart, the body, all told a different tale. One felt another person, one was another person.

The same can be said of Ballard’s The Drowned World, in which the heat of Earth, devastated by global warming, resurrects an impersonal and reptilian mode within the Earth’s surviving inhabitants. Many are driven south, towards the Earth’s now-uninhabitable equator, drawn to the zone of intensity with little regard for their own well-being.

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, too, the disappeared women of Lindsay’s book disappear in the midday sun, also in 1900, as if passing directly through a heat shimmer into another reality, into what Jusin called a “desubjectified intensity”.

I found myself thinking about the other side of this on the way home: the intensity of “coldness”. Walking from the pub to Marylebone station to catch the 453 back to New Cross, I met a man named Damien. His phone had died in the cold, as had mine, and he wanted to know if he was in the right place. The bus stop had been displaced by 100m due to road works and was now a “temporary stop”, not so easy to see in the dark.

We got to chatting — an unusual experience on London transport. We joked about our phones, the Christmas anxiety of being pickpocketed in the throngs of central London at Christmas time and how this spoils the experience of walking through the city at this time of year.

He’d come into London on his motorbike, he said, but had decided to walk to Marylebone and now had acute lower back ache. He asked what I’d been up to, I said that, funnily enough, I’d been to a talk about walking through London — not a lie but a smoothing out of the truth — and he said, “You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing.”

He was right. I couldn’t and probably would never have. He told me he’d just met up with the love of his life so that he could tell her that… well… that he loves her. They’d been together all too briefly twenty years ago, when they were kids, in their teens, and he described the intensity of their relationship in terms familiar to anyone who has had a teenager love affair. Naive, awkward, but more intense in feeling than anything you might imagine at that time in your life.

He said that he’d had problems with drink and drugs, developing into full-blown alcoholism — thankfully he was now five years sober — and this was to blame for the relationship going south. As a result, as far as he was concerned, the relationship felt unfinished. They had kept in touch over the decades but only loosely and he described how, whenever he saw her in the flesh, every few years or so, he was overcome by emotion. On the one hand, it was “an intense sexual attraction”; on the other, it was a cyclonic feeling of nerves and calm, “butterflies” and serenity. He couldn’t ignore it any longer and had decided to tell her how he still felt.

The trouble was that she was now married, with “four or five” children. She had a beautiful family, he said, and her husband seemed like a really nice guy. He wasn’t a homewrecker and had no intentions of trying to take any of that from her, but still he felt like he was going insane and had to tell her the truth of his feelings towards her.

Hearing this story out of context, I might have thought: “Just keep it in your pants and let her live her life,” but Damien was so deeply torn over the situation. He seemed wholly and painfully self-aware. He told me his story in a flurry of emotions and histories and apologized repeatedly for just talking his mouth off, but then he followed this up, perceptively, with the observation that if he stopped talking to think, he was afraid he’d implode over what he’d just done. He wondered aloud: Was he being selfish? Was telling her the right thing to do? He was certain the feeling was mutual but circumstances were so obviously out of alignment that he was terrified at the consequences of what he truth would do to them both. He said all he wanted was closure. If that meant an affair or a firm rejection of his tentative advances, he didn’t care. He just wanted to take their “unfinished business” and finish it — one way or another.

He asked me what I thought about his dilemma. Not in terms of advice but just how it made me feel. I was honest with him and said, whilst I couldn’t relate to his predicament, although I do remember the mind-altering (and, in some ways, life-defining) intensity of that kind of late teenage romance, I actually found his story quite beautiful. For all its messiness and ethical dubiousness, it felt like a Christmas story…

We laughed and then, a few minutes later, I remembered why it made me feel this way. I asked him if he’d seen the film Love Actually. He said he hadn’t. I explained that his story was oddly similar to one of the film’s subplots, wherein Andrew Lincoln struggles with the fact that he is in love with his best friend’s new wife, Keira Knightley.

Keeping her at a cold distance, feigning dislike towards her so as to keep her at arm’s length from himself, it is eventually revealed, when Knightley watches her wedding movie, shot by Lincoln, that he doesn’t hate her but is absolutely in love with her.

He doesn’t handle it well and throws her out of his house but, in a much parodied scene — most recently in this general election campaign, by both Boris Johnson and Rosena Allin-Khan — he later turns up at her doorstep to declare his love for her, without agenda or expectation, but simply following the belief that “at Christmas, you tell the truth.”

I didn’t provide Damien with quite such a detailed exegesis but laughed about it to myself all the same.

At one point, somewhat bizarrely, our discussion turned to intensity.

First, we returned to the fact that he’d walked from Oxford Circus to Marylebone — by no means a short walk — before discussing what he should do now. He said he wanted to go home and have a nice, hot bath, soaking his lumbar region which was now giving him a considerably amount of discomfort. He was surprised by how much discomfort he felt. “I’m a pretty fit guy,” he said, “for 34”, and it was unusual for him to feel such pain after what was hardly a strenuous physical activity.

It was from here that we began to discuss this sort of embodied response to thought. He offered up the idea that this back pain was a stress response. The uncertainty and discomfort he was feeling emotionally was pooling there, at the base of his spine. However, on the flip side, a long walk through the cold was probably the best thing he could have done to prepare himself for the meeting ahead.

He started talking about Nikola Tesla. He was a heating engineer by trade and so had both a professional and personal fascination with electrical systems. He said that he loved Tesla’s writing and his theories of electrical conduction, so ahead of their time. He started talking about Wardenclyffe Tower and Tesla’s experiments with wireless electrical transmission. I sort of knew what he was getting at, reaching for a somewhat familiar language through which he could talk about the connectivity of body and mind, body and world; the necessity of the bodily movement and expression in thinking about and processing new experiences. He was trying to talk about the transmission of unseen energies, in a way that was rational if nonetheless bemused and all to human. He talked about this explicitly and he seemed to have something of an epiphany in the process.

As I continued on my journey without him, I thought that it was no doubt the cold itself that had something to do with his latest intensity of feeling and the need to address it. It wasn’t heat that was pushing him towards a new engagement with his thoughts and emotions but the cold, itself driving a necessity for movement and the generation of an internal heat. It didn’t encourage an escape from present circumstances, as in the fictions discussed by Justin, but a new immanence; a new working-through of the truth of his existence.

Is this the underlying force that connects all the stories within Love Actually? An inward intensity for generating heat during the seasonal cold?

He got off at Oxford Circus to retrieve his bike and we said our goodbyes, riven with an oddly Deleuzian Christmas spirit.

Update #1: Robin has some advice for Damien over on Twitter:

guy needs to cultivate his capacity for disparation, to plateau on the intensity, collapse of a dilated virtuality into actualisation could only be a disappointment. (And yet…)


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