I bought the book recommended to me by my analyst the other day: Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
I was expecting the sort of book I’ve read a dozen times before: the Hallmark adoption story of a child who seeks and finds wholeness. Instead, I got the most perfect and fragmented book of linked but disconnected chapters, all about Winterson’s search for her birth mother. The penultimate chapter, in particular, resonated profoundly with my own thinking of late.
She writes not so much about the prevalence of the “orphan trope” but of wounding stories, which nonetheless often overlap with orphan stories.
There are so many wound stories:
Chiron, the centaur, half-man, half-horse, is shot by a poisoned arrow tipped in the Hydra’s blood, and because he is immortal and cannot die, he must live forever in agony. But he uses the pain of the wound to heal others. The wound becomes its own salve.
Prometheus, fire-stealer from the gods, is punished with a daily wound: each morning an eagle perches on his hips and rips out his liver; each night the wound heals, only to be scored open the next day. I think of him, burned dark in the sun where he is chained to the Caucausian mountains, the skin on his stomach as soft and pale as a little child’s.
The doubting disciple Thomas must put his hand into the spear-wound in Jesus’ side, before he can accept that Jesus is who he says he is.
Gulliver, finishing his travels, is wounded by an arrow in the back of the knee as he leaves the country of the Houyhnhnms – the gentle and intelligent horses, far superior to humankind.
On his return home Gulliver prefers to live in his own stables, and the wound behind his knee never heals. It is the reminder of another life.
One of the most mysterious wounds in in the story of the Fisher King. The King is keeper of the Grail, and is sustained by it, but he has a wound that will not heal, and until it does heal, the kingdom cannot be united. Eventually Galahad comes and lays hands on the King. In other versions it is Perceval.
The wound is symbolic and cannot be reduced to any single interpretation. But wounding seems to be a clue or a key to being human. These is value here as well as agony.
What we notice in the stories in the nearness of the wound to the gift: the one who is wounded is marked out – literally and symbolically – by the wound. The wound is a sign of difference. Even Harry Potter has a scar.
Freud colonised the Oedipus myth and renamed it as the son who kills the father and desires the mother. But Oedipus is an adoption story and a wound story too. Oedipus has his ankles pierces together by his mother Jocasta before she abandons him, so that he cannot crawl away. He is rescued, and returns to kill his father and marry his mother, unrecognised by anyone except the blind prophet Tiresias – a case of one wound recognising another.
You cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning, the revenge, perhaps the reconciliation.
There is always the return. And the wound will take you there. It is a blood-trail.
Last week I was telling my analyst about Joe Bousquet, who I have been researching: the poet and writer who was shot in the war and made paraplegic. It was only once bedbound that he became a writer, and he wrote at length about his wound, and how it newly made him who and what he was. He would not have been a poet or a writer had he not been shot, he wagered, and so he embraced his wound and loved it, to the point it was just a part of him. It defined him, yes, but did not compromise him. On the contrary, it seemed to set him free. Or rather, the loss of bodily mobility set his mind free. He embraced it, overcoming his reality, becoming (quite literally and literarily) a surrealist.
That’s what I have long wanted for myself, and what I am discussing with my analyst at length. I want to embrace my second birth. Not my carnal birth but my wounding, my grief, as the thing that defines me but which allows me to also overcome my reality. It is a wound that is not an albatross around my neck but a portal into another world.
Asking me about Winterson’s book, which I think he was surprised I bought and enjoyed so thoroughly, he wondered what it was that I “enjoyed” about it beyond this single chapter; “scare quotes” because it is hardly an easy and “enjoyable” read. I told him about how Nick Stock had mentioned reading it with his students, who compared it to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and that was how it felt to me too. It is a book about one person, but hardly a “whole” person. It’s a fragmentary book about a fragmentary spirit that evades capture and containment. It is a series of snapshots, of a life disjointed and interrupted but also folding and multiplying, fragmenting like a kaleidoscope rather than some otherwise whole and intact object. It is similar to how Deleuze and Guattari talk about orphan-conscious (and -unconscious) and a sense of fragmentation in Proust in Anti-Oedipus:
In the literary machine that Proust’s In Search of Lost Time constitutes, we are struck by the fact that all the parts are produced as asymmetrical sections, paths that suddenly come to an end, hermetically sealed boxes, noncommunicating vessels, watertight compartments, in which there are gaps even between things that are contiguous, gaps that are affirmations, pieces of a puzzle belonging not to any one puzzle but to many, pieces assembled by forcing them into a certain place where they may or may not belong, their unmatched edges violently bent out of shape, forcibly made to fit together, to interlock, with a number of pieces always left over.
This is the reality that (Freud’s) Oedipus cements over. The search for wholeness that Freud projects onto the tragic king is his own and not that of Oedipus himself. On the contrary, Oedipus left the family he believed to be his own on a line of flight, only to be caught up in a series of tragic coincidences. Indeed, that Oedipus achieves a certain incestuous wholeness is surely the worst outcome for a tale that begins with an attempted flight from destiny. That is the tragedy — that it was meant to be different. Freud, instead, affirms the inevitability of a very particular experience for all humankind. Other narratives since have since offered alternate approaches. For Deleuze and Guattari Proust is again a worthwhile example:
Proust maintained that the Whole itself is a product, produced as nothing more than a part alongside other parts, which it neither unifies nor totalizes, though it has an effect on these other parts simply because it establishes aberrant paths of communication between noncommunicating vessels, transverse unities between elements that retain all their differences within their own particular boundaries. Thus in the trip on the train in In Search of Lost Time, there is never a totality of what is seen nor a unity of the points of view, except along the transversal that the frantic passenger traces from one window to the other, “in order to draw together, in order to reweave intermittent and opposite fragments.” This drawing together, this reweaving is what Joyce called re-embodying.
I believe a sense of re-embodying is what most adoptees strive for. But rather than in the sense of a carnal return – returning to the womb, etc. – there is a certain desire to return to the wounding, to the second birth and make ourselves worthy of it (just as Deleuze argues of Bousquet in Logic of Sense). This is what Deleuze and Guattari later refer to as “the splendid affirmation of the orphan- and producer-unconscious”. The goal is seemingly always to do away with one’s parents:
Foucault has noted that the relationship between madness and the family can be traced back in large part to a development that affected the whole of bourgeois society in the nineteenth century: the family was entrusted with functions that became the measuring rod of the responsibility of its members and their possible guilt. Insofar as psychoanalysis cloaks insanity in the mantle of a “parental complex,” and regards the patterns of self-punishment resulting from Oedipus as a confession of guilt, its theories are not at all radical or innovative. On the contrary: it is completing the task begun by nineteenth-century psychology, namely, to develop a moralized, familial discourse of mental pathology, linking madness to the “half-real, half-imaginary dialectic of the Family,” deciphering within it “the unending attempt to murder the father,” “the dull thud of instincts hammering at the solidity of the family as an institution and at its most archaic symbols.” Hence, instead of participating in an undertaking that will bring about genuine liberation, psychoanalysis is taking part in the work of bourgeois repression at its most far-reaching level, that is to say, keeping European humanity harnessed to the yoke of daddy-mommy and making no effort to do away with this problem once and for all.
I think this is felt acutely by adoptees, who may wish to affirm the rickety nature of “the yoke of daddy-mommy” and so embrace their innate capacity to break free (or rather, the fact they have always already broken free and are instead passed, by society, through a series of well-meaning but insufficient simulations). This is what produces a sense of fragmentation, of never being whole. But in my own experience, this fragmented sense of self is not the sense of something being missing in me but rather something missing outside of me. It is a familiar sense of grief, in that regard. We are defined so often by our relations and by a sense of home or belonging, but that is precisely what I find feels interrupted. What I am finding increasingly positive about Deleuze and Guattari’s project is it makes the affirmation of this fragmentation feel radically possible, and so much of their theory already suits the phenomenological experiences of being an orphan or adoptee in the first place.
For example, I often reflect on how it felt to see a photograph of my birth mum for the first time at the age of 18; the feeling of seeing someone I saw myself in for the first time in my life. For most people, the faces of our parents follow us through life. I spoke to someone recently who started wearing glasses a year or so ago, for instance, but who often tries to get away with not wearing them. When I asked why, they said they feel weird about how much they resemble one of their parents. Since they have a complicated relationship with said parent, it’s a hard thing to be reminded of every time they look in the mirror. But my experience is almost the complete opposite. I don’t really have an image of anyone else in my head when I look in the mirror at my own aging face. I don’t see myself as part of some genetic continuum, not even fleetingly.
What was so striking about seeing my mum’s face for the first time was that I was given the photo aged 18, and it was an old photo, taken when she was 18. At first, I saw no resemblance. Then, over time, I saw that she shared a brow – a “T-zone”; the same nose, eyes and eyebrows. It was so novel to finally experience that sense of familial resemblance, but it was too late to really internalise it. I didn’t see a future when I look at her, only the present, because we were effectively the same age.
This sensation is thrilling, if only because it feels so unnatural, set against my vague understanding that most don’t even think twice about it. It’s fun. It makes me feel unique. But it also feels very lonely. To not have that genetic frame of reference feels a bit like being the last of a species, but it is still something worthy of affirming.
This is again found in what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the orphan-unconscious, “in the sense that the unconscious reproduces itself wherever the names of history designate present intensities (‘the sea of proper names’).” I find myself produced far more readily when put in relation with others. I gain a sense of self from the mere proximity of my adoptive family, for instance. The relation feels generative, playful, like an adopted fiction. I have no genetic connection to it, and so embrace the sense of familial role-play. It feels creative. The same is true of my imagination when it engages with my biological family and the teasing hints of what could have been. And it is for this reason that Deleuze and Guattari argue the orphan-unconscious “is not representative, but solely machinic, and productive.” It inserts itself into relations with ease, rather than feeling tied to one family tree, to a sea of proper names. It is in this way that “the orphan libido invests … a field of social desire, a field of production and antiproduction with its breaks and flows, where the parents are apprehended in nonparental functions and roles confronting other roles and other functions.”
It is wonderful to read Deleuze and Guattari – and Deleuze on his own also – and find this wound be described as a productive machine. It denaturalises the melancholy of adoption, but also illuminates the inescapable counter-narratives that insist the orphan-unconscious must proceed otherwise.
It makes me think of Harry Potter. “Even Harry Potter has a scar”, Winterson writes. But he hardly makes himself worthy of it. In fact, the entire saga is about his attempts to negate it and what it symbolises.
Look at it this way: At first, Harry Potter, the individual character, also feels totally distinct, separate, unique. He lives with his aunt and uncle, his biological relatives, but they make him feel like a pariah. So, like Oedipus, he leaves the family he knows, his dead-end destiny, and hopes to reconnect with his ideal family in another way. He forsakes his familial destiny for another generative one. And so, he enters the wizarding world. Once he there, he feels newly connected to his parents, because he feels newly a part of their world and, more importantly, their relations. But things aren’t so simple. How Harry relates to those around him is split between what they see in him: do they see their friend’s child or do they see the wounded orphan? The people Harry trusts always see the former. They comment on how he looks like his parents, James and Lily. He is always told that he has his “mother’s eyes”. He embraces those who appeal to a representative and closed-mind orphan-consciousness. But to other people, who he seemingly can’t trust, he is always just “the boy who lived”. He is defined by his wound rather than the circumstances of his birth, and this is clearly what bothers Harry the most. Though we might see this as meaning he is a boy with the world at his feet, having broken free of destiny, an expected fate, he rejects it at every turn. Indeed, to define himself through his wounding is supposedly to side with evil.
By the end of the series, it is clear that Harry’s vendetta against Voldemort isn’t so much about revenge for the murder of his parents, but rather an attempt to sever the ties between himself and his unnameable double, his brother in wounding. (Cf. René Nelli on Joe Bousquet.) And so, in annihilating Voldemort, Harry wants to annihilate his wound, his famous scar. In the latter books, this is made all the more explicit and seemingly unavoidable when it’s suggested that Harry himself is a “horcrux”, a magical “partial object” onto which Voldemort has transplanted part of his soul, making him immortal. Harry believes, for a time, that he has to die for Voldemort to die too. And it seems that, for a moment, he does. Harry Potter not only has two births, but will eventually have two deaths. His partial death, in the fight against Voldemort, negates his second birth. From there on out, or so we’re led to believe, he lives happily ever after, finally creating a new family of his own, living out the dream of the nuclear family that his parents never could.
So many orphan stories are like this. They are framed as quests for wholeness. But wholeness feels impossible. It has been denied, fundamentally. For me, for example, similarly to Winterson, I’ve met my biological family. I know by birth mum, her sister, their kids, my maternal grandmother. I’ve met them all and I love spending time with them. But they also already have families of their own. Though I may have once daydreamed about it, I see no future where we suddenly start spending Christmases together, like families do. I see no reality in which I feel like an actual part of the family, with the sort of access one might readily expect from your family. (I have that with my adoptive family, to an extent, but it is never quite whole; I never quite feel fully at home there.) And so, as far as these romantised quests for wholeness ago, retold again and again in our popular media, I just cannot relate. Though the orphans and adoptees are held up as beacons of a kind of universal experience – the wounding, the adventures of self, the return home – the conclusions are always alien.
I don’t feel that way. I don’t have those desires. I don’t think Jeanette Winterson feels that way either. And I know, because he writes so eloquently about it, that Joe Bousquet does not feel that way either. We do not want to cancel out our second births but make ourselves worthy of them. We don’t want to strive for some false ideal, some hollow familialism that we can never actually possess. “You cannot disown what is yours.” Ultimately, the only thing that is ever truly yours is the wound. I certainly want to own it. The problem is that society, culture, the stories we tell ourselves, don’t think that’s the best outcome. But they’re all wrong.