On Friday night, an attempt on my own life was interrupted by friends. I’ll spare you the details but the terror was agonising from all sides. It was an uncomfortably close call.
The night was spent in A&E again and, the next evening, I had my third face-to-face encounter with the local crisis team in two weeks. This time things went well. A proper plan was put in place, a change in my medication was encouraged, and access to dialectical behavioural therapy was offered, due to start in less than two weeks.
My friends are refusing to let me be alone for the next few days. I have been told I have no choice in the matter and I am happy to have my time and location dictated by such a loving group of people. I feel awful about it, of course, ashamed, humiliated, but also incredibly grateful.
There are many reasons why I thought Newcastle was the right place to be. As painful as things are right now, this has been confirmed over and over again these past few weeks.
The road to recovery is going to be long. I’m unspeakably daunted by it. And I need to stop pretending this is an appropriate forum for it to take place. Time to retreat again, back into meatspace. The Internet is no place to be.
Foucault writes: “No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can the art of living, the technē tou biou, be learned without an askēsis that should be understood as a training of the self by oneself.” There are many forms of self-examination and medication that can make up this exercise of living, and Foucault notes how “writing — the act of writing for oneself and for others — came, rather late, to play a considerable role.” So partial to classics, Foucault seemed, at least publicly, to find no problem with continuing such a practice in modernity. It was an essential expulsion for any would-be philosopher, who prides themselves on reading at length:
Writing, as a way of gathering in the reading that was done and of collecting one’s thoughts about it, is an exercise of reason that counters the great deficiency of stultitia, which endless reading may favor. Stultitia is defined by mental agitation, distraction, change of opinions and wishes, and consequently weakness in the face of all the events that may occur; it is also characterized by the fact it turns the mind toward the future, makes it interested in novel ideas, and prevents it from providing a fixed point for itself in the possession of an acquired truth.
There is a tension here, of course. Reading and stultitia are orientating, for sure, but writing is grounding. And one cannot be orientated sufficiently without a ground, even if that ground is itself prone to agitation, distraction, change of opinion. At the same time, a ground without orientation is static and staid. Though we must always push off into a future, it is necessary to have a secure base onto which we can withdraw, just as it is essential to have a horizon over which ground fades from view.
And so, to what extent is writing ever a withdrawal in the present? To what extent is it an excursion?
Foucault himself, despite his commitment to the askēsis of self-writing, later longed for anonymity. He felt trapped under a more public writing persona, even attempting to publish anonymous essays in contemporary periodicals, which he was always denied by editors who refused to pass up the marketing opportunity of the great philosopher being a recognised contributor to their publications.
But this tension was hardly one to be fully resolved. It was precisely the tension that was productive. To give in fully to his public persona would be to feel subsumed by the world he rejected; to disappear fully into anonymity would also mean giving up on forcing the world to queer itself to his bent. Trapped in a world that felt at once malleable and immovable requires an exercise of one’s own power, an “ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom.” Foucault explains in an interview of the same name:
The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constraints or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. This is precisely a failure to see that power relations are not something that is bad in itself, that we have to break free of. I do not think that a society can exist without power relations, if by that one means the strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others. The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ēthos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.
This problem has never felt more pronounced than in the present. Twitter, in particular, is rife with the contradictions that are unbounded by Foucault’s perspective. Earlier today I saw a screenshot from some article or blogpost in which an anonymous centrist decried the progressive left for its tendency to bully others into a more utopian thinking. Elsewhere, the fearmongering around pronouns is framed as an attempt to coercively adapt other’s use of language. It is cognitive dissonance, pure and simple. The demand for more freedom — subjective, social, linguistic — is framed as a new kind of domination, and true freedom is the persistent and continual domination of the marginal by a hegemony. Not all ground can bear flowers.
As I continue to struggle against this reenergised practice of writing, and writing anyway, I’m reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s closing remarks in his study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary:
As a result of the specialization that industrial development brought in its wake and of the advent of modern society, fiction today has a more and more disquieting tendency to branch off in two different directions: a literature for popular consumption, manufactured by professionals with varying degrees of technical skill whose one aim is to turn out, as mechanically as a production line, works which repeat the past (as regards both form and content), with a slight cosmetic touch of modernism, and which as a consequence preach the most abject conformism in the face of the established order (the best-sellers of the capitalist world and the flag-waving, self-congratulatory, officially approved literature of the socialist world fall alike within this category), on the one hand, and on the other a literature of the catacombs, experimental and esoteric, that has given up before the fact any attempt to win a hearing for itself from the public that consumes the other sort, and instead meets self-imposed demands of artistic excellence, bold experimentation, and formal creativity at the price of (and, it might be said, a maniacal insistence on) isolation and solitude. Thus, on the one hand, whether through the workings of the crushing mechanisms of supply and demand of industrial society or through the flattery and blackmail of the patron state, literature is transformed into an inoffensive occupation, a means of harmless diversion, shorn of what was once its most important virtue, the critical questioning of reality thanks to representations which, by drawing from this reality, even its smallest element, added up to works that were at once its revelation and its negation, and the writer is transformed into a domesticated, predictable producer who propagates and promotes the official myths, having unconditionally surrendered to the reigning interests: success, money, or the crumbs of power and comfort that the state hands out to docile intellectuals. On the other hand, literature becomes a matter of specialized knowledge, remote and sectarian, a super-exclusive masoleum of saints and heroes of the written word, who have haughtily handed over to writer-eunuchs the task of confronting the public, yielded the mandate to communicate, and buried themselves alive to save literature from ruin: they write to one another or to themselves, they say they are engaged in the rigorous task of investigating language or inventing new forms, but in practice are multiplying each day the locks and keys of this redoubt in which they have imprisoned literature, because at heart they habor the terrible conviction in which the media, advertising, and the pseudo-products of a publishing industry that caters to a mass readership reign supreme, can an authentic literature of creation flourish in our day, like a hothouse orchid, hidden away, exquisite, preserved by hermetic codes from being sullied and cheapened, accessible only to certain valiant confreres.
Flaubert sits uncomfortably in between, the author of one of the most famous books ever written who nonetheless resisted constantly the pressures of being caught up in an industrial publishing complex. His contradictions, notes Llosa, are writ large in his letters:
Dozens, even hundreds, of paragraphs from his letters could be cited as proof that, for him, writing was a selfish compensation, a cowardly, imaginary way of giving expression to deeply buried impulses: “I was born with a whole bunch of vices that never poked their noses out the window. I love wine and don’t drink. I am a gambler and have never touched a playing card. Debauchery delights me and I live like a monk. I am a mystic at heart and believe in nothing”…
Llosa soon quotes the letter that gives his study its title: “The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy” — a line that is so wonderfully debauched, but which in itself diverts a reader’s attention from the reality of a writer’s life, which seems so sexless and unaffectionate at its most hermetic. Llosa continues:
From a vocation whose roots lay in a furious rejection of all humanity there might have been a literature in which language was not a meeting place but a shield, a boundary line, a tomb, a proof of the impossibility of reconciling art and dialogue in the tumultuous new society.
But this did not happen. […] From his world apart, Flaubert, through literature, engaged in an active polemic with the world he hated, made of the novel an instrument of negative participation in life. […] Literature for Flaubert was this possibility of forever going beyond what life permits…
Art and life feel totally irreconcilable in Flaubert’s letters, but he found himself involved in life regardless:
This fury, bordering at times on the apoplectic, was in reality a healthy one, causing Flaubert to build a literary bridge (though admittedly one whose planks were insults) to the society from which he felt himself exiled. Thus his vocation produced a work that was what great literature has always been: at once a cause and an effect of human dissatisfaction, an occupation thanks to which a man in conflict with the world finds a way of living that suits him, a creation that examines, questions, profoundly undermines the certainties of an era…
Writing the self is also always a process of unwriting the self. Neither position resolved, we find truth regardless, painfully indeterminate. Indeterminacy as truth. A paradox but the only one.
What does it mean to be strong in the face of your own weaknesses?
I thought this whilst on the phone to a friend, called once again in the midst of crisis. I oscillated between reading my own thought in two different ways.
On the one hand, there is no other strength we can self-possess. The world from without acts as it is wont to do. Steadying oneself before it takes nothing more than a strong pair of legs. We can brush off those things that happen to us on the outside. They shake the ground but we can steady ourselves. We can even admit to the weakness that results, the feeling of being run down and run over by the world. But like a cold or an injury, we wait to heal.
On the other hand, it feels like the most potent of contradictions, wherein our weaknesses are embedded, not coming from without so much as rising up from within. To steady yourself against yourself feels like a particular kind of seasickness. I remember my aunt was once bedridden for months following the onset of a particular vicious case of labyrinthitis, an infection of the inner ear that makes balancing on one’s own feet impossible, despite the stillness of the world around you. What a wonderful name for a horrible affliction.
Already, the distinction between inside and outside feels far from clear cut. “The inside is a folding of the outside”, Mark Fisher said. Nothing ever emerges wholly from within. But small things from without can sometimes exacerbate that which is felt internally in abundance. Strength and weakness bleed into one another. You almost hope they’d curdle, making something semi-solid.
On the day I took myself to A&E, I felt like I’d survived something. I’d been fine, more or less. I felt something in my chest three days prior and it started to grow. Ever since, it has ebbed and flowed. I feel fine, I feel awful, with no real in between. Nothing from without feels like it cannot be withstood. I have been through so much and, in the grand scheme of things, nothing of any real note has happened. Things have changed but gradually. Then life itself overwhelms. Like a cold, it emerged only when I stopped.
What feels so cruel is none of this has been out of my control. Boundaries have been set, limitations have been met — all consciously, in an attempt to be sensible and to take time. But it is precisely taking the time to sit within these boundaries that I have begun to feel them. To understand what I’m capable of, and incapable of, comes as a shock. I pull back, for my own sake, exercising my inner strength. And that is precisely what makes me feel worse. I feel weaken by strength. I cling on for dear life. Strength is inverted into the strength to do what is unspeakable, and then weakness takes over. But then weakness itself becomes a strength, as I feel unable to pursue self-destructive desires. I feel saved by weakness.
I rehearse, plot, plan, and get as close as possible before my knees give way. But every exercise of strength makes the weakness grow stronger, and vice versa. I feel torn in two. Every stable reprieve is more stable than the last, just as every collapse is more world-ending than the one that came before it. Aftershocks in an already decimated town. I’m waiting for the right moment to start rebuilding. It hasn’t come yet.
I keep finding dead baby birds. Last week there was an egg cracked on the paving slabs in the yard — two porcelain halves bracketing the smallest puddle of yellow yoke. Yesterday, on my way to the shops, I found another. This one was quite large, spherical, with little stumps for wings, their shape barely distinguishable from the mass of surrounding flesh. It didn’t look like a bird at first but a discarded scrap of chicken breast. Then today, another, stretched out across the paving slabs again, misshaped and fragile like the baby from Eraserhead, encircled by ants.
It’s hatching season, and these young chicks are no doubt par for the course, but they fill me with a peculiar dread. They’re like tiny triggers as I think about these little creatures kicked from their nests, perhaps having succumbed to the strange English weather, the battering winds and cold snaps, picked up by mothers and dropped unceremoniously to make room for stronger siblings.
But I felt oddly emboldened by this sight this morning. Towering over this tiny body, I thought defiantly, “that’s not me.” Less an echo from without, I felt my size and my strength on looking down at it, as if this tiny thing were some tumour excised in the night and thrown out my bedroom window. It’s me and not me.
I feel good today and don’t trust it. On Tuesday evening, I broke my hand again. I’m starting to look like the walking wounded, an ailment for every extremity. I thought about going back to A&E but I don’t know what good it would do. I still have a lot of the dressings and braces left over from when I did the same thing last year, in a very short-lived moment of madness, which I denied as such, telling everyone I’d just trapped my hand in a door. Physical pain isn’t keeping the emotional pain at bay for long. Not like it did then.
I hurt myself in the middle of therapy, my therapist watching helplessly over Zoom, both of us feeling totally out of control. Everything collapsed after once again voicing my frustrations with the NHS. I know who I’m supposed to call, but nothing ever happens as a result. I have brief moments of clarity and calm but I’m slipping down further. The pain in my chest, which feels like the most literal of broken hearts, goes away when I talk and cry and break down, but I can’t be like that forever. What falls out is eventually slotted back in its place and writhes there and I’m so tired. “There’s no quick fix for this,” my therapist says. And I know that. I feel so daunted by the long road ahead. I am newly aware of just how traumatised I am, how much pain I’ve been dragging around for years. I haven’t felt this bad since I was seventeen. I’m thirty now. I just want to be able to live with it and I’ve done that successfully at intervals over the years, but every time I face up to the baggage on my back it feels that much heavier. Living with it is hard.
But two days later I feel fine. The anxiety in my chest still swells at intervals but feels less like a bomb going off than an itch. I remember writing about this feeling once before, a few years ago when suicidal thoughts took hold in London. In the midst of a crisis, a sudden bout of wellness feels distinctly unwell. Why do I feel fine? What’s changed? Have I simply shut the lid on that black box inside or am I really on the mend? Was Tuesday’s breakdown a necessary breakthrough? It doesn’t feel right to have bounced back from my lowest point so quickly.
I make a coffee, grab my tobacco, and head outside in the sun again. I take down every book on the Stoics from my shelf. It’s mostly a lot of Deleuze with a bit of Epictetus and Seneca. I only just finished writing about them all a few weeks ago, when finishing my second book draft. I’m not sure what good it will do to read them again, in this new situation. In therapy, I explained how the problem for me right now is that I have never understood my own trauma better. I could draw the most detailed map of it, pinpointing every minor infarction, like tree rings emanating from a traumatic core, echoes of tissue death around a scar. But this understanding amounts to very little. It feels like an enclosure that I am desperate to escape. Although nothing has happened that my rational brain cannot understand and suture, in opening my heart here it is clawed open old wounds that separate and chatter and which I am not strong enough to close. A desire to love has left me with a gaping hole that cannot be filled. No matter how much I understand the present, the past haunts and unsettles. My trauma has taken on a mind of its own and it does not listen to reason.
And then the churning stops. My heart is calm. My brain is silent. Has the last week been suddenly integrated or lopped off?
I open book one of the discourses of Epictetus:
Well, what does Zeus say? ‘Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted. As it is, though, make no mistake: this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed clay. And since I could not make the body yours, I have given a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion — the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions. If you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be blocked or frustrated; you won’t have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone. Is that enough to satisfy you?’
‘It’s more than enough. Thank you.’
And yet, while there is only the one thing we can care for and devote ourselves to, we choose instead to care about and attach ourselves to a score of others: to our bodies, to our property, to our family, friends and slaves. [Always the jarring moment of remembering how evil Greek society could be.] And, being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them. If the weather keeps us from travelling, we sit down, fret, and keep asking, ‘Which way is the wind blowing?’ ‘From the north.’ ‘That’s no good. When will it blow from the west?’ ‘When it wants to, or rather when Aeolus wants it to; because God put Aeolus in charge of the winds, not you.’ What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.
This quest, this rush to understand, has been pursued dogmatically precisely to achieve this kind of serenity. I am more than capable of “making good use of impressions”, recognising what is outside of my control and turning instead to what is. But there is this divide at the heart of a stoic ontology nonetheless, where even Zeus acknowledges that not even the self is fully in control of its own faculties. “I must die”, Epictetus adds soon after, taking destiny to its extreme. “But must I die bawling?” Certainly not because the wind is blowing the wrong way. But the wind is one thing; emotions feel like quite another. Who can bawl on demand? We can steady ourselves when a storm breaks, but have little control over the storm itself. Reason, in this sense, is all we have to combat our fundamental unreason — the paltry, contradictory and often torturous gift of self-consciousness. And it does not seem helpful right now to read a stoic philosophy that affirms so passionately the principle of responding to this crisis by going out on one’s own terms.
I turn instead to surrealism, not so much for its unseriousness but rather for its abjection. Ferdinand Alquié notes how surrealism, as a philosophical movement, was fraught with conflicts, an “inevitable consequence of [its] extreme seriousness, of a scrupulous will to purity.” “The values at stake [in surrealism] are moral, not literary”, he continues, because surrealism “shows the laceration of man reduced to himself.” Surrealism is mad, looks mad, reads mad, feels mad. But how could it be anything else? It sits in the void between rational and irrational impulse, a development of the stoic perversion of being at once in and out of control of our own being, such is being as such in its completeness. “Existence and poetry, reality principle and pleasure principle, revolutionary will and contemplative ecstasy of love seem, indeed, to be contradictory, and surrealism maintains them together only by heroic tension that sometimes gives way to oscillation or choice.”
I turn to surrealism in an attempt to reconnect with the writings of Joë Bousquet, who I began translating articles on a few months ago. At that time, I felt more capable of affirming my own trauma, just as he did. “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.” The adoptee’s amnesiac relation to an unknown “before trauma self” made Bousquet feel like a worthy mascot. Now I can’t think of anything worse. Bousquet remembers his trauma, knows it and the time that preceded it. I distinctly do not. Time to renounce the passions of a few months prior? Alquié, noting how the surrealist movement later disbanded, nonetheless sees a certain continuation in such a denouncement. Quoting himself, in an article first published in a bulletin from the Collège Philosophique, he writes: “hard reality will show that one cannot be faithful to everything one has sworn to keep when between objects chosen there are contradictions that the mere desire for total synthesis is not sufficient to resolve… The dimension of ethics and the dimension of history cannot be reconciled.” The disparity between a present ethics and one’s own past histories is what feels most painful right now. Attempts at synthesis are made regardless. In finally turning towards Bousquet, Alquié notes how his books present the reader with a “pure opacity” of oscillating choices. “Language in fact must there negate itself at each step, so that what it has separated can be united.”
In paying tribute to Bousquet, Alquié describes him as something of a mentor, whom he met at the age of eighteen, in the midst of his own tumultuous and adolescent emotions:
Uneasy adolescent, dissatisfied with myself, I was protesting a fate that seemed to me encountered from without. But I detested in others this way of not being oneself, which nevertheless made up my life. And what could that man be whom the course of the world had so strictly cut off from itself? I imagined him still occupied with his foiled plans, perhaps rebelling, perhaps escaping himself, perhaps finally resigned and asking from willpower the self-harmony that an accident had broken. Any solution for him seemed to me non-coincidental or of a constructed coincidence.
Despite a prior admiration for Bousquet, in approaching him again now, in the thralls of what feels like a distinctly adolescent depression, I feel like the young Alquié instead, unconvinced by Bousquet’s stoic ambivalence, his c’est la vie. But Alquié eventually comes to admire Bousquet regardless:
And it is always of him I think when I want to persuade myself that nothing is unjust and that the unity of man is possible. Bousquet is undivided being. It must not be concealed that, by that fact itself, he irritates. But not by his faults — it is in perceiving that the friendship one bears him is itself impure. Because in dominating we always love, what we cherish in our friends is their vulnerability. Their faults, I mean to the extent they are open to us, permit us that community of weakness that is called conscious communication. Here we are consoling, compassionate, desirous of healing, avid to render the other still more miserable.
What sounds at first positive, caring, is for Alquié’s Bousquet a tragic foundation for a life with others. Dominance is unethical. Communication is evil. I cannot bring myself to agree with what comes next, and yet find Alquié’s passionate disavowal so resonant with a struggle against this compulsion to write everything down, for myself as much as others, asserting my own narrative irrespective of how it might make others feel or how much it might contribute to a feeling of ostracism, constituted by a brutal honesty that is far from a virtue, which makes me feel bare and at one with things, if not with others:
Bousquet discourages these impure games. This does not make him easy to like. He has no destiny, for he is his destiny. He has not been injured, for he is his injury. I do not call him stoic, wanting what he is, but one, being what he is. Nothing more laughable than the opinion that he is ‘a modern author.’ For no one is less than he of this idiotic age, where men are constructed by concepts, take for their real drama that of their thoughts and go from reflection to life. The essential obscurity of Bousquet’s texts is not the fabricated obscurity nowadays fashionable. And nothing is more vain than wanting to explicate these texts from behind what is obvious in them to find the concepts from which they are born. For they are not offspring of consciousness, but of nature. Bousquet has no system. The system is born from seeking in objects a unity that the self does not discover in itself. Bousquet is one; his wound has made him invulnerable, incomprehensible. It has conferred on him the beauty of those forces which we record without having to think, for they are of the order of being and not of the order of spirit.
Bousquet’s oneness, his univocity, is here described in expressively Spinozist terms. Unfortunately, further clarification is not yet possible — for me at least — since Alquié’s writings on the Dutch philosopher have never been translated into English. But we can at least observe how, for Spinoza, virtue “is human power itself, which is defined by the essence of a human being alone; i.e. it is defined solely by the endeavor by which a person endeavors to persevere in his own being… No one therefore neglects to seek what is useful to himself or to preserve his own being, unless he is overcome by external causes that are contrary to his nature.” Echoing this, Deleuze makes the case for an ethics of the event, through which our intent should be “to become worthy of the things that happen to us, and thus to will and release the event, to become the offspring of one’s own events, and thereby be reborn, to have one more birth, and to break with one’s carnal birth — to become the offspring of one’s events and not of one’s actions, for the action is itself produced by the offspring of the event.” External causes, in this sense, are integrated wholly into our own being. They are not rendered external at all but rather absorbed within one’s own destiny, not so that an event becomes eternal but activates our humanity and our capacity for change.
This is all so much easier said than done, but it rings true, even when the possibility of experiencing such unity feels out of our grasp. The past week has being wholly overwhelming, as events both past and present are barely weathered. I take responsibility for my own actions, my own feelings, which result from the being I possess, where events are felt in my bones. The recurrent question, “Why am I like this?”, is easily answered. This grief, this sense of disconnection, a desire for connection both affirmed and feared, is the driving force behind all that I have done and achieved. If I am known for anything, I hope it is not so much the topics that concern me but an approach to them that is made possible by the circumstances of my second birth, my adoption. It lingers in the background of everything. At times I can pride myself on this fact. I feel unique, different, an asset to my community, through which my own weaknesses provide perspectives that others may not be privy to. And yet, at other times, this difference feels more restricting, as I am overwhelmed by an understanding of the things that I cannot do, the ways I cannot love, the ways that others cannot love me. But this no doubt demonstrates how events feel so external to my being, how they are far from integrated, feeling like a weight rather than a part of who I am. I will it anyway, I recoil, I disappear into the self, using these events to make a foundation for a home, but the home is unfinished and not yet habitable. I wander around on a blueprint and feel intensely the knowledge that no one else can yet live here with me. As a result, it takes all of my strength to be who I am, against expectations to be otherwise, to be myself alone. To manifest oneself in this way is exhausting. No wonder Bousquet chose to spend his life in bed.
But perhaps this analogy of a home to be constructed is incorrect. As Alquié continues:
Bousquet does not construct himself, does not express himself; he is manifested. Before knowing him I feared that the separation within oneself that in man we call consciousness would have in him the aspect of a wound, rather than an opening onto the world. In fact Bousquet is not open to the world, but it is because he is not separated from himself. His body takes the place of consciousness. His richness is in it; he is himself a world, he is absolute creator. He has taught me everything and has taught me nothing. I owe him no idea; I owe him knowing what without him I would never have known: his admirable words, closed, perfect, reveal to me that he is the being for which all consciousness longs. No doubt he will never know completely what he was for me and for all those who had the unique chance to see and hear him.
Good for Bousquet. Good for Alquié. But what use is this to the distant reader, who knows the true character of neither man. Bousquet still seems lonely to me, and something of a sex pest in his effusive libido, unphased by his bodily restrictions. But his is a desire that is seemingly unconsummated, his wound making him too distinct from the social milieu, which he inspires but which he remains outside. His desires, expressed so freely, find no purchase on anything other than himself. How novel to be satisfied with such circumstances. I can’t imagine it. To me, he still seems like a man yearning for connection, albeit one who can contend with the limits of what is available to him. I intend no ableism in his judgement. It is pure cynicism, which undoubtedly says more about my present mind, finding no solace in the resilience of long-dead men.
What unity is it possible to extract from these odes that can make good on my own present? Alquié writes how it was Jean Paulhan who persuaded Bousquet to “substitute in his preoccupations the problem of language for that of being.” And so Bousquet became a writer, if not in the sense of a “modern author”, as if the play of language was an exercise carried out in tune with the present and with industry. Writing is not the production of external objects but becomes a method for the production of being. But here contradictions re-emerge. Bousquet may have had no system at the time; today we might reduce it to a stoic structuralism.
Indeed, for those younger than Alquié, who saw better where the world and thought were heading next, not everyone agreed with Alquié’s assessment, preserving and exacerbating the contradictions that are present in Bousquet’s unity in their own passionate memorandums. For instance, René Nelli insists, wholly contrary to Alquié, that Bousquet “had not succeeded, whatever he may have said, in overcoming his destiny, since he did not accept it in its horror, and refused to become one with it. He existed only to oppose himself.” An illusionary unity is achieved only through the containment of one’s own contradictions expressed. This substitution of the problem of being for a problem of language remains a kind of externalisation nonetheless, a narrative process, even if an opaque one, where all lines of demarcation are purposefully blurred. Bousquet may accept his wounding only in being so preoccupied with it. He makes himself one, but what of a desire to be the multiple that he also is? To be for oneselves and others? He integrates all, but this is no less a trauma — one admired from without, clearly. And that may be all that Bousquet internalised and made his own: the admiration of others. He may have had no external object, but was he anything more than an object to them? Like a process of classical Freudian narcissism, through which consciousness escapes not outwardly but inwardly, until it reaches a secluded back door in the mind, opening out onto the body, as if his consciousness exists both at the height and base of his humanity, idealised and materialised, a thought from Bataille’s big toe, which has been rendered unresponsive and inert by Bousquet’s severed spine.
“The unique, the irreplaceable, is the being that we create for ourselves by adhering freely, with dilection, to a privileged event”, Nelli says of Bousquet’s singular position within his wider community, “which alone can take our true measure, provided that we ourselves grant it its definitive meaning.” Spinoza returns here, echoed in Bousquet’s very comportment. “An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.” But we should not underestimate the difficult process through which this idea is integrated into the self. It is one thing to know something in the mind, but another to feel it in the body. Perhaps, for Bousquet, this was easier, given his paraplegia. He knows all too well what his body can and cannot do, what it can and cannot feel.
How is he not tormented by this? Perhaps he has no other choice, framing this lack as a choice regardless. Does his absolute awareness of the body constitute a more authentic self, since it is confirmed and, indeed, founded on a sense of one’s material reality? To what extent can we really say that Bousquet’s being is “undivided” in this way? R.D. Laing writes in The Divided Self: “Every man is involved personally in whether or to what extent he is being ‘true to his true nature’.” A “false-self system”, on the contrary,
is occupied in maintaining its identity and freedom by being transcendent, unembodied, and thus never to be grasped, pinpointed, trapped, possessed. Its aim is to be a pure subject, without any objective existence. Thus, except in certain possible safe moments the individual seeks to regard the whole of his objective existence as the expression of a false self. Of course … if a man is not two-dimensional, having a two-dimensional identity established in conjunction of identity-for-others, and identity-for-oneself, if he does not exist objectively as well as subjectively, but has only a subjective identity, an identity-for-himself, he cannot be real.
This hardly seems to apply to Bousquet, who seems so utterly embodied and innately knows how he is perceived by others, since inside and outside are reciprocated, albeit accidently. He may appear broken, fractured, restricted, but such is his objective reality. The broken mind finds itself more at home in a broken body, and so Bousquet appears not vulnerable but invulnerable, as Alquié argued. His diaries and books, so brutally honest about both his subjective and objective existence, are difficult to trust regardless. “‘A man without a mask’ is indeed very rare”, Laing argues. “One even doubts the possibility of such a man.” Bousquet makes such a possibility more thinkable for those around him. I think this is my attraction to him. But he still feels so distant. If he was far from at home in his idiot age, he is even less so in our present age of masks.
I crashed at a friend’s house and, at first, struggled to sleep. Staying up late talking about life’s difficulties, I nonetheless found myself waking up at intervals. At 4am, I came to in a cold sweat. I could immediately smell myself. I felt calm on waking, but could taste the cortisol in the air, flushed out of every pore.
I felt awful about everything this afternoon, now back at home. All the writing and the confessions. There was, at first, something empowering about an embrace of a present vulnerability. Then, after yesterday’s second post, I felt I’d gone too far. Or rather, I’d set myself up for an affirmation that I’m not sure I’m ready for, or which I am at least overwhelmed by, as I begin to once again reorient myself. Putting something down in writing feels very certain — a desire emerged to go back to yesterday morning and burn the diaries.
The whole discomfort of this past week, this past month, two months, has come from a rush to understand. And yet here I am, rushing myself again, unmasking myself again, dismantling a rickety scaffold of self, if only to construct another, no more steady than the preceding structure, but perhaps hoping it might be more impossibly true to the contours of the void around it.
This process was already started some time ago. First in Huddersfield, just over a year ago, then when I first moved up here. In fact, on my first weekend visit to Newcastle — the first of a two-part process, as I negotiated working around moving and moving around working — I confessed as much to my new flatmate. She told me how she was doing some things differently now. I said I wanted to as well. And then, in getting caught up in everything, I fell back on some old habits or a more familiar way of being. But as I’ve said repeatedly over the past weeks, familiarity and home are two different things. I’m still looking for home. Newcastle will do for now, but I feel I am yet to build anything here that might withstand the uncertainty ahead. I am shaky on my feet, but I’m slowly marching onward.
The book plucked from my shelf on my return home, against all better judgement, as I sat down to begin this newly adopted daily ritual again, more aware than ever that it exists somewhere between self-actualisation and self-flagellation, was Nancy Newton Verrier’s Coming Home to Self. It is the sequel to her now-seminal study of adoption trauma, The Primal Wound, which I first read and wrote about some years ago.
She begins by talking about the sort of home one might “come home” to, as well as how multifaceted that sense of home can be:
In dreams a house is often a symbol of the psyche. People dream of houses with many rooms, most of them unexplored. Some of the rooms are sunny and bright, and some are dark and mysterious. Exploring the depths of our being for hints of a true Self can seem like opening those closed doors into the unknown. One thing is certain — to build a house that will withstand the elements, it is important to first build a strong foundation.
From here, she goes on to explore how weak a foundation adoption provides, given the tumult of the whole process, as she argues in her first book, is rather a foundational trauma. The symptoms that manifest from such a trauma are numerous. She writes about hypervigilance and hyperarousal, and the strange effect adoption can have on the formation of beliefs. “For most adoptees, the trauma takes place during the period of childhood amnesia or implicit memory”, when “the events of their lives are having a profound effect on their perceptions and on neurological connections in the brain” — events that the adoptee will have “no recall” of. The fallout from this can be unpredictable and sprawling. “When traumatic events become disconnected from their source, as is the case in any trauma happening in infancy, they begin to take on a life of their own.” A pervasive anxiety can result, which has no real source or obvious trigger in the present, but which nonetheless conjures associations in the adoptee’s amnesiac brain. (Something I have felt every day for almost two weeks now.)
The consequences of this trauma, she argues, are threefold: terror, disconnection, and captivity. Terror is already covered in the pervasive anxiety described above, but the latter two consequences are more particular.
Disconnection affects the adoptee’s basic human relationships. “Adoptees often describe themselves as floating, never feeling connected to anyone, alone even when surrounded by friends or in the arms of a lover. There is no sense of belonging, of fitting in. Sometimes there is no sense of existing.” As is a recurring and often quite spooky tendency with Verrier’s works, she describes the experience in such detail and so perfectly. She is the adoptee whisperer. Everything I have written over the last week is expressed here so plainly. “There is a desperate yearning for intimacy, yet an intense fear of allowing that kind of connection.” She suddenly affirms the feeling that has made me feel so utterly insane over recent days.
This in turn leads to feelings of low self-esteem, a ruptured “sense of basic continuity” in life, and a fear of what new connection might bring. “For many, the risk of connection is synonymous with the risk of annihilation.” All of this is compounded by the amnesia of the trauma, such that these feelings are utterly inescapable, given there is no basic understanding or memory of what Verrier calls a “before trauma self”.
But this feeling of disconnection is also mirrored by a feeling of captivity. This comes from the adoptee’s eventual placement into a situation in which they feel they do not belong, resulting from the fact “the adoptee is living in a place where he is not mirrored or reflected… He is confused by the conflict between his genetic self, which is authentic but not reflected, and his adaptive self, which feels false, but is more encouraged and accepted.”
What is intriguing about this part of Verrier’s analysis is how she skirts around the more pronounced experience of an “institutional” family. She accepts that an expression of this feeling of captivity might be question-begging. “For most of us, our thoughts go to prisons, concentration camps, cults, brothels or abusive families.” My mind goes quite naturally to Foucault. This sense of captivity is also compounded for me by the breakdown of my relationship with my adoptive family, discussed the other day, through which I felt like a quite literal prisoner in my adoptive home, subjected to abuse from my adoptive mother.
From here, Verrier goes into even more detail, presenting a sort of Spinozist ethics of adoptee life, through which she offers up various processes of self-regulation, self-rationalisation, and self-care. The most interesting advice given, for me at least, is her final recommendation, related to “the importance of the narrative process”:
Narration is an important part of achieving self-regulation and self-organisation. We have to try and make sense of events in our lives. Even if they don’t seem to make sense, we have to be able to tell others how these events affect us. […]
For the adoptee, talking about the experience of separation is more difficult, for there is no memory of it in the sense of conscious recall. He feels a void, but he doesn’t know what is causing it. Nevertheless, when other events happen in his life that scare or puzzle him, it is important to provide a forum for his being able to process them as long as he wants.
She adds that, “Acknowledging and communicating our grief in conjunction with others is a faster pathway to healing than suffering alone.” Here, again, I feel seen. Nothing explains my compulsive writing habit more effectively, nor my tendency to write about grief and its communal processing, as I did in my first book and have long continued to do on this blog. Verrier continues on this point specifically:
Sometimes written narrative is helpful. Writing about our losses, our fears, our hopes, and our joys can help us integrate these experiences. If prose doesn’t seem to work, perhaps poetry will. As difficult as it may seem, sharing our words with others is necessary to the integration process. We need others to bear witness to our experiences in order to integrate them and feel connected.
Though I still sometimes struggle with my compulsive desire to write in public, which is not always conducive to social cohesion and connection, particularly when this coping mechanism runs roughshod certain ethical boundaries or even come to vaguely resemble a “career”, it is this necessity for others to bear witness to my own processing that I constantly come back to and affirm.
But still, I do wonder how healthy this is. Yesterday, I went back and edited a few of my recent posts, erasing some potentially identifying information about friends. Someone described how, whilst the above process was clearly important to me, it had a tendency to compound my disconnection, as conversations with friends are relayed like dialogue between characters in a novel. “We’re not characters. We’re here.” I know this. I struggle to feel it. Or rather, it is I who feel like a character, a construction, not them.
I am drawn back to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Still a young nobleman, before the gender transition of the Eighteenth century, she writes how Orlando comes home to time itself in his sprawling country house, where he
began a series of very splendid entertainments to the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood. The three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms were full for a month at a time. Guests jostled each other on the fifty-two staircases…
But when the feasting was at its height and his guests were at their revels, he was apt to take himself off to his private room alone. There when the door was shut, and he was certain of privacy, he would have out an old writing book, stitched together with silk stolen from his mother’s workbox, and labelled in a round schoolboy hand, ‘The Oak Tree, A Poem’. In this he would write till midnight and long after. But as he scratched out as many lines as he wrote in, the sum of them was often, at the end of the year, rather less than a beginning, and it looked as if in the process of writing the poem would be completely unwritten.
Elsewhere, Woolf talks about the importance of “a room of one’s own”, a space not just for women but for women’s writing to take shape. But prior to Orlando’s continuous becoming, I feel somewhat stuck in my room. I am writing as much as I am unwriting. I think it is time I disconnect not from my friends but from this compulsive habit to narrativise. Those who I need to bear witness to it are not online but in my immediate community. They are the ones who pick up the phone in the middle of the night. They are the ones who invite me to be — however I am feeling — in their own rooms, spaces and homes.
Homes have many rooms and many inhabitants. I’m going to spend more time with those I’ve moved in with recently — not literally, but proximally, emotionally, who are so happy to see me arrive.
With great kindness and encouragement, I’m going to step away from the room of my own and dwell, as much as possible, in others’. No writing. No reading about adoption and trauma. It’s time to give my brain a rest.
I’m a trans woman. Some of the things you’ve been saying in the last few blog posts really sound like things a trans woman would say, shortly before admitting she’s trans. Things I would have said. In particular, I absolutely would have said that I feel more aversion/refusal to be a man than desire to be a woman. Many others to whom I’ve gotten close enough to talk honestly about this stuff would say the same.
Transition ended up being the correct thing for me to do. It very well could be for you. When I was thinking like this, almost manically introspective, the thing I needed to do was to perform femininity, and to see how it felt.
I have routinely entertained this possibility — on the blog and in private. I’m still not sure if this is right for me.
[T]he postnatal environment appears to be important for gender development. Factors such as the social relationship between a young child and their caregiver, parental expectations, and societal norms likely influence development of the child’s gender identity. We must consider whether genetics, prenatal hormonal milieu, or the process of being adopted could result in higher degrees of gender dysphoria when considering this study’s results.
Finding little concrete evidence for the influence of prenatal factors, the article continues:
[P]ostnatal factors could provide more plausible explanations. For example, adoptive parents may be more open to allowing their child to explore gender nonconforming behaviors than biological parents.
Not true in my case.
Additionally, adopted children have a unique experience of identity formation, which differs from nonadopted children.
This most certainly rings true.
Adoptive identity narratives have shown that adopted adolescents actively reflect on the meaning of adoption in creation of their self-theory.
And well beyond, as the last few days of blogging have surely shown.
Perhaps adopted adolescents actively constructing their self-theories are more likely to critically assess other aspects of their identities, such as their gender identities, leading to increased presentation with gender dysphoria.
This is all quite clinical, of course. I prefer the point made (albeit rarely) by others who are both trans and adopted. “Adoption is a trans issue”, writes Nia Clark. “This National Adoption Month, it’s important to consider how LGBTQ people can make all the difference for these youth: as advocates, as prospective parents, as professionals and as a community that knows every child deserves a loving home.” Her emphasis here is on the kinds of life queer people can provide to displaced children. But what about the overlap of being trans and adopted herself? Is adoption innately queer, for the ways it circumvents the “straight” processes of the nuclear family? Does that mean that adoptees are themselves tangentially trans? I don’t know how to have that conversation. I’m not entirely sure it’s even valid.
There are nonetheless a few conversations I have had recently, with queer friends in particular, who feel less protective over their communal relations, arguing that queerness is not restricted to sexual orientation but can also be a kind of politics, that queerness can encompass a multitude of identities that go against prescribed norms. They say this in hushed tones, knowing that others in their community feel quite strongly the other way. This knowledge makes me feel reluctant to affirm any of this. I don’t know how to actualise that observation in a way that works for me. But it is also not just for me. If I were able to affirm this properly, express it outwardly, look how I feel, I wonder if it would uncomplicate my desire for connection with others. I’m reminded of a tweet I saw a few months ago:
the “I’m a guy who likes girls but it’s always felt queer idk why” to “OHHHH” pipeline
I am somewhere in between here, perhaps. I have not yet accepted my “OHHHH” moment, and as a result, I do not feel like I can yet fully immerse myself in the queer communities I have otherwise always felt at home in. (Obligatory link to this old post where I went deep into all of this stuff.) Perhaps that is because I feel adoption is a key factor here. Recently, I have been downplaying the innateness of my own queerness. A friend recently offered the olive branch of identifying that I am, at the very least, “queer-adjacent”.
I present as a man, and I do dislike that fact. At the same time, I am trying to become more actively comfortable in my own skin. I’ve been buying a lot of clothes recently. I’ve been wearing a lot of colour. I’ve been losing a lot of weight. Friends have been so wonderfully encouraging. I feel sexy, and then I wonder what exactly to do with that feeling. Shaking off the long-term uniform of constantly wearing black, as a way to hide myself, I’ve discovered a new joy in looking good, and then feeling good as a result. If I feel sexy, sexy how? If this is felt internally, how is it projected externally? Is it a kind of femininity or masculinity? I don’t know if it’s either. I’m not entirely sure how I am perceived, and that feels like a major obstacle to my own sense of self-awareness.
My intuition is that I am perceived as being masculine. I am beardy, broad-shouldered, tall. I quite clearly have a man’s thirty-year-old body. But inside, I feel differently and always have. More recently I’ve been describing the sporty ambiguity of my childhood: a figure skater trapped in a rugby player’s body. Does this indeterminacy lead to a desire to gender transition? I don’t know. The biggest obstacle, which feels innately silly, is that I love having a beard. I think I look good with a beard. Is that confirmation of social norms around being AMAB? Is it a comfort blanket? What about the rest of me? How does the rest of my body and the clothes I wear conform to or challenge the assumptions made in response to this facial adornment?
“When I was thinking like this, almost manically introspective, the thing I needed to do was to perform femininity, and to see how it felt.” I’m performing something right now. It hasn’t taken shape yet. I feel non-binary, at the very least, but have yet to affirm this verbally, feeling all too aware of the ridicule “he/theys” often face. I feel like I need to look the part before I can go beyond that. And I’m actively trying to figure that out right now.
A few weeks ago, in finishing off my second book, which reads in hindsight like yet another collection of things someone pre-trans would say, I read Sara Ahmed’s book Queer Phenomenology. It begins with an intriguing exploration of what it means to be “orientated”. To be orientated, she offers, perhaps means that
We know what to do to get to this place or that place. To be orientated is also to be turned towards certain objects, those that help us to find our way. These are the objects we recognize, so that when we face them we know which way we are facing. They might be landmarks or other familiar signs that give us our anchoring points. They gather on the ground, and they create a ground upon which we can gather. And yet, objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds. What difference does it makes “what” we are oriented towards?
I think that may be the problem at present. I feel wholly disorientated with no landmarks to move towards. Those I do have and oddly cherish, perhaps like my beard, feel distinctly like they orient me in the wrong direction.
Ahmed continues that, in the book, she hopes to
offer an approach to how bodies take shape through tending towards objects that are reachable, that are available within the bodily horizon. Such an approach is informed by my engagement with phenomenology, though it is not “properly” phenomenological; and, indeed, I suspect that a queer phenomenology might rather enjoy this failure to be proper.
Clarifying why she feels it is worthwhile to draw on this ill-fitting framework nonetheless, he adds:
Phenomenology can offer a resource for queer studies insofar as it emphasizes the importance of lived experience, the intentionality of consciousness, the significance of nearness or what is ready-to-hand, and the role of repeated and habitual actions in shaping bodies and worlds.
I feel some of these things. My lived experience does feel important, as does the intentionality of consciousness, and whether I am part of a queer community or not, queerness does feel so significantly near to me. I am orientated towards it, but I feel like it is not orientated towards me. I am on the outside, one foot in and one foot out. Perhaps I am just afraid. Ahmed writes: “The attribution of feeling toward an object (I feel afraid because you are fearsome) moves the subject away from the object, creating distance through the registering of proximity as a threat.” What am I more afraid of? Queerness or straightness? Which fills me with more trepidation? At present, they feel equally distant from me. “Emotions involve such affective forms of (re)orientation.” Which way to turn? Is it really a choice I can actualise for myself? Has the choice already been made for me? “Importantly, even what is kept at a distance must still be proximate enough if it is to make or leave an impression.”
I’m writing this second post of the day to kill time before I head out for the weekly Incursions walk, which I have been documenting on the blog when I have the opportunity to attend. At the start of each walk, introductions are made. We play an “ice breaker” game, giving our name, our pronouns, and answering what is often a humorous and disarming question. Every week I have felt a discomfort as I respond: “Hi, I’m Matt; he/him…” I wonder today if I can make that announcement and say “they/them” instead. But as ever, the embarrassment of not looking the part overwhelms and I deny myself the verbalisation. It feels like an indeterminate response. It might change from week to week. Maybe that’s fine. And maybe that’s also what pronouns are for — not so much a marker of identity but a point of orientation. I’m heading there. I’ll see how I feel when I arrive.
“The murkiness and ambiguities of a life take on weight and authority by virtue of the published document”, suggests Moyra Davey at the start of Burn The Diaries. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Every morning I am waking up with the anvil on my chest. It’s just there. Immediately. I think it might be what is waking me up in the first place at odder and odder hours. It feels like trying to sleep with a broken bone. I toss and turn and snag my fractured being on my bed frame or my pillow or my duvet and I’m wretched awake.
I’m not remembering my dreams. I’m not sure I am dreaming at all.
Once I’m awake, I sit on my phone for an hour or so. I gravitate towards videos of dogs on Instagram. My Twitter algorithm is delivering nothing but silly jokes. I have no idea what is happening in the world. I recoil from the news like a fire. Once I have dragged myself out of bed, I boil enough water for half a dozen coffees, grab my tobacco and pull a book at random from my shelf. I sit in the garden, read a bit, and then when my brain starts firing I open up the blog and start to write.
It feels freeing to be able to establish this routine. It is Monday and I have a doctor’s note for taking the rest of the week off work. Ten days off for a “stress-related problem”, it reads, which feels like putting it mildly. I tearfully rang my boss before taking an Uber to A&E, so it’s not like the euphemism is necessary. Tomorrow it will be one week since that surreal journey.
I’m not sure why I started making these reflections public, after the onset of this crisis. I have since fallen into this peculiar routine. I spend every morning expunging whatever is on my brain, typing up whatever comes to mind, and then I feel more ready to face the day. I try and plan nice things and make sure I don’t drink more than one pint of beer when I go out. Having exorcised the morning’s demon, I feel a renewed capacity for joy and sociality, but I can’t spend too long in crowds.
It definitely feels like I’ve broken something. When I first arrived in Newcastle, being on my own felt brand new. I was newly comfortable in my own company, without the need for constant distraction from my own thoughts. At the same time, I regained my capacity for being a social butterfly and made so many new friends. Then I lost the capacity for both alone time and company.
I am trying and figure out what it is about the last few weeks that has led to this moment. There are plenty of obvious triggers, little stresses that have left tiny cracks, but I’m also aware that I have been in this position before. I feel almost exactly the same way I did in London in 2017, after Mark died, when a recently acquired group of friends, who first met a gregarious, camp and effusive man were suddenly greeted by a hollow figure without spark or smiles. I wonder if the reality of Newcastle life is nothing more than a screen, onto which I have projected the repetition of past traumas. But I nonetheless feel socially anxious about the present. I feel like I need to meet people all over again, introducing them to a different and far less friendly self. I don’t expect anyone to like this me; I certainly don’t.
So I have started writing publicly again, after six weeks of relative abstinence, putting all my energies into therapy and finishing the first draft of my next book. I feel more comfortable with this blogged arrangement, suddenly. No one need bother reading the things I write down here. It is a way of letting people know what is going on with me without the inescapability of a more personal bout of self-reflection. If anyone is bored, they can simply close the tab. I worry about the pressures of social politeness that foreclose a comparable action in meatspace. I can lean into my own self-concern here. But why still make it public? Why now?
I’ve mostly been keeping a private diary for the last five months. Though Davey speaks of papers and journals, I’m more aware of the ephemerality of a digital writing habit. Or perhaps it is far less ephemeral, despite being immaterial. The Word doc on my desktop, with the straight-forward title “Psychoanalysis Diary”, has 43,009 words in it, all written since my first therapy session in December 2021. (For some reason, I thought I’d been seeing my therapist for longer than that.) Every time I see that number, I insufferably think to myself, “That’s almost a book”. That these expulsions are so precisely measured makes them feel distinct from Davey’s innumerable mounds of paper.
I start reading over the first few weeks of entries, rendered in a perfect chronology. The very first is particularly telling. It ends:
I laughed a lot as we spoke, oddly aware of how excessive the trauma of the last decade alone has been. Maybe I was just trying to make light of it all. I have a tendency to do that. I think it is why no one ever takes me seriously, as if I don’t take my own experiences seriously so I clearly don’t need that much help with them. But it’s either laugh or melt away under the weight of it all.
Despite my habitual masking, he said he could still hear the emotion.
“It sits in your throat. I can tell you’re holding it back, off your face, but I hear it in your voice. You trap it there.”
I told my partner this afterwards.
“Yes, that’s what you do”, she said.
I had no idea. I thought I hid these things well.
A new awareness of this fact allowed me to stop swallowing my pride, or whatever else it’s called. I let everything come out. I cried all the time. But I didn’t feel like I do now. I felt free. That was the intent, apparently. No intellectualising (or at least no “academicising”). Just sitting in my feelings like an uneasy dwelling.
“Look”, I said, “I know a bit of the background of the Philadelphia Association and R.D. Laing, and it is interesting to me, but I almost don’t want to talk to you about it.”
He had already described how the approach to therapy was “phenomenological” and I had to fess up. I’ve read plenty of philosophy to hear that word and think all sorts of things, but I didn’t want to enquire because I don’t want to intellectualised my experiences, both past and unfolding in the present, as we were speaking. I didn’t want to come into this as a philosopher with a nerdy interest in the nomenclature. And that is surely how it should be. A phenomenological approach to therapy is a dialectic process, based in dialogue, exploring lived experiences and feelings. It isn’t diagnostic or theoretical in the way other therapies are. The paradox, of course, is that phenomenology demarcates a conceptual framework. How am I supposed to leave my brain at home?
We talked about the grief a lot. I expanded on my thoughts from last week, about the false dichotomy between mind and body, but I think the issue for me is that I feel that disconnect. I don’t believe in it or think it is a good way of approaching the world, but I feel it like a wound. I feel severed from myself, from others, from everything. I’ve smothered a lot of my feelings as a result, preferring instead to rationalise and analyse than feel the gaping maw.
We later spoke a lot about the fact I find intimacy really difficult. It is a major factor in the end of this present relationship, as it has been at the end of every relationship I’ve ever had. My Year 7 girlfriend Hannah dumped me because I wouldn’t hold her hand. I got over that following the humiliation. But then my Year 8 girlfriend Maddie dumped me because I wouldn’t kiss her. A pattern started to emerge. In my current relationship, though there were no immediate obstacles, it was clear to her – and had been clear for years – that I had to push myself to engage in a lot of intimacy. […] I could force myself to push through it all the same. But at a certain point, that understandably becomes patronising, and there is no way that someone cannot take that personally without being inside your head as you wrestle with the conflicting emotions.
The shame of this alone is enough to make me want to end it all, quite frankly. In a world that insists so much on the body and sexuality and their tandem display, my separation from myself felt like the most abject alienation, and one that ends up hurting everyone I’ve ever loved. It’s like a curse from a fairy tale. A Midas touch. But instead of gold, everything I touch turns melts into air.
These days, I just do not have the drive to get close to anyone, at least in a way that is not uncomfortable for me, which is of course normal for everyone else. The ways I show affection are different and do not necessarily gel with the expectations of a normal sexually active relationship. I like being around people, somewhat ambiently, passively. Like a cat, the biggest compliment I can pay someone is just hanging out. But that makes me feel quite pathetic. I’d like to be able to respond to people’s emotional and physical needs in the ways that they want, but I second-guess and find that they are not readily apparent.
This is also an issue in platonic relationships, if a less pressing one. It is rare that I feel comfortable being touched or shown any affection, and I tend to recoil from otherwise innocuous advances. Autism? Asexuality? Both have been considered. [My therapist] asked what it was I experienced when a friend put a hand on my shoulder or similar. “Is it a coldness?” he asked. I found this interesting. In a way, yes. I feel myself recoil as if someone has put a cold hand on me. But the strange thing is that I nonetheless recognise the fact it is a warm gesture. I feel warmed knowing that is what it is. But knowing it and experiencing it are two different things. I experience warmth as cold.
This conversation, which feels so reckless to share publicly, is where I have returned to in my own thoughts this week. After an initial bout of sociality, drinking in the ambient affection this makes possible, I suddenly feel incapable of receiving any of it. I feel like my anxiety has encased me in concrete coffin. I feel at a distance from everyone.
[My therapist] suggested that maybe it was a distrust. To be removed from my biological mother’s arms, placed with a foster family and then my adoptive family, I lost out on the experience of motherly skin contact. Now, when someone approaches, my response is always: “who’s that?” Touch is so alien; thirty years in, I’m still not used to it. It feels unnatural every time.
But the contradiction here is that I have the biggest of hearts. I feel so open to people and long for connection constantly. Then it feels too much. I let people in, then feel battered and bruised by their warmth.
The creeping return of self-harm as a part of my coping strategies becomes its own kind of intellectual curiosity. It is far easier to deal with this feeling when I am actually battered and bruised. Perhaps there’s something about writing this all out publicly that feels similar. There is a inherent risk to writing like this and hitting “publish”. I wonder if I am actively trying to damage my own reputation, or simply crack open the cloistered self that is presented publicly. I skirt close to the public airing of interpersonal conflicts and private conversations, which may also hurt other people. But there is no malice felt in doing this. Still, it is a concern.
In Burn the Diaries, like so many books I’ve read recently — the semi-fictionalised diaries of Jean Genet, Kate Zambreno, Hervé Guibert — there is always this same jousting between the public and the private. In Davey’s work, the contradiction is so plain to see. “Burn the diaries”, she says, whilst making them public. Is publication its own kind of incendiary process? Though she begins with the observation that publication brings weight and authority, the words themselves undermine this from within. She notes how, for so many of the writers above, illness (often terminal) is a constant companion. Writing is a fire through which self-destructive energies are burned. Jean Genet quotes litter her fragmentary reflections: “I had to work [time] almost in a blaze, and almost day and night”, he writes in The Declared Enemy.
I was up all night last night, feeling stressed and angry. The last week I’ve been feeling very manic and running around at 100mph, writing and transcribing and copying out whole books in French for translation and doing a dozen different things. And it has felt like this energy has come from nowhere. “Anger is an energy” is that John Lydon / PiL mantra that always goes around and around my head, and he’s right in some strange ways. It’s an energy I’ve been drawing on without acknowledging it as such. Just burning through that fuel before tonight, when I stopped and thought about where it was coming from, and it spilled out in a desperate and deeply sad rage.
I often wonder if my compulsive writing habits were to blame for the end of my most recent relationship. In discussing it openly, I feel like any number of pathetic influencers who make a name for themselves online before announcing, with an almost humorous surprise, that their wife has left them. No shit. How to build a life with someone who is busy building a life online? I hope that is not how things appear for those who know me through the internet. I don’t think things are that simple.
Week eight — the week I knew I was moving up to Newcastle:
[…] moving was a kind of coming out. What I feel attached to might be the social ideal [of home] – something I feel somewhat beholden to, under the weight of expectation from society at large – but it’s not my reality and never really has been. In that sense, this sort of queer loss – and I think it is queer, in a lot of ways – is multifaceted. Though the reality of a stable biological family is not something I’ve ever known, I’ve long been aware that I’m the plug or the hinge or the join for another couple’s dream of that. And so I feel like I’ve felt that in this relationship. The impact of adoption trauma on other relationships, at least when they come to an end, isn’t so much a projection of that mother-child separation but rather it resonates with the other side: the trauma of a relationship you hope will be forever just not working out, which is something I feel when I think about both my biological and my adoptive parents.
The truth is I feel most at home in limbo. I think I’ve actually been at my most relaxed in this odd relationship, which we’ve kept up for the last eighteen months, where we have been more like friends than lovers. And though I think the indeterminacy is what broke it, it was where I felt safest, because that’s what I know and have always known.
It’s the ideal. I’m struggling to let go of the ideal. An ideal that looks like a nice house in the country and all these other markers of social and emotional stability. In truth, though we’ve both yearned for them, in our own ways, we’ve never had them, at least not together. But the dream was there, is there: this sense of settling down and putting down roots, entering my 30s with a plan to finally make a home, a base, a place to always come back to. I’ve not had that place for a long time, and whilst some people get on fine without it, I struggle without a nest. I struggle without the ideal, repeatedly tarnished and degraded, further and further out of reach, but always aimed for and always desired.
Much to my own surprise, I felt like dating again as soon as I got up here. The few months of processing what was ending made me feel like I understood what I needed in future. Something a bit queerer, less heteronormative, more fluid, more knowingly traumatised, so that all of life’s obstacles could be properly navigated together. I felt a rush to find it, and then I realised just how much work I have left to do, falling back again into a sense of disconnect, where the possibility of connection feels so utterly remote.
Adoption trauma looms large here, as ever, and the idea of leaving behind a sense of home provokes a sort of primal bodily trauma that I just can’t explain. It disturbs and upsets in a way that few other things do. It’s a feeling I know, a grief I feel deep in my bones, and it is inflamed by the slightest resonance.
I can’t believe I thought, even for a moment, that I was passed that. Here I am again, traumatically inflamed. I watch as other people wander through life with a nervous joy, exploring themselves and others. It pains me to watch, if only because I feel so incapable of it. Prudishness? No, just trauma. All I feel capable of doing is writing it down.
Moyra Davey writes:
The dross of the diary, the compulsion to scribble, the delusion that we can hold onto time. The inversion of the anxiety of being read, the fear of wounding, and, just as strong, the dread of being unmasked.
Unmask me, I feel. Read me at length. Hate the person underneath. It is warranted.
I think of burning, but I prefer the image of burial and water, as either of these seems slightly less absolute in the sense that the book might survive, albeit in an altered form…
Publication feels like drowning or burying these words in the social, in an audience. Flinging something into the void of publicity in order to be done with it, secretly longing for the trauma of a response but expecting the return of a message in a bottle on this lonely island, regurgitated by the waves, sodden and ready to be written on again.
Last night I typed out a tweet. Maybe something of a suicide note. “Look after yourselves, everyone. I’m sorry.” I thought about what would happen if I pressed send. My plan was to send the tweet and then disappear into the night, looking for a final resting place. It felt like a rehearsal. I sat and looked at the message. I wondered who would see it, how it would be interpreted. I imagined police smashing down my door, finding me gone, beginning a game of cat and mouse across the city. I imagined the admin that would result, the embarrassment of having no door, the cost of replacing it. My flatmate is away for two weeks and I couldn’t bear the thought of her returning to such a nightmare.
Genet, in his essay “What Remains of a Rembrandt Torn Into Four Equal Pieces, and Flushed Down the Toilet”, writes:
A work of art should exalt only those truths which are not demonstrable, and which are even “false,” those which we cannot carry to their ultimate conclusion without absurdity, without negating both them and ourself. They will never have the good or bad fortune to be applied. Let them live by virtue of the song that they have become and that they inspire.
When is writing not an art work? Is it possible for these confessions to not be “writerly” in their expression? Does that betray them somehow? Corrupt them?
I’m not sure why I wrote “Look after yourselves, everyone.” I’m not sure why I am writing it down again now. This message, sent out anyway, under different circumstances, makes me feel like the gesture cannot be repeated. It has been published. To repeat it would be a kind of self-plagiarism.
Last night, I felt differently. The more I looked at this strange phrase, given the circumstances, the more I tried to internalise it and take my own advice. I read it over and over again for an hour. I hurt myself. I got dressed in a new set of clothes. New underwear, trousers, t-shirt, hoodie. I put my key in my pocket. I discarded the tweet. Yes, delete it. Do not save it as a draft. Then I got back into bed and went to sleep.
The words sailors use were probably arrived at quite naturally; but what a strange language they spoke when they were lost. They weren’t yet poets — landsmen moving over and resting on peaceful earth, with plenty of time to imagine the wide expanses of ocean and its abysses and whirlpools. They were just simple mariners travelling around the world without a hope, unless heaven or their mothers’ prayers intervened, of an unexpected return to known shores and familiar hearths. Yet what curious words they found for a beach or a piece of wood or canvas — words like fo’c’sle and poop and topgallant.
The surprising thing is not the wildness of their invention, but that the words still live on in our language instead of having sunk like a wreck. Invented in wandering and solitude, and therefore in fear, they still make us reel and our vocabulary pitch and toss.
“The deep” is as expressive a term as most of the old but unforgotten phrases used in navigation. When sailors lost their way in loneliness and fog, water and endless pitching, perhaps hoping never to emerge, they also ventured verbally, making such discoveries as shoals, Finisterres, breakers, tribes, baobabs, Niagaras, dogfish. It was in a vocabulary that would have sounded strange in the ears of their widows, remarried by now to some shoemaker, that they told travellers’ tales no one can explore without both dread and delight.
Perhaps the waters of the deep are as impenetrable as the darkest night: no eye can pierce its thousand walls, and colour there is first impossible and then superfluous.
In Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet’s ode to displaced nomads, seeking refuge from colonial forces beyond their denied home in Palestine, which he produced during and following a two-year stay in the nations, cities, towns and refugee camps that encircle that most contested of territories, he cannot keep his feet on firm ground. His text flows like the Jordan. Seen from the depths of the heavens, it seems almost like a straight line, traversing the land from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea, but of course it meanders, left to right, through heights and drops, detours and divergences.
The shifting sands, the smooth spaces of the desert, are too obvious a vantage point from which to view his text in this regard, not least when he can also see the Jordan and, from there, the expansive Mediterranean sea and the Milky Way high above. “The deep” is found in all environs — beneath, above, inside and out. Each deep has its Pole, its north, its guiding star, its magnetic pull. To pick one pole alone, even when its instability seems so absolute, is only to ignore so many other disturbances and uncertain grounds. There are other ways of knowing this land beyond the Orientalist cliché of desert-roaming nomads. There are other ways of life here too; other knowledges.
One day, Genet watches two processions in town. The first is for the recently deceased President of Egypt, General Abdel Nasser, which unfolds before him like a rugby match, as the coffin buoyantly traverses the crowd. “It was a good game. The ball disappeared into the scrum, then reappeared in another corner of the screen. Several players grappled for possession. Whose furious kick would send it flying into eternity?” A second procession overlaps it, incongruous and of a different temperament. Sailors march joyfully, a picture of what looks like the Virgin Mary held aloft among them. But “the lady in the picture was neither virginal nor Christian but belonged to the pre-Islamic ‘Peoples of the Sea’. Her origins were pagan, and she’d been worshipped by sailors for thousands of years. In the dimmest of nights she infallibly showed them the North, and because of her the worst-rigged ship was sure to reach harbour safe and sound.”
Genet’s fixation on water and mothers, in the early pages of his final book, seems like an attempt to process his own Western preconceptions of women’s place — the place of the maternal — in Islamic life. “I couldn’t but wonder that, in a Muslim country where, as I still believed, woman was something remote, I was able to conjure in my mind’s eye before falling asleep a procession of men, apparently unmarried, who’d captured the image of a beautiful lady. But she represented the Pole Star, eternally fixed immeasurable distances away in the ether, and belonged, like every woman, to a different constellation.” In a footnote, Genet adds that “The Palestinians, who were often invited to China, will quote the Thoughts of Mao at me; one of those most frequently quoted refers to women as ‘half of the stars.'”
Far from a patriarchal idealisation of the figure of the mother, as an orphan himself Genet recognises in this fixation a kind of maternal return; a desire for a mother-land that stretches from the river to the sea, watched over in turn by half of the stars in that great celestial ocean above. In this sense, the Palestinian struggle is not so much a struggle for a parcel of land but for a lifeforce that flows outwards, albeit cut off from its source; a love that cannot be regulated and cannot be contained by geopolitical borders. To turn back on the source, estranged yet desirous, is hard to comprehend. How to wage war in your own cradle? “I wouldn’t have been surprised”, Genet notes, “if some of the fedayeen, feet firmly on the ground, but angered at so much beauty arching out of the land of Israel, have taken aim and fired their bullets at the Milky Way”, far into the deep. “But could they fire at stars rising out of their own cradle, Palestine?”
This desire to return to the motherland is perhaps not so much a desire to return to the cradle of a mother’s care but the cradle as a place of creation. It will be necessary, whether Israel is obliterated or not, to re-create Palestine, to birth, nurture and raise it once more. Genet routinely notes the age of the warriors fighting for liberation, who may not be so lucky to make it out of childhood, but rather than displaced sons, children without a motherland, they are perhaps more like mothers fighting for a child-land.
“To create is always to speak about childhood”, Genet says elsewhere, and it seems telling that so much of his own childhood is left out of his Palestinian memoir. Of course, he had, at this point, written and spoken about his early life at great length, having made his name and received his presidential pardon on the back of the beauty of his adolescent confessions. But there it still lurks in the background.
The book opens with a brief meditation on paper: “The white of the paper is an artifice that’s replaced the translucency of parchment and the ochre surfaces of clay tablets; but the ochre and the translucency and the whiteness may all possess more reality than the signs that mar them.” Against the backdrop of his nomadic adventure lies the unspoken reality of an orphan’s existence, re-created anew through the productive force of a struggle wielded by a dispossessed people.
In Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, the child is framed as “a metaphysical being”. Far from the mountains of the fedayeen, they describe how, “By boxing the life of the child up within the Oedipus complex, by making familial relations the universal mediation of childhood, we cannot help but fail to understand the production of the unconscious itself, and the collective mechanisms that have an immediate bearing on the unconscious”. The family, the triangle relation of mommy-daddy-me, lest we forget, is but a diminutive representation of the state and one of the smaller units of control’s matryoshka doll. That a child might be designated as the smallest unit is only to make of children prisoners of love, from whom creation springs forth but who are instead reduced to products of parental relations, their wings clipped by authority. But the mind has no mother-father. Not really. “For the unconscious is an orphan, and produces itself within the identity of nature and man.” Not man the father and nature the mother, but the swirling “autoproduction of the unconscious [that] has no parents”.
“The deep”, whether oceanic or geological, quickly comes to represent this same orphan-unconscious. The thalassic swirl of thoughts and impulses that exist on the outside of social authority are made so apparent in Genet’s travels around the boundaries of settler-colonial authority. If society is a father, the Palestinian people defer to the orphaned child of the deep, who is feared and avoided, turned and spurned by the striated world at large. But this orphan-unconscious is far from inert. It produces its own language, its own relations, its own ways of being. Much like the language of sailors, which has survived not by being written down but like all life on earth, crawling back on its hands and knees. Emerging from the ocean, the language of the orphan-unconscious carries with it the gift of another life.
So much philosophy is predicated on a fear of the sea. The transcendental pitches itself on a terminal beach and keeps a watchful guard for new mutations. Luce Irigaray, addressing Nietzsche, wonders why he ever left the ocean retreats he would frequent for his health:
Why leave the sea? To carry a gift — of life. But it is to the earth that you preach fidelity. And forgetfulness of your birth. Not knowing if you descend from a monkey or a worm or if you might even be some cross between plant and ghost.
And when you say that the superman is the sea in whom your contempt is lost, that’s fine. That is a will wider than man’s own. But you never say: the superman has lived in the sea. That is how he survives.
It is always hot, dry, and hard in your world. And to excel for you always requires a bridge.
Are you truly afraid of falling back into man? Or into the sea?
The Palestinian liberation movement finds its home in the sea. Chants of freedom to be established between bodies of water echo around protests and demonstrations, where what is contained between the river and the sea is a cradle. But what lurks beyond, where the displaced have nonetheless found themselves adrift, is an outcrop where an orphan-unconscious that has been newly set in motion. No people are more capable of generating new worlds than the orphaned.
“There is no alliance programmed once and for all”, writes Félix Guattari in his “Instructions for a New Psychoanalysis”. Nothing is felt more acutely by the adoptee. But this is precisely a source of discomfort; a difficult thing to affirm. The lack of a secure base makes the establishment (and natural disestablishment) of bonds a fraught and painful process — one that is constantly, anxiously pre-empted.
I remember my analyst talking about this early on, as he too sought to pre-empt the inevitable on my behalf. Our open-ended sessions can continue for as long as I feel they are necessary, he said, but it is also true that many people feel grief when therapy ends, and forethought of that moment can become an obstacle for the psychoanalytic process, in which the patient finds themselves already preparing for a withdrawal. It is a defense mechanism, and one that rears its head unconsciously at inopportune moments. I often feel it when at work. The anxiety that I might be fired or let go gives way to a diminished work ethic, as if I start to unconsciously give my employer excuses to rip off the band-aid. It is something my therapist and I are often aware of. At times when I become unconsciously unreceptive to the process, he calls me out, recognising that this alliance may need to be re-established. After all, though structured by certain ethical boundaries, psychoanalysis is the establishment of a quite intimate relationship like any other, functioning as a space where things can be said that would not be said elsewhere. But this must be held onto; it must be constantly reaffirmed.
This is the revolutionary potential of psychoanalysis for Guattari. “There had, ‘normally’, to have been some extraordinary situations for things to be said as they were on that couch!” In this sense, the psychoanalytic relation is predicated on a kind of alliance that “implies a conjunction with all things having to do with ‘new alliances’ made outside the office.” And this is something felt explicitly among my friends at present. It is of little surprise to me that those who have offered the most tender and kind support are those who are also already heavily “therapised”. As a result, the relations and productive conflicts established on the proverbial couch is replicated and weathered in the outside world with a new if relative ease. It has led to the establishment of very honest and communicative relationships that feel nothing short of revolutionary in their extraordinary tenderness. As Guattari argues: “Psychoanalysis is revolutionary or it is not real.” But it is not revolutionary in and of itself. It is revolutionary because of its impact on the wider world that the psychoanalytic subject inhabits, made clear by the relationships established beyond the couch, where things are nonetheless said with the same candid openness. These alliances feel like new sorts of relationship that reach down into the depths of our lives, which so many other relationships never quite touch or get anywhere near. We find ourselves expressing a frequent frustration, as we discuss the quotidian conflicts experienced with others around us. “If only everyone was this therapised!” Who knows what would be possible then.
It is intriguing to think of psychoanalysis in this way when faced with the scepticism of more straight-laced mental health services, which are couched explicitly within a system that limits the potential alliances on offer. And yet, they still attempt to offer new connections, particularly within one’s own community. But these connections nonetheless remain stuck within the bounds of various realisms, capitalist or otherwise. They are far from revolutionary.
I was discussing this yesterday with a friend whilst walking around a supermarket, buying crisps. We were talking repeatedly about the men in our lives, many of whom are causing problems unbeknownst to them, acting in ways that cause frictions that they seem wholly unaware of. What is this difficulty that men seem to have with expressing or possessing an awareness of their own conflicts? But she stopped us from going too far down this route. It’s not helpful, really, to make a certain emotional stuntedness or unavailability into a specifically masculine trait. I don’t have this problem, after all. And I am also a man, for better or worse.
My gendered appearance nonetheless seems to prefigure how various mental health professionals (on the NHS at least) chose to deal with me. In each of my conversations with nurses and crisis teams this week, for example, every single person has recommended I attend sessions of something called Andy’s Man Club, a UK mental health charity that offers “free-to-attend talking groups for men … challenging the stigmas around Male Mental Health.” I am sure these sessions are hugely beneficial for many, but I don’t see any personal need to attend. I don’t have any problem talking about my feelings. Quite the opposite. I write about them incessantly right here; I talk about them openly with my friends. I don’t identify with the system’s conception of a broken masculinity, nor do I particularly identify with the masculine stereotypes of society at large. I’ve never been “one of the guys”. But this isn’t some point of pride. This is no manipulative “I’m not like other men” badge of honour. There are so many men like me, cisgender or otherwise. My friend made this same point. For all the men in our lives that do seem to have problems with self-expression or self-awareness, there are plenty who don’t — particularly those who identify as queer or somehow queer-adjacent. And in that sense, I do not think this crisis of men’s mental health is a problem with men at all, but rather with patriarchy.
There is, undoubtedly, some crisis of masculinity that is occurring within patriarchy itself. This has been explored at length in recent years, particularly by reactionary figures like Jordan Peterson and others. But this is quite a different problem from a crisis within masculinity as such. It is instead the identification of a fissure within a social majority, which is not so much specifically gendered as it is determined by the perceived waning of certain sociopolitical relations of power. It is a problem within a majority, rather than a minority, and the inevitable response from so many reactionaries is to hardened the boundaries that they see becoming more porous. This is the wrong approach, as outlined by Deleuze and Guattari when they talk about a kind of “becoming-woman”:
There is no becoming-majoritarian; majority is never becoming. All becoming is minoritarian. Women, regardless of their numbers, are a minority, definable as a state or subset; but they create only by making possible a becoming over which they do not have ownership, into which they themselves must enter; this is a becoming-woman affecting all of humankind, men and women both.
The gendered nature of this kind of language inevitably leads to confusion, particularly within our present moment of a loud, reactionary and defensive gender essentialism, in which even some women seem to react against the shifting social boundaries occasioned by an anti-fascist maternal return. Becoming-woman, in this regard, as Virginia Woolf explores most beautifully, is the establishment of a new tenderness, the pursual — as previously discussed — of a new “concept of mothering that could serve as an alternative source of unity.” And this mothering, in itself, needn’t be so essentially gendered. Indeed, in order for this kind of relation to be revolutionary, it must far exceed the bounds of a normative conception of motherhood. There are so many other things — new subjectivities, new worlds, new tendernesses — that are struggling to be born.
In the first of his introductory lectures on attachment theory, published under the title The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, John Bowlby attempts to pay his debt to Freud. Though much of his work emerges from that which Freud’s lacks, particularly with regards to a child’s psychological development, he notes nonetheless how Freud identified the right problems, if not the right solutions.
Central to this is the problem of “ambivalence”, arguably also central to the Oedipus complex. Ambivalence is here not indifference but rather the fraught middle ground between love and hate. Each of us no doubt knows, deep down, of our capacity to hate those we care for most, or even to love those that we hate more than anything. These contradictory impulses are part and parcel of being human, but our circumstances can make them difficult to regulate. We can lean into one or the other. Hatred — never pure, often defensive, delinquent, testing — can be a way of testing those relationships that matter most to us, but which cause us to feel guilt and anxiety. Love, too, can be unregulated, given all too readily to those who we hope will take us under their wing, support us, constituting a kind of “secure base” that each person needs to live.
In thinking about my own adoption crisis this week, I feel that it is an unregulated love that is persistently causing me problems. I want to love, and for that love to be met. But the difficulty I have in regulating the formation of affectional bonds can lead me to love too much too soon. I watch those around me negotiate feelings and relationships and surf the waves of an affectionate coming and going, and I feel an intense desire to take part. But I pull back, and now feel I must pull back, as I settle once again into a difficult knowledge that I am too traumatised to truly get to know other people — not because I do not have the capacity to love, but because that capacity is fueled by too much neurosis and trauma. My love is unregulated. As romantic as it may sound, it causes too much anxiety and guilt to be healthy for me or others. As a result, as I love, I repress, and feelings of “displacement, protection, over-compensation”, as Bowlby observes, give rise to “defense mechanisms … evasion and denials that [any] conflict exists.”
I’m reminded of Bataille’s thesis on literature and evil, in which he explores the somewhat obvious observation that all literature is based on conflict, but precisely because all literature “is communication.” He continues: “Communication requires loyalty. A rigorous morality results from complicity in the knowledge of Evil, which is the basis of intense communication.” Literature, then, is guilty, but in much the same way Bowlby (via Freud) describes. As we explore, through literature, the churning drama of affectional bonds, made and unmade, we come to regulate our humanity through literature’s most extreme gestures.
Yes, literature is about relationships, and the communication that is essential to all relationships must throw caution to the wind, possessed as it is by the knowledge that communication can be painful. When we are fearful of what we might say, which always runs the risk of hurting another’s feelings, we say very little. To communicate effectively is to accept this risk and commune anyway; to embrace the constant making and unmaking of selves.
Bataille’s study begins with an essay on Emily Brontë, whose Wuthering Heights is undoubtedly the most intense exploration of the making and unmaking of affectional bonds. That Heathcliff, who Catherine comes to love so intensely, is an adoptee also cannot be disregarded (though it so often is — Bataille himself only refers to Heathcliff as “a foundling” inconsequentially in passing). The novel’s blistering intensity emerges from this fact, albeit implicitly. Who are these two characters to one another? It is insufficient to simply call them lovers, precisely because their love is so conflicted and unregulated. Catherine at once fills the role of lover, sister, mother to the displaced Heathcliff, who has no secure base, and the intensity of their affair seems (un)grounded by the fact that their relationship is so many things (particularly to him) at once. It leads them to fall so utterly into one another, on a multitude of fronts. Indeed, that their love emerges from childhood is centrally important. They latch onto one another, in their childish world, as if cut off from all other familial bonds. They are like two displaced persons meeting in a void, their love unstructured and unregulated by any sort of paternal or maternal influence. They are everything to one another, such that theirs is a relationship that contains all the contradictions we humans are capable of. In each other, they lose their solitude, but still find themselves a pair still alone.
That they come together alone is surely a product of their tandem disintegration. Heathcliff’s particular disintegration, however, is heavily foregrounded by the circumstances of his life, but Catherine nonetheless joins him there, drunk on the liqueur of his passionate abandon and dispassionate abandonment. As a result, they die together, first figuratively and then all too literally, such that, as Bataille argues, an “[i]ndividual] death is but one aspect of the proliferative excess of being”, constituted by “the negation of the isolation of the ego which only experiences ecstasy by exceeding itself, by surpassing itself in the embrace in which the being loses its solitude.” Bataille argues that this is a process of doubling, but what seems to further exacerbate this process in Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship is that Heathcliff is already doubled in his solitude. The adoptee is, at base, a divided self. The fraught ambivalence — which, again, is not passive indifference but perhaps the furious engine of passion — of their relationship explodes from Heathcliff as an always-already gothic figure, who arrives in West Yorkshire like a boy already dead, so displaced is he from his genealogy, the spectral product of an unspoken reproductive relation between persons already disappeared.
It is this displacement that allows Heathcliff to feel so at home on the heath, and with Catherine he affirms his disconnection from all but her. “They abandoned themselves, untrammelled by any restraint or convention other than a taboo on games of sensuality”, Bataille writes.
But, in their innocence, they placed their indestructible love for one another on another level, and indeed perhaps this love can be reduced to the refusal to give up an infantile freedom which had not been amended by the laws of society or of conventional politeness. They led their wild life, outside the world, in the most elementary conditions, and it is these conditions which Emily Brontë made tangible — the basic conditions of poetry, of a spontaneous poetry before which both children refused to stop.
Yesterday I spoke about Freud’s belief that the advent of psychoanalysis consecrated the victory of “intellectuality over sensuality”. In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff exist beyond this world explicitly. The conflict that haunts them, as they transition from children of passionate abandon to adults in the world, is that their prior sensuality is denied them. “Society is governed by its will to survive”, Bataille notes — perhaps echoing the Virginia Woolf’s previously discussed observation that society is itself an authoritarian father. “It could not survive if these childish instincts, which bound the children in a feeling of complicity, were allowed to triumph.”
But such is the chaotic maternal function of their childish bond. The doubling that Catherine and Heathcliff experience in their asexualised childhood romance is nonetheless productive (if not reproductive). The intensity of their childhood passions constitutes a kind of immaculate conception, in which new selves are provided apart from the strictures of a (then still emerging) Victorian world. The love triangle that emerges, when Catherine is implored to marry Linton, necessitates the cauterising of her displaced childhood on the moors. Though she remains in the same environs, it is time to put down roots — a process that Heathcliff himself resents, perhaps because it had previously never been promised to or framed as a possibility for him. Catherine, though led wildly astray by Heathcliff, is at home; Heathcliff himself is forever estranged. That Catherine has chosen to let go of their sovereignty, no longer able to affirm the abandon of childhood, destroys him, destroys his double, and leaves him bitter in the reality of his own disjointed upbringing, which is now no longer an exploratory childhood virtue but an adult inconvenience. Heathcliff feels alone again, and leans instead into what Bataille describes as “the revolt of the man accursed, whom fate has banished from his kingdom and who will stop at nothing to regain it.”
His love unregulated in adulthood, Heathcliff takes the side of a childhood “Evil” against the moral strictures of a social “Good”, bestowed upon grounded persons by a paternalistic (and patriarchal) society. He becomes a gothic Peter Pan, who resents the foreclosure of child-like productivity by the repressive mechanisms of social (re)production. Though it is a world based on an apparent rationality, Heathcliff (and Bataille) recognise it as a “reason that has come to terms with that arbitrary element born of the violence and puerile elements of the past.”
There are two paths available to both Catherine and Heathcliff, though each is undone by the opposing ones taken. In describing “the steps by which an infant or child progresses towards the regulation of his ambivalence”, Bowlby frames these paths as follows:
If he follows a favourable course, he will grow up not only aware of the existence within himself of contradictory impulses but able to direct and control them, and the anxiety and guilty which they engender will be bearable. If his progress is less favourable, he will be beset by impulses over which he feels he has inadequate or even no control; as a result, he will suffer acute anxiety regarding the safety of the persons he loves and be afraid, too, of the retribution which he believes will fall on his own head.
Catherine, at first, seems to follow the path of the “Good”, but Heathcliff nonetheless believes that he has chosen the right path for him. He remains set against the world around him. When he marries Catherine’s sister-in-law, opening himself up to her advances, he nonetheless sets about destroying that relation from within, affirming marriage as a callous travesty if only to treat his wife so poorly. Heathcliff violently affirms his own transgressions of a social good, embittered further still by the memory of a wild and unstable upbringing. Catherine is Heathcliff’s mirror image. What destroys her is not the traumatic loss of her childhood but the sickly sweetness of its denial. She denies what Heathcliff affirms, but the results are no less tragic. Each love is unregulated and uncontrollable, never capable of settling into a Stoic ambivalence.
Wuthering Heights seems to function as the perfect literary case study for Bowlby’s attachment theory, taken to extremes. It is a fraught interrogation of irrational behaviours, born of attachment, separation and loss. It may seem strange, after reading any by-the-numbers summary of Wuthering Heights, that Heathcliff is still retained as a romantic and even attractive figure. How can someone so evil and bitter still be framed as a romantic figure? But Emily Brontë explores with a compulsive honesty what Bowlby argues we have otherwise struggled to accept in our self-understanding — that is, “that behaviour, whether in other organisms or in man himself, is the resultant of an almost continuous conflict of interacting impulses: neither man as a species nor neurotic man as an afflicted sub-group has a monopoly on conflict. What characterizes the psychologically ill is their inability satisfactorily to regulate their conflicts.”
In the space of literature, and particularly across the heath in Wuthering Heights, this observation is given free reign. Heathcliff and Catherine are not framed as psychologically ill, separated from the society they transgress as patients for medicalised study, but as fantastical extremes that exist wholly within that which would otherwise exclude them, as figures of poetry who are dissolved into the libidinal economies our own lusts, betrayals and experiences.
We have often used the figure of the adoptee (or orphan or displaced child) in this way: as a literary intensifier of our most everyday communications. But to feel this way in reality, as a subject at the mercy of what Bowlby calls “libidinal greed and hatred”, is still so seldom understood. In my own experience, I must say that hatred is an alien feeling. I seldom feel resentment towards those around me. But the pain felt, particularly this week, is surely the product of a libidinal greed.
If a baby and young child has the love and company of his mother and soon also that of his father, he will grow up without an undue pressure of libidinal craving and without an overstrong propensity for hatred. If he does not have these things there is a likelihood that his libidinal craving will be high, which means that he will be constantly seeking love and affection, and constantly prone to hate those who fail, or seem to him to fail, to give it him.
But adoption modifies this tendency, at least in my experience. Hatred is not projected outwards but inwards, such that the overwhelming pressure of libidinal craving is rebound on a subject given up, who feels an overabundance of love for others but a deficiency of love for the self, such that to be an adoptee, separated from the mother at an early age, gives rise to a feeling of being fundamentally unlovable. The truth, as friends have so frequently told me this week, is quite to the contrary. Though a difficult thing to internalise, it has been heartening to hear from so many, who learn of an overwhelming struggle against suicidal tendencies, that they love that I am around. The guilt and anxiety that arises is perhaps one learned from adoption as a fact of life. My mother, though she loved me, felt incapable of providing the things an infant needs.
The difficulty that emerges from this is one of asking that one’s needs be met by others. The libidinal greed for company, for companionship, is set against an anxiety that knows others may not have the capacity to provide what is desired. To be an adoptee is to feel like a social burden, and this is far more true in adulthood than in childhood. Childhood is a time of abandon, freedom, irreproducible sovereignty, which adulthood demands be foreclosed. A secure base is necessary to feel at home in one’s own company. Home is set, and so we journey outwards. Adoption inverts the process. We journey outwards in search of a home, and home is a more difficult thing to provide than we think, particularly to a love that overflows unregulated, and which, even when home is established, cannot be contained by its bounds. It is to live in conflict far more acutely, to live in a world of poetry, held at a distance from social normality, where extremities of feelings are not so much distanced in fantasy but inhabited in reality. It is to roam the heath of childhood on the underside of this world.