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.