Material Love

After days of eating very little, I binged and fell asleep. My dreams were pure chaos. On waking, I had no way to adequately describe what I had experienced. There were people, places, but mostly feelings, impressions, colours, shapes, emotions; wholly disordered, overlapping. “Dream soup” was the only phrase that came to mind as I tried to write down this swirl devoid of narrative, still drowsy and not yet thinking clearly. “Mind vomit” was another one. Undigested and bile-soaked chunks of thought and memory.

I started to feel unwell again. We were meant to go to the fun fair but by early evening I felt hollow and unstable. I hadn’t expected to find myself spinning out on an afternoon spent reading some out-of-print literary criticism.

I had come home feeling anxious and slept from 6pm to 9pm. I woke up feeling somewhat more steady. Nothing was processed, but perhaps all I had dreamt was something that only needed to be expunged. Still, this unconscious glitch seriously worried me. Never before, in all my years of weathering these periods of intense emotional dysregulation, have I ever had such an experience of cognitive nausea, where my mind felt quite literally like it was being sick.

3am. Struggling to sleep again. I watch random things on YouTube, trying to be less mindful and more mindless, turning everything off.

I go outside to roll a cigarette, drink some water and clear my head. The sky was deep blue at the horizon, that same reminder of north, the sun only just setting this time of year.

One hundred pages into The Avignon Quintet, with 1200 left to go, and already I am thinking about where to turn next. I know, of course — to Anais Nin’s journals and novels of love, full of horror and eros.

My current preoccupation with Durrell and his peers follows a prior obsession with D.H. Lawrence. All of Durrell’s contemporaries seem to share a fascination with him — with Nin’s first book being a study of his work, for instance — and each go as far, if not further, into exotic climbs and unconscious depths.

But it is all so masculine. I am painfully aware that I am only getting half the story. All the more reason to turn to Nin. But the half I am reading now is more interesting to me if only because I related to it least. These stories all concern lines of flight — Lawrence’s are particularly enticing because it is the family and its oedipal constraints that are fled first, followed by capitalist society more generally. Durrell’s family, on the contrary, came with him on his travels — on occasion, at least. That he convinced them to move with him to Corfu is a wonder. The whole family joined him on his flight from “English death” — a new life famously dramatized by his brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals. His novels, though far from autobiographical, are nonetheless furnished by his worldly travels, as were Lawrence’s in post-war exile.

I hate to travel. I hate to feel uprooted. Though so many adoption stories in cultures around the world embrace and encourage a masculine urge to break free of one’s genealogy, I feel the pressures of a Little Orphan Annie, the expectation to turn to patriarchs, to Daddy Warbuckses; to settle down, if only because it is the option least accessible.

I could go anywhere. Now especially, I feel I have few ties, but I am terrified to affirm their lack, to subsume myself in my own freedom. My friends are quite other; I watch them and feel a pain that I cannot join them, for no reason other than the fact I am constrained by mental barriers that were not of my choosing.

The notion of a chosen family has followed me everywhere, encouraged by those who hear of my displacement. But it is always an oddly triggering sentiment. I myself was chosen, after all. So often I feel like I or others have chosen wrongly, irreparably.

An attraction to such people, protagonists and authors is like a predisposition to cultish tendencies. Bruce, lost in reminiscences after Piers’ death in The Avignon Quintet, always seems to emphasise his closest friend’s tendency to follow others. Recalling a trip to Macabru to meet the gnostic Akkad, he recalls Piers saying of his burgeoning mysticism and infatuation: “For the first time, Bruce, I believe in something, a proposition about myself and the world which holds water. It satisfies me, it’s like falling in love.”

I know that feeling too well, too eager to love those I know and those I read. When love fades, the world fades with it. It is a ridiculous habit of thought, but one that sneaks up on me and which often cannot be helped. I come to feel like love is wholly unattainable, and the only thing that steadies my hand in the aftermath is a pen. To write this down feels humiliating, to confess to such an unattractive intensity in matters of attraction, an intensity that smothers and voids.

But there is also a desire to affirm it. I feel admired, and am told as much, for the writerly products of this over-sensitivity. The challenge at present is for me to learn how to live with their source.

To write is to feel guided by my own hand, to give a voice to something that struggles to make itself heard in everyday conversation, which emerges from my hand but seldom from my tongue. I attempt to follow the echoes of my own internal affirmations. But I do not live how I write, nor do I write how I live. I write how I feel, all the while disconnected from the experiences I dream of.

I did not get back to sleep. The sky was blue by 4am and so I ventured back into the garden with Durrell, who is much, much further away in both space and time. How he skirts over the continuum, even in death! I’m drowning in it.

I feel a resonance between his theory of time, applied so elegantly to literature, and the theory of time espoused by Deleuze in his reading of the Stoics. From there, time feeds back on Durrell’s France, and the France of Bousquet, Alquie, Nelli — gnostic, materialist, nomadic; rooted in flight, heretical, revolutionary; and so full of love. But to think of the transformations they haul up from the depths of the continuum makes me feel so unwell. I start to wonder if I need to go more mad before I can break with this present madness once and for all.

Lack of sleep makes me dyslexic. I write down words out of order. I feel out of order. I wonder how to put myself back together in a new way.

For all the men’s tales and treatises on love and life in The Avignon Quintet, it is notably Sabine who is the most errant and unconventional of the group. It becomes increasingly apparent that Bruce, Piers and Sylvie are fatally entwined.

In matters of love, Piers, or so Bruce reports, later comes to understand “that the projection of one’s own feelings upon the image of a beloved was in the long run an act of self-mutilation”, and it is this that makes them all appear so mortal, destined to die. Sabine comments acerbically upon their peculiar union: “You are not real, you are fragments of yourselves, love on all fours, amour à quatre pattes. The conventional ménage à trois reversed.” This wounds Piers and only enthralls Bruce in his distaste for her. But eventually he comes “to ‘recognise’ her as one who, in her inner life, had thrown over the intermediaries of convention and reason which might have shielded her social self, in favour of direct vision, direct apprehension.” To Piers she seems free, but also lost, although he envies how she approaches Akkad, his prophet, as an equal. It is an inner life we are, for the time being, far from privy to. She is free from love’s trappings, and so remains, both literally and figuratively, on the outside of their tragedy.

“Within each of us struggled man, woman and child.”

Although Bruce is resistant to the Macabru sermon later attended, conducted by Akkad, he nonetheless manages at last

to gain a foothold in that part of reality which was probably my own inner self. It may sound strange, but I now understood the nature of my love — and also the nature of human love as a whole. I saw quite unmistakably that man had set astray the natural periodicity of sexuality and so forfeited his partnership with the animal kingdom. This was his central trauma, and it also signalled the final loss of his powers over matter…

When the group are given a dose of drugged wine, they fall into visionary rapture before a snake in a basket. All seem to share in an exhausted calm, overcoming a latent fear of the snake in their midst, with Bruce’s mind transforming the creature into a strange chimera that had the “deep symbolic significance of something which by-passed causality.” Piers, on the other hand, despite performing his own receptivity to Akkad’s teachings, chokes on an invisible serpent now constricting his neck. But it is precisely Piers’ struggle that confirms his initiation into the gnostic sect, confirming his deep desire to live freely and change.

Akkad explains that his interest in the group comes from their “special relationship to sex and the understanding of love in your sense… This is what we believe but few of us have ever experienced, at least in the singularly pure form which you seem to have realised.” It is a surprising revelation, given their quintessential English prudishness; Piers, in particular, “shuddered at any kind of coarse allusions to matters which he considered so agonisingly important, so very close to his heart.”

This is undoubtedly the paradox of an English sensuality, which is renowned for its stereotypical aversion to sexual candour, but perhaps because nothing is understood as being so intimate. Only Great Britain could produce such writers as D.H. Lawrence in this regard, or indeed Henry Miller, Daphne du Maurier and others, who seem at once the perfect products of this island’s sensibilities, and whom, to varying degrees, invert their stoic reverence for sexuality into a radiant affirmation. (Du Maurier may be an incongruous inclusion here, but like Emily Brontë, though her works are far from explicitly erotic, they do not hide from the full horror of what is revealed within the loved-up psyche. As Robin Mackay once said to me in passing — a comment I return to often and repeat incessantly — Du Maurier is like H.P. Lovecraft if he was not afraid of sex.)

Akkad expounds on the gnostic tradition as an affirmation of “the inner sense of estrangement and alienation from the so-called real world”. All the now dominant religions of the world had long ago set about erasing “the bitter central truth of the gnostics: the horrifying realisation that the world of the Good God was a dead one, and that he had been replaced by a usurper — a God of Evil.”

“What sort of God, the gnostic asks himself, could have organised things the way they are — this munching world of death and dissolution which pretends to have a Saviour, and a fountain of good at its base?” I am reminded of Georges Bataille, writing about much the same world, the same France as Durrell (although Durrell’s characters first make contact with gnosticism in Egypt). The likes of Bousquet were infected with a more homegrown variant: the legacy of the Cathars, heretical gnostics exterminated by an imperial Catholicism.

These poets and surrealists worked hard under the authoritarian pressures of the Vichy regime, with so many of them fleeing, rather than staying put, following paths through the Pyrenees into Catalonia first carved out by those who fled the Albigensian crusade.

Bataille, to my knowledge, did not make it so far south, but nonetheless sought flight from the same dead world made real by the horrors of war.

What Bataille admires in gnosticism is the inclusion of evil in a worldly understanding of matter, rather than the crude expulsion of those parts of nature that do not align with our conspicuously constructed morals. Sex remains a focal point, if only thanks to a growing awareness of a modern prudishness that is ours and ours alone.

If sex is evil, all the better to have more if it, and engage in our basest human practices mindfully, thus negating evil by holding it to account against the judgement of our inexplicable desires. “It is possible in all freedom to be a plaything of evil”, Bataille writes, “if evil does not have to answer before God.” Gnosticism, then, “is a question above all of now submitting oneself, and with oneself one’s own reason, to whatever is more elevated”, Bataille argues; “to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to reason that arms this being. This being and its reason can in fact only submit to what is lower, to what can never serve in any case to ape a given authority.”

Sex remains a key component of this great refusal in a society struggling against its own fear of sensuality — but also of love. Love needn’t be excised from animalistic impulse. Love, after all, is not only an ideal, but a most complex, irrational, illogical and fundamentally emotional attachment.

Though I have travelled far from what I hold in my mind as my central concern, all of the above reverberates against my thinking about my own adoption and the problems it has caused me throughout my life.

Psychoanalysis presents us with a mythological framework through which we can easily come to understand the neurotic fixations of those displaced through the longing for social ideals and relations to familial archetypes. But further research into the psychological development of children reveals how the trauma of birth and the severing of a mother-child connection has very real — by which I mean material — consequences for the emotional development of children. Oedipus is a scaffold, but love and connection need not be discarded as shackling ideals in themselves. They are mystical, even spiritual connections, yes, but which nonetheless provide our neurochemistry with example patterns for attachment.

The horror of my own idealism in interpersonal relations is not the response of a repressed sexuality but rather the awareness of a broken connection in matters of love — or rather, love as matter. Others lay ideals over material bonds as a way to make sense of the seemingly ineffable. I feel like the ideal is all I have, rendered apart from its base companion. In such nakedness, the ideal is made more painfully insufficient. The Good God of love sits on a rotten throne, which smells so putrid to me, but the reality beneath remains painfully obscured.

What horror to recognise the prevarications of a false god, only to find oneself incapable of accessing the deeper truth one knows is there. And further still, what horror to hear the language that comes from below, unable to translate it, and unable to learn it in a world that takes love’s material ground for granted, such that most do not recognise the dificulty of saying words they have always known how to speak.

My ex-girlfriend, sharing tales from recent therapy sessions, passes on the suspicion that perhaps I am autistic. (This on the basis that I struggle to weather the tumult of intimacy, given and taken away.)

I think not; although what is autism beyond a problem of neurodevelopment? In classical autism, genetic factors dominate over environmental ones; perhaps my malformed social development simply bucks the trend, limited to love, with all other capacities for being left unscathed.

Present before Akkad, Sylvie also comes to understand “that the gnostic refusal to accept the state of things constituted a particular bravery without vainglory, a despair without tarnish.” She proceeds to ask a series of seemingly nonsequiturial questions — questions, Bruce says somewhat scathingly, only a woman could ask.

“But if one believes that, what would it do to love?” Akkad avoids the question, describing the threefold gnostic principles of the universe, with Bruce, Piers and Sylvie coming to symbolise each one. She seems to hear an answer in his mythology regardless: “You are speaking of suicide, then?” Yes. “For those, in every age, who feel the deeply humiliating condition of man and nourish any hope, I won’t say of ever changing it, but ameliorating it … they sense the great refusal as necessary.” The baseness of gnosticism does not shy away from the fact that death will meet us all in the end, but seems to go further:

… to the pure gnostic soul the open gesture of refusal is necessary, is the only poetic act. As the Sufi poet says: “Close thy lips so that the tongue may taste the sweetness of the mouth.” All those emblems of a hunger which engenders self-destruction, which pushes things to the very limit of the sensibility, those belong to us … Yet ordinary suicide, banal self-destruction, that is forbidden to us.

Instead, it is a stoic resignation that is adhered to. In Jesus, whose life extends far beyond the resurrection for the gnostics, they see a “masterly refusal to save himself which stamps him as one of us.” But the Christian faith inverts the refusal and makes of Christ’s death-consciousness a transcendent portal to paradise.

From here, Akkad rails against the four Ms of our age — “Monotheism, Messianism, Monogamy, and Materialism.” Bataille’s connecting of gnosticism and materialism is of course a perfect heresy. But Akkad does not seem to reject materialism as such, but only the poles it is contemporaneously restricted to: the dualism of gold and excrement.

“Possesion of Marx and possession of Freud have dictated excrement as the basic form upon which the calculus of our philosophy raises itself.” But the gnostics instead turn from merde to sperm, “for our world is a world not of repression and original sin but of creation and relaxation, of love and not doubt.” As a rejection of the world as it is, this foundational expenditure at the heart of life is no less of a refusal, a creative destruction. Refusal, in this sense, is always a suicidal gesture, but a tantric one; “the idea of the gnostic suicide by attrition, by a steady denial of the world as it is.”

I’m not sure why I am hanging on Akkad’s every word, as if this fiction were no less a gospel or scripture. My eyes feel narrow, my pupils sharp. It is 9:13am and I wonder if I am losing my grip. I want to acknowledge that I have some sense of how this all sounds, as if to estrange what feels like an acute mania and step outside of it, but I still cannot think of any preferable use of my time, as if I might replace life’s myths with this myth of myth’s absence.

… to have loved capably and methodically, to have loved with a sufficiency of attention for the fragility of the thought and the transitoriness of the act — that will teach anyone the truth of what I say about death.

This is what I fear and cannot pull myself away from.

I make amends by loving correctly.


Piers, no less full of understanding, is bereft, echoing my own questions before the text.


A rather cruel paradox centres about the two notions which we express by the words “knowing” and “realising”. You can know something and not realise it, not having lived it, as we say… Powerful imaginations can be dangerous; they live ideas out so powerfully that when the time comes [to act,] they are impotent or else experience the taste of ashes. Poor desperate descendant of protoman tried to still his fears by classifying them, by making an index of them. He hopes to delimit them thus, but they extend on all sides of him to infinity. So he spends his time, turning in the trap.

I feel the distinct pressure to stop writing again, all too aware of my own incessant turning in illness. Akkad reiterates the gnostic denial of banal self-destruction, but I hear in Piers’ desperation a further echo of my own. Sylvie pleads with him not to take it all so seriously. He is insulsted:

For God’s sake, Sylvie. You want me to take this lightly? Akkad is describing my own inner mind, my own character and temperament, and you wish me to regard it as simply an intellectual novelty?

I think of my own friends, who would not entertain any of this either, and rightly so. I imagine their words, their worry, their concern, their detachment. It is one I experience whenever, acting against all better judgement, I bring my philosophical concerns into everyday conversation — a rare indulgence; I put most of my onanistic musings here. But this fictious wrestling with the gnostic conception of suicide is invigorating, captivating, trapping. Without it, I’m not sure what I’m left with. Better to fixate on Durrell’s literary application than dwell on my own unguided thoughts. They undulate under the surface, cajoled regardless.

After spending all morning writing this down, I went to the Cumberland for an afternoon of chat and makers’ stalls. I drank too much. Friends arrived with dogs, and a man present began to pet one before violently shoving it away when it came in close to lick his face.

It was a wholly unnecessary outburst, casually cruel rather than fearful or inadvertent, and the dog was quickly whisked away. The pub’s landlady confronted the man and he began telling her to go fuck herself. He was drunk but also so much more than that.

I stood up to go to the toilet, voicing my disapproval at his haranguing of the proprietor as I did so, making cliched noises like “Hey” and saying things like “No need for that”. It spooked everyone in the beer garden. Suddenly I was surrounded by men dragging me away, as if I were suddenly the imminent threat and not this clearly disturbed man. Stern faces implored me to leave it, step away. I had chosen the worst moment to stand up, it seemed, inadvertently escalating the situation. I explained I was fine and wanted no trouble, trying to emphasise my generally gentile demeanor. Everyone rushed in to discipline and calm someone already quite disciplined and calm. I was just heading inside, not looking for a fight, I reassured each person in turn, again and again, no one hearing me until the third or four insistence, no doubt collectively deafened by adrenaline.

I was newly aware of how I looked — bulky and perhaps intimidating in the wrong light. I panicked and was perhaps more startled than the man himself in the end, and as he went home with a stagger, I could not stop apologising profusely.

Friends left a few hours later. I stayed at the pub alone, still trying to stop my heart from racing after this most inconsequential of misunderstandings. Some time before closing, I spent half an hour walking into town with no destination in mind, just enjoying the city and its Sunday night quietude. By the quayside, I found myself outside a house party in a block of flats, smoking a cigarette and listening to the sounds of fun inside, lingering, loitering, no doubt looking like a strange apparition in my blue suit, carrying a gusseted tote bag of books and journals on Durrell.

I was joined by some fellow smokers, no doubt wondering what I was up to, and I told them the truth: just taking in the night air. They laughed and I laughed with them. They invited me in for a night cap.

I was invited inside, only to be immediately dragged into a bedroom. I slept with a stranger, both of us drunkenly going through the motions and then parting ways with a stumble and a smile. I was overcome with nervous energy, feigning that I was heading out for another cigarette before getting an Uber home, wholly unable to comprehend the turn my night had taken. My head felt like it was going to explode. Then I felt utterly numb. None of it mattered. Just faded animality returning without fanfare.

I still couldn’t sleep and lay on top of my bed, fully clothed and smelling faintly of sex. I went outside to the garden again, like I had twenty-four hours earlier, and watched the sky change colours again — not blue this time but shades of lilac.

I wondered how long I could stay awake for and at what point I’d start seeing things that weren’t there, activating a gnostic vision of my own. In truth, I felt I’d already lived it, was living it. A month since I first drank from the fateful cup, my visions of total death were only just starting to subside.

At 5am, I slept.

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