No Transformation

Despite the intensity and exhaustion of the previous day, I slept for only an hour or two. On my return home, I was greeted by two books by Anais Nin: House of Incest, a prose poem that explores the thalassic copulation of mother and child in utero and postpartum; and volume one of her near-mythological journal. On waking, I take them out to the garden but only briefly.

Descending the back stairs of our flat, I pass through a cloud of morning mist that has seeped through the door frame and feel distinctly like it is only now, at sunrise, that I have passed through the veil into dream. Once outside, I smoke two cigarettes, making my own contribution to the haze, before inverting the journey and returning to bed to write.

I sleep some more, although don’t remember when or for how long, simply passing out as the brain no doubt catches up with itself. Later, I head back out into the garden, just as the sun is approaching its midday zenith. It has been a while since I’ve heard the peculiar sounds of the neighbours opposite but they are now filling the air with the soundtrack to Grease, the unmistakable clacking of balls in a game of pool (a surreal sound to hear from a small Tyneside flat, as it’s hard to imagine where a pool table would go), and an occasional liturgy of vomiting.

It is impossible to form a clear image of their lives from this racket but I am enthralled nonetheless — always the same incongruous confluence of sounds. (Yes, even the vomiting.)

Reading Anais Nin’s journals, I feel I have discovered a kindred spirit. It isn’t long into the first volume before she begins to share stories of her life with the men I have been reading, and I sense she enjoys the same suspended fascination with their difference as I do. On meeting Henry Miller, first and foremost, she fixates on his character, his openness, his hatreds. “It takes a great hatred to make caricature and satire” as he does, she writes. But as far as she is concerned, reflecting on her own constitution,

I have no hatreds. I have compassion. Everything with me is either worship, passion, or else compassion, understanding. I hate rarely. But I respond to Henry’s fiery rebellions. His angers. I can’t fathom the paradox of his enjoyment and his angers. My rebellions are concealed, inhibited, indirect. His are open revolutions… I am more preoccupied with loving.

I imagine Durrell sharing much the same sentiment. But it is no less intriguing that these two compassionate writers, so fixated on love, would be equally enamoured by someone so capable of raging against their worlds.

What I find most interesting about this group of writers — Miller, Nin, Durrell — is the way that, beyond the defiant certitude of their prose, there is an infinite questioning that fuels it. Nin, in particular, and without any knowledge of the content of her work, first interested me for her relationship to Otto Rank, who was her analyst for a time. (Other members of their crowd draw on him from time to time as well.)

Beyond Freud, Rank feels like a more appropriate ally to these writers — not quite modernists, not quite surrealists, defying any close association beyond the purely interpersonal, no adherence to a school, creating mythologies in books but not so much within their own lives, always a separation between the two, although everything still swirls in the space of writing. This is notable for a number of reasons. Whereas Freud newly mythologises the unconscious, tying it to already established moorings (albeit with novel and unruly interpretations as guy-ropes, with Oedipus being the most obvious example), Rank seems to question the very role of mythology in our thought directly, speaking to a modernist impulse to truly make things new, and each of these writers attempts to affirm this distrust of traditional, individual archetypes in their own way.

Rank himself affirms this explicitly in his work Art and Artist:

The creative men of our time are not capable of going the whole way and accepting the development of their personality as the truly creative problem. What hinders them is the same individual feeling of guilt which in earlier times was able, owing to the counter-force of religious submissiveness, to work itself out creatively, but nowadays limits both complete artistic creation and complete personality-development. For artistic creation has, in the course of its development, changed from a means for the furtherance of the culture of the community into a means for the construction of personality.

Nin finds in her community a fitting push and pull. Page after page of her early (published) diaries is given over to observations of the relationship between Miller and his second wife, June, for instance.

June acts like a compulsive liar, although her tall tales are ultimately innocuous. She weaves disparate mythologies around herself that contradict and undermine each other. It bemuses and enthralls those around her in equal measure, with her personality so effervescent and theatrical, loveable if illusionary. When pushed on this fact, she hardly seems to deny it. It is all true. She seems bewildered, in fact, that those in her company cannot accept the contradictions of life and love for what they are. This only makes Miller more infatuated with her, in Nin’s assessment. His casual misogyny, his nihilism, is undone by her mysteries. “He treats the whole world as men are said to treat prostitutes, desiring, embracing, and then discarding, knowing only hunger and then indifference”, Nin observes. But in June he meets his match, unable to unravel all of her. Nin continues:

They must have been drawn together by his need to expose illusion, her need to create it. A satanic pact. One of them must triumph: the realist or the mythmaker.

There’s something of June in many people I know (and Miller too), or perhaps just something of her which I project onto others. “She was the essence of the theatre itself”, Nin writes, “stirring the imagination, promising such an intensity and heightening of experience, such richness, and then failing to appear in person”. But is this June’s essence? Or are these writers, Miller and Nin both, simply fated to being a captive audience before the mysteries of (her) life? But there is no resentment here; just a lover’s envy. Nin writes to June in her journal, to the actress underneath her characters:

When your beauty struck me, it dissolved me. Deep down, I am not different to you. I dreamed you, I wished for your existence. You are the woman I want to be. I see in you that part of me which is you. I feel compassion for your childish pride, for your trembling unsureness, your dramatization of events, your enhancing of the loves given to you. I surrender my sincerity because if I love you it means we share the same fantasies, the same madness.

In my own madness of late, I felt this way towards many people, tortured and entranced by lives I wished were mine, even when implicitly aware that it is all some sort of performance. But for someone else to believe in their own character is enchanting. I wish I could construct my own, or perhaps borrow their mask for a time. Take my cue to enter the stage. Instead, I feel separated by an anticipation of the final curtain, with life itself wrapped up and smothered by a velvet screen. Then, as a new mania rises through me, I feel the energetic anxiety of costume changes — “living life as a theatre … loving costumes and changes of selves … wearing masks and disguises” — but now stumbling not before the stage, instead behind it. The terror of each is equal.

It is a writer’s cruel fate, perhaps — like the dramatist who writes for the stage but only bears witness to his directions and utterances when embodied by others. Or else no one at all. “The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing”, Blanchot writes in The Space of Literature. “He may believe that he affirms himself in his language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.”

But there is something different about a journal, like Nin’s and no doubt this one, which serves as both record of reality and mythmaker too, constructing a scaffolding around this voided space where the writer’s self should be:

It is perhaps striking that from the moment the work becomes the search for art, from the moment it becomes literature, the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself. His feeling is one of extreme repugnance at losing his grasp upon himself in the interests of that neutral force, formless and bereft of any destiny, which is behind everything that gets written. This repugnance, or apprehension, is revealed by the concern, characteristic of so many authors, to compose what they call their “journal.” Such a preoccupation is far removed from the complacent attitudes usually described as Romantic. The journal is not essentially confessional; it is not one’s own story. It is a memorial. What must the writer remember? Himself: who he is when he isn’t writing, when he lives daily life, when he is alive and true, not dying and bereft of truth. But the tool he uses in order to recollect himself is, strangely, the very element of forgetfulness: writing.

When I began to write maniacally, daily, at the onset of this current madness, it was a process actively discouraged. Friends and mentors alike suggested I leave it all be. It was, perhaps too obviously, a habit of self-flagellation in an unnecessarily public space. Over the last week or so, however, many have changed their tune. It is suddenly recognised, through the gradual development of the process itself, that writing is healing for me, that this compulsive self-narration is not an attempt to egg myself onto the end but rather an attempt to remember who I am when not writing, just as Blanchot argues. But his words ring out not as a calming tune; rather as a deafening truth, compounding the paradox further.

Today — Thursday — Dan has visited Newcastle. Meeting for coffee in Heaton mid-afternoon, he agreed that, despite the intense vulnerability of my current fixations, it is clear I am using the work to come home to myself. But the problem with this compulsion, I explain, is that I find myself needing to do it all the time. I forget too easily. As soon as the writing stops, I start to unravel, until I find myself before another blank page. It is only when writing that I find calm, struggling to weather my own impulsions and intrusive thoughts when I try to distract myself otherwise.

A case in point came later: a special Incursions walk, held on a Thursday rather than a Monday, meeting outside Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery as usual and setting off from there, weaving through the streets, back alleys and walkways, commenting upon and observing all the developments and under-developments of the town. Though walking is often recommended as a healthy coping strategy, facilitating a useful change of scene, I find myself dissociating as we traipse around the city. Though the Incursions walks are a recurrent event meant for people to meet others and talk about their lives, their environment, and the negotiations that are implicitly necessary between the two, I find myself incapable of sustaining a conversation with anyone, nor feeling anything other than frighteningly adrift in space, wracked by anxiety when on the move, feeling once again spectral and transient. The sensation of walking becomes automatic, as if the world revolves under my feet like a treadmill. I struggle to feel like anything other than a ghost. I want to go home and write.

In the end, I find peace only whilst stationary. We end up at our usual haunt, The Cumberland Arms, and I have a few pints, finding myself suddenly loose-tongued and personable. But soon enough, as the three pints hit my empty stomach, I find myself becoming restless. I head home not long after last orders but don’t make it there. Another casual hookup, this one mortifying and instantly regretted; a clear act of self-sabotage as I try to make myself at home in desperate places full of desperate people. Cathartic for a time, this encounter was utterly indifferent on both sides, with both of us no doubt desiring so much more for ourselves than this but finding the world we long for just out of reach. We know almost immediately we will not find what we are looking for in each other. After a short and awkward fumble, I depart, neither of us having come anywhere near to satisfaction, and no doubt realising that the satisfaction we truly desire is to be found someplace else, far from here.

In this life or in the next? Finally on the way home, I start rehearsing the final thing I’ll ever write. I mean it this time, I tell myself, and feel resolute. Then I sit down in the garden as usual but, rather than start at the end, I copy out the day’s scribbles from my notebook, forgetting everything I thought about on the way home.

Ideas are powerful. The crisis team keep telling me this. They talk of triggers and I say there was nothing that should have caused a break this catastrophic. Just the brief entertainment of ideas, hopes, dreams, many barely formed as I negotiate the beginning of a brand-new life, their loss having no real impact on something so inchoate. But then why do I feel so undone by disappointment? Ideas are powerful, and some ideas of late have flourished only to later be denied — denied their actualisation, but also denied their very ascendency within the mind. Nothing has happened, I tell myself, thinking this is how I should feel. But something did happen. I came home to an idea. Ideas proffered from elsewhere are things to become attached to, like shiny objects taken up and used to build one’s own nest. Letting go of them, once they have taken hold, is torturous; ideas formulated from within even more so.

But one can only move forward by renouncing. I believe that fundamentally. Kill your idols, kill your ideas. But there is only so much you can renounce in the end, peeling back the layers gathered around you until you are confronted with fundamental facts of self. But not all ideas are individual. To renounce something shared, to deny it was shared, is a kind of psychic violence. Transformation is essential, yes, as we move on down the road. But not all transformations require a renunciation of community and its culture. Some renunciations serve nothing more than the cultivate of personality, of masks, of costumes; selfish renunciations that damage relations rather than strengthening them. I don’t want to renounce anymore. I want to get back to building something.

Miller, Tropic of Cancer: “A cathedral, a veritable cathedral, in the building of which everyone will assist who has lost his identity.”

No transformation this time. At this point along my arduous journey, the prevailing thought that resurfaces, time and again, is that the only thing left to do is to renounce everything. I’d no doubt settle for ascetism if I did not have to live with the pain of renouncing itself. But perhaps I am not the one who needs to renounce anything at all. Perhaps the pain I have felt comes from feeling renounced, at every stage of life.

No transformation, no renunciation, no theatre, no change, no mask.

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