Seeing and Seen

I struggled to write today. Yesterday’s scrawl was finished on my laptop. There is something quite opaque about writing in this way at the moment. The decision to stop, save, close feels oddly final. Whereas the journal is paused, its flow not so much stopping as being turned away from, the mechanical nature of the keyboard and the computer’s internal whirrings makes it feel like a machine for production rather than desire. It produces ornaments, singular or in a series, whereas pen and paper produce something always unfinished.

It has felt hard to continue this process after the brief stoppage, the momentary shift back to fingers on keys. It has felt hard to accept the break in yesterday’s stream of consciousness, the final Blanchot quotation only half copied out.

Nothing to be done but to get back to it.

More books arrive in the post, the fruits of a reckless spending spree at the end of last week. The first one opened is the selected poems of François Villon, whom Durrell compares to Miller in an early letter — an intriguing association; a writer who seemed to break open the future of literature in the twentieth century compared to a poet from the late Middle Ages. But Villon’s work feels impossibly prescient, a criminal mind that speaks of life and love in ways that feel strangely modern. The first poem in the collection, entitled “The Legacy”, is hard to situate in my vague historical grasp of poetry’s development.

The poem’s second stanza stands out to me:

At this time as I said before,
at Christmas-tide, the dead season,
when wolves live off the winds that roar
and people stay indoors with reason,
beside the fire now there’s a freeze on,
there came to me an urge to shake
off all the chains of love — though treason —
that seize my heart till it would break.

Gothic Romanticism, some five or six centuries early. A Millerian nihilism for a medieval world, although perhaps no less medieval, in truth, than this one.

I write nothing else for the rest of the day, feeling suddenly without direction. I nap between 7pm and 9pm, as I have frequently in recent weeks, as if the witching hour arrives earlier than scheduled. I chat to my flatmate once awake.

A few things have fallen into place the past few days, and the clarity has curtailed my mania somewhat. I make confessions to friends, recounting some of the more sordid details of recent days — the desperation affirmed in desperate places with desperate people. I feel ashamed but the confession helps integrate my life again, dissolving the sense that I am living a double life in the throws of insomnia. But feeling like I am now seeing things as they are has also bummed me out.

I’m trying to understand and regulate my feelings still, come to terms with how setbacks feel world-ending. I’ve only just arrived in Newcastle. There’s hardly a world to end. But perhaps that’s the problem — not enough world-building; construction interrupted, the foreman low on funds.

Dan sent an email over, quickly debriefing on two days of discussions. He included a photo taken of me just before we met.

I took a photo of you at work. A bit grainy. Looking at it again it reminded me of your point about how the poet disappears into the collective — or here, is at one with the space.

I was really moved by this, by seeing myself. No one has ever taken a photo of me writing before, for the obvious reason that it is such a solitary activity. I’m also a photographer, of course, and so usually fated to being behind the camera. But to be seen doing the other thing, the thing I do most, grainy or otherwise, is so expansive.

Even now, as I write these words, I have the sensation of an out-of-body experience. I’m aware of my posture, my focus on the page, a honing and gathering of inner resources, the world beyond fading away. But it doesn’t fade away. It is alive, populated. Hunched in shadow, it is I who fade, appearing only through words, mercifully deprived of self. But for someone to bear witness, beyond language, with a gesture that says simply “I see you”, stirs something new in me.

To write about this here feels strange, but Dan’s presence meant a great deal to us over the last few days. To document that, acknowledge it, even fleetingly, feels like returning the favour. We saw you too, Dan. And we won’t forget it.

The other night I received feedback on the first draft of my next book, Narcissus in Bloom. Tariq was unsure whether I was ready for it, but I think I need the project. He told Carl to proceed as if nothing else was going on.

There is a great deal of work left for me to do. I thought there would be. The editorial process is always fraught, but I relish the opportunity to have my work read, to gain a new perspective on something I have become too close to. It is the main reason I write in the first place. To write for oneself is one thing, but to read yourself back, adopting the eyes of a real or hypothetical other, is only really possible when you know the work has been read. To see yourself as others see you, to read yourself as others read you. It changes the work fundamentally, expands it, expands the worldview it hopes to express. A second pass with another’s eyes clarifies in a way impossible on one’s own.

And yet, in this instance, it makes the project hard to return to. Unshared until the full draft was complete, to have it read almost undoes the whole premise — a book written in lockdown, in isolation, that wrestles with the difficulty of seeing oneself, of masks constructed for others, a narcissistic desire for self-transformation.

I’m not sure how to re-approach the book now. It feels like something written for a future self. To read it back may necessitate taking my own advice. I’m not sure I’m ready to see myself in this way.

“The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed”, Blanchot writes. “It is a route that remains viable; it is something like a watchman’s walkway upon ramparts: parallel to, overlooking, sometimes skirting around the other path — the one where to stray is the endless task.” How to return to the stray. How to return to the book half-finished, when the ramparts are, at present, providing an essential defensive position. The book is a space of vulnerability. I’m already feeling vulnerable enough.

I see Narcissus in Dan’s photograph. I see the inverse of the painting often attributed to Caravaggio. In the book to be revised, I describe it thus:

The painting is eerily minimal, and a striking example of the tenebroso style. Narcissus is enveloped in shadow and darkness, and we cannot see the world beyond him, only the kneeling figure and his gloomy reflection. Even the riverbank on which he sits seems dead and barren, as if the solitary hunter has become marooned on some terminal beach. If narcissism is an imbalance in the relationship between self and world, Caravaggio’s Narcissus has lost touch with the world altogether. This is readily apparent when we consider how the figure is presented to us. Bizarrely, our attention is drawn immediately to Narcissus’s knee as the painting’s centre point. But this framing is telling; compositionally, Narcissus and his reflection appear totally in orbit of themselves, constituting a whirlpool of the self.

In Dan’s photograph, I see the opposite; a world full of light, a writer in shadow, uncentred, seen but barely, a witness from without teasing the figure back into the fold, with an act of recognition the writer may feel deprived of, just as Narcissis was.

Seeing presupposes distance, decisiveness which separates, the power to stay out of contact and in contact avoid confusion. Seeing means that this separation has nevertheless become an encounter. But what happens when what you see, although at a distance, seems to touch you with a gripping contact, when the manner of seeing is a kind of touch, when seeing is contact at a distance?

What happens when what is seen is the self? “What is given us by this contact at a distance is the image, and fascination is passion for the image.” The image shared by Dan is ephemeral; I feel hardly there; it is an image of someone else, but someone whom I feel a distant compassion for. I want to get closer, draw the figure out from its shadow. “Distancing here is the limitless depth behind the image, a lifeless profundity, unmanipulable, absolutely present although not given, where objects sink away when they depart from their sense, when they collapse into their image.” I want to throw a life line into this lifelessness, and pull the self in the image to safety.

Is writing a life line? It seems more the case that it is tethering me to shadow.

Blanchot turns to Kafka’s diaries:

Someone begins to write, determined by despair. But despair cannot determine anything: “It has always, and right away, exceeded its purpose”. And, likewise, writing cannot have as its origin anything but “true” despair, the kind that leads to nothing, turns us away from everything, and for a start withdraws the pen from whoever writes. This means that the two movements — writing, despair — have nothing in common except their own indeterminacy. They have, that is, nothing in common but the sole, interrogative mode in which they can be grasped.

Chaining cigarettes and sunshine, I sneeze. An unseen neighbour, a few gardens away, says “bless you” on the breeze.

“Thank you”, I say back, unsure where to direct my voice.

I am pulled out of myself. I forget what I am thinking.

Nin seems so utterly in love with June until she speaks:

She killed my admiration by her talk. Her talk. The enormous ego, false, weak, posturing. She lacks the courage of her personality, which is sensual, heavy with experience. Her role alone preoccupies her. She invents dramas in which she always stars. I am sure she creates genuine dramas, genuine chaos and whirlpools of feelings, but I feel that her share in it is a pose … This false self is composed to stir the admiration of others, inspires others to words and acts about and around her.

Still, Nin cannot keep away from her, a contemptuous figure who is desired as the abject opposite of the literary life that subsumes her and her contemporaries.

She believed only in intimacy and proximity, in confessions born in the darkness of a bedroom, in quarrels born of alcohol, in communions born of exhausting walks through the city. She believed only in those words which came like the confessions of criminals after long exposure to hunger, to intense lights, to cross-questioning, to violent tearing away of masks.

We are at the end of the month of June, and I try on her costume. I confess to friends the extent of my recent disregard: the hours spent writing, the hours spent disappeared in dive bars, the void between penned confessions and hidden acts, a tightrope walked between false intimacies.

I receive no judgement, only shock. To confess I have subsumed myself in things previously thought impossible inspires bewilderment, from within as much as from without.

Each confession dampens the desire, affirming its hollow nature. Giving an account of the mask tried on estranges it as an object. Others’ masks feel more perceptible now. I accept the impossibility of seeing what is underneath, distancing myself until the moment, which may never arrive, when the mask is taken off. I have seen through their eyes and found a life more hollow than that of my own depression, which swells with feeling and floods the space before my own eyes — a space newly cherished. Determinations are false, certitude a lie. Faces shift and change shape. They are more beautiful in their fluid asymmetry. Take off the mask.

Writing is no less of a mask, of course, but one painted as it is held in my hands, never worn. A self-portrait daubed incessantly, never complete, erasing and re-detailing, like a preliminary animation, cubist, layered, damaged and dirty with smudges of graphite that cannot fully be removed, unless the paper underneath gives way.

“June’s nightlife was internal, it glowed from within her and it came, in part, from her treating every encounter as either intimate, or to be forgotten.” I forget only myself. Everything else is remembered too vividly. Writing is, as Blanchot said, “a memorial”; the journal a testament to sensuality, to another kind of touch.

I have touched many bodies this week, albeit fleetingly. Hands move over flesh like fingertips on braille, lightly, tentatively, as if afraid of the porosity of what is said and unseen. The body before me is always imaginary. What is desired is the intimacy of writing directly onto flesh.

I think of the opening scene of Godard’s Le Mépris. What is missing in each instant of passion is the affirmation of tenderness, every “yes” scrawled upon each appendage under concern. Instead, concern is lacking. Nothing has been affirmed. Everything forgotten.

There’s a party tonight at World Headquarters. Kitty and Jon are going b2b. Last night I’d elected not to go; today I feel resentful that I would deny myself the company of friends, simply because I fear the impulse to gather strangers.

I hope to start my own radio show soon, the name of which will be “New Tenderness”, after a conversation Guibert has with Foucault in To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life:

This danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities. Before, no one said a word; now we talk to each other. We all know exactly why we’re there.

Strange to have fixated on this scene prior to my breakdown. I draw on it towards the end of Narcissus in Bloom too. The danger lurking for Foucault and Guibert was AIDS; for us in the spring of 2022, I imagined it was the coronavirus. Now it is mental illness. As isolating as my own struggle has felt, I am aware I am not the only one in my immediate vicinity who has been swept up in internal difficulties. I am far from relinquished of illness, but all the more reason to go to the ball. I want to hug my friends, tell them I love them. I intend to.

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