Out of the red and silver and the long cry of alarm to the poet who survives in all human beings, as the child survives in him; to the poet she threw an unexpected ladder in the middle of the city and ordained, ‘Climb!’
As she appeared, the orderly alignment of the city gave way before this ladder one was invited to climb, standing straight in space like the ladder of Baron Munchausen which led to the sky.
Only her ladder led to fire.
Anaïs Nin’s A Spy in the House of Love begins with a phone call. A woman calls a stranger from a bar in the middle of the night. He is a professional lie detector. Unperturbed by this random call, he takes on the calm of a priest and calls her to confession.
“There was no crime”, she says.
“We judge our thoughts, our intents, our secret curses, our secret hates, not only our acts.”
She hangs up.
The lie detector traces her call to the bar and soon recognises her voice, once he has arrived, when she orders a drink.
He learns the woman’s name is Sabina, and I am reminded of Sabine in The Avignon Quintet. Finally, the anxiety of freedom rendered in literature, which seems often distant and mystical in Durrell and Miller. But Sabina also seems like June, an erratic actress with no fixed sense of self, who bounds around her own contradictions, weaving disparate narratives into a think rope of defiant self-certitude, which may appear to others more frayed than she likes.
I am forcing myself to write today, although I feel like I have nothing left to say. The journal feels oddly evasive right now as I read around literature in an attempt to shed light on my own life. But over the last few days, I feel like my energies have been devoted to confessions. Long and meandering conversations with friends are engaged in with a candour quite different to what is expressed here. The work of writing is vulnerable but no less heraldic. In conversation, all defenses are down. What use is this shield anymore when all has been confessed elsewhere?
I feel newly disinterested in love, newly incapable of it, but I feel no longer tormented by that fact. Nin explores “the duplicity and fragmentation of self involved in the search for love”, the book’s blurb explains, and I feel calmed by it, or at least calmed by an acceptance of variability within the shell that I am. Impulses are, for brief moments, neutralised. I am no longer looking for a self from without.
Sabina awakes in her own bed, met with a familiar anxiety:
Slowly what she composed with the new day was her own focus, to bring together body and mind. This was made with an effort, as if all the dissolutions and dispersions of her self the night before were difficult to reassemble.
She puts on make-up, clothes, a brave face, and feels self-assured by the outwards projection seen in the mirror. But she does not quite recognise this woman as herself, “the life-size image walking beside the shrunk inner self, proving to her once more the disproportion between her feelings and external truth.”
I struggled to get out of bed today. A visit from the crisis team was enough encouragement to put some trousers on. Just one person today, rather than the usual duo. He runs through the narrative of the last few weeks, as if to confirm the story only, like the recounting of a police report, and then passes over a prescription for a high dose of the hypnotic Zopiclone. I’m to take it for seven days, in the hope it will steady my sleeping pattern, returning the unconscious to some kind of consistency.
To be given yet another dose of powerful drugs fills me with a nervous energy. It would be preferable to have someone hold onto them for me, if only as a precaution against current impulsivity.
I walk down to the Tyne Bar shortly after the man has left and reply to a few days’ worth of messages. An interview conducted after a lecture I gave in Newcastle in November 2022 is finally due to go online. It is strange to anticipate the reading of things said a few selves ago.
Sabina returns home to her husband and basks in his safety, but more like that of a father than a lover. She wants to confess her truth: she has not been travelling but staying in a hotel nearby, finding reckless freedom in the company of other men. The lie constructed is that she is living her dream as an actress, playing Madame Bovary (who else?) for eight nights on the stage.
In the telling of the lie, she half-confesses the truth: that the Madame has overcome her self, that she is struggling to relinquish the part. Her husband, Alan, wants his own Sabina back. She squirms under the pressure to let him have her.
I have no significant other. No singular person to give all of myself to. I look for the opportunity, desperate to be freed from masks and costumes, but no opportunity arises. As much as I may try to play a part, a series of roles, I’m aware I wear everything felt on my face. I feel a nakedness that makes people turn away, or lean in too close, as if to give me back some dignity.
But this is so different to how I was recently, in a relationship where my true self was hidden, incapable of action for fear of judgement and reprisals, in which confessions were discarded, the weight too much to carry, even when shared — especially when shared.
No crime was ever committed. The confessions desired were only a door opened onto a truer self, one that I felt needed to be loved, from within and without, for life to feel fulfilling.
The truth, perhaps, is that there is little space for romance in that kind of love. It is a love beyond illusion, fantasy, performance. But it is a love that can only be acquired through that veil, through the crossing of the curtain that divides the stage.
Already I feel myself contradicting thoughts had just an hour or so earlier. No desire for love gives way to a desire for nothing else. In the cold frigidity of morning, love is disregarded. In the sun of mid-afternoon, the freeze is thawed. But the puddle left over cannot be held. It seeps, is stepped in, splashing droplets of self every time a gaze is met, a smile exchanged.
I know the truth is that no real connection can be made without a stability of self, a comfort in one’s own skin and comportment. The desperation felt is not so much for an affirmation from without but the knowledge that nothing will stick without a hardened shell, which now feels shattered and broken. One must come before the other, but one has been broken by the other’s proximity nonetheless.
Sabina is tormented by the care Alan gives to her costume:
The clothes he is hanging up for me with such care were caressed and crushed by another, the other was so impatient he crushed and tore at my dress. I had no time to undress. It is this dress he is hanging up lovingly… can I forget yesterday, forget the vertigo, this wildness, can I come home and stay home? Sometimes I cannot bear the quick changes of scene, the quick transitions, I cannot make the changes smoothly, from one relationship to another. Some parts of me tear off like a fragment, fly here and there. I lose vital parts of myself, some part of me stays in that hotel room, a part of me is walking away from this haven…
My own room is a nightmare, a bombsite of depressive squalor. I walk around it, somehow blind to the chaos, somehow at home in it. It reflects a self exploded, the clothes that make a carpet half dirty and half clean. Tidy house; tidy mind — a cliche but true. I know that putting things in order would be healing, restorative. But to treat these clothes with care contradicts the experience of their crushing and caressing, by myself and by others. The vital parts lost, the vital parts left behind, have been thrown off my own back. Others’ motivations confound; as do mine.
All Sabina wishes for is “absolution so that she might sleep deeply.” There is a frustration that this will never come, the Zopiclone must do the work for me, the mind incapable of its own regulation.
Why must everything be read through characters? Why are real people so opaque? What mythology feels more certain than truth? Why is the space of literature the only place I feel at home?
“Reading makes of the book what the sea and the wind make of objects fashioned by man: a smoother stone, a fragment fallen from the sky without a past, without a future, the sight of which silences questions”, Blanchot writes. “Reading does not produce anything,” he adds, “does not add anything.” Something is taken instead. Each word or sentence read becomes a piece of sea glass, a beautiful shard left over by weathered utility, broken down into smooth fragments of nothing. We collect this matter, gathering it, transforming it into jewelry perhaps, for adorning a naked self.
I gather no truth from books, only an expressive instability that makes life glisten. “There is in reading, at least at reading’s point of departure, something vertiginous that resembles the movement by which, going against reason, we want to open onto life eyes already closed … here the stone and the tomb do not only withhold the cadaverous void which is to be animated; they constitute the presence, though dissimulated, of what is to appear.”
What is to appear? I am desperate, impatient, to hold it in my sight, all too aware that whatever it is will be obscured by the haze of present depression. “Such is the ‘opening’ that reading is made of: nothing opens but that which is closed tighter; only what belongs to the greatest opacity is transparent; nothing consents to enter into the levity of a free and happy yes except what has been borne as the crushing weight of a no, devoid of substance.”
The demand on every reader, Blanchot continues, is “that he enter a zone where he can scarcely breathe and where the ground slips out from under his feet — and even if, leaving aside these stormy approaches, reading still seems to be participation in that open violence, the work” — reading is “nonetheless, in itself [a] tranquil and silent presence, the calm center of measureless excess, the silent yes at the heart of every storm.” Reading makes beauty out of absence, out of “the torments of the infinite.” Reading “has the lightness, the irresponsibility, and the innocence of resolution.”
One of the central point of feedback received after submitting the manuscript for my first book was that it contained too many quotes. Why not rely on my own voice? Why defer to others?
I have written essays previously that end with quotes, leaving editors aghast; a writer’s faux pas. But there is certitude, no matter how illusionary, in a complicity with other’s words. An academic hangover, no doubt — and academia rarely produces good writers. There is a desire for evidence, for truth, but every time there is only ever a reader’s appropriation.
The truth is not innate; it is wholly absent; glimpsed through new contexts provided by the free association of thoughts gathered; sea glass re-arranged into the shape of the vessel it once was, now destined to be forever full of holes, where the self gets in.