Notes on an Androgynous Writing

Monday. A new week begins, the first since my discharge. Life begins again with a downpour. The rain lashes at the window all afternoon. In the morning, I begin the process of applying for disability benefits. I hang my washing out in the rain, already wet, getting wetter, waiting for the clouds to dissipate and the wind to once again blow through.

I leave the house around 3pm, picking up a package dropped on the mat as I do so. I open it as I walk to the bus stop in the drizzle, always too excited to see what has arrived, knowing it’s a book, anticipating whatever it is to be the prompt for the rest of my day.

I am not disappointed. It is the collected letters of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, edited by Gunther Stuhlmann under the title A Literate Passion.

I had taken a break from writing for a few days, reading Nin’s first book instead — her “unprofessional study” of D.H. Lawrence. Zambreno mentions Nin’s affection for Lawrence in Heroines and her description of him as an “androgynous” writer — a sentiment supposedly later echoed in her essay on the future of the novel — and I think about what she would make of the “androgynous” writing of the present, particularly the various examples of trans and non-binary literature that have recently entered popular consciousness.

I order Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, on the hunch it might prove most fruitful when read in this context, already aware I might be the last of my friends to read it, still captured by Zambreno and every book she references.

Already, I am distracted by the letters, my thoughts spinning a web to bridge the gaps in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, who seem particularly enthralled by Miller but seldom mention the women of modernism.

The letters — or, I should say, Stuhlmann’s introduction — are already deeply suggestive of the tensions between a masculine modernism and the obscured transformations of a écriture féminine.

Stuhlmann writes of their complex relationship — their intellectual, emotional and sexual affairs — but also of their most “basic bond”:

Stripped of passing sentiment, of catering to each other’s material and emotional needs, of a sense of adventurous comradeship in the breaking of social taboos, their relationship remained firmly founded on the shared need to create themselves through writing. As Henry Miller later wrote, it was the effort “to realize myself in words.” For him, it was the obsessive, Proustian research into his past and the dubious role women had played in it. For Anaïs Nin, in a diary she had kept since childhood, it was the relentless pursuit of an ever elusive emotional present.

I love the feeling of resonance between the two, the acausal and illogical synchronicities, and insert my own desires between them.

Miller and I share a birthday; a friend, charting Nin’s astrological makeup, suggests we would be kindred spirits. I feel nothing more than a tandem affirmation of their goals, their basic bond, their love of writing — not their voices, as such, certainly not their talent, but their orientations and oscillations, which conflict and make them an unlikely pair, the fuel of each individual congealing in me. I approach my own intensive journaling an infatuated fan, wanting nothing more than to channel the best of these deeply flawed and disparate writers.

What resonates is the despair, the disease, the compulsion. Miller: “God, it is maddening to think that even one day must pass without writing.” Nin: “The journal is a product of the disease, perhaps an accentuation and exaggeration of it. I speak of relief when I write — perhaps — but it is also an engraving of pain, a tattooing on myself, a prolongation of pain.”

As I think about how to pause, gather references, setting about and preparing to write a more formal essay on the androgynous writing Nin is perhaps the first to champion and describe, she herself articulates the present difficulty of doing so — the difficult of writing anything for money, for anyone but yourself. “I am terrified of my conscious work”, she writes, “because I do not think it has any value. Whatever I do without feeling has no value.”

I am still trying to figure out the puzzle of this unconscious writing, this automatic writing, thinking on the page without argument or predestination; only a vaguely acknowledged direction, as if writing were a torch shone through the dark, only ever illuminating part of the path ahead.

Blanchot and Bataille again come to mind: their attempts to write the night without filling it with spectres that are not there.

In my bag, Ferdinand Alquié’s The Philosophy of Surrealism, which I swap the letters out for all too quickly, leaving them barely read.

Alquié begins, of course, with Breton. “Admit that literature is one of the saddest paths leading anywhere”, Breton writes in the Surrealist manifesto. Alquié ponders the sentiment and surrealism’s untethering of aesthetic values from their contemporary moment. “Beauty — incapable of being objectified — can only be grapsed in the heart of an excitement we would call existential if the word did not evoke now a completely different climate”, he writes.

It is the writing life; the writing of life as it is lived. But always the distancing of art, of writing, the surreality of impressions recorded in the heat of their sensation, with an immediacy that only exacerbates the delay, the present always elusive, already gone, even now, as I scribble these words right here at 16:55 in the Journey cafe bar off John Dobson Street in Newcastle’s city centre, thinking impossibly of the times and places far beyond in which these lines might be read. So elusive, always elusive, but the thrill of the chase remains, naively perhaps, even mindless, like a cat chasing a light it will never catch, that same torch in the dark that shines but cannot be held.

The excitement of the chase is, for the Surrealists, like that of Annie Ernaux in Simple Passion, innately erotic. To write so furiously is, of course, to love writing. For Alquié, “Breton remains faithful to Plato” in this regard, “who made no separation between the excitement before beauty and erotic excitement, and who always described the latter as an upheaval.”

If, as Ernaux argues, “writing should aim … to replicate sexual intercourse”, how might this be achieved through a union of bodies, of texts? Not just the elation and passion of an instant but the coming-together of selves, of a kind of entangled masculinity and femininity, not in the strictly reproductive sense of a biological essentialism, but in the playful androgyny of roles and their reversals, their dynamics, lain and rutted against, bodies nothing more than bodies on androgynous sands?

Nin, who found in Lawrence a feminine core; Miller, who told Nin she writes “like a man, with tremendous clearness and conciseness”; Nin, who is a feminist (and feminine) icon to many women I know; Lawrence, where my obsession first began, as it did with Nin, who remains, even now, despite his periodic cultural malignancy, for me at least, an androgyne of feeling, often despite himself, precisely because he mingles so strangely the chauvinism and new tenderness of his time.

Alquié writes that “the amorous emotion [that] appears in [Breton’s novel] Poisson soluble … contains all the obscurity, all the problems, all the ambiguity of man.” And of woman? Zambreno remains best placed to illuminate this blindspot today, continuing the writing of a feminine night.

(Is this why so much trans literature falls into the category of horror? Tom Whyman, interviewing Alison Rumfitt about her book Tell Me I’m Worthless, asks why she wrote “a book about England … that’s also a trans horror story”. “‘Well, isn’t it obvious?’ she replies. ‘England is a trans horror story!'” The androgynous, non-binary, transgender literature of the present is also written — and read — best at night.)

Though Zambreno is scathing of the characterisations — the literal reduction to characters — of women in surrealist literature, Alquié, writing in 1965, is far less critical, more affirming, in a manner that might still be affirmed, in fact, even as we recognise the sorry suppression of their own agencies. These women, both in literature and — perhaps more importantly — in real life, remain “harbingers of the new Eve, always placed beyond our desires. They are the bond, and like a bridge, between waking and dream, and they seem to promise a reconciliation of the two.”

Woman is the bridge, remains the bridge, perhaps only relatively more recently freed to construct aqueducts of feeling and flow. There have always been female “builder-artists”, of course, as Nin calls them, via Lawrence, but perhaps never in such an abundance as now, bringing with them, if not a new surrealism — another word that now evokes “a completely different climate” — but a new psychedelia nonetheless. Or simply a “transness”, a shapeshifting androgyny and spirit of transformation, that warrants a whole new word of its own. It is a potential literature of “positive realization” to come, perhaps now couched in a certain negativity, like Surrealism’s own Dada antecedents. First the night, then the baroque sunbursts of the day.

[T]he texts obtained from automatic writing are produced by a burst of hope in life.

For all my recent despair, a clinical unwellness, writing gets me through each day, reflective only at the point the writing stops, to the extent that sometimes I cannot help but go back and self-censor, curtail my most careless utterances and exposures. Automatic writing on a paper mirror.

This hope makes aesthetic considerations and literary hierarchies appear paltry and besides the point.

Oh, the freedom of not caring whether any of this is good or not, feeling only a feeling, any feeling, through a process of translation, transference, transduction. Trans, trans, trans.

It was thought, following the ascent of Surrealism to an era-defining movement, that “total man will take the place of literature and tables of value.” And now, the abolition of tables of gendered values altogether perhaps.

We can always go further.

Is “automatic writing” itself a tired term, evoking not just Surrealism but even prior to that, a nineteenth-century spiritualism? The heretic religiosity of communion with spirits?

How suitable is “androgynous writing” as an alternative term of demarcation? I wonder to what extent androgyny contains a certain automatism, when writing is freed from its gendered performativity.

Your eyes are back from an arbitrary land
Where no one has ever known what a glance is
Or known the beauty of eyes, beauty of stones…

Alquié, quoting the poetry of Eluard, argues “that one of the essential problems facing surrealism will be that of the status of beauty.” Surrealism makes it “necessary to give up the search … for the unity of texts as distinct in appearance as the relating of a dream, a page of automatic writing, and a poem.” It is a giving-up of the search for a beauty essential to the body, the organed and organised body, instead a turn to the body without organs, without organisation upon a table of values. Even literature, of course, is discussed in terms of bodies of work.

Zambreno talks of the wives of modernism, women as such (at that time) as the truly exquisite corpses of literature, who are always written but whose own writing is itself supressed. Many of these women recognised themselves in the images drawn by the men around them, tormented by the caricatures, in the exquisiteness of their immobile corpses, only ever wanting to breath new life into the cadavers they were made to be.

The essential problem, in this regard, has hardly changed. How to write newly exquisite bodies, beyond the gendered restrictions of beauty in the present? Not simply a fetishised “gender-bending” but an actual bending of gender to the multiplicities of will.

“No wonder I am rarely natural in life,” Nin writes. “Natural to what, true to which condition of soul, to which layer? How can I be sincere if each moment I must choose between five or six souls?”

“If nature is unjust, change nature.” The xenofeminist rallying cry. Alquié: “For ‘nature’ teaches nothing to an imagination whose whole aspiration is to surpass nature.”

Xenofeminism as its own kind of surfeminism, always already beyond, on the outside. Paradise, for both, if such a thing is possible, is only every “everyday life transfigured” — emphasis, as always, on the “trans”.

The romantics, captives of the nostalgia of religion, dreams of departure, of local color and historic color, of exoticism; they recreated in this the profound link that unites, in man, the desire for another world and the desire for a world situated elsewhere in space and time. For the surrealists, real life is here.

Real life is malleable. There is another world to be transformed, indeed — it is this one.

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