… Thousands of memories of feeling solitude, and wishing in a rage for the end of hard times or of thought.
Maybe he will only leave a formless pile of glimpsed fragments, sufferings broken against the world, whole years lived in the space of a minute, incomplete and cold constructions, tremendous labours summed up in a single glance, and dead.
But all these ruins have a certain tint of rose.
— Paul Valéry
The Humber estuary sits like a wound in England’s side. I’ve probed that wound, as if full of doubt, but have rarely crossed it — this gouge in the side of the nation lined with beacons marking the edges of industry and knowledge.
When I was a child, even an adolescent, the south as seen from the river’s northern banks was another country, a shadow land, a sparse mirror image of a possible past or future (I could never tell which).
The banks of the estuary unfurl east and west in stops and starts. Morse-coded muds and sands; the water unfathomable churning brown. The current is strong and treacherous, but at low tide it is still possible (albeit very difficult) to walk across the dark expanse — a feat seen locally like the climbing of Everest, although far fewer people have made the journey. (I have crossed the Humber Bridge by car only a handful of times, and generally not with locals.)
My earliest childhood memory is of the blinking red light that sits atop the bridge’s northernmost strut, as seen far in the distance from a crib in my parents’ bedroom. The older I get, the less sure I am if this memory is real or dream. (All memories become dreams eventually, if you remember them often enough.)
Hull: the city that sits some twenty-five miles inland from the estuary’s misshapen mouth. People all over the country now know Hull for its culture but they couldn’t tell you what that culture is. I think of Hull’s culture as a sound, elongated and time-stretched like its vowels. For better or worse, it lags behind, or simply looks outward, unperturbed by the nation at its back, eluding the present.
“Here is unfenced existence: / Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” So wrote Philip Larkin of his adopted home. My favourite Larkin anecdote is that he wore a D.H. Lawrence t-shirt to do the gardening. (So do I.) I love that image of this slight and bookish man; his comic ode to Mellors, the groundskeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, no doubt. Mellors, for whom living “is moving, and moving on”; Mellors, who is both fenced and unfenced. “I’m not just my lady’s fucker, after all.”
Lady Chatterley asks, “What else are you?”
“You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. I’m something — to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence — though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.”
There was a nice essay in the Guardian the other week by Lara Feigel about reading, or more specifically, the rise of the “bibliomemoir”. I wasn’t aware this genre had a name but I am now newly aware that it is all I have been reading of late. This blog has even begun to feel like an ingrown bibliomemoir, and perhaps always has been: a place in which I repeatedly write about books I have read by writers who write through their own reading.
“Books throw us into the world as much as they provide respite from it”, Fiegel writes. In listing a number of examples from literature, she begins with Jane Eyre — perhaps the most affecting example there is. In the opening scene, we meet Jane in the “small breakfast-room adjoined to the drawing room [which] contained a bookcase”. She hides there, reading Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, in which she reads about
the haunts of sea-fowl; of ‘the solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape… the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with ‘the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space — that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigours of extreme cold.’ Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own: shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children’s brains, but strangely impressive. The words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes, and gave significance to the rock standing up alone in the sea of billow and spray; to the broken boat stranded on a desolate coast; to the cold and ghastly moon glancing through bars of cloud at a wreak just sinking.
There is a tension innate to Jane’s reading habits. She is seldom allowed to read for long. Having opined about the book in her lap, she is unceremoniously interrupted by her cruel cousin, John Reed. In Bewick’s descriptions of lonely birds she sees herself, her melancholy life, her estrangement, with her solitude nonetheless punctured by the extended family members who treat their guardianship of young Jane as a burden. She is both alone and never lonely enough. It is only in reading that she has time to herself — time that she spends wistfully with the words of others.
One Friday evening recently, I went with three friends to the beach at Tynemouth. We took some beer and wine, someone had a little weed, and I brought materials for burning. We set up a fire, spread out from innumerable groups of people with the same idea, adding our own light to the procession of beacons along the shore. Our lights were mirrored out at sea, as cargo ships lingered at high tide. Over the horizon, a new moon rose, forcing the shoreline to retreat, afraid, as it loomed higher and higher above. Soon enough, the cargo ships also disappeared over the horizon, newly invisible, with only their lights gathered in halos, unattached from any object, their auras captured by an evening mist.
I walked down to the sea with a friend, paddling our feet along the receding shore. Set back from the priory on the cliffs above, the lighthouse over in the next cove span lethargically, sweeping its gaze through the moistened air, a mix of night cold and beach-fire smoke, both of which huddled together in relief following the blistering heat of the day.
I thought of Jane Eyre in that moment, as we haunted the coast like nocturnal sea-fowl, spectres on the shore, the light from the lighthouse offering a waypoint on land. Its light could not reach us. Even the light of the moon, burning through the gloom, hardly seemed to touch us in our solitude.
On the drive home from the beach, my friends wish they had more time to read. “Imagine being able to read for a living”, they say. “Welcome to my world”, I interject, having just finished a proofreading job that afternoon. “What have you been up to?” they ask earlier. “How was your week?” Uneventful, I say. I have barely left the house.
I’m starting to work again — “work” in some renewed sense at least. Although I am still on long-term sick from my day job, I’ve started to do some proofreading for Repeater Books again. I’m also writing a talk on Mark Fisher for early September, on capitalism and mental illness, which feels like something of a capstone to this present period of unwellness. I also need to finish my next book, the edited manuscript of which will be returned to me in early September also. Not long after that, in October, I’ll start my PhD. By all accounts, I’m busy, whilst still cocooned in this peculiar headspace where thoughts run free but the body lags behind. These few attempts to regain some sense of normality, a schedule that was normal and comfortable a year ago, only leaves me exhausted and frequently braindead.
I am unsure what effect my life of reading is having on me.
Feigel gives a brief overview of recent “bibliomemoirs” that seem to take the scene from Jane Eyre as primal, from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books to Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Each one addresses a fundamental displacement and reads like an orphaned literature, with the authors finding families in others’ protagonists.
In turning to her own most recent book, Look! We Have Come Through! – Living with DH Lawrence, what lingers behind Feigel’s essay is the tension between “men’s” and “women’s” writing that I have recently been preoccupied with myself — and indeed, the broader tension of an impossible loneliness, which we find in Jane Eyre. It is not simply important that we may find ourselves in books but that they might alienate us also. The construction of the self, in any respect, is a double-edged sword: we come to understand ourselves as much through what we are as what we are not.
Intriguingly, in her review of Feigel’s book, also published in the Guardian, Rachel Cooke has little time for the antagonism. She is a strange choice of reviewer, in fact — a woman self-assured in her distaste for Lawrence, reviewing a book that contends with an infatuation with him. “To read Lawrence is, as even some of his admirers admit, to be in the company of a bully, a preacher and a narcissist”, she writes. “Fascinating, he might be (in small doses). Good company he most definitely is not.” She then reduces Feigel’s study to the category of self-help, since it is not a clean work of criticism or memoir, defiantly misunderstanding the lineage that Feigel sees herself within, and that of Lawrence also.
Many of Lawrence’s views, dragged into the present, are certainly unsavoury. (Cooke focuses in particular on his disdain for democracy, for example — although this is tellingly disconnected from Lawrence’s infatuation with Nietzsche, who felt similar, studying the problems of democracy that preoccupied the ancient Greeks, in a manner that can hardly be contained in a neat political identity; disconnected from Lawrence’s contradictory but productive alignment with both an increasingly alienated working-class and a cultural aristocracy.) But what remains fascinating in Lawrence, for me at least, is his modernism. Though it may at times flirt with views we now recognise as fascist — as seemed to be an occupational hazard for many a male modernist — the “self-help” tendencies in his books (far from explicit threads that we are nonetheless capable of untangling, as Deleuze and Guattari sought to do) come precisely from his fascination with the symbol of the phoenix, with rebirth, with making things new.
In her essay, which reads like a cunningly indirect response to this far from generous review, Feigel notes how her interest in Lawrence was reignited by her students. Though her passion for Lawrence began to wane as she spent more time with feminist writing — something I can also relate to — she finds her “students’ reluctant passion for his female characters inspiring.” It is a reluctant passion that has remained steadfast for many readers over the decades, because what is most invigorating and confounding about Lawrence is that, despite his personal chauvinism, his attraction to a certain kind of masculinity is coupled with an ardent preoccupation with women more generally. As Feigel concludes, for her:
reading Lawrence has demonstrated a way beyond today’s polarised politics, because he was so prepared to allow contradictory thoughts to coexist, to push every thought to its extremity in order to try it out and then think its opposite.
Though Lawrence may appear to us as a man of discontent, this discontent is far more nuanced than that of our contemporary manosphere, precisely because he does not simply other women but explore how men and women are others to each other. In this sense, his androgynous writing, in which male and female characters are written with a comparable psychological depth, is still ripe for exploration, particularly given how his singular perspective on the world was not so concerned with the polarisation of a culture war — of which Lawrence was arguably once a true victim, with so many of his books being banned under a pervasive English conservatism — but with the blurring of lines between modes of expression.
In her recent biography of Lawrence, Burning Man, Frances Wilson may offer the most succinct exposition of Lawrence’s peculiarities in this regard:
His fidelity as a writer was not to the truth but to his own contradictions, and reading him today is like tuning into a radio station whose frequency keeps changing. He was a modernist with an aching nostalgia for the past, a sexually repressed Priest of Love, a passionately religious non-believer, a critic of genius who invested in his own worst writing. Of all the Lawrentian paradoxes, however, the most arresting is that he was an intellectual who devalued the intellect, placing his faith in the wisdom of the very body that throughout his life was failing him. Dismantle his contradictions, however, and you take away the structure of his being: D.H. Lawrence, the enemy of Freud, impressively defies psychoanalysis.
It is here too that Feigel finds much to explore and admire. She notes, in particular, how much fury there is in Lawrence, and how this fury emerges from all sides. She continues:
There’s much to be angry about in Lawrence (his forays into gender essentialism and racial hierarchy, his denial of his wife Frieda’s identity as a mother). But I’ve also learned from him to find antagonism productive and I have realised how hard I have found it as a woman to accept anger – my own and other people’s.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the unprecedented portrayal of women in Lawrence’s novels, which inspired so many modernist women to a kind of unapologetic expression of their own psychologies, in a manner similarly resistant to a reductive psychoanalysis. In reading Lawrence, even despite himself, many women have and continue to feel themselves seen, their passions recognised, their selves constructed and deconstructed.
So many post-Lawrentian modernist women, in this regard, embraced their own contradictions also — in particular, the productive antagonism between the adoption of a more masculine writing as a way to further give voice to a modern femininity that likewise defies the psychoanalytic reductivism of female sexuality by the likes of Freud. Though they move counter to Lawrence’s own habits of expression, it is nonetheless true that, in his often patriarchal and masculine depictions of life, Lawrence could not help but illuminate the other side. Feminism may appear negatively in his works, but it appears all the same, bright and luminescent. He set the task for many women to make of his often negative condition (and their own) something positive.
Anaïs Nin, the first woman to published a study of Lawrence’s work in 1932, was perhaps also the first woman to take up this task. As Edmund Wilson later wrote of her work in a 1945 edition of the New Yorker, she is “one of those women writers who have lately been trying to put into words a new genuine point of view, who deal with the conflicts created for women by living half in a man-controlled world against which they cannot help rebelling, half in a world which they have made for themselves but which they cannot find completely satisfactory.”
But Nin, like Lawrence, does not enter into a discussion of “men’s” and “women’s” writing to set one across from its other. “There was no declaration of war between the sexes in my work”, she says.
There was a desire to show that relation is only possible if one understands the emotional crystallizations of both men and women… In a true relationship there is no taking sides, no feminine claims in opposition to masculine claims, no reproaches at all. There is an effort to confront together what interferes with genuine fusions.
This is not to disavow a feminist orientation but to explore that line of thought that some (but not all) now take for granted: that patriarchy is as much as restriction of men’s becoming as it is of women’s.
It is in this sense of confrontation that Nin first finds Lawrence, who expresses
our need for the symbol by which to express truths which are unbearable or inacceptable. But the symbol has another function. It also expresses, as the poets do, an experience which is not physical, not acted out, not literal. It expresses a feeling, a more complex psychological reality.
But against this interest in psychology, Lawrence is even more fascinating for his criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis. He does not take the new attempts to understand our psychological realities as an objective and received knowledge, but rather insists on something more subjective and fluid. Though Freud may have first theorised our intuitions and instincts, rendering them clinical and mechanical, Lawrence “had faith” in their liquidity. “He was very fond of the word ‘flow’, in fact, insistent upon it.” To flow was to engage in a line of flight away from neurosis, which sought to capture human divergence in an emergent medicalised nomenclature.
For Nin, to be captured by neurosis is nothing less than “a kind of paralysis.” The art of writing, then, she insists further, must itself be a kind of flow, through which “living emotion is captured without dying in the process”.
It is in an awareness of and faith in feminine flows that Lawrence makes newly possible, and which can emerge from any and all bodies, even if his preoccupation with the body leads him back to a certain essentialism. Nin proceeds otherwise, against Lawrence’s inevitably patriarchal conception of flow.
Reflecting on her own commitment to writing, she describes how, for Lawrence, “men designed the patterns followed by women. So, in a natural way, I situated my vision within various women, to see men in relation to them and seeing the reflection of these relationships in feminine terms.” It is within women that she places her “camera”. Her critics despaired, but she found herself validated regardless, as “the emotional reactions of neurotic man crystalliz[ed] into complexes”, allowing her and others “to understand woman crystallizing through her reaction to certain social, historical, and personal constrictions.” In her earlier study of Lawrence, Nin writes how it was he who first “projected his physical response into the thing he observed” in a new era. Emotion is the heat applied to experience that distills its living essence.
Crystallization: the formation of an substance through the application of heat; an impure solid, retrieved from its dissolution; making clear that which has been obscured.
I have questions. With Fiegel’s book on Lawrence on pre-order, I read her earlier “bibliomemoir”, Free Woman, a self-reflective reading of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I wonder: what is the relationship between bibliomemoir and autotheory? What use, really, are these relatively recent terms? Do they help us to better understand certain modes of expression? Do they further crystallize the very process of crystallization in literature?
Zooming out, we might also ask: what is the relationship between philosophy and literature? These two modes of writing feel more distinct — the former occasionally being a critical approach to the latter. And what about poetry? What is poetry’s relationship to philosophy? The Greeks saw them as opposites; it was necessary to shield philosophy from poetry’s deviations. Do we guard philosophy still? It seems, on the contrary, we have wonderfully let our guard down.
A more fundamental question may be: what are these things, these modes of writing, in themselves? It may be impossible to say. These modes are only what they are in relation to the examples of each we have read, and in relation to those things that are not literature, poetry or philosophy. They are types of flow expressed. Reading-writing and writing-reading are their own forms of natura naturans.
If this is so, does naming this productive relation concretize rather than crystallize? Reading takes on a subjective meaning if only because one can’t read everything. This is to say that writing — all writing — is the product of what we have read. Writing and reading are interlocked islands onto which we inexplicably import, through serendipitous encounters, our own flora and fauna. Writing and reading constitute an ecology in this regard. They substantiate our natures.
Gertrude Stein once argued that it “is awfully important to know what is and what is not your business… And so my business is how English literature was made inside me and how English literature was made inside itself.” She continues that “English literature is description simple concentrated description not of what happened or what is thought or what is dreamed but what exists”. The dividing line between philosophy and literature, then, following Stein, may be that, if the latter is “description”, the former is “explanation”. But many philosophers and poets, in turn, make a mockery of this distinction and blur the divide with glee.
As I write, a family with numerous children in tow sits down at a table near to me at the pub. A young boy starts reading as they wait for food. Soon, they are arguing over what constitutes a “graphic novel”. The boy’s mum asks what exactly is a “graphic novel”. He is certain that a graphic novel is a novel translated into “graphics”.
“No, there’s no original Dogman before the comic”, his sister insists.
For Susan Howe, poetry is also crystallization, but the substance left over is not opaque. A poem, she writes, “is a glass, through which light is conveyed to us.” This she says in an ode to the practical philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, the lens grinder. She weaves a tapestry between theologists, philosophers and poets, all of whom, like Spinoza — who was perhaps all three — struggled “to get at the predicate of substance.”
What is substance? In philosophy, substance is often that which grounds. For the Greeks, it was being itself — that which grounds and is essential to existence. Substance is flow; the river that cannot be entered twice. So, what are some examples of substances? For Spinoza, substance is God, nature. But by substance, he writes, “I mean that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. no concept of any other thing is needed for forming a concept of it.” But then, what is it that substantiates substance? Is substantiation not what is really being described and explained? A process rather than an object? Is substance nothing more, as Spinoza writes, than “nature naturing”? A process that cannot be conceived without a relation to itself? What are we to make of this self-referential idea?
Indeed, if God or nature are only ideas, then what grounds these ideas in themselves? Substance can here be transformed into convention, but convention can be broken. Spinoza was a heretic to many because, in hoping to give an account of substance’s predicates, he broke with godly convention. Indeed, what is God? What is literature in relation to God? How to describe these things in themselves through literature’s mechanisms? How is writing itself separate from nature? All that is left, really, is poetry.
As a result, Howe finds that, in expression, in poetry, substances can seem interchangeable. She writes of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet, and his interest in Spinoza and the new philosophy of American pragmatism, which argues that the meaning of something is best drawn from the practical consequences of its actualisation. (Crystallization is best understood through the gems and structures it produces.) But from pragmatism arises a confluence of practices that are not so easily separated. Indeed, despite the often utilitarian nature of pragmatism, Stevens uncovers the surrealism of activity’s interconnections, of the creative act and its consequences, of beings in their connected being. As he writes in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”, for example, as if entangled in a human nature that struggles to speak for itself in itself, stumbling through its co-existence with all things:
The person has a mould. But not
Its animal. The angelic ones
Speak of the soul, the mind. It is
An animal. The blue guitar —
On that its claws propound, its fangs
Articulate its desert days.
The blue guitar a mould? That shell?
Well, after all, the north wind blows.
A horn, on which its victory
Is a worm composing on a straw.
Howe finds an emergent postmodernism in Stevens’ modernism: the dissolution of all substantive tension. She asks: “If we have nothing but truth to leave, how do we distinguish ideas of what we were from ideas of what we are in vibrant contemporary compost jargon trash landfill”…?
I have been trying to make sense of my contradictions of late, as well as my own attraction to Lawrence, which sits somewhat uncomfortably alongside a reenergised passion for the feminist writing that followed in his wake.
I have been reading Lawrence with interest for almost two years now, even visiting his hometown of Eastwood in June last year, walking through the natural world that inspired him, but which he felt was becoming obscured by industrial capitalism.
I am fascinated by his struggles, his peculiar place in history, his thinking against all the prevailing attitudes of his time, both traditional and modernist. Nothing is clean in Lawrence and nothing is entirely as it seems. But in every book, whether he is exploring the shifting class consciousness of working-class men or the sexual awakening of newly born women, there is an attempt to express the coming-of-age of different people in all the messiness of an historical adolescence.
Leslie Fielder once wrote that the reason so much classic American literature takes the form of “children’s stories” is that America and its literature, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, had only very recently emerged from its own infancy. What other form could this literature take, a literature that reflects on a nation and its values so newly born? Lawrence himself was a wanderer, spending as much time in the new world as the old one. In his Studies of Classical American Literature, he even lays down the gauntlet for the New World to go further in its rebirth:
Where is this new bird called the true American? Show us the homunculus of the new era. Go on, show us him. Because all that is visible to the naked European eye, in America, is a sort of recreant European. We want to see this missing link of the next era.
Lawrence wants America to go further in its substantiation of itself through literature. He wants to read of an American America, rather than one born of European conventions. Of course, Lawrence’s taunts are somewhat defeatist, perhaps even premature. Here again, his contradictions are writ large. He makes demands on others to rise from the ashes of the old world, but struggles perpetually to do so himself. He reads American literature as if he wants to find a manual from the New World for a New Earth, in order to achieve his own self-actualisation, his own crystallization. But he is disappointed that the “true American” has found this as difficult as he has, as an old European on a line of flight. In his own reading habits, which he writes about from time to time, he finds himself torn, separated, undissolved, rather than newly together with himself and the natural world that so inspires him.
Something emerges regardless, even in his literary failures, which must be taken together with his successes to fully grasp Lawrence’s flow of becoming. Though he is easily criticised today, it is readily apparent that his flows are now obscured by the shifting and settling of literary convention. But literature is still moving, and moving on.
Covert affections persist in the soul under sleep only to meet in print where they can at least be felt by a reader. Each letter a separate presence yes but without restraining slippers.
Paul Valéry says the first line of a poem should come from the edge of things like a magic formula deep inside the chamber of a mollusc shell.
The other day, I went with a friend to the Newbridge Project, located on the Shieldfield estate in Newcastle. This hub of artistic practice was holding an “open house” event for a new project called The Wardrobe — a safe space for trans, non-binary and genderqueer people to get dressed. Overflowing with donated clothes, every item could be taken away for free (with financial donations optional). I had wanted to go for weeks, desperate to update my own wardrobe as I begin to externally affirm a long-repressed non-binary identity.
Rather than feeling self-affirmed, I currently feel more confused than ever. I wish I had the self-assurance of Mellors, who is something to himself at least, who understand his own existence even if no one else does. Or perhaps that is exactly how I feel. As I don new clothes that fit my frame, nonetheless changing and softening its shape, I fall out of the social in new ways. As a result, I feel newly at sea. In trying to express an essence, against the prevailing and restrictive categories of our society’s gendered organisation, I find not a crystallised self but a new formlessness.
Indeed, it is the strictures of form that I so want to escape. To take hold of my own nature, long ridiculed and repressed, is to break nervously with convention. But what to measure this breakage against? The more comfortable I feel in my own skin, the less comfortable I feel in the wider world. The softness of culottes and pleated skirts, which mirror an internal gentility that I often feel is lost under a masculine exterior, brings with it hard stares from passersby. I walk around anxiously, waiting to be punished for my new foray into self-expression.
I talk to a friend about love, about death, about that feeling sometimes experienced when animals enter our lives and we see in them the spirits of people possibly known to us, once upon a time, their love returning in animal form.
I’ve always wanted to meet and take in a stray. I imagine travelling through some sprawling nation, perhaps in Latin America, where strays are common, chancing upon a dog like me, open-hearted but alone; a dog with a kindred spirit to take home and welcome into my world. Maybe a dog with the spirit of someone once known to me.
“I thought you didn’t believe in spirits and souls and all that”, she says.
“I’m agnostic,” I reply. “I wouldn’t bet money on them, nor would I bet money on the existence of ‘god’, but I’m interested in how we come to understand certain experiences that evade easy explanation. And describing those kinds of experiences, beyond mere explanation, is where poetry lives, and I like poetry.”
We talk about family, about having children. The thought terrifies me, but I would like to have children one day, whether biological or adopted. Still, I fear I would only replicate, against all conscious intention, the genealogical neuroses I have been burdened with. I worry about how I would inevitably fuck them up.
“I can never see you harming anyone,” she says. “You are one of the most gentle souls ever.”
My parental anxiety is probably just a product of my low self-esteem.
“I wonder why a beautiful being such as yourself would ever have low self-esteem,” she adds.
“Being gentle sadly does not always equate to being treated gently.”
It is strange that this quest for a crystallised identity is encased in an exploration of fashion. What is fashion, anyway? To be fashionable is to find oneself attuned to what is popular. But the “fashion world” is also seen as a domain of expression that strides ahead of the limits of popular convention.
Non-binary pronouns are newly framed as “fashionable” by certain cynics. Perhaps this is a byproduct of new adventures in clothing and style.
The only heckle I have received recently, as I walked outward into the world in my new clothes, came from a man who passed me by on the street as I sat on a flight of steps, smoking a cigarette, waiting for that same friend. “I’d give you some change, mate, but you don’t look like you need it.” I think about this backwards compliment for days. Is that what I look like? An overdressed vagabond? I certainly feel like a stray, wandering without a home. But what is it to be seen an affluent in the midst of nothing less than subjective (and, to be honest, also financial) destitution? What is it for androgyny to be seen as nothing more than a fashion show?
Marcel Proust writes, “Style is a matter of vision, not technique.” Style is not just what is seen but how one sees. However, when style reduced only to the former, fashion becomes only a technical approach to the world, rather than an unclouded vision. How I see myself remains no doubt invisible. I take solace in the fact that I may, at last, be something to myself at least.
Still, I feel adrift, directionless, doomed to paradoxically make my life’s purpose a kind of indeterminacy. A flow in what direction? Outwards only, without technique, apart from conventional action. To determine such an approach in language always obscures something.
The assignation of masculinity weighs heavy. “There is always the violence of a sign that forces us into the search [for truth], that robs us of peace”, Deleuze writes in Proust and Signs. “The truth is not to be found by affinity, nor by goodwill, but is betrayed by involuntary signs.”
The resistance from many on the right to an adoption of fluid pronouns is a “culture war” in many senses. It is a war against the fluidity of language, which is nothing less than a war on poetry.
Susan Howe and her late husband visit Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut:
We strolled among rose bed, rose bushes, rose ramblers, bending among them to read their names: Dainty Bess, Carefree Delight, Shreveport Grandiflora, the White Rose of York, Moonstone Hybrid Tea, Pristine Hybrid Tea, Floribunda, Hiawatha Rambler. Across the road in the annual gardens we saw high banks of white phlox, varieties of marigolds (Marigold Galore Orange, Marigold Galore Yellow, Marigold Little Hero Yellow, Marigold Bonanza), we saw impatiens, nasturtiums, forget-me-nots, ugly begonias, all sorts of lilies, some of the tiger ones a gaudy vermillion. I go on with these flower names not only because I enjoy making lists — but also to remind you, the reader, how words supersede and displace the reality of an object sensed in space and time.
Kate Zambreno reflects on the naming of mental illnesses and the ways they supersede those who suffer from them, considering the tragic life of Zelda Fitzgerald:
In her review of Nancy Milford’s rather old-fashioned biography [of Zelda], [Elizabeth] Hardwick also doesn’t look critically at Zelda’s diagnosis [of schizophrenia], and instead attributes most of her fall to her diagnosed mental illness. She writes, “In her, alas, the madness was real rather than indulgence” (as opposed to, I would imagine, the indulged madness of Scott’s crack-up or Eliot’s fragmentation). This is the fiction behind our medical model of mental illness — that a diagnosis by a doctor (by one doctor, several doctors) somehow makes it real, when it is instead rhetoric constructed and corroborated by authorities who have much at stake in the terms that they themselves have invented.
What is it to embrace a new sense of “fashion”, draped over this masculine frame? The expression of an identity through clothes becomes irreal, is seen as indulgent.
Just as I am beginning to feel better, recovering from a mental collapse, I find a depression still simmering underneath as I struggle to integrate a torn sense of self. I am held under the sign of “depression”, which is treated, but then linger there in stasis. Sertraline does little to address the substance of my identity denied.
Intrusive suicidal thoughts no longer shout in my ear; now they only whisper. Their persistent presence is no less distressing.
To identify as non-binary is not a mental illness, but illness nonetheless unfurls from the struggle against convention. Doctors and nurses masculinise my struggles. Depression is seen as a product of a fraught masculinity. I need only talk to other men, they suggest. I never argue that the opposite is true; that it is a repressed femininity that makes me feel so adrift.
My recent post on insomnia lingered in my drafts for a week. I thought I’d have more to say, then I started sleeping again. On waking up one day, I took another look at it and just hit “Publish”. Before I knew what had happened, I’d changed from sleeping only briefly and occasionally to sleeping all of the time. I haven’t seen too many people as a result. The “life of the mind” is the only life being lived, but even then only barely. I have little energy to go out, as any exertion, physical or mental, soon drags me back into unconsciousness.
Nevertheless, as my mood has stabilised, I have begun to return to work. Proofreading sadly does not pay enough for me to “make a living” from it; at the same time, reading is all I have at my disposal to help me remake my life. To live with books feels like entering a dream awake. Unfortunately, the effects of this are far from conducive to writing — it now takes days, even weeks, rather than hours, to articulate my feelings with any clarity. Regardless, sleep and dream are still all I’m thinking about, all I am preoccupied with.
Nin summarises the trajectory of Jungian psychoanalysis through a misattributed aphorism: “Proceed from the dream outward…”
Writers and psychoanalysts share a common project in this regard, Nin argues:
What the psychoanalyst does is what the novelist also has to do — probe deep enough until he finds where the chain broke. Traumatic experiences cause such breaks. The psychoanalyst repairs the broken links and allows the unconscious, which has its inception in the personal experience, to merge into a life beyond the personal.
The important thing is to learn from the writer the ways and byways of such passageways between conscious and unconscious. The unconscious can become destructive if it is disregarded and thwarted. Neurosis, based on fear, creates solitary cells to protect itself from invasion. Many of today’s writers have assimilated the findings of psychoanalysis and are more expect in linking the subconscious with the conscious. We are beginning to see the influence of dream upon reality and reality upon dream. Art is revealing to us the variety of levels on which we live. This may be what we seek to express in what we now call “multimedia.”
I’m sure we’ve all had days so intense that we dream vividly and become aware, on waking, that the mind has been busy ordering experience. This is happening to me all the time at the moment, even multiple times a day. Never before has a mental health episode felt so distinctly like a brain injury. This analogy may be ill-fitting; my broken sleep may be nothing more than a side effect of my medication. But still, the brain’s current over-reliance on dream feels distinctly like an attempt to repair a psychic fracture. Indeed, just as those with physical brain injuries may be induced into comas, so my body needs far more sleep than usual to heal itself.
Does this mean I am in recovery? I think so. But I also feel like I am in a kind of stasis, with the body halted as it waits for an unconscious stability to return, a stability that nonetheless remains elusive. It is a strange sensation. My brain is clearly working on something; it is healing, ordering, rectifying. But I feel like I’m the last person to be told of the outcome of the process. It’s like waiting for mail. I’m waiting for the process to be completed; for an assessment to arrive. I am waiting for the ease of an automatic writing to return, so that I might discover, through the pen’s unconscious glide, what the mind has decided. The link between consciousness and unconsciousness has been medically severed; the brain reroutes itself around a trauma, hoping to return to truth. I am now waiting for this truth to announce itself. In the meantime, I keep sleeping and reading.
It is reading more than writing that is helping me heal at the moment, but the scar left behind is taut, pink and raw, predisposed to tearing open again if I exert myself too much. What to do instead? I feel like I am only capable of sleeping. My life feels empty, writing feels pointless, a distraction from the world and little else. The more I try to write, the more I try to preserve this re-energised compulsivity, the more aware I am that the world beyond does not change or go away. I am playing Canute to material conditions, against a paradoxical tsunami of raw and stagnant water.
Over the past few days, reading and writing have ceased to be grounding. Whilst I am actively trying to rebuild my life’s foundation, I can’t help but wonder what exactly my “reading materials” are enabling amidst the process of reconstruction. The structure remains rickety, the foundation uneven. How could it be anything else?
If, as D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “one sheds one’s sickness in books”, Kate Zambreno explores women’s great repression: the pathologisation of writing as not conducive to wellness. Men who write anyway are brave; women who write anyway make the world nervous.
I don’t feel brave; I feel I write compulsively. My own writing makes me nervous in its own aftermath. I write to escape my own assignation, inevitably assigning certain roles to others. I try to treat myself with tenderness, hoping that to write about my life is not seen as a violence by those around me.
“Elizabeth Hardwick once spoke of the twin impulses to write — desperation or revenge.” I have been desperate, most certainly; I worry I will be read as vengeful. But there is no such impulse. Only tenderness, even when the writing itself feels coarse. A caressing of substance, in all of its fluidity. Substance is not a marble to sculpt but a flows to surf.
Always moving, and moving on.