I’m moving house at the end of this month. The one-year tenancy on my Newcastle flat is coming to an end, and it is clear that my flatmate and I are happy to go our separate ways. I’m anxious about it but also surprisingly relaxed. In many ways, I’m shocked it has only been a year. It feels like no time at all, but I’ve lived a life in this flat already. I almost nearly died here, in fact, so maybe that has something to do with it. I’m not sure my flatmate really gets the complex feelings I have about the place, or what I’m often processing whenever I am here, but that’s okay. It’s time to move on.
February is beginning to feel like a month of profound self-acceptance, for this reason and others. Not a time of indifference, apathy or dismissal. A time of acceptance. Without getting too New Age-y about it, comparing who I was this time last year and who I am now is staggering. My thirtieth year was a time of horrendous growing pains, but I have grown newly tall nonetheless.
As I write this, I am sat in Newcastle’s Tyne Bar. I have my heart set on a flat just up the road from here and its wonderful neighbour, the Free Trade Inn. As someone who writes best about two pints deep, this is as exciting as it is dangerous. More than anything else, I’m excited by how these places, and many others nearby, will be heaving once spring arrives, soon turning into summer.
For all the horrors of last year,my first summer in Newcastle was wonderful. (I only wish someone had warned me about the deep darkness of its winters.) Spring itself feels like a wonderful time of self-renewal as well — something I have felt profoundly attuned to since I first started writing my next book, Narcissus in Bloom, during the spring of 2021.
I have been out in Newcastle today, Sunday, bracing myself against a lingering chill, in the hopes of finishing some final edits on the book, so that I can reach its production deadline — a deadline already postponed on a number of occasions, owing to other commitments and prolonged bouts of unwellness. But it feels so apt to finish it now, as spring comes round again (even if it means its projected appearance in late autumn this year will no doubt feel quite inapposite.)
One of the main points of feedback I received on the book from Tariq Goddard was, as ever, that the ending did not feel like an ending. (I remember Tariq saying the exact same thing about my first book, Egress — it is something that feels par for the course when trying to describe processes of self-transformation, whether communal or individual, that are always ongoing.) Returning to the book’s epilogue this afternoon, however, the springtime event-horizon of the current moment afforded me new clarity as to how to draw the book to a close.
My reflections are brief, breaking only momentarily with my conscious attempts to present the book in a more impersonal register than Egress, but they feel all the more significant for this. It is a book about self-transformation that has, at least implicitly, given me a renewed permission to actualise this very process for myself. As life starts over once again, in some ways, in this relatively new locale, I cannot overstate how transformative the very writing of the thing has been.
As evidenced by a particularly productive period of blogging last year, the book was on hold for a while. I even thought I might scrap the project altogether, frustrated by its refusal to hang together as cohesively as I wanted it to. (Something that has thankfully now been rectified.) But this was no doubt due to the depressively narcissistic position I found myself in at that time.
In the midst of last year’s mental health crisis, I remember one thing I used to complain about a lot — with regards to myself, anyway — was the disparity between having a very good understanding of my own life, the circumstances into which I was born, and the various possible reasons that explain why I behave how I do. It has taken a lot of hard work and self-reflection to acquire that knowledge. But that is not to suggest that I’ve felt like I can act on any of it in any meaningful way. I had developed a number of techniques that allowed me to illuminate my life with such terrible brightness, but I was generally left feeling, in a given blinkered moment, like a terrified rabbit in the headlights, static and stuck.
A year later, though I feel no less consciously capable of actualising my own capacity for self-renewal, spinozistically affirming my own capacity for freedom, I feel like such an adaptation has snuck up on me regardless.
I feel this most acutely now, as I make the initial preparations required to move house. Moving, at least in order to live on my own, is something I have never before experienced. I was fortunate enough, throughout my twenties, to always have a companion — romantic or otherwise — to weather the stressful moving process with together. This was no less the case when I first moved to Newcastle, assisted by my partner who I had just broken up with, moving in with one of the oldest friends I have. This situation was a buffer against the anxieties of moving to a city I did not know at all. My flatmate’s knowledge of the city meant we found a place in an area that meant I was close enough to friends who already lived here, met during another period of my life. But now the time as come to establish a world for myself. Though this might sound like a melodramatic understanding of one of life’s most mundane requirements, I feel so consciously aware of its potentialities, against any emotional dysregulation that such moves have provoked previously.
On the one hand, I’m self-reflective enough to have known for a long time that any kind of instability has a tendency to rock my whole world. I remember my parents once entertained the thought of moving house, just before I became a teenager, and I had a meltdown unlike any I’ve ever had before or since. As a kid, tantrums were not really in my repertoire, but something about the thought of moving was so distressing to me that I could not hide it. I feel embarrassed of this fact now, but it is one memory among many that I chalk up to adoption trauma. Despite the fact that existing on the edge of two modes of existence is, in lots of way, my normal situation, when it comes time to move from one place to another, I quickly feel sick and anxious when made suddenly aware of everything that is otherwise outside of my control.
On the other hand, I’m not sure I’ve ever been more excited about a move in my life. (A few years spent reading the Stoics may have helped.) I try to keep this to myself, as I imagine that, for my current flatmate, this process is a little more awkward, as our friendship has been on the rocks for sometime. As such, I’m also self-reflective enough to know that I’m not the best person to live with. My ex-girlfriend, who lived with me on and off over the course of a decade, was forthright about this when we caught up with each other recently: “Yeah, you like your solitude and being able to close a door or feel like you’ve got your own space to feel safe in.” This habit of mine is something that would no doubt wind her up too back in the day; knowing me better than anyone, she was nonetheless more sympathetic, now we no longer live together, as to the reasons why I do what I do. (Less to do with adoption trauma, perhaps, and more the volatile experience of living with my adoptive mother, whose mental health issues made hiding in my room a norm that was otherwise interpreted as teenage angst, but which has continued long into adulthood.)
But rather than make myself feel bad about my particular predilections, I feel more accepting of what I require to live the kind of life I want to. It even feels empowering to write such things down. Previously, I may have found this desire for my own place regrettable, for the ways it runs counter to the forced precarity at the heart of modern living that makes any kind of existential independence both expensive and supposedly anti-social. Whilst many have described the pressures of a millennial existence, wherein material conditions humiliate the heteronormative expectations we have otherwise inherited from previous generations — by age thirty or thirty-five, you should have a stable job, a mortgage, a spouse, kids, etc. — the ways that we are all required to live communally in shared accommodation nonetheless exacerbate these expectations rather than providing us with models of other forms of life. I have come to accept that, in order to live as I want to — and in a manner, it must be affirmed, that nonetheless cherishes the possibilities of the social — live on my own I must. It feels less like a retreat than a way to establish other forms of relation, which are not frustrated by enforced modes of cohabitation.
The stars have aligned to make this possible, not only in terms of my own circumstances but with regards to the cultural artefacts that are falling into my field of vision. I spent a great deal of last year, for instance, reading the journals of Anaïs Nin. In the fifth volume, she writes:
I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.
It certainly feels like a renewed sense of reason unconsciously prefigured through the writing of my next book, Narcissus in Bloom. It likewise feels like a good reason to affirm a new capacity to express myself through the art of living, in a new home that I can fully make my own, serving as a haven into which the outside world cannot enforce its many incursions, at least not to the same extent as when living within a sterotypically millennial precarity.
But again, this new existence does not constitute a retreat. It feels like an existence through which I can exacerbate so many of my most important ethical bonds. If it is a retreat of any kind, then it is a strategic one.
It is a retreat that has been further affirmed from without by laborkyle’s recent and beautiful video on episode three of The Last of Us, which I too am watching weekly with an impassioned anticipation and fervour.
He begins the video essay with a quotation from Ernest Bloch:
Precisely the defended man must try the outside world again. That which is coming up is not yet decided, that which is swamp can be dried out through work.
The video explores the relationship between two minor characters, Bill and Frank — a relationship explored through notes and journals in the original game, but which is here expanded, in the television adaptation, into a fully fledged love story in a post-apocalyptic world.
The episode has been widely and rightly praised by fans and critics alike, but Kyle takes the opportunity to go one step further still beyond the episode’s narrative. Less concerned with the political complexities of a paranoid prepper who finds love in an unlikely world, Kyle focuses more on the story for its more explicit exploration of queer love and self-acceptance, which is perhaps, against all expectations to the contrary, made all the more possible in a world that has lost much of its symbolic (and notably heteronormative) structure. “Perhaps some personal experience is dovetailing with fiction here,” Kyle nonetheless admits. “I don’t know.”
But Kyle’s exposition of his own experiences is just as, if not more affecting than the story told by The Last of Us itself. It is all the more affecting for me, at least, considering how much it resonates with present circumstances of my own.
“I can’t help but recognise something in these results of the marriage between shame and resentment”, Kyle continues,
the feeling that time has slipped away from you, without your say, in ways beyond your control, and you find yourself given the choice between a life that isn’t yours or right for you and the almost wholesale rejection of your community and the people who supposedly love and care for you the most; to feel like you have been entered into a social transaction you never asked for or wanted, and a life as someone or something to be dealt with, disposed of, or forgotten. And how this made me so angry and so bitter that I was ready to check out at any moment and to be done with it all. To wash my hands of it.
It’s something that begins as this violent self-loathing, but it eventually softens into this embittered and embattled dull roar. A desire to get my cat and my guns and little history degree and fuck off as far away as possible, to mind my own business. How’s that for common courtesy?
It is a bloody-minded sentiment that I have always found attractive about America and its people (albeit as someone who has spent no time there). Against the objective insanity of its popular political consciousness, at least many of its citizens have the space and capacity to isolate themselves against the intrusions of capitalist realism. England feels so much more compact and oppressive, with no space left untouched by the dark hand of capital. Indeed, so many of our wildernesses remain the preserve of the descendants of a once-landed gentry. Our “land of angles” is aptly named. To live here so often feels like having your face pushed up violently against the hardened walls of an original (and frequently exported) enclosure.
I remember first wanting to affirm my own societal exit as a teenage, against these English bounds, as an ardent fan of American culture, but particularly as a fan of Phil Elverum, of The Microphones and Mount Eerie fame. His retreat to a cabin in Norway — prefiguring the mythology that made Bon Iver a hipster phenomenon in the late 2000s — was the most significant portal out of this world for me, prior to Mark Fisher’s more proximally English critique of Capitalist Realism — something further affirmed by Elverum’s implicit self-placement on a continuum that runs from Basho to Gary Snyder.
But as was the case for Elverum and so many others — always reminding me of Badiou’s analysis of the allegory of the cave — the movement of politics is dependent on a strategic return, following any kind of exit. No exit can be absolute, unless what is truly desire is the infinite impotence of an all too personal death. We must always return, even if regrettably, so that we can share the wisdom acquired on the outside with those still trapped in any given enclosure.
Kyle’s conclusion to his video-essay makes this point beautifully, with particular attention to the love that one may (but also must) have for one’s community:
But eventually, we learn that the thing about ourselves actually worth changing is something that we actually always had control over in the first place — mostly that I, myself, can be known and loved, through the love that I share with other people. And that underneath, or maybe contained within, all of this obnoxious rigidity and increased capacity to be stuck in your ways for whatever reason, is the capability to care deeply for something or someone, and to make your prime goal the protection and care of that person, in recognition that they have something to share with the world, just as they’ve shared themselves with you. To use your worst years to inform your best, and realise that maybe to reflect on your past is about finding new ways to need and be needed, after everything has fallen apart. That even the most aggrieved, angry and isolated of us can be found and rescued by the company and kindness of a gentler man. And that even when hope is so far away, I can find it within myself to let the outside world in again.
It is a sentiment I explore explicitly in the closing chapters of Narcissus in Bloom, wherein any narcissistic relation is not an end in itself but only ever a means — and any individualistic retreat from the world is surely narcissistic to some degree.
But this is not to say that such exits must always be denounced. Some form of narcissistic relation is, in fact, our normal situation. The point is rather that we must expand ourselves and our self-concerns far beyond themselves. This does not mean turning away from the self as such, however. We can still orient ourselves towards it, if we must. The only way out, as ever, is through.
As Derrida once wrote of narcissism:
You can only love yourself. We will not have understood anything about the love of the other, of you, of the other as such, you understand, without a new intelligence of narcissism, a new “patience”, a new passion for narcissism. The right to narcissism must be rehabilitated, it needs time and means. More narcissism. Always more narcissism…
And nowhere is this more integral than in the apparent narcissism of so many queer relations, which are as applicable to examples of homosexual love as they are to any form of transgender identity today — as we are, of course, presently trapped in the midst of a moral panic that far more explicitly concerns the latter — long since dismissed as an apparent love of and for the same.
But narcissism — as a benumbed retreat into self — can just as easily signify this same kind of withdrawal, which is also not an end in itself but constitutes a strategic position from which we can actualise a more explicitly political return. Any retreat from heteronormative enclosures is viewed as politically dangerous for precisely this reason. We might even,. subconsciously, desire such relations all the more for their political danger.
As I summarise in the book, drawing on Steven Bruhm’s marvellous text, Reflecting Narcissus:
What figure reflects this dilemma of ethical agency, “neither fully determined nor radically free”, than Narcissus — the patron saint of our peculiar capture.
The political implications of [Narcissus] cannot be overstated, especially when they emerge from marginalised communities or individuals […] Bruhm, focussing on the innately political nature of queer subjectivities in particular, argues that “politically dangerous desires” might be “desires precisely because they are political dangerous.” If we denounce these desires as narcissistic, it is perhaps only because we know, deep down, that “Narcissus is he who changes.” Ultimately, Bruhm concludes: “If there is a ‘use’ for Narcissus, it is in his dangers. Narcissus, who is said to aspire to what is the same, is continually destroying the political safety promised by sameness.” But even if we are not homosexual, Narcissus can still remain an important figure for the rest of us.
When I first moved to Newcastle, I was excited by a renewed bond with an old friend that would constitute, we both hoped, an intentionally queer household. This did not come to pass, for a variety of reasons. But as I look to establish a home that is entirely my own, which feels, in some ways, like an exit from an otherwise encouraged form of domestic relation, and with a positively narcissistic treatise under my belt, I am so, so excited to intentionally construct a world of my own, from which I hope to be far more capable of letting the outside in in new ways…