Notes on Estrangement:
Decreation and Ekstasis

Simone Weil talks of “decreation” as a kind of divine renunciation. Decreation, she says, is not the same as destruction. The latter subtracts away to nothingness; the former lets “something created pass into the uncreated.”

It is Weil’s way of explaining God’s apparent indifference to us. “It is God who in his love withdraws from us so that we can love him”, she writes. Renunciation, then, is removing ourselves from the world as God did. It is the “[i]mitation of God’s renunciation in creation.” If “God renounces being everything”, then we too “should renounce being something. That is our only good.”

Weil’s position reads to me like a kind of narcissism — not the pop-pathological variety, but that original kind: a transformative self-love; that of Ovid’s Narcissus, who undoes himself like nature in winter, only to be reborn as a symbol of spring. “We participate in the creation of the world by decreating ourselves”, Weil continues.

Though this sense of decreation grounds Weil’s sense of a “Catholic communion”, I read in her writings a kind of perverted Stoicism, the inversion of a twentieth-century Spinozism, but I also hear the echo of her conversations with the likes of Joë Bousquet, who accepted his wound, renounced the world and made a new one. It makes for a complex worldview. On the one hand, her writing is shot through with a kind of Catholic guilt, a kind of affirmation of human suffering; but on the other, it recognises this suffering only to renounce it, or at least to renounce it as a “sad passion” that may define our beginning but must be rejected if we are to reach the end. It is in this way that we can “only possess what we renounce; what we do not renounce escapes from us.”

What attracts me to this kind of philosophy, which I have discovered in so many places of late through a persistent serendipity, is perhaps its bloody-minded refusal to self-pity and instead step forward into fear and unknowing. It is to face up to the crippling misery of the modern world that prefigures one kind of death and to instead ask for another. If we find ourselves in a depressive position, where engaging with the world as it is seems pointless and insufficient, then we should do what we can, and live in some way, that makes demands on that world to change. As Weil writes:

The extreme difficult which I often experience in carrying out the slightest action is a favour granted to me. For thus, by ordinary actions and without attracting attention, I can cut some of the roots of the tree. However indifferent we may be to the opinion of others, extraordinary actions contain a stimulus which cannot be separated from them. This stimulus is quite absent from ordinary actions. To find extraordinary difficulty in doing an ordinary action is a favour which calls for gratitude. We must not ask for the removal of such a difficulty: we must beg for grace to make good use of it.

In general we must not wish for the disappearance of any of our troubles, but grace to transform them.

Here again, the echo of Bousquet: “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.” She continues:

For men of courage physical sufferings (and privations) are often a test of endurance and of strength of soul. But there is a better use to be made of them. For me then, may they not be that. May they rather be a testimony, lived and felt, of human misery. May I endure them in a completely passive manner. Whatever happens, how could I ever think an affliction too great, since the wound of an affliction and the abasement to which those whom it strikes are condemned opens to them the knowledge of human misery, knowledge which is the door of all wisdom?

I think about Antigone, who did what was, in the eyes of her king, so deeply wrong because she could not bear to renounce her kin. But this refusal seems to be born of a sense that she would not wish her suffering on another, and so she makes a stand, renouncing instead a higher power, her king, to preserve what feels sacred in her suffering and beyond the injustice of this world. Her family has been cut down, she has been uprooted, unborn, but she carries something core with her and challenges the world as it exists around her. She has been uprooted by forces beyond her control; all that is left is for her to uproot herself. As Weil writes: “It is necessary to uproot oneself. To cut down the tree and make of it a cross, and then to carry it every day.” Antigone is crucified on the cross she makes herself.

My Dad came up to visit a couple of times recently. It’s hard to watch him age. His second visit coincided with an old school friend coming to stay with my flatmate and I for a few days.

The three of us were really close once. We still are in lots of ways. They weren’t just my friends but family-friends. We’d go on holiday together and hang out at school every day. There’s a comfort that comes from that deep-seated familiarity. No matter how many years have gone by in silence, there is always still love there.

It feels so strange. I’m quite bad at staying in touch with people who aren’t in my immediate vicinity. These few days of reconnection are not down to any effort made on my part but a closeness more actively preserved by others that I feel I have remained near to unexpectedly. Some relationships just endure regardless. I see it in my Dad’s eyes. He knew us all as kids, and has not spend time with us all together in almost twenty years. We go for lunch together at the seaside as adults. I think he really enjoyed spending the day with us all. It was like twenty years hadn’t passed but I couldn’t stop thinking about how old we are now.

So much has changed recently. Life is almost unrecognisable. I feel like I am currently rebuilding my world anew. The world we share now is so markedly different to the one we grew up in. But still old faces remain; a love remains that will never falter.

I try to think about all that has changed, about how I have so often described myself as estranged from former lives, from childhood, from family. More recently, some of those connections have been rebuilt, tentatively, or have rather continued into a space that I thought, until recently, was barren. It is in my sense of renouncing that they endure regardless. The distance between us feels vast, but still an undeniable connection. I still feel on the outside of everything, but I am surprised every day by those who reach a hand out into this feeling of abyss.

It feels like life has started over. I live in a new city with a relatively new group of friends, and though I find myself spending a lot of my time with people I’d hardly say I knew well a few months ago — and in many cases, with people I categorically did not know at all — there are these strange hangovers of continuity that make time feel twisted. There is an acceptance from others that has been fostered over decades. I feel that same acceptance from some that has been fostered in just a few months.

In September, I am due to put the finishing touches on my next book. The feedback so far has been predictable for the first draft of something. The book does not quite fit together as it may have done in my mind, and with it having now been read by another, the response has been that the book either needs a bit less or a bit more. Some paths must either be curtailed or followed.

I was not sure how I re-enter the text at first. In talking to friends about it, I felt oddly like the thing had been written and was therefore done with. Though I knew there would be more work to do in submitting the manuscript, to offload it from my own private space of reflection left me with a feeling that I had cauterised the project in my mind. I was ready to move onto the next thing, despite the knowledge that the last thing was not yet completed.

This sense of cauterisation feels like a kind of renouncement. Life has changed remarkably since I first sent off the manuscript. But the breakdown I suffered in the aftermath, I am coming to realise, was a sort of misstep. A book about narcissism, about the decreation of the self, was superseded by a period of depression, a sorry fixation on the destruction of the self. Transformation gave way to nothingness; the process affirmed was renounced after being written about, but before it had been actualised for myself.

There is a fine line between destruction and decreation. I know too many who have written about the latter only to stumble into the former. Many of those I write about in the new book meet the same fate, despite themselves. I find the line and our stumbling over it described most eloquently by Anne Carson, in her essay on “decreation” in her collection of the same name. She writes on Sappho, Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil. In Sappho she finds the narcissism of Narcissus, describing herself in a fragment of poetry that places her traumatically in accordance with nature:

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

Which is it? How close death and greenery seem to be. Ego-death is held precariously at a distance from real death, but the distance also seems so slight. She teeters on the end of “ekstasis, literally ‘standing outside oneself,’ a condition regarded by the Greeks as typical of mad persons, geniuses and loves, and ascribed to poets by Aristotle.” But what tethers one death to the other is a peculiar force in Carson’s assessment: it is love. Rather than clarifying the relationship between the two deaths, love itself is called into question. As Carson writes of the poet of Lesbos:

We see her senses empty themselves, we see her Being thrown outside its own centre where it stands observing her as if she were grass or dead. At which point a speculation occurs to me: granted this is a poem all about love, do we need to limit ourselves to a reading of it that is merely or conventionally erotic? […] Perhaps Sappho’s poem wants to teach us something about the metaphysics or even the theology of love. Perhaps she is posing not the usual lovesong complaint, Why don’t you love me? but a deeper spiritual question, What is it that love dares the self to do?

Carson believes Sappho’s answer to be one of decreating the self: “Love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty.”

I have often thought that this way of loving was a malformation of emotional attachment. I have found that, in my own personal relationships, I have a tendency to give my all. I offer myself up to another person absolutely, placing my life in theirs. When love ends, it is not so much that I am heartbroken by another’s absence, but the absence of myself. I forget myself, I feel detached from my own inner resources, I fall back on a ground that is hard and barren. It feels like a death. The decreation of the self through love gives way to self-destruction when love evaporates.

I try to love differently, or not at all. I enter new relationships tentatively, holding myself back, but find that connections are missed or unsubstantiated. I linger in the background, holding onto some part of my self, turning to writing and my own thoughts like a life raft in turbulent waters, remaining at the surface, gliding over the superficial, never sinking in, only describing the view below that I float above.

This is fine too, of course. Best not to offer yourself up to someone so immediately in the euphoria, the ecstasy, the ekstasis of new affections. (This is, at least, the intent, even if affections can sometimes proceed otherwise.) Best to preserve something, to keep something in reserve. But beyond the trials of romance, how to engage with the world at large in such a way? It seems less sensible, less liberating, to hold something back in one’s love of the world. The joy of living is found in leaving oneself behind as the world washes over you. For the women considered by Carson, this is the only way to experience the grace of God. Marguerite Porete, for instance, “understands the essence of her human self to be in her free will and she decides that free will has been placed in her by God in order that she may give it back.” Love, religious ecstasy, is driven no less by the will’s desire “to depart from its own will and render itself back to God with nothing left over.”

For the surrealists writing at the same time as Weil, who are less concerned with God than other unknowable forces, particularly the psychoanalytic sense of the unconscious, will departs from will in much the same way. It is a kind of nihilism, through which, as Porete writes, the Soul “sees her nothingness by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness.” But this nothingness is not a place of despair. Carson writes that Porete “recognizes poverty as an amazing and inexpressible kind of repletion”; an “absolute emptiness which is also absolute fullness”, spoken “in erotic language”. To be all and nothing in gravity and grace.

Carson notes how this decentring and decreating is found not so much in a consenting relationship between two lovers but the consent given and discarded in a love triangle, the scorching of a lover’s jealousy, like the singed edges of old love letters burned when love is renounced at the height of an intensity betrayed.

For the jealous lover must balance two contradictory realities within her heart: on the one hand, that of herself at the centre of the universe and in command of her own will, offering love to her beloved; on the other, that of herself off the centre of the universe and in despite of her own will, watching her beloved love someone else. Naked collision of these two realities brings the lover to a sort of breakdown … whose effect is to expose her very Being to its own scrutiny and to dislodge it from the centre of itself. It would be a very high test of dialectical endurance to be able to, not just recognise, but consent to this breakdown.

I thought my own breakdown was unreasonable, I denied it as a silly affectation, a mistake, a symptom of a love given too freely and then discarded, triggering a cascade of traumatic reflections, a sense of abandonment felt after having been brought into this world, and the abandonment that is echoed when others, by their own free will or otherwise, have made their own exits.

I tell friends how I feel, how unreasonable I know I am being, fighting a war against feelings I do not want. I know I shouldn’t feel this way, I say, but I feel it all regardless. I become mad in the renouncement of something I cannot shake off. I find love left abandoned, like a corpse, an effigy of myself lain before me, distinct and disconnected if still somehow mine. I want to bury it. But friends affirm my feelings regardless. They say it is all so understandable. I feel I cannot dig a grave deep enough, but then realise I have misunderstood the task at hand. What is necessary is not a discarding of a gift unduly given, but its reintegration into the self, the decreation of something outside myself than must then be consumed and placed back within. The best remedy for a broken heart, they say, is to open your heart again. The wound must be reintegrated, transformed into a door that opens out again onto another world.

I retain a deep affection for my ex-girlfriend, who I spent ten years with. I think about how I have sought to publicly rebuild my life, document and affirm a life lived without her, narrating a new mode of existence. At times, this feels cruel. I hope she does not read it. But also, I remain in her debt and hope that no document of my continued existence is experienced as a kind of disavowal of our separation. On the contrary, I want to affirm how our separation was hard but it was tender. To think of it fills me with sadness, but not jealousy. That phrase always comes to mind — the celebrity euphemism of a divorce undertaken under the rubric of late-capitalist wellness: a “conscious uncoupling”. But that is what it was. It was tender, it was gentle. It was not the destruction of a life lived together but its willful decreation; the separation of one life into two that will always, nonetheless, retain a certain oneness. It was a process of getting out of each other’s way. Could this be described as a kind of “dialectical endurance”? It was certainly endured, but I feel all the better for it. It was felt so absolutely, but with so much space given to the processing of our feelings for each other, the processing of a love that did not go away but nonetheless could not continue. If only all renouncement was undertaken so gracefully.

Carson turns, finally, to Simone Weil. “‘To undo the creature in us’ is one of the ways she describes [her] aim.” It is necessary that one moves oneself out of the way to feel the grace of God’s love (or, indeed, love in general). In Weil, as with the others, we find a series of affectations that go far beyond those exchanges between individuals. “The erotic triangle Simone Weil constructs is one involving God, herself and the whole of creation”. Weil’s romantic analogy is at once tender but self-destructive. She writes:

I must withdraw so that God may make contact with the beings whom chance places in my path and whom he loves. It is tactless of me to be there. It is as though I were placed between two lovers or two friends. I am not the maiden who awaits her betrothed but the unwelcome third who is with two betrothed lovers and ought to go away so that they can really be together.

But what a thing to endure. I almost hear echoes of an eco-fascism, a sense that humanity is a third wheel caught between God and nature. But like Spinoza, she affirms their unity. It is a mistake to understand this will to decreation as a kind of self-destruction. To remove ourselves from such a union is not to die but to step aside. As Carson writes of Porete, “the people are not the problem here. Withness is the problem.” So Weil writes of a kind of disconnection necessary to exist alongside deus sive natura: “If only I could see a landscape as it is when I am not there. But when I am in any place I disturb the silence of heaven by the beating of my heart.”

Concluding her essay, Carson writes of the “inconsequentiality” of these three women, who writes themselves through the decentring of the “I”:

To be a writer is to construct a big, loud, shiny centre of self from which the writing is given voice and any claim to be intent on annihilating this self while still continuing to write and give voice to writing must involve the writer in some important acts of subterfuge or contradiction.

But contradiction is where worlds are created and decreated, simultaneously. “Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything”, Weil writers. “Nothing and something are two sides of one one coin”, Carson adds. Our estrangement from ourselves, from others, from the world, is precisely a making strange: to encounter something where there should be nothing; nothing where there should be something. Always, as Gertrude Stein writes, “there is no there there.” Decreation is not the transformation of something into nothing, but something and nothing existing simultaneously. We wonder what exists in between; for Carson, it is the writer and their writing: “to leave us in wonder is just what such a writer feels compelled to do.” This compulsion, she continues, is to be “moved to create a sort of dream of distance in which the self is displaced from the centre of the world and the teller disappears into the telling.” To write personally is to decreate one’s person; to render the personal productively impersonal.

I feel haunted by a line from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons: “A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing.” The meanings between words are decreated but something about this phrase has been etched on my soul like a future epitaph.

New Tenderness:
Episode 01

The first episode of my new radio show, New Tenderness, will be broadcast on at midday (GMT) today. Tune in!

First thought, best thought… For my first show on Slack’s, I wanted to share part of a mix I made shortly after moving up to Newcastle back in March. It was trialed in friends’ kitchens and at home after work, with a new community of people giving me a reason to listen to my own music again, having left it to gather digital dust during lockdown. It was a lot of fun to make. In the future, more tenderness.

Synchronicity and the Will-To-Chance:
Notes on the Ruptured Space-Time of Trauma

In every story I tell comes a point where I can see no further. I hate that point. It is why they call storytellers blind. It is a taunt.

— Anne Carson, “Short Talk on Homo Sapiens”

Carl Jung’s paper on synchronicity functions as a kind of astrological experiment; an attempt to bridge his now seemingly disparate interests in Einsteinian physics and parapsychology; an attempt to give some scientific grounding to “so-called occult phenomena.” He himself believed he had had a vision that foretold the advent of the First World War — a vision of “a terrible flood that covered all the northern and low-lying lands between the North Sea and the Alps.” For years, even decades, Jung was reticent to put his theory into words, but he eventually did so, publishing it in 1952. He was not unaware, however, that such a book would “make uncommon demands on the open-mindedness and goodwill of the reader.” But in his work as a psychoanalyst, as well as in his own life, Jung felt he had experienced too many instances of an “acausal connecting principle” to let it go wholly uninvestigated.

What struck Jung was the scientific formulation of Einstein’s theory of relativity, which made it understood that the natural laws of physics are only “statistical truths, which means they are completely valid only when we are dealing with macrophysical quantities.” At the level of the microphysical, however — what we might now call the quantum level of physics — or even at scales so large that they are still difficult for us to quantify — “prediction becomes uncertain, if not impossible.”

This has implications for our understanding of cause and effect, where certitude is ungrounded, rendered statistical and relative. Non-causal relations are nonetheless hard for us to imagine, slipping into mystical and paranormal territory, but “that does not mean that such events do not exist”, Jung argues. “Their existence — or at least their possibility — follows logically from the promise of statistical truth.”

Here Jung enters “the world of chance, where a chance event seems causally unconnected from the coinciding fact.” Thinking rationally, empirically, we can argue that such an event “is only called ‘chance’ or ‘coincidence’ because its causality has not yet been discovered yet.” But this is hardly a conclusion to rest upon — instead, it only further illuminates the limits of what we currently know or can prove.

It is this sense of illumination we might call, as Jung does, “a case of meaningful coincidence, i.e., an acausal connection.” The coincidences themselves might be explained away by a fluke of probability, but what fascinates Jung is the way that such a “run of events” might make “a considerable impression on me”, allowing them to possess “a certain numinous quality.”

Jung’s analysis quickly descends into an overview of various parapsychological and psychical research experiments — experiments with which we will all be ambiently familiar from popular culture: subjects guessing symbols on a series of cards unseen, for instance. He notes how many experiments of this kind produced results that “were distinctly above probability”, meaning that guesses were accurate more frequently than an prediction based on statistical probability would suggest. Though nothing concrete is proven by such experiments, to Jung’s mind at least, their indeterminate findings make these occult phenomena worthy of further investigation. Such meaningful coincidences, he says, are interesting because they “cannot be a question of cause and effect, but of a falling together in time, a kind of simultaneity.”

What remains interesting in Jung’s analysis, no matter how far it might slide into a study of paranormal activity, is his belief that, following Einstein, the space and time of the psyche, of the unconscious, are no less “elastic” and relative than space and time as they are perceived in our phenomenal world. He continues:

In themselves, space and time consist of nothing. They are hypostatized concepts born of the discriminating activity of the conscious mind, and they form the indispensable co-ordinates for describing the behaviour of bodies in motion. They are, therefore, essentially psychic in origin, which is probably the reason that impelled Kant to regard them as a priori categories. But if space and time are only apparently properties of bodies in motion and are created by the intellectual needs of the observer, then their relativization by psychic conditions is no longer a matter for astonishment but is brought within the bounds of possibility. This possibility presents itself when the psyche observes, not external bodies, but itself.

In my own experiences, the Jungian idea of synchronicity hardly seems wholly pseudoscientific. I first came across it whilst reading Nancy Newton Verrier’s The Primal Wound, her self-help book (of sorts) for helping the reader understand the adopted child. In reflecting on Jung’s concept, I remembered, for instance, how my biological mother and I both shared an escapist fantasy of packing up our bags and moving out to the American Midwest to become storm-chasers. As a teenager, her favourite pastime was ice skating and she played for a local women’s ice hockey team; before puberty trapped me in an ungainly and ungraceful rugby player’s physique, my favourite hobby was figure skating and going to roller discos. We found the synchronicity of these fantasies and passions between us both unsettling and amusing in their seemingly impossible specificity.

These coincidences felt like an uneasy ground upon which to build a new mythology. But how to tell these stories to others without losing faith or without provoking ridicule? How to tell these stories without slipping into fantasy and spirituality? How to rationalise an experience that feels, at its core, so irrational and mystical? At the same time, how to accept that these synchronicities are nothing more than coincidences? Or mundane experiences given undue weight by later reflection? To read into these stories in passing is no more rational than reading the stars, but the meaning gathered nonetheless is deeply affecting.

Still, I find ways to explain these coincidences away, as if to protect myself from falling too deeply into this mystical connection. In Hull, for instance, ice skating is hardly an uncommon pastime, with the city boasting the only Olympic-sized ice rink in the region. The city also has a long history of success in ice hockey, with the Humberside Seahawks becoming national champions in 1988 — an incredible achievement considering this was the very same year the team was founded. This success greatly popularised the sport locally, in a city better known for its rugby teams, during my mother’s adolescence and during mine. At the same time, my fascination with tornadoes no doubt comes from a childhood spent watching the 1996 film Twister over and over again — a film that was pop-culturally significant for many. But there is also something symbolic in this fascination, coming from a sense of awe at the destruction and confusion brought to communities under certain atmospheric conditions. I feel like I can identify with tornadoes, keen to study a thing of mystery and beauty that can nonetheless leave so much devastation in its wake. I remain certain that any psychoanalyst would have a field day pondering the shared significance of these dreams of ours.

But perhaps all of this can all be explained away by our cultural proximity, or simply growing up in similar social conditions? (There is only fifteen years between us, after all; barely a generation.) I would likely not think much of these coincidences were they shared with a total stranger, but they mean something to me nonetheless. They help populate a fiction, a mythology of life, and there is a great deal of joy to be experienced in telling some of these stories anyway, even if their veracity or significance is overplayed. They constitute a further mythologisation of a life lived in uncertainty and discontinuity. Sometimes such unavowable experiences can only be expressed through mysticism and poetry.

Though it is hard not to hold Jung’s thought before oneself with a healthy scepticism, the traumatised mind knows all too well how meaningful coincidence can dismantle its own functioning. Jung’s theory of synchronicity, no matter how forcefully he may attempt to back it up with science, is surely mad. But madness is the perfect domain in which to make use of it, where connections between events are made unconsciously all the time, and where “numinous effects”, as Jung says, often “express themselves as affects.” Indeed, what is trauma, as a kind of psychic wounding, if not a free-floating and acausal affect, wherein past events are echoed inexplicably in present ones, not necessarily connected through space and time as it normally appears to us, but through the warped space-time of the damaged unconscious. A post-traumatic experience, in this respect, may not even refer to an event that is consciously remembered but simply emits itself from a tear in the fabric of the unconscious mind. Indeed, trauma is a wormhole, a shortcut between events that collapses thought under its density.

I try to think this through my recent unwellness, through which excessive feelings were brought forth by events that had no immediate impact on my life; or the subsequent detachment and dissociation, through which the mind, in an apparent attempt to protect itself from itself, denies the emergence of any affect whatsoever, allowing only a numbness that separates the unconscious from the lived experiences of a more conscious mind, transforming life into the shadow of a bad dream.

What is left to affirm, through such difficulty, is our own will. The will to overcome, perhaps, but also the will to chance; the will to face life in all of its possibility, for good or ill.

In On Nietzsche, Bataille explains how the mad philosopher “was horrified by the idea of subordinating his thought to a cause.” The sense (and tense) given here is one of present and future — a nod to the idea later quasi-actualized by Nietzsche’s sister, attaching his philosophy to Nazism like cart to a horse. But we also find in Nietzsche an expressed affirmation of indeterminism, reaching far into the past as well.

“Did my ‘a priori‘ want this of me?” Nietzsche exclaims in the preface to On the Genealogy of Morality. His thought often considers how it is we have come to think and reason thus. He later asks, however, time and again, how we might still come to think otherwise, through our own sheer force of will.

But the will is a complex thing. It is not so easily contained by how we might otherwise imagine it: a linear direction of thought, thrust ahead of us like a sword; the sovereignty of thought and action combined into some unitary entity. On the contrary, at the level of what we might call the microphysical, will is multiplicitous, schizophrenic, polyvocal, making connections wherever it pleases.

Deleuze makes reference to this explicitly in his book Nietzsche and Philosophy. He writes that the “being of force” — any force — “is plural.” It is never a case of a singular force acting upon some indifferent object. (Jung’s interest in the relation between contemporary physics and the unconscious mind returns here.) “Every force is thus essentially related to another force.” It is Newton’s first law of motion: there is no inertial observer within the interplay of forces. As Deleuze continues, there is always a “hierarchy, that is to say the relation of a dominant to a dominated force, of an obeyed to an obeying will.” He adds: “The sense of something is its relation to the force which takes possession of it, the value of something is the hierarchy of forces which are expressed in it as a complex phenomenon.”

“Sense” might be understood here as the “truth” of something, or rather another kind of “essence”, which is not so much intrinsic to force but how a force is relatively understood. For something to “make sense” to us, then, we must first recognise certain familiar signs that are perceptible to us within it. Signs, it must be said, can be objective or subjective. We must all learn the signs that mark our roads if we are to drive, for instance, attuning ourselves to a common sense, but we can — and, indeed, do, whether we like it or not — also develop ways of being that are wholly our own, formed by the chance repetition of other signs that accost us.

When Jung writes of meaningful coincidences, he writes of signs that he alone (perhaps) has attached a certain significance to. He writes of repeatedly coming across fish, for example, in actuality and symbolically, as he undertakes a study of the symbolism of fish throughout history. We can explain this away by saying that he is simply more sensitive to the appearance of the fish sign in his studiousness, but he is also only studying fish because their symbology seems oddly ubiquitous to him, in various cultures and their histories. He finds himself not in a relation of cause and effect, but a symbolic feedback loop, where experience gives rise to metaphor and metaphor, in turn, comes to shape experience. It is not, then, so simply a case of cause and effect but, as Jung himself writes, of things “falling together in time.”

It is perhaps in this same sense that we can understand Deleuze’s comment, when writing on Marcel Proust, that signs “are the object of a temporal apprenticeship, not of an abstract knowledge.” Signs are themselves multiplicitous, resistant to a compartmentalisation into a general system of knowledge. He writes:

From one moment to the next, [signs] evolve, crystallize, or give way to other signs. Thus the apprentice’s task is to understand why someone is ‘received’ in a certain world, why someone ceases to be so, what signs do the worlds obey, which signs are legislators, and which high priests.

Jung seems to understand this intuitively, but still he attempts to fold the non-sense of synchronicity into a general theory of the collective unconscious. But the unconscious, whether collectively or individually understood, surely always remains multiplicitous. Jung’s sense of the “collective” becomes paradoxically unitary, as he places “meaningful coincidences” — “to be distinguished from meaningless chance groupings” — on top of what he calls “an archetypical foundation.” In his assessment of an “acausal connecting principle”, he nonetheless subordinates his thought, and that of his patients, to a set of primitive and unconscious causes — acausal causes that are acausal if only because they have been lost to time.

In his attempt to account for time lost, Jung defers to a natural — we might even say genealogical — set of relations lost to the conscious mind. But as Deleuze writes, “when we posit the unity, the identity, of the will we must necessarily repudiate the will itself.” The will’s multiplicity is lost. The acausal is restricted to causes forgotten, in the past, rather than a future unknown towards which any will must surely strive, even in its roundabout way. Perhaps this is inevitable, even a logical conclusion to draw — one arrived at despite all of Jung’s interest in the seemingly illogical and paranormal — but it also seems to undo Jung’s own interest in the relativity and unknowability of unconscious time.

Here, the usefulness of Deleuze and Guattari’s more geological sense of the unconscious in A Thousand Plateaus becomes far more explicitly useful. “We are never signifier or signified. We are stratified.”

With the stratification of the unconscious in mind, we can turn back to Deleuze’s study of Proust, which begins with the question: “What constitutes the unity of In Search of Lost Time?”

We know, at least, what does not. It is not recollection, memory, even involuntary memory… the Search is not simply an effort of recall, an exploration of memory… Lost Time is not simply time past; it is also time wasted, time lost track of. Consequently, memory intervenes as a means of Search, of investigation, but not the most profound means; and time past intervenes as a structure of time, but not the most profound structure.

There is no unity, then, between the Search and the time that is lost. Rather, there is only a multitude of orientations facing off against each other; a multitude of dimensions interlaced. It is in this way, as Deleuze writes at the start of Logic of Sense, that the central characteristic of the “simultaneity of becoming” — we might even say its synchronicity — “is to elude the present.” In this way, “becoming does not tolerate the separation or the distinction of before and after, or of past and future.” This is nowhere more apparent than in Proust, whose Lost Time may be behind him, but whose Search is nonetheless an activity oriented towards the future. To search for lost time is a paradox, an ouroboros, in plain sight, encapsulating the synchronous dimensions of becoming.

It is in this sense that “memory intervenes only as the means of an apprenticeship that transcends recollection both by its goals and by its principles.” It is less a process of recollection than it is an active and always unfolding reflection, of two dimensions of becoming — the first: “that of limited and measured things, of fixed qualities, permanent or temporary which always presuppose pauses and rests, the fixing of present, and the assignation of subjects”; the second: “a pure becoming without measure, a veritable becoming-mad, which never rests” — seeing themselves in the other. This tandem movement is complex, paradoxical, unconscious, but it is nonetheless legible, with the right training.

This is to say, as Deleuze does of Nietzsche,

that genealogy does not appear on the first night and that we risk serious misunderstanding if we look for a child’s father at the birth. The difference in the origin does not appear at the origin — except perhaps to a particularly practised eye, the eye which sees from afar, the eye of the far-sighted, the eye of the genealogist.

The eye, that is to say, of the semiotic apprentice of time; the eye that conducts the Search for Lost Time.

Diary Fragments

On Saturday, I plan to relax and then go out to see a friend DJ at a club in town. A post-punk night, she is restricted to only playing music released prior to 1989.

I sleep most of the day instead and don’t make it out.

On Sunday, I do not feel rested. I head to a coffee shop in Heaton to read and write. It rains periodically, clouding the neighbourhood in a fine mist. I set up at a wooden table outside regardless so I can smoke. The table is covered in a green film — some sort of moss or algae — which is activated by the moisture in the air. If it wasn’t so dark, it would be neon. It rubs off on my fingers. I rub it off but still end up with the taste of it, the grit of it, in my mouth somehow.

I try to read but feel nauseous, a little dizzy. My eyes feel untethered, oscillating drunkenly around the page. I start to write instead and the nausea subsides, my eyes more able to focus on the words as they appear, rather than the lines already inked to the page.

My hand cramps up almost immediately, but I write through the discomfort — a further distracting kind of pain.

I wrote about myself so I wouldn’t become paralyzed by rumination — so I could stop thinking about what had happened and be done with it.

More than that, I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead.

Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness is a diary of a diary, or a diary of a diary’s end. She explores the same condition I am wrestling with and translates it into a kind of prose poetry, fragmentary and circling towards a void, where writing is finally, maybe, to be denounced.

Hypergraphia, the overwhelming urge to write. Graphomania, the obsessive impulse to write. Look up the famous cases if you’re interested. Nothing about them ever helped me with my problem.

I talk to my friend, who says I have inspired in her a similar compulsion. She flatters me but all I think about are the negatives. I am a lonely person to live with, I confess. I know that to be true. It has been said repeatedly. Home is where I write, or where I flee from when the compulsion takes me — either way, if there is not an event or social occasion to be engaged with, I sit with pen in hand or sleep.

I need to write, I tell myself, to make writing my life, because life itself feels so difficult to understand on its own terms. Writing grounds me. But in the same way that the sating of any addiction does not always lead to a healthy lifestyle, I am often aware of the things that writing keeps me from, the other ways that life might be lived.

Manguso: “I write the diary instead of taking exercise, performing remunerative work, or volunteering my time to the unlucky. It’s a vice.” She continues, explaining that she “started keeping the diary in earnest when I started finding myself in moments that were too full.” This too resonates. Writing as a way of grounding against nausea, against the overwhelm, that existential nausea of life felt too intensely (or perhaps life felt at all).

On the table next to me, the complete translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in all of its 800-page density. I want to read what she has to say about D.H. Lawrence, some 200 pages in, but struggle to contextualise her argument by dipping in halfway through. I start at the beginning, but it only compounds my nausea. The gravitational weight of the book, intellectually and as an object, pulls me apart, like a body drifting toward a black hole. This treatise on becoming unbecomes me.

I wonder how she wrote it. Was its enormity fuelled, like Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, by amphetamines? Was it the writing drug that fuelled the production of such density, of thought’s fullness rendered in its entirety? The book feels like the aftermath of a writerly explosion, that moment when the voided space of fiery experience refills with the back draft of solid air. It knocks you over, obliterative, a hard block of time.

A person’s diaries, if maintained long enough — Manguso says hers is 800,000 words long — would surely be even denser. But here time is recorded in another way, drifting, fragmentary, unhardened even when printed out. It captures, in Manguso’s word, an ongoingness.

Such an enormous tome, exploring the becoming of woman, the limits placed upon such a becoming by the social, the social conception of the body, the body of the work weighted, not so much becoming in itself but dragging me down, my back aching, too many books lugged around, this one the biggest, the weight of experience even heavier, nauseating.

I am nauseous because I am tired, I tell myself. I am due at my friend’s house for dinner in two hours. The coffee shop closes at four. It is four now.

I go to a pub up the road and nurse a pint, wondering whether I should go home and briefly nurse myself. I worry I won’t get up again. I worry I will have depleted myself and not make it home from dinner.

Writing again, the nausea again subsides. I feel it leaking out of me in other ways. The beer makes me sweat, my stomach cramps, but at least my head is clear, distracted, no longer spinning. Writing fills up the time of the present. The present is written and avoided. It bubbles up inside me, feels like wind. I belch but feel something solid hitching a ride. I fart into the mottled felt of the bar’s furniture. My body is working away at something unseen. It is bloated, a food baby from a pregnant moment, constipated time flowing irregularly. What a burden a body can be. Let me live, I think, to the body, keeping a frustrated silence, annoyed and not speaking to the mind.

Ninety minutes left to go.

Ninety minutes filled with the Women’s Euro finals. England versus Germany. So many blonde ponytails bouncing around the screen. Still the cantankerous old man holding court at the bar. The referee makes a call that is not in England’s favour. Impassioned but still himself, she’s a “useless old tart”. The German team are all “dirty krauts”. He cheers on the nation, on the women’s football team, with a broadcast that is perhaps the biggest platform the women’s game has ever received. I can’t help but laugh at how he slots this new experience into his hardened thoughts and way of life. It is fun to hear him so invested in the match, even if his nationalism and sexism is only partly dented in response. No new tricks for the old dog.

Dinner is lovely. I’m elated and a bit tipsy. I get the last bus home and sleep, but wake up on the hour every hour from 3am through to 4am, 5am and 6am. From 6am to 10am, I dream.

Some months ago, I dreamt that I was in Amsterdam, but it looked more like Miami Beach. I was staying in a beautiful-looking hotel with my Dad, but the room was exactly the same as my London flat. It had a stunning bar on one of the top floors where I’d go for cigarettes. But despite all of that, I felt really oppressed by it. I found the architecture stressful, the glamour of the place intimidating. I couldn’t enjoy it, feeling like an imposter or an anxious squatter who has found a spot to rest but knowing they shouldn’t really be there.

In the dream, I couldn’t sleep. There was a school group of teenagers staying on our floor of the hotel and they kept me awake all night with their antics. I’d go into the corridors to scowl at them. Lying awake in bed, I saw a man jump from the bar above and plummet past our window.

It was, in the end, a very disturbing dream, combining all of my anxieties around travel and sleep and death. But I forgot about it completely. It was not a dream that, I thought, had stayed with me.

Last night I had another dream about being on holiday. I bumped into a girl I used to date at university, along with her twin sister. It had been a decade since we’d last had a conversation and so we fell into that ripened familiarity, candid and cajoling, returning to a prior mode of relation, the frayed edges of which were protected by the distance of time.

They were going on holiday again soon, they said, to Amsterdam, and described a hotel in a region of the city that sounded familiar to me. I began recanting my previous dream in this one, then found myself suddenly before the hotel in question, which was named “Chaza”, and through which I suggested I could give them a tour.

Recalling the moment the body fell, I decided against it. I left them and went to the sea, and in the sea I woke up.

A Note on The Madwoman in the Attic

I went into Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination without too much expectation. I’d heard of it and was intrigued by their focus on the Brontë’s and Emily Dickinson. I’d heard it was pretty seminal. I didn’t expect it to be quite so outdated.

Lots of critiques have been written about the book over the years — many focusing on the familiar second-wave-feminist stumbling block of an overreliance on biological essentialism and other sorts of blinkers — and the authors try to address a few of these critiques in the second edition’s introduction, where they each herald themselves as a “madwoman in the academy”. For a piece of writing written in the year 2000, introducing a book first published in the late 1970s, it is striking how so many of their arguments (and the style of their arguments too) echo those that various TERFs now use to hold much of the mainstream media to ransom.

In considering their critics’ various positions, but taking particular issue with the poststructuralists that would soon surpass them, the pair argue that

the attack on the paradigm of The Madwoman could and did go beyond the content of [their original] metaphorical model (of the rebelliously diseased woman writer struggling to gain independence) to a post-structuralist rejection of any formulation that would lend credence either to the term “woman” or to the category “women writers”, a disavowal that necessarily makes it difficult indeed to do feminist work in a literary historical context.

This is seemingly to say, in a now-familiar TERF nomenclature, that you can’t even say what a woman is anymore. (Judith Butler predictably comes up a few times to receive some vague scorn.)

This point falls shortly after a repudiation of the work of Michel Foucault and his argument about how the self more broadly is formed. For Foucault, they write, “what replaces the self as a source of power are institutional regimes whose social forces shape people laboring under the delusion of individuality.” As a result, the ways that “[n]ineteenth-century literature repeatedly refers to the creation of the self … actually achieves — for poststructuralists — … the naturalization of this historical concept.” The self is a concept, an invention, which art historians in particular, many decades before Foucault, trace back to the Renaissance and to the trickle-down influence of a courtly despotism. (Jacob Bruckhardt argued this way back in 1860, in fact, in The Civilisation of the Renaissance, giving his name to what is now known as the Bruckhardt Thesis.) It is a clear product of liberalist thinking, and one they daren’t see critiqued.

Though they may reject this line of thinking, it is striking to me that so many of the women they later consider (in the book’s three-part sequel, No Man’s Land, that I’m yet to read, which focuses on women in the twentieth century) seemed far more on board with it, arguably inspiring — albeit under the still-obfuscating influence of patriarchy — the theoretical work that was to come. (Deleuze and Guattari may only rely on Woolf, but she is foundational all the same.) Gilbert and Gubar cannot see this. It makes the book very surreal now to read.

The book begins, for instance, with a quote from Anais Nin, who I have been interested in of late for her championing of an androgynous writing. But Gilbert and Gubar seem to reference her whilst wholly ignoring her interest in an androgynous literature, even quoting critics who would perhaps find such a writing abhorrent. John Irwin, for example, in Doubling and Incest, is quoted favourably for having said that

the relationship “of the masculine self with the feminine-masculine work is also an autoerotic act… a kind of creative onanism in which through the use of the phallic pen on the ‘pure space’ of the virgin page… the self is continually spent and wasted…

This may describe the chauvinistic work of Henry Miller quite well, but Nin’s too? They would probably argue she is just reproducing masculine tropes in her work, as Miller thought himself. But to my ears, this starts to sound a lot like the transphobic work of someone like Ray Blanchard, with his pathology of “autogynephilia”.

Intriguingly, despite this, they quote Leo Bersani’s A Future for Astyanax, in which he argues that “language doesn’t merely describe identity but actually produces moral and perhaps even physical identity… We have to allow for a kind of dissolution or at least elasticity of being induced by an immersion in literature.” So the question must be asked more forcefully: what is produced by a far more androgynous literature? Is this not the primary legacy of women’s writing under modernism which — as Virginia Woolf herself wrote, in what they too acknowledge as perhaps the founding text of “women’s studies”, A Room of One’s Own — calls not just fiction but woman herself into question? How is it not painfully obvious to Gilbert and Gubar that so many of the seminal “women writers” of the last two centuries would squirm under their own characterisations of what it means to be a woman who writes?

None of this makes it impossible for us to talk about a “women’s writing”, however, despite the pair’s fears. Surely it only makes the concept more interesting, for the ways that it changes literature as such more broadly, incapable of remaining a distinct subculture, as Gilbert and Gubar believe it to be, but having a clear influence on the literature in general, precisely by producing the elasticity of (gendered) being that Bersani calls for.

It is a sad and familiar story, which now feels even more overbearing in our popular discourse than it once did: yes to elasticity, they say, only to complain that now the rubber band of subjectivity has been stretched too far…

Sod it. Let’s keep stretching.

Storm Crow

There’s a new Mark Stewart track out, appearing on a forthcoming compilation from On-U Sound. Niall McCann has made the video and it has served as a bit of a soft announcement of a project McCann has been working on for a few years now — a documentary about Mark Fisher called Lost Futures.

I’m excited for this project to come out. I was interviewed for it way back in March 2020, just before the pandemic, at the launch for Egress at the ICA in London. I’ve seen a few clips already and it looks like it is going to be amazing.

Read more from the video’s press release below:

‘Storm Crow’ by Mark Stewart is a track made for ‘Lost Futures’, the forthcoming film in development about the life and work of the influential writer and theorist Mark Fisher, and is also featured on the compilation ‘Pay It All Back Vol. 8’, the latest volume in the acclaimed series of samplers from Adrian Sherwood’s On-U Sound label.

“I first met Mark Stewart through the film we are making about the life and work of the writer Mark Fisher. Tariq Goddard (the writer and head of Repeater Books, which he founded with Fisher) had given me the names of people we should speak to and Mark’s was one of the first names on the list. As Mark Stewart and I began discussing the film and I told him I wanted to use some of his music in it because Fisher loved the Pop Group, he suggested we collaborate on a music video for a new track of his, ‘Storm Crow’. It seemed like a perfect fit, a chance to experiment and also a way of getting the news about the film we are trying to make out into the world. We are in the process of financing the film which can be an arduous process. We’re always on the look out for collaborators and champions for the project and if people who read this feel they can help in some way we would love to speak to them.

The ‘Storm Crow’ video is an attempt to visualise the ideas of Mark Fisher and combine them with music with a similar perspective. A playful experiment in matching his ideas to the music of Mark Stewart, recontextualizing old tv advertisements (which both Marks would have grown up watching) zombie movies, along with pivotal social and political moments which helped bring us to what Fisher called “Capitalist Realism” which is the idea that it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The vast body of work Fisher left behind explores Capitalism’s unassailable role in our lives, the closing off of any sense of a future different from the present, and the effects of this on us as individuals. His writings lifted up the veil and showed the world afresh to his readers, and that’s what is the core idea in the music video.

The film itself revolves around something which is central to Mark Fisher’s work: the future. When I was young the future was everywhere. It could be anything, it seemed rife with possibilities, for something better. Now, it’s only talked about as a more terrifying version of the present. This is a film about the futures we have lost and how we might start imagining new ones again.

We will use Mark Fisher’s life and his brilliant ideas as a guide through some of the most urgent questions of our time.”

Rizosfera has some more info too, with further comments from Mark Stewart, Obsolete Capitalism and Bobby Gillespie, who have also contributed to the soundtrack.

Unlatched Red Being:
On Anne Carson and Phoebe Bridgers

Photography is a way of playing with perceptual relationships.
Well exactly. 
But you don’t need a camera to tell you that.

The girl at the Phoebe Bridgers concert keeping herself cool with a copy of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red has remained in my mind as a pertinent ghost image.

Still struggling to sleep, perhaps as a side effect of medication, perhaps a side effect of still having a broken brain, when I do try to rest, it is Carson I have turned to ever since, drifting to recordings of lectures, readings and conversations on YouTube. There are not as many as I would like.

Thankfully, in my daze, I remember little of what is said, allowing me to relisten to the same readings again and again. Carson’s own fragmentary style, her renowned “short talks”, are themselves like images that drift and float through semi-consciousness, latching themselves onto the life I am rebuilding.

Other boys stood beside him
on the wall. The petals of their colognes rose around them in a light terror.
Meanwhile music pounded
across hearts opening every valve to the desperate drama of being
a self in a song.

There’s something about the ghost image from the concert that is resonating with the book itself. (Here I am thinking of Guibert’s “ghost images”: the treasured and quasi-photographic memories of photographs missed, not taken.) It is what Carson might call a “memory burn.

The book is a (post)modern retelling of the story of Geryon, a three-bodied monster with a human face from Greek mythology. Carson draws on a poem by Stesichoros, titled “Geryoneis”, which is only available to us in fragments, and which tells the story of Geryon’s defeat at the hands of Herakles from Geryon’s own perspective.

In the book’s short opening essay she asks, “What difference did Sterichorus make?” Like so many writers of his time, particularly the pre-Socratic philosophers, these fragments are effusive and alluring, but most of what is pieced together of their true content seems to be second-hand.

Carson notes how Sterichoros was celebrated by critics, and it is intriguing that these critics themselves pay such close attention to his use of adjectives. Take Carson, for instance, quoting (and I assume also translating) Hermogenes: “What a sweet genius in the use of adjectives!” It is a strangely useful piece of praise, since often all we have in these fragments are single words, often only adjectives themselves, devoid of context, but still singular words that have been chosen.

For Carson herself, it is the persistent use of the word “red”, used to describe almost everything, from Geryon himself — “everything about him was red” — to “the red landscape”, “the red wind”, his “red dog”, “the red dawn jelly of Geryon’s Dream” on “another red day”. (How pleasurable and yet guiltily inapposite it feels to think of Taylor Swift at this moment…)

With this in mind, Carson emphasises the purpose of adjectives, asking explicitly:

What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign.” Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.

What adjective might describe this ghost image I am so taken by, this image which is, in itself, a kind of particular appendage? It is the specificity of its disjunctive contents that enthralls; its resistance to the importing of meaning that makes it feel so important.

The proper nouns: Bridgers, Carson. The common nouns: venue, book, concert. The verbs: singing, wafting, reading. The adjectives? They feel elusive, lost to the haze of memory. They are unfixed, unlike everything else that makes up that moment, which is more easily verbed than adjectivized. But the moment was itself also red — the red heat; the unmistakable red dot I saw dancing on the book’s front cover; the memory of the red that likewise dominates Punisher‘s album cover, which I hold in my mind throughout; the actual red lights that sweep across audience and stage. Everything about it was red.

Though Stesichoros is praised by Longinus, Carson tells us, as the “Most Homeric of the lyric poets”, she nonetheless considers how this Homericism is hard for us to quantify. “Homer’s epithets are a fixed diction with which Homer fastens every substance in the world to its aptest attribute and holds them in place for epic consumptions”, she writes. Every adjective seems fixed, every substance predictably described. But what is established, in this sense, is a kind of worldly and wordy coding. Carson describes these epic poems as passionate, but asks “what kind of passion?” She quotes Baudrillard: “Consumption is not a passion for substances but a passion for the code”. A passion no less red, perhaps.

Stesichoros, however, meddles with the recipe. “For no reason anyone can name, Stesichoros began to undo the latches.” He “released being” from the Homeric tradition, unrooting the commonplace and re-activating the essence of poetry, in a way that Carson clearly finds resonant with the modern. I’m reminded of Jean Paulhan’s The Flowers of Tarbes, his anxiety and terror at the humiliating modern abandon of the commonplace, as if “we who do not have much are in danger, at any moment, of losing the little we have.” And yet, though Paulhan may turn to the ancient poets himself, who were unperturbed by a reliance on cliche, the commonplace, on tradition, it was already the pre-Socratics of Stesichoros’ time that developed a new passion not only for substance but its instability.

Blanchot, for instance, in writing of the literary “limit-experience” in The Infinite Conversation, turns first to Heraclitus and the problem of his modern translation. We use, perhaps all too readily, “the common nouns of the modern world” when attempting to make sense of his work, Blanchot argues. In doing so, “we already go against their meaning because modern nouns have not formed in the same way.” We are nonetheless struck by the same passion necessary to make this work relatable, and the very essence of Heraclitus’ work, which speaks so fluidly of change. The same river cannot be entered twice; the same poem can be translated in infinite ways into each new moment it is read within. As Blanchot notes in a footnote, commenting on the work of Clémence Ramnoux, her thesis on Heraclitus, like any other perhaps, is “a simple meditation, lively yet profound, and fascinating in that it responds to the force of fascination of texts that speak to us in words of evidency and obscurity of something essential.” Here again, we find that passion for the code, but also two codes, entangled with each other across time.

It is presumably for this reason that the translation of ancient texts enthralls Carson, who is a respected classicist with many translations to her name, as well as being that most contemporary of poets. This fascination with the ancient persists, as Blanchot says, because “we are obliged to translate (for it must be done); at least first in seeking the linguistic tradition and the kind of discourse in relation to which the invention of a new form comes to situate itself — a form that seems eternally new, and is yet necessarily in a relation of belonging and rupture with other ways of saying.”

The atemporality of the Phoebe Bridgers concert was most affecting in much the same way. Her world tour, coming to an end with two nights in Manchester and three in London, is framed as a “reunion tour”, a post-Covid coming-together to sing songs of solitude, which speak to another time and set of circumstances quite distinctly, soundtracking a very different world — a world of asociality and quarantine, drawn out and made new within the most collective of contexts, the concert hall.

There, I found her words taking on a new force, a new meaning. Punisher has become an album I am more appreciative of as a result, having much preferred her first album for a long time. Her lyrics hit differently now, having been allowed to do something else in this new context. Carson, echoing Gertrude Stein: “Words, if you let them, will do what they want to do and what they have to do.” Untethered, the words already known take on a new life of their own.

This is something already true of Bridgers’ lyricism, which is fragmentary, colliding images against one another. “Somewhere in Germany, but I can’t place it / Man, I hate this part of Texas” is one of the first and most obvious to come to mind. One of the more haunting is that from “Halloween” — the juxtaposition of love and violence in the short second verse:

Always surprised by what I do for love
Some things I never expect
They killed a fan down by the stadium
Was only visiting, they beat him to death

It is arguably this same juxtaposition that Carson plays with in Autobiography of Red, the murder of things loved, murder and love commingling. (And let us not overlook the juxtaposition of Bridgers and Carson themselves — pop meeting the post-modern; or two postmoderns, high and low, thrown together by heat and circumstance.) She translates a fragment from Stesichoros, when “Geyron’s death begins”:

Geryon walked the red length of his mind and answered No
It was murder And torn to see the cattle lay
All these darlings said Geryon And now me

Carson, too, spends time on the strange biographical detail often recalled about Stesichoros: that, in one of his poems, he insulted Helen of Troy, who blinded him, not returning his sight until he wrote a palinode. Stesichoros, it is presumed, had commented on Helen’s sexual misconduct, suggesting it caused the Fall of Troy. To pass comment on love and its complexities, especially disparagingly, is to welcome violence. Carson, beginning her telling of the tragic story of Geyron, calls it “a romance”. So many tragedies often are.

In Carson’s telling, the romance is also more literal: Herakles and Geryon are adolescent lovers, living in the American South. Adam Kitsch summarises the book usefully as follows: “In Steischoros, Herakles kills Geryon and steals his red cattle. In Carson, Herakles breaks Geryon’s heart and steals his innocence.”

Geryon is also a photographer. He is fascinated and disturbed, in particular, by a photograph shown to him by Herakles’ grandmother, capturing a volcanic eruption, taken in 1923. A fifteen-minute exposure, out in the desert. “Red Patience.” Herakles tells him there was only one survivor from the town nearby, a prisoner in the local jail. “What if you took a fifteen-minute exposure of a man in jail, let’s say the lava has just reached his window?” Prisoner punished. Volcanic punisher. I can’t keep Bridgers’ album cover out of my mind.

“Reality is a sound, you have to tune into it not just keep yelling.” I think of the moment the screaming stopped at the end of the Phoebe Bridgers concert, before we escaped the red and re-entered the black outside.

We walked around for an hour or so, in the rain, trying to find a bar where the music wasn’t too loud and the drunks weren’t too distracting. We found one eventually where the bartenders were charming and the music just right. It was worth the wander.

We went back to the hotel tired but I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t been able to sleep much since. Only write.

I attended an appointment with my GP a few days later, asking for help with anxiety and insomnia. Her notes were out of date. As far as she was aware, I’d taken an overdose the day before, instead of two weeks ago. I assumed my behaviour seemed drug-seeking, which I suppose it was, but to her it was in the worst way, rather than being fuelled by a desperate desire to get my life back to some sort of normality.

She tells me she’ll see me in a month and that I just need to grin and bear it. Those are not her exact words, although the sentiment jars with the abject experience of my depression. In fact, she says little which isn’t cold and clinical. The room itself is colourless. The colour of her voice is one of judgement and derision; the last time I saw her she seemed much more compassionate.

“In my notes it says you have been having a lot of casual sex. You could get tested for HIV and syphilis — any bloodborne viruses that can’t be detected with a urine sample.” It’s not a bad idea, but she isn’t listening to me. She sees me as the person in my notes; a person I do not recognise in myself. I wish I was still with the crisis team. They did not hesitate to prescribe something to help me sleep. Sleep is so important to your recovery, they would say. My GP leaves me in stasis, in purgatory, and signs me off work for three more months on the sick.

I plan a morning of phone calls with my flatmate, figuring out who best to talk to and what to say. I’m ranting and rambling in my frustration but she recognises the difference in me from a few weeks ago, when I was incapable of thinking practically about my own wellbeing, of expressing what exactly I needed to do. I have recovered the capacity to speak for myself, but I need to speak to people who will listen.

When Geryon is older, he travels to South America. He reads a self-help book in a bookshop in Buenos Aires:

“Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to the oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.”

At a bar in the Argentine capital, Geryon meets an academic philosopher who is in town to give a talk at a conference on ataraxia in ancient Skeptic thought — what the Greeks called the “absence of disturbance“. 

“I want to study the erotics of doubt“, he says. “Why?” Geryon asks. “As a precondition… of the proper search for truth. Provided you can renounce… that rather fundamental human trait… the desire to know.” Geryon mutters to himself: “I think I can.

He attends the conference and the soirée that follows. The philosophers all like jokes, like the he-demon Ted Hughes summons with his Ouija board, but the monstrous Geryon does not understand the punchlines.

Later reunited with Herakles and his new lover Ancash, the poem of Geryon ends at “Icchantikas”, a volcano in Peru. The word looks indigenous but is borrowed by Carson from Sanskrit. It is a Buddhist term for someone full of desire, someone possessed fully by their id, someone deluded, someone incapable of enlightenment. Geryon spreads his wings and soars above it.

“It is a photograph he never took, no one here took it.”

Writing After Silence

I can’t be on Twitter today. A young man named Rory hits send on “sorry” after a few days missing, a few days of silence, and the outpouring of sadness and sympathies is overwhelming.

She tells me she is worried. She’s caught up on the blog. We met only recently, but she had no idea I was quite so unwell. She reads about my discharge and the care I have been under. “Is it true?” She does not believe that the person she has just met could have so recently tried to commit suicide. I can’t either. But it is true. Not just once, but twice, worn down repeatedly by ever-present intrusive thoughts and complete emotional exhaustion.

It is telling, now that I think about it, that each near-miss was preceded by a silence. I never turn my phone off, but I did twice recently. It is the reddest of flags. I called a friend in a daze a few weeks back who had been trying to get in touch with me. “Why did you turn your phone off?” She asks the question in an accusatory tone, and rightly so, angry that I would cause so much worry by being decisively uncontactable. But I can’t give an answer. I don’t know why. The silence isn’t something chosen so much as something that descends. I have kept it at bay by not shutting up, by not stopping to write. I realise at various points that the things I say in public may be to my detriment. I can tell how it irks some to see me apply some sort of conscious or unconscious aestheticization to an experience and set of conversations that are really quite unspeakable. But silence is always worse, always more concerning. Today I am left thinking about how writing constantly, being anything but silent, has kept me here.

I can’t get away from Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. I come back to it almost daily. I think it is because he writes so often about death.

The final chapters of the book draft I finished before my mind fell out focused intently on Kate Zambreno’s study of Guibert, To Write As If Already Dead. But as bleak as the title sounds, she discusses how it is likewise the writing that seems to keep Guibert alive. He writes to die, but keeps on living, perhaps because the work of dying is never done. It transforms his life into another modality, but for as long as his seropositivity is kept at bay, is manageable, it is still a life he is living, writing a new self into existence. Blanchot calls this strange space of writing “the circle”, expressed most succinctly by Kafka: “Write to be able to die – Die to be able to write.” It is an oscillating movement around a central point, perhaps a point of departure. It is a “movement which, in the work, is the approach to death, death’s space and its use,” but this is “not exactly the same movement which would lead the writer to the possibility of dying.” It is to confront the doubling of death, but to write in this way is always to keep one kind of death at bay.

Bleakly, Blanchot turns to the possibility not just of death but of suicide quite explicitly, perfectly describing the strangeness of suicidality, which I felt myself in orbit of for weeks on end: the strangeness of not going through with it, of prevaricating, circling the void but not quite entering it, drifting on the brink, not so much planning and conspiring as being caught in a gamble, playing a sick game of possibility and probability. It is in this sense, Blanchot writes, that “One cannot ‘plan’ to kill oneself.”

This apparent project [of suicide] sets out after something never attained, toward a goal impossible to aim for. I cannot conceive of the end as an end in itself. But this implies that death eludes the workday, the time which is nevertheless death made active and capable. This is equivalent to thinking that death is somehow doubled: there is one death which circulates in the language of possibility, of liberty, which has for its furthest horizon the freedom to die and the capacity to take mortal risks; and there is its double, which is ungraspable. It is what I cannot grasp, what is not linked to me by any relation of any sort. It is that which never comes and toward which I do not direct myself.

Thus one begins to understand what is strange and superficial, fascinating and deceptive about suicide. To kill oneself is to mistake one death for the other; it is a sort of bizarre play on words. I go to meet the death which is in the world, at my disposal, and I think that thereby I can reach the other death, over which I have no power – which has none over me either, for it has nothing to do with me, and if I know nothing of it, it knows no more of me; it is the empty intimacy of this ignorance. That is why suicide remains essentially a bet, something hazardous: not because I leave myself a chance to survive, as something happens, but because suicide is a leap. It is the passage from the certainty of an act that has been planned, consciously decided upon, and vigorously executed, to something which disorients every project, remains foreign to all decisions – the indecisive and uncertain, the crumbling of the inert and the obscurity of the nontrue. By committing suicide I want to kill myself at a determinate moment. I link death to now: yes, now, now. But nothing better indicates the illusion, the madness of this “I want,” for death is never present. There is in suicide a remarkable intention to abolish the future as the mystery of death: one wants in a sense to kill oneself so that the future might hold no secrets, but might become clear and readable, no longer the obscure reserve of indecipherable death. Suicide in this respect does not welcome death; rather, it wishes to eliminate death as future, to relieve death of that portion of the yet-to-come which is, so to speak, its essence, and to make it superficial, without substance and without danger. But this tactic is vain. The most minute precautions, all the most carefully considered and precise arrangements have no power over this essential indeterminacy – the fact that death is never a relation to a determined moment any more than it bears any determined relation to myself.

One cannot “plan” to kill oneself. One prepares to do so, one acts in view of the ultimate gesture which still belongs to the normal category of things to do, but this gesture does not have death in view, it does not look at death, it does not keep death before it. Hence the attention to minutiae often symptomatic in those who are about to die – the love for details, the patient, maniacal concern for the most mediocre realities. Other people are surprised at this, and they say, “When you really want to die, you don’t think about so many little things.” But the explanation is that you don’t want to die, you cannot make of death an object of the will. You cannot want to die, and the will, arrested thus at the uncertain threshold of what it cannot attain, redirects itself, with its calculating wisdom, toward everything it still can grasp in the area around its limit. You think of so many things because you cannot think of something else, and this is not for fear of looking into the face of too grave a reality; it is because there is nothing to see. Whoever wants to die can only want the borders of death, the utilitarian death which is in the world and which one reaches through the precision of a workman’s tools. Whoever wants to die does not die, he loses the will to die. He enters the nocturnal realm of fascination wherein he dies in a passion bereft of will.

I was taken to A&E twice, over a three-month period, following if not a suicide “attempt”, at the very least a kind of suicidal gesture. The first occasion was the most harrowing. Friends came to my house to find my front door unlocked, sitting at the coffee table in the living room, scribbling down a note rehearsed on my laptop. On the table, a month’s worth of anti-depressants, popped from their packaging and ready for consumption like a most depressing final meal. From the cupboard door in the corner, a belt was wedged, made into a noose, that I already knew would hold my weight. To share such details seems reckless, but in hindsight I am doubtful either method would have been effective. “Would you have gone through with it?” was a question asked repeatedly. I say that I think I would, but gone through with what exactly? At the very least, I would have gone through with the gesture. The image of the living room, strewn in chaos, branded on my mind from that night is like that of a morbid casino, with a multitude of games to play. Would I have gone through with it? The question is more like: “Would I have sat at one of these tables and played a hand?”

My second suicidal gesture was perhaps more developed. I took 16 paracetamol whilst sat outside a pub by Newcastle’s quayside. The realisation, later had, that I had not taken enough to do any damage to myself was almost embarrassing. Still, the same question asked by the Psychiatric Liaison Team: Was it my intention to kill myself? I’m not sure how much intent in that direction I could truly possess. I played a hand and did not win. I left the hospital that night, however, with a better conception of death’s borders, of what it really takes. I did not want to die, but I learnt more about dying in the process, and on acquiring new knowledge I made a retreat. I left the casino. I sought help for the emergent addiction to the risk.

“What a strange, contradictory undertaking is this effort to act where immeasurable passivity reigns,” Blanchot writes. Indeed, that was the emotion felt most profoundly: passivity. The dice was rolled and, for a time, I felt indifferent to the outcome. That is all. Indifferent. The coin was flipped, I called heads and got tails. I carried on. The challenge has become to avoid, for the rest of my natural lifetime, the desire to flip the coin again, knowing that with each flip I learn more about the coin’s weight, its movement through the air, the probability of any given result, the power or force needed to hurl the coin higher, increasing its velocity, the number of spins it is capable of, increasing the time of indeterminacy as life itself hangs – in thought, if not in elusive reality – in the balance.

Suicide is contagious. That is the enduring realisation that has, I think, kept me from the door. I have known too many who have died in this way. When I was a teenager, a girl named Alisa, on the edges of my social circle, took her own life at the age of 18. It was an event that occurred during that minor moral panic, during the late 2000s, around MKAT – a then-legal high that was increasingly popular with the nation’s youth. I knew little then, and far less now, of the circumstances that led to her going through with it. The narrative shared was one of a weekend bender, with copious amounts of alcohol and “plant food” consumed. She left Hull’s Welly Club in the middle of the night and by the morning it was over. I did not know her at all, but remember seeing her around. She was close to many of my closest friends but we had never truly crossed paths. I remember going to the funeral, more to be there for my friends, but feeling like I was somehow intruding nonetheless. I felt the stares from friends that knew I did not know her. At that age, I felt incapable of expressing my well-meaning, my intentions. They were expressly there to mourn her, I was not. But I wanted to be there for them. I could not understand their pain but wanted them to know that, irrespective of this, I could be relied on to help them through it. In hindsight, and with regret, I don’t think that I contributed to that process in any particular way. The experience of truly grieving a suicide was too remote to me then.

A few years later, a boy named James Mabbett, one year above me at school, took his own life in his mid-20s. A similar story: a night out of fun and frivolity that ended unexpectedly in the unimaginable.

James became something of a mascot for Mental Health Awareness in 2015. One of his friends wrote an article about him, his story, his life and death, that was published in the Independent newspaper – as story all too familiar at this point:

‘Go hard or go home,’ that was the motto my friend lived by. James Mabbett. Mabs to his mates.

Aka an infectious lust for life, bloke you wanted to be around, life and soul of every party. TOTAL. LEGEND.

Painting this picture isn’t to sensationalise his character in death by making him more grandiose than he was, nor is it to fall into the predisposition of glossing over his bad habits as we do when honouring the dead.

It’s simply to emphasise that mental illness lurks in the unlikeliest of places. That the ‘happiest’ in the room could be the saddest. And that a smile can mask a lot.

We are not visionary doctors, we cannot see who is sick. It is not the Jack Nicholson lookalike circa One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest frothing at the mouth in a straitjacket we need to be watching out for, but those closest to us.

I was at work the Monday after Valentine’s Day when I got ‘the call’. It took another week to find out exactly what had happened.

Crippled by shock, I found ‘comfort’ by convincing myself Mabs had partied too hard during his work weekend away, taken alcohol to the extreme, and in a macabre way at least he passed away while celebrating like the night owl he was.

He categorically ‘is the last person on earth who would take his own life’ I fiercely told people.

Six days later while working in America and getting ready for the Academy Awards, I learned over WhatsApp that dearest Mabs – a 24-year-old uni graduate who oozed charisma out of every pore and had you in stitches with his random acts of hilarity – after a relatively calm night with colleagues, his alcohol limit was found to be well below the national driving acceptance level with no drugs in his system, had quietly hanged himself in a hotel room.

Always quietly. Always in the dead of night. Or certainly not always, generally speaking, but at that age the story was so often the same. I knew Mabs’ sister better, but still at a distance. On the anniversary of his death, she posted annual remembrances and grievances on social media and her pain felt so profound, still unknowable.

It was not until Mark Fisher’s death that the story changed. Seeing Mark during those final months, hollowed out when outside of the classroom, was so deeply haunting. In trying to truly understand what made him do it, suicide became all the more thinkable, all the more contagious. Grief led to risk. Risk led to a new understanding of the gamble. It is a hard thing to forget and to unlearn, this understanding. It follows you.

Fisher’s death was the death of a writer, with a body of work that existed, even whilst he was alive, in what Blanchot calls “death’s space”. His book, Ghosts of my Life, now newly reissued, its subtitle quite explicitly making the link between spectres, depression and the abolition of – “the slow cancellation of” – the future. But the writing itself is not a writing toward death, no matter how we might now so easily read into his work the future that was to come. Death as future is a truth for all of us, after all. We can find these same breadcrumbs anywhere. This is especially true in a capitalist world, which constrains our thinking around health and life, making the possibility of the world’s end inextricable from the end of ourselves. This is the subtle echo found in Fisher’s most famous adage, borrowed from Žižek and Jameson, that the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism. But it is not just the end of the world – it is the end of our world. It is our obsession with worlds ending that unveils the “secret sadness of the twenty-first century”; the indeterminacy of capitalism’s future, its seemingly infinite prolongation, the unimaginable nature of its end and of our own transformation into something other, some other kind of collective subjectivity, beyond the paltry existence of the capitalist subject as such.

To repeat Blanchot from above: “There is in suicide a remarkable intention to abolish the future as the mystery of death: one wants in a sense to kill oneself so that the future might hold no secrets, but might become clear and readable, no longer the obscure reserve of indecipherable death.” When Fisher writes that mental health is a political issue, is this not precisely the sentiment he scales up to the level of not just the depressed individual but a depressive society? The suggestion that Fisher’s suicide, considering the content of his writing, was somehow inevitable misunderstands the gambit. The oblique horror of capitalism is in its closing of the future, the death it already assigns to us. A capitalist society is a suicidal society, where the future holds no secrets. To transition out of capitalism is to re-establish life’s mystery, and death’s mystery too – the possibility that we might die otherwise than overworked and underpaid.

Blanchot connects this suicidal tendency to the making of art. “Suicide is a right”, he says, “detached from power and duty, a madness required by reasonable integrity and which, moreover, seems to succeed quite often.” To die on one’s own terms – the Stoic absolute, used by the likes of Foucault not to imagine death’s reality but to construct an art of living that is decisively one’s own. It is perhaps in this sense that Blanchot writes how it “is striking that all these traits” – the madness of a reasonable integrity – “can be applied equally well to another experience, one that is apparently less dangerous but perhaps no less mad: the artist’s.” Blanchot continues:

Both the artist and the suicide plan something that eludes all plans, and if they do have a path, they have no goal; they do not know what they are doing. Both exert a resolute will, but both are linked to what they want to achieve by a demand that knows nothing of their will. Both strive toward a point which they have to approach by means of skill, savoir faire, effort, the certitudes which the world takes for granted, and yet this point has nothing to do with such means; it is a stranger to the world, it remains foreign to all achievement and constantly ruins all deliberate action. How is it possible to proceed with a firm step toward that which will not allow itself to be charted? It seems that both the artist and the suicide succeed in doing something only by deceiving themselves about what they do. The latter takes one death for another, the former takes a book for the work. They devote themselves to this misunderstanding as if blind, but their dim consciousness of it makes of their task a proud bet. For it is as if they were embarking upon a kind of action which could only reach its term at infinity.

Here I feel the relation between writing and mental illness most profoundly. At first, as I have said on numerous occasions, my writing appeared to be quite profoundly unhealthy to those around me, who perhaps recognised in these firm steps towards the uncharted a kind of suicide by another means. They were most likely not wrong. But then, over time, the writing is encouraged. The footsteps echo but do not sound quite the same. It is realised, eventually, that the firm steps taken in writing are along a quite different path, if nonetheless one that exists in parallel to the one they hope I will deviate from. Writing becomes not a suicidal gesture but an alternative to the act, another act, less dangerous and along which I can walk further without stumbling.

Blanchot writes of this tension explicitly:

This comparison of art to suicide is shocking in a way. But there is nothing surprising about it if, leaving aside appearances, one understands that each of these two movements is testing a singular form of possibility.

It is always better to write than to die. Death, unfortunately, is too often preceded by a silence, by a disappearance. To appear is to live and keep living. It is why we encourage those who are struggling to talk, to reach out, to not hold their tongues or give up on the expression of a pain that may never leave them. To speak, to write, is to try and answer a more fundamental question. It may still be a question that is abject, which Blanchot asks so matter-of-factly: “Can I die? Have I the power to die?” It is a most abstract question, although one that becomes more material when we bear witness to those who actualise this apparent power in themselves. “This question has no force except when all the escape routes have been rejected”, Blanchot continues. But this rejection cuts us loose, untethers us. Like the gambling addict who cannot leave the table, the suicidal person thinks their only salvation is to keep playing another hand, denying themselves the opportunity to get up and walk away. But it is because, in this disastrously enclosed space, we find possibility in the risk taken. “The decision to be without being is possibility itself”, Blanchot explains. But there are always other tables, other games to play, some less dangerous and more affordable. How to move from blackjack to the penny slots? And from there to the world outside, where life is no less of a gamble but one more weatherable, where the game of chance is lived alongside others rather than on one’s own?

There are solutions, if we can turn our eyes away, for a time, from the ultimate game. I believe this is something that can only be done in community.

Rory’s approach of death, chronicled at intervals on his own Twitter feed, is harrowing. His penultimate tweets make the situation he could not turn away from clear as day:

I lost one grand in a deposit to a university because, while I met the offer requirements, it became clear that I hadn’t made nearly enough money to fund the living costs after two years saving in full time work. There were no university fees in this country until 1998 btw.

Everything just feels impossible and unliveable

Originally tweeted by Ghostface Kafka (36 Chambers) (@thekafkadude) on July 23, 2022.

People share their own stories of re-entering education, the cost of postgraduate living and the stresses of juggling this desire to study with the reality that Master’s degrees, in particular, in this country, are difficult things to do for those who are not already wealthy. I have never felt poorer than when I did mine, except perhaps now, when severe depression has only compounded financial difficulties. But my situation at present only makes Rory’s all the more unjust. I have been signed off work, but have a funded PhD to look forward to. Recently having a conversation with my supervisor, it became clear that the time and support available to undertake a doctorate would likely be more beneficial to my recovery than the drudgery of a return to my day job. It would be possible, he said, to let it structure my weeks, whilst using the time to write to further work on myself, making the PhD fit my new life as someone finally coming to terms with chronic mental illness, rather than trying to live a life that hides this fact from friends, colleagues and employers. I have been through a death – the death of a person deemed fit to work – and now feel reborn, able to make life work for me (at least for a time). It feels like a rare opportunity to take time to recover and rebuild. It is an opportunity that Rory, so tragically, did not think he had, could not see in his indeterminate future. It is a travesty that there are so many like him, like us. We all deserve so much better than what we are offered. We all deserve the opportunity to find possibility elsewhere than in that most extreme of gambles.  

Midnight Automatic

Marguerite Duras’ Summer Rain is a story of automatic reading. Ernesto, an illiterate adolescent of indeterminate age, finds a book with a hole burnt straight through the middle of it. One of seven children, the sight of the book, so mistreated, makes some of them cry. Their parents love books but are too impoverished to own many, stealing biographies of famous people that pass the time, caring little about the grand achievements that warrant the writing, enjoying instead the descriptions of quotidian minutiae that affirm their own lives despite the vast distances between them.

The parents’ children are uneducated. The book found is unreadable in more ways than one. But Ernesto holds the damaged book against himself and begins to read it anyway.

Just like that, he said, without thinking about it, without even knowing what he was doing. And then — well, then, he stopped bothering whether he was really reading or not, or even what reading was — whether it was this or something else. At first, he said, he’d tried like this: he took the shape of a word and quite arbitrarily gave it a provisional meaning. Then he gave the next word another meaning, but in terms of the assumed provisional meaning of the first word. And he went on like that until the whole sentence yielded some sense. In this way he came to see that reading was a kind of continuous unfolding within his own body of a story invented by himself.

I have a friend who writes. English is not her first language but she is fluent. She also writes in English better than most. I find her writing beautiful and we talk about writing often. She dismisses the compliments I pay her, however, since I have read so few of her words. But I feel like I have read enough to know a writer when I see one.

She asks for my help, tentatively. She is thinking about a poem and wants to use a particular word, but she is uncertain whether her usage is entirely correct. I say I am happy to confirm or deny it, but the opportunity is deferred. “Not tonight.”

Her dad calls her. She speaks to him only briefly in her native language. In hindsight, I presume she says hello and exchanges some information about this and that, how she’s doing, what she’s been up to, perhaps concluding the brief exchange with the fact that she has company and can’t talk long. But at the time, I think nothing of what is being said.

Afterwards, she seems embarrassed. She is Eastern European, and is self-conscious of how her language may sound to English ears — ears attuned in a racist country that is known for disparaging those who speak freely in their own tongue. But I am momentarily enthralled. I have often felt this way. I remember meeting a friend for coffee once, whilst at university in London. She is speaking Russian to her mother over FaceTime when I arrived. She too apologised, but I loved to hear her speak a language unknown to me. The words were meaningless, mere shapes of sound. I listen attentively, perhaps even rudely, but don’t think to apologise myself. I don’t know what is said and I don’t look for meaning, only music, and I hear it.

When my friend asks me to confirm that she is using an English word correctly, I don’t want her to care either way. I wonder why she wants to use it in the first place — presumably for how it sounds. Her English is fluent but still a foreign tongue. What makes any great poet is surely their ability to still hear the music.

Word of Ernesto’s intuitive reading spreads. He goes to school for ten days but doesn’t want to return. He is angry and his mother senses it but he cannot tell her why. “Why not?” she asks. “Because it would upset you, so I can’t”, he replies. “And why would it upset me?” “Because. And anyhow, you wouldn’t understand what I said. And if you wouldn’t understand it there is no point in my saying it.” But this is less a caveat and more the very crux of the problem at hand. He adds: “It’s not what I’d say that would upset you. You’d be upset because you wouldn’t understand.”

She smiles and implores him to try and say it anyway. She waits. “Mama, I’d say… Mama, I’m not going back to school because at school they teach me things I don’t know.” She doesn’t understand. She does understand. She intuits a feeling like only a mother can.

I can’t sleep. I leave my friend’s house close to 2am and walk home. She offers to let me stay on the couch but I don’t want to wake up in the same clothes. It has been a long day, a lovely evening, and I want my own bed. But I don’t sleep for more than two hours at a time, waking up periodically and dozing for many more hours in between.

I have a dream that my flatmate has found somewhere else to live, without me, leaving me destitute.

Over the weekend, I make two new friends in Manchester. One of them talks about wanting to feel more in tune with her body. She describes a friend she knew once who was so annoyingly self-aware, knowing exactly what her body needed, setting about acquiring those needs whether it derailed present plans and schedules or not. Always listening.

I feel like, right now, my body isn’t listening to me. I need to sleep, I think, but the body does not comply. Even when it gets what I want, regardless of what I’m thinking, my brain, the organ apart from my thoughts, changes its mind. I wake up again and again. Sleep is broken.

She writes down snatches of conversation in a notebook recently given to her. Words. Phrases. She pulls poetry out of my ramblings. She asks me to write something down too and hands the notebook over but I’m stunned. I do nothing but write, but then can’t write on command. “Just write a word”, she says. I explain my impulse is to fill an entire page, write out loud, speak and write simultaneously, put on the page whatever is coming out of my mouth in unison.

I wrote about her in my journal last week. It ended up on the blog the other day. The chronology is disjointed, but she noticed. No one could probably identify her but herself. I apologize, again not wanting the people in my life who choose to read me to feel like I have reduced them to characters. But she doesn’t seem to mind, or seems somewhat enthralled by the intrusion. Still, she tells me things and begins to caveat certain parts of conversation with a disclaimer: “Don’t put this on the blog.” I wouldn’t dream of it. I too only want to record fragments, phrases, words from without that resonate, words that speak to me as if I had said them aloud to myself.

This automatic writing is its own kind of automatic listening. I feel like an interpreter, translating feeling as it washes over me. The fragments feel like parts of a dream, like the scenes relayed and captured are little things felt throughout the day, coming back to mind as they are processed internally. Maybe I can’t sleep because I am writing too much. Maybe this automatic writing has replaced the unconscious processing of my dreams. I don’t need to dream right now. I only need to write.

Blanchot, The Space of Literature:

The need to write is linked to the approach toward this point at which nothing can be done with words. Hence the illusion that if one maintained contact with this point even as one came back from it to the world of possibility, “everything” could be done, “everything” could be said. This need must be suppressed and contained. If not, it becomes so vast that there is no more room or space for its realization. One only begins to write when, momentarily, through a ruse, through a propitious burst of energy, or through life’s distractions, one has succeeded in evading this impulse which remote control of the work must constantly awaken and subdue, protect and avert, master and experience in its unmasterable force. This operation is so difficult and dangerous that every writer and every artist is surprised each time he achieves it without disaster. And no one who has looked the risk in the face can doubt that many perished silently. It is not that creative resources are lacking — although they are in any event insufficient — but rather that the force of the writing impulse makes the world disappear. Then time loses its power of decision; nothing can really begin.

The next night I still can’t sleep. It is not yet midnight on a Tuesday but the neighbourhood is deathly quiet. Unable to write in my journal in the dark, I turn to the blog directly for the first time in a while, the white of the page of my laptop screen making the night around me ever darker. I chain-roll cigarettes and scare myself, picking up a now-empty pack of cigarette papers that an earwig has just made its home. I jump, inadvertently flicking it into the black. I flick ash into the black as well. But I’m tired, clumsy. I ash the keyboard and the mouse pad. I spill curls of loose tobacco over Duras. Smoke wisps around my fingers in the blue light and quickly fades from view, into the night.

Into the night, I write.

“If there’s anything I say on the blog that makes you uncomfortable, I can remove it.” I have already done this before, a few weeks ago, for someone else, again likely unidentifiable but feeling themselves seen, disliking hearing their own thoughts and phrases echoed back to them.

She doesn’t mind. Although still cautious about the content of what I might say, she wants me to write about her, or perhaps to her. I show her the book that arrived in the post: the letters shared between Nin and Miller. “You can be my Miller”, she says. I agree, recognising the sentiment meant, though I’m sure neither of us would want anything resembling their tumultuous relationship. Only that basic bond: the love of writing. Underneath the bond, the almost perverse desire to be read also. She can write about me too if she wishes.

Ernesto’s mother tells him to go find his brothers and sisters. Ever since he started to read, they have been visiting the Prisu and “pretending” to read too. The suggestion that their reading is make-believe makes Ernesto angry, but his mother is defiant. The fact of the matter is, they can’t read. If they can read, “what are those kids reading?”

“They’re reading whatever they like, for crying out loud!”

“But where, for Pete’s sake? Where is it, the write they’re supposed to be reading?”

“The write’s in the book, of course!”

“Next thing they’ll be reading the stars.”

The earwig returns, crawling over my elbow in the dark. I do not see it. I only feel it. Another panicked flick into the night.

I drink a beer, hoping it will make me sleep. I decide to write and smoke until I have finished it. I remembered that the doctors recommended warm milk instead, like mothers.

Ernesto’s mother is a mystery to him. She speaks of home and all the children are enthralled by her tales of a land unknown. Duras describes her speech, how it has changed since she and her husband first emigrated to France:

The mother has forgotten the language of her youth. She speaks like all the other people in Vitry, and without an accent. She only makes mistakes in the conjugations of the verbs. But there survive from her past certain ineffaceable sounds, soft words that she seems to be paying out slowly, chanting sounds that moisten the inside of her voice and sometimes make the words emerge from her body with her realising it, as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken.

My ears are attuned to the night. My thoughts and fingers are focused on the writing; my eyes on reading Duras, barely illuminated by the screen. Moths pass in front of the light sometimes, and much smaller insects too, with a grace that is carefree and inane. But my ears still prick up and keep me alert, keep me awake. I hear rustling in the bushes — hedgehogs, perhaps; cats, mice or rats; unknown objects falling through leaves; bugs and critters maybe. Birds chatter faintly in the distance. Seagulls squeak, oddly at this hour, fellow insomniacs. A little further away, I hear the white noise of traffic, tyres over tarmac, coming from the Coast Road. Very occasionally, I hear cars singular, closer, the infrequent coming and going of unknown individuals. There is a train depot nearby for the Newcastle Metro. I hear engines idling, wheels braking. I hear cracks and clicks as the houses and fences ease into the night’s chill.

The only thing I don’t hear, until there is nothing else to record, is the clicking of my fingers at the keys. I do not hear my writing.

It is midnight now. I think of Blanchot, as I often do. Again, quoting Mallarmé, from The Space of Literature:

“Certainly a presence of Midnight persists.” But this subsisting presence is not a presence. This substantial present is the negation of the present. It is a vanished present. And Midnight, where first “the absolute present of things” (their unreal essence) gathered itself together, become “the pure dream of a Midnight vanished into itself”: it is no longer a present, but the past, symbolized…

Ernesto continues to try and explain to his family why he doesn’t want to go to school, why he has decided to leave in the first place. His reasoning, once he manages to find away to express it, sounds excessively profound.

I understood something I still find it hard to express… I’m still too small to say it properly. Something like the creation of the universe. I was rooted to the spot: all of a sudden I was looking at the creation of the universe…

His father doesn’t understand. “Ernesto, you wouldn’t be going a bit far, would you…” His mother seems more intrigued. “And have you anything to say about it, Ernesto?”

“Not much.”

Ernesto reads the world into existence but cannot explain how it all came from nothing, or from someone who cannot read. The realisation transforms the boy into something of a nihilist. There is no point to anything. No meaning to be gleamed. Not really. It all just is. Ten days at school and the boy has unlocked the secret of the universe: the silence of it all; the “everything”; the vanished presence of the present.

I wonder what I look like, sat in the dark. I wonder what the neighbours think of me — this person always perched at the rusted black garden furniture, writing at any and all hours. I wonder if they talk about me, my predictable presence. I wonder if they worry that I sit up late, that I smoke too much. I wonder if they have heard the despair from the house that has seized me in months gone by.

We do not know our downstairs neighbours. I think they find my presence intrusive. I can see directly into their living room from the garden. They watch The Simpsons a lot on a big screen TV. The man who lives there plays video games late at night sometimes. A few weeks ago, the woman ran out panicked to her bins, wearing only a baggy T-shirt, as if she had just woken up, but found the idea of a retreat inside more embarrassing than a dash to her destination. I glance but then consciously avert my eyes.

Either side live two old ladies. One has a dog; she gardens sometimes and we say hello to one another. She is spritely and seems to live an active life. I see her out the front of her house sometimes too. On the other side, a woman who looks much frailer, much more grey. She potters out to fill her bins and hang out her washing only. I say hello to her too, but on the first few occasions she looks at me frightened.

The other day, I woke up early and came out into the garden. It was a Sunday at 9am. “You’re up early,” she said, lifting the lid on her recycling bin. I make up some random and inane excuse, blurting out whatever comes into my head just so I have something to say. She doesn’t hear me. I repeat it. “It’s good to catch the sun”, I say, as it beams down at an angle from the east. “Yes, that’ll be it,” she says, as if I have answered a question asked internally, which she did not say out loud.

I finish my beer. I’ll write more tomorrow. I’ll read more Duras at a café in the afternoon, perhaps. Or maybe I’ll sit in bed and write some more, if sleep still refuses to take me.

Ouija Words:
On Sylvia Plath

The final words, the final lines, of the final poem of Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poetry, Ariel:

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable, hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern life.

Language, as Blanchot says, is the basis of being, the ground, which is nonetheless dark and voiceless. Poetry becomes nothing more than a “dispersion that, as such, finds its form.” Plath is now and was then already six feet deep. Language is not so much stood upon as communed with. The other side. It is excised; spelling, incanting, disinterring. Literature may be evil, as Bataille would have it, but poetry is the devil incarnate.

At times, Plath seems to let language take possession of her, her poetry evoking tongues, glossolalic; at other times, she is the destroyer, the disintegrator, burying meaning in sound and leaving it there to rot and flourish anew in decay.

In The Colossus, the poem “Ouija” takes on the quality of a lord’s prayer, albeit one devoid of rhythm, mantra and devotion, brimming instead with the awe and terror of words. It is an ode to old testaments carved directly on the air by forces unseen.

She fills the night of writing not with ghosts but moths, fluttering towards any source of light; towards us, the reader, the interpreter of demonic hoof-taps. The night that, Blanchot writes, “is a vanished presence.” The writer takes notes, nothing more. It is reading that “transforms into light that which is not of the order of illumination”, he argues.

How to read a Ouija board? Steadily, one letter at a time. The planchette on the board of letters, left to glide, becomes a conduit. It is an automatic writing, an automatic spelling, through which something unspeakable speaks.

The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger.
The old god dribbles, in return, his words.

The old god who “writes aureate poetry”, an alchemical gold, passed through any medium who might believe, who might give a shit. A poetry produced

In tarnished modes, maundering among the wastes,
Fair chronicler of every foul declension.

The old god is a bastard god who “hymns the rotten queen”, the “bawdy queen of death”. After Plath’s death, Hughes, that other devil, still communes. She remains the planchette. In “Poem for a Birthday” she writes, “I am all mouth.” That same glass mouth? Or a mouth housed in glass, in a bell jar? A mouth restricted, tongue lolling and lollygagging in a room of its own, not all mouth but all tongue, clashing against a cage of teeth.

Mother, you are the one mouth
I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness
Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.

The old god, the true “all-mouth”, devours everything. “He’s a fat sort.” The mother is an oral void birthing voids.

Ted Hughes sets forth a tradition, a rhythm, a mantra, returning devotion to the lord’s prayer, writing his birthday letters to his dead wife.

His “Ouija” is a consolation, an apology, a reckoning with possession and disease. “Always bad news from the Ouija board”, the poem begins.

We can imagine this poem to be the other side of that same night, and the nights that followed; another perspective on the ritual. The spirit communed with, however, is already in the room. She is the one who writes the first poem.

She nudged out her name. And she was
Despairing, depressed, pathetic. She concocted
Macabre, gloomy answers. Every answer
Was ‘rottenness’ or ‘worms’ or simply ‘bones’.

Possessed of language, of night, of spells. Never the same after tongue and finger enter into an unholy intercourse, a coursing-through.

She left a peculiar guilt — a befouled
Feeling of jeopardy, a sense that days
Would be needed now to cleanse us
Of the pollution. Some occult pickpocket
Had slit the soul’s silk and fingered us.

The ritual is repeated nonetheless, this time with firm intention and a honed intuition.

Not the mother evoked this time, but the old god, who “preferred to talk about poetry. He made poems.” “He liked jokes” and Shakespeare too. He is an artist in his own right, he communes but does not possess. The mother lingers, however. She haunts, making Plath “ambitious” — an ambition, Hughes seems to believe, that would be the death of her. It is a poem of regret, as if he wishes the glass mouth had never inspired his wife to write.

But Hughes himself still made poems.

“I hate your mom.” Phoebe Bridgers refrains still circle around my head days later.

The journey to the concert cuts a dogleg over the English north. We stop at Huddersfield, which I have not returned to since I left in March, but do not disembark, continuing instead to fly through West Yorkshire on the way to our final stop in Manchester.

The Yorkstone used everywhere holds memories but there are no ghosts here. In Newcastle, I already lurk at corners, anxious about seeing people I’d rather not. In Yorkshire, I knew too few people to fear an encounter of any kind. It is the place itself that is charged.

From the train window, I see Stoodley Pike and know, although it is unseen, that Heptonstall is passing overhead, where I spent my 30th birthday by Plath’s grave, the “-Hughes” of her legal name erased from the granite, like the planchette is returned, not gliding but chastising, used to gristle and grind.

H-U-G-H-E-S, H-U-G-H-E-S, H-U-G-H-E-S, it spells and spells and spells, fading the letters that lie before it.