Stronger Than Death:
A Note on Poetry and Grief

I am transitioning from an Emily Brontë obsession into a Ted Hughes / Sylvia Plath research hole. (I have a tendency to become obsessed with the literary history of wherever it is I am living.) This has been triggered by a recent re-reading of Deleuze’s essay, “Bartleby, or, the Formula”, in which he draws on that zone of indiscernibility that revolves around Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

“Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”, Catherine declares.

My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath — a source of little visible delight, but necessary … I am Heathcliff — he’s always always in my mind — not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself — but as my own being…

For Deleuze, this is reminiscent of various relationships from the novels of Herman Melville. The romantic and/or sexual unions found there are more than just the coming together of two individuals, he suggests. Like the wasp and the orchid, they represent something altogether more immanent that your average patriarchal union. In the case of the characters in Melville and Wuthering Heights, what haunts them is the reconciliation of two “originals”, two singular entities, that are nonetheless symbiotic. What troubles them and us is the reconciliation of a singular originality “with secondary humanity, the inhuman with the human.”

What Catherine declares, then, when she says “I am Heathcliff” is not a reciprocal ownership but a tandem and impersonal being. Not “my” Heathcliff or “my” Catherine, not “our” relationship, but a tandem becoming that cannot, by its very nature, be possessive. It is, as Deleuze would write in his final essay, a kind of pure immanence. Not “his” life or “my” life but a life. This, too, is how we should constitute our communities, Deleuze writes in his essay on Melville:

A brother, a sister, all the more true for no longer being “his” or “hers”, since all “property”, all “proprietorship”, has disappeared. A burning passion deeper than love, since it no longer has either substance or qualities, but traces a zone of indiscernibility in which it passes through all intensities in every direction…

How is this community realized? How can the biggest problem be resolved? But is it not already resolved, by itself, precisely because it is not a personal problem, but a historical, geographical, or political one? It is not an individual or particular affair, but a collective one, the affair of a people, or rather, of all people.

Deleuze makes a compelling argument in favour of this becoming-community in the context of a young America, not yet reterritorialised by European flows. But there is a tension that lingers in his mention of Emily Brontë…

Over the weekend I read Anne Carson for the first time. Glass and God. I was struck by her narration of a trip to see her mother at home on the Yorkshire moors.

She lives on a moor in the north.
She lives alone.
Spring opens like a blade there.
I travel all day on trains and bring a lot of books —

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

Also my main fear, which I mean to confront.
Whenever I visit my mother
I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

my lonely life around me like a moor,
my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation
that dies when I come in the kitchen door.
What meat is it, Emily, we need?

The great Gothic gestures made within Brontë’s writings, her poems especially, come from this isolated existence. Spring opens [her] like a blade there. Spring, the collective transformation of a world in harmony, only exacerbates one’s alienation from humanity at large. Ben Lerner, in his magnificent essay The Hatred of Poetry, excavates this gesture from the very heart of all poetry, which is nothing less than “the impulse to launch the experience of an individual into a timeless communal existence” — or perhaps to launch our humanity into the inhumanity of nature at large. Of course, the poem is, in this regard, unfit for purpose. Still, it constitutes a “noble failure”.

In this light, Carson’s fear of becoming Emily Brontë is translated into a more general fear of becoming a poet — a fear Lerner articulates well (and which I found resonated a little too closely with my own feelings about becoming a “photographer”) when he talks about the strange dance that occurs when poets and non-poets meet:

If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their calling away from poetry: I wrote it in high school; I dabbled in college. Almost never do they write it now. They will tell you they have a niece or nephew who writes poetry. These familiar encounters … have a tone that is difficult to describe. There is embarrassment for the poet — couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you? — but there is also embarrassment on the part of the non-poet, because having to acknowledge one’s total alienation from poetry chafes against the early association of poem and self…

For Lerner, the ubiquitous adage “You’re a poet and you didn’t even know it”, which we might association with children, demonstrates how fundamental poetry is to us. Though we commonly denounce and despise it, we talk about poetry as a kind of universal potential in us all, which makes poetry simultaneously attractive and pretentious. This is laid bear when a “professional” poet comes into contact with the amateur or non-poet:

The awkward and even tense exchange between a poet and non-poet … is a little interpersonal breach that reveals how inextricable ‘poetry’ is from our imagination of social life. Whatever we think of particular poems, ‘poetry’ is a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external: My capacity to express myself poetically and to comprehend such expressions is a fundamental qualification for social recognition. If I have no interest in poetry, or if I feel repelled by actual poems, either I am failing the social or the social is failing me.

In the BBC documentary about poet Ted Hughes, Stronger Than Death, there is a constant wrestling of private lives with public reputations.

I watched the documentary somewhat astounded. Though most of its details are hotly contested, I was embarrassed to admit to myself that, in a recent conversation with a friend, I had noted that all I knew about Hughes was that he was horrible to his wife, Sylvia Plath. They had mentioned him with some enthusiasm, which I inadvertently pissed on. (I meant my lack of any positive knowledge to be an admission of ignorance rather than a dismissal; I fear it came off as both.)

But the documentary revealed just how wrong I was. Whilst Hughes may have had a cruel streak, the message from family and friends presented by the documentary is that, no, Hughes did not kill Plath, her depression did. Though he was flawed, perhaps even deeply so — he was a serial adulterer — he loved her and respected her far more than those who have come to her defence over the decades since.

This is not to suggest that the couples’ personal life was not complex and dark, but their entwined lives and legacies seem to function like poems in themselves. In particular, Hughes’ relationship with his wife — that many have described as being like Heathcliff and Catherine’s in its ferocity and their tandem flirtations with the non- and inhuman — is surely unfathomable to anyone outside of it. But that has not stopped a damaging spiral of gossip based on half-truths and assumptions. Though hardly a model relationship for anyone to implement, there are nonetheless interesting social questions to be asked of their coming-together.

Chief among these are questions of ownership. Some accuse Hughes of having an inappropriate amount of control over his dead wife’s estates; others argue he simply wanted her to receive the recognition she did not have in life, precisely because she had lived under his shadow. Some suggested he did this only to rake in the royalties, but her children report that the money went entirely to them and he saw none of it. His relationship to his wife seems to become most problematic after her death, as if, just like with Heathcliff and Catherine, it was the moment that their collective becoming was arrested that questions of ownership forced their way back into view. Who “owns” the life of Sylvia Plath in death? Nobody owned it when she was alive, least of all Hughes and Plath themselves. In life, a life is revolutionary; in death, a life does not rot but is reified. (Quite the opposite of what Deleuze advocated, it must be said.)

The Hughes documentary goes on to explore how, for the American feminists of the late 60s and 70s, Plath became a martyr. Her feminist poems against the fascism of marriage are interpreted as a subtextual confession that Hughes was to blame for her demise. (Should we read into the fact that Hughes himself assembled the poems for publication?) But there is a further interpretation that she saw the social institution of marriage as unfit for purpose. It boxes up becoming, cages the animal, and gives it something to kick against — or else married couples kick against each other.

Hughes was far from a model husband, but then society failed for decades in its appraisal of husband and wife. Again, their lives becomes poems in themselves — noble failures. Together, they may have failed the social, but the social failed them in turn.

The testimony of Hughes and Plath’s daughter Frieda is most damning in this regard. Discussing the way that her parents’ relationship was seized upon by well-meaning feminists in the USA, Frieda Hughes explains:

I was appauled that something that happened in 1963 could be carried forward and… what an easy way out for somebody to think, yes, we’re right, we’ve got the real story, we know what really happened, and we are going to punish this complete stranger for something we weren’t around to witness, we know nothing about, but we’re the ones with the answers.

For outsiders — because that’s what they are: outsiders — to make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life, is a sort of horrible form of theft. It’s an abuse.

But the tension of ownership re-emerges here again, of course. To hear the testimonies of family and friends, who explain that everything that happened was a tragedy, but their tragedy, and one abused by outside parties for other ends, is stark. Though Hughes may remain unlikeable in many respects, his relationship to his wife, both in life and in death, seems quintessentially Brontean. But such is the paradox of the social. This is not the personal colliding with the political, in a dialectic that produces the new, but everything, in all of its complexity, being melted down onto the one-dimensional plane of the social — the schizophrenia of capitalism cast in negative, where everything is connected and simplified in its relations.

It is a telling tale in our present era of social media. Hughes did not comment on the accusations against him, or attempt to refute them, although he later published the collection Birthday Letters, which explored in harrowing detail the extent to which his wife’s love and death so profoundly haunted him. In a world currently obsessed by the causes and affects of so-called “cancel culture”, his private responses are both fascinating and heart-breaking.

The documentary presents a reading of a private letter by Hughes, in which he writes:

Having to suffer watching that freestyle street theatre, presented and accepted and discussed as the final truth about our lives, and having to realize over the years that no mistake can be corrected, no fantasy or lie can be extinguished, and that any attempt to correct the record only gives a weirder energy to the lies. Having the monkey world of all this play upon one’s nerves for twenty-five years induces a stupor of horror. It finely affects your judgement of mankind.

I imagine his fatigue may resonate with anyone who has experienced the oppressive gaze of the public eye, the incessant drone of the social, but still the social is what so many writers and poets strive for. It remains the plane of immanence upon which we hope to dissolve ourselves. But rather than melting into it, we find it has been replaced by a bed of nails. The social is what we desire, but the social continues to let us down. When such disappointment is coupled with a penchant for self-destruction, the worst can happen. The social suffers most under the shadow of suicide. We can rebound and disappear into the “I”, or else float on the surface of reified relations, insoluble and sad.

We seem less capable of thinking fluid relations than ever before, as if our problems are new and the solutions unknowable. But poetry has often expressed profoundly what is now a mundane postmodern existentialism. We need only return to Emily Brontë for a truly Gothic vision of that.

But the hearts that once adored me
Have long forgot their vow
And the friends that mustered round me
Have all forsaken now

‘Twas in a dream revealed to me
But not a dream of sleep
A dream of watchful agony
Of grief that would not weep

Now do not harshly turn away

Long Live The New Flesh:
Notes on Madame Bovary

The other day I was talking to someone about those classic pieces of literature that are so often avoided, blotted out by their own reputations. But there is a special thrill in reading one anyway and finding its reputation is warranted, not just historically but also in the present.

This past week I read Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The prose is wonderful and fluid, casting itself over you like silk. But there is an ugliness to it too, in the way the bodies of the novel are made all too human. From the very moment Charles Bovary, the local doctor, meets his future wife, for instance, he cannot help but scrutinise her with an anatomical eye.

This is not French impressionism but the body horror of photographic realism. Clothes and furniture, homes and landscapes, all of them radiate with warmth, so beautifully described. But the bodies of the various characters populate these spaces like so many objects, and always fail to be quite so refined.

I can’t help but think about how Flaubert’s novel — often described as the first “modern” novel — emerged just a few decades after the invention of photography. Photography was then providing the bourgeoisie with a new way of looking at themselves, as well as a new way of scrutinising their lessers. Madame Bovary was surely inspired by the camera, I kept thinking to myself over the course of my read — it does both so well.

Though the novel is, in some ways, about social mobility, Flaubert makes the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as grotesque as each other. He goes to great pains to describe the weathered bodies of labourers and the sinewy bodies of the wealthy and inactive. Still, the novel was loved, showing that nineteenth century narcissism had not yet settled into awkward self-awareness. The thrill of self-recognition overshadowed the unflattering nature of the reflection.

The back of the Penguin edition I own ignores this tension. It champions the novel’s realism and popularity, noting how many women identified with Emma Bovary. Still, it is interesting to know. I’m sure Flaubert would have loved its reception, in spite of its misanthropy. The admiration bestowed upon it only seems to confirm his view of his own time, as well as his own medium.

In the novel itself, Emma Bovary’s downfall is foreshadowed by her love of books. It is a novel about the novel as a threat to society — a novel that relishes its self-reflexive and cynical critique.

I wonder, was Madame Bovary to 1850s France what Videodrome was to 1980s America? The novel will be the end of us; long life the novel.

Long live the new flesh!

Thinking About Writing, Writing About Thinking

I wanted to enter 2016 with a blank slate. On 28th December 2015, I wrote the following on my photo blog, before abandoning it forever — a blog onto which I had posted 642 times since June 2011:

New Year, New Blog

A lot has changed in the past two years and this blog, as much as it pains me to say it, is starting to feel redundant. It was never going to last forever, but a change of heart has gradually been gaining momentum.

In a week or so, this blog will become password protected. Friends and family are welcome to the password for reminiscing purposes, but a lot of these images will show up again in book and zine projects at some point. In fact, a lot of them have already.

I’ve blogged in some form for nearly half my life at this point. I’m not ready to give up on it entirely yet, but I need a clean break for a new approach and a new phase in life.

I linked to a new WordPress, hooked up to my “professional” photography website, and vowed to use it less as a diary and more like an online CV. I kept it up for six months before I killed that one too.

At that time, having graduated from my photography degree two years earlier, I felt — due to a certain amount of paranoia, no doubt — that my continuing practice of sharing everything I made online for all to see was being viewed quite cynically by peers and potential employers. It was, at best, immature; at worst, self-sabotaging.

One day I was complaining on Twitter about not getting paid for jobs or not being taken seriously and eventually the point was made that, if you don’t value your own work (by placing an explicit economic value upon it), then why should anyone else?

At that time, I was broke. That advice, though intended to be constructive, was devastating. I already felt worthless; that my output could be seen that way too was quite the blow.

It hadn’t bothered me before but then 2015 was an odd year; similar to 2020, in some ways. (This year is certainly drawing to a close with the same horizonlessness; a depressing sense of limbo.) I’d just been made redundant from my job due to Tory funding cuts, and suddenly couldn’t afford to pay rent. We had to move out almost immediately. I left Cardiff, moved back in with my parents in Hull, and I don’t think my self-esteem has ever been lower. I stopped blogging, attempting to take myself more seriously. I don’t think it made any difference to my income whatsoever. In fact, I soon realised that blogging was my way of working around the tactics that everyone else was engaged with that supposedly meant they were more serious about their chosen profession — schmoozing at exhibitions, brown-nosing, circle-jerk networking. I soon began to miss blogging quite desperately. I felt like I’d given up an outlet for no good reason, finding the implied alternative more repulsive than living in my overdraft.

When I graduated from my MA two years later, I started to blog again. “If you want to get good at photography, you’ve got to do it everyday” was the old mantra; I wasn’t taking so many pictures anymore but I wanted to write and I applied the same logic to a new endeavour. The blog was always a motivator for going out and sharing what I had seen or getting me out the house and experimenting in the studio or whatever else; xenogothic became a similar sort of motivator.

At that time, I was back working at a shitty arts administrator job. It didn’t require any schmoozing but I was often schmoozed at. I found it hard to make friends. It was just a job to me. Writing blog posts on my phone on my 90-minute commute and my lunch break was all I really cared about. Regardless of whether anyone read it or not, it was space to feed my experiments and thoughts as and when I had them; a space to hone a craft and express myself and feel connected to something bigger than my own life, precisely by putting my own life out there. It was also a way to put my thoughts into words and organise myself in relative isolation, having left the discursive community of academia.

Twitter was a big part of getting started. What I loved most about this “weird theory” corner of the Internet, almost immediately, was that this way of working was wholly supported and encouraged. Whereas previously I felt like 99% of my peers didn’t “get it”, blogging was seen as a basic principle out in para-academia. Writing for journals is whack; even more so if you don’t have an academic profile to maintain. If you want to be read, start a blog. If you want to build a new culture of public thought and discussion, start a blog. I didn’t need to be told twice.

Almost fifteen years on from when I first started putting the things I was creating online, the unthinkable has happened. I’ve started to make money off it — or at least off the profile I’ve acquired by doing it — and I’ve started to make money from the one outlet I didn’t think that much about: writing. I’d previously had multiple blogs for sharing lo-fi recordings of music I was making, I’d had one big blog for sharing pictures, and now it was writing — mode of expression #3 — that ended up actually gaining some traction. Traction was never the intention, of course, but I’d be lying if I said the recognition didn’t feel good, especially after having been told this obsession with blogging, which I’ve had for half my life, was a self-sabotaging waste of energy.

This attention has, of course, taken quite a bit of getting used to — getting recognised down the pub on multiple occasions last year was a particularly weird experience — and I’m sure it is obvious that this blog, and the person behind it, have been through a particularly awkward period of transition in recent months because of an increase in this kind of visibility.

The biggest change has come from the small fact that, in 2019, I got my act together and finished a book. It is a dense, intense and personal book that I have spent way too much time reflecting on since. And yet, ignoring the desire to do so is to go against the blogging sensibility that has come so naturally for so long. In fact, I feel I have to write about it; I have to occasionally write this kind of long look at my own navel, if only so that I might clear the blockage in my brain and get back to other things.

This has been more of a necessity of late because the experience of publishing a book has been nothing less than an existential shock — one I’ve continued to document as I would any other — but I am painfully aware that my natural response to such a shock flies in the face of the expectation that being a serious writer means writing seriously in silence. This is to say that there is a sort of silent pressure to leave this world behind; that persistently pointing out the drawn curtain that says “published” on it is very uncouth, but I didn’t write the book so I could graduate from WordPress. And yet, trying to retain my old blogging habits in the face of a new kind of “professional” existence where I try to get paid more frequently for what I do has meant that that same cognitive dissonance I struggled with in 2015 has raised its annoying contrarian head again.

How do you remain true to principles of open access whilst also trying to pay your rent, especially during a pandemic?

There has been a bit of drama in the discourse this past week that feels connected to this. Plenty of things have been said that people (myself included) aren’t proud of but I’m happy to say that bridges have been rebuilt and the flow of chatter has been restored to amicable levels of exchange and mutual support. Nevertheless, what has been said continues to reverberate in my mind. From the other side of the battle, it is clear that a certain amount of resentment and cynicism had built up over the last few weeks or months. Lines had been drawn, cliques established, and I have largely been oblivious to all of it.

After recently stumbling into Aly’s Discord server, for instance, having heard good things about the Sadie Plant reading group they have been conducting, I found myself caught up masochistically reading a few weeks’ worth of criticism of my online activities and feeling quite sad about it. Whilst I hold no grudges, and I’m grateful to be back on good terms with people who’s writing and thinking I have long respected, it was like stumbling into my worst nightmare. Assumptions were made and conclusions drawn — many of which were quite to the contrary of the kind of positions I have attempted to represent online.

Some criticism, of course, was quite on the money. I blog too much — although this is presumably to retain some dominant market presence — or too reflexively and too mundanely now that my book is out — as if I’ve said all I have to say and now I have little to contribute other than looking at my own navel. The sensible response is to brush all of this off as background grumblings, and that is partly how I interpreted these things, but there is a catch-22 here.

These sometimes unkind perceptions are interesting to me, in a more objective sense, because the feeling I was left with — damned if I do, damned if I don’t — is precisely the sort of neurotic concern that drove me to write so often and so reflexively long before the book even came out. It is this same tension, anticipated if not experienced directly, that I have long thought about since first being advised to blog less in 2015. The problem, now fully realised, is that, as I supposedly transition from “blogger” to “author”, my old way of writing and reflecting starts to feel less palatable. Just as the expectation, on writing a book that receives reviews, is to retain a stoic silence and rise above the discourse — “you’ll find your entire existence being given over to responding to each and every criticism”, as Tariq Goddard dutifully warned — I am left feeling alienated from the kind of discourse I first started blogging to engage with. I want to respond! I want to engage! I want to participate! But it turns out there is a big difference between sharing your thoughts as an anonymous blogger and sharing your thoughts as someone under various kinds of scrutiny. And it should be said that the distinction is purely external. I don’t feel any different now than as I did before my book hit the shelves.

It is a bit like aging — birthdays don’t feel like much of anything anymore but the fact I still feel 21 as I approach 30 doesn’t count for much. I certainly don’t look 21 and sometimes being treated like I’m 30 triggers a crisis. There is a similar disparity between being a “blogger” and an “author”. I feel like the former, but when some people treat you like the latter it fucks you up a bit. In fact, even typing out the latter makes me cringe deeply inside. I just want to write; I don’t want to have to think about what to call it.

We used to have this discussion in photography circles a lot — people would call themselves “artists” as if to signal that they have risen above the mundane existence of the jobbing photographer. But then, to call yourself a “photographer” would generally invite the question: “So you do weddings and stuff then?” There’s nothing wrong with weddings in principle — which is different to in practice; although lucrative, I’ve photographed weddings before and there’s probably nothing more stressful — having to then explain you’re an insufferable sod who actually makes photographic art feels like going round to tell your neighbours you’re a sex offender. What to label yourself can be a shameful truth.

Because of this kind of tension, these past four months I have felt torn. I have felt estranged from this new world that I have published my way into and I have felt just as estranged from the blogosphere that I have wanted, more than anything, to remain loyal to. I’ve tweeted less, tended to ignore timeline bait, muted replyguys ruthlessly, and generally found myself interacting with these platforms in very different ways whilst secretly pretending nothing has changed in me.

Whilst this transition could not be planned for in advance, it is a process I have been preparing myself for for a number of years now. For instance, I was well aware that Egress would do as much to inflate my own profile as it has done to complicate — productively (I hope) — Mark Fisher’s popular legacy. That in itself is a tension that is tough to navigate. Thankfully, as far as my published work on Mark Fisher goes, I have already made my peace with this process. Even back in 2017, as I have mentioned on a few occasions here — and even in Egress itself — I lost friends when the assumption was made that I was using Mark’s death as fodder for my dissertation. Later, this same assumption has echoed around Egress but on a larger scale, to the point that being “the Mark Fisher guy” has inevitably become something of a brand, making me look more like a gravedigger rather than someone working sensitively, as so many people do, with another’s legacy. This perception no doubt comes from the fact my mode of approach isn’t purely objective (read: academic), and is instead entangled with my personal experiences. The assumption is supposedly that I can’t have my cake and eat it — I can’t be both objective and subjective — but bridging this disconnect was precisely what made Mark’s writing so powerful to do many.

I cannot say I am as good at this style of writing as Fisher was, but the decision to apply a version of his own modus operandi to his own life was a very conscious one. After all, Mark and Kodwo had previously assigned Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory as reading for their Aural & Visual Cultures course. I saw this in 2016 and read it before I even got to Goldsmiths and it’s impact on me has been quite profound. It spoke to my photographic interest in using diaristic images to comment on the world at large and it continues to speak to my intentions with Egress (and this blog more generally), which have always been attempts to produce a thought that must be read via this kind of supposedly contradictory category.

This kind of conscious decision is further complicated by the non-academic reasoning it is inevitably coupled with; my writing on and about Mark has always been an attempt to make a very personal trauma impersonally productive; a way to deal with grief. Having spent so much time with his output also makes him a frequent first-port-of-call within my theoretical armoury. I’ll likely never lose that. Suffice it to say, I am aware — of my flaws, my bad habits, the tensions within what I do. But if those things weren’t there, I’d probably have very little reason to write about anything. Articulating this kind of complexity is precisely why I write. Egress is inevitably an accumulative statement that explores this kind of process — if you’re still suspicious of it, you’re better off just reading it. It wears its difficulties very much on its sleeve. The questions you have going in will be answer in the book itself.

So, what is next? Lots of things, but these tensions have been replaced by new ones. Specifically, at the moment, I am trying to think more carefully about how I write. I’ve just completed a huge project in which I wrote through and was enveloped by mourning, and now I’m left wondering where to turn next. Writing about this experience as it unfolds is one way of working myself out of it. It might not be so interesting to read but, frankly, that’s not the reason for writing posts like this. The reason is to try and transparently negotiate a fidelity to principles that are important to me — open access, open thought — but it is clear that continuing to do this whilst also using what I do to pay the bills does shift the perception of what this kind of post is for. I suppose the assumption is made that it is to maintain a profile because to write it for no good reason at all would surely be detrimental to a burgeoning career, but the detriments of blogging having never been a concern. Blogging’s use in lubricating thought trumps any other benefit. But what about when my thinking is preoccupied with how to move forwards into this new existence? How do I continue on a path inaugurated by a book written out of love with a new set of opportunities that let me write for money? This clearly presents a whole new set of complications that I’ve barely had an opportunity to think about. What was always a problem I wished I had is now in my lap, and it’s a biter.

Frankly, I don’t have the luxury of not monetising what I do, so I am interested in maintaining a productive but also knowingly disruptive balance between being both a kind of online CV and a public notebook. In my head, it’s a kind of blogger’s horizontalism — for better and for worse. That is a difficult balance to strike, of course, but one which I find interesting to interrogate openly because I think it gets right to the heart of many of the pathologies we harbour about writing, creativity, intellectual work more generally, and the value of certain kinds of (art)work under capitalism.

It is because of this that, more recently, the writing on this blog has been more immediate and reflexive than usual. I write big long essays less and less frequently. This is mostly because the backlog of writing accumulated on this blog — 850,000+ words in just under three years, no less — requires some shifting through. Egress was something of a blockage that I needed to get out before I could properly address all the unrelated essays written here during its gestation. There are a few more books’ worth of ideas here that could do with polishing. As I work on this in the background, I’m still left wanting to maintain a self-reflexive habit of thought. This is necessarily more navel-gazing because what I am hard at work on is producing a text that is not about someone else but is more explicitly a work of my own; a book that stands on its own two feet. As a result, I find myself reading and writing a lot more about writing itself as a practice. Divorced from the trauma that gave rise to Egress, where the style of writing was perhaps self-explanatory, I feel I am left trying to rediscover who I am and what my interests are beyond being “the Mark Fisher guy”. Because I don’t want to remain known as “the Mark Fisher guy”. I would like to be known as someone who did some valuable work to rectify the public perception of a major thinker, but I would also like to exist (if I can) out from under that shadow, exploring my own tastes and interests that have persistently differed vastly from Mark’s own.

Lest we forget, of course, that Egress only came out four months ago; one week before the UK went into lockdown. To say this has been an odd time to try and reinvent myself, whilst remaining loyal to well-established principles and interests, is a huge understatement. In fact, this is what made reading a load of Discord criticism so oddly humbling; the cynicism on display was a cynicism I shared. The questions they asked — and, sometimes, quite brutally answered — were questions I have been trying to ask myself quite seriously in recent months: Why do I write? Why I write in this way? Why I write so much? It makes responding to such criticism a difficult task: How do you respond to critiques that you sympathise with so intensely?

The truest response is, unfortunately, quite mundane. Why am I so reflexive and self-involved? Because that’s the kind of writing I like to read. On a practical level, I often write in the first person because it grounds my thought and I find it easier to make sense of the writing of others when I can ground it in (or let it unground) my own experiences and my sense of self. (Surely this is made clear in Egress too, thanks to the overbearing presence of Bataille and Blanchot.) It’s a kind of modernist approach to writing that has never not been marmite — at its best, it is heralded as a powerful form of literary endeavour (think big names like Maggie Nelson, Karl Ove Knausgaard — everyone loves a brutally honest memoir); at its worst, it is decried as a writerly symptom of our postmodern narcissism. But the politics of these kinds of texts have been fascinating since their very origins, and they are modernist in precisely the sense that they came into their own in modernity.

I love reading biographic-memoirs. I’m not sure that’s a real genre but it should be; it’d make my book-buying less hit and miss. They’re the kinds of books about huge personalities written by huge personalities, or at least the myriad people who personally knew their subject. I love their complexity and their unruliness and their vitality. I love how the story of a life can be told through its very real impact on the life of another. They are the sorts of books that require a certain vigilance and, in due course, they may well be unwritten by another, but taking the accumulative shelf of biographic reflections together paints a far more vivid image of a life than a supposedly objective and singular account ever could.

In recent years, I’ve been trying to map out just want it is about this style of writing that I love. In 2018, for instance, I was persistently inspired by Virginia Woolf’s templex approach to writing, complicating how both memoir (women’s writing; not considered capital-L Literature) and biography (men’s writing; her father, Leslie Stephen, was a renowned biographer in his day) were seen in her time — this makes Orlando her magnum opus in this sense — a kind of fictionalised, gender-bending, time-travelling biography that is nonetheless based on a very real person, Vita Sackville-West, and her own relationship to her — but her writer’s diaries are often just as inspirational and vivid.

Since my Woolf obsession gave way towards the end of last year, I’ve been working my way through various biographies of D.H. Lawrence and Phillip Larkin — specifically those written by their contemporaries and associates — and, boy, is it a trip. Whilst Larkin’s shifting reputation (as a man if not a poet) has been a very recent literary spectacle (trashed by Andrew Motion in 1993, somewhat rehabilitated by James Booth in 2014), D.H. Lawrence’s reputation has been through so many twists and turns in the ninety years since his death that it is hard to know what to think about the man or his work at all.

At the moment, for instance, I am particularly fascinated by his often problematic way of dealing with his own lived experiences; as his most recent biographer, John Worthen, puts it, the fictional content of his works and the very personal emotions he is trying to express in his day-to-day life are always deeply entangled. This results in work after Nietzschean work by Lawrence in which “The individual is threatened by the very thing that he or she craves, and is likely to veer between a desire to lose him or herself in passion and a desperate longing for detachment.” (Yes, I am embarrassed that I relate to my blog like Lawrence related to women.) Worthen continues: “What [Lawrence] did was feel, which in this case meant write, his way into the problem. The writing enacted the problem, and offered some understanding of it.” This ‘problem’, more often than not, was a relationship.

Intriguingly, in the years after his death, Lawrence became the subject of many biographies by male contemporaries and rivals and, indeed, by the women he was intimate with who he used as inspiration for his stories. His works were often a kind of fictionalised autobiography in this sense, and those who knew Lawrence could see themselves quite clearly in his stories. Lawrence’s reading of their very selves was always poetic but often brutally honest. The veil of fiction was not enough to save the feelings of his muses. And so, when the tables were posthumously turned on Lawrence by those who knew him, his perspective in his own novels was rattled and ungrounded. But these biographies are not just interesting for this reason. They are fascinating because as much is learned about the authors themselves as about Lawrence, and what you end up with, rather than a cubist portrait of a man, is a map of a moment and the politics of its fraught relations. You end up, quite fittingly, with a very Lawrencean drama — art imitating life imitating art — where personal relations are complicated by the political concerns of the day.

My own attempt at navigating a recent personal-cultural history is hardly on a par with the great modernists but their relationship to the process of writing nonetheless resonates with my own. Their thoughts on the production of knowledge and understanding through fiction and non-fiction, for instance, echoes what I was always been drawn to about the Ccru; the Warwick crowd quite explicitly updated the modernists’ concerns to the tensions of postmodernity.

It is this process that I hope to explore with an increasing distance and scope as I move on with my writing life. However, whilst I began work on two books soon after Egress that mark quite a radical departure with my focus on Fisher and the blogosphere, I’ve nonetheless found that the project nearest to completion is a book about accelerationism, which I’ve sketched out 50,000 words for during lockdown.

Accelerationism remains a niche concern, no doubt, but it still shares this kind of acutely postmodern dilemma. We might put it like this: If Egress is a response to the fact that so many of our great writers and thinkers are collectively seen through are the very prisms they hoped to critique, and an attempt to stave off the impotence of reification that accumulates around a body of work after the death of the person who produced it, accelerationism is a movement that has similarly fallen victim to the kind of postmodern impotence it first hoped to shatter. Without a single authoritative representative, however, it is a project that stumbles on zombie-like, worn down by its ill-formed supporters and and critics alike. This is a legacy far more complex than Fisher’s, which can be rectified by better access to his most important texts and a more honest approach to the long but nonetheless singular trajectory of his thought. Accelerationism, on the contrary, cannot be rehabilitated with quite the same linear strategy.

Aly’s recent reading list demonstrated one such alternate approach, of course — doubling down on specific “alternatives” to excavate that which has been buried by a kind of patriarchal desire-path of canon-building. However, when I wrote about her reading list and how I thought it was a very productive shot across the bow of recent discourse, I did not realise it was, in part, a troll on the reading lists provided as part of the accelerationism course I had co-written with Meta Nomad. That the lists only featured one woman is, in hindsight, an embarrassing oversight. But I hope my blogpost also made clear that my intention was similar — I wanted to write a course that dispelled the drive to reactively reify accelerationism, whether from the left or the right, by focusing on a very particular moment; providing an intentionally limited perspective in order to provide a better understanding of how the discourse got into such a mess of retcons and canons, violent affirmations and paranoid disavowals. Because, ultimately, accelerationism was an attempt to break the leftist impotence surrounding Occupy, and no matter how we frame the philosophical lineage that informed its claims, we are no closer to answering that call. In fact, the citational politics that Aly so provocatively shone a light on revealed this quite explicitly. Few accelerationists’ priorities, no matter the school of thought they pledge allegiance to, have any bearing on actually changing our static present. When a mode of thought can become that detached from its original aims, to its own detriment, surely we need to ask ourselves how and why.

With this in mind, the most important questions concerning accelerationism today, as far as I am (personally) concerned, are: How to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process without collapsing into it? Or how to write about accelerationism in a way that can interrogate its twisted epistemic process that forces the reader to engage with the twisted nature of their own perspective on the topic at hand?

If I might stick with DH Lawrence, as an example that is productively distanced from present concerns and social dynamics, he was acutely concerned with the social etiquette of a sexually repressed society in much the same way. He wrote obscenely only to draw attention to the pervasive social structures that impact not just sexual expression but subjectivity as such under capitalism. The English inability to talk about sex, for instance, led to an inability to have sex in any gratifying sense — something Lawrence felt frustrated by personally as well as socially (making him somewhat of a proto-incel, if we want to be particularly unkind) — but the English were hardly locked in idealised (that is, self-conscious) social relations and wholly out of touch with their bodies. Lawrence made the prescient connection, decades before it would become a countercultural trope, that bodily autonomy was as maligned in the bedroom as it was in the factory or colliery, and the beauty of Lawrence’s writing, for me, even at its most purple, is the way his obscenity thrusts itself through a sexual consciousness into class consciousness.

What is the accelerationist version of this? It is perhaps that our inability to actually talk about accelerationism without falling into inane discussions about how we’re supposed to talk about accelerationism demonstrates how utterly beholden we are by the impotence accelerationism first sought to critique. The dissipation of agency and the disarticulation of philosophy from politics were two postmodern tendencies that the first self-identifying accelerationists wanted to dismantle — that those are two things many accelerationists now celebrate unwittingly is beyond parody. However, whilst we can talk about this ingrown logic and point and laugh a pseuds until we’re blue in the face, accelerationism as a discourse is only worth continuing to pursue if we can engage with it in a way that penetrates through our respective cliques and into the broader impotence it is a mere byproduct of.

Still, deciding how best to do this — what analogies are useful, which references are provocative and productive enough — remains an open question. For instance, here I am talking about Fisher and accelerationism again using references that he would have surely been repulsed by. Is that useful for uncovering the subjective twists in Fisher’s thought? Or does it only muddy the waters?

For instance, Fisher really did not share my appreciation of DH Lawrence’s work — for much the same reason he disliked Bataille; the perversity of being someone writing publicly about Fisher who loves everything he hated continues. This is unsurprising, of course, for someone who frequently blogged so vitriolically about how they hated sex, but the writings of these two Notts men at least shared the same power of traversal between different forms of bodily subjugation. (I am thinking about Steve Finbow’s comment for 3am Magazine here, in which he describes Fisher as a kind of “radical Geoff Dyer infused with the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft rather than D. H. Lawrence”; I can think of no better description of a man who was so asexually sensual in his writing.)

This is what I like about Fisher’s work, however. Despite his fierce opinions, published on the k-punk blog, his hates seem to be as informative to his writing as his loves. Like the tension captured between the Arctic Monkeys and Burial, Fisher was very sensitive to the aesthetic packaging of shared sensations, trying to untangle symptoms from diagnoses. But he often seemed incapable of doing this with more canonised cultural artefacts, particularly literary figures. This isn’t to cast aspersions upon him, of course. What I like about many of these writers is that they are so internally contradictory, but immensely productive because of this, much like Fisher himself.

Reading Lawrence’s writing chronologically, for instance, with the added context of his lived experiences, we can chart his own shifting attempts to wrestle with the sensual alienation of the early twentieth century. It is in this sense that I think Lawrence and Fisher aren’t so different in their aims, whilst differing vastly in style. Rather than picking sides, I’m quite fascinated by what they share and why those differences exist in the context of the times in which they lived. This is to say that, whilst Fisher would see himself as a diagnostician and Lawrence as a writer riddled with the problems he sought to critique, Fisher was no doubt similarly complex in his own way. After all, Lawrence’s critical writings — on American literature and psychoanalysis, in particular — was so incredibly ahead of their time, but his writings with still symptomatic of the problems of his age. Fisher’s output is similar; accelerationism even more so.

Where do I fit into that kind of problematic? It is hardly my place to say. That kind of self-awareness is impossible, surely; if it is not, to attain it would no doubt drive me into an utterly unproductive nihilism. That is the last thing I want, and so continuing unsteadily on the path I am on is the only option. I have a lot of changes to synthesise and a lot of internal contradictions to weather but at least I’m moving forwards. Under such circumstances, shutting up is not an option.

“The Pilgrim Fathers … driven by IT.”

Beginning his Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence questions the perceived “childishness” of the old American classics.

The old American art-speech contains an alien quality, which belongs to the American continent and to nowhere else. But, of course, so long as we insist on reading the books as children’s tales, we miss all that.

American literature requires — deserves even — a reappraisal, because it is we who are missing out when we patronise those writers of the new world with new things to say. And yet it is hardly surprising that so many would treat American art-speech so scathingly. Lawrence continues:

It is hard to hear a new voice, as hard as it is to listen to an unknown language. We just don’t listen. There is a new voice in the old American classics. The world has declined to hear it, and has babbled about children’s stories.

As I sat reading this opening chapter on a humid Sunday afternoon, I found my mind drifting to Stephen King’s IT and the notorious scene where the children all have sex with Beverly Marsh as they attempt to leave the sewers.

The scene came under fresh scrunity a few years ago, following the recent film adaptations, which drew more attention to it only by leaving it out.

What does it mean? Why is it included? Is it appropriate?

The general interpretation I see is that the Losers require some kind of end of innocence moment before they return to the outside world. Sex is a doorway out of innocence and childhood. But once they leave the sewers, having defeated IT, the children “regress” to a normal suburban existence; to a normal childhood. Their memories are repressed.

I wonder if King is illuminating the same tension that Lawrence is here, in a suitably immoral fashion. The scene is inappropriate because of the age of the children but, like so many American novels, perhaps the issue remains the same. This is not a children’s book — that is, a book for or about children — not really. America is defined, in its adolescence, by sex and violence; it is fitting, if nonetheless disturbing, that the characters in IT are too.

What the children really require is an end to fear. In defeating IT, they defeat fear, but they are nonetheless disconnected by their ordeal. Desire overwhelms them. The sexual experience reunites them but it is nonetheless contaminated by the drives that brought them there.

For Lawrence, IT is not to be feared but embraced. IT is freedom. Freedom is not doing whatever you like on a whim but “doing what the deepest self likes.” (Interestingly, for Lawrence, the “most unfree men go west, and shout about freedom” — a shout that “is a rattling of chains, always was.”)

IT is the deepest self. IT is our deepest fears and desires both — because, of course, sometimes we fear what we want the most. Indeed, even as Lawrence affirms IT, he paints IT as a horror, as if to fully comprehend it would ruin us, but comprehend it we must. He writes:

If one wants to be free, one has to give up the illusion of doing what one likes, and seek what IT wishes done.

But before you can do what IT likes, you must first break the spell of the old mastery, the old IT.

[…] The true liberty will only begin when Americans discover IT, and proceeds to fulfil IT. IT being the deepest whole self, the self in its wholeness, not idealistic halfness.

That’s why the Pilgrim Fathers came to America, then; and that’s why we come. Driven by IT. We cannot see that invisible winds carry us, as they carry swarms of locusts, that invisible magnetism brings us as it brings the migrating birds to their unforeknown goal. But it is so. We are not the marvellous choosers and deciders we think we are. IT chooses for us, and decides for us. […] We are free only so long as we obey.

The same is true of the Losers. Indeed, when Beverly recalls their copulation in the grey waters beneath the town, her memories are broken up and punctured by birds.

All of them . . . I was their first love.

She tried to remember it — it was something good to think about in all this darkness, where you couldn’t place the sounds. It made her feel less alone. At first it wouldn’t come; the image of the birds intervened — crows and grackles and starlings, spring birds that came back from somewhere while the streets were still running with meltwater and the last patches of crusted dirty snow clung grimly to their shady places.

It seemed to her that it was always on a cloudy day that you first heard and saw those spring birds and wondered where they came from. Suddenly they were just back in Derry, filling the white air with their raucous chatter. They lined the telephone wires and roofpeaks of the Victorian houses on West Broadway; they jostled for places on the aluminum branches of the elaborate TV antenna on top of Wally’s Spa; they loaded the wet black branches of the elms on Lower Main Street. They settled, they talked to each other in the screamy babbling voices of old countrywomen at the weekly Grange Bingo games, and then, at some signal which humans could not discern, they all took wing at once, turning the sky black with their numbers . . . and came down somewhere else.

Yes, the birds, I was thinking of them because I was ashamed. It was my father who made me ashamed, I guess, and maybe that was Its doing, too. Maybe.

The memory came — the memory behind the birds — but it was vague and disconnected. Perhaps this one always would be. She had —

Her thoughts broke off as she realized that Eddie comes to her first, because he is the most frightened. He comes to her not as her friend of that summer, or as her brief lover now, but the way he would have come to his mother only three or four years ago, to be comforted; he doesn’t draw back from her smooth nakedness and at first she doubts if he even feels it. He is trembling, and although she holds him the darkness is so perfect that even this close she cannot see him; except for the rough cast he might as well be a phantom.

“What do you want? ” he asks her.

“You have to put your thing in me, ” she says.

It is the last fear to break: their fear of each other. If it is disturbing in its rupture of adolescence, so be it. So is the American soul forever adolescent, in both its waywardness and its overarching obedience to an ideal. But adolescence is still where America remains most free. Much like the Losers in Stephen King’s novel, Americans aren’t free when IT is dead. They are at their most free when they are fighting IT.

On Grammar

I’ve recently started an online English language course so that I can become a certified proofreader, in the hope that I can stabilise my current freelance existence, escaping this awful city and living a writer’s life cheaply. (Please help me, I keep writing thousands of words on a blog for free but struggle to pay my rent. Please someone tell me what am I doing wrong?) It turns out that the course is a lot more intense than I anticipated.

I imagined my main struggle would be learning all the BSI marks, but as I try to get to grips with the technical nomenclature and rules around grammar, it is clear that I had a lot more to worry about.

It’s leading to a very strange sort of writer’s block. (Again, no one really notices my writer’s blocks except me — they’re more diarrhetic than constipated; not full forms that are stuck in production but an overflowing of formlessness. A lovely metaphor, I know; you’re welcome.) Every sentence I write at the moment feels ill-formed and awkward in this way, as I try to internalise and learn as much technical grammar as I can — a lot of which reads terribly, to my eyes, even if it is technically correct.

Whilst I’m pursuing this course for purely practical reasons, it is also leading to an odd shift in my thinking about philosophy. It’s illuminating Derrida for me, for example, in ways that are denuding both for the better and for the worse.

As I embark on a section about verbs and their functionality, I read the words: “the verb ‘to be’ is the most irregular verb at all” — a sentence that seems to contain an inadvertent profundity; an exaggeration of Derridean banality, uttered in all seriousness.

Nevertheless, it is an odd truism. It is also a useful fact to consciously acknowledge. The majority of sentences use it in some form. As a result, it transforms linguistics into a grammatology quite explicitly, as if all writing were structured by the very grammar of ontology. Now I can’t stop reading sentences and picking out the subject-object constructions, lingering over the innate correlationism of the English language. It doesn’t make me like Derrida, however; it makes me feel a philosophical pomophobia all the more intensely.

But I am also enjoying this return back to (online) school. I’m enjoying the challenge. Technical grammar is fucking difficult. On the one hand, it is a case of learning by rote the names and functions of the constituent parts of sentences (so that I might be better at understanding what writers are doing and where they have gone wrong); on the other, for someone like me at least, with no other formal linguistic training (apart from an A Level in English Literature), it means gradually unpicking all the habits of unthought I’ve accumulated over the last three decades.

I had my first taste of this whilst going through the preparatory process for Egress. I’m still trying to train myself out of my grammatical complacency. This time, however, it feels even more brutal. Since this activity is not in the service of any final, almost-finished project of my own, my self-reflections devolved into pure linguistic masochism instead.

Front Window #8: Wonderlust

Whilst I’m aware that commenting on every comment made about Egress is going to start looking pretty myopic and self-involved soon enough — if it doesn’t already — I’ve nonetheless been really intrigued by some of the more consistent comments made about it as it has settled into people’s hands and been read by strangers, particularly those who have deemed its idiosyncrasies to be flaws rather than purposeful features of the text.

Frankly, it’s hard not to use a public notebook to think about these things, even if such things aren’t typically made public, but that’s what blogging is after all — socially sanctioned over-sharing. (I’m still holding back, nonetheless: the pressure to not stick one’s head above the parapet after having pUbLiShEd A bOoK is real. Every thought had and written down feels like the crossing of some great line of professionalism but let’s not pretend like this blog has been a routine exercise in doing anything other than this so far — so suck it up.)

I want to write about these things because it has so far been a hugely constructive experience. As I work on a new manuscript that feels vastly different in terms of its style and presentation, I am very much aware that the new things I’m working on appear, to me, like a reaction to what has been said so far about this now-finished three-year project.

Most interesting to me are the blatant stylistic habits I’ve picked up from my own influences that perhaps go unacknowledged or read like bad form despite the intention very much being to present my ideas in a certain way.

For instance, similar to comments made about the book’s unfolding of Fisher’s folds, many readers have been correct in pointing out that it is a “meandering” affair; a “restless and shifting” read. In some instances, this reads like a compliment; in others, a criticism. To each their own, of course, but I’d like to affirm that the book is intentionally presented this way.

Although Mark Fisher wasn’t a fan of W.G. Sebald — something I finally understood for myself last year after travelling to Lowestoft for the first time (whilst making the final edits to the Egress manuscript no less) — I have personally always loved the style of The Rings of Saturn, as a mediation on both inner and external experience, creating a meandering sort of auto-fiction that is somewhere between the two.

That’s what it is for me: auto-fiction. To call it “psychogeographic” feels reductive and cliche considering its scope. It is a label that only helps to flatten its contours. It is about as “psychogeographic” as Proust is, but there is far more going on in these works besides a wandering through landscapes real and imaginative. It is in this sense, however, that Sebald has a lot to answer for. He was certainly guilty of flattening the contours of the landscapes on which he walked, reducing them to a shadow of his melancholic mind, but the journey he takes through history is nonetheless inspired. Often, just for fun, I will read that book’s first chapter. I won’t bother to follow the book through to its end unless I’m really in the mood. Sometimes I just want to get a quick hit of that labyrinthian wanderlust through the life of the mind-body. It is genuinely addictive; a sort of purely distilled escapism for the European misanthrope.

This is a kind of auto-fictive writing very much in vogue at the moment, which is partly the reason why I feel quite vigilant about it now. When talking about my book with Guy at Tank Magazine, for example, I mentioned the influence of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts on Egress. I’d read that book two or three times in 2017 alone and the way she navigates lived experience and philosophy inspired just about everyone else who picked it up during that same time period. Of course, having read something so acclaimed does not warrant the same thing for my book, but it is interesting that the more personal parts of Egress feel far more accepted and palatable to people in The Argonauts‘ aftermath. The Argonauts made such an impact — for better or for worse — because it expanded the possibilities of life-writing for a new generation, and it no doubt quickly became a cliche when mentioned within writer’s classes now as a result.

Perhaps a nod to The Rings of Saturn is a more productive nod to make but it is also a book that has had a very similar impact on a certain generation of reader, to the point that Sebald Studies is now a somewhat dry and uncritical cottage industry surrounding a book too universally acclaimed for its own good. Indeed, to the extent it tends to replicate a classist unconscious within the mind of many a Guardian columnist to this day: a fact obvious, I think, to anyone who travels to the Suffolk coast unblinkered by a love of Sebald.

This was the flaw at the heart of Patience After Sebald — a documentary a little too high on its own supply. It is a project that is (in a sense more literal than most) hauntographic rather than hauntological. Sebald is great for the ways in which he inhabits the latter; those who make work about him reduce themselves to the former. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I wrote about this fine line here.)

As a result of all this, it is also the case that Sebaldian writing becomes defined by the landscapes through which Sebald walked rather the critical approach to European history he brought along with him. His narration in this regard — in The Rings of Saturn and in Austerlitz — is utterly addictive and compelling but I don’t think I can bring myself to read another melancholic ramble about the coast or a Macfarlanesque burrowing through the English overgrowth by anyone else who lacks the same navigational prowess. Thankfully, there are others who have not fallen victim to their own legacies. Iain Sinclair still resonates, thankfully, and is inimitable precisely because his trajectory is often so weird and wonderful rather than amounting to little more than a wistful pop-anthropology.

But I think there remains much to be said for a kind of literary journey like that — one that wanders through an author’s thoughts like a landscape, replicating and capturing the contours and non sequiturs of a developing line of flight with the flair and subtle objectivity of a cartographer and diarist. This is a rare skill, and one I can only hope to acquire as I keep writing and learning to write.

Not to downplay my own abilities but, whenever I find myself taking too sharp a critical scalpel to my own output, I have to remind myself that I have only been writing with any seriousness for the past three years. Prior attempts to be published and sustain a writing blog alongside a photography blog — between the years 2014 and 2016, quite explicitly — amounted to nought, but even then I was aware of the pratfalls that were interchangeable between the medium I was trained in — photography — and the new one I was trying on for size.

We used to agonise, as photography students, over our own influences and we would openly ridicule those posh enough to be able to afford to travel to the great photographic cities of the world. The irony of photographic travel, of course — and one later acknowledged by the guilty parties — is that when you are a trained photographer who goes to a city over-photographed like New York, Paris, London, or Tokyo, you find yourself inadvertently recreating the images etched into your art historical unconscious. It becomes increasingly difficult to be original; to meander in your own way without falling into the rhythms and footsteps of those who have come before you.

It is an interesting condition, I think, and one far more recognisable when rendered photographically. We like to meander, but only in ways that are already recognisable to us. When that is the case, how much are we really meandering?

(This was in around 2012 and much of this agonising was no doubt informed by the critical trends of the day around photography and memory, for which Sebald himself was an indirect catalyst — I still own copies of Searching for Sebald or Daniel Blaufuk’s Terezín somewhere, both of which I bought around that time…)

It’s something I find myself ruminating one far more frequently at the moment, having not left the square mile surrounding our flat for over a month. I am left with an itch to see more of this city than present circumstances allow, wanting to finally visit certain neighbourhoods precisely because they won’t be swollen with the usual traffic and crowds. In this sense, I am finding myself drawn back to the symbolic London of our collective imagination, rereading Mrs Dalloway again or, much closer to home, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent or Iain Sinclair’s London Overground.

Robin sent me his copy of Sinclair’s book a few months back when doing a clear out and I am incredibly grateful for it right now. As I sit in bed, facing out the front window, typing this post out, the empty corona carriages of London’s overground trains pass cleanly along the top edge of my laptop screen, still heading for New Cross station, despite the great diminution in demand for public transport. It helps to imagine Sinclair, tucked in the corner with his notebook, even under these circumstances.

If I can’t leave, I’m glad to have the wanderlust of others — as much an intellectual wonderlust as a physical one — to help me stretch my mind-legs.

If Egress is a meandering book of its own, its because it too hopes to initiate this wanderlust in the mind of the reader: to make egress as possible through reading it as reflecting on it later.

Although the subject matter will change drastically, I don’t think I’m going to relinquish this intention any time soon. I can only hope I get better at it.

Unveiling the Collective in Isolation: Thinking the Apocalypse with D.H. Lawrence — XG for Stillpoint Magazine

How do you write about an apocalypse in the midst of one? How do you affirm new connections with the people around you at a time when governments recommend “social distancing”? Perhaps there is no better time to tackle such things, if only so that, once we are on the other side of our present mess, we can begin our collective recovery and become reacquainted. Collective recoveries are never easy, however. The twentieth century demonstrated this repeatedly and relentlessly [and] it is to the early twentieth century that I have found myself returning.

I have a new essay in the April 2020 edition of Stillpoint Magazine on the theme of “Apocalypse”.

Entitled “Unveiling the Collective in Isolation: Thinking the Apocalypse with D.H. Lawrence”, it is about Lawrence’s final works, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Apocalypse, and the desire for a new form of community that bursts from within them — a kind of community that is still yet to materialise. (Or, as Stillpoint themselves introduce it: “An evocation of the potentials for a collective response to apocalyptic murmurs that defies the biblical division between the saved, and the damned.”)

I am very grateful to Anne Marie Spidahl for the invitation and editorial assistance, to David Peterka for his editorial assistance, and also to Kate Holford for reaching out and selecting a series of images from Tatiana Bondareva‘s series “Escape” to illustrate the essay. (The image below reminds me of that most famous scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which feels like the perfect bridge between Bondareva’s project and my own.)

Check out the rest of the issue and the previous work published by Stillpoint. They are a brilliant magazine and I’m excited to see what they do next!

This essay is an extension of some of the “philosophy of community” stuff that is central to Egress but it has also been written in light of my present research, which has focused on the literary modernists of the early twentieth century — including, most recently, Lawrence.

It should probably be said that the theme of this edition of the magazine was chosen long before the coronavirus took hold of the world. I’ve also been reading D.H. Lawrence’s later writings on and off since late last year. So, to be honest, it’s very surreal to me how this one came together. None of it was planned but it all feels very prescient.

This essay was initially intended as a sequel to my previous essay, “The Primal Wound”, but the connection may seem wildly tangential at best. Nevertheless, it is a snapshot of where my next book, One or Several Mothers, has taken me of late and I’m excited to be able to tell you that that book will also be coming out on Repeater Books in the future (at least once I’ve finished it.)

Watch this space for more adventures through and around the sentiment of “anti-Oedipus but pro-Antigone”… Lawrence is a particularly interesting figure in that regard. From Son & Lovers to Apocalypse, I think he passes from one to the other quite explicitly.

Mother’s Books

The psychic excavation of my mother’s bookshelf continues…

I have always criminally underrated my Mum’s cultural tastes. She was a social worker and, although she was often very vocal about her unfulfilled dreams of being an English teacher, for a long time, and to my shame, I didn’t think of her as being very cultured at all. She liked poetry and crime novels and occasionally we bonded over the latter, but she didn’t like music. I didn’t get that. I found her coldness towards sounds unnerving. There was a fissure between us that grew out from that disconnection. By the time I was a teenager, and music was my life, we didn’t really get on very much at all, to the point that it nearly became “An Issue”.

She got my school involved at one point. I was the miserable and ungrateful teenager but she was the controlling and manipulative authority figure. Our visions of each other were extreme. The truth was probably more temperate but it wasn’t far from reality. There were moments where we’d joke about it, through glimpses of tragic self-awareness. It was a cruel fate, we’d laugh, to have teenage puberty and middle-age menopause overlap under the same rood. I’m surprised my Dad didn’t escape to a fallout shelter more regularly. We wasted too many years being mutually shit to each other.

She had a breakdown a few years ago, sometime after I’d left home, and now I don’t often go back to see her. The saddest and most noticeable change in her since this time is that she no longer reads or writes — two things she used to do daily. We went to Hull over Christmas and I noticed a change in her. The fact I’m publishing a book soon has led to something of a renewed connection between us, I think — at least on my side — and I’ve been doing the little that I can do affirm it to her.

I’ve been realising, slowly, over the last two or three years, how little credit I’ve given to her and her subtle influence on me growing up. It was influence by osmosis, more than anything, but I’ve come to appreciate that that is the best kind. It has manifest itself in the realisation that all of the writers I am currently obsessed with carry with them a deep association in my mind with her bookshelf.

There were two bookshelves in the house growing up. One in my parent’s bedroom and another in the living room. The latter was small and tucked to one side, directly next to the armchair in which she would always sit. One Christmas, around ’98 or so, her small annex in this room was gifted a small hi-fi with in-built radio, speakers and CD player. It was silver, with all the buttons and flaps a translucent blue. It was very “The Millennium”. She’d listen to BBC Radio 2 through it or sometimes Coldplay or Dido’s Life for Rent or those free compilation CDs that came with the Mail on Sunday.

I made use of this hi-fi on occasion as well. I used to sneak downstairs to it, very early on a Saturday morning, playing the few CD singles that I had and which I couldn’t safely listen to at any other time of day. Eminem’s “My Name Is”. Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’”. Slipknot’s “Left Behind”. With the volume down low and my ear so close to the speaker, my eyes could see very little else from this vantage point except the spines of the books on her little shelf.

I can picture that bookshelf in my mind with an almost perfect clarity. It was where she kept her “classics” alongside the occasional Wainwright Walker’s guidebook or crossword puzzles. As a result, the three authors that appeared there the most, and with whom I associate with my Mum most clearly, are: Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. (She also loved the Brontës but, having studied Wuthering Heights at high school, I felt I had ownership of my own appreciation of Emily at least.)

Daphne Du Maurier was already quite prominent in my mind during childhood. We’d go and see adaptations of Rebecca whenever the opportunity arose — I remember at least two stage adaptations — and I remember on one family holiday to Cornwall she insisted we go and see her house at Cowey and the famous Jamaica Inn.

I never investigated Du Maurier for myself until about eighteen months ago. On my first trip to Cornwall to stay at Urbanomic HQ with Robin, the memories came rushing back to me and I read her short stories. Robin read them too and I’ll never forget that joint revelation. “She’s like H.P. Lovecraft if he wasn’t so afraid of sex”, was Robin’s review, and this new appreciation of a writer who had, for me, been so fatally associated with the parental led to me putting a few other literary preconceptions to one side.

Since then, I’ve made my way through the works of Virginia Woolf and found within her writing a similar resonance with my adult interests. H.P. Lovecraft she is not but I have found her fast-and-loose approach to subjectivity almost accelerationist in its wilful dissolution of time into space.

There is a post about Woolf’s proto-accelerationism in me somewhere but, before I was able to turn my notes into something bloggable, I have now found myself wrapped up in the works of D.H. Lawrence.

Lawrence was already a subtle influence on my patchwork writings and his “Studies in American Literature” is cited in Egress. Deleuze’s subtle obsession with him caught me by surprise and now, writing his works with Deleuze in mind, it is hard to ignore him. It is also surprising, to some extent, that Deleuze has had no effect on rescuing his maligned reputation as an unsubtle soft pornographer.

I began my adventure with Son & Lovers and found its Oedipal associations very intriguing. Then, reading his book on psychoanalysis was enough to wash away my preconceptions entirely. I do not know this man, I thought — and, in an odd way, it feels like very few do.

John Worthen’s biography is a fascinating account of his life but searching for less weighty material to listen to online, on YouTube for instance, I found nothing much worth my time at all. This might be unsurprising to some, perhaps, but considering how much I’ve consumed about Virginia Woolf on YouTube in recent months, it was a shock to find nothing but an unlistenable episode of the BBC’s Culture Show, a few dry lectures, a few crappy book blog reviews and a few Conservative pundits who seem to routinely miss the point completely.

What has shocked me in Lawrence’s writing so far is not the sexy bits of prose or his overuse of a flowery metaphor but just how thickly he lays on the politics. In fact, having watched both the 2015 BBC adaptation and 1981 film of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on Netflix recently, it’s shocking to me just how empty they are compared to his prose.

Lawrence isn’t the spinner of period yarns that he’s made out to be but a (sorry, but it feels appropriate) xenogothic explorer of fin-de-siècle body horror. This is most explicit in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I feel, where the war-broken body of Sir Clifford the Cripple is contrasted so acutely against the powerful and seductive body of Mellors the working man. Rather than bodies being broken in the mines, it is the broken spirit of the landed gentry that haunts the book. Not with any melancholy, though. They no longer “fit into” the modern world. They might control the means of production but they are impotent bourgeoisie who are no match for the virulent working man. (Nowhere is this made more clear than in the central scene — notably preserved in most adaptations that otherwise leave so much out — where Clifford’s motorised wheelchair breaks down in the woods: Mellors’ domain.)

Lady Chatterley herself becomes a cog in a class machine but in a surprisingly empowered sense. As proud as she may be of her individual achievement — marrying rich and establishing herself within his class — she is all too ready to throw it all away so that she might enter into social and sexual relations with her fellow human beings. Here, Lawrence’s late-life communism shines through and it is notably not the communism of the Soviet state but rather a wholly libidinal immersion in the machinations of the social. It is powerful and, yes, it’s also pretty hot. Deleuze knew this well, it seems to me, but few who take on his material seem to see the same libidinal horrors that Deleuze and Guattari wove into Capitalism & Schizophrenia.

Tonight, as I lie in bed thinking about why this has so far been the case, I have been left with an acute desire to see an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover made by David Cronenberg. As absurd as it may sound at first, try reading the book with that in mind. I imagine it would be the best adaptation of Lawrence yet.

‘To go for a walk like Virginia Woolf’; to be tied down like Jane Eyre.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

The opening line of Jane Eyre contrasts with all that came after it in English literature. The young orphan does not feel like she has her freedom. She is “less than a servant”, because she does not even earn her keep. She’s untethered but denied her right to roam. She protests but is tied down with her mistress’s garters.

The women in Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock discard their corsets with ease, following a walk in the midday sun, out on the Australian frontier where the recoding of bourgeois society is beginning but has not quite taken root. But it is always those in high society who egress through heat.

The other day I wrote about cold intensities. The heat of jungles, deserts and swamps, favoured by the Ccru and its acolytes, but I can’t help but feel like this is a hangover from Grand Tour bourgeois imperialism that is adopted uncritically.

Jane Eyre, sent into isolation for her wayward and uncouth ways, immediately gives her mind over to “the haunts of sea-fowl; of ‘the solitary rocks and promontories’ by them only inhabited”. She cites a poem by James Thomson that speaks to “melancholy isles / Of farthest Thule”. The cold, to her, is synonymous of dreams of isolation, where she will be left in peace, no longer under the thumb of the nurses and children of gentry who abuse her daily.

And yet, the primary reason for her not being able to go on a walk is because of the cold, which she despises in that instant — “dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes” — but only because, at that time, it was synonymous with the coldness and the “chidings” levelled at her by those to whom she was supposedly indebted: the upper-classes to whom she is an inconvenient ward.

Cold is both oppressor and freedom in the mind of the child. This is not a sign of cognitive dissonance but instead speaks to cold’s innate multiplicity. It is singular in its expression but contains within itself countless degrees of intensity.

When Deleuze and Guattari write of the body as a haecceity, this is what they are getting at. “A season, a winter, a summer, an hour, a date have a perfected individuality lacking nothing, even though this individuality is different from that of a thing or a subject. They are haecceities in the sense that they consist entirely to relations of movement and rest”.

The heat of Heart of Darkness, most explicitly, is a haecceity to counter the banal temperateness to which the capitalist classes are accustomed. The cold, on the other hand, becomes a haecceity that hardens working hands and faces or sends lovers careening across non-Euclidean paths. (“In Charlotte Brontë, everything is in terms of wind”, Deleuze and Guattari note.)

The shortest distance between two points is only a straight line on a flat surface. Out in the world, in “the plane of Nature”, longitude and latitude — “the two elements of cartography” — provide reference for points of intensive potential. They are beacons in fog, but they do not represent two distinct locations for a traveller to pass between but two areas of intensity where light spreads out, creating a halo of possibility.

They are lighthouses, turning, casting a panning light across unknown regions, not representing land, danger or a safe haven, but simply providing a veil of preparation that encompasses an area between sea and land.

In this sense, it is important that Deleuze and Guattari compare a schizophrenic out for a walk as being “like Virginia Woolf”. Woolf is not an individual subject in this instance but a haecceity herself. We should note that they do not say “like Clarissa Dalloway” or “like Septimus Smith” — the characters in Woolf’s novels known for their walkabouts. They say “like Virginia Woolf” because the author walks both paths, and countless others besides. She is the lighthouse, casting her gaze across lives lived. She disappears into minds that are not her own, and drifts out again, dissolving herself into a collective intensity, a light that pans across our subjective fog.

It is no coincidence that so many of her novels transcend class structures in this regard, nor that the characters created by the Brontës or Gaskell or Lawrence similarly transgress their enclosures, both sociocultural and geographic.

Most important of all, though, is that the plane of intensity they utilise is still available to us right here on the British isles. Outsideness needn’t be jungle fever but a pervasive home-grown coldness.

We forget what this is like, under the influence of a warming planet, but in areas of class oppression the cold has often been a vector for other forms of life. It might be useful to channel the cold again in opposition to the temperate nature of a climate emergency that sees seasons become less distinct and politics become less ambitious. I’d wager the two are not unrelated.

Contemporary geotrauma leads to boomers complaining around an open fire. Don’t stay inside and fight about it.

Go for a walk, like Virginia Woolf.

Photographs taken on two walks through Derbyshire on 21st and 25th December.

St. Ives


The day before, stopping off in Truro and running around the shops in the minutes before they closed, I decided to buy a rain coat.

I hadn’t owned one for years. I’m not sure why. It’s a Northern thing, maybe? I don’t really mind the cold. My winter coat is an old thing that has gone from fine fabric to a felt-like thing over the years that I’ve owned it.

On arriving in Cornwall, I felt an uncharacteristic urge to wrap up. The wind was fierce and the threat of rain serious. Something worthy of mountaineering felt necessary if we were to do all the coastal walks we intended to, despite the weather, and still survive.

I quickly felt like I’d made a very good decision.

On our second full day in Cornwall, it rained nonstop. We first decided to go to Land’s End but were scared off by the sheer force of the wind. Instead, we headed for St. Ives and walked its streets.

With the tourist season over, the entire town had decided to get all of its repairs out of the way. The high street was like a warzone.

We walked up the hill to St Nicholas Chapel, pictured above. This was the only photograph to come out from the day. Everything else was ruined by rain on lens and persistent fogging. Nevertheless, we saw seals from the hill to the west, overlooking the harbour, and we saw a lot of very brave surfers out at sea to the east.

I’d wanted to go and see Talland House — the one-time home of Virginia Woolf and where the bar was set for her happiness. When she would later write of a “room of one’s own”, it seems to be her room at Talland House that she remembers most fondly. However, on reading a Google review that suggested the house was down a private road, inaccessible, and with no signage identifying it and its history, I changed my mind about going to see it. Something I know regret.

I’d never realised her connection to St. Ives before this trip — our third or fourth in two years. Her time there influenced many of her novels, To The Lighthouse and The Waves most famously, but also Jacob’s Room. I started (once again) to read Hermione Lee’s biography which I’d decided to bring along for the trip and enjoyed reading her connecting of the dots between Woolf’s various descriptions of her room at Talland House, weaved into many of her books under different guises, and also the experiences of the town described by her extended family.

St. Ives is renowned for its connection to various artists and artistic movements these days but they seem to bring out a cynicism in a lot of people. For what it’s worth, Barbara Hepworth’s former studio is a nice if overpriced place to visit. However, Tate St. Ives itself is not. Leach Pottery aside, the rest of the town seems to be dedicated to the usual bland seaside tat. (“I’m a local artist… I put shells on things!”)

I was amused to read that, long before the arrival of Hepworth and co., the healthy cynicism directed towards St. Ives’ artists goes back over 100 years, with Woolf’s parents writing theirs down repeatedly.

First she quotes Woolf herself in To The Lighthouse:

But now, she said, artists had come here. There indeed, only a few paces off, stood one of them, in Panama hat and yellow boots, seriously, softly, absorbedly, for all that he was watched by ten little boys, with an air of profound contentment on his round red face, gazing, and then, when he had gazed, dipping; imbued the tip of his brush in some soft mound of green or pink. Since Mr Paunceforte had been there, three years before, all the pictures were like that she said, green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing boats, and pink women on the beach.

It’s a passage which seems only obviously mocking in the context of Woolf’s own circle of avant-garde modernists who would no doubt look on the seriousness with which such tat is painted and scoff.

The most scathing tale comes from Julia Stephen, however — Virginia’s mother — who writes in “The Wandering Pigs”, a short story penned for her children, about three little pigs who wander around the bay and get up to mischeif. One of their encounters is also with a monkey, painting on the pier, whose response to Curly’s somewhat patronising exclamation is telling:

Curly, who was never shy, went up to see what was going on. He was quite surprised to see, on the bit of board before the monkey, the boats and their brown sails and blue sea running into the little harbour. ‘Dear me, you are very clever,’ said Curly.

‘You are very polite,’ said the monkey, looking round for a minute. ‘Are you an art critic?’

There is much more to be said about Woolf and St. Ives but, as luck would have it, it’s all recently been said, in blog form no less, over on Blogging Woolf, who visited St. Ives the weekend after we did.