Jesmond; Quayside; country night at Zerox; Kitty and Jon b2b at World HQ; Jesmond Dene; home.
I struggled to write today. Yesterday’s scrawl was finished on my laptop. There is something quite opaque about writing in this way at the moment. The decision to stop, save, close feels oddly final. Whereas the journal is paused, its flow not so much stopping as being turned away from, the mechanical nature of the keyboard and the computer’s internal whirrings makes it feel like a machine for production rather than desire. It produces ornaments, singular or in a series, whereas pen and paper produce something always unfinished.
It has felt hard to continue this process after the brief stoppage, the momentary shift back to fingers on keys. It has felt hard to accept the break in yesterday’s stream of consciousness, the final Blanchot quotation only half copied out.
Nothing to be done but to get back to it.
More books arrive in the post, the fruits of a reckless spending spree at the end of last week. The first one opened is the selected poems of François Villon, whom Durrell compares to Miller in an early letter — an intriguing association; a writer who seemed to break open the future of literature in the twentieth century compared to a poet from the late Middle Ages. But Villon’s work feels impossibly prescient, a criminal mind that speaks of life and love in ways that feel strangely modern. The first poem in the collection, entitled “The Legacy”, is hard to situate in my vague historical grasp of poetry’s development.
The poem’s second stanza stands out to me:
At this time as I said before,
at Christmas-tide, the dead season,
when wolves live off the winds that roar
and people stay indoors with reason,
beside the fire now there’s a freeze on,
there came to me an urge to shake
off all the chains of love — though treason —
that seize my heart till it would break.
Gothic Romanticism, some five or six centuries early. A Millerian nihilism for a medieval world, although perhaps no less medieval, in truth, than this one.
I write nothing else for the rest of the day, feeling suddenly without direction. I nap between 7pm and 9pm, as I have frequently in recent weeks, as if the witching hour arrives earlier than scheduled. I chat to my flatmate once awake.
A few things have fallen into place the past few days, and the clarity has curtailed my mania somewhat. I make confessions to friends, recounting some of the more sordid details of recent days — the desperation affirmed in desperate places with desperate people. I feel ashamed but the confession helps integrate my life again, dissolving the sense that I am living a double life in the throws of insomnia. But feeling like I am now seeing things as they are has also bummed me out.
I’m trying to understand and regulate my feelings still, come to terms with how setbacks feel world-ending. I’ve only just arrived in Newcastle. There’s hardly a world to end. But perhaps that’s the problem — not enough world-building; construction interrupted, the foreman low on funds.
Dan sent an email over, quickly debriefing on two days of discussions. He included a photo taken of me just before we met.
I took a photo of you at work. A bit grainy. Looking at it again it reminded me of your point about how the poet disappears into the collective — or here, is at one with the space.
I was really moved by this, by seeing myself. No one has ever taken a photo of me writing before, for the obvious reason that it is such a solitary activity. I’m also a photographer, of course, and so usually fated to being behind the camera. But to be seen doing the other thing, the thing I do most, grainy or otherwise, is so expansive.
Even now, as I write these words, I have the sensation of an out-of-body experience. I’m aware of my posture, my focus on the page, a honing and gathering of inner resources, the world beyond fading away. But it doesn’t fade away. It is alive, populated. Hunched in shadow, it is I who fade, appearing only through words, mercifully deprived of self. But for someone to bear witness, beyond language, with a gesture that says simply “I see you”, stirs something new in me.
To write about this here feels strange, but Dan’s presence meant a great deal to us over the last few days. To document that, acknowledge it, even fleetingly, feels like returning the favour. We saw you too, Dan. And we won’t forget it.
The other night I received feedback on the first draft of my next book, Narcissus in Bloom. Tariq was unsure whether I was ready for it, but I think I need the project. He told Carl to proceed as if nothing else was going on.
There is a great deal of work left for me to do. I thought there would be. The editorial process is always fraught, but I relish the opportunity to have my work read, to gain a new perspective on something I have become too close to. It is the main reason I write in the first place. To write for oneself is one thing, but to read yourself back, adopting the eyes of a real or hypothetical other, is only really possible when you know the work has been read. To see yourself as others see you, to read yourself as others read you. It changes the work fundamentally, expands it, expands the worldview it hopes to express. A second pass with another’s eyes clarifies in a way impossible on one’s own.
And yet, in this instance, it makes the project hard to return to. Unshared until the full draft was complete, to have it read almost undoes the whole premise — a book written in lockdown, in isolation, that wrestles with the difficulty of seeing oneself, of masks constructed for others, a narcissistic desire for self-transformation.
I’m not sure how to re-approach the book now. It feels like something written for a future self. To read it back may necessitate taking my own advice. I’m not sure I’m ready to see myself in this way.
“The journal represents the series of reference points which a writer establishes in order to keep track of himself when he begins to suspect the dangerous metamorphosis to which he is exposed”, Blanchot writes. “It is a route that remains viable; it is something like a watchman’s walkway upon ramparts: parallel to, overlooking, sometimes skirting around the other path — the one where to stray is the endless task.” How to return to the stray. How to return to the book half-finished, when the ramparts are, at present, providing an essential defensive position. The book is a space of vulnerability. I’m already feeling vulnerable enough.
I see Narcissus in Dan’s photograph. I see the inverse of the painting often attributed to Caravaggio. In the book to be revised, I describe it thus:
The painting is eerily minimal, and a striking example of the tenebroso style. Narcissus is enveloped in shadow and darkness, and we cannot see the world beyond him, only the kneeling figure and his gloomy reflection. Even the riverbank on which he sits seems dead and barren, as if the solitary hunter has become marooned on some terminal beach. If narcissism is an imbalance in the relationship between self and world, Caravaggio’s Narcissus has lost touch with the world altogether. This is readily apparent when we consider how the figure is presented to us. Bizarrely, our attention is drawn immediately to Narcissus’s knee as the painting’s centre point. But this framing is telling; compositionally, Narcissus and his reflection appear totally in orbit of themselves, constituting a whirlpool of the self.
In Dan’s photograph, I see the opposite; a world full of light, a writer in shadow, uncentred, seen but barely, a witness from without teasing the figure back into the fold, with an act of recognition the writer may feel deprived of, just as Narcissis was.
Seeing presupposes distance, decisiveness which separates, the power to stay out of contact and in contact avoid confusion. Seeing means that this separation has nevertheless become an encounter. But what happens when what you see, although at a distance, seems to touch you with a gripping contact, when the manner of seeing is a kind of touch, when seeing is contact at a distance?
What happens when what is seen is the self? “What is given us by this contact at a distance is the image, and fascination is passion for the image.” The image shared by Dan is ephemeral; I feel hardly there; it is an image of someone else, but someone whom I feel a distant compassion for. I want to get closer, draw the figure out from its shadow. “Distancing here is the limitless depth behind the image, a lifeless profundity, unmanipulable, absolutely present although not given, where objects sink away when they depart from their sense, when they collapse into their image.” I want to throw a life line into this lifelessness, and pull the self in the image to safety.
Is writing a life line? It seems more the case that it is tethering me to shadow.
Blanchot turns to Kafka’s diaries:
Someone begins to write, determined by despair. But despair cannot determine anything: “It has always, and right away, exceeded its purpose”. And, likewise, writing cannot have as its origin anything but “true” despair, the kind that leads to nothing, turns us away from everything, and for a start withdraws the pen from whoever writes. This means that the two movements — writing, despair — have nothing in common except their own indeterminacy. They have, that is, nothing in common but the sole, interrogative mode in which they can be grasped.
Chaining cigarettes and sunshine, I sneeze. An unseen neighbour, a few gardens away, says “bless you” on the breeze.
“Thank you”, I say back, unsure where to direct my voice.
I am pulled out of myself. I forget what I am thinking.
Nin seems so utterly in love with June until she speaks:
She killed my admiration by her talk. Her talk. The enormous ego, false, weak, posturing. She lacks the courage of her personality, which is sensual, heavy with experience. Her role alone preoccupies her. She invents dramas in which she always stars. I am sure she creates genuine dramas, genuine chaos and whirlpools of feelings, but I feel that her share in it is a pose … This false self is composed to stir the admiration of others, inspires others to words and acts about and around her.
Still, Nin cannot keep away from her, a contemptuous figure who is desired as the abject opposite of the literary life that subsumes her and her contemporaries.
She believed only in intimacy and proximity, in confessions born in the darkness of a bedroom, in quarrels born of alcohol, in communions born of exhausting walks through the city. She believed only in those words which came like the confessions of criminals after long exposure to hunger, to intense lights, to cross-questioning, to violent tearing away of masks.
We are at the end of the month of June, and I try on her costume. I confess to friends the extent of my recent disregard: the hours spent writing, the hours spent disappeared in dive bars, the void between penned confessions and hidden acts, a tightrope walked between false intimacies.
I receive no judgement, only shock. To confess I have subsumed myself in things previously thought impossible inspires bewilderment, from within as much as from without.
Each confession dampens the desire, affirming its hollow nature. Giving an account of the mask tried on estranges it as an object. Others’ masks feel more perceptible now. I accept the impossibility of seeing what is underneath, distancing myself until the moment, which may never arrive, when the mask is taken off. I have seen through their eyes and found a life more hollow than that of my own depression, which swells with feeling and floods the space before my own eyes — a space newly cherished. Determinations are false, certitude a lie. Faces shift and change shape. They are more beautiful in their fluid asymmetry. Take off the mask.
Writing is no less of a mask, of course, but one painted as it is held in my hands, never worn. A self-portrait daubed incessantly, never complete, erasing and re-detailing, like a preliminary animation, cubist, layered, damaged and dirty with smudges of graphite that cannot fully be removed, unless the paper underneath gives way.
“June’s nightlife was internal, it glowed from within her and it came, in part, from her treating every encounter as either intimate, or to be forgotten.” I forget only myself. Everything else is remembered too vividly. Writing is, as Blanchot said, “a memorial”; the journal a testament to sensuality, to another kind of touch.
I have touched many bodies this week, albeit fleetingly. Hands move over flesh like fingertips on braille, lightly, tentatively, as if afraid of the porosity of what is said and unseen. The body before me is always imaginary. What is desired is the intimacy of writing directly onto flesh.
I think of the opening scene of Godard’s Le Mépris. What is missing in each instant of passion is the affirmation of tenderness, every “yes” scrawled upon each appendage under concern. Instead, concern is lacking. Nothing has been affirmed. Everything forgotten.
There’s a party tonight at World Headquarters. Kitty and Jon are going b2b. Last night I’d elected not to go; today I feel resentful that I would deny myself the company of friends, simply because I fear the impulse to gather strangers.
I hope to start my own radio show soon, the name of which will be “New Tenderness”, after a conversation Guibert has with Foucault in To The Friend Who Did Not Save My Life:
This danger lurking everywhere has created new complicities, new tenderness, new solidarities. Before, no one said a word; now we talk to each other. We all know exactly why we’re there.
Strange to have fixated on this scene prior to my breakdown. I draw on it towards the end of Narcissus in Bloom too. The danger lurking for Foucault and Guibert was AIDS; for us in the spring of 2022, I imagined it was the coronavirus. Now it is mental illness. As isolating as my own struggle has felt, I am aware I am not the only one in my immediate vicinity who has been swept up in internal difficulties. I am far from relinquished of illness, but all the more reason to go to the ball. I want to hug my friends, tell them I love them. I intend to.
Despite the intensity and exhaustion of the previous day, I slept for only an hour or two. On my return home, I was greeted by two books by Anais Nin: House of Incest, a prose poem that explores the thalassic copulation of mother and child in utero and postpartum; and volume one of her near-mythological journal. On waking, I take them out to the garden but only briefly.
Descending the back stairs of our flat, I pass through a cloud of morning mist that has seeped through the door frame and feel distinctly like it is only now, at sunrise, that I have passed through the veil into dream. Once outside, I smoke two cigarettes, making my own contribution to the haze, before inverting the journey and returning to bed to write.
I sleep some more, although don’t remember when or for how long, simply passing out as the brain no doubt catches up with itself. Later, I head back out into the garden, just as the sun is approaching its midday zenith. It has been a while since I’ve heard the peculiar sounds of the neighbours opposite but they are now filling the air with the soundtrack to Grease, the unmistakable clacking of balls in a game of pool (a surreal sound to hear from a small Tyneside flat, as it’s hard to imagine where a pool table would go), and an occasional liturgy of vomiting.
It is impossible to form a clear image of their lives from this racket but I am enthralled nonetheless — always the same incongruous confluence of sounds. (Yes, even the vomiting.)
Reading Anais Nin’s journals, I feel I have discovered a kindred spirit. It isn’t long into the first volume before she begins to share stories of her life with the men I have been reading, and I sense she enjoys the same suspended fascination with their difference as I do. On meeting Henry Miller, first and foremost, she fixates on his character, his openness, his hatreds. “It takes a great hatred to make caricature and satire” as he does, she writes. But as far as she is concerned, reflecting on her own constitution,
I have no hatreds. I have compassion. Everything with me is either worship, passion, or else compassion, understanding. I hate rarely. But I respond to Henry’s fiery rebellions. His angers. I can’t fathom the paradox of his enjoyment and his angers. My rebellions are concealed, inhibited, indirect. His are open revolutions… I am more preoccupied with loving.
I imagine Durrell sharing much the same sentiment. But it is no less intriguing that these two compassionate writers, so fixated on love, would be equally enamoured by someone so capable of raging against their worlds.
What I find most interesting about this group of writers — Miller, Nin, Durrell — is the way that, beyond the defiant certitude of their prose, there is an infinite questioning that fuels it. Nin, in particular, and without any knowledge of the content of her work, first interested me for her relationship to Otto Rank, who was her analyst for a time. (Other members of their crowd draw on him from time to time as well.)
Beyond Freud, Rank feels like a more appropriate ally to these writers — not quite modernists, not quite surrealists, defying any close association beyond the purely interpersonal, no adherence to a school, creating mythologies in books but not so much within their own lives, always a separation between the two, although everything still swirls in the space of writing. This is notable for a number of reasons. Whereas Freud newly mythologises the unconscious, tying it to already established moorings (albeit with novel and unruly interpretations as guy-ropes, with Oedipus being the most obvious example), Rank seems to question the very role of mythology in our thought directly, speaking to a modernist impulse to truly make things new, and each of these writers attempts to affirm this distrust of traditional, individual archetypes in their own way.
Rank himself affirms this explicitly in his work Art and Artist:
The creative men of our time are not capable of going the whole way and accepting the development of their personality as the truly creative problem. What hinders them is the same individual feeling of guilt which in earlier times was able, owing to the counter-force of religious submissiveness, to work itself out creatively, but nowadays limits both complete artistic creation and complete personality-development. For artistic creation has, in the course of its development, changed from a means for the furtherance of the culture of the community into a means for the construction of personality.
Nin finds in her community a fitting push and pull. Page after page of her early (published) diaries is given over to observations of the relationship between Miller and his second wife, June, for instance.
June acts like a compulsive liar, although her tall tales are ultimately innocuous. She weaves disparate mythologies around herself that contradict and undermine each other. It bemuses and enthralls those around her in equal measure, with her personality so effervescent and theatrical, loveable if illusionary. When pushed on this fact, she hardly seems to deny it. It is all true. She seems bewildered, in fact, that those in her company cannot accept the contradictions of life and love for what they are. This only makes Miller more infatuated with her, in Nin’s assessment. His casual misogyny, his nihilism, is undone by her mysteries. “He treats the whole world as men are said to treat prostitutes, desiring, embracing, and then discarding, knowing only hunger and then indifference”, Nin observes. But in June he meets his match, unable to unravel all of her. Nin continues:
They must have been drawn together by his need to expose illusion, her need to create it. A satanic pact. One of them must triumph: the realist or the mythmaker.
There’s something of June in many people I know (and Miller too), or perhaps just something of her which I project onto others. “She was the essence of the theatre itself”, Nin writes, “stirring the imagination, promising such an intensity and heightening of experience, such richness, and then failing to appear in person”. But is this June’s essence? Or are these writers, Miller and Nin both, simply fated to being a captive audience before the mysteries of (her) life? But there is no resentment here; just a lover’s envy. Nin writes to June in her journal, to the actress underneath her characters:
When your beauty struck me, it dissolved me. Deep down, I am not different to you. I dreamed you, I wished for your existence. You are the woman I want to be. I see in you that part of me which is you. I feel compassion for your childish pride, for your trembling unsureness, your dramatization of events, your enhancing of the loves given to you. I surrender my sincerity because if I love you it means we share the same fantasies, the same madness.
In my own madness of late, I felt this way towards many people, tortured and entranced by lives I wished were mine, even when implicitly aware that it is all some sort of performance. But for someone else to believe in their own character is enchanting. I wish I could construct my own, or perhaps borrow their mask for a time. Take my cue to enter the stage. Instead, I feel separated by an anticipation of the final curtain, with life itself wrapped up and smothered by a velvet screen. Then, as a new mania rises through me, I feel the energetic anxiety of costume changes — “living life as a theatre … loving costumes and changes of selves … wearing masks and disguises” — but now stumbling not before the stage, instead behind it. The terror of each is equal.
It is a writer’s cruel fate, perhaps — like the dramatist who writes for the stage but only bears witness to his directions and utterances when embodied by others. Or else no one at all. “The writer belongs to a language which no one speaks, which is addressed to no one, which has no center, and which reveals nothing”, Blanchot writes in The Space of Literature. “He may believe that he affirms himself in his language, but what he affirms is altogether deprived of self.”
But there is something different about a journal, like Nin’s and no doubt this one, which serves as both record of reality and mythmaker too, constructing a scaffolding around this voided space where the writer’s self should be:
It is perhaps striking that from the moment the work becomes the search for art, from the moment it becomes literature, the writer increasingly feels the need to maintain a relation to himself. His feeling is one of extreme repugnance at losing his grasp upon himself in the interests of that neutral force, formless and bereft of any destiny, which is behind everything that gets written. This repugnance, or apprehension, is revealed by the concern, characteristic of so many authors, to compose what they call their “journal.” Such a preoccupation is far removed from the complacent attitudes usually described as Romantic. The journal is not essentially confessional; it is not one’s own story. It is a memorial. What must the writer remember? Himself: who he is when he isn’t writing, when he lives daily life, when he is alive and true, not dying and bereft of truth. But the tool he uses in order to recollect himself is, strangely, the very element of forgetfulness: writing.
When I began to write maniacally, daily, at the onset of this current madness, it was a process actively discouraged. Friends and mentors alike suggested I leave it all be. It was, perhaps too obviously, a habit of self-flagellation in an unnecessarily public space. Over the last week or so, however, many have changed their tune. It is suddenly recognised, through the gradual development of the process itself, that writing is healing for me, that this compulsive self-narration is not an attempt to egg myself onto the end but rather an attempt to remember who I am when not writing, just as Blanchot argues. But his words ring out not as a calming tune; rather as a deafening truth, compounding the paradox further.
Today — Thursday — Dan has visited Newcastle. Meeting for coffee in Heaton mid-afternoon, he agreed that, despite the intense vulnerability of my current fixations, it is clear I am using the work to come home to myself. But the problem with this compulsion, I explain, is that I find myself needing to do it all the time. I forget too easily. As soon as the writing stops, I start to unravel, until I find myself before another blank page. It is only when writing that I find calm, struggling to weather my own impulsions and intrusive thoughts when I try to distract myself otherwise.
A case in point came later: a special Incursions walk, held on a Thursday rather than a Monday, meeting outside Newcastle’s Laing Art Gallery as usual and setting off from there, weaving through the streets, back alleys and walkways, commenting upon and observing all the developments and under-developments of the town. Though walking is often recommended as a healthy coping strategy, facilitating a useful change of scene, I find myself dissociating as we traipse around the city. Though the Incursions walks are a recurrent event meant for people to meet others and talk about their lives, their environment, and the negotiations that are implicitly necessary between the two, I find myself incapable of sustaining a conversation with anyone, nor feeling anything other than frighteningly adrift in space, wracked by anxiety when on the move, feeling once again spectral and transient. The sensation of walking becomes automatic, as if the world revolves under my feet like a treadmill. I struggle to feel like anything other than a ghost. I want to go home and write.
In the end, I find peace only whilst stationary. We end up at our usual haunt, The Cumberland Arms, and I have a few pints, finding myself suddenly loose-tongued and personable. But soon enough, as the three pints hit my empty stomach, I find myself becoming restless. I head home not long after last orders but don’t make it there. Another casual hookup, this one mortifying and instantly regretted; a clear act of self-sabotage as I try to make myself at home in desperate places full of desperate people. Cathartic for a time, this encounter was utterly indifferent on both sides, with both of us no doubt desiring so much more for ourselves than this but finding the world we long for just out of reach. We know almost immediately we will not find what we are looking for in each other. After a short and awkward fumble, I depart, neither of us having come anywhere near to satisfaction, and no doubt realising that the satisfaction we truly desire is to be found someplace else, far from here.
In this life or in the next? Finally on the way home, I start rehearsing the final thing I’ll ever write. I mean it this time, I tell myself, and feel resolute. Then I sit down in the garden as usual but, rather than start at the end, I copy out the day’s scribbles from my notebook, forgetting everything I thought about on the way home.
Ideas are powerful. The crisis team keep telling me this. They talk of triggers and I say there was nothing that should have caused a break this catastrophic. Just the brief entertainment of ideas, hopes, dreams, many barely formed as I negotiate the beginning of a brand-new life, their loss having no real impact on something so inchoate. But then why do I feel so undone by disappointment? Ideas are powerful, and some ideas of late have flourished only to later be denied — denied their actualisation, but also denied their very ascendency within the mind. Nothing has happened, I tell myself, thinking this is how I should feel. But something did happen. I came home to an idea. Ideas proffered from elsewhere are things to become attached to, like shiny objects taken up and used to build one’s own nest. Letting go of them, once they have taken hold, is torturous; ideas formulated from within even more so.
But one can only move forward by renouncing. I believe that fundamentally. Kill your idols, kill your ideas. But there is only so much you can renounce in the end, peeling back the layers gathered around you until you are confronted with fundamental facts of self. But not all ideas are individual. To renounce something shared, to deny it was shared, is a kind of psychic violence. Transformation is essential, yes, as we move on down the road. But not all transformations require a renunciation of community and its culture. Some renunciations serve nothing more than the cultivate of personality, of masks, of costumes; selfish renunciations that damage relations rather than strengthening them. I don’t want to renounce anymore. I want to get back to building something.
Miller, Tropic of Cancer: “A cathedral, a veritable cathedral, in the building of which everyone will assist who has lost his identity.”
No transformation this time. At this point along my arduous journey, the prevailing thought that resurfaces, time and again, is that the only thing left to do is to renounce everything. I’d no doubt settle for ascetism if I did not have to live with the pain of renouncing itself. But perhaps I am not the one who needs to renounce anything at all. Perhaps the pain I have felt comes from feeling renounced, at every stage of life.
No transformation, no renunciation, no theatre, no change, no mask.
“You’re just a canny lad who finds life really hard, aren’t you?” was the Geordie assessment of my character on Monday. Hardly the conclusion I expected from an hour with a therapist, but I’ll take it all the same. He’s not wrong, I hope.
Still, this internal life of writing where I dwell for the moment, if only to build back my inner resources, my tolerance for myself… It’s not really the life I want, just the one I have.
I remember having a conversation with my ex towards the end of our relationship, although we didn’t know just how close the end really was. She found my incessant writing habit annoying, for sure. She’d often express her frustrations with my pensiveness and the constant sound of fingers clacking at a keyboard. One day I jokingly told her to lay off — I was content (or trying to be).
“I’ve got quite a vibrant inner life, you know!”
“Oh yeah, that’s exactly what I am looking for in a partner — a vibrant inner life.”
We howled with laughter together then, and again and again. Then the truth of it all set in.
The heat in London was overwhelming. I have painfully declimatised since living there. But even for those more used to it, it seems exceptionally oppressive.
It was a fleeting visit — lunch with Tariq and a wander around some bookshops, perhaps — but one so hot that the only tolerable activity, after Tariq and I parted ways, was hydrating under the shady awning of a nearby pub.
So far, so English — my main preoccupation being the weather — but it had a peculiar psychosomatic effect. I was sweating profusely, emotions leaking out of my pores — that familiar note of cortisol coming to dominate my scent. On my own again, my anxiety bubbles over. I am tired too, after another long night of fighting off a manic impulsivity, and the fear returns as I think about the behaviours I have fought to keep at bay. Again, nothing so drastic as a few weeks previously. What I’m seeking out is a high frequency of reckless fun. Although the fun is ephemeral, really. Only chased. All I’m really doing is insisting on giving myself regrets. Self-harm is exchanged for self-sabotage.
Fear and fearlessness are at combustive loggerheads. I just want to feel stable. But as I go into the bathroom to splash my face with cold water — both to cool down and to shock myself out of my current mood; a cold water shock being a recommended coping strategy from medical professionals — I am met by a figure who looks disturbingly how I feel. My hair a humid helmet, my eyes sunken and bloodshot, my skin clammy. Heat-fried head mirrors heat-fucked mind.
I pick up Alice Hattrick’s Ill Feelings from Daunt Books. It is too hot to concentrate on reading it for long but I enjoy the first few observations offered up on illness, via her mother’s clinical chronicling of her own medical history and the apparent paradox of writing a literature for such a topic. She quotes Virginia Woolf, who describes illness as “the great confessional”, but also the ways that language often dries up when one tries to explain one’s own feelings to a doctor or peer.
It may seem I am rapturously confessional at the moment, with the dam on language burst, but in truth I feel distinctly less articulate than I might usually be.
Just a few months ago, in talking to a new friend about life’s various misfortunes and the perpetual difficulty, in sickness and in health, of negotiating trauma, I was complimented on my emotional intelligence and maturity. Now unwell, I feel I have lost this, as feelings flare up irrationally like a child’s. Any attempt to narrate this process feels like a desperate exercise of my collapsing faculties, each stream of daily words taking on a role not dissimilar to a word game played by a dementia patient, strengthening the weakened pathways of an ailing mind.
Tariq pointed out my reliance on the word “unwell”, spoken with the same emphasis and cadence by others my age as well, he noticed. There is certainly a more conscious use of the word that I’ve heard enter our lexicon, perhaps as a way of bridging the word’s arguably closer association with physical health and conjoining it with the mental. It feels like a way of normalising mental ill-health, whilst avoiding the stigma of specific diagnoses, making it a strangely direct sort of euphemism.
On my way home, I picked up Summer by Edith Wharton from the WHSmith’s at King’s Cross station — a somewhat rare example of a female adoptee fleeing an abusive patriarch, then patriarchy altogether. Literature of lines of flight. I start reading but still cannot concentrate. I start people watching, start to feel inhuman, spectral; start to look for places I can go in the next half-hour to have reckless fun. I catch myself plotting routes to Camden, gambling on the idea I could miss my train back to Newcastle, spending more of my money and dignity than I can afford.
I ring the crisis team. They tell me to watch some videos on breathing exercises on YouTube. A friend calls and talks me round. I feel my vocal chords stumble in stark vibrato, my tongue twisted, as every impulse is captured in my throat.
My old therapist noticed this in our very first session: I trap my feelings in my throat, keeping body and mind apart over a gulf. I imagine my vocal chords like a web of strings, like a dreamcatcher, seizing upon every emotion as it is verbalised, so as not to pass violently into thought or body, held in a liminal space of language in between.
There is a little child in my head running riot off the leash. I feel like a first-time parent, struggling to calm a tantrum; overtired, fraying at the edges, willing to give into any impulse, no matter how stupid, if it will just stop the crying. A nightmare in a supermarket aisle of the mind.
Sod the breathing exercises; I decided to listen to The Books to calm down. “A Little Longing Goes Away”, the opening track on their 2005 album Lost and Safe, feels like the perfect salve as soon as it begins. A favourite album of mine ever since it first came out, only now do the lyrics take on a profound resonance.
Yes and no are just distinguished by
Distinction, so we choose the in-between.
Give up your books and put an end
To your worries. Enjoy Central Park in spring.
Our minds are empty, like we’re too young
To know to smile.
We know to fear what others fear
Is nonsense, right?
The books suggest we set our hearts
On doing nothing,
And then nothing’s left undone.
Everybody’s busy waiting for the go-ahead,
But by then their heads are gone.
Our minds are empty, grave as well as
Strange. (Take this.)
We know to seek success is utter nonsense,
The best is to be blank.
Even the album title, so familiar, feels like a brand-new mantra.
Lost and safe is all I hope to be. When I first got here, to Newcastle, I felt newly found. Was I really? I’m not sure. But it is something I need to stop aspiring to. The idea of being found is a powerful thing, but unhelpful. If it doesn’t work out, I am devastated beyond reason. To become lost again is unbearable. But being lost, affirmed as a state of being, is something so many people wish for, and for good reason. Lost and safe. Flight without panic.
On the train home, I see lonely deer standing in fields as we cut our way direct up Britain’s sternum. My favourite sight. Something like that.
I start reading Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller’s correspondence. The former’s early gushing over Tropic of Cancer is effervescent, and it is striking to read Durrell’s appreciation of the book in the context of the interwar years. He recognises in Miller’s deeply transgressive prose not a moral evil but an affirmation of life beyond trauma. “It’s rather curious,” he writes, how the book expresses a “state of being beyond damage somehow. A bright, hard immunity to life.” But this is not an innate talent of Miller’s. It is a passionate wrangling with error.
“I recall distinctly how I enjoyed my suffering,” Miller writes towards the beginning of Tropic, not so much for its control over him but the exciting negotiation of a life lived alongside a wild beast:
It was like taking a cub to bed with you. Once in a while he clawed at you — and then you really were frightened. Ordinarily you had no fear — you could always turn him loose, or chop his head off.
These are people who cannot resist the desire to get into a cage with wild beasts and be mangled. They go even without revolved or whip. Fear makes them fearless… His courage is so great that he does not even smell the dung in the corner. The spectators applaud but he does not hear. The drama, he thinks, is going on inside the cage. The cage, he thinks, is the world. Standing there alone and helpless, the door locked, he finds that the lions do not understand his language. Not one lion has ever heard of Spinoza. Spinoza? Why they can’t even get their teeth into him. ‘Give us meat!’ they roar, while he stands there petrified, his ideas frozen, his Weltanschauung a trapeze out of reach. A single blow from the lion’s paw and his cosmogony is shattered.
A few weeks ago, I could hardly stand to be on my own. Pursued by events with teeth, I cowered and trembled, sheltering from my own thoughts in company. Medication has become a whip to crack the air of the cage with, but I am still within it. Leashed, I take the lion on strolls around the periphery. I write until I feel content and then… On the rest, I must plead the fifth. I have done things this week I never thought I’d do and feel empowered, albeit still aware I am acting dangerously, recklessly, exploring parts of the city I have no business being in, with nothing but a pen in my pocket and a notebook in my hand. Fear makes me fearless. The anxiety that overwhelmed me becomes a jousting partner as I stare into thoughts and dare them to make me blink. I live a peculiar double life under the cover of darkness and solitude, propelled by the lion’s roar, which I translate into unspoken secrets, and act.
Wounds are healing. All I have left are patches of hot pink skin, newly grown, like slats of fresh light breaking through tattered old curtains. A new day dawning. The only wound left sits on the knuckle of my ring finger, a pressure point. My handwriting at school was always awful. I never did learn how to correctly hold a pen. Now my hand is used to its cramped drifting. The hardened callus is raw and angry but it does not bother me. It encourages the scrawl.
Lying in bed, watching rubbish on YouTube, my mind drifts and I forget where I am. The room fades to black beyond the light of the screen and I find myself simultaneously lodged between different space-times. Hull, 2014. London, 2017. Newcastle, 2022. Muscle memory, as each time I remember the embodied sensation of being similarly reposed in a dark room. Three periods of distress, sociality, loneliness, and struggling to cope. I spent a lot of the preceding two points in time in bed and came to feel the blackness of my room at night like a voided madeleine, a Proustian memory of mental departure and spiritual nothingness. The present resonates and, when the mind comes to rest, I don’t know when or where I am — only that I know this feeling and hope to never feel it again.
I had another mental health assessment, this one with primary care services. The man I met was instantly likeable and we began cracking jokes and swapping witticisms immediately. When I told him all that I’d been through over the last few weeks, however, his demeanor changed and mine with it.
“It’s nice we’ve started off with humour, but I’m just giving you an excuse to hide, aren’t I? You’re not as well as you seem.”
I moved into a defensive posture and he told me so. He began gently but systematically deconstructing my current comportment. I confirmed it was the medication doing its job, cocooning my emotions in a smaller and more manageable box, but that nothing had really changed beyond that.
He asked if anyone had ever explained trauma to me. I said no, which is true beyond an ambient knowledge of its use as a theoretical concept in psychoanalysis and philosophy. I had no idea how a professional psychiatrist would define it to a patient; a layman.
He drew a diagram, a meandering life line, and began plotting noughts and crosses along it — the former being “good” events; the latter “bad”. Attached to the life line, to an internal narrative, these events were ordered and organised. Trauma, however, is a free-floating cross, he said. Though we might be able to plot the event on a line in theory, the emotional response to that experience can return and re-establish itself, front and center, in the present, by attaching itself to other experiences that may trigger it.
“When in this state, you’re not Matt now who is 30, but Matt who is 7, say.” He stopped abruptly. “Do you like yourself?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“That’s as good a response as any.”
“I’m not sure I really know who I am.”
I told him the story of the other night, how I often don’t feel one age but several. If I have found myself overwhelmed recently, it is not because I feel like another particular Matt, but rather Matt aged 8 months, 18 years, 25…
“Have you told the crisis team about this?”
I said no. Their primary concern seems to be that I am not an immediate risk to myself.
“That’s true,” he said. “But you hardly sound like someone who is stable, if you’ll excuse the expression. And until you are stable, you can’t see me.”
I wasn’t disappointed by this. Instead, it felt like a confirmation of how I was already feeling. My friends and the crisis team have insisted I let them know when I don’t feel safe, which I think we all take to mean that I feel like I am an immediate risk to my own physical health, dangerously close to acting on feelings of self-harm or worse. I have not felt that way all week, thank God, but what was now clarified in my mind was that there is a world of difference between simply feeling safe, relatively speaking, and being safe, being steady. My emotions have been contained, but they are no less far from level. I am now more capable of withstanding my unwellness, but I am no less traumatised.
It was insisted upon that I ask for what I’ve been wanting for weeks. I don’t want to just learn to cope with the feelings I have. The fact is I shouldn’t be having them, not like this. I want to rewire my own brain, if I can, and there are methods for doing that. I need to ask for access to them.
After the assessment, which turned into more of an affirming pep talk — and was all the better for it — I walked through town and found myself in a courtyard, which was attached to an old friary building containing a parlour bar and restaurant. It was beautiful. I ordered a glass of Beaujolais and sat in the sunshine, feeling almost regal, no more than two-hundred metres from the nearest Tesco, but suddenly catapulted up three or four social classes by simply being there.
It was a decision made entirely on a whim, and yet it was euphorically calming to feel like another self for a moment, like someone who had half an idea about wine, like someone who was entitled to be there.
I chose the Beaujolais on name recognition alone. “An excellent summer wine,” the bartender said, making me feel smug about my shot in the dark. He was also not wrong at all.
I opened Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature. “The impossibility of reading is the discovery that now, in the space opened by creation, there is no more room for creation. And, for the writer, no other possibility than to keep on writing this work.”
This isn’t “a work”, of course, in any restrictive sense. But I think about Foucault’s ethics of self writing. I cannot read without writing constantly alongside, always affirming the space of creation outside the text. That is what I need: new selves always emerging, displacing the trauma selves that deny and destroy. “He whose life depends upon the work, either because he is a writer or because he is a reader, belongs to the solitude of that which expresses nothing except the word being: the word which language shelters by hiding it, or causes to appear when language itself disappears into the silent void of the work.”
I feel this immensely, fully fated to a problem, hidden at first behind the work of another, Mark Fisher, but finally starting to come into its own as I continue veering between islands, settlements, looking for a place of my own. But there is always the fear of running this energy into the ground through my own obsession with it.
The obsession which ties him to a privileged theme, which obliges him to say over again what he has already said — sometimes with the strength of an enriched talent, but sometimes with the prolixity of an extraordinary impoverishing repetitiveness, with ever less force, more monotony — illustrates the necessity, which apparently determines his efforts, that he always come back to the same point, pass again over the same paths, persevere in starting over what for him never starts, and that he belongs to the shadow of events, not their reality, to the image, not object, to what allows words themselves to become images, appearances — not signs, values, the power of truth.
There may be no medium better suited to the cultivation of a repetitive monotony, a beginning that never starts, than blogging. But I continue to share my thoughts here out of a certain pride in the amorphous work of writing, an elation that comes from the sharing of private reflection.
Previously, all posts on this blog have been written directly onto the WordPress website — written, read, honed, sculpted, scheduled. Right now, I write first in my journal, then type up the results. I have surprised myself with the fluidity of the pen. Nothing presented here has been massaged; only more visceral reflections are left out. I write without much editorial forethought, crossing out only the most intolerable of errors and false starts, which occur surprisingly infrequently and only at the level of sentences.
Otherwise, I write whatever springs forth. It feels liberating, grounding, as well as ephemeral and fleeting. I find myself back in the present when I write in this way, which nonetheless makes blogging more peculiar as I share these scribblings some days after they were first written down. But to have a new present that is mine, shared only after the fact rather than compulsively and immediately, is itself a wonderful feeling. But what can I say? Writing always succumbs to some sort of exhibitionism.
But the hand that holds the pen still “moves in a tempo which is scarcely human”, as Blanchot writes: “not that of viable action, not that of hope either, but rather the shadow of time, the hand being itself the shadow of a hand slipping ghostlike toward an object that has become its own shadow.”
On my second glass of Beaujolais, it feels revelatory to have spent the afternoon being so exceptionally kind to myself. Newly aware of the trauma selves I carry with me, in the they that I am, I take them along for the ride. Previous Matts will have had little interest in a day spent writing in some cloistered upper-class enclave, drinking in fine wine and the sun, but in this I feel a kindness given to an unactualized Matt, which the prior selves are calmed by. I am feigning the ideal writer’s life, ignoring the realities of mental illness and the tightened purse of statutory sick pay. I am treating my selves.
“The fact that the writer’s task ends with his life hides another fact: that, through this task, his life slides into the distress of the infinite.” Not today. Just this moment, lovingly affirmed and savoured.
After days of eating very little, I binged and fell asleep. My dreams were pure chaos. On waking, I had no way to adequately describe what I had experienced. There were people, places, but mostly feelings, impressions, colours, shapes, emotions; wholly disordered, overlapping. “Dream soup” was the only phrase that came to mind as I tried to write down this swirl devoid of narrative, still drowsy and not yet thinking clearly. “Mind vomit” was another one. Undigested and bile-soaked chunks of thought and memory.
I started to feel unwell again. We were meant to go to the fun fair but by early evening I felt hollow and unstable. I hadn’t expected to find myself spinning out on an afternoon spent reading some out-of-print literary criticism.
I had come home feeling anxious and slept from 6pm to 9pm. I woke up feeling somewhat more steady. Nothing was processed, but perhaps all I had dreamt was something that only needed to be expunged. Still, this unconscious glitch seriously worried me. Never before, in all my years of weathering these periods of intense emotional dysregulation, have I ever had such an experience of cognitive nausea, where my mind felt quite literally like it was being sick.
3am. Struggling to sleep again. I watch random things on YouTube, trying to be less mindful and more mindless, turning everything off.
I go outside to roll a cigarette, drink some water and clear my head. The sky was deep blue at the horizon, that same reminder of north, the sun only just setting this time of year.
One hundred pages into The Avignon Quintet, with 1200 left to go, and already I am thinking about where to turn next. I know, of course — to Anais Nin’s journals and novels of love, full of horror and eros.
My current preoccupation with Durrell and his peers follows a prior obsession with D.H. Lawrence. All of Durrell’s contemporaries seem to share a fascination with him — with Nin’s first book being a study of his work, for instance — and each go as far, if not further, into exotic climbs and unconscious depths.
But it is all so masculine. I am painfully aware that I am only getting half the story. All the more reason to turn to Nin. But the half I am reading now is more interesting to me if only because I related to it least. These stories all concern lines of flight — Lawrence’s are particularly enticing because it is the family and its oedipal constraints that are fled first, followed by capitalist society more generally. Durrell’s family, on the contrary, came with him on his travels — on occasion, at least. That he convinced them to move with him to Corfu is a wonder. The whole family joined him on his flight from “English death” — a new life famously dramatized by his brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals. His novels, though far from autobiographical, are nonetheless furnished by his worldly travels, as were Lawrence’s in post-war exile.
I hate to travel. I hate to feel uprooted. Though so many adoption stories in cultures around the world embrace and encourage a masculine urge to break free of one’s genealogy, I feel the pressures of a Little Orphan Annie, the expectation to turn to patriarchs, to Daddy Warbuckses; to settle down, if only because it is the option least accessible.
I could go anywhere. Now especially, I feel I have few ties, but I am terrified to affirm their lack, to subsume myself in my own freedom. My friends are quite other; I watch them and feel a pain that I cannot join them, for no reason other than the fact I am constrained by mental barriers that were not of my choosing.
The notion of a chosen family has followed me everywhere, encouraged by those who hear of my displacement. But it is always an oddly triggering sentiment. I myself was chosen, after all. So often I feel like I or others have chosen wrongly, irreparably.
An attraction to such people, protagonists and authors is like a predisposition to cultish tendencies. Bruce, lost in reminiscences after Piers’ death in The Avignon Quintet, always seems to emphasise his closest friend’s tendency to follow others. Recalling a trip to Macabru to meet the gnostic Akkad, he recalls Piers saying of his burgeoning mysticism and infatuation: “For the first time, Bruce, I believe in something, a proposition about myself and the world which holds water. It satisfies me, it’s like falling in love.”
I know that feeling too well, too eager to love those I know and those I read. When love fades, the world fades with it. It is a ridiculous habit of thought, but one that sneaks up on me and which often cannot be helped. I come to feel like love is wholly unattainable, and the only thing that steadies my hand in the aftermath is a pen. To write this down feels humiliating, to confess to such an unattractive intensity in matters of attraction, an intensity that smothers and voids.
But there is also a desire to affirm it. I feel admired, and am told as much, for the writerly products of this over-sensitivity. The challenge at present is for me to learn how to live with their source.
To write is to feel guided by my own hand, to give a voice to something that struggles to make itself heard in everyday conversation, which emerges from my hand but seldom from my tongue. I attempt to follow the echoes of my own internal affirmations. But I do not live how I write, nor do I write how I live. I write how I feel, all the while disconnected from the experiences I dream of.
I did not get back to sleep. The sky was blue by 4am and so I ventured back into the garden with Durrell, who is much, much further away in both space and time. How he skirts over the continuum, even in death! I’m drowning in it.
I feel a resonance between his theory of time, applied so elegantly to literature, and the theory of time espoused by Deleuze in his reading of the Stoics. From there, time feeds back on Durrell’s France, and the France of Bousquet, Alquie, Nelli — gnostic, materialist, nomadic; rooted in flight, heretical, revolutionary; and so full of love. But to think of the transformations they haul up from the depths of the continuum makes me feel so unwell. I start to wonder if I need to go more mad before I can break with this present madness once and for all.
Lack of sleep makes me dyslexic. I write down words out of order. I feel out of order. I wonder how to put myself back together in a new way.
For all the men’s tales and treatises on love and life in The Avignon Quintet, it is notably Sabine who is the most errant and unconventional of the group. It becomes increasingly apparent that Bruce, Piers and Sylvie are fatally entwined.
In matters of love, Piers, or so Bruce reports, later comes to understand “that the projection of one’s own feelings upon the image of a beloved was in the long run an act of self-mutilation”, and it is this that makes them all appear so mortal, destined to die. Sabine comments acerbically upon their peculiar union: “You are not real, you are fragments of yourselves, love on all fours, amour à quatre pattes. The conventional ménage à trois reversed.” This wounds Piers and only enthralls Bruce in his distaste for her. But eventually he comes “to ‘recognise’ her as one who, in her inner life, had thrown over the intermediaries of convention and reason which might have shielded her social self, in favour of direct vision, direct apprehension.” To Piers she seems free, but also lost, although he envies how she approaches Akkad, his prophet, as an equal. It is an inner life we are, for the time being, far from privy to. She is free from love’s trappings, and so remains, both literally and figuratively, on the outside of their tragedy.
“Within each of us struggled man, woman and child.”
Although Bruce is resistant to the Macabru sermon later attended, conducted by Akkad, he nonetheless manages at last
to gain a foothold in that part of reality which was probably my own inner self. It may sound strange, but I now understood the nature of my love — and also the nature of human love as a whole. I saw quite unmistakably that man had set astray the natural periodicity of sexuality and so forfeited his partnership with the animal kingdom. This was his central trauma, and it also signalled the final loss of his powers over matter…
When the group are given a dose of drugged wine, they fall into visionary rapture before a snake in a basket. All seem to share in an exhausted calm, overcoming a latent fear of the snake in their midst, with Bruce’s mind transforming the creature into a strange chimera that had the “deep symbolic significance of something which by-passed causality.” Piers, on the other hand, despite performing his own receptivity to Akkad’s teachings, chokes on an invisible serpent now constricting his neck. But it is precisely Piers’ struggle that confirms his initiation into the gnostic sect, confirming his deep desire to live freely and change.
Akkad explains that his interest in the group comes from their “special relationship to sex and the understanding of love in your sense… This is what we believe but few of us have ever experienced, at least in the singularly pure form which you seem to have realised.” It is a surprising revelation, given their quintessential English prudishness; Piers, in particular, “shuddered at any kind of coarse allusions to matters which he considered so agonisingly important, so very close to his heart.”
This is undoubtedly the paradox of an English sensuality, which is renowned for its stereotypical aversion to sexual candour, but perhaps because nothing is understood as being so intimate. Only Great Britain could produce such writers as D.H. Lawrence in this regard, or indeed Henry Miller, Daphne du Maurier and others, who seem at once the perfect products of this island’s sensibilities, and whom, to varying degrees, invert their stoic reverence for sexuality into a radiant affirmation. (Du Maurier may be an incongruous inclusion here, but like Emily Brontë, though her works are far from explicitly erotic, they do not hide from the full horror of what is revealed within the loved-up psyche. As Robin Mackay once said to me in passing — a comment I return to often and repeat incessantly — Du Maurier is like H.P. Lovecraft if he was not afraid of sex.)
Akkad expounds on the gnostic tradition as an affirmation of “the inner sense of estrangement and alienation from the so-called real world”. All the now dominant religions of the world had long ago set about erasing “the bitter central truth of the gnostics: the horrifying realisation that the world of the Good God was a dead one, and that he had been replaced by a usurper — a God of Evil.”
“What sort of God, the gnostic asks himself, could have organised things the way they are — this munching world of death and dissolution which pretends to have a Saviour, and a fountain of good at its base?” I am reminded of Georges Bataille, writing about much the same world, the same France as Durrell (although Durrell’s characters first make contact with gnosticism in Egypt). The likes of Bousquet were infected with a more homegrown variant: the legacy of the Cathars, heretical gnostics exterminated by an imperial Catholicism.
These poets and surrealists worked hard under the authoritarian pressures of the Vichy regime, with so many of them fleeing, rather than staying put, following paths through the Pyrenees into Catalonia first carved out by those who fled the Albigensian crusade.
Bataille, to my knowledge, did not make it so far south, but nonetheless sought flight from the same dead world made real by the horrors of war.
What Bataille admires in gnosticism is the inclusion of evil in a worldly understanding of matter, rather than the crude expulsion of those parts of nature that do not align with our conspicuously constructed morals. Sex remains a focal point, if only thanks to a growing awareness of a modern prudishness that is ours and ours alone.
If sex is evil, all the better to have more if it, and engage in our basest human practices mindfully, thus negating evil by holding it to account against the judgement of our inexplicable desires. “It is possible in all freedom to be a plaything of evil”, Bataille writes, “if evil does not have to answer before God.” Gnosticism, then, “is a question above all of now submitting oneself, and with oneself one’s own reason, to whatever is more elevated”, Bataille argues; “to whatever can give a borrowed authority to the being that I am, and to reason that arms this being. This being and its reason can in fact only submit to what is lower, to what can never serve in any case to ape a given authority.”
Sex remains a key component of this great refusal in a society struggling against its own fear of sensuality — but also of love. Love needn’t be excised from animalistic impulse. Love, after all, is not only an ideal, but a most complex, irrational, illogical and fundamentally emotional attachment.
Though I have travelled far from what I hold in my mind as my central concern, all of the above reverberates against my thinking about my own adoption and the problems it has caused me throughout my life.
Psychoanalysis presents us with a mythological framework through which we can easily come to understand the neurotic fixations of those displaced through the longing for social ideals and relations to familial archetypes. But further research into the psychological development of children reveals how the trauma of birth and the severing of a mother-child connection has very real — by which I mean material — consequences for the emotional development of children. Oedipus is a scaffold, but love and connection need not be discarded as shackling ideals in themselves. They are mystical, even spiritual connections, yes, but which nonetheless provide our neurochemistry with example patterns for attachment.
The horror of my own idealism in interpersonal relations is not the response of a repressed sexuality but rather the awareness of a broken connection in matters of love — or rather, love as matter. Others lay ideals over material bonds as a way to make sense of the seemingly ineffable. I feel like the ideal is all I have, rendered apart from its base companion. In such nakedness, the ideal is made more painfully insufficient. The Good God of love sits on a rotten throne, which smells so putrid to me, but the reality beneath remains painfully obscured.
What horror to recognise the prevarications of a false god, only to find oneself incapable of accessing the deeper truth one knows is there. And further still, what horror to hear the language that comes from below, unable to translate it, and unable to learn it in a world that takes love’s material ground for granted, such that most do not recognise the dificulty of saying words they have always known how to speak.
My ex-girlfriend, sharing tales from recent therapy sessions, passes on the suspicion that perhaps I am autistic. (This on the basis that I struggle to weather the tumult of intimacy, given and taken away.)
I think not; although what is autism beyond a problem of neurodevelopment? In classical autism, genetic factors dominate over environmental ones; perhaps my malformed social development simply bucks the trend, limited to love, with all other capacities for being left unscathed.
Present before Akkad, Sylvie also comes to understand “that the gnostic refusal to accept the state of things constituted a particular bravery without vainglory, a despair without tarnish.” She proceeds to ask a series of seemingly nonsequiturial questions — questions, Bruce says somewhat scathingly, only a woman could ask.
“But if one believes that, what would it do to love?” Akkad avoids the question, describing the threefold gnostic principles of the universe, with Bruce, Piers and Sylvie coming to symbolise each one. She seems to hear an answer in his mythology regardless: “You are speaking of suicide, then?” Yes. “For those, in every age, who feel the deeply humiliating condition of man and nourish any hope, I won’t say of ever changing it, but ameliorating it … they sense the great refusal as necessary.” The baseness of gnosticism does not shy away from the fact that death will meet us all in the end, but seems to go further:
… to the pure gnostic soul the open gesture of refusal is necessary, is the only poetic act. As the Sufi poet says: “Close thy lips so that the tongue may taste the sweetness of the mouth.” All those emblems of a hunger which engenders self-destruction, which pushes things to the very limit of the sensibility, those belong to us … Yet ordinary suicide, banal self-destruction, that is forbidden to us.
Instead, it is a stoic resignation that is adhered to. In Jesus, whose life extends far beyond the resurrection for the gnostics, they see a “masterly refusal to save himself which stamps him as one of us.” But the Christian faith inverts the refusal and makes of Christ’s death-consciousness a transcendent portal to paradise.
From here, Akkad rails against the four Ms of our age — “Monotheism, Messianism, Monogamy, and Materialism.” Bataille’s connecting of gnosticism and materialism is of course a perfect heresy. But Akkad does not seem to reject materialism as such, but only the poles it is contemporaneously restricted to: the dualism of gold and excrement.
“Possesion of Marx and possession of Freud have dictated excrement as the basic form upon which the calculus of our philosophy raises itself.” But the gnostics instead turn from merde to sperm, “for our world is a world not of repression and original sin but of creation and relaxation, of love and not doubt.” As a rejection of the world as it is, this foundational expenditure at the heart of life is no less of a refusal, a creative destruction. Refusal, in this sense, is always a suicidal gesture, but a tantric one; “the idea of the gnostic suicide by attrition, by a steady denial of the world as it is.”
I’m not sure why I am hanging on Akkad’s every word, as if this fiction were no less a gospel or scripture. My eyes feel narrow, my pupils sharp. It is 9:13am and I wonder if I am losing my grip. I want to acknowledge that I have some sense of how this all sounds, as if to estrange what feels like an acute mania and step outside of it, but I still cannot think of any preferable use of my time, as if I might replace life’s myths with this myth of myth’s absence.
… to have loved capably and methodically, to have loved with a sufficiency of attention for the fragility of the thought and the transitoriness of the act — that will teach anyone the truth of what I say about death.
This is what I fear and cannot pull myself away from.
I make amends by loving correctly.
Piers, no less full of understanding, is bereft, echoing my own questions before the text.
A rather cruel paradox centres about the two notions which we express by the words “knowing” and “realising”. You can know something and not realise it, not having lived it, as we say… Powerful imaginations can be dangerous; they live ideas out so powerfully that when the time comes [to act,] they are impotent or else experience the taste of ashes. Poor desperate descendant of protoman tried to still his fears by classifying them, by making an index of them. He hopes to delimit them thus, but they extend on all sides of him to infinity. So he spends his time, turning in the trap.
I feel the distinct pressure to stop writing again, all too aware of my own incessant turning in illness. Akkad reiterates the gnostic denial of banal self-destruction, but I hear in Piers’ desperation a further echo of my own. Sylvie pleads with him not to take it all so seriously. He is insulsted:
For God’s sake, Sylvie. You want me to take this lightly? Akkad is describing my own inner mind, my own character and temperament, and you wish me to regard it as simply an intellectual novelty?
I think of my own friends, who would not entertain any of this either, and rightly so. I imagine their words, their worry, their concern, their detachment. It is one I experience whenever, acting against all better judgement, I bring my philosophical concerns into everyday conversation — a rare indulgence; I put most of my onanistic musings here. But this fictious wrestling with the gnostic conception of suicide is invigorating, captivating, trapping. Without it, I’m not sure what I’m left with. Better to fixate on Durrell’s literary application than dwell on my own unguided thoughts. They undulate under the surface, cajoled regardless.
After spending all morning writing this down, I went to the Cumberland for an afternoon of chat and makers’ stalls. I drank too much. Friends arrived with dogs, and a man present began to pet one before violently shoving it away when it came in close to lick his face.
It was a wholly unnecessary outburst, casually cruel rather than fearful or inadvertent, and the dog was quickly whisked away. The pub’s landlady confronted the man and he began telling her to go fuck herself. He was drunk but also so much more than that.
I stood up to go to the toilet, voicing my disapproval at his haranguing of the proprietor as I did so, making cliched noises like “Hey” and saying things like “No need for that”. It spooked everyone in the beer garden. Suddenly I was surrounded by men dragging me away, as if I were suddenly the imminent threat and not this clearly disturbed man. Stern faces implored me to leave it, step away. I had chosen the worst moment to stand up, it seemed, inadvertently escalating the situation. I explained I was fine and wanted no trouble, trying to emphasise my generally gentile demeanor. Everyone rushed in to discipline and calm someone already quite disciplined and calm. I was just heading inside, not looking for a fight, I reassured each person in turn, again and again, no one hearing me until the third or four insistence, no doubt collectively deafened by adrenaline.
I was newly aware of how I looked — bulky and perhaps intimidating in the wrong light. I panicked and was perhaps more startled than the man himself in the end, and as he went home with a stagger, I could not stop apologising profusely.
Friends left a few hours later. I stayed at the pub alone, still trying to stop my heart from racing after this most inconsequential of misunderstandings. Some time before closing, I spent half an hour walking into town with no destination in mind, just enjoying the city and its Sunday night quietude. By the quayside, I found myself outside a house party in a block of flats, smoking a cigarette and listening to the sounds of fun inside, lingering, loitering, no doubt looking like a strange apparition in my blue suit, carrying a gusseted tote bag of books and journals on Durrell.
I was joined by some fellow smokers, no doubt wondering what I was up to, and I told them the truth: just taking in the night air. They laughed and I laughed with them. They invited me in for a night cap.
I was invited inside, only to be immediately dragged into a bedroom. I slept with a stranger, both of us drunkenly going through the motions and then parting ways with a stumble and a smile. I was overcome with nervous energy, feigning that I was heading out for another cigarette before getting an Uber home, wholly unable to comprehend the turn my night had taken. My head felt like it was going to explode. Then I felt utterly numb. None of it mattered. Just faded animality returning without fanfare.
I still couldn’t sleep and lay on top of my bed, fully clothed and smelling faintly of sex. I went outside to the garden again, like I had twenty-four hours earlier, and watched the sky change colours again — not blue this time but shades of lilac.
I wondered how long I could stay awake for and at what point I’d start seeing things that weren’t there, activating a gnostic vision of my own. In truth, I felt I’d already lived it, was living it. A month since I first drank from the fateful cup, my visions of total death were only just starting to subside.
At 5am, I slept.
I pick up a small pamphlet from a second-hand bookshop’s online store about Durrell, written by John Unterecker and published in 1964, as part of a series on “modern writers”. It seems there are few book-length critical appraisals of Durrell’s life and work outside academia, with most appearing in literary journals that are hard for any layman to find or access. Of the few appraisals that have been published, including a biography from Faber & Faber, few are affordable or still in print.
Though Unterecker is writing a quarter of a century before Durrell’s death in 1990, before the publication of so many more books, the unfolding and enfolding scope of his work is already well apparent. “Lawrence Durrell is a man of infinite variety”, he writes. “But he’s a man of marble consistency as well.” (I think of the variability of Deleuze’s folds, the pliant marble of a Bernini sculpture, “infinitive distance rather than infinitive identity.”) He lists the few literary styles that Durrell hasn’t yet mastered, or at least those he has yet to try his hand at. But give “him time enough — and space — and you will have set-up the space-time continuum that, from very early in his career until the present moment, operates for Durrell as a kind of subterranean metaphor — a metaphor for a literary structure that does not significantly change from work to work and on which he has draped all of the superficial variety of poems, essays, plays.”
Durrell’s subterranean writing is contrasted with the autobiographical honesty of Henry Miller, whom Durrell maintained a lengthy correspondence with. Miller said of his friend: “Your personal life is bound up with places, fauna and flora, archaeology, the planets, mythology. You’re always ‘heraldic’.” Each symbol, sign, archetype, character taken up and sketched from memory nonetheless adorns a shield behind which Durrell keeps so much hidden. If Miller transforms the novel through an unprecedented honesty, Durrell follows his lead to plumb more fictional depths, retreating behind the play of human minds constructed.
Unterecker goes onto address the symbol Durrell is perhaps best-known for; how he sketches “in on the heraldic shield … the image of an isolated island, Mediterrranean, sun-washed, sea-stroked.” From Corfu to Cyprus to Rhodes to Crete, each island, always changing from work to work, still “retains its isolating, healing function” in every instance. The sea that surrounds them all, as he writes in The Black Book, “drives up ‘night-long over one’s dreams, washing, forever washing and breaking up into one’s thoughts, purifying, healing, destroying.'” Along this turbulent latitude, Durrell’s own vision of a Millerian tropic where islands gather, “even a lifeline is no good and the diving bell of the philosopher crumples with laughter.” Unterecker adds how, in The Alexandria Quartet, the sea functions as “the underlying metaphor which defines the artist, the artist who ‘finds himself growing gills and a tail, the better to swim against the currents of unenlightenment,’ the man who unites the rushing, needless stream of humanity to the still, tranquil, motionless, odourless, tasteless plenum from which its own motive essence is derived.”
This thalassic undertow, at once surging over and from within human consciousness, is clearly psychoanalytic; a re-inversion of Ferenczi’s thalassa, returning cosmic genitality from matter to myth. But it also responds to many of the scientific innovations of Durrell’s time. Unterecker notes the importance of Einstein’s theory of relativity to Durrell’s landscapes and island portraits, for instance, one important aspect of which, “the Principle of Indeterminacy, effectively cuts the ground out from under the neat causality of nineteenth-century science.” Deleuze’s theory of noncausal or quasi-causal relations comes to mind once again. Human objectivity, in studies of nature especially, is a fallacy. “For when we can never observe without to some extent corrupting the thing observed, we soon find we have to discard the notion of verifiable truth.”
I return to thinking about my own grappling with the habit of writing, all too aware of the corrupting influence that my attempts to understand my social field have on that same social field.
Even my depression, in itself, unnarrated and unregulated, feels like the product of a peculiar and labyrinthian map of quasi-causes. Something happens from without, unearthing something incongruous from deep within, which in turn corrupts, through an intensification from myriad sources, the relations of self-hatred that so many who love me become disastrously involved in.
Freud noted how mental illness is always innately narcissistic, as one understandably turns inward, toward one’s own pain. We tear at the flesh like Ovid’s Narcissus in the hope it will give way to some desired transformation, a transmutation into new forms of life and living (which can, at their most drastic, result in nothing more than life itself overcome). But there is no life begun or ended that does not ripple across the world it enters and exits. We tell stories to make the chaos make sense, but it is all rickety scaffolding. I think of Laura Riding’s cutting prose, taking the nose off both modernism and modernity in one fell swoop:
When a baby is born there is no place to put it: it is born, it will in time die, therefore there is no sense in enlarging the world by so many miles and minutes for its accommodation. A temporary scaffolding is set up for it, an altar to ephemerality — a permanent altar to ephemerality. This altar is the Myth.
In truth, when the logical progression from cause to effect is disturbed, things are not so much ephemeral as they are enduring in their entanglements.
I’m left struggling with the fact that an ephemeral depression, the worst of which lasted a single month (presuming the worst really is over), is going to continue to define my life and many of my relationships for quite some time, living with the aftershocks. What felt like an acutely isolating experience, for me, even as my friends did their utmost to help, affected everyone in ways unforeseen.
I think about what I could have done differently, if anything. I try not to gather up regrets but instead try and excavate some glimmer of rationality from the depths of illness. In the chaos, it is disturbing to reflect that, with hindsight, I had, at times, far less and far more control than first thought. “I feel out of control”, I would say, and yet be commended on doing the best I could. Feeling wholly divorced from my own agency, I have nonetheless, in fits and spurts, done right by myself. But it is also true that many of my own actions were both implicitly and explicitly shaped by the actions of others.
In this way, a very personal crisis was steered by all, at times blindly, nervously, defiantly, intuitively. From just beyond the fray, I feel like no one person — myself included — can really take any credit for the direction of travel. In making various attempts, whether seemingly alone and with others, to exorcise my demons, there was no priest overseeing proceedings; just a gathering of friends, professionals, strangers, acquaintances, each with a finger held tentatively on the planchette, spelling out riddles for wellness on a Ouija board.
In Durrell’s interlinked novels, many of which tell the same stories from multiple, divergent perspectives, it beings to seem, as Unterecker notes, that the various characters are “dancing through a frantic relationship in much the same way that atoms in a balloonful of hot air bound and rebound against one another.” “But we would soon realize”, he continues, “if we were witty enough, that the patterns we saw those atoms creating were — because of our limited (and distorting) visions — patterns as much of our own construction as of the atoms themselves.”
Writing on the work of Joyce and Proust, Eliot and Rilke, Durrell describes how new theories of time, from Einstein but also philosophers like Bergson (whose theories he later admitted to confusing and holding a little too closely together), led to “an attempt to present the material of human and supernatural affairs in the form of poetic continuum, where the language no less than the objects observed are impregnated with a new time.” The works produced at this time of new scientific theory and enquiry did “not proceed along a straight line, but in a circular manner, coiling and uncoiling upon themselves, embedded in the stagnant flux and reflux of a medium which is always changing.” But the self is not so much lost in the continuum, as in many of Virginia Woolf’s space-time-bending novels: “Characters have a significance almost independent of the actions they engage in: they hang above the time-track which leads from birth to action, and from action to death: and, spreading out time in this manner, contribute a significance to everything about them.”
It is a dizzying perspective — indeed, hardly a “perspective” at all — that one feels at risk of getting lost in, wholly abdicating, albeit inadvertently, from any stable sense of self. A quest for the truth at first makes everything known appear false. But the innate relativity and contingency of life also opens up new realms of possibility. As one of Durrell’s characters writes in The Alexandria Quartet:
It is a fancy of mine that each of us contains many lives, potential lives. They are laid up inside us, shall we say, like so many rows of shining metals — railway lines. Riding along one set towards the terminus, we can be aware of these other lines, alongside us, on which we might have travelled — on which we might yet travel is only we had the strength to change.
Travel is another central metaphor for Durrell, although often framed as insufficient, as if we can never travel as far externally, through space and time, as we might hope to internally. Indeed, any adventure across land and sea “takes the narrator only a short way on those ‘immense journeys of discovery’ which in his imagination he constructs, journeys which lead out from the day-to-day chaos of the world, a world which progressively ‘becomes less integral, less whole,’ toward something intangible, unattainable, toward something desperately desired, ‘toward the inaccessible absolute’.” But we may nonetheless discover, in the process, “a new territory inside ourselves in which each one of us who is seeking to grow, to identify himself more fully with life, will feel like Columbus discovering America.”
This reference to Columbus is more apt than it is outdated. We are stalked always by the Robinson Crusoe fallacy, always capable, even prone to arriving in new lands and thinking that our arrival alone is enough to change us, as we set about — perhaps unconsciously — erecting a simulation of where we have just been, for the better and often disastrously for the worse.
“Balancing on the fulcrum of his two identities” — one consciously adventurous, pioneering, brave; the other unconsciously conservative, habitual, automated — “man corrupts his internal landscape in much the same way that he corrupts his external one.” Our impact on the external world, and the consequences and implications of this impact, nonetheless force us to order “the accidental imagery of … life into a useful design”, destined to be etched onto shields, flags, flesh. We are always capable of promoting new flagbearers to lead the way out and in.
More satisfying than those he imposes on his external world, these internal patterns offer man roads on which he takes some of his longest journeys, those which lead him beyond the limits of the self and into the mythical kingdom of the collective unconscious.
But there are far more terrors to be found within than without, and a whole host of characters who are far from agreeable in the heart of darkness. Durrell, at the end of The Black Book:
Is the journey plural or am I? It is a question only to be answered at the outposts.
The quest always ends with a question.