Marguerite Duras’ Summer Rain is a story of automatic reading. Ernesto, an illiterate adolescent of indeterminate age, finds a book with a hole burnt straight through the middle of it. One of seven children, the sight of the book, so mistreated, makes some of them cry. Their parents love books but are too impoverished to own many, stealing biographies of famous people that pass the time, caring little about the grand achievements that warrant the writing, enjoying instead the descriptions of quotidian minutiae that affirm their own lives despite the vast distances between them.
The parents’ children are uneducated. The book found is unreadable in more ways than one. But Ernesto holds the damaged book against himself and begins to read it anyway.
Just like that, he said, without thinking about it, without even knowing what he was doing. And then — well, then, he stopped bothering whether he was really reading or not, or even what reading was — whether it was this or something else. At first, he said, he’d tried like this: he took the shape of a word and quite arbitrarily gave it a provisional meaning. Then he gave the next word another meaning, but in terms of the assumed provisional meaning of the first word. And he went on like that until the whole sentence yielded some sense. In this way he came to see that reading was a kind of continuous unfolding within his own body of a story invented by himself.
I have a friend who writes. English is not her first language but she is fluent. She also writes in English better than most. I find her writing beautiful and we talk about writing often. She dismisses the compliments I pay her, however, since I have read so few of her words. But I feel like I have read enough to know a writer when I see one.
She asks for my help, tentatively. She is thinking about a poem and wants to use a particular word, but she is uncertain whether her usage is entirely correct. I say I am happy to confirm or deny it, but the opportunity is deferred. “Not tonight.”
Her dad calls her. She speaks to him only briefly in her native language. In hindsight, I presume she says hello and exchanges some information about this and that, how she’s doing, what she’s been up to, perhaps concluding the brief exchange with the fact that she has company and can’t talk long. But at the time, I think nothing of what is being said.
Afterwards, she seems embarrassed. She is Eastern European, and is self-conscious of how her language may sound to English ears — ears attuned in a racist country that is known for disparaging those who speak freely in their own tongue. But I am momentarily enthralled. I have often felt this way. I remember meeting a friend for coffee once, whilst at university in London. She is speaking Russian to her mother over FaceTime when I arrived. She too apologised, but I loved to hear her speak a language unknown to me. The words were meaningless, mere shapes of sound. I listen attentively, perhaps even rudely, but don’t think to apologise myself. I don’t know what is said and I don’t look for meaning, only music, and I hear it.
When my friend asks me to confirm that she is using an English word correctly, I don’t want her to care either way. I wonder why she wants to use it in the first place — presumably for how it sounds. Her English is fluent but still a foreign tongue. What makes any great poet is surely their ability to still hear the music.
Word of Ernesto’s intuitive reading spreads. He goes to school for ten days but doesn’t want to return. He is angry and his mother senses it but he cannot tell her why. “Why not?” she asks. “Because it would upset you, so I can’t”, he replies. “And why would it upset me?” “Because. And anyhow, you wouldn’t understand what I said. And if you wouldn’t understand it there is no point in my saying it.” But this is less a caveat and more the very crux of the problem at hand. He adds: “It’s not what I’d say that would upset you. You’d be upset because you wouldn’t understand.”
She smiles and implores him to try and say it anyway. She waits. “Mama, I’d say… Mama, I’m not going back to school because at school they teach me things I don’t know.” She doesn’t understand. She does understand. She intuits a feeling like only a mother can.
I can’t sleep. I leave my friend’s house close to 2am and walk home. She offers to let me stay on the couch but I don’t want to wake up in the same clothes. It has been a long day, a lovely evening, and I want my own bed. But I don’t sleep for more than two hours at a time, waking up periodically and dozing for many more hours in between.
I have a dream that my flatmate has found somewhere else to live, without me, leaving me destitute.
Over the weekend, I make two new friends in Manchester. One of them talks about wanting to feel more in tune with her body. She describes a friend she knew once who was so annoyingly self-aware, knowing exactly what her body needed, setting about acquiring those needs whether it derailed present plans and schedules or not. Always listening.
I feel like, right now, my body isn’t listening to me. I need to sleep, I think, but the body does not comply. Even when it gets what I want, regardless of what I’m thinking, my brain, the organ apart from my thoughts, changes its mind. I wake up again and again. Sleep is broken.
She writes down snatches of conversation in a notebook recently given to her. Words. Phrases. She pulls poetry out of my ramblings. She asks me to write something down too and hands the notebook over but I’m stunned. I do nothing but write, but then can’t write on command. “Just write a word”, she says. I explain my impulse is to fill an entire page, write out loud, speak and write simultaneously, put on the page whatever is coming out of my mouth in unison.
I wrote about her in my journal last week. It ended up on the blog the other day. The chronology is disjointed, but she noticed. No one could probably identify her but herself. I apologize, again not wanting the people in my life who choose to read me to feel like I have reduced them to characters. But she doesn’t seem to mind, or seems somewhat enthralled by the intrusion. Still, she tells me things and begins to caveat certain parts of conversation with a disclaimer: “Don’t put this on the blog.” I wouldn’t dream of it. I too only want to record fragments, phrases, words from without that resonate, words that speak to me as if I had said them aloud to myself.
This automatic writing is its own kind of automatic listening. I feel like an interpreter, translating feeling as it washes over me. The fragments feel like parts of a dream, like the scenes relayed and captured are little things felt throughout the day, coming back to mind as they are processed internally. Maybe I can’t sleep because I am writing too much. Maybe this automatic writing has replaced the unconscious processing of my dreams. I don’t need to dream right now. I only need to write.
Blanchot, The Space of Literature:
The need to write is linked to the approach toward this point at which nothing can be done with words. Hence the illusion that if one maintained contact with this point even as one came back from it to the world of possibility, “everything” could be done, “everything” could be said. This need must be suppressed and contained. If not, it becomes so vast that there is no more room or space for its realization. One only begins to write when, momentarily, through a ruse, through a propitious burst of energy, or through life’s distractions, one has succeeded in evading this impulse which remote control of the work must constantly awaken and subdue, protect and avert, master and experience in its unmasterable force. This operation is so difficult and dangerous that every writer and every artist is surprised each time he achieves it without disaster. And no one who has looked the risk in the face can doubt that many perished silently. It is not that creative resources are lacking — although they are in any event insufficient — but rather that the force of the writing impulse makes the world disappear. Then time loses its power of decision; nothing can really begin.
The next night I still can’t sleep. It is not yet midnight on a Tuesday but the neighbourhood is deathly quiet. Unable to write in my journal in the dark, I turn to the blog directly for the first time in a while, the white of the page of my laptop screen making the night around me ever darker. I chain-roll cigarettes and scare myself, picking up a now-empty pack of cigarette papers that an earwig has just made its home. I jump, inadvertently flicking it into the black. I flick ash into the black as well. But I’m tired, clumsy. I ash the keyboard and the mouse pad. I spill curls of loose tobacco over Duras. Smoke wisps around my fingers in the blue light and quickly fades from view, into the night.
Into the night, I write.
“If there’s anything I say on the blog that makes you uncomfortable, I can remove it.” I have already done this before, a few weeks ago, for someone else, again likely unidentifiable but feeling themselves seen, disliking hearing their own thoughts and phrases echoed back to them.
She doesn’t mind. Although still cautious about the content of what I might say, she wants me to write about her, or perhaps to her. I show her the book that arrived in the post: the letters shared between Nin and Miller. “You can be my Miller”, she says. I agree, recognising the sentiment meant, though I’m sure neither of us would want anything resembling their tumultuous relationship. Only that basic bond: the love of writing. Underneath the bond, the almost perverse desire to be read also. She can write about me too if she wishes.
Ernesto’s mother tells him to go find his brothers and sisters. Ever since he started to read, they have been visiting the Prisu and “pretending” to read too. The suggestion that their reading is make-believe makes Ernesto angry, but his mother is defiant. The fact of the matter is, they can’t read. If they can read, “what are those kids reading?”
“They’re reading whatever they like, for crying out loud!”
“But where, for Pete’s sake? Where is it, the write they’re supposed to be reading?”
“The write’s in the book, of course!”
“Next thing they’ll be reading the stars.”
The earwig returns, crawling over my elbow in the dark. I do not see it. I only feel it. Another panicked flick into the night.
I drink a beer, hoping it will make me sleep. I decide to write and smoke until I have finished it. I remembered that the doctors recommended warm milk instead, like mothers.
Ernesto’s mother is a mystery to him. She speaks of home and all the children are enthralled by her tales of a land unknown. Duras describes her speech, how it has changed since she and her husband first emigrated to France:
The mother has forgotten the language of her youth. She speaks like all the other people in Vitry, and without an accent. She only makes mistakes in the conjugations of the verbs. But there survive from her past certain ineffaceable sounds, soft words that she seems to be paying out slowly, chanting sounds that moisten the inside of her voice and sometimes make the words emerge from her body with her realising it, as if she were being visited by the memory of a language long forsaken.
My ears are attuned to the night. My thoughts and fingers are focused on the writing; my eyes on reading Duras, barely illuminated by the screen. Moths pass in front of the light sometimes, and much smaller insects too, with a grace that is carefree and inane. But my ears still prick up and keep me alert, keep me awake. I hear rustling in the bushes — hedgehogs, perhaps; cats, mice or rats; unknown objects falling through leaves; bugs and critters maybe. Birds chatter faintly in the distance. Seagulls squeak, oddly at this hour, fellow insomniacs. A little further away, I hear the white noise of traffic, tyres over tarmac, coming from the Coast Road. Very occasionally, I hear cars singular, closer, the infrequent coming and going of unknown individuals. There is a train depot nearby for the Newcastle Metro. I hear engines idling, wheels braking. I hear cracks and clicks as the houses and fences ease into the night’s chill.
The only thing I don’t hear, until there is nothing else to record, is the clicking of my fingers at the keys. I do not hear my writing.
It is midnight now. I think of Blanchot, as I often do. Again, quoting Mallarmé, from The Space of Literature:
“Certainly a presence of Midnight persists.” But this subsisting presence is not a presence. This substantial present is the negation of the present. It is a vanished present. And Midnight, where first “the absolute present of things” (their unreal essence) gathered itself together, become “the pure dream of a Midnight vanished into itself”: it is no longer a present, but the past, symbolized…
Ernesto continues to try and explain to his family why he doesn’t want to go to school, why he has decided to leave in the first place. His reasoning, once he manages to find away to express it, sounds excessively profound.
I understood something I still find it hard to express… I’m still too small to say it properly. Something like the creation of the universe. I was rooted to the spot: all of a sudden I was looking at the creation of the universe…
His father doesn’t understand. “Ernesto, you wouldn’t be going a bit far, would you…” His mother seems more intrigued. “And have you anything to say about it, Ernesto?”
Ernesto reads the world into existence but cannot explain how it all came from nothing, or from someone who cannot read. The realisation transforms the boy into something of a nihilist. There is no point to anything. No meaning to be gleamed. Not really. It all just is. Ten days at school and the boy has unlocked the secret of the universe: the silence of it all; the “everything”; the vanished presence of the present.
I wonder what I look like, sat in the dark. I wonder what the neighbours think of me — this person always perched at the rusted black garden furniture, writing at any and all hours. I wonder if they talk about me, my predictable presence. I wonder if they worry that I sit up late, that I smoke too much. I wonder if they have heard the despair from the house that has seized me in months gone by.
We do not know our downstairs neighbours. I think they find my presence intrusive. I can see directly into their living room from the garden. They watch The Simpsons a lot on a big screen TV. The man who lives there plays video games late at night sometimes. A few weeks ago, the woman ran out panicked to her bins, wearing only a baggy T-shirt, as if she had just woken up, but found the idea of a retreat inside more embarrassing than a dash to her destination. I glance but then consciously avert my eyes.
Either side live two old ladies. One has a dog; she gardens sometimes and we say hello to one another. She is spritely and seems to live an active life. I see her out the front of her house sometimes too. On the other side, a woman who looks much frailer, much more grey. She potters out to fill her bins and hang out her washing only. I say hello to her too, but on the first few occasions she looks at me frightened.
The other day, I woke up early and came out into the garden. It was a Sunday at 9am. “You’re up early,” she said, lifting the lid on her recycling bin. I make up some random and inane excuse, blurting out whatever comes into my head just so I have something to say. She doesn’t hear me. I repeat it. “It’s good to catch the sun”, I say, as it beams down at an angle from the east. “Yes, that’ll be it,” she says, as if I have answered a question asked internally, which she did not say out loud.
I finish my beer. I’ll write more tomorrow. I’ll read more Duras at a café in the afternoon, perhaps. Or maybe I’ll sit in bed and write some more, if sleep still refuses to take me.
The final words, the final lines, of the final poem of Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poetry, Ariel:
Words dry and riderless, The indefatigable, hoof-taps. Which From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars Govern life.
Language, as Blanchot says, is the basis of being, the ground, which is nonetheless dark and voiceless. Poetry becomes nothing more than a “dispersion that, as such, finds its form.” Plath is now and was then already six feet deep. Language is not so much stood upon as communed with. The other side. It is excised; spelling, incanting, disinterring. Literature may be evil, as Bataille would have it, but poetry is the devil incarnate.
At times, Plath seems to let language take possession of her, her poetry evoking tongues, glossolalic; at other times, she is the destroyer, the disintegrator, burying meaning in sound and leaving it there to rot and flourish anew in decay.
In The Colossus, the poem “Ouija” takes on the quality of a lord’s prayer, albeit one devoid of rhythm, mantra and devotion, brimming instead with the awe and terror of words. It is an ode to old testaments carved directly on the air by forces unseen.
She fills the night of writing not with ghosts but moths, fluttering towards any source of light; towards us, the reader, the interpreter of demonic hoof-taps. The night that, Blanchot writes, “is a vanished presence.” The writer takes notes, nothing more. It is reading that “transforms into light that which is not of the order of illumination”, he argues.
How to read a Ouija board? Steadily, one letter at a time. The planchette on the board of letters, left to glide, becomes a conduit. It is an automatic writing, an automatic spelling, through which something unspeakable speaks.
The glass mouth sucks blood-heat from my forefinger. The old god dribbles, in return, his words.
The old god who “writes aureate poetry”, an alchemical gold, passed through any medium who might believe, who might give a shit. A poetry produced
In tarnished modes, maundering among the wastes, Fair chronicler of every foul declension.
The old god is a bastard god who “hymns the rotten queen”, the “bawdy queen of death”. After Plath’s death, Hughes, that other devil, still communes. She remains the planchette. In “Poem for a Birthday” she writes, “I am all mouth.” That same glass mouth? Or a mouth housed in glass, in a bell jar? A mouth restricted, tongue lolling and lollygagging in a room of its own, not all mouth but all tongue, clashing against a cage of teeth.
Mother, you are the one mouth I would be a tongue to. Mother of otherness Eat me. Wastebasket gaper, shadow of doorways.
The old god, the true “all-mouth”, devours everything. “He’s a fat sort.” The mother is an oral void birthing voids.
Ted Hughes sets forth a tradition, a rhythm, a mantra, returning devotion to the lord’s prayer, writing his birthday letters to his dead wife.
His “Ouija” is a consolation, an apology, a reckoning with possession and disease. “Always bad news from the Ouija board”, the poem begins.
We can imagine this poem to be the other side of that same night, and the nights that followed; another perspective on the ritual. The spirit communed with, however, is already in the room. She is the one who writes the first poem.
She nudged out her name. And she was Despairing, depressed, pathetic. She concocted Macabre, gloomy answers. Every answer Was ‘rottenness’ or ‘worms’ or simply ‘bones’.
Possessed of language, of night, of spells. Never the same after tongue and finger enter into an unholy intercourse, a coursing-through.
She left a peculiar guilt — a befouled Feeling of jeopardy, a sense that days Would be needed now to cleanse us Of the pollution. Some occult pickpocket Had slit the soul’s silk and fingered us.
The ritual is repeated nonetheless, this time with firm intention and a honed intuition.
Not the mother evoked this time, but the old god, who “preferred to talk about poetry. He made poems.” “He liked jokes” and Shakespeare too. He is an artist in his own right, he communes but does not possess. The mother lingers, however. She haunts, making Plath “ambitious” — an ambition, Hughes seems to believe, that would be the death of her. It is a poem of regret, as if he wishes the glass mouth had never inspired his wife to write.
But Hughes himself still made poems.
“I hate your mom.” Phoebe Bridgers refrains still circle around my head days later.
The journey to the concert cuts a dogleg over the English north. We stop at Huddersfield, which I have not returned to since I left in March, but do not disembark, continuing instead to fly through West Yorkshire on the way to our final stop in Manchester.
The Yorkstone used everywhere holds memories but there are no ghosts here. In Newcastle, I already lurk at corners, anxious about seeing people I’d rather not. In Yorkshire, I knew too few people to fear an encounter of any kind. It is the place itself that is charged.
From the train window, I see Stoodley Pike and know, although it is unseen, that Heptonstall is passing overhead, where I spent my 30th birthday by Plath’s grave, the “-Hughes” of her legal name erased from the granite, like the planchette is returned, not gliding but chastising, used to gristle and grind.
H-U-G-H-E-S, H-U-G-H-E-S, H-U-G-H-E-S, it spells and spells and spells, fading the letters that lie before it.
Monday. A new week begins, the first since my discharge. Life begins again with a downpour. The rain lashes at the window all afternoon. In the morning, I begin the process of applying for disability benefits. I hang my washing out in the rain, already wet, getting wetter, waiting for the clouds to dissipate and the wind to once again blow through.
I leave the house around 3pm, picking up a package dropped on the mat as I do so. I open it as I walk to the bus stop in the drizzle, always too excited to see what has arrived, knowing it’s a book, anticipating whatever it is to be the prompt for the rest of my day.
I am not disappointed. It is the collected letters of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, edited by Gunther Stuhlmann under the title A Literate Passion.
I had taken a break from writing for a few days, reading Nin’s first book instead — her “unprofessional study” of D.H. Lawrence. Zambreno mentions Nin’s affection for Lawrence in Heroines and her description of him as an “androgynous” writer — a sentiment supposedly later echoed in her essay on the future of the novel — and I think about what she would make of the “androgynous” writing of the present, particularly the various examples of trans and non-binary literature that have recently entered popular consciousness.
I order Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, on the hunch it might prove most fruitful when read in this context, already aware I might be the last of my friends to read it, still captured by Zambreno and every book she references.
Already, I am distracted by the letters, my thoughts spinning a web to bridge the gaps in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, who seem particularly enthralled by Miller but seldom mention the women of modernism.
The letters — or, I should say, Stuhlmann’s introduction — are already deeply suggestive of the tensions between a masculine modernism and the obscured transformations of a écriture féminine.
Stuhlmann writes of their complex relationship — their intellectual, emotional and sexual affairs — but also of their most “basic bond”:
Stripped of passing sentiment, of catering to each other’s material and emotional needs, of a sense of adventurous comradeship in the breaking of social taboos, their relationship remained firmly founded on the shared need to create themselves through writing. As Henry Miller later wrote, it was the effort “to realize myself in words.” For him, it was the obsessive, Proustian research into his past and the dubious role women had played in it. For Anaïs Nin, in a diary she had kept since childhood, it was the relentless pursuit of an ever elusive emotional present.
I love the feeling of resonance between the two, the acausal and illogical synchronicities, and insert my own desires between them.
Miller and I share a birthday; a friend, charting Nin’s astrological makeup, suggests we would be kindred spirits. I feel nothing more than a tandem affirmation of their goals, their basic bond, their love of writing — not their voices, as such, certainly not their talent, but their orientations and oscillations, which conflict and make them an unlikely pair, the fuel of each individual congealing in me. I approach my own intensive journaling an infatuated fan, wanting nothing more than to channel the best of these deeply flawed and disparate writers.
What resonates is the despair, the disease, the compulsion. Miller: “God, it is maddening to think that even one day must pass without writing.” Nin: “The journal is a product of the disease, perhaps an accentuation and exaggeration of it. I speak of relief when I write — perhaps — but it is also an engraving of pain, a tattooing on myself, a prolongation of pain.”
As I think about how to pause, gather references, setting about and preparing to write a more formal essay on the androgynous writing Nin is perhaps the first to champion and describe, she herself articulates the present difficulty of doing so — the difficult of writing anything for money, for anyone but yourself. “I am terrified of my conscious work”, she writes, “because I do not think it has any value. Whatever I do without feeling has no value.”
I am still trying to figure out the puzzle of this unconscious writing, this automatic writing, thinking on the page without argument or predestination; only a vaguely acknowledged direction, as if writing were a torch shone through the dark, only ever illuminating part of the path ahead.
Blanchot and Bataille again come to mind: their attempts to write the night without filling it with spectres that are not there.
In my bag, Ferdinand Alquié’s The Philosophy of Surrealism, which I swap the letters out for all too quickly, leaving them barely read.
Alquié begins, of course, with Breton. “Admit that literature is one of the saddest paths leading anywhere”, Breton writes in the Surrealist manifesto. Alquié ponders the sentiment and surrealism’s untethering of aesthetic values from their contemporary moment. “Beauty — incapable of being objectified — can only be grapsed in the heart of an excitement we would call existential if the word did not evoke now a completely different climate”, he writes.
It is the writing life; the writing of life as it is lived. But always the distancing of art, of writing, the surreality of impressions recorded in the heat of their sensation, with an immediacy that only exacerbates the delay, the present always elusive, already gone, even now, as I scribble these words right here at 16:55 in the Journeycafe bar off John Dobson Street in Newcastle’s city centre, thinking impossibly of the times and places far beyond in which these lines might be read. So elusive, always elusive, but the thrill of the chase remains, naively perhaps, even mindless, like a cat chasing a light it will never catch, that same torch in the dark that shines but cannot be held.
The excitement of the chase is, for the Surrealists, like that of Annie Ernaux in Simple Passion, innately erotic. To write so furiously is, of course, to love writing. For Alquié, “Breton remains faithful to Plato” in this regard, “who made no separation between the excitement before beauty and erotic excitement, and who always described the latter as an upheaval.”
If, as Ernaux argues, “writing should aim … to replicate sexual intercourse”, how might this be achieved through a union of bodies, of texts? Not just the elation and passion of an instant but the coming-together of selves, of a kind of entangled masculinity and femininity, not in the strictly reproductive sense of a biological essentialism, but in the playful androgyny of roles and their reversals, their dynamics, lain and rutted against, bodies nothing more than bodies on androgynous sands?
Nin, who found in Lawrence a feminine core; Miller, who told Nin she writes “like a man, with tremendous clearness and conciseness”; Nin, who is a feminist (and feminine) icon to many women I know; Lawrence, where my obsession first began, as it did with Nin, who remains, even now, despite his periodic cultural malignancy, for me at least, an androgyne of feeling, often despite himself, precisely because he mingles so strangely the chauvinism and new tenderness of his time.
Alquié writes that “the amorous emotion [that] appears in [Breton’s novel] Poisson soluble … contains all the obscurity, all the problems, all the ambiguity of man.” And of woman? Zambreno remains best placed to illuminate this blindspot today, continuing the writing of a feminine night.
(Is this why so much trans literature falls into the category of horror? Tom Whyman, interviewing Alison Rumfitt about her book Tell Me I’m Worthless, asks why she wrote “a book about England … that’s also a trans horror story”. “‘Well, isn’t it obvious?’ she replies. ‘England is a trans horror story!'” The androgynous, non-binary, transgender literature of the present is also written — and read — best at night.)
Though Zambreno is scathing of the characterisations — the literal reduction to characters — of women in surrealist literature, Alquié, writing in 1965, is far less critical, more affirming, in a manner that might still be affirmed, in fact, even as we recognise the sorry suppression of their own agencies. These women, both in literature and — perhaps more importantly — in real life, remain “harbingers of the new Eve, always placed beyond our desires. They are the bond, and like a bridge, between waking and dream, and they seem to promise a reconciliation of the two.”
Woman is the bridge, remains the bridge, perhaps only relatively more recently freed to construct aqueducts of feeling and flow. There have always been female “builder-artists”, of course, as Nin calls them, via Lawrence, but perhaps never in such an abundance as now, bringing with them, if not a new surrealism — another word that now evokes “a completely different climate” — but a new psychedelia nonetheless. Or simply a “transness”, a shapeshifting androgyny and spirit of transformation, that warrants a whole new word of its own. It is a potential literature of “positive realization” to come, perhaps now couched in a certain negativity, like Surrealism’s own Dada antecedents. First the night, then the baroque sunbursts of the day.
[T]he texts obtained from automatic writing are produced by a burst of hope in life.
For all my recent despair, a clinical unwellness, writing gets me through each day, reflective only at the point the writing stops, to the extent that sometimes I cannot help but go back and self-censor, curtail my most careless utterances and exposures. Automatic writing on a paper mirror.
This hope makes aesthetic considerations and literary hierarchies appear paltry and besides the point.
Oh, the freedom of not caring whether any of this is good or not, feeling only a feeling, any feeling, through a process of translation, transference, transduction. Trans, trans, trans.
It was thought, following the ascent of Surrealism to an era-defining movement, that “total man will take the place of literature and tables of value.” And now, the abolition of tables of gendered values altogether perhaps.
We can always go further.
Is “automatic writing” itself a tired term, evoking not just Surrealism but even prior to that, a nineteenth-century spiritualism? The heretic religiosity of communion with spirits?
How suitable is “androgynous writing” as an alternative term of demarcation? I wonder to what extent androgyny contains a certain automatism, when writing is freed from its gendered performativity.
Your eyes are back from an arbitrary land Where no one has ever known what a glance is Or known the beauty of eyes, beauty of stones…
Alquié, quoting the poetry of Eluard, argues “that one of the essential problems facing surrealism will be that of the status of beauty.” Surrealism makes it “necessary to give up the search … for the unity of texts as distinct in appearance as the relating of a dream, a page of automatic writing, and a poem.” It is a giving-up of the search for a beauty essential to the body, the organed and organised body, instead a turn to the body without organs, without organisation upon a table of values. Even literature, of course, is discussed in terms of bodies of work.
Zambreno talks of the wives of modernism, women as such (at that time) as the truly exquisite corpses of literature, who are always written but whose own writing is itself supressed. Many of these women recognised themselves in the images drawn by the men around them, tormented by the caricatures, in the exquisiteness of their immobile corpses, only ever wanting to breath new life into the cadavers they were made to be.
The essential problem, in this regard, has hardly changed. How to write newly exquisite bodies, beyond the gendered restrictions of beauty in the present? Not simply a fetishised “gender-bending” but an actual bending of gender to the multiplicities of will.
“No wonder I am rarely natural in life,” Nin writes. “Natural to what, true to which condition of soul, to which layer? How can I be sincere if each moment I must choose between five or six souls?”
“If nature is unjust, change nature.” The xenofeminist rallying cry. Alquié: “For ‘nature’ teaches nothing to an imagination whose whole aspiration is to surpass nature.”
Xenofeminism as its own kind of surfeminism, always already beyond, on the outside. Paradise, for both, if such a thing is possible, is only every “everyday life transfigured” — emphasis, as always, on the “trans”.
The romantics, captives of the nostalgia of religion, dreams of departure, of local color and historic color, of exoticism; they recreated in this the profound link that unites, in man, the desire for another world and the desire for a world situated elsewhere in space and time. For the surrealists, real life is here.
Real life is malleable. There is another world to be transformed, indeed — it is this one.
Since his death in 2017, Mark Fisher has reputationally ascended to the status of dissident national treasure. His work as a leftist cultural critic continues to inspire the young in particular – Fisher murals adorn [Goldsmiths] University in London, where he used to teach – who have adopted him as one of their heroes. His books were not widely reviewed in his lifetime, however, and his influence has been a largely word-of-mouth phenomenon. Now his publisher, the tiny indie press Zero Books, is reissuing Fisher’s 2014 essay collection bolstered by a context-establishing introduction by Fisher archivist Matt Colquhoun and a poignant afterword by music critic Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s with whom he was closely allied.
There was a nice write-up / re-review of Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of my Life in the Observer over the weekend by Rob Doyle. You can read it here.
At the Phoebe Bridgers concert, young women are dropping one after another in the heat. It quickly becomes normalised. One song is interrupted as security go to someone’s aid; the next time this happens so fluidly the band just keep on playing. There is a constant stream of plastic glasses, filled with water, passed back through the crowd to those in need. Like a task in some farcical gameshow, the further back the glasses get, the less water is left in the glass from all the commotion.
It almost feels like seeing the Beatles in their prime — the mythological atmosphere, the screaming, the fainting, the heat of the room and of the moment, the almost inaudible Bridgers, her delicate but powerful voice floating over a crowd that knows every word to every song and sings them collectively almost as loud as she does. But the comparison is of course misleading; an easy, even lazy, even sexist, pop-cultural reference point. There is nothing hysterical about this adulation, nor the bodily response to the humidity. It feels like everyone is here for some sort of catharsis and it enraptures the bodies present in different ways.
Personally, about three-quarters of the way into Bridgers’ set, I feel my right leg cramp up. We are stood just in front of the soundboard. I’m aware of the people in front of me, the boyfriends of some girls present, who smell pungent. I misjudge one of the men, a Scouse lad who seems initially disinterested and only there for his girlfriend. I think about the jokes made on Twitter: the “Boyfriends of Bisexual Girls” conferences that are said to take place in the bathrooms at Phoebe Bridgers shows. I look around and wonder who might fall into this category and think I have this man pegged, before I watch over his shoulder as he mouths along inaudibly to every word.
At the same time, I’m very aware of those directly behind me, a group of girls who sing along loudly and proudly, seemingly unperturbed by being squeezed against the hard metal barrier. I suppose it is at least something solid to lean against. I instead feel stuck in place, feeling my size, feeling the bodies around me, not wanting to encroach on anyone’s personal space whilst feeling like I have none of my own left to give. I wobble and shift my weight, trying to stretch the muscles in my dehydrated thighs, but have no room to do so, leaning on a friend to massage myself, take the weight off for a few moments, which feels somewhat perverse in such a constricted space: to deal with the bodily paroxysm and the intimate distraction of a personal experience set apart from the one being shared.
One of the women stood directly behind me thinks I’m due to become another casualty of the venue’s humidity. “He’s about to faint.” It’s as if I might as well have fainted, losing control of just one limb, unsteady on my feet, given over to a rousing pain rather than heat-induced narcolepsy. But I’m not going to faint, I tell my friend loud enough so that those around me are also reassured. But I do feel claustrophobic. I feel contained. Restrained. I push through the feeling to sing along, scream, clap, whistle. I wish I could cry. The enclosure of the crowd feels medicative. My friend cries throughout and I hold her and laugh at her but don’t mean to. I explain later how I can either laugh or cry, but most often the former — humour as defense mechanism. In fact, I desperately want to join her in her release but the music doesn’t quite wash over me how I want it to, restricted by the undulating mass of bodies, passing in and out of space and consciousness.
All of this leads to an unexpected dynamic in the room. Bridgers and band mostly play songs from her most recent album, Punisher — an understated and quiet record, and a staple for me (as it was for many) during the pandemic, that is fleshed out and brought more alive on stage. The performance is brilliant, the stage design perfect, but everything struggles against the same heat. Instruments malfunction, the enormous projection begins to stutter as laptop and/or projector overheat. Nothing is affected in any way that matters, but the whole room feels poised on the brink of chaos and catastrophe.
I catch sight of a girl a few meters ahead of me, keeping herself cool with a copy of Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, using it as a fan to waft air over her face and the faces of her friends. “Up against another human being one’s own procedures take on definition.”
At certain moments, I feel a breeze and wonder where it is coming from. It is only halfway through the show that I realise each breath of air blown over the room only bathes the crowd in between songs. The venue becomes cold as the band stop vibrating the air within it. The whole environment feels suitably punishing, skirting the edge of disaster, but the band plays on regardless, unphased. Not uncaring, in fact very considerate, but holding on tight to their desire to put on a good show. And they do, a magnificent show, which is all the more affirming for their steadiness and control and fury in the both stagnant and swirling air. It is a performance filled with joy and sadness, passion and anger, humour and tears, but in that space, for the crowd present, none of this feels in any way responsive to the world outside. The band, almost literally, conducts the weather in the room, and it is the audience that stand with and withstand it.
The day before heading to Manchester, I cried all day. The strange feeling of being back in touch with reality, and subsequently having to deal with it. I have no money. I have effectively bankrupt myself following three months of mental illness and an inability to work. It feels irresponsible to even be going on this trip to see Bridgers and her band, and I am anxious all day that remaining committed to the trip may be the wrong decision to make. But if I am at present mostly worried about money, it seems wasteful to abandon a trip for which all the money has already been spent, with everything booked at the end of last year.
I just need to get through the next couple of months. But I cry and cry at the acceptance of it all, at the reality. I cry to the crisis team, who visit me for one final time before discharging me (for now; “in the kindest way, we hope we never see you again”, the nurse who has visited me most frequently says as she leaves). They seem concerned but encouraged by my despair as I tell them that I don’t know how I can come back from this. Everything in my life feels tainted by this illness and the prospect of rebuilding my life is one I am terrified of facing. In many ways, I feel like I have ruined my life, I tell them. And yes, maybe I have, but this is still the reality. My distress at the consequences of my own actions is, at the very least, proportionate. That was not how this whole thing started.
Later, I cry to my flatmate also and we hug repeatedly, as if we have finally found a way to reconnect over the void of illness, as if my tears are recognised as real, as objectively correlated to present circumstances, understandable rather than hysterical. It is healthy. My despair is within the parameters of “normal” human emotion. But I hate it all the same. I have no idea what normal is anymore.
The band’s support act are Sloppy Jane, a band that Bridgers has brought up alongside her on her rise to fame, and with whom she used to play. It’s a brave performance — noisy and experimental. The band start the evening with an instrumental for strings, swooning between delicacy and dissonance.
I wonder how it will set the tone but the crowd laps it up. Before they leave, frontwoman Haley Dahl asks how everyone’s year has been and explains an atemporal ritual the band often perform. They love New Year’s Eve, the sense of starting over afresh, of leaving the past behind, of moving on with your life and looking ahead. But they also recognise that, sometimes, it is the sort of ritual that is warranted more than once a year. Towards the end of their final song, they do a fake countdown to midnight. I relish it.
Still, there is the echo of less fondly remembered cultural tastes from my teens in their opening set, now newly nostalgic for a generation who weren’t there the first time. There’s a cover of the My Chemical Romance song, “Cancer”, thrown in there somewhere — a band recently reunited that I must admit I never liked the first time round. I struggle to get on board with this ominous return of “dark cabaret”. I intuitively reject the “theatre kid” vibe that emanates from it, the performativity at work here that is nonetheless both relatable and repulsive, affirming and alienating, with Dahl feeling like some contemporary amalgam of Florence Welch and Amanda Palmer.
Bridgers herself floats somewhere in between this vibe and her own — a product of this same theatrical world shared with her peers but one that seems less alien to the introverted, who do not trust the masks of actors, seeing them always for what they are, their training in the art of self-(re)presentation — which is not a gendered affliction, to be clear, but an occupational hazard.
It is an uneasiness that feels more honestly captured on a song like “Halloween”, with its chorus — “Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything” — and its closing refrain — “I’ll be whatever you want” — wrestling with a theatrical sense of agency and an insecurity that can fuel a deceptive malleability. The same feeling is captured on “Chinese Satellite”, which echoes around my head for the rest of the weekend. The song’s opening lines: “I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself / Why would somebody do this on purpose / When they could do something else?”
I am being drawn into various friends’ interest in astrology. I use my adoption records to plot my birth chart, giving me my exact time and place of birth. On a phone app called The Pattern — an ominous-sounding name, if you ask me — the reading is deeply accurate, deeply resonant. Another friend uses another app but for a type of astrology I persistently forget the name of. The person described in this chart is not recognisable to me at all, but is rather someone who I would want to be. On the train home to Newcastle, the chorus to “Chinese Satellite” continues its orbit around my head. “I want to believe.”
I also want to go for a cigarette. When we get off at Leeds, I look for the exit. Travelling makes me anxious, perhaps more than anything else. I feel my friend witnessing another side to me, not as yet fully uncovered, not the person they have so far gotten to know. Set against the reckless abandon and impulsivity I am often capable of, I am just as capable of indecision and over-caution. The latter is made banally and humorously apparent in my desire for a hit of nicotine. There is not much time between our connections. Do I go for a cigarette to calm down and ground myself and then stress myself out again with the rush back? Or do I hold off for an hour and a half and just weather the jitters of the nicotine craving? I could have a cheeky one at the end of a platform maybe, my friend suggests, but I daren’t risk a telling-off. She laughs and calls me a secret square, entertained and surprised, having more recently seen me at my most impulsive, for better and for worse. “I’m a walking contradiction”, I reply with a humoured frown. I am the impatient patient, all too aware that my true self is smothered under trauma and mental illness.
I think about how these different birth charts account for such “circumstances” — life events that may alter, obscure or distort the self. It makes astrology, at its most interesting, feel like a kind of astral stoicism: it is not about predicting the future or plotting out one’s destiny, but rather mapping out your own resilience, your capacity, the likely nature of your responses to the chaos of the universe, as if the cosmic contingency of the positions of the stars and planets at the time of your birth, as seen from the place of your birth, says something about how your self has been formed at that moment. As a practice within daily life, it feels no different, in some respects, to the understanding of certain generations of people — how people of a certain age were shaped by war, terror, viruses, natural disasters; the social and material conditions of a given era; the incompatibilities between generations and both the causal and noncausal attitudes that develop throughout history. Those uneasy structures of feeling. We understand the nature of an age group by its position within the chaos of time, which nonetheless may help us to characterise and predict their behaviours and beliefs. I’m reminded of Deleuze’s comment that astrology “was perhaps the first important attempt to establish a theory of alogical incompatibilities and noncausal correspondences.” Today we can call it market research, if you prefer — astrology as market research for Bataille’s general economy of the cosmos.
Prevaricating over being too old for the concert, filled with teenage girls and the occasional dad, I remember the lyrics to the boygenius song, “Me & My Dog”, which Bridgers sometimes performs solo. “I cried at your show with the teenagers”, she sings with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker.
I think about Bridgers as the unlikely pop star, the idol to youth and peer to those on the cusp of middle-age (or, at the very least, their 30s); the straddler, the cocksure melancholic, the affirmative crazy, the hysterical icon; a woman who is welcomed by screams like I’ve never heard, a sapphic goddess to teenagers everywhere at the centre of her own universe, which feels so proximal to my own. Totem to the bisexual, bipolar and non-binary, I spend much of the weekend thinking about just how many of those words I truly feel a kinship with.
Before the concert, in much the same headspace, my friend and I visit Queer Lit, an independent LGBTQ+ bookshop in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. I buy three books, although I am tempted by many more: the selected poems of Frank O’Hara, Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile and Jeanette Winterson’s The Powerbook. I am drawn to each for their queer engagement with unstable identities and selves, but also for their sense of perseverance in the face of such instability. The first poem in the O’Hara collection, for instance, is entitled “Autobiographia Literaria” and I buy it on the basis of this alone:
When I was a child I played by myself in a corner of the schoolyard all alone.
I hated dolls and I hated games, animals were not friendly and birds flew away.
If anyone was looking for me I hid behind a tree and cried out “I am an orphan.”
And here I am, the center of all beauty! writing these poems! Imagine!
Winterson’s book intrigues for its premise: an indeterminate e-writer (blogger?) writes commissions on the precondition you make the story written for you entirely your own; a journey through online masks written in the year 2000.
Notes of a Crocodile intrigues for its fragmentary nature, its literary form reflecting the uncertainty explored, all set in a Taiwanese university.
I am yet to spend much time with any of them.
On buying the books, the cashier wraps them in yellow tissue paper, fastened with a pink sticker. The sticker features a quotation from Bob Paris that perfectly encapsulates my attraction to all three:
Every gay and lesbian [LGBTQ+] person who has been lucky enough to survive the turmoil of growing up is a survivor. Survivors always have an obligation to those who will face the same challenges.
As they loosely wrap the books, I chat to the cashier about Jeanette Winterson in particular, the only writer of the three I can claim to be somewhat familiar with already, but whose fiction I have never read; whose second adoption memoir (of sorts), Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, was deeply inspiring to me. The cashier said that they knew Winterson briefly, whilst a Master’s student in Manchester, where Winterson is Professor of Creative Writing. They said they had always been curious about Winterson’s own identity, regarding her sexuality and/or gender. She explored these themes constantly in her fiction, but personally seemed reticent to adopt any sort of label.
I told her briefly about my own journey, my own reticence, my tentative exploration of feeling non-binary, my own interest in Winterson via her adoption memoirs, her wrestling with unstable identities. I mention the statistic that often puzzles me, that intrigues me and makes me wonder about my own experiences: that children who are adopted, fostered, or grow up in care, are disproportionately affected by gender dysphoria, with 4-5% of people within this already small minority choosing to transition or identifying as non-binary, compared to just 1-2% of the general population. “Why do you think that is?” I have no idea, of course. I say it may have something to do with the adoptive experience, the sense of split identity, but I cringe at myself when I say this, hoping it does not come across as some academic pathologisation of dysphoric experience, which I do not in fact think should be considered some error or maladaptation but be considered a valid way of being in its own right, irrespective of whether trauma compounds certain feelings or not.
“What’s this song about, Marshall?” Bridgers asks her drummer before playing her most recent single, “Sidelines”, written for the television adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. He attempts to tell a story about when he and Bridgers were dating, walking around a supermarket and seeing someone whose name I do not catch, someone presumably famous or respected, certainly known to and admired by both of them.
He feels an intuitive jealousy and catches himself in the irrational fantasy that this person might be about to steal his girlfriend. He trails off, seeming endearingly less comfortable with the confessional than Bridgers herself. “Basically, this song is about fear of abandonment.” Yet more tearful singing along.
I read a few interviews with Bridgers once back at home and learn that Marshall Vore first began writing the song himself, in collaboration with his current girlfriend, before handing the idea over to Bridgers instead. How cathartic, to abandon a song about abandonment, or rather not abandon it at all, but allow it to grow and move on with someone else.
I feel sensitive. Back in Newcastle, waiting at the bus stop, a young boy plays pattycake with his mam. I catch myself smiling at them, then frowning to myself. Children are great but I feel afraid of their innocence, their easily acquired joy, their weightlessness in a world that feels so heavy to me.
I have noticed a recurrent conversation of late: friends talking about starting families, queer or otherwise. We’re getting to that age, I suppose. A few talk about the difficulty of finding partners, the disinterest in the biological process of birth, but a desire to care, raise and nurture nonetheless. Multiple people this week have told me that they are thinking about settling down on their own and adopting. I squirm in my seat, not because I think they would be at all unfit, but knowing the internal dramas of being an adoptee, the complexities often unthought of. “I’ll just adopt”, as if anything were so simple, as if adoption were somehow simpler than raising a child of one’s own. But I have no intention of discouraging or disparaging, only cautioning. I too would like to adopt, after all, but only because I think who better to help an adoptee navigate the peculiarities of their own experiences than someone who has lived a version of them for themselves.
Maybe one day, when I have dealt with my own abandonment issues. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Maybe we’re all just fuck-ups who need the more honest company of other self-accepting fuck-ups.
At the concert, the tumult of adolescence on full display, which may wane for some or define the rest of their lives ahead. Many girls wander around with pronounced scars from self-harm and cutting. I feel a deep affection towards them. I think about my own: those marks that feel even less at home on a thirty-year-old body, its revolt against itself less expected, somehow more disturbing. The weight of the world is felt more quickly by some than others. It doesn’t get lighter in my experience, though we may get stronger.
On the train home, I keep reading Kate Zambreno’s Heroines. She writes persistently about her attempt to examine and bring back to life the women of modernism. Entering part two of the book, Zambreno’s questions regarding her own project feel no less closer to being answered, although it seems that the attempt itself may be all that is required to jumpstart the static heart of suppressed modernist feminism. She asks of herself:
Can I examine any of these brilliant girls as heroines of a sort? Were they heroines? They were ultimately silenced and contained, institutionalized in asylums, where they experienced dehumanizing, degrading treatment. They suffered terribly (bodily, psychically). Also institutionalized in literary works that stole their identities.
Bridgers, introducing “Chinese Satellite”, recalls the experience of being accosted by an evangelical in Chicago, someone really “crazy”, she says, “and I don’t use that word lightly”; someone denouncing her out of the blue as a whore and a child of Jezebel. I think about the new insanity not of women but those who denounce them. I think about the way that Vore allows himself to become a literary (or at least lyrical) character, portrayed by Bridgers instead. The legacy of those modernist women, almost lost to history, persists nonetheless in women themselves.
Zambreno tries to locate the subtleties of characterisation in modernism, singling out Djuna Barnes and Tennessee Williams, who certainly turned real-life relations into spaces for the production of literature, but who did so with love and tenderness. Later, the ways that Mary McCarthy tried, with love and care, to make a new character of herself:
In the first story in Mary McCarthy’s strikingly contemporary collection The Company She Keeps, the young wife has an affair, but McCarthy makes clear that she is doing this in order to be a character again in a new drama, to be seen and reinterpreted anew. From then on the character becomes again the single girl in the city, sleeping with or involved with a string of inappropriate men, and then, at the end, remarried, but in therapy (both therapy and affairs forms of transference practiced by these women, both perhaps about being your own character again).
I daydream about the drawn-out process of writing “Sidelines”, the confluence of relations involved, the necessarily fraught (no doubt) but careful conversations with friends, the chorus taking on a new tenderness as masks, blurry outlines of selves, are not only erased but exchanged and drawn anew.
Watch the world from the sidelines Had nothing to prove ‘Til you came into my life Gave me something to lose Now I know what it feels like To wanna go outside Like the shape of my outline
It hurts to listen to, having felt like I have almost lost everything, and wanting to defiantly gain everything all the same. Still, the masks, the outlines. It is harder to go outside than one might think.
On a night out recently, I see a girl looking intensely at me. I interpret this stare in the only way I know how. I find an excuse to talk to her, flirt with her, but she is already involved with someone else. We become friends regardless. I later ask why she was staring. “I knew you were a writer.” I don’t know what that means, I say, perhaps reading a little too much into the identification. But I didn’t feel like a writer then. In fact, I felt foolish for mistaking this desire to get to know me as more romantic than creative. After all, I am not a writer, I think to myself. Or rather, that is not all I am. I am not the writer whom I have sporadically written into existence.
What is embodied on stage at the concert is, for me, instead etched on the page. I am not my blog, I am not “xenogothic”, though people occasionally ask if I am. “Yes”, I say and blush-cringe every time. No, is what I should say. I am not this cypher, no matter how much of my personal truth is spoken through it. The performance and theatricality of my writing is perhaps that I am far more candid here than I can be elsewhere. I see this same performativity on stage at the Apollo. These men and women are not the songs they sing, though they may contain more about them than they would candidly admit to friends and especially to the crowds who nonetheless memorise every word.
Zambreno discusses her own erasure, online and IRL, the disparity between modes of expression that take shape between the two:
Yet when things are too intense, when I cannot do anything productive, I can still blog the emotional upheavals and anxieties of my current and changing existence. I compulsively blog through the slog and sludge of my days. Anais Nin’s “opium habit” of her diary that Otto Rank wanted to cure her from. Gratifying to know I have readers at the other end, fellow writers from around the world writing me little notes of encouragement in the comments sections. The Internet cages me. The Internet also allows me to communicate through the day, a dialogue. It allows me to fight against my own erasure.
In the flesh, I barely appear, feeling inscrutable, untouchable, set aside. Some see this and use it to compliment me. I talk about dating, I talk about friends setting me up, I flirt with the idea of a companionship I am undoubtedly not ready for, but then obsess over this apparent confounding of people who seem to see me as somehow out of reach for other reasons.
I ask a friend if she knows anyone who might be good for me to meet. She struggles. “I don’t know anyone worthy of you.” Another friend, weeks later: “You must date someone of your calibre.” What worth? What calibre? I’m a flawed human being like any other. Is this not just a further projection of the apparent value of my writing onto my experience of self? Unlike these performers and musicians, I cannot yet wear the mask proudly.
My response every time is the same, no matter how the well-meaning compliment is phrased, trying not to sound ungrateful for their admiration, even if I disparaging feel like it is misplaced: “What does that even mean?” What is this pedestal I have constructed, or others have constructed for me, out of this towering word count of inane and automatic thoughts published recklessly online, that somehow turns me into a character, an archetype, that cages me and yet allows me to communicate, that inevitably renders friendships and relationships one-dimensional as I try to draw on my half — the only half truly available — of any social interactions, all in the hope that, through a kind of translation, I can better understand and describe the world around me.
I am writing about myself; I am writing about others. Both impulses are worthy of questioning and yet the chronicling of a life lived would be so empty without reference to my conversations with friends.
I think about Zambreno’s journey, her unease at being clearly demarcated as a “wife of”. I reflect on my last relationship, where I feel like, at times, my own dreams and desires dictated our locale, just as Zambreno’s husband’s career comes to dictate her own. Never wanting my ex to feel like a “partner of” or a “carer of”, this was no doubt a major factor in our drifting apart.
A decade of heteronormativity, which was loved and cherished and remains so even retrospectively, is now struggled against. That decade of habits formed, feeling at once masculine in my self and wanting to affirm the femininity of my writing, swapping both, the out for the in.
I look back on a relinquished domestic arrangement that was messy and complex and far from equal; that perhaps fell too readily into certain stereotypical gendered roles, or sometimes even uncomfortably inverted them. How do I feel now, with this recent history in mind, identifying as non-binary? Internally, I feel content with it, but outwardly, I feel anything but. I worry I am always falling into binaries of relation, or struggling to negotiate the binaries that make up a newly entered multitude.
I think of a recent flirtation, and a subsequent discarding that felt prefigured by my embodied masculine existence, despite the conversations around gender that lay the foundation for an initially vibrant friendship. I fall into an old pattern of thinking, triggered by a feeling of abandonment, but actually it was so much more than that. I try to validate someone else’s new affirmation, whilst feeling brutally invalidated myself in the process. I hold onto no resentment over the messy way in which the relation changed, but I consider the ways that it nonetheless wholly ungrounded my newly emergent sense of self.
“Sidelines” takes on a further lyrical potency. Such complex relationships, which are often many things at once: ill-defined, crossing boundaries, erasing boundaries, always talking about boundaries of friendship, dating, intimacy and tenderness, and the instability of all of it. The impossibility, at present, and perhaps for the rest of time, of anything absolute.
Tomorrow I need to call the government call centre to try and acquire PIP — that is, an ongoing Personal Independence Payment — a disability benefit for those with long-term and chronic conditions. It seems like something I am unworthy of, having no visible disability, but all the psychiatric nurses, doctors and social workers believe I have a very strong case if I am willing to fill out the lengthy form necessary to acquire it.
This in turn shifts my sense of self. I must accept that this recent collapse is not a singular event but part of an ever-escalating series of collapses, shatterings, upheavals; the culmination of only ever partially treated symptoms and disorder that has stalked me since my teenage years. I know now that I must learn to renegotiate life as someone with a chronic illness. “That sounds really healthy”, my friend says as I run through my plans for the forthcoming day of life admin as we travel back from Manchester to Newcastle, both laughing at the contradiction — the healthy acceptance of chronic ill-health.
After the show, we meet up with two fellow Newcastle denizens and confirm through unified laughter how we each feel utterly destroyed. The show ended — obviously, necessarily, unavoidably, perfectly — with Punisher‘s closer, “I Know the End”. I remember how central the song was to my listening habits before making the move to Newcastle, feeling like I was leaving behind a home and a family to start over again, but even then not absolutely:
Either way, we’re not alone I’ll find a new place to be from A haunted house with a picket fence To float around and ghost my friends
The outro, the repeated refrain of “The end is near”, eventually culminates, on the album, with Bridgers letting out a guttural scream, the album’s often delicate and dynamic instrumentation collapsing and colliding all around her. Live, the release is anticipated and communal. We are explicitly invited to participate.
Behind her, on stage, a quintessential image of a haunted American home — rustic, fading, perhaps abandoned, but still the porch, fence and all — goes up in flames.
The entire crowd joins in the outburst. It is deafening. Hundreds of people screaming at the very top of their lungs, the heat of the room also reaching its crescendo as the air in the room disappears into the bodies present and is then expelled, through a sudden phase shift, into an almost solid sacrificial object. It’s not just the teens screaming now, at the slightest glimpse of Bridgers’ blonde hair, but everyone in unison.
The world ends.
Then, a final encore, played solo: “Waiting Room.” The daughters of Jezebel, affirming their place in a hot and wonderous hell, fall as the ground gives way, returning us to the purgatory we came in from.
The crowd goes home, or at the very least into the night.
Two recent Twitter threads, worth sharing on the blog for wider reach:
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve done anything like this, having steadily pulled myself out of precarity in recent years, but unfortunately life can come at you fast, and so I wanted to throw my Ko-Fi profile back out there: https://ko-fi.com/mattcolquhoun
🧵 below for context.
If you’ve been keeping up with the blog at all of late, you’ll know I’ve been quite unwell recently. In fact, maybe the most unwell I’ve been in my life. I’m on the road to recovery, but I’ve been off work for 3 months and am not sure when I’ll be going back.
That’s the reason I’ve had so much time to write recently. It is all I’ve been doing to distract myself from the full-time job of getting well. However, after having a few meetings related to that today, I’ve now discovered I’ve fucked my finances and gone through all my savings.
It turns out that, even under socialised medicine, being sick is expensive. Thankfully, I do have support from people around me, and government / disability benefits may soon help boost what passes for “statutory sick pay” in this country.
But right now, I’m looking for any help I can get, and the sad reality is writing really doesn’t pay. I also have no capacity to take on any commissions. In fact, I’m having to turn down work that has been offered because I’m still taking each day as it comes.
But all the more reason to ask, as embarrassing as it is to do so, that if you’ve ever enjoyed what I’ve put out over the years & want to keep me in coffee as I work on my recovery, it would mean the world and probably go a lot further than you think if you click the link above.
The response from Twitter has already been deeply humbling. What has already been donated will genuinely help get me through this very rough patch in my life. I am eternally grateful to those who have offered support in a time of need, and even those who have supported me in small ways over the years. In fact, there was a time when things like Ko-Fi or Patreon were essential to keeping me afloat, but after finding stable work for the first time in my life during the pandemic — fuck working for arts organisations, honestly — these have become secondary and part of a general attempt to curate an online community.
Life has changed a lot for me recently, however, and having suffered perhaps the most significant mental health breakdown of my life, even my Patreon and Discord have become things I have not felt I have the capacity for. (To anyone who is still a Patreon of mine: thank you, and do not feel obliged to keep up your patronage if you desired more than simply supporting the blog.)
I am now in a position where I have very little to fall back on outside the generosity of my friends and government hand-outs. Of course, after the initial sharing of this link to my Ko-Fi profile, someone did mention the potential for book royalties from the forthcoming translations of Mark Fisher’s Postcapitalist Desire. But as was Darren Ambrose’s role in editing the collected K-Punk volume, this was in fact remunerated by a one-off editorial fee — I was in fact reluctant to take even that, but Repeater were insistent that the work be acknowledged — and all royalties from those posthumous books go directly to Mark Fisher’s estate, which is how it should be.
For what it’s worth, below I have included a further thread clarifying how little writing actually contributes to my income in this regard (expanded a little in places, since I am not curtailed by a character limit here), not so much to pity myself, but rather affirm how important it is, if you are a fan of this little community of online thinkers and writers, to support people who often work precariously and for very little:
Thank you to all of those who have supported so far. Especially those who have been particularly generous. I’m very humbled by it and it will all go towards getting myself back on my feet. Thank you, truly.
A side note, since someone mentioned book royalties: to be clear, I only receive royalties on my book Egress. For Postcapitalist Desire, I received an editorial fee when it was first published.
But I could not live on any of those payments alone. The royalties I have received from Egress so far, for instance, are the equivalent to a few months of my day-job wage — a strange reality for something worked on for 3 years.
But I have no qualms about this. I did not write / edit either book for the money. I seldom talk about my work publicly at events for a fee. I even turned down the editorial fee for Postcapitalist Desire at first. Writing has always been an extreme hobby for me, supported by work in other fields.
Having been officially signed off as “unfit for work”, this makes my situation difficult, but it is probably worthwhile for our whole community to let others know that clout and being known do not come with an income.
I am deeply grateful to anyone who has supported me so far, and particularly at this point of crisis, but I’m not alone. Support the writers you read however you can. It’s no way to make a living.
I am due to be discharged from the care of the crisis team soon. During yesterday’s visit, recording the further stability of my mood after one week on a new regime of medications, the nurse explained that the next visit may be my last — at least at this current level of scrutiny. We would discuss next steps, being passed on to other services, and the return of trust over the administration of my own medications.
It all feels quite sudden. It is just over a week since I was in A&E following an overdose. But it is also just over a week since I began receiving these new prescriptions. “A week is a long time in our world,” she said. In fact, it has felt like a long time for me too.
I’m still trying to write but I am scribbling lots of things out. I start paragraphs and then feel like I am saying nothing in particular, striking this banality from the record. I oddly feel like I have writer’s block — something that usually makes people laugh whenever I express it, considering I am clearly capable of writing more frequently than most, even on the days I complain I am incapable — but there is a world of difference between this habit of automatic writing and the cultivation of something more thoughtful. These past few weeks I have been doing little more than thinking on the page. Now as I think about returning to work, constructing pieces of writing for others rather than just myself, I find myself struggling to start anything.
Blanchot writes about this tension within automatic writing in The Space of Literature. Automatic writing was hailed by the surrealists, he says, because it was seen as “an easy method, an instrument always at hand and always effective, poetry brought well within everyone’s reach, the glad presence, after all, of the immediate.” But for Blanchot, the experiment of automatic writing is nonetheless little more than “an attractive myth”, even if one “well worth investigating.” This is because, he continues,
in reality, where the most facile means were being proposed, there hid behind this facility an extreme demand; and behind this certitude — this gift offered to everyone and disclosed in each without regard to talent or degree of culture — was concealed the insecurity of the inaccessible, the infinite experience of that which cannot even be sought, a probing of what never is in evidence, the exacting demands of a search which is no search at all and of a presence which is never granted. Nothing is closer to us, it seems, than the poetry of automatic writing, since it turns toward the immediate. But the immediate is not close; it is not close to what is close to us. It staggers us; it is, just as Hölderlin said, the terrible upheaval.
It seem to me no coincidence that this outpouring, this filling of journals, this furious and energetic writing of late should have emerged from a time that has felt like one of the most terrible upheavals of my life, both in terms of circumstance and an internal dysregulation. Writing has not been an engagement with this process so much as an escape from the immediate cost of its unfolding. It has been a process of automatic writing that, as Blanchot says, “reveals to us a way of writing apart from these powers, in the daylight but as if outside the day in a nocturnal fashion, free from the everyday and from its inhibiting scrutiny.” Perhaps it is unsurprising, as the new reality of psychiatric discharge looms, that the desire to write is itself waning, no longer furious and hurled against a medical scrutiny but feeling instead now somewhat lacklustre, as if now I only wish to record and document the new surreality of relative wellness and freedom.
Today, as a result, life does not feel intense. It feels almost empty, hollow; not depressively so, but as if the fire that boiled both desperation and action, for better and for worse in recent weeks, has been cooled down to the embers.
We had a fire at the beach recently. Driving to the coast in a car full of new friends, we brought a portable fire pit and a paltry amount of wood and kindling. It took us over an hour to get it started, in the end resorting to digging up the shallow grave of a neighbouring barbeque, using the embers to give life to our own blaze.
I ripped empty pages from the back of my notebook, knowing they would catch quicker. “Don’t burn your writing!” I wouldn’t dream of it. But there is something affirmative in the act of shortening the space left to write in.
We talked and drank for hours as the sun set over the bay. Around midnight, we almost had the entire beach to ourselves, with just a few other fires scattered along the miles of sand that stretched out to the north, like tiny beacons for wayfarers in the know.
Our closest companion was a fox, prowling for sumptuous trash among the tidal line, seaweed and scraps of day-tripper detritus, but finding little.
In London, foxes were constant companions, a skulk on every street. But I had never seen a fox on a beach before.
Annie Ernaux, at the beginning of Simple Passion, and in a manner that seems so stereotypically French to someone so painfully English, insists “that writing should aim … to replicate sexual intercourse, that feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.” She writes this after recalling the first time she saw a porno, but although it may have shocked her at the time, she still seems to laugh at the commonplace of sex today, as if “something we couldn’t take in without dying of shame has become as easy to watch as a handshake.”
Ernaux does not write pornographically, however, but passionately — and, at times, even dispassionately. Her short novella is the story of an affair once had with a married man, sporadically chronicling the erotic and foreplayful flight into amoral promiscuity and the anticlimax of its dwindling ending. But the book also records an affair with writing, and a mode of candid expression that feels as elicit as the affair itself. As she writes in a telling footnote: “Knowing whether I would agree to pay the imaginary price of disaster is a sure means of assessing the strength of my desire, possibly also of challenging fate; ‘I don’t care if the house burns down so long as I manage to finish writing this book.” Is this the writer as knowing homewrecker? Turned on by the drama of confession? Divorce your life, writing whispers, and come spend all day fucking with me.
Ernaux becomes both writer and the flames at the door. She records every encounter, she says — the anticipation before and the elation after. But the absence of intercourse itself, experienced in between, the absence of the present, is heavily felt. “What we gained in physical intensity we lost in time.”
The comparisons and analogies between eroticism and writing appear time and again, echoing each other, just as each new encounter with this man may echo those that precede, cloaked in the anticipation of repeating the first meeting and the bittersweet possibility that every time may be the last:
Quite often I felt I was living out this passion in the same in the same way I would have written a book: the same determination to get every scene right, the same minute attention to detail. I could even accept the thought of dying providing I had lived the passion through to the very end — without actually defining ‘to the very end’ — in the same way I could die in a few months’ time after finishing this book.
I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I am not sure in which style I am writing about it, whether in the style of a testimony, or possibly even the sort of confidence that can be found in women’s magazines, maybe a manifesto or a statement, or perhaps a critical commentary.
But as a reader, nothing like any of the above seems to truly fit. I think of Nin’s expurgated journals. Ernaux’s simple passion tantalises because it is so slim, so elegant, so fleeting. It is barely fifty pages long and, though it seems we have learnt nothing of any real value about their exchange, we’ve borne witness to its intensity, compacted and stripped of any information that might transfer that passion to us. This isn’t a porno, a piece of erotica, but it feels like the most exacting kind, where we look deep into ourselves in hoping to replicate the passions that are just a screen, a fantasy, under which lingers all that is unsayable. The outside of Ernaux’s text carries the weight of an epic; the inside as fleeting as a one-night stand.
She addresses this herself, having little interest in the psychodrama of how she met the mysterious A. and became embroiled in her affair:
As for the origins of my passions, I have no intention of searching for them in my early history, which can be reconstructed with the help of a psychoanalyst, or in my recent history, or for that matter in the cultural standards governing emotion which have influenced me since childhood (Gone with the Wind, Phèdre, or the songs of Edith Piaf are just as decisive as the Oedipus complex). I do not wish to explain my passion — that would imply it was a mistake or some disorder I need to justify — but simply to describe it.
I think this is something that I too have been searching for these last few weeks, struggling under the weight of psychological scrutiny but still longing to retain some kind of passionate existence. Call it what you want: major depressive disorder, a personality disorder, a mood disorder, bipolar disorder — the inexact treatment of each possibility is undertaken in the hopes of extending my own resilience, my own life, but I reject each suggestion that I should try and live more calmly, as if not entering into affairs, passions, frivolities. I want to feel everything, but I also want to become better at withstanding it. Writing has felt like a magic bridge in this regard, constructing some illusory byway between the two, between life lived and life reflected upon, where passion lies tattered but still warm and can be picked up by another but always at some sort of distance from myself.
Each post of late has been scheduled to be published one week after it was first written down in my journal. The distance is marginal in real terms, but feels like a gulf to me. I have no desire to read back the thoughts and experiences of a week prior. I talk to a friend about this, who wonders what it means for me to allow myself to be seen in this way. She does life drawing, and recently returned from a shoot with a photographer in which she was also naked, and we talk about the vulnerability of this practice and the strange distancing, even in the immediacy of the seen, that we are provided from our own bodies. I tell her I too would love to do life modelling one day. I’d love to be drawn or painted, have that experience of how a multitude of people see me, without the immediacy of photography but allowing others to engage in a kind of study that seems impossible to conduct upon the self. But writing feels like the next best thing to me most days. In fact, it may be my preferred mode of exposure.
Ernaux: “(It is a mistake… to compare someone writing about their own life to an exhibitionist, since the latter has only one desire: to show themselves and be seen at the same time.)”
There is always a difference between what is written and what is experienced, even if the writing is undertaken automatically, as a stream of consciousness. “Living in passion or writing: in each case one’s perception of time is fundamentally different”, Ernaux insists. So why do it at all? What is the purpose of living in passion and then distancing oneself from it? Sharing it? Opening up that infernal interiority to another? Ernaux writes:
Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal. Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere.
Her book feels ultimately abortive, disparate, half there, with scenes of passion fading as they are recorded; not memorialised, to be forever remembered, but to simply allow inner experience to leave an outer shadow. “Of the living text, this book is only the remainder, a minor trace. One day it will mean nothing to me, just like its living counterpart.” But always the unfinished nature of the thing, of the book, of the experiences it chronicles. Ernaux concludes with a note of melancholic hope at the end of the affair: “so long as these pages remain personal and within reach, as they are today, the act of writing will remain open.”
We will in a world where writing must always be closed, must always end satisfactorily, with all conflicts resolved — the proverbial happy ending. But no passion seems to end well, not really. Life ends with death. Lives lived together do not end but crack-up, deviate and ricochet in unknown directions. Is this not the hardest thing to weather when a passion ends? The view from afar of lines of flight unshared? I turn to Cixous:
The one I love goes off willingly to travel down into what Genet called ‘the lower depths’, others say ‘the grottoes,’ down into the most hidden, the most elusive regions, the most difficult to work, the most sensitive to touch, down into the unconscious and the bodily passions. They can be reached by borrowing the ladder of writing that goes down to the roots.
What is it in this passage on erotic submersion that feels as much to me like an exit as an entrance?
That writing suffers in fact the fate of birds, women, the unclean. Because it runs the risks of its truths, because it makes its way into places where danger grows — there are few people there — it is joyfully received only by ‘people whose souls are already shaped,’ as Clarice Lispector says: ‘People who know that one’s approach to each thing is made gradually and painstakingly — including the passage across the opposite of what is approaching. Those people who, alone, will understand very slowly that this book takes nothing away from anyone. The character of G.H., for example, gave to me little by little a difficult joy; but it was a joy.’
I have enjoyed so much this habit of writing, I am almost mournful to feel its necessity come to an end. It has been a difficult joy for me too, to enjoy writing so candidly about a time where my life felt daily in peril. The emotional extremity of all experienced, however, barely makes itself visible. It has felt strange, in each instance, to recall near-death experiences so matter-of-factly. But how else to do so after the fact? After the abortive moment of climax? Would it be more true to life to carve into each page the intensity of each moment as it was lived?
It is almost two months since a first real attempt on my life was interrupted. Friends barged in on a sorry scene, myself surrounded by methods of self-destruction, but all drama paused as I sat, in tears, writing a note no one will ever read. One friend took this note, as another held onto me for dear life, and cast it decisively into the bin. I will never forget that moment — the moment the writing was forced to remain open, never to think again of writing or say a final word, even if it means repeating so many of the old ones.
Because no one can set foot on the sacred planks of the stage, in the hopes of approaching the living heart of the mystery, without having first stripped from head to foot down to one’s self: for the aim and the mission of these agents (actors as well as director and author) is to increase the odds of the birth of the You:
I shall speak about the actors. They have arrived.
Another visit from the crisis team. An innumerable visit but the first my flatmate has been present for. I think being present calms her, brings her inside the circle of care. And she is indeed classed as my “carer”, by proximity alone — a responsibility I do not want her to have, but she lives with me all the same.
I feel difficult to live with, always have, always feeling like a guest, never really at home, just a stray, poorly house-trained when not on my own, more at home in meandering.
I buy a framed print of Matisse’s The Open Window that I most certainly can’t afford. It shows the interior of his flat and the sails of boats in the port of Collioure outside, all rendered flat in the fauvist style, the delineation between inside and out feeling like nothing more than a trick or habit of the eye.
Having visited the port on two or three occasions, and having found it endlessly inspiring and relaxing, it has become my “happy place”. I would love to live there, sitting in the cafe now just below that window, writing. Last summer, it felt like a true idyll during the day. And the nights, the late bars, the sleepy streets, the lights at sea, the dark shadow of the mountains whipped by the mistral, swimming in the port at night like spies and touching the bows of luxury yachts, those minor submersible transgressions.
I wrote nothing on that holiday. I even struggled to read. I felt so present. I wrote nothing of the days, nothing of the nights. I will one day, when I return again.
In the meantime, it is no longer a place to imagine. A representation now hangs in the room where I almost hanged myself. It makes my flatmate happy. It makes me happy. I now look at it all the time.
Collioure, September 2021:
What strikes me most about the meeting with the crisis team is that, in explaining their role to my flatmate, the nurse affirms that they treat people as regularly as me as an alternative to hospital admission. It makes me feel acutely like a patient, for the first time in a while, less a subject than an object of care. No wonder I am desperate to flee the flat after every visit, as if on day release from my own home.
In moments of tense solitude, Zambreno turns to blogging. (The one she manifests whilst living in Akron, Ohio, is titled: Frances Farmer is my Sister.) Blogging always feels like touching at a distance. The attraction of an “invisible community.” I do not feel like I have one at present. Though I blog, I do so absentmindedly, scheduling the excerpts copied out from my journal and then leaving them to enter the ether as I go about my life, doing other things. In truth, my community at present feels euphorically visible.
The blog is kept up out of habit, still the desire for others to bear witness to thoughts and feelings that rarely make for good conversation over pints and coffees. And yet, I have tentatively stepped into a new community of late, since the drunken night, a few weekends ago, at the Lubber Fiend. I long to spend more and more time with the women met there, who enthused over Nin with me into the early hours.
But everyone works; has lives of their own. My life still feels like it is on hold, at least to some extent. And I daren’t mention to anyone newly met that my free time is not some writer’s dream but rather that I’m on the sick, recovering from an acute bout of mental illness; sick and writing. Some may read the blog, already aware. I’m grateful they never mention it. The normality, the fun, the adventure, the conversation: it all feels key to recovery. Still, I shift uncomfortably in my seat every time I send a message, asking if anyone has time for a midweek drink of some description. At present, not really. But I am desperate to punctuate the elongated periods of writing with sociality, with experience, with chatter. It is not hard to come by, but still my days feel so empty.
Zambreno affirms how she doesn’t talk to “the greats”, but to “the wives and mistresses.” I think about my mum, working as a social worker in Hull, writing poetry on the side but only really for herself. She used to tell stories, when I was much older, and after her death in 2001, of her weekly visits to see Monica Jones, Philip Larkin’s “mistress” — the term scorned by literary historians, not least for its latent misogyny but also for how it undermined her central literary role in his life, as confidante and editor.
I don’t know if my mother and Jones ever talked about poetry. She lived off Newland Park, a stone’s throw from what was then the main office for Hull’s social services.
The crisis team mix up my meds. I sheepishly don’t question it at first. For the last week they have been controlling the daily doses I am allowed to keep in my possession. I am still an overdose risk. Then, out of nowhere, a week’s worth of zopiclone. I hold onto it.
I am increasingly aware that I am cannabalizing Zambreno, quoting her text incessantly. I feel this currently fragmented style of writing inauthentically apes her own. And yet it feels natural to follow each and every thought as an opportunity for a kind of automatic writing. But each flight into memory or digression into experience makes me feel like I am following her lead, as if her books, her drifts, have given me permission.
I meet someone new outside the Cluny — a visiting friend of a friend. “So what do you do?” I’m a writer, I say, newly comfortable in affirming this compulsion as my primary occupation, regardless of the fact it has never paid my bills. “What do you write?” I always stumble over this question. At present, the answer feels obvious enough but also quite elusive: I write about writing. But I am also writing as I read about writers that write about reading. And I am most certainly obsessed with Zambreno. I am consuming her. Am I taking possession of her? I’m not sure how that would even be possible. Her writing, and the quotations weaved into my own, are like smoke. I am affirming the ouroboros of the reading writer, treating her texts as she treats the texts of others. If this is consumptive, vampiric, I am Bacchus at a banquet — sickly, engorged, vomit-writing so that I might then consume and write some more.
Of course at first she was so terrified, “so absolutely alone.” But then she fell madly in love with the city, she wandered around, she took notes. She began to record impressions in a black notebook…
The Bloomsbury group: “Gossip the common fuel among that circle.” It is a period of literary drama romanticised these days, but the narration of lives lived with others in the age of social media forces the writer to take on a whole new set of literary quandaries. There is so much new potential for offense. Perhaps rightly so, but literature feels undermined by social media and its tyrannical (in)corporations of the self. Being with others, and the writing of that experience especially, is now even harder to negotiate.
The crisis team, supposedly responsible for my medication, are only slightly less responsible than I am. I am having to chase my scripts constantly, trying to ensure that I don’t miss a dose. One day without, I panic. I rely on the zopiclone given to me by mistake and take it all, being familiar enough with it now — a smaller dose than what I started on — that all I have to look forward to is a high. But it is a peculiar high. I feel drunk, wobbly, with the motor skills of someone many pints deep, but have absolute clarity of mind. It is an interesting combination, like a waking sleep — an active mind coupled with an estrangement from the body. It is euphoric; dysmorphia inverted.
I fragment Zambreno once more before letting sleep take me. She wonders what is the “most confessional (i.e. feminine? photographic?).”
I’m struggling with the power relations of patient and carer. For the most part, those designated my “carers” are my friends — at least in the nomenclature of social workers, offering “carer support” to anyone who is living with and around someone who is unwell. Friends have routinely made it clear how they too struggle with the responsibility, not out of a lack of care but a lack of training. Some weeks ago, they made phone call after phone call looking to see if I could find a place to stay at an in-patient facility, but every time the doctors said no. Not only was there a lack of beds but they stressed how this was often only suitable in the most extreme of cases. To be removed from one’s community often only makes things worse. The somewhat romantic idea of a convalescence is a myth. Even the nurses know that a room of one’s own can easily become a cell. I don’t need a room but a reorientation towards the world in which I live. Even support in that process can be a stressful and ungrounding to do.
I think often about what it means to navigate this reorientation as a male-bodied person specifically. I worry about actualizing myself and my comportment, or even seeking out care when necessary, in the wrong way. So many of my friends are women. I feel guilty about putting on a further burden of care, already expected under patriarchy. “But you’re not a misogynist”, they will say. I don’t think I am either, but nothing is ever so simple.
I worry too about my compulsion to write about it all.
Zambreno talks about how the modernist “masters wrote the emotional, the hysterical, they were also overwrought, but then they punished and disciplined their muse’s emotional lives in real life.” I have no such desire but still occasionally feel conflicted as I witness the liberations and explorations of others. But I don’t want to gain a sense of control over their lives; only my own. I don’t want to control them; I want to be them. I want to participate in a kind of femininity that I have always been thrust towards but then never allowed to fully enter — a desire complicated by the dysphoric experience of the body I live in; too feminine to be a Man, too masculine to be a Woman.
I read Simone de Beauvoir on the myth of femininity: “The myth of woman plays a significant role in literature; but what is its importance in everyday life? To what extent does it affect individual social customs and behaviour?” she asks.
There are different kinds of myths. This one, sublimating an immutable aspect of the human condition, that is, the ‘division’ of humanity into two categories of individuals, is a static myth; it projects into a Platonic heaven a reality grasped through experience; for fact, value, significance, notion and empirical law, it substitutes a transcendent Idea, timeless, immutable and necessary. This idea escapes all contention because it is situated beyond the given; it is endowed with an absolute truth. Thus, to the dispersed, contingent and multiple existence of women, mythic thinking opposes the Eternal Feminine, unique and fixed; if the definition given is contradicted by the behaviour of real flesh-and-blood women, it is women who are wrong: it is said not that Femininity is an entity but that women are not feminine. Experiential denials cannot do anything against myth. Though in a way, its source is in experience. It is thus true that woman is other than man, and this alterity is concretely felt in desire, embrace and love; but the real relation is one of reciprocity; as such, it gives rise to authentic dramas: through eroticism, love, friendship and their alternatives of disappointment, hatred and rivalry, the relation is a struggle of consciousness, each of which wants to be essential, it is the recognition of freedoms that confirm each other, it is the undefined passage from enmity to complicity. To posit the Woman is to posit the absolute Other, without reciprocity, refusing, against experience, that she could be a subject, a peer.
(I think about Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, “an act of revenge against the woman who so nearly disrupted her life with Jean-Paul Sartre.” It sits on the stack I build next to my bed, for which I have already had to buy a bookcase to accommodate, presently unread. I am intrigued to learn how well she follows her own advice, separates herself from her own tethering to the myth.)
The strange experience of a life lived as an apparently feminine man only accentuates this divide from the other side, particularly at present, as an invalid (and invalidated) person wrestling in tandem ways with mental illness and a non-binary identity, desiring a new subjectivity against the objectification of being a male-bodied patient of communal care and medical bureaucracy.
Am I fetishizing the women in my life, who live as I wish to? In trying to make myself new, am I falling into the trap of the modernist masters? “These men fetishizing and vampirizing the excessive (in their texts) while disciplining and punishing her in real life.” What is it, instead, to fetishize the excessive as someone who feels newly disciplined in a state of instability?
I long for someone to join me in my own irresponsibility, my own excess, not with the toxicity of co-dependency but through a new and tender ethics of intensive sensation. Let’s not implode together but commingle. If I found such a relation — and I may have already found a few — I almost doubt I would write about it, at least not without express permission or collaboration. I have no desire, as Zambreno puts it, for “the writer’s possession” of man or woman “as some sort of genderbending alchemy.” The only thing I hope to possess is myself in multitude, as a non-singular being. Even then, notions of possession, of property, are far from my mind. I want only to meet in intensity.
Zambreno skewers the revelation that has defined this current fit of reading and writing for me, albeit only in passing:
That these literary geniuses have someone been filled with Women, the madwoman or woman in love (a sort of madness) as conduit. Deleuze and Guattari, who worshipped the manwoman as metaphor, this ideal state of the “Body without Organs”, their term the “becoming-woman” (they use as exemplars of this the male modernists, Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and the rest. “The first task of the revolutionary”, they add, “is to learn from the psychotic”, from the introduction of D&G’s Anti-Oedipus.
But where is Nin, H.D., Zelda Fitzgerald…? Woolf appears periodically, of course. No one else? They turn only to the students, the authors, the artists, never the muses, the wives, the lovers; never to the source material, to the women themselves trying to be a new sort of woman, pathologised for their attempts, drawn upon (or simply drawn in caricature).
Every woman must also become-woman, of course, they insist; de Beauvoir herself first tells us this. But always absent, secondary, to the man who becomes-woman. The only hysterical women considered are those somehow fictionalized in literature or pseudonymised in the case studies of various male psychoanalysts. Okay, so men must embrace a becoming-woman, yes, but the women themselves, made into new archetypes of becoming, are nonetheless confined to male prejudices. The line of flight Deleuze and Guattari affirm so forcefully, rarely attending to the ways that, in their choices of literature, it is always already controlled. Always a kind of “HAG-iography.” Each channels another’s — another woman’s — hysteria into the work, but never truly affirms their own. “They can only play women, fetishize her excesses, make fun of her frivolity They don’t have to be women.”
I feel like maybe I do; “to write another self as if it is your own is a form of self-destruction.” Reflecting Narcissus.