A few photos from late May, taken just before and after my head fell out.
I have been reading a lot of Spinoza of late. Crisis teams come to visit me every few days now to teach me skills of distress tolerance and emotional regulation, all as a lead into dialectical behavioural therapy. In each instance, as they share their somewhat infantilising metaphors and mindfulness techniques, I think of the Ethics, which teaches us much the same thing. It makes it easier to accept their patronising modes of expression to instead understand each nurse and psychiatric liaison officer arriving armed with their own propositions and axioms, skills for “neurolinguistic programming”, methods for regulating one’s own passions through reason.
It is helping, but it is still hard to internalize Spinoza’s mantra, to “think least of death”, when my mind is, at intervals, refusing to let me do much else. At my lowest, it is hard to believe that the exercise of reason, the understanding of passions and their causes, is enough to free us from their bondage, especially when I have never understood my own trauma better and yet feel it more intensely than ever before. But what is necessary now is rewiring the brain, affecting my own neuroplasticity, so that these reflections are not innately depressive but instead more transformative. Understanding can have no positive effect on feeling if the two are incorrectly connected.
As I try and wait patiently for this to happen, taking each day as it comes, taking time to do the necessary work, I must confess that in moments of morbid desperation I turn again and again to Spinoza’s thoughts on suicide. But I go there digging for hope.
Spinoza seemed to believe that suicide was impossible, and certainly could not be virtuous and good, in that it runs wholly against our nature. “That a man should, from the necessity of his own nature, strive not to exist”, he writes, “is as impossible as that something should come from nothing.” But this is only in the context of one’s own nature, of course; it says nothing of how people who do kill themselves are often “compelled by external forces”.
For Spinoza, this is because self-preservation is a core part of our reason. Suicide is unreasonable, inhuman, and cannot be entered into willingly without the overwhelming influence of things outside our control. He references the Stoics, of course, and Seneca, who was forced to commit suicide by the state, and did so calmly and with great resolve, not because he did not want to live, but because he understood the strength of the state and the inescapability of its unreasonable power, wielded by the paranoid emperor Nero. Fully understanding the external forces before him, however, he met his fate rationally. But as bleak as Seneca’s situation was, his circumstances are not the same as ours — although the most unfortunate and persecuted among us may be able to relate in one way or another.
What is worth bearing in mind in reflecting on this example is that the causes of my own emotional dysregulation, in particular, are internal; traumatic echoes of external forces whose power is no longer exerted on me in actuality. And I must remind myself that I survived those moments. Faced with actual danger and distress, I did all I could to survive. It is to be out of sync with my own nature to let them return with a vengeance, to let myself be haunted not by power itself but by its ghosts. It is wholly unreasonable to let them take control from within, clouding my understanding of all the love that comes from without. This is the most distressing realisation from the last few weeks. Nothing that has happened to me recently has been beyond my tolerance. I have lived through so much worse. There may have been triggers, but what has been triggered has been wholly internal. I am not being compelled by external forces but internal ones. That is unreason. That is sickness. To exercise my reason properly is to do what I can to get well.
Considering the insanity of the last few weeks, which has wreaked havoc on my memory, with so many blank spaces taking the place of further traumas, I am doing my best to fill the gaps with Spinoza’s various axioms. But I came to a sorry realisation in the process.
For years now, I have tried to fight these passions, these irrational feelings, this persistent pain that is so easily triggered and refuses to go away. But it is a sad fact that Mark Fisher’s suicide made death so painfully imaginable as a new option and possibility in those moments, with attempts to understand his own actions leading all too necessarily to an understanding of how he could go through with it. It fills me with so much regret to realise that I never had a truly suicidal thought before Mark took his own life. He made it thinkable. That is the true and lasting damage of his death on me personally.
Others have sought to process this fact as well, albeit more conceptually and sometimes, as a result, in intellectually impoverished ways. For instance, I have often rebuked others who did not know Mark personally, who now find his work coloured by his final act, disconnecting the personal from the political, as if it can all be explained away by that great enemy, capitalism, which he had supposedly given up on fighting. But this was not the case at all. In fact, as Tariq Goddard has always insisted, Mark’s suicide was, in the end, all too personal. He recounted his traumas so candidly in the 2000s on k-punk and those who remember those posts will be aware that Mark had more to wrestle with than the drudgery of the 9-to-5. As vulnerable as these posts were, they made it clear that he also understood his trauma better than most. And the truth is that these posts were far more acutely personal than more political essays like “Good For Nothing” suggest to a wider audience.
This is not to diminish the importance or resonance of essays such as “Good For Nothing”, however. They were one way that Mark sought to attach his despair to external causes as he grew older, and the fight against capitalism was indeed a tandem fight against his own depression. But that is not to say capitalism was the ultimate cause of his personal distress. Capitalism played a pitiful role in compounding it, as anyone who has tried to seek help under this system can corroborate. But the internal causes of Mark’s death were nonetheless other. He was haunted by the ghosts of his life, but these were not so much cultural and social as they were more intensely personal. The real tragedy of Mark’s death for his thought, then, in this regard, is not that his work against capitalism might now fail us, but rather that his passionate Spinozism did not see him through his pain. Mark’s work lives on, as resonant as ever. But it is in Spinoza, who he celebrated as “the prince of philosophers”, that the real task of overcoming passions truly resides, and which tragically failed to save Mark in the end.
Thinking about this, I wonder if there’s something further intriguing to be said about The Weird and the Eerie, Mark’s final book, when thought about in these terms. It is a book in which Mark explores how the relationship between inside and outside is not always explicit. The connections between internal and external causes of distress are often obfuscated by structures of power. Mark wrote about this often in other contexts as well, particularly in Capitalist Realism, where he denounces psychiatry’s uneasy relationship with materialism, explaining everything away through brain chemistry in order to occlude a wider system’s responsibility for our own distress. But it is still true that not all distress is the direct product of capitalism — it may all be the product of relations of power, but these can take many other forms and it is not always useful to extrapolate our personal traumas outwards to the cosmic structures that hold us more generally.
Spinoza himself, of course, started there and moved inwards, from an understanding of nature to that of the human intellect, with one a co-constituent part of the other. Mark, in his work, often made the opposite journey, considering how certain ways of thinking about the world are direct products of ideological bondage. We often find ourselves like fish with no concept of water. We do not see the external causes of our own thought patterns.
But Mark explored this tendency for our benefit, rather than to sate his own demons. In truth, it is easier to think the horrors of capitalism than it is the more molecular traumas that govern our lives. But the trauma of abuse and abandonment in early life, in particular, feels no less weird and eerie, when thoughts arise from innocuous triggers, revealing there to be something where we expect there to be nothing, as emotions surface from the amnesia of childhood, felt but not seen. Mark applied this same logic to ideology, but we must still be able to distinguish between ideology and psychopathology. They can be connected but, more often than not, our attempts to lay one neatly over the other are insufficient and do more harm than good. Still, we might start to trace The Weird and Eerie backwards, noting how Mark’s theory of ideological obfuscation can exploit but is not identical to the machinations of the unconscious mind. Still, understanding their connection reveals their similarities as well as their differences.
For Spinoza, what is shared in common is that to exercise our reason in either sense is to understand how passions are brought to heel through a logical appraisal of cause and effect (or affect). But unfortunately, uncovering the capitalist causes of our distress is a far easier process than understanding the consequences of other forms of trauma. In being structural, we need only lift the veil on ideology to see the mechanisms in place that disturb us. Some traumas, however, are not so easily revealed and processed. The real tragedy of Mark’s work, considered posthumously, is not that he gave up on his political project — in fact, he stayed true to it to the very end — it is rather that, for some, political hope cannot easily be translated into something more fundamental, more metaphysical. This was Mark’s failure, and it is a completely understandable one. He always said that “Being a Spinozist is both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world.” Indeed, there is nothing harder in life, and I feel that so intensely right now, as reason feels malformed and in short supply. But that is because the responsibility of actualising one’s reason lies with us alone. Spinoza cannot do it for us, even if his work does hold so many of the keys, connecting each structure of feeling to every other, from the personal to the political to the natural, helping us to identify when these parts of life are out of joint. But in this regard, Mark only really wrote about one aspect of Spinoza’s work. He may have struggled to translate its political application to a more personal one.
There was still so much more work to be done. If only Mark had found the strength to see it through.
If you missed the recent event on the work of Mark Fisher in translation — organised by the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), moderated by Brigid Lynch, Mauro Greco and Ariadna Álvarez Gavela, and featuring Alejandro Galliano and myself — you can now watch it back on CLACS’s YouTube channel here.
I’ve received a lot of messages over the last week, many of which I’ve not replied to, but I just want to say thank you to everyone who reached out.
I’m doing well, I’m setting plans in motion to try and access the support I’ve been seeking for years, and I have a lot of very good friends around me to help me along the way. A new dose of medication has turned the volume right down on a lot of emotional distress and, without wanting to jinx anything, I’m on my third day of feeling relatively human. I may be coming out the other side of a pretty terrifying month and I feel like I’m in shock about it.
I appreciate I worried a lot of people, which I am sorry for. I was worried myself. My depressions have been getting worse and worse for a few years now and, whilst I’ve generally steadied myself by blogging through them, a compulsive honesty on the blog was and remains a bad habit I’m going to curtail for the time being.
But things are looking up. I have been so cared for this past week, staying with friends, enclosed in a little village of compassion, and whilst it has undoubtedly been a stressful and intense time for all involved, I could not have seen this through without them.
So I’m okay. Still a long way to go. But hopefully we may be returning to some sort of normality. One step at a time.
Für den britischen Kulturwissenschaftler Mark Fisher war Theorie eine Waffe im Kampf gegen die endlose Wiederholung des Immergleichen. In seinen Texten sezierte er die Widersprüche des britischen Neoliberalismus und durchstreifte die nostalgische Popkultur der Gegenwart auf der Suche nach den Überresten eines besseren Morgens. Immer im Hinterkopf: die Frage, wieso der euphorische Kapitalismus der Gegenwart seine eigene Depression erzeugt. Ein Würdigung zum 5. Todestag Mark Fishers von Christian Werthschulte.
I was recently interviewed by Christian Werthschulte for a half-hour tribute to Mark Fisher, broadcast on Austrian radio station Österreich 1. Listen back here.
On Friday night, an attempt on my own life was interrupted by friends. I’ll spare you the details but the terror was agonising from all sides. It was an uncomfortably close call.
The night was spent in A&E again and, the next evening, I had my third face-to-face encounter with the local crisis team in two weeks. This time things went well. A proper plan was put in place, a change in my medication was encouraged, and access to dialectical behavioural therapy was offered, due to start in less than two weeks.
My friends are refusing to let me be alone for the next few days. I have been told I have no choice in the matter and I am happy to have my time and location dictated by such a loving group of people. I feel awful about it, of course, ashamed, humiliated, but also incredibly grateful.
There are many reasons why I thought Newcastle was the right place to be. As painful as things are right now, this has been confirmed over and over again these past few weeks.
The road to recovery is going to be long. I’m unspeakably daunted by it. And I need to stop pretending this is an appropriate forum for it to take place. Time to retreat again, back into meatspace. The Internet is no place to be.
Foucault writes: “No technique, no professional skill can be acquired without exercise; nor can the art of living, the technē tou biou, be learned without an askēsis that should be understood as a training of the self by oneself.” There are many forms of self-examination and medication that can make up this exercise of living, and Foucault notes how “writing — the act of writing for oneself and for others — came, rather late, to play a considerable role.” So partial to classics, Foucault seemed, at least publicly, to find no problem with continuing such a practice in modernity. It was an essential expulsion for any would-be philosopher, who prides themselves on reading at length:
Writing, as a way of gathering in the reading that was done and of collecting one’s thoughts about it, is an exercise of reason that counters the great deficiency of stultitia, which endless reading may favor. Stultitia is defined by mental agitation, distraction, change of opinions and wishes, and consequently weakness in the face of all the events that may occur; it is also characterized by the fact it turns the mind toward the future, makes it interested in novel ideas, and prevents it from providing a fixed point for itself in the possession of an acquired truth.
There is a tension here, of course. Reading and stultitia are orientating, for sure, but writing is grounding. And one cannot be orientated sufficiently without a ground, even if that ground is itself prone to agitation, distraction, change of opinion. At the same time, a ground without orientation is static and staid. Though we must always push off into a future, it is necessary to have a secure base onto which we can withdraw, just as it is essential to have a horizon over which ground fades from view.
And so, to what extent is writing ever a withdrawal in the present? To what extent is it an excursion?
Foucault himself, despite his commitment to the askēsis of self-writing, later longed for anonymity. He felt trapped under a more public writing persona, even attempting to publish anonymous essays in contemporary periodicals, which he was always denied by editors who refused to pass up the marketing opportunity of the great philosopher being a recognised contributor to their publications.
But this tension was hardly one to be fully resolved. It was precisely the tension that was productive. To give in fully to his public persona would be to feel subsumed by the world he rejected; to disappear fully into anonymity would also mean giving up on forcing the world to queer itself to his bent. Trapped in a world that felt at once malleable and immovable requires an exercise of one’s own power, an “ethics of the concern for the self as a practice of freedom.” Foucault explains in an interview of the same name:
The idea that there could exist a state of communication that would allow games of truth to circulate freely, without any constraints or coercive effects, seems utopian to me. This is precisely a failure to see that power relations are not something that is bad in itself, that we have to break free of. I do not think that a society can exist without power relations, if by that one means the strategies by which individuals try to direct and control the conduct of others. The problem, then, is not to try to dissolve them in the utopia of completely transparent communication but to acquire the rules of law, the management techniques, and also the morality, the ēthos, the practice of the self, that will allow us to play these games of power with as little domination as possible.
This problem has never felt more pronounced than in the present. Twitter, in particular, is rife with the contradictions that are unbounded by Foucault’s perspective. Earlier today I saw a screenshot from some article or blogpost in which an anonymous centrist decried the progressive left for its tendency to bully others into a more utopian thinking. Elsewhere, the fearmongering around pronouns is framed as an attempt to coercively adapt other’s use of language. It is cognitive dissonance, pure and simple. The demand for more freedom — subjective, social, linguistic — is framed as a new kind of domination, and true freedom is the persistent and continual domination of the marginal by a hegemony. Not all ground can bear flowers.
As I continue to struggle against this reenergised practice of writing, and writing anyway, I’m reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s closing remarks in his study of Flaubert and Madame Bovary:
As a result of the specialization that industrial development brought in its wake and of the advent of modern society, fiction today has a more and more disquieting tendency to branch off in two different directions: a literature for popular consumption, manufactured by professionals with varying degrees of technical skill whose one aim is to turn out, as mechanically as a production line, works which repeat the past (as regards both form and content), with a slight cosmetic touch of modernism, and which as a consequence preach the most abject conformism in the face of the established order (the best-sellers of the capitalist world and the flag-waving, self-congratulatory, officially approved literature of the socialist world fall alike within this category), on the one hand, and on the other a literature of the catacombs, experimental and esoteric, that has given up before the fact any attempt to win a hearing for itself from the public that consumes the other sort, and instead meets self-imposed demands of artistic excellence, bold experimentation, and formal creativity at the price of (and, it might be said, a maniacal insistence on) isolation and solitude. Thus, on the one hand, whether through the workings of the crushing mechanisms of supply and demand of industrial society or through the flattery and blackmail of the patron state, literature is transformed into an inoffensive occupation, a means of harmless diversion, shorn of what was once its most important virtue, the critical questioning of reality thanks to representations which, by drawing from this reality, even its smallest element, added up to works that were at once its revelation and its negation, and the writer is transformed into a domesticated, predictable producer who propagates and promotes the official myths, having unconditionally surrendered to the reigning interests: success, money, or the crumbs of power and comfort that the state hands out to docile intellectuals. On the other hand, literature becomes a matter of specialized knowledge, remote and sectarian, a super-exclusive masoleum of saints and heroes of the written word, who have haughtily handed over to writer-eunuchs the task of confronting the public, yielded the mandate to communicate, and buried themselves alive to save literature from ruin: they write to one another or to themselves, they say they are engaged in the rigorous task of investigating language or inventing new forms, but in practice are multiplying each day the locks and keys of this redoubt in which they have imprisoned literature, because at heart they habor the terrible conviction in which the media, advertising, and the pseudo-products of a publishing industry that caters to a mass readership reign supreme, can an authentic literature of creation flourish in our day, like a hothouse orchid, hidden away, exquisite, preserved by hermetic codes from being sullied and cheapened, accessible only to certain valiant confreres.
Flaubert sits uncomfortably in between, the author of one of the most famous books ever written who nonetheless resisted constantly the pressures of being caught up in an industrial publishing complex. His contradictions, notes Llosa, are writ large in his letters:
Dozens, even hundreds, of paragraphs from his letters could be cited as proof that, for him, writing was a selfish compensation, a cowardly, imaginary way of giving expression to deeply buried impulses: “I was born with a whole bunch of vices that never poked their noses out the window. I love wine and don’t drink. I am a gambler and have never touched a playing card. Debauchery delights me and I live like a monk. I am a mystic at heart and believe in nothing”…
Llosa soon quotes the letter that gives his study its title: “The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy” — a line that is so wonderfully debauched, but which in itself diverts a reader’s attention from the reality of a writer’s life, which seems so sexless and unaffectionate at its most hermetic. Llosa continues:
From a vocation whose roots lay in a furious rejection of all humanity there might have been a literature in which language was not a meeting place but a shield, a boundary line, a tomb, a proof of the impossibility of reconciling art and dialogue in the tumultuous new society.
But this did not happen. […] From his world apart, Flaubert, through literature, engaged in an active polemic with the world he hated, made of the novel an instrument of negative participation in life. […] Literature for Flaubert was this possibility of forever going beyond what life permits…
Art and life feel totally irreconcilable in Flaubert’s letters, but he found himself involved in life regardless:
This fury, bordering at times on the apoplectic, was in reality a healthy one, causing Flaubert to build a literary bridge (though admittedly one whose planks were insults) to the society from which he felt himself exiled. Thus his vocation produced a work that was what great literature has always been: at once a cause and an effect of human dissatisfaction, an occupation thanks to which a man in conflict with the world finds a way of living that suits him, a creation that examines, questions, profoundly undermines the certainties of an era…
Writing the self is also always a process of unwriting the self. Neither position resolved, we find truth regardless, painfully indeterminate. Indeterminacy as truth. A paradox but the only one.
What does it mean to be strong in the face of your own weaknesses?
I thought this whilst on the phone to a friend, called once again in the midst of crisis. I oscillated between reading my own thought in two different ways.
On the one hand, there is no other strength we can self-possess. The world from without acts as it is wont to do. Steadying oneself before it takes nothing more than a strong pair of legs. We can brush off those things that happen to us on the outside. They shake the ground but we can steady ourselves. We can even admit to the weakness that results, the feeling of being run down and run over by the world. But like a cold or an injury, we wait to heal.
On the other hand, it feels like the most potent of contradictions, wherein our weaknesses are embedded, not coming from without so much as rising up from within. To steady yourself against yourself feels like a particular kind of seasickness. I remember my aunt was once bedridden for months following the onset of a particular vicious case of labyrinthitis, an infection of the inner ear that makes balancing on one’s own feet impossible, despite the stillness of the world around you. What a wonderful name for a horrible affliction.
Already, the distinction between inside and outside feels far from clear cut. “The inside is a folding of the outside”, Mark Fisher said. Nothing ever emerges wholly from within. But small things from without can sometimes exacerbate that which is felt internally in abundance. Strength and weakness bleed into one another. You almost hope they’d curdle, making something semi-solid.
On the day I took myself to A&E, I felt like I’d survived something. I’d been fine, more or less. I felt something in my chest three days prior and it started to grow. Ever since, it has ebbed and flowed. I feel fine, I feel awful, with no real in between. Nothing from without feels like it cannot be withstood. I have been through so much and, in the grand scheme of things, nothing of any real note has happened. Things have changed but gradually. Then life itself overwhelms. Like a cold, it emerged only when I stopped.
What feels so cruel is none of this has been out of my control. Boundaries have been set, limitations have been met — all consciously, in an attempt to be sensible and to take time. But it is precisely taking the time to sit within these boundaries that I have begun to feel them. To understand what I’m capable of, and incapable of, comes as a shock. I pull back, for my own sake, exercising my inner strength. And that is precisely what makes me feel worse. I feel weaken by strength. I cling on for dear life. Strength is inverted into the strength to do what is unspeakable, and then weakness takes over. But then weakness itself becomes a strength, as I feel unable to pursue self-destructive desires. I feel saved by weakness.
I rehearse, plot, plan, and get as close as possible before my knees give way. But every exercise of strength makes the weakness grow stronger, and vice versa. I feel torn in two. Every stable reprieve is more stable than the last, just as every collapse is more world-ending than the one that came before it. Aftershocks in an already decimated town. I’m waiting for the right moment to start rebuilding. It hasn’t come yet.
I keep finding dead baby birds. Last week there was an egg cracked on the paving slabs in the yard — two porcelain halves bracketing the smallest puddle of yellow yoke. Yesterday, on my way to the shops, I found another. This one was quite large, spherical, with little stumps for wings, their shape barely distinguishable from the mass of surrounding flesh. It didn’t look like a bird at first but a discarded scrap of chicken breast. Then today, another, stretched out across the paving slabs again, misshaped and fragile like the baby from Eraserhead, encircled by ants.
It’s hatching season, and these young chicks are no doubt par for the course, but they fill me with a peculiar dread. They’re like tiny triggers as I think about these little creatures kicked from their nests, perhaps having succumbed to the strange English weather, the battering winds and cold snaps, picked up by mothers and dropped unceremoniously to make room for stronger siblings.
But I felt oddly emboldened by this sight this morning. Towering over this tiny body, I thought defiantly, “that’s not me.” Less an echo from without, I felt my size and my strength on looking down at it, as if this tiny thing were some tumour excised in the night and thrown out my bedroom window. It’s me and not me.
I feel good today and don’t trust it. On Tuesday evening, I broke my hand again. I’m starting to look like the walking wounded, an ailment for every extremity. I thought about going back to A&E but I don’t know what good it would do. I still have a lot of the dressings and braces left over from when I did the same thing last year, in a very short-lived moment of madness, which I denied as such, telling everyone I’d just trapped my hand in a door. Physical pain isn’t keeping the emotional pain at bay for long. Not like it did then.
I hurt myself in the middle of therapy, my therapist watching helplessly over Zoom, both of us feeling totally out of control. Everything collapsed after once again voicing my frustrations with the NHS. I know who I’m supposed to call, but nothing ever happens as a result. I have brief moments of clarity and calm but I’m slipping down further. The pain in my chest, which feels like the most literal of broken hearts, goes away when I talk and cry and break down, but I can’t be like that forever. What falls out is eventually slotted back in its place and writhes there and I’m so tired. “There’s no quick fix for this,” my therapist says. And I know that. I feel so daunted by the long road ahead. I am newly aware of just how traumatised I am, how much pain I’ve been dragging around for years. I haven’t felt this bad since I was seventeen. I’m thirty now. I just want to be able to live with it and I’ve done that successfully at intervals over the years, but every time I face up to the baggage on my back it feels that much heavier. Living with it is hard.
But two days later I feel fine. The anxiety in my chest still swells at intervals but feels less like a bomb going off than an itch. I remember writing about this feeling once before, a few years ago when suicidal thoughts took hold in London. In the midst of a crisis, a sudden bout of wellness feels distinctly unwell. Why do I feel fine? What’s changed? Have I simply shut the lid on that black box inside or am I really on the mend? Was Tuesday’s breakdown a necessary breakthrough? It doesn’t feel right to have bounced back from my lowest point so quickly.
I make a coffee, grab my tobacco, and head outside in the sun again. I take down every book on the Stoics from my shelf. It’s mostly a lot of Deleuze with a bit of Epictetus and Seneca. I only just finished writing about them all a few weeks ago, when finishing my second book draft. I’m not sure what good it will do to read them again, in this new situation. In therapy, I explained how the problem for me right now is that I have never understood my own trauma better. I could draw the most detailed map of it, pinpointing every minor infarction, like tree rings emanating from a traumatic core, echoes of tissue death around a scar. But this understanding amounts to very little. It feels like an enclosure that I am desperate to escape. Although nothing has happened that my rational brain cannot understand and suture, in opening my heart here it is clawed open old wounds that separate and chatter and which I am not strong enough to close. A desire to love has left me with a gaping hole that cannot be filled. No matter how much I understand the present, the past haunts and unsettles. My trauma has taken on a mind of its own and it does not listen to reason.
And then the churning stops. My heart is calm. My brain is silent. Has the last week been suddenly integrated or lopped off?
I open book one of the discourses of Epictetus:
Well, what does Zeus say? ‘Epictetus, if it were possible, I would have made your little body and possessions both free and unrestricted. As it is, though, make no mistake: this body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed clay. And since I could not make the body yours, I have given a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion — the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions. If you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be blocked or frustrated; you won’t have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone. Is that enough to satisfy you?’
‘It’s more than enough. Thank you.’
And yet, while there is only the one thing we can care for and devote ourselves to, we choose instead to care about and attach ourselves to a score of others: to our bodies, to our property, to our family, friends and slaves. [Always the jarring moment of remembering how evil Greek society could be.] And, being attached to many things, we are weighed down and dragged along with them. If the weather keeps us from travelling, we sit down, fret, and keep asking, ‘Which way is the wind blowing?’ ‘From the north.’ ‘That’s no good. When will it blow from the west?’ ‘When it wants to, or rather when Aeolus wants it to; because God put Aeolus in charge of the winds, not you.’ What should we do then? Make the best use of what is in our power, and treat the rest in accordance with its nature. And what is its nature? However God decides.
This quest, this rush to understand, has been pursued dogmatically precisely to achieve this kind of serenity. I am more than capable of “making good use of impressions”, recognising what is outside of my control and turning instead to what is. But there is this divide at the heart of a stoic ontology nonetheless, where even Zeus acknowledges that not even the self is fully in control of its own faculties. “I must die”, Epictetus adds soon after, taking destiny to its extreme. “But must I die bawling?” Certainly not because the wind is blowing the wrong way. But the wind is one thing; emotions feel like quite another. Who can bawl on demand? We can steady ourselves when a storm breaks, but have little control over the storm itself. Reason, in this sense, is all we have to combat our fundamental unreason — the paltry, contradictory and often torturous gift of self-consciousness. And it does not seem helpful right now to read a stoic philosophy that affirms so passionately the principle of responding to this crisis by going out on one’s own terms.
I turn instead to surrealism, not so much for its unseriousness but rather for its abjection. Ferdinand Alquié notes how surrealism, as a philosophical movement, was fraught with conflicts, an “inevitable consequence of [its] extreme seriousness, of a scrupulous will to purity.” “The values at stake [in surrealism] are moral, not literary”, he continues, because surrealism “shows the laceration of man reduced to himself.” Surrealism is mad, looks mad, reads mad, feels mad. But how could it be anything else? It sits in the void between rational and irrational impulse, a development of the stoic perversion of being at once in and out of control of our own being, such is being as such in its completeness. “Existence and poetry, reality principle and pleasure principle, revolutionary will and contemplative ecstasy of love seem, indeed, to be contradictory, and surrealism maintains them together only by heroic tension that sometimes gives way to oscillation or choice.”
I turn to surrealism in an attempt to reconnect with the writings of Joë Bousquet, who I began translating articles on a few months ago. At that time, I felt more capable of affirming my own trauma, just as he did. “My wound existed before me; I was born to embody it.” The adoptee’s amnesiac relation to an unknown “before trauma self” made Bousquet feel like a worthy mascot. Now I can’t think of anything worse. Bousquet remembers his trauma, knows it and the time that preceded it. I distinctly do not. Time to renounce the passions of a few months prior? Alquié, noting how the surrealist movement later disbanded, nonetheless sees a certain continuation in such a denouncement. Quoting himself, in an article first published in a bulletin from the Collège Philosophique, he writes: “hard reality will show that one cannot be faithful to everything one has sworn to keep when between objects chosen there are contradictions that the mere desire for total synthesis is not sufficient to resolve… The dimension of ethics and the dimension of history cannot be reconciled.” The disparity between a present ethics and one’s own past histories is what feels most painful right now. Attempts at synthesis are made regardless. In finally turning towards Bousquet, Alquié notes how his books present the reader with a “pure opacity” of oscillating choices. “Language in fact must there negate itself at each step, so that what it has separated can be united.”
In paying tribute to Bousquet, Alquié describes him as something of a mentor, whom he met at the age of eighteen, in the midst of his own tumultuous and adolescent emotions:
Uneasy adolescent, dissatisfied with myself, I was protesting a fate that seemed to me encountered from without. But I detested in others this way of not being oneself, which nevertheless made up my life. And what could that man be whom the course of the world had so strictly cut off from itself? I imagined him still occupied with his foiled plans, perhaps rebelling, perhaps escaping himself, perhaps finally resigned and asking from willpower the self-harmony that an accident had broken. Any solution for him seemed to me non-coincidental or of a constructed coincidence.
Despite a prior admiration for Bousquet, in approaching him again now, in the thralls of what feels like a distinctly adolescent depression, I feel like the young Alquié instead, unconvinced by Bousquet’s stoic ambivalence, his c’est la vie. But Alquié eventually comes to admire Bousquet regardless:
And it is always of him I think when I want to persuade myself that nothing is unjust and that the unity of man is possible. Bousquet is undivided being. It must not be concealed that, by that fact itself, he irritates. But not by his faults — it is in perceiving that the friendship one bears him is itself impure. Because in dominating we always love, what we cherish in our friends is their vulnerability. Their faults, I mean to the extent they are open to us, permit us that community of weakness that is called conscious communication. Here we are consoling, compassionate, desirous of healing, avid to render the other still more miserable.
What sounds at first positive, caring, is for Alquié’s Bousquet a tragic foundation for a life with others. Dominance is unethical. Communication is evil. I cannot bring myself to agree with what comes next, and yet find Alquié’s passionate disavowal so resonant with a struggle against this compulsion to write everything down, for myself as much as others, asserting my own narrative irrespective of how it might make others feel or how much it might contribute to a feeling of ostracism, constituted by a brutal honesty that is far from a virtue, which makes me feel bare and at one with things, if not with others:
Bousquet discourages these impure games. This does not make him easy to like. He has no destiny, for he is his destiny. He has not been injured, for he is his injury. I do not call him stoic, wanting what he is, but one, being what he is. Nothing more laughable than the opinion that he is ‘a modern author.’ For no one is less than he of this idiotic age, where men are constructed by concepts, take for their real drama that of their thoughts and go from reflection to life. The essential obscurity of Bousquet’s texts is not the fabricated obscurity nowadays fashionable. And nothing is more vain than wanting to explicate these texts from behind what is obvious in them to find the concepts from which they are born. For they are not offspring of consciousness, but of nature. Bousquet has no system. The system is born from seeking in objects a unity that the self does not discover in itself. Bousquet is one; his wound has made him invulnerable, incomprehensible. It has conferred on him the beauty of those forces which we record without having to think, for they are of the order of being and not of the order of spirit.
Bousquet’s oneness, his univocity, is here described in expressively Spinozist terms. Unfortunately, further clarification is not yet possible — for me at least — since Alquié’s writings on the Dutch philosopher have never been translated into English. But we can at least observe how, for Spinoza, virtue “is human power itself, which is defined by the essence of a human being alone; i.e. it is defined solely by the endeavor by which a person endeavors to persevere in his own being… No one therefore neglects to seek what is useful to himself or to preserve his own being, unless he is overcome by external causes that are contrary to his nature.” Echoing this, Deleuze makes the case for an ethics of the event, through which our intent should be “to become worthy of the things that happen to us, and thus to will and release the event, to become the offspring of one’s own events, and thereby be reborn, to have one more birth, and to break with one’s carnal birth — to become the offspring of one’s events and not of one’s actions, for the action is itself produced by the offspring of the event.” External causes, in this sense, are integrated wholly into our own being. They are not rendered external at all but rather absorbed within one’s own destiny, not so that an event becomes eternal but activates our humanity and our capacity for change.
This is all so much easier said than done, but it rings true, even when the possibility of experiencing such unity feels out of our grasp. The past week has being wholly overwhelming, as events both past and present are barely weathered. I take responsibility for my own actions, my own feelings, which result from the being I possess, where events are felt in my bones. The recurrent question, “Why am I like this?”, is easily answered. This grief, this sense of disconnection, a desire for connection both affirmed and feared, is the driving force behind all that I have done and achieved. If I am known for anything, I hope it is not so much the topics that concern me but an approach to them that is made possible by the circumstances of my second birth, my adoption. It lingers in the background of everything. At times I can pride myself on this fact. I feel unique, different, an asset to my community, through which my own weaknesses provide perspectives that others may not be privy to. And yet, at other times, this difference feels more restricting, as I am overwhelmed by an understanding of the things that I cannot do, the ways I cannot love, the ways that others cannot love me. But this no doubt demonstrates how events feel so external to my being, how they are far from integrated, feeling like a weight rather than a part of who I am. I will it anyway, I recoil, I disappear into the self, using these events to make a foundation for a home, but the home is unfinished and not yet habitable. I wander around on a blueprint and feel intensely the knowledge that no one else can yet live here with me. As a result, it takes all of my strength to be who I am, against expectations to be otherwise, to be myself alone. To manifest oneself in this way is exhausting. No wonder Bousquet chose to spend his life in bed.
But perhaps this analogy of a home to be constructed is incorrect. As Alquié continues:
Bousquet does not construct himself, does not express himself; he is manifested. Before knowing him I feared that the separation within oneself that in man we call consciousness would have in him the aspect of a wound, rather than an opening onto the world. In fact Bousquet is not open to the world, but it is because he is not separated from himself. His body takes the place of consciousness. His richness is in it; he is himself a world, he is absolute creator. He has taught me everything and has taught me nothing. I owe him no idea; I owe him knowing what without him I would never have known: his admirable words, closed, perfect, reveal to me that he is the being for which all consciousness longs. No doubt he will never know completely what he was for me and for all those who had the unique chance to see and hear him.
Good for Bousquet. Good for Alquié. But what use is this to the distant reader, who knows the true character of neither man. Bousquet still seems lonely to me, and something of a sex pest in his effusive libido, unphased by his bodily restrictions. But his is a desire that is seemingly unconsummated, his wound making him too distinct from the social milieu, which he inspires but which he remains outside. His desires, expressed so freely, find no purchase on anything other than himself. How novel to be satisfied with such circumstances. I can’t imagine it. To me, he still seems like a man yearning for connection, albeit one who can contend with the limits of what is available to him. I intend no ableism in his judgement. It is pure cynicism, which undoubtedly says more about my present mind, finding no solace in the resilience of long-dead men.
What unity is it possible to extract from these odes that can make good on my own present? Alquié writes how it was Jean Paulhan who persuaded Bousquet to “substitute in his preoccupations the problem of language for that of being.” And so Bousquet became a writer, if not in the sense of a “modern author”, as if the play of language was an exercise carried out in tune with the present and with industry. Writing is not the production of external objects but becomes a method for the production of being. But here contradictions re-emerge. Bousquet may have had no system at the time; today we might reduce it to a stoic structuralism.
Indeed, for those younger than Alquié, who saw better where the world and thought were heading next, not everyone agreed with Alquié’s assessment, preserving and exacerbating the contradictions that are present in Bousquet’s unity in their own passionate memorandums. For instance, René Nelli insists, wholly contrary to Alquié, that Bousquet “had not succeeded, whatever he may have said, in overcoming his destiny, since he did not accept it in its horror, and refused to become one with it. He existed only to oppose himself.” An illusionary unity is achieved only through the containment of one’s own contradictions expressed. This substitution of the problem of being for a problem of language remains a kind of externalisation nonetheless, a narrative process, even if an opaque one, where all lines of demarcation are purposefully blurred. Bousquet may accept his wounding only in being so preoccupied with it. He makes himself one, but what of a desire to be the multiple that he also is? To be for oneselves and others? He integrates all, but this is no less a trauma — one admired from without, clearly. And that may be all that Bousquet internalised and made his own: the admiration of others. He may have had no external object, but was he anything more than an object to them? Like a process of classical Freudian narcissism, through which consciousness escapes not outwardly but inwardly, until it reaches a secluded back door in the mind, opening out onto the body, as if his consciousness exists both at the height and base of his humanity, idealised and materialised, a thought from Bataille’s big toe, which has been rendered unresponsive and inert by Bousquet’s severed spine.
“The unique, the irreplaceable, is the being that we create for ourselves by adhering freely, with dilection, to a privileged event”, Nelli says of Bousquet’s singular position within his wider community, “which alone can take our true measure, provided that we ourselves grant it its definitive meaning.” Spinoza returns here, echoed in Bousquet’s very comportment. “An emotion which is a passion ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea of it.” But we should not underestimate the difficult process through which this idea is integrated into the self. It is one thing to know something in the mind, but another to feel it in the body. Perhaps, for Bousquet, this was easier, given his paraplegia. He knows all too well what his body can and cannot do, what it can and cannot feel.
How is he not tormented by this? Perhaps he has no other choice, framing this lack as a choice regardless. Does his absolute awareness of the body constitute a more authentic self, since it is confirmed and, indeed, founded on a sense of one’s material reality? To what extent can we really say that Bousquet’s being is “undivided” in this way? R.D. Laing writes in The Divided Self: “Every man is involved personally in whether or to what extent he is being ‘true to his true nature’.” A “false-self system”, on the contrary,
is occupied in maintaining its identity and freedom by being transcendent, unembodied, and thus never to be grasped, pinpointed, trapped, possessed. Its aim is to be a pure subject, without any objective existence. Thus, except in certain possible safe moments the individual seeks to regard the whole of his objective existence as the expression of a false self. Of course … if a man is not two-dimensional, having a two-dimensional identity established in conjunction of identity-for-others, and identity-for-oneself, if he does not exist objectively as well as subjectively, but has only a subjective identity, an identity-for-himself, he cannot be real.
This hardly seems to apply to Bousquet, who seems so utterly embodied and innately knows how he is perceived by others, since inside and outside are reciprocated, albeit accidently. He may appear broken, fractured, restricted, but such is his objective reality. The broken mind finds itself more at home in a broken body, and so Bousquet appears not vulnerable but invulnerable, as Alquié argued. His diaries and books, so brutally honest about both his subjective and objective existence, are difficult to trust regardless. “‘A man without a mask’ is indeed very rare”, Laing argues. “One even doubts the possibility of such a man.” Bousquet makes such a possibility more thinkable for those around him. I think this is my attraction to him. But he still feels so distant. If he was far from at home in his idiot age, he is even less so in our present age of masks.
I crashed at a friend’s house and, at first, struggled to sleep. Staying up late talking about life’s difficulties, I nonetheless found myself waking up at intervals. At 4am, I came to in a cold sweat. I could immediately smell myself. I felt calm on waking, but could taste the cortisol in the air, flushed out of every pore.
I felt awful about everything this afternoon, now back at home. All the writing and the confessions. There was, at first, something empowering about an embrace of a present vulnerability. Then, after yesterday’s second post, I felt I’d gone too far. Or rather, I’d set myself up for an affirmation that I’m not sure I’m ready for, or which I am at least overwhelmed by, as I begin to once again reorient myself. Putting something down in writing feels very certain — a desire emerged to go back to yesterday morning and burn the diaries.
The whole discomfort of this past week, this past month, two months, has come from a rush to understand. And yet here I am, rushing myself again, unmasking myself again, dismantling a rickety scaffold of self, if only to construct another, no more steady than the preceding structure, but perhaps hoping it might be more impossibly true to the contours of the void around it.
This process was already started some time ago. First in Huddersfield, just over a year ago, then when I first moved up here. In fact, on my first weekend visit to Newcastle — the first of a two-part process, as I negotiated working around moving and moving around working — I confessed as much to my new flatmate. She told me how she was doing some things differently now. I said I wanted to as well. And then, in getting caught up in everything, I fell back on some old habits or a more familiar way of being. But as I’ve said repeatedly over the past weeks, familiarity and home are two different things. I’m still looking for home. Newcastle will do for now, but I feel I am yet to build anything here that might withstand the uncertainty ahead. I am shaky on my feet, but I’m slowly marching onward.
The book plucked from my shelf on my return home, against all better judgement, as I sat down to begin this newly adopted daily ritual again, more aware than ever that it exists somewhere between self-actualisation and self-flagellation, was Nancy Newton Verrier’s Coming Home to Self. It is the sequel to her now-seminal study of adoption trauma, The Primal Wound, which I first read and wrote about some years ago.
She begins by talking about the sort of home one might “come home” to, as well as how multifaceted that sense of home can be:
In dreams a house is often a symbol of the psyche. People dream of houses with many rooms, most of them unexplored. Some of the rooms are sunny and bright, and some are dark and mysterious. Exploring the depths of our being for hints of a true Self can seem like opening those closed doors into the unknown. One thing is certain — to build a house that will withstand the elements, it is important to first build a strong foundation.
From here, she goes on to explore how weak a foundation adoption provides, given the tumult of the whole process, as she argues in her first book, is rather a foundational trauma. The symptoms that manifest from such a trauma are numerous. She writes about hypervigilance and hyperarousal, and the strange effect adoption can have on the formation of beliefs. “For most adoptees, the trauma takes place during the period of childhood amnesia or implicit memory”, when “the events of their lives are having a profound effect on their perceptions and on neurological connections in the brain” — events that the adoptee will have “no recall” of. The fallout from this can be unpredictable and sprawling. “When traumatic events become disconnected from their source, as is the case in any trauma happening in infancy, they begin to take on a life of their own.” A pervasive anxiety can result, which has no real source or obvious trigger in the present, but which nonetheless conjures associations in the adoptee’s amnesiac brain. (Something I have felt every day for almost two weeks now.)
The consequences of this trauma, she argues, are threefold: terror, disconnection, and captivity. Terror is already covered in the pervasive anxiety described above, but the latter two consequences are more particular.
Disconnection affects the adoptee’s basic human relationships. “Adoptees often describe themselves as floating, never feeling connected to anyone, alone even when surrounded by friends or in the arms of a lover. There is no sense of belonging, of fitting in. Sometimes there is no sense of existing.” As is a recurring and often quite spooky tendency with Verrier’s works, she describes the experience in such detail and so perfectly. She is the adoptee whisperer. Everything I have written over the last week is expressed here so plainly. “There is a desperate yearning for intimacy, yet an intense fear of allowing that kind of connection.” She suddenly affirms the feeling that has made me feel so utterly insane over recent days.
This in turn leads to feelings of low self-esteem, a ruptured “sense of basic continuity” in life, and a fear of what new connection might bring. “For many, the risk of connection is synonymous with the risk of annihilation.” All of this is compounded by the amnesia of the trauma, such that these feelings are utterly inescapable, given there is no basic understanding or memory of what Verrier calls a “before trauma self”.
But this feeling of disconnection is also mirrored by a feeling of captivity. This comes from the adoptee’s eventual placement into a situation in which they feel they do not belong, resulting from the fact “the adoptee is living in a place where he is not mirrored or reflected… He is confused by the conflict between his genetic self, which is authentic but not reflected, and his adaptive self, which feels false, but is more encouraged and accepted.”
What is intriguing about this part of Verrier’s analysis is how she skirts around the more pronounced experience of an “institutional” family. She accepts that an expression of this feeling of captivity might be question-begging. “For most of us, our thoughts go to prisons, concentration camps, cults, brothels or abusive families.” My mind goes quite naturally to Foucault. This sense of captivity is also compounded for me by the breakdown of my relationship with my adoptive family, discussed the other day, through which I felt like a quite literal prisoner in my adoptive home, subjected to abuse from my adoptive mother.
From here, Verrier goes into even more detail, presenting a sort of Spinozist ethics of adoptee life, through which she offers up various processes of self-regulation, self-rationalisation, and self-care. The most interesting advice given, for me at least, is her final recommendation, related to “the importance of the narrative process”:
Narration is an important part of achieving self-regulation and self-organisation. We have to try and make sense of events in our lives. Even if they don’t seem to make sense, we have to be able to tell others how these events affect us. […]
For the adoptee, talking about the experience of separation is more difficult, for there is no memory of it in the sense of conscious recall. He feels a void, but he doesn’t know what is causing it. Nevertheless, when other events happen in his life that scare or puzzle him, it is important to provide a forum for his being able to process them as long as he wants.
She adds that, “Acknowledging and communicating our grief in conjunction with others is a faster pathway to healing than suffering alone.” Here, again, I feel seen. Nothing explains my compulsive writing habit more effectively, nor my tendency to write about grief and its communal processing, as I did in my first book and have long continued to do on this blog. Verrier continues on this point specifically:
Sometimes written narrative is helpful. Writing about our losses, our fears, our hopes, and our joys can help us integrate these experiences. If prose doesn’t seem to work, perhaps poetry will. As difficult as it may seem, sharing our words with others is necessary to the integration process. We need others to bear witness to our experiences in order to integrate them and feel connected.
Though I still sometimes struggle with my compulsive desire to write in public, which is not always conducive to social cohesion and connection, particularly when this coping mechanism runs roughshod certain ethical boundaries or even come to vaguely resemble a “career”, it is this necessity for others to bear witness to my own processing that I constantly come back to and affirm.
But still, I do wonder how healthy this is. Yesterday, I went back and edited a few of my recent posts, erasing some potentially identifying information about friends. Someone described how, whilst the above process was clearly important to me, it had a tendency to compound my disconnection, as conversations with friends are relayed like dialogue between characters in a novel. “We’re not characters. We’re here.” I know this. I struggle to feel it. Or rather, it is I who feel like a character, a construction, not them.
I am drawn back to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Still a young nobleman, before the gender transition of the Eighteenth century, she writes how Orlando comes home to time itself in his sprawling country house, where he
began a series of very splendid entertainments to the nobility and gentry of the neighbourhood. The three hundred and sixty-five bedrooms were full for a month at a time. Guests jostled each other on the fifty-two staircases…
But when the feasting was at its height and his guests were at their revels, he was apt to take himself off to his private room alone. There when the door was shut, and he was certain of privacy, he would have out an old writing book, stitched together with silk stolen from his mother’s workbox, and labelled in a round schoolboy hand, ‘The Oak Tree, A Poem’. In this he would write till midnight and long after. But as he scratched out as many lines as he wrote in, the sum of them was often, at the end of the year, rather less than a beginning, and it looked as if in the process of writing the poem would be completely unwritten.
Elsewhere, Woolf talks about the importance of “a room of one’s own”, a space not just for women but for women’s writing to take shape. But prior to Orlando’s continuous becoming, I feel somewhat stuck in my room. I am writing as much as I am unwriting. I think it is time I disconnect not from my friends but from this compulsive habit to narrativise. Those who I need to bear witness to it are not online but in my immediate community. They are the ones who pick up the phone in the middle of the night. They are the ones who invite me to be — however I am feeling — in their own rooms, spaces and homes.
Homes have many rooms and many inhabitants. I’m going to spend more time with those I’ve moved in with recently — not literally, but proximally, emotionally, who are so happy to see me arrive.
With great kindness and encouragement, I’m going to step away from the room of my own and dwell, as much as possible, in others’. No writing. No reading about adoption and trauma. It’s time to give my brain a rest.