Wow: let’s talk, not about any particular book, but about the very bizarre frustration of being more or less incapable of reading (much less writing) for almost a month. Just before Christmas, I got slammed with what started as allergies, moved into a full sinus onslaught, and morphed in very wily fashion into viral wonders the likes of which I really hadn’t experienced in twenty years.
The physical illness itself was bad enough; among other things, it meant I was banned from flying back home, and spent two days in Amtrak’s tiniest sleeping car, with just my germs for company, getting back to my own bed. But the truly alarming amounts of apathy that accompanied it—the lack of desire for anything whatsoever, the complete absence of willpower or ability to perform any mental functions beyond the remedial level—may have been just as frustrating, due, I think, to the fact that the normal I with whom I was so familiar, so accustomed, had vanished entirely. And yet, there I still was, some vegetative creature whom I would have taken for a doppelgänger had I not so obviously been trapped inside of it.
This normal I is, of course, a compulsive reader; it’s simply part and parcel of who I am, and always have been, ever since I learned as a toddler to decipher letters and words. Take that characteristic away, and everyone remotely close to me will declare that what stands before them is something other than the person they know.
So that alienation from self was one thing. But I’m starting to think as well that this last bout of illness was so emotionally tough not just due to said alienation—but also to the vast amounts of disembodied conversation, normally carried on on a daily basis with other writers, or at least with their thoughts and words, that suddenly disappeared, and remained missing for so long. In being forcefully and lengthily removed from engagement with print, I was also being removed from an entire community. No wonder I felt so disoriented, and in an indescribably lonely way at that.
I’m beyond thankful that I didn’t lose any of my senses, truthfully speaking—but in the face of all of them being noticeably dampened in some way, the fear of such a loss, which has a permanent home in the far reaches of my mind, was put on alert, and even if only in attenuated fashion, reached through the dense miasma that had set up shop within and around me.
Here’s the miracle, though: even though I’ve still got some remnants of disease to kick out of my system, last night I finished a not-too-challenging book that’s been begging for the last month for my attention. I’ve found that usually, as soon as I’ve recovered from illness, I forget with amazingly quick ease what that particular form of impairment was like. Maybe it’s just that I’m not totally out of the woods yet—but the process of settling comfortably into a few of this book’s pages was noticeably low on comfort. I’m not sure how long this cold will hang around, or how long it’s going to take me to get back to the usual me—but I have a sneaking suspicion I won’t so easily consign this latest germ battle to the dustbin of memory.
A wonderful article I came across in Aeon this morning made me remember just how beautifully fundamental Søren Kierkegaard has been for the development of my personality, or personhood, or, if you want to go there, my soul. I won’t expound upon the piece by Julian Baggini, other than to say he’s come the closest of anyone I’ve read to capturing both the essence of the sincere Dane, and his effect on many a reader.
As a master’s student, and having only read the theologian/philosopher in my own unsupervised, romantic fashion, I roped my poor advisor into doing an independent study with me on Kierkegaard. I’m pretty sure said prof had no idea what he was in for, and the two of us went head-to-head on more than one occasion, with my asserting, either out loud or within the carefully guarded confines of my own head, that he was killing every bit of life in the philosopher’s thought, in favor of getting everything “right.”
With that first course at least a decade behind me, I’m guessing the entire tone of that sometimes-comical study would be much different today, much less prone to adolescent demands and outbursts. (I’m still toying with sending my old advisor Baggini’s article, and seeing if I can get a couple of nostalgic laughs out of him.) But Kierkegaard continued, a few years later, to pierce my heart right when I needed him. One of the clearest memories I’ve retained from PhD school is sitting in an empty student union cafeteria, 90% of the population elsewhere for Thanksgiving break, and getting ahead on my course reading. It was my first semester in the program, and I was filled with all sorts of constructive intellectual, emotional, and spiritual doubts– and at bottom, I was just lonely. But I had to forge ahead, and so I tackled the section of Concluding Unscientific Postcript that had been assigned over break. I’m going to have to go back to my notes at some point and see if I can find just what it was that affected me so profoundly, but all of a sudden, there I was on the institutional furniture, stared at through the windows by palm trees and a cheerful sun that was absolutely wrong for fall and for serious thought, in a spate of unashamed tears because I’d been made to feel completely validated and unalone by a guy who’d lived and died on a different continent in a previous century.
The instructor of that particular course was a smart guy who was also still clinging to a bit of youthful feeling, and so I related the scene to him after the rest of campus had come back sated and vowing insincerely to work off everything they’d consumed over the past week. The fact that he didn’t condescend or laugh me out of the hall was a small thing– but it was somehow proof that I belonged right where I was, inability to set aside emotion and all.*
And now here we are, a week out again from another Thanksgiving. Although much has changed since those days of constant study, those stormy moods, that same failure to tamp down some form of rebel sadness with and for the world, that same variety of probably-permanent loneliness, are all still part of me, even if I may be able to approach, or even handle, them differently. But I don’t mind admitting my gratitude at having found Baggini’s article this morning; leaving for a few days for willed aloneness this time over the holidays, I think I’ll be taking some Kierkegaard with me. I’m not sure which of his works, exactly, or how I’ll take it all intellectually– but in one way or the other, I’m certain I’ll be accompanied by a benevolent authorial spirit, still honoring his readers’ attempts to figure It all out.
* This episode was somehow more lasting and deeply felt than was my finally visiting Kierkegaard’s grave– an odd fact that seems true to the spirit of his thought.
So, Kathy Acker– or at least one of her books. Great Expectations is the first piece I’ve read by this particular author, and although I sort of knew what to expect, I still had a hard time digesting most of her depictions of physical and/or mental brutality. Facing up to such scenes in general is difficult for me; whether that’s due to the fact that I allow myself to be too affected by fictional characters, or that I don’t like to admit to the amount and prevalence and intensity of real-world human depravity,* or to a combination of those two or something else, I’m not sure. In general, especially in movies and television, I get the sense that this sort of stuff– rape, assault, other forms of torture– gets featured thanks to the justification that we have to explore the horrific realities of our world if we’re to change it– but that in reality, that justification is just a bullshit excuse to get off on– and tacitly approve of and reinforce– the terrible ways in which human beings interact with each other.
I’ve probably mentioned before my appreciation for the film, Hard Candy– not because I enjoyed its premise in general, but because the indignant, sometimes rage-laden reactions of viewers** to its depiction of a girl pretending to castrate a man by force shows up the bad faith of, at the very least, the entertainment industry and those who consume its products. Portraying the rape of a woman is condoned as the honest depiction of unfortunate truth, but (simulated!) violence against a man by a mere girl is disgusting, over-the-line sacrilege? Obviously, this uneven response says that one form of victimization is acceptable– maybe even expected and not really even lamentable– and the other is not.
But I digress (sort of). The weird thing about– and maybe proof of the particular greatness of– Great Expectations was that I started to suspect that Acker’s methodology was legitimate– that in order to accept the truth of sexuality’s being, as one of her characters defines it, “that which can’t be satisfied and therefore as that which transforms the person,”*** we can’t only accept the rainbows-and-cupcakes results of that transformation. And that none of that traditional goodness is included in this particular exploration, because that’s most of the only stuff we’ve been allowed to see for most of (mainstream literary) history. So, yes, we have to admit to the possibility that sexuality’s unnerving powers may lead us down the path to inhumanity, or at least back into the corner of our own (a-, not im-moral?) animality, where such a twisted path might be inherent to biological necessity itself. But I also have to wonder whether Acker thought she was describing a universal, if largely repressed, experience– not of being overwhelmed in general by our emotions or desires or biological needs, but of being conquered in the concrete ways she describes, of making use of the same genre of tactics and experiencing the same category of outcomes as her mostly horrible or pathetic protagonists do. I have to wonder what degree of her writing counted as therapy or purgation, where or whether all this violence entailed pleasure, and if so, what she got out of it and whether she looked down upon those who derive no enjoyment at all from this savagery.
I know we hardly live in a Pollyanna world, and I wouldn’t want to if we did. But maybe my frustration stems from the desire for a positive answer to the question, “Is there anything true and simultaneously good and/or loving in the world?” Is it additionally wrong to want and want to live out such a truthful thing– not as a forced prescription for every last person, but to at least have that legitimate, non-laughable, non-deadening-domestic-life-in-the-suburbs option available to oneself?
My guess is, much of literature, maybe even Acker’s, is goaded by the desire to find– and entails the search for– an answer to those sorts of questions, whatever the understanding of “true” or “good” involves. If we’re going to take on the struggle in honesty, then, we can’t complain about what we find– and thus I’ll end my peroration in just as cloudy a state as I was in when I began it. Fortunately or un-, such circling is also part of literary and mundane reality.
* Especially when it’s centered around gender-based antagonisms– because why must this picture of denigration and hatred and struggle be the necessary result of a simple differentiation of chromosomes?
** My survey sample is admittedly pretty small, coming as it does from discussing said film with colleagues, friends, and family who are normally pretty good about seeing through multiple varieties of social control & etc. An experiment: watch this with guys, and observe their knees-in-laps bout of cringing at a critical scene. Their standard demand is why they had to see that, why they had to be made so uncomfortable. Applied more broadly across the entertainment board, why, indeed?
*** Kathy Acker, Great Expectations (New York: Grove Press, 1982), 107.
In college, I couldn’t get enough French New Wave; stylish in costuming, presentation, and attitude, it was everything I aspired to be, but knew I was too soft to achieve. How to be one of those light-stepping girls who never got hurt or amused by the blunt, bullyish youths who did little more than scowl and walk around conducting their semi-shady dealings while tossing out despairing literary quotations?
Even though I’m sure I’d still love À bout du souffle and Alphaville– not to mention all those smooth Alain Delon heist films– it’s been a while since I’ve dipped into the genre. But this evening, completely exhausted by spending too much time outdoors in a freak heat wave, I could do nothing more than sit still and down iced drinks and watch movies. Halfway through Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, I had to take a break; the atmosphere had grown tiresome, and I realized as never before that a solid chunk of La Nouvelle Vague (or at least Godard’s version of it) involves people treating each other badly and assuming they’re profound in doing so– all while smoking about seven cartons of cigarettes every thirty minutes.
I also realized these characters are painfully young; the protagonist of Soldat is twenty-six– yes, he and most of the other characters are involved in dangerous/potentially lethal goings-on centered around Algerian independence, and that’s admittedly serious stuff that’ll turn anyone into an adult– or at least the semblance of one– pretty quickly. But all the moodiness, the claims to feeling alienated while appearing to have very little emotional capacity or range (or even vague empathy for other human beings) at all: it feels so much like very fashionable undergrads hunkered earnestly down and gazing at their collective navels in the middle of the night, convinced of their own rightness in the face of the total phoniness of everyone else.
I probably shouldn’t be so dismissive; among other things, I’m more than a bit heat-stupid, and if my bones are feeling something less than solid, my brain matter and consequent ability to judge anything are probably also not at their best. The New Wave filmmakers were reacting to a lot of falsity, willful ignorance, and stultified cinema around them, and insisted that social issues of the day be included in their work. So maybe what I’m reacting to on this irritation-prone evening is a simple recognition of how we’ve in some sense moved beyond the datedness of their own forms or assumptions, gender relations being one of them. With the look and the attitude common to so much of this loosely knitted school having been turned into pure, harmless style, it may be easy to forget just how unique, and significantly so, this stuff was, and still is.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ll still take Last Year at Marienbad or The 400 Blows over any blockbuster, or even most of the schlock that continues to be made. Completely dickish Frenchmen are at least more interesting on-screen than the same old superheros or Hollywood leads. But I guess we can all age out of anything, even– or maybe especially– our youthful ideals. Sad? Maybe. But that just means there are other ones to find and inhabit, at least for a while.
I came late in life, and almost by accident, upon the work of W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn only popped up because a friend– who still doesn’t have that much trust in literature– felt compelled by a piece of scholarship to read the late German great, and then further bound by friendship to notify me that he’d found an exact literary fit for my mode of being in this world. Since then, I’ve read everything of the author’s I’ve been able to get my hands on, and have even watched a documentary on him that somehow managed to make itself as beautifully haunted as its own subject matter.
Just as I was so long ignorant of work so close to my own heart, it’s taken me eons to become aware of Philip Hoare, whom Sebald himself admired. A few days ago, I finished Hoare’s The Sea Inside, an exploration mostly centered around cetaceans and seabirds and the environments they call home. Although not as laden with the spectral as is his German colleague, Hoare seems to absorb in welcoming fashion the sea and the air and the fauna that share it, communing easily not only with whatever inhabits the present moment, but also with creatures whose kind disappeared from the earth long ago– stylish catlike beings and lumbering bird-giants too disturbingly other to our human ancestors for the latter to allow them even to continue existing.
This comfort in dwelling with past and present, near and far, is hinted at early on, when, listening to the weather forecast on the radio, Hoare hears with pleasure announcements about “places I’ll never visit but whose names reassure me with their familiar rhythms, while their remote conditions seem strangely consoling.”(1) I immediately perked up when I read this passage, sensing a kindred spirit. The combination of scratchy radio and the knowledge that there actually exists some mystery destination, close enough to be connected by sound waves, but entirely dependent on one’s imagination for existence in thought: the allure is plain for dorks who spend most of their lives dreaming up true, if not-quite-real, worlds– especially for those of us who every now and then find a hint of transcendence on the AM dial, eerily connected to the other side of the continent, where an ultra-local announcement about farm implements for sale, or the parish news in Cajun French, is going on.
That unpredictable, somewhat neglected band of radio provides its own kind of nostalgia for presently occurring things, or a narrow entrée into apparently closed communities. In its own way, (good) writing should do just that, and more; I get the sense that maybe, just maybe, good writing enables that expansion of empathy better than most other mediated channels of mental and emotional exploration.(2) As a recent article by Tim Parks argues, reading writing we just don’t understand might very well broaden and deepen, if not our outright empathy, at least our willingness to believe that there are entirely other modes of life going on all around us– that we are not the final arbiters of how existence should proceed or be run.
We can’t absorb reading in one quick gulp; in taking the time to move from the understanding of one word to another, and of the connections between and among them, we’re forced to witness something unfolding, one detail at a time, at least somewhat at that something’s own– not our– pace– as opposed to the flash of a complete picture on a screen or a page. As Hoare looks up at a night sky filled with constellations, he wonders at the “ancient patterns created by minds yet to be overwhelmed by the images that fill our waking day.”(3) That consolation he found earlier in the recitation of names of never-seen places: would that feeling still be there, or be any different, if he were still living in an analog world, or one in which television screens hadn’t yet become ubiquitous? Were Hoare not instantly able to pull up photographic images, if not of those exact locations being read out, then something very near and/or similar to them, would his sense of consolation be a bit more tenuous? Would his wondering at the stars be somehow different, were he not able to Google pictures of and detailed information about them at any given moment?
Might the ability contemporary technology has given us to view even the remotest of places, whether the entire length of an unpopulated island or the darkest interiors of our own viscera, contribute to a hasty presumption of familiarity with that which is other? That need that so many of us seem to have to believe “they’re just like us,” from politicians to celebrities to tribal-based societies, erects barriers not only to really knowing those multiple “theys;” it also prevents us from wanting to step outside our own little worlds, to confront possibilities beyond our own or allow those others to speak for themselves. It’s not that reading can’t result in, or even encourage, this sort of willful blindness. (Just look at all the propaganda that’s gotten even the American public where it is right now.) But the instantaneous visual flash of landscape or people may provide us with only a cheat sheet– something that, in being adequate enough for a starting point or surface-level summation, can’t possibly count as robust knowledge. Even Hoare’s real-life glimpse of the constellations in his sky– a present viewing of a collective image– can’t give him the full understanding of their meaning for people dependent on their positions to figure, for example, changes of season or locations at sea.
My allegations are, I know, old hat; I know I keep harping on the absolute necessity of our being able to read our reality for what it is, and to use all the resources we have at hand in order to build and maintain that capacity. As we become ever more impatient, begrudging the time needed to accomplish even the smallest of tasks or transactions, bothering to slow down and interpret words– even as we willingly communicate with each other (think emojis in place of text, as one huge example)– comes to seem like a tremendous burden. And as we lose the capacity to wield our words wisely and creatively– as we allow images of all sorts to replace those words– I worry about the attendant decrease in our capacity to wonder with all the power we’re able. And if that wonder is gone– well, what’s the point, anyway? Maybe that’s what it means for everything and everyone else to be just like us, or for us to be just like everything else: the whole universe floating along in one big sea of visions, watching it all pass by in a daze.
(1) Philip Hoare, The Sea Inside (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014), 4.
(2) Note I said “mediated”– because obviously, there’s probably nothing better than live, face-to-face interaction with another human being for realizing that each I is not a closed world unto itself. For a much fuller, better-articulated rumination on this theme, see Merve Emre’s recent piece on the personal essay in the Boston Review.
(3) Hoare, 36.
Here’s a topic: the literature of exhaustion. That genre may cover numerous varieties of collapse, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,… Maybe, as in my case, all of the above and more come together into a welter of hopeless confusion that may leave everyone ready to throw in the threadbare towel and creep into a subterranean cranny until the onset of either miraculous recovery or total global destruction.
Whether or not readers feel like tackling these sorts of messes, I’ve known quite a few writers (myself included) who have few, if any, coping skills outside of putting words on the page. Exhaustion is enough in itself to make a person feel as if she’s losing it– but I wonder how or whether that heavy state of fatigue might have contributed and/or been related to the long tradition of substance-induced literary output, from DeQuincey to the Beats to Hunter S. Thompson and more. Sure, sure: we’re all well-versed in the ineffectual escapes many a desperate person will sample in the face of despair– but I’m wondering if, say, the benzedrine that pushed Kerouac to bang out (large parts of) On the Road in a continuous scroll helped induce not only a burst of mind-addled energy, but the editor-killing exhaustion necessary to just let it flow– and in expelling all those words, dislodging as well huge chunks of anxiety and restlessness and complete cluelessness as to how to live a life.
I’ve been pondering the literary uses of exhaustion over the last week, wondering if and when my own interior floodgates will finally burst– when my emotional infrastructure will be unable to bear anything else, and will release in bare, truthful fashion all the words repressed and piled up over decades into some coherent and elegantly executed narrative. With much less sleep than usual and many a stress egging one another on of late, the super-quick long-distance trip I took this weekend was probably inadvisable, where physical health and the resilience of my neurons were concerned. But I’m wondering if the much-needed burst of camaraderie and dancing with old friends, squashed in between transportation flubs, power naps, and an upcoming meeting, might end up providing some sort of trigger that will bring down vulnerable barriers and force me to follow the continual, nagging imperative to vomit out the Platonic ideal of a novel or short story or whatever that’s been staring accusingly at me ever since I learned how to read.
Back in a period that was so dark I resorted to The Artist’s Way as a potential source of well-being, I became sort of convinced that author Julia Cameron might have been onto something when she alleged that the production of great literature does not require drugs or booze or horrible behavior. It’s not that I haven’t held on to that possibility– and I’m certainly not going to dive into some trite underworld of slow destruction in the hopes it’ll make me a Real Writer– but I can’t shake the reality of the related fact that bouts of burnout and inebriation are usually the only times I speak fluently in a foreign language– that the worried perfectionism shuts off, and I can just have a free-flowing (if probably stupid) conversation.
Where writing is concerned, I have become more comfortable over the years letting people read what I put down on the page– a development not synonymous with not caring what my readers think, but rather with a growing conviction that just producing something may be more important than receiving accolades for it. Here’s what may be the rub, then, after all this pondering: getting to a place where the words flow with honesty and freedom may have less to do with heart and brain being under an external influence, and more about attaining the conviction, however that’s achieved, that you have nothing to lose. And when all your defenses are too tired to stand up for themselves, you may be pretty close to that coveted position.
I’m one of those people who need to spend a solid part of the day on foot. When I visit a new city, I pound its sidewalks; I often spend hours on outdoor trails with a group of like-minded people who can’t sit still; my morning and afternoon commutes are longer than they need to be so that I can clear my head via a form of self-locomotion that falls somewhere between the aimless pace of a flâneur and the crazed-hilarious rush of power walkers. And yes, every day– every one– I’m out on the public pavement, I’m reminded that I have to keep my wits about me; the jibes directed at my gendered body range from the pathetic to the comical to the outright threatening, proof that nobody’s entirely free in this world to exist with impunity.
This continual catcalling has nothing to do with me in particular; I don’t know one woman, regardless of her size or age or anything not directly related to her gender, who doesn’t have to put up with this crap. But here’s the thing: I’m well aware that others have to be much more guarded than I– even have to be prepared for disaster– when they step out into the streets. I’ve long grasped and lamented on a factual, even if not experiential, level that walking while black is a dangerous proposition. But Garnette Cadogan’s “Black and Blue,” in the collected volume, The Fire This Time, made clear in a way I hadn’t yet felt it the fraught reality entailed in a black man’s simply walking out the door in the United States.
Had I not had to turn the book back in to the library today, I’d probably be able to offer you more of the specifics, the scenes and turns of phrase, that brought home just how much the avid walker I am had been taking for granted the mere act of placing one foot publicly in front of the other. Thankfully, though, I scribbled down the following paragraph:
Walking had returned to me a greater set of possibilities. And why walk, if not to create a new set of possibilities? Following serendipity, I added new routes to the mental maps I had made from constant walking in that city [Kingston] from childhood to young adulthood, traced variations on the old pathways. Serendipity, a mentor once told me, is a secular way of speaking of grace; it’s unearned favor. Seen theologically, then, walking is an act of faith. Walking is, after all, interrupted falling. We see, we listen, we speak, and we trust that each step we take won’t be our last, but will lead us into a richer understanding of the self and the world.*
This is the author describing his long walks through Kingston, Jamaica’s dangerous streets– an exploration of “a greater set of possibilities” that was severely compressed and penned in in the supposedly safer cities of New York and New Orleans, thanks to dark skin being viewed there with hostile suspicion by the powers-that-be. Reading about that constriction was another variety of the slap in the face I received while in Palestine, learning just how restrictive “restricted movement” could be for entire neighborhoods, entire regions.
I’m not saying that those of us lucky enough to be able to stroll or even hurriedly run down a street without being (for the most part) unmolested should worriedly (and ineffectually) make a show of moaning about our privilege in an attempt to assuage our guilt. But we should at the very, very least understand that there’s something terribly, malevolently wrong about a social structure in which that most natural– and necessary– of human activities somehow acts as evidence against the person partaking in it. And following on that understanding, we should be incensed and hell-bent on figuring out how to make this atrocity and its related cruel idiocies cease, now, permanently. Because until we’re all free to stroll down the block, hands comfortably tucked in warm pockets and just enjoying the day, none of us is truly free to do so at all.
Cadogan’s essay is one that needs to be read, even if you’re well-versed in the situations he describes. Thankfully, you can get a version online of the essay, here titled “Walking While Black.” Don’t stop walking– but whoever and however lucky you are, don’t ever take walking for granted.
* Garnette Cadogan, “Black and Blue,” in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward (New York: Scribner, 2016), 136.