Hello all – it’s been a while. I’m finishing up my thesis at Cambridge, but if you’d like to read something I’ve done recently, please check out this interview with Lauren Elkin, published in The Rumpus on March 1st. Lauren’s Flâneuse was probably my favourite book of 2016, and I was delighted to get to talk to her, and to ask her more about women, walking & writing; in particular about genre and her decision to write in the first-person. I’m proud of our final conversation, I hope you enjoy it.
Grief leaves you aware that you’re occupying a palimpsestuous temporality, some part of you living perpetually in the repetition of past encounters with your loved one while the rest of you stumbles through the present on damage control. I took the bus over to St Andrews for the funeral, repeating a journey I made so often during my undergraduate years, and the fog of that time dirtied the mess of my chronology ever further. Who am I to myself? Sometimes I feel like I’ve dreamed great portions of my life, had them lifted from my memory by the fairies’ herbs dusting across my eyelids. Did I ever live here? How did she really feel about me? How will this present endure? Other times I’m so distracted I can’t think at all, and marvel at the compressed time of memory. I have no conclusions for this letter, no answers. I have been overwhelmed again and again by life’s strangeness, its demands for constant adaptation. I think I’m meeting them, but sometimes it’s worth taking the space to work through how you’re changing – what you’re trying to resolve.
I didn’t feel Nora at the funeral, but I did feel the strangeness of the limited version I knew of her life, the different versions of ourselves we put forward for different people. I’m stuck on Derrida right now, going back again and again to Fors. The task of memorialisation is an impossible one: we want to protect the sacred alterity of our other, but we can’t – it’s always our own projection, our own authored version of them; they can no longer talk back to us. Maybe this is why I felt so compelled early after her death to print out all the emails we sent one another, to buy a copy of the book I knew contained an essay of hers. Sooner or later, I’ll have to face the limitations of what correspondence I have, but for now it’s enough. A crypt I can build external to myself, to ward off the worst of the melancholia.
(The only certainty I have: I miss Nora.)
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‘I understood the potential of the sick/well binary to define one’s experience of the outside world during illness. But I didn’t reckon with the way in which, after recovering, the two kingdoms would compete within my own body for control of the experience, a physiological colonial spat for my memories of that sad time (a poor treasure indeed). We understand now that memories are not objective records, but shift and sail with the winds of emotion. As I have progressed further and further along the passage between my own sickness and health, I have indeed felt my memories of illness the hostage of these two warring nations. And now, for now, I have been liberated from the sick, carried well away from its lands. I live under the flag of the well, have been glutted on its histories. And – of this I am certain – my writing bears the stamp of its domination.
I’m not sure I’m fully healed – if I accept, as Ann Oakley does, the idea that the definition of health is a lack of preoccupation with one’s body, then I cannot call myself well (indeed – am I still not thinking about my sickness?) But every day I row my boat a little further from its kingdom, far enough now to turn, clearer-eyed, and survey the view without becoming seduced by false nostalgia, or blinded by the glittering of my new land. I consider this letter an exorcism of sorts – a ceremony I have performed to cast out a demon I’d prefer to be rid of, without granting it power over me by speaking its name. Maybe one day I’ll master the art of post-illness description, able to write in true detail of the bone-numbing aches and fears and the deathly soul-murdering repetitiveness of it all. But for now – a circuitous silence, a playful squirming at the end of this glorious July day.’
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‘my eyes have seen what my hand did‘
— Robert Lowell
No matter what we say, we still believe
the soul is here, a live daguerreotype
recoiling from the laser’s perfect stare:
the woods at daybreak, rain-light, mother love,
preserved intact, behind the tarnished shapes
you study and repair, with craft and guile;
though what you see is anaesthesia,
the opposite of space, antithesis
of childhood snow, or torchlight in the stars;
what you see is how the tissue looks
when things fall silent in the inner rooms
of blood and mind
the windows shuttered on an empty house,
a random map of old iritis scars
and shadows on a damaged retina
the ghost companions of your healing eye?
No one should have to peer into the quick
of one soul, then another, through a haze
of cataracts and retinal decay;
the soul, when it is visible at all,
should always be a glimmer in the green.
A hidden thing, part-animal, part-stain,
shifting away, to weather long ago
forgotten, in a house of sleet and smoke,
beyond this work, beyond this field of vision.
I don’t relax easily into eye contact, but I am interested in the meeting of souls, so often I make an exception. This week his eyes are blue, and I’m not sure if I want to rest my gaze on their surface or to sink below their depths; to see or to have; to meet or to master (it is easier to make an example of this urge to sink when the eyes in question are blue). Derrida writes of this when he tells us both that ‘Whenever our eyes touch it is day!’ and ‘Whenever our eyes touch, it is night!’ We want to look at, and to look through, and it seems to me that learning to balance these conflicting impulses might just be the work of love. Mostly, though, I think we’re just hoping to be looked at.
Love is a game of boundary-crossings, a liminal space where two might become one in law and in life (though in life, unlike in law, there’s no impetus to stop at two). Sex is dissolution of boundaries, a test of the extent to which the protective epidermis keeps the outside out and the inside in. Love, when prolonged, is similarly easily considered as a dissolution. I recall that often-quoted passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin:
Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is.
“True” love is the state of entwinement: the end of autonomy. De Bernières, in his contrasting of volcanic fire and the rejuvenating forest of love, tries to pretend the idea that “real” love is redemptive, not destructive, alchemising its environment for the better – but I’ve never quite been convinced. While the ‘roots’ discussion keeps an emphasis on maintaining individual life, fully individual lives are no longer possible in de Bernières’ lovescape; rather we begin to speak in the plural ‘your’, though English fails to register the full force of this distinction. It’s the same uneasiness that haunts the end of the story of Baucis and Philemon. Granted the right to spend eternity together in reward for their piety, the protagonists must sacrifice their differences of consciousness and physicality to share the same mute tree forms. This is love’s reward; its radical reform.
Is it a loss? Perhaps. And perhaps not. ‘Love […] is light’, writes Simone Weil, and like light it illuminates and it blinds, it brightens and it binds. We’re playing with fire, here; it’s question of boundaries. Recently I have been making inventories of love in an effort not to be anyone’s sacrifice, nor my own impulsive martyr. I weight harm against gain, and prescribe myself the appropriate remedies: Emma Dowling on The Political Economy of Intimacy; Rose Hackman on Emotional Labour; Sylvia Plath on crises of work and love. It never fully works, though it helps. Like the invisible force of the gaze, sometimes something just passes through your line of least defense, and though it makes you bigger, it also leaves a fissure. With everyone I let in (or who break in), the house of my heart gets larger and increasingly full of ghosts. You can find yourself standing quietly at the side of a space, overwhelmed by traces. It takes some practice not to feel overwhelmed by your crypts.
And yet. Despite love’s self-abasements, which at time have left me feeling somewhere between Chris Kraus in I Love Dick and Marie de Gournay, who was so overwhelmed when she first met Michel de Montaigne that she stabbed herself in the arm with a hairpin to prove her devotion, I am not convinced the myth of individualism is as desirable as it’s sold. It is tempting to try and outrun oppression by outrunning all dependency, but I’m not sure this is possible, or indeed ultimately desirable (though of course full financial autonomy is so very necessary to allow us to make the decisions we need to for our wellbeing). The disabled/sick body, for example, does not do well alone. Eula Biss’ On Immunity; Joanna Hedva’s ‘Sick Woman Theory’; Anne Boyer’s cancer writings: all these have meshed with my experience to convince me that love is crucial, is key, to survival. The absence of a body in the waiting room when you emerge from a frightening and intrusive medical examination, or of someone to help you on a difficult day; here the absence of love makes you smaller, not larger. But it’s wider than this. I think of the numerous studies centering on touch deprivation, proving that our bodies suffer alone, and of the reports cited in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, highlighting the increased cortisol and adrenaline levels that leave the lonely experiencing disturbed sleep, hypertension, and a decline in immune and cognitive function. Who’d live loveless? Who could?
Where does this thinking leave me? Right where I started when I began typing these thoughts: reading Gillian Rose’sLove’s Work, carrying out an inventory of my heart that a part of me wishes was an excavation (or an explosion, a razing to the ground to begin again). Under the electrical teeth of the ECG machine, watching the evidence of my body’s stubborn arrhythmic determination to endure, I think about what isn’t there – all those ghosts, dancing in an invisible ballroom somewhere no one will ever see or measure. The nurse reassures me as I panic during the blood test, and I think of this small act of love, which no medical record will display, and which she will probably not remember, and feel myself making another mental calculation, the balance of myself/others shifting anew. This is exhausting and beautiful and terrifying, as messy and draining and reviving as de Bernières’ roots, but always with the potential to scorch and overwhelm. Perhaps what he meant when he contrasted the tree and the volcano was simply that love always risks destruction, but a good love will leave you the chance to plant yourself somewhere new. My partner quotes me indirectly in a conversation, and I realise the extent of my influence beyond the boundaries of my self. I make a plan to map these boundaries one day, to show the implausible geographies of love in all their strange glory. A map is appropriate, I think: aware of love’s colonising threat, as well as its ability to bridge borders.
Now I read back over these notes, critically, a little embarrassed about the tone of this piece. The thing about love is that it never stops making us feel like gods, and never stops making us look like fools. I write of love and my Janus heads are revealed: my cold logic spinning in the face of earnest over-feeling. Perhaps I’ll never be free, never be resolved. Perhaps nothing could be worse.
I cannot live anywhere but on this tightrope of love, attempting to balance the needs of body and soul; of the twin demands to dominate and to submit; to see, and to be seen. ‘[I]t is night!’, ‘it is day!’, it is both at once. I want all of me owned, and none at all. I want to own, and yet I want you to remain you, other to stay other. Deleuze and Guattari on rhizomes is a great comfort, as is Eula Biss on childbirth/blood transfusions. I remind myself, we are made of other people. Romans 12:5: ‘and every one members one of another’.
What am I doing here? I don’t know. Perhaps, in the end, I’m just experimenting on you. I offer you these words in free, direct seduction; for a few minutes, I aim to master your mind. Then I step back and await your response, partners in the dance. Like lovers, if all goes well we’ll murder and pillage what had been of each other’s minds, but done right we’ll make something new of each other in the process.
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No going all diamond-eyed at the sight of the lit-up rain on London streets. No nighttime fear of the piano’s bared teeth. No more leaving the hard decisions until Mercury’s in retrograde, and absolutely no pasting of the fortune cookie notes to the fridge. A year for the safe passage of spiders. Of the letting-out of skirts. The year of holding flowers at the hip in memory of ghost women; when you (fail to) recall the face in the mirror’s just burnt, brushed sand. A year of catalogues. Of soldering the pencilled calendar dates together to keep the acid leak of the unknown at bay. A year for the striking through of futurity, and for the electronic embrace of a “predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow.” You won’t even wrinkle. All this so, when the monster calls, he’ll slip instead across a neighbor’s threshold. All this so, when you crave brick shuddering against your back, you’ll know instead the safety of the wing-backed chair. The quiet, horse-hair velvet throne that grips the nape and pledges peace. Arterial red. Electric.
n. b., ‘resolution’ – that word that has become a prison of goals – comes from the latin resolvere: ‘to loosen, release’. May the new year bring relieved exhalations, the vanquishing of shadow-fists that bind; not a willing submission to impossible standards. Take a breath. Let all that tension gather – then release. Release, release. You are resolved.