Thursday, April 29, 2021

The decomposition of my face

Pleasure taken alone can be told, pleasure taken with another is elusive.

This week, I received an unsolicited review copy of a novel in the mail — The Heart Remembers, it's called. This is not about that book, I'm not sure that I'll read it. But I take its arrival for a sign, a message. What does my heart remember? And how could I have forgotten? How is my heart not a part of me? (Sometimes you receive gifts from the universe.)

I had to cover geographical distances to reach parts of myself. I had to go from Paris to Dieppe in a Renault 4 and to sleep facing the sea to learn that somewhere in a part of me that I could not see and that I had not imagined I had an opening, a cavity that was so supple and so deep that the extension of flesh that meant a boy was a boy, and I was not, could be accommodated there.

The Sexual Life of Catherine M, by Catherine Millet, is a (scandalous? sensational?) 2002 memoir in which the art critic and curator catalogues her many adventures with many men, primarily in orgiastic fashion in Paris and the Bois du Bologne, from the late 1960s onwards. 

Led to it by a mention in Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, I expected more reflection, more enlightenment. However, I respect the candour with which Millet divulges intimate details. It fit perfectly with my informal project of reading under-the-radar classic erotic literature.

I hesitate to use the word "erotic" or "amorous" in relation to these escapades that are purely physically sexual. While dripping with pleasure, and there's no evidence to dispute that Millet thoroughly enjoyed herself, there's not a lot of heart in her testimony.

Narration cuts bodies into pieces, satisfies the need to reify them, to instrumentalise them. That famous scene in Godard's Le Mepris, when Piccoli runs, word by word over Bardot's body, is a beautiful transposition of the two-way traffic between sight and speech, each word bringing a part of the body into focus. How many times don't people say "Look!" when they're fucking?  

In some ways, it's an exercise in body positivity, taking pleasure in one's body, in all bodies, no matter their shape, size, age. But there's a part of Millet that wants to be objectified, wants to be Brigitte Bardot. Millet tells us about the bodies, and the circumstances of encountering them, but she neglects the mind, the heart.

A body and the mind attached to it do not live in the same temporal sphere, and their reactions to the same external stimuli are not always synchronised.

She is aware of the performative nature of her acts, but it seems that only late in the game does she recognize the value of being seen, truly seen.

In real life, a man that I met only once gave me such intense pleasure that I have very precise memories of it, and this was because with every thrust he would order me "Look me in the eye." I did as I was told, knowing that he was witness to the decomposition of my face.

Millet also reveals how little she understood her body. Despite the experience, and pleasure of a certain kind, her clitoris remained a mystery for a long time. 

Eventually I cottoned on: the clitoris was not an obvious landmark like a nail on a wall, a steeple in a landscape or a nose on a face, it was a sort of muddled knot, with no true shape, a minute chaos where two little tongues of flesh meet like when a backwash throws two waves together.

She admits also to not having had a real orgasm until very many years into her adventuring.

It took me a long time, a really long time, to identify the caresses, the positions that I liked best. I will venture this as an explanation: I was not right from the start granted a body predisposed to pleasure. First I had to give myself — literally abandon my whole body — to sexual activity, to lose myself in it so thoroughly that I confused myself with my partner so that I could emerge from this transformation having sloughed off the body I was given at birth and taken on a second body, one capable of taking as much as it could give.

(I wonder sometimes how I discovered my clitoris, how lucky I was — how I marvel at the pleasure it brings me. But then, I could always lose myself in my own body; I always had trouble caring about the pleasure of others and understanding how different yet compatible it could be compared to my own.)

It is all the easier to write about discomforts and displeasure because they seem to distend time, and time allows us to focus. Even if they do not register with us straight away, the carve out a furrow within us which represents time.

I'm left wondering what Millet truly gained from the experience. There is a coldness about this book, like she's barely skimming the surface of her psyche, that makes me question the narrative she's told herself, how honest is she being with herself.

At times like that, it is the other body that you leave behind, a body you may have known only a few hours, but which during those hours has nourished you with its solid presence and its smell, it that body which provides you with the ineffable well-being of familiarity. How many times have I thought, as I fantasised languidly about the life of high class whore, that that was one of the advantages of their job. As for the journey itself, the lapse of time we inhabit when we are no longer in one place but not yet in another, can be a source of pleasure measured on the same scale as erotic pleasure.

See also
Guardian: The double life of Catherine M
New Yorker: Doing it in the road
LRB: Hang on to the doily (Jenny Diski: "If sex is just a bodily event, that's slag: if you think or better still write about it, that’s freedom.") 

While I was no longer capable of exchanging a single word with him, or to respond to the touch of his hand, I could still offer him the spectacle of myself indulging in the complete negation of my being.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.

The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World that will grant us enormous powers once we have discovered it. What this Knowledge consists of he is not entirely sure, but at various times he has suggested that it might include the following:

  1. vanquishing Death and becoming immortal
  2. learning by a process of telepathy what other people are thinking
  3. transforming ourselves into eagles and flying through the Air
  4. transforming ourselves into fish and swimming through the Tides
  5. moving objects using only our thoughts
  6. snuffing out and reigniting the Sun and Stars
  7. dominating lesser intellects and bending them to our will

Piranesi, by Susanna Clark, is a mesmerizing enchantment.

Piranesi, as he is called by the Other, lives in the House, explores the House, documents the House, loves the House. "The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite." The House is a labyrinth (the First Vestibule contains eight massive Statues of Minotaurs), an endless dilapidated mansion (many ceilings are cracked if not collapsed, particularly in the Derelict Halls of the East), perhaps a kind of prison. 

Piranesi struggles to survive, collecting rainwater and trapping fish, drying out skins and seaweed. He tracks the tides. There appears to be no exit, but he never questions the Other's comings and goings, or how he manages to procure for him over the years a cheese and ham sandwich, a new pair of shoes, or an endless supply of multivitamins.

I write down what I observe in my notebooks. I do this for two reasons. The first is that Writing inculcates habits of precision and carefulness. The second is to preserve whatever knowledge I possess for you, the Sixteenth Person.

While Piranesi is systematic in applying the principles of rationality to every situation he encounters, there is naivete in his interpretations and gaps in his understanding.  

I went to the Eighteenth North-Western Hall and had a long drink of water. It was delicious and refreshing (it had been a Cloud only hours before).

The puzzle of the House is initially its geography, but for the reader it quickly becomes the mystery of Piranesi's being there and piecing together scraps of journals to formulate a theory of his relationship with the outside world.

This realisation — the realisation of the Insignificance of the Knowledge — came to me in the form of a Revelation. What I mean by this is that I knew it to be true before I understood why or what steps had led me there. When I tried to retrace those steps my mind kept returning to the image of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight, to its Beauty, to its deep sense of Calm, to the reverent looks on the Faces of the Statues as they turned (or seemed to turn) towards the Moon. I realised that the search for the Knowledge has encouraged us to think of the House as if it were a sort of riddle to be unravelled, a text to be interpreted, and that if ever we discover the Knowledge, then it will be as if the Value has been wrested from the House and all that remains will be mere scenery.

The sight of the One-Hundred-and-Ninety-Second Western Hall in the Moonlight made me see how ridiculous that is. The House is valuable because it is the House. It is enough in and of Itself. It is not the means to an end.

The fragments of information begin to position us in relation to our current physical world, late twentieth century to present day, and introduce us to a group of "transgressive thinkers." We follow Piranesi's train of thought as he pursues cross-references to journal entries that include passages copied from books and lecture notes (and a timey-wimey shoutout), addressing the nature of Ancient Man and the Theory of Other Worlds.

"Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamored with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. And its merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It's not actually possible. I pictured it as a sort of energy flowing out of the world and I thought that this energy must be going somewhere. That was when I realised that there must be other places, other worlds. And so I set myself to find them."

It's tempting to read the House as a state of Piranesi's mind. It's somewhat more horrific than that, but it remains beautiful.

Perhaps that is what it is like being with other people. Perhaps even people you like and admire immensely can make you see the World in ways you would rather not. 

Piranesi is a meditation on how we create meaning. Trapped with himself, really, Piranesi struggles with the nature of memory and his relationship to the past to define his place in the world. His days are chores and rituals and observations.

This is the most immersive novel I've read in a very long time (and I can easily imagine it as a virtual reality experience). I could spend a lifetime exploring the halls and the statues, attuning myself to the rhythm of the House, gathering clues to its nature. 

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule
A list of all the people who have ever lived and what is known of them
I retrieve the scraps of paper from the Eighty-Eighth Western Hall
I question the Other

"We shan't meet again."

"Then, sir, may your Paths be safe," I said, "your Floors unbroken and may the House fill your eyes with Beauty."

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Your time is a finite and dwindling resource

I think it is possible to track the onset of middle age exactly. It is the moment when you examine your life and instead of a field of possibility opening out, an increase in scope, you have a sense of waking from sleep or being washed up onshore, newly conscious of your surroundings. So this is where I am, you say to yourself. This is what I have become. It is when you first understand that your condition — physically, intellectually, socially, financially — is not absolutely mutable, that what has already happened will, to a great extent, determine the rest of the story. What you have done cannot be undone, and much of what you have been putting off for “later” will never get done at all. In short, your time is a finite and dwindling resource. From this moment on, whatever you are doing, whatever joy or intensity or whirl of pleasure you may experience, you will never shake the almost-imperceptible sensation that you are traveling on a gentle downward slope into darkness.

Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru, was not what I expected it to be. Also, it turns out that I don't know what the red pill is anymore. I didn't know that the red pill had been coopted by the alt-right. That hardly seems fair. I've always taken the red pill. 

The opening of this book, as quoted above, is a pill on its own, opening up a rabbit hole within myself.

Having recently begun talk therapy, I am finding that everything is therapy, this book included. Perhaps because, again, I am waking up to middle age. Every so often, and with increasing frequency these days, I wake up with a jolt, an urgency to seize the day, hurry before I run out of time. But for what?

Many people dislike this book because they are tired of novels about writers. I also have been tired of novels about writers. A world so privileged and niche. So unrelatable. Why would a writer write about writing anyway? Shouldn't they get outside of themselves?

I have developed a visceral dislike of being watched while I write, not just because the content might be private, but because all the things one does while writing that are not actually writing — stretching, looking out into space, browsing the internet — seem somehow shameful if they're monitored by others. The feeling of being watched induces an intolerable self-consciousness.

I have recently begun, again, to take special interest in novels about writers. Perhaps because now I am a writer myself. There, I've said it. At least, the word "writer" is in my job title. It has been for a couple of years, but I have never really owned it, until now-ish. (I am not, though, a writer of novels, let alone of novels about writers.) But it's so much this! this stretching and looking out into space that is vital to writing, but which doesn't look like work at all. I haven't, until now-ish, been able to accept this as a valid part of my work. I have always struggled to make up for it, cover it up. I feel guilty about it. There's shame in having a job that other people don't recognize as work. There's shame in having a job that allows me to stretch and look out into space, even necessitates it — I don't deserve to have it this good.

The plot of this novel — I think it is lost on me a little. What matters is what it makes me think on. This is true of almost all books for me. 

The narrator is a writer who goes to Berlin for a fellowship. Of course, he wants the funding associated with the program, but he's not interested in putting in the work, both of actually writing his proposed book or of engaging in fellowship with his fellow artists. He's not abiding by the terms of the contract; he doesn't work in the very exposed common workspace, he prefers not to engage with anyone at all. One of his assigned dinner companions at the centre calls him daring, or calls him out for being daring. The object of gossip, he determines. Maybe he's just being a bit of an entitled jerk.

Another of his dinner companions argues,

The right to privacy was no more or less than the right to lie, he said. To misrepresent yourself to the world. It incubated fraud and corruption, and despite what liberals claimed it was not some sacred universal that all humans needed in order to survive.

Our fearless narrator stays in his room, mostly not writing, considering leaving the centre.

I hated being there, no one liked me, and I wasn't doing anything useful, but I wasn't ready to go back home. I wasn't qualified. I hadn't solved myself. I spent an hour or so on the internet, falling down various rabbit holes, before I finally hit on one of the things I was looking for.

I hadn't solved myself! This is what we're here for. Is that what the writing is supposed to do? Or is it the being away from the daily grind, the responsibility of family and bills and things like voting, participating in democracy, being an active member of society.

I like to think that, even before therapy, I regularly make an honest effort to solve myself. I am still a puzzle to myself, the final picture yet to be revealed. I still don't know what kind of person I want to be. 

Because I still had no Wi-Fi, I couldn't do the various diverting and quasi-important things I did on the internet — read Wikipedia pages, downloading pictures of people in war zones — all the subtle and mysterious components of my not-writing. I was thrown back on my own resources, into myself, or what took place in the space where a self ought to have been.

He becomes paranoid about the workings of the centre, that he is being surveilled in his room but also outside the centre. He has been binge-watching a cop show that randomly and uncharacteristically quotes Comte de Maistre; he comes to believe the show is layered with secret meaning.

So he is having a midlife crisis or an existential crisis or a crisis of conscience (personal, political, social) or a psychotic break.

He feels "the uncomfortable sensation of contact with a stranger." He writes down the shitty life of the woman who cleans his room at the centre, who grew up here, under the Stasi, "a whole country, reeking of piss and schnapps and cabbage soup." He meets the creator of the cop show he's watching and falls down the rabbit hole that is the cult of his personality. He follows him to Paris, and then follows the clues to go off-grid in Scotland.

His rock bottom ends his lifelong project of exploring the luxurious particularity of his selfhood and Iness, kind of. He steps outside of himself to engage with the world, only it's not clear to me, and maybe to him, whether it's the right world he's stepped into. The novel closes on election night in America, 2016, the night Hillary lost.

And somehow, even as I recognize it for the trainwreck it is, watching it at a remove, this is all relatable. 

I've always found it hard to speak on cue about my emotions. I am an articulate person, but only about things that don't touch me. As soon as someone asks what I feel, I get confused. I don't have the immediate access to my feeling that seems, to my eternal amazement, to be the birthright of most human beings. What question could be more profound than how are you? It feels lazy to say just any old thing, so I look inside myself and invariably this is a terrible idea. Searching for feeling is like being the lookout on a ship, shining a lantern into thick fog. Objects that appear close at hand recede into the murk, or reveal themselves as chimera. Somewhere off the port bow are icebergs.

But how are you really? In contrast to the narrator, I am not a particularly articulate person, at least, not in person. I'm better on paper, but even then... I wonder if some days I use up all my words in my work as a writer. I wonder if this inarticulacy is why I am writer, a challenge to myself.

How am I? I am tired. But I am happy to be engaging with books again, motivated to feel things and create things. 

Each time I try to find a point of departure, a place to make a stand and defend this part of my story, some narrative tentacle emerges out of the swamp, and I have to stagger back.

So this is where I am. And I am a good writer.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Before you became who you are

Here’s the thing: Words arrive rowdily, with all their luggage and definitions. Words that are both what they say they are, and how they say it. Words always arrive a little too late, off to the side, but they hope that what they contain will eventually show up. That it is buried somewhere in the jumble of their word-suitcases. 

— from I Say 'Stone' or 'Flower' – Reflections on a Practice, by Morten Søndergaard.

About a year and half ago, someone came into the office to talk about a game they were developing. While most of the talk covered the technical aspects of photogrammetry, I couldn't help but be charmed by the stop-motion animation, the care with which every element was hand-crafted. What clinched my interest was that the concept development included the collaboration of a poet. At heart, Vokabulantis is about words — their necessity and inadequacy. I'm so happy to see this project moving forward (support the Kickstarter campaign).

The poet involved in the project is Morten Søndergaard, and that one lunchtime session had sent me down a rabbit hole of word games and philosophical inquiry and self-reflection. I asked a colleague to pick up a copy of his A Step in the Right Direction for me when in Copenhagen. It wasn't available it turned out, but it strengthened my resolve to undertake my own walking project, or rather refine a concept that was already in the making.

Rediscovering this game this week has meant turning over all these stones to see what I'd crushed beneath them, or what hid there when I wasn't looking. 

I've started walking again, in earnest. But it's miles before I sleep, and time isn't bending the right way.

One evening I picnicked with a friend and we speculated about the time capsule buried on top of the mountain. Later that night I watched a movie about a woman who gets phonecalls from twenty years ago, but the conversation informs the past, thereby changing the woman’s present. The next day I walked up the mountain, and for a good portion of the way, I inadvertently shadowed a woman who looked like a younger me; we would pass each other, and our paths would diverge, only to cross again ten minutes later. I passed her last at the edge of the cemetery, engaged in conversation — she appeared to be on a date. The time capsule is slotted for opening in 2142.

The destructive force of anti-curfew protests saddens me. 

I can't stop crying today. Hormones, I think. Tired, too. I thought once that I might walk through this pandemic.

It's been 405 days of German lessons, and I still can't say anything meaningful. It's been 50 odd years of English, and same.

I am just a couple hundred pieces away from completing the 4000-piece puzzle I ordered a year ago, a and it feels urgent now, like it's up to me: when I finish, it will all be over.

I am flitting through many books, restlessly. I am reading Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru, and enjoying it. 

You tell yourself you're getting on fine without them, these men who used to be your friends, and you are — until you need someone to talk to, someone who knows you, who knows who you used to be before you became who you are.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

A tangible somethingness

He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her. He didn't mind the somethingness; he rather liked it, in fact, and had looked forward to seeing it demolished. But she refused to let him do it. Why had she told him she was a masochist? He looked at her body. Her limbs were muscular and alert. He considered taking her by the neck and bashing her head against the floor.

— from "A Romantic Weekend," in Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill.