Tag Archives: political writing

Flesh Memory on Verity La

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Don’t forget to check out my latest story, Flesh Memory, a very brief piece on VERITY LA about illness, running, sweat, friendship breakup, embodiment, healing, learning, and all for FREE! I rarely write such drastically personal things, but this came from a place of Truth and Reconstructing the Truth in pursuit of making something I could display in a lit journal.

 

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Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

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Concerned first and foremost with intersectionality, a brief, stark, incisive tract that is another introduction to feminism. Better than most post-second wave works, a call to embrace mass global feminist movement, spotlighting hooks’ characteristic linguistic construction: “feminist movement” and NOT “feminism.” The distinction is patent, a focus on praxis not theory, despite its title. Often it suffers from this, treading an unstable line between palatability and radicalism, most potent in the eagerness to embrace men and heterosexuality. Attacks on white liberal feminism are long overdue, perfect, necessary even more today. Without race and class feminism is useless. Again, outdated cherishing of a destructive gender binary undermines the heat and power of the call for radical eradication of white patriarchal domination and oppression. Most trenchant are chapters on violence and sisterhood. Easy to carry, underline, page through, slip into the hands of those acquaintances who skirt the edges of feminism but don’t yet feel its radical core.

Troubling Gender, Radicalising Feminism: Easy Notes on Judith Butler

gendertroubleIt is difficult to find a book that is both so central to gender studies and that causes so much gritting of teeth. Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, first published in 1990, is still barely understood and still strikes us as way ahead of our own time.

But Butler is pretty much inaccessible to people without a background in gender studies. And also to many of us with such a background. Which is a damn shame, because she will break your mind apart. Yes, a nice experience.

I hope to pull out some basic ideas of Butler that make her so radical. The preface to the original edition and the preface to the 1999 reprinting give a nice summary, even if she doesn’t “dumb down” her notoriously convoluted prose.

skimjudithFirst of all, why does she take issue with what we consider such a straightforward word: woman?

This is Gayle Rubin’s contribution, especially in her seminal piece “The Traffic in Women” – that “normative sexuality fortifies normative gender.” So, Butler extrapolates: “one is a woman, according to this framework, to the extent that one functions as one within the dominant heterosexual frame and to call the frame into question is perhaps to lose something of one’s sense of place in gender.”

What Butler criticises in most mainstream feminism, and even a lot of academic feminism, is that a concept of “gender hierarchy” cannot explain the complexities of gender’s relationship to power. It doesn’t explain the production of gender. We have to ask: “To what extent does gender hierarchy serve a more or less compulsory heterosexuality, and how often are gender norms policed precisely in the service of shoring up heterosexual hegemony?”

In other words, we cannot have gender without compulsory heterosexuality.

But is it so simple?

Feminist activist Catharine MacKinnon, whose work Butler has criticised harshly, takes this a step further, arguing that “to have a gender means to have entered already into a heterosexual relationship of subordination.”

When Butler introduces performativity, she does so to theorise the potential subversion of this kind of relationship of subordination.

One of the most common misunderstandings of this part of Butler’s theory is that performativity means performance. No. They are very different things. In her 1999 preface to Gender Trouble, Butler clarifies Judith-Butler-Quotes-5this misconception (and many of her own earlier assumptions):

“[T]he performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself.”

Basically, in expecting that we are a gender, inherently, we in fact produce it – or reproduce it. In the doing of gender, we create it.

There is no prior existence of gender.

butlerbigthinkShe clarifies: “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalisation in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration.”

Those two points summarise very nicely the most important contributions Gender Trouble has made to feminist theory and queer theory.

It’s quite easy to see how we perform gender through bodily acts, but how does language contribute to the production of gender?

Butler has quite a dim view of the capacity for dominant forms of language to destroy hegemony. Subversion is possible, but language is a hegemonic trap.

subvertShe asks us to think: “If gender itself is naturalised through grammatical norms, as Monique Wittig has argued, then the alteration of gender at the most fundamental epistemic level will be conducted, in part, through contesting the grammar in which gender is given.”

Which is a tough ask. How many of us have the ability to subvert grammatical norms successfully and lucidly?

This is essentially what she is pointing to when she asks if the terms “men” and “women” are “untroubling only to the extent that they conform to a heterosexual matrix for conceptualising gender and desire? What happens to the subject and to the stability of gender categories when the epistemic regime of presumptive heterosexuality is unmasked as that which produces deconstructedand reifies these ostensible categories of ontology?”

In other words, without compulsory heterosexuality, the assumption that heterosexuality is a real and natural phenomenon, everything about gender becomes meaningless.

She also takes issue with what she sees as primary concern of feminist theory – to establish identity. If feminism takes as its starting point the category of “women,” what hegemonic assumptions is it already making about gender and power?

This is indicative of a problem a lot of readers have with Butler. Like Foucault, she seems to deny us any possibility for revolutionary subversion! She even denies the existence of a subject which can act outside cultural norms. That is, we are all socially constructed to such an extent that our ability to defy hegemonic gender is very limited.

I think Butler is more subtle than this. She is relentlessly critical, but she also has little grains of idealism and hope that offer shining possibilities.

In this paragraph she summarises her aims and hopes, which is a good thing to keep in mind when reading Gender Trouble:

“What continues to concern me most is the following kinds of questions: what will and will not consdeconstructtitute an intelligible life, and how do presumptions about normative gender and sexuality determine in advance what will qualify as the ‘human’ and the ‘livable’? In other words, how do normative gender presumptions work to delimit the very field of description that we have for the human? What is the means by which we come to see this delimiting power, and what are the means by which we transform it?”

These are the questions with which Butler radicalises feminism. And for this reason she has been ignored in most mainstream conceptions of feminism. For without identity, are we all just blank spaces?

Her offering is this: “we ought to ask, what political possibilities are the consequence of a radical critique of the categories of identity. What new shape of politics emerges when identity as a common ground no longer constrains the discourse on feminist politics? And to what extent does the effort to locapridete a common identity as the foundation for a feminist politics preclude a radical inquiry into the political construction and regulation of identity itself?”

This is most evident when it comes to a “gay identity.” To what extent are the labels “gay,” “lesbian” and “bisexual” complicit in heteronormativity?

An unusual question in today’s society, and perhaps one of the things that makes many uncomfortable with Butler. But I think it’s one of the concepts that is at the heart of her optimism. A ruthless critique of all hegemonic assumptions, and an imperative to radicalise everything.butler

The School of Roots: Abominable, Rotting Birds and Women

          Hlne-CixousGr        I am returning to Hélène Cixous’ astonishing book Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. The section is entitled “The School of Roots.”

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“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21.

Okay, surely we have got beyond this notion of the impure, the abomination, tied up with the body and so with women (as women are apparently trapped in the body, and so abominable).

impureBut if we haven’t? Cixous wants us to question it not by ignoring this concept of the abominable, but looking at it more closely: “I associate women and writing with this abomination. I do this, of course, half playfully, half seriously. It is my way of indicating the reserved, secluded, or excluded path or place where you meet those beings I think are worth knowing while we are alive.”

Why do we think of such things as unclean? Why do we struggle to think of women’s bodies as something other than inherently sexualised? Why do we still call menstruation stuff “sanitary products”? Why do so many still think of homosexuality as “unnatural” or, at least, a deviation from nature?

Again, we have arrived at Cixous’ great goal: to go deep, beyond even discomfort.

And so she draws on that “chain of associations and signifiers composed of birds, women, and writing.” The Bible sets out a great list of animals that are “abominable”: unclean, not to be eaten. And so many of them are birds.

a-harpyAnd so many laws about bodies, unclean acts, are about women.

So Cixous tells us: “If I gather these beings to talk about them in the same way, if I am worried by the fate of birds and women, it is because I have learned that not many people – unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – can really love, tolerate, or understand a certain kind of writing; I am using women and birds as synonyms.”

crowBirds frighten me. I shudder when I see a feather. Maybe Cixous can explain why.

“What is interesting is that birds, writing, and many women are considered abominable, threatening, and are rejected, because others, the rejectors, feel something is taken away from them. But let me leave women aside for today, since this is a controversial issue, and keep only birds and writing. Neither birds not writing take anything away, yet people feel that some forms of writing do take something from us. Clarice Lispector has never been a feminist, Genet is not a feminist, though theirs are writings that may hurt, may dissatisfy, and give the feeling that something is taken away.”

Hmm. Yes. But we need more on what it means to be “abominable,” and why it is so frightening.

evilwomen“That is my theme for today: to be ‘imund,’ to be unclean with joy. Immonde, that is, out of the mundus (the world). The monde, the world, that is so-called clean. The world that is on the good side of the law, that is ‘proper,’ the world of order. The moment you cross the line the law has drawn by wording, verb(aliz)ing, you are supposed to be out of the world. You no longer belong to the world.”

This is what I want from writing, and reading, after all. But birds?

“So why are those birds imund? Because. As you know, this is the secret of the law: ‘because.’ This is the law’s logic. It is this terrible ‘because,’ this senseless fatal ‘because’ that has decided people’s fate, even in the extremity of the concentration camps.”loudearth_full

Maybe that’s why people seem unnerved when I cannot provide an answer to the riddle of The Loud Earth. But I don’t know how.

“Writing is not put there, it does not happen out there, it does not come from outside. On the contrary, it comes from deep inside. It comes from what Genet calls the ‘nether realms,’ the inferior realms (domains inferiéurs). We’ll try to go there for a time, since this is where the treasure of writing lies, where it is formed, where it has stayed since the beginning of creation: down below.”

Is it a hell located in the body? In the way in the cultural imagination hell has always been located in women’s bodies?

“It is deep in my body, further down, behind thought. Thought comes in front of it and it closes like a door. This does not mean that it does not think, but it thinks differently from our thinking and speech. Somewhere in the depths of my heart, which is deeper than I think.”

She must be getting at something beyond that patriarchal dichotomy: mind/body, which pairs up with man/woman, the first term in the binary being always superior. I guess collapsing them is scary.

Cixous traces this collapse in Lispector’s work: “Clarice effects an interior return journey, since we began as matter before moving away from whence we came. She makes a return journey to our concrete origins, though the journey is a spiritual one. The journey is spiritual because it is not enough to put one’s foot on the ground to come back to earth. It is an extremely spiritual exercise, reintegrating the earthly, the earth, and the earth’s composition in one’s body, imagination, thought. Clarice does not do this simply: she proceeds by feeling her way, by desiring; she moves blindly, since she is an explorer in the domain, methodically, making mistakes.”

For some reason the earth is more frightening than the spiritual.

“Our fear, since we know perfectly well that we will reach the dangerous point where those who are exclude live – and we hate exclusion. This is our emotional, our personal, and political problem, the fact that we can’t bear exclusion. We are afraid of it, we hate to be separated, that is why we are apt to commit all kinds of small crimes, self-denials, and treachery.”cmccarthy_impure

That is why we must have a “school of roots.” We must be schooled in roots. Otherwise we sit complacent with our pretty clichés. This is where Cixous believes writing and literature can help us be brave, if only we put in the work: “Kafka insists paradise is not lost, it is there. But we are lazy and impatient. If we were neither lazy nor impatient we would be back in paradise. But we have to deal with this laziness and impatience. And of course with all the representatives of “Those Bible.” There is a whole list of institutions, media, and machines that make for the banishment of birds, women, and writing.”

She uses “Those Bible,” that strange construction, as shorthand for all those mind-numbing clichés: shopping centres, weddings, Cosmo, football stadiums, MTV, James Patterson.

shoppingmall      footballstadium

That stuff is only dangerous because it distracts us from real danger. They make the banishment of the abominable seem natural. Exclusion is normalised, until we have a whole range of things deemed impure.

“So in the same line of substitutions you find: Jews, women, niggers, birds, poets, etc., all of them excluded and exiled. Exile is an uncomfortable situation, though it is also a magical situation. I am not making light of the experience of exile. But we can endure it differently. Some exiles die of rage, some transform their exile into a country. I understand those who die of (out)rage.”

I wonder how Cixous foresaw so clearly how I would write about the exile in The Loud Earth. It was excruciating writing about such a recluse. I wrote about her out of hatred, yet I had love for that hatred.

It must be a reluctance to go into hell.

Only in hindsight did I learn from Clarice Lispector’s conception of hell. This was how I had been painting the cave, the grotto, the cellar in The Loud Earth:

“And if many times I paint caves it’s because they are my submersion into the earth, dark but clouded with charity, and I, nature’s blood – extravagant and dangerous caves, Earth’s talisman, where stalactites, fosscavesils, and stones together and where creatures crazy through their own evil nature seek refuse. Caves are my hell. Caves, dreamlike always with their mists, memory or longing? Frightening, frightening, esoteric, greenish with the ooze of time. Rats, with the crosslike wings of bats, hang glimmering in the dark cavern. I see black, hairy spiders. Rats and mice run frightened on the ground and along the walls. Among the stones the scorpion. Crabs, unchanged since prehistoric times, through countless births and deaths, would seem threatening beasts if they were human-sized. Ancient cockroaches drag themselves along in the half light. And all this am I. Everything is heavy with dreams when I paint a cave or write to you about one – out of it comes the clatter of dozens of unfettered horses to trample the shadows with dry hooves, and from the friction of the hooves the rejoicing liberates itself in sparks; here I am, the cave and I, in the time that will rot us.”

I am glad I didn’t read that before I wrote the book. It is too beautiful.

So how can we get up the courage to access this place of darkness, the roots?

buttressroots“How do we cross borders? It can be done in a completely indifferent and apathetic fashion, although the person who crosses borders in an indifferent fashion never crosses borders. The person who doesn’t tremble while crossing a border doesn’t know there is a border and doesn’t cast doubt on their own definition. The person who trembles while crossing a border casts cellarstairsdoubt on their own definition.”

Not only do we have to cross into darkness, we have to be aware that we are doing it. That can be almost excruciating.

For me this evokes José Esteban Muñoz’s embrace of doubt. Can we be lost in the darkness, amidst the roots, and find something worth finding? He thinks yes:

“Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.”

aliceinwonderlandCrossing borders, trembling, casting doubt on our own definition, is essentially queer. So, essentially anti-patriarchy in the radically feminist way Cixous embraces.

That is why fiction is a necessary part of the feminist project: it allows us to imagine beyond the established borders: “The immersed author necessarily comes to the point of questioning his/her limits, his/her frontiers, his/her passages, his/her alterations.”

When we areRotting_Fruit trying to feel our way back to the roots, maybe to a place we have never been physically or imaginatively, but only psychically, then we have to embrace the abominable. Even if it will never stop being impure or unclean to us.

“There is passage through the animal state, then through the vegetal state, and so we move away from humankind; from the vegetal we descend into the earth, by the stem, by the root, until we reach what doesn’t concern us, although it exists and inscribes itself, which is of the mineral order, although it doesn’t hold together since we are aiming toward disassembly, toward decomposition.”SW_Queen

Rotting? Death? If women are thought of as closer to nature, more “bodily” than men, then our bodies must be closer to death. Is that why we have so many fearful women? Witches, poisoners, stepmothers?

Cioxus asks if “we have to be dying to go to the School of Roots.” And: “Yes, if we understand it to be an exercise in that delicate and respectful form of life we call dying. It is a difficult apprenticeship, but it has to be tried. For instance, if we are in joy and in love with writing, we should try to write the imund book. The imund book deals with things, birds, and words that are forbidden by Those He.”

forestwitchLet us think of “Those He” as, less impressively, the patriarchal order. Then, “from the heart where passions rise to the finger tips that hear the body thinking: this is where the Book (Alive)-to-Live (le livre Vivre) springs from…”

Cixous asks us to radically collapse that ultimate patriarchal construction: mind vs body. It is something we have to keep at the forefront of our heads and our fingers, because it has made us what we are. We have to undermine it self-consciously.

“We must work. The earth of writing. To the point of becoming the earth. Humble work. Without reward. Except joy.”

 

Lost and unspeakable: dreaming queer utopia

quutopiaIn my lit theory class, discussing José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, I listened to the sort of defences of heteronormativity and marriage that I thought didn’t exist anymore among twenty-somethings, at least those who have just read maybe one of the greatest pieces of queer theory ever written. “I think marriage is important because it validates a relationship between two people. It gives state approval, it tells society your relationship is real.” “But what if Muñoz’s vision comes true in the future? Will what we call heteronormativity now become queer? What if straight people and marriage and children become the minority?” “Muñoz wants us all to be able to touch each other. But I don’t like touching people.” Admittedly, the question “What’s the opposite of queer? Boring?” has a certain truth to it, but I was still scared. All this only convinced me even more of the truth of Muñoz’s rejection of 21st century LGBT pragmatism that focuses on marriage equality and assimilation into the neoliberal capitalist nation state. Since when have such goals been classified as “queer”? militaryMuñoz died too soon in 2014, and we lost many things, but we still have all these radical possibilities he set down. Muñoz wants to reclaim queerness. In light of the above responses, maybe this is a more ambitious dream than he realised. We seem to have lost all understanding of queerness. It is radical, deliberately unclear, non-conformist, non-binary, a rejection of all the borders heteronormativity has set in place. munoz                        IMG_4361 For Muñoz, too, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” Queerness must be theorised, because we must theorise a way out of heteronormativity. Only then will we find a way out of patriarchy and a binary gender system that loves nothing but borders and definitions. This is why queer does not mean LGBT. Or LGBTQIA. While those identities have been politically useful, they are not radical. They do not recognise the politics of desire, that rather than being natural or located in genes, it is fluid. not-gay-as-in-happySo, when we learn to see queerness we see that it is “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” The pragmatism of the LGBT agenda does not allow it to think of this future. It wants to be included in heteronormativity. Marriage, the family, the military, the mainstream patriarchal institutions that hold a certain way of relating to others as “normal.” Obviously marriage should be open to all. But rewinding a little, we should ask ourselves why marriage is the end goal. Is it really to know that the state sanctions our relationship? Why do we feel the need for that? Can we imagine a more radical utopia? AssimilatedAfter all, a “claim to the pragmatic is the product of a short-sighted here that fails to include anything but an entitled and privileged world. The there of queer utopia cannot simply be that of the faltering yet still influential nation-state.” The desire for marriage is just that – a desire. We cannot pretend it is natural, a biological consequence of genetic monogamy. Our desires are political. Judith Butler’s essay “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” is one of the best expressions of how we can queer the gay marriage debate that I’ve ever read. Finally I understand the real political and relational implications of prizing marriage as an institution. marriageequFor Butler, we must ask “what forms of relationship ought to be legitimated by the state. The crisis of legitimation can be considered from a number of perspectives, but let us consider for the moment the ambivalent gift that legitimation can become. To be legitimated by the state is to enter into the terms of legitimation offered there and to find that one’s public and recognisable sense of personhood is fundamentally dependent on the lexicon of that legitimation.” And, scarily, the actual debate shuts down the kind of possibilities that queerness sees on the horizon. “Here a certain normative crisis ensues. On the one hand, it is important to mark how the field of intelligible and speakable sexuality is circumscribed so that we can see how options outside of marriage are becoming foreclosed as unthinkable, and how the terms of thinkability are enforced by the narrow debates over who and what will be included in the norm.” marriageI hope you are sufficiently frightened by now. But don’t worry, Butler has some (not uncommon) words of comfort. “On the other hand, there is always the possibility of savouring the status of unthinkability, if it is a status, as the most critical, the most radical, the most valuable. As the sexually unrepresentable, such sexual possibilities can figure the sublime within the contemporary field of sexuality, a site of pure resistance, a site uncoopted by normativity. But how does one think politics from such a site of unrepresentability?” I think this is Muñoz’s project. And he manages to represent it in the most hopeful, colourful way we could ask for in this conservative time. He does it by savouring that unthinkability, using the fluidity, sensuousness and playfulness that he wants for his queer utopia. Queerness undermines all our ideas of relationality, intimacy, what desires we classify as important. For Muñoz queerness is an “impulse that we see in everyday life. This impulse is to be glimpsed as something that is extra to the everyday transaction of heteronormative capitalism.” It is uncontained. A “stepping out of the linearity of straight time.” It is joyful, because tied up with all the rainbow of emotions: sadness, happiness, despair, anger, excitement. “Queerness’s ecstatic and horizontal temporality is a path and a movement to a greater openness to the world.” For me, Muñoz’s idea that queerness is on the horizon, a utopian dream, something nostalgic but also hopeful, is about kindness. It’s about greater affective awareness. That is a weird made up phrase, but I think I mean being more aware of our emotions, their flow into and out of other people and the physical world surrounding us. In patriarchal heteronormativity, relationships designated as romantic, sexual and monogamous have always been about power. Queerness lets us hope for greater kindness, because greater fluidity. Kate Millett (in “Sexual Politics“) analyses Norman Mailer’s misogyny as a result of his belief that relationships are like war: “As the formula of ‘fucking as conquest’ holds true, the conquest is not only over the female, but over the male’s own fears for his masculinity, his courage, his dominance, the test of erection. To fail at any enterprise is to become female, defeated by the lurking treachery of Freudian bisexuality, the feminine in a man giving out like a trick knee at a track meet. Since all this is so arduous, men are, Mailer believes, self-evidently entitled to victory, their ‘existential assertion.’ Reminding his teammates that ‘nobody was born a man’ Mailer lays down the regulations – ‘you earned your manhood, provided you were good enough, bold enough.’” noteveryboyIf, as queerness lets us hope for, our identities are not tied up with gender, with proving at every step our masculinity, or our femininity, then our relationships are no longer about power. We can forget. We can be free. But Norman Mailer also recognised that this is a frightening prospect. What do we do once all our ideas of “normal,” so tied up with gender and heternormativity, are undone? The utopia becomes a nightmare, because our identities no longer have a familiar fixed point. Millett describes this nightmare: “The real abyss which portentous phrases such as ‘existential dread’ were invented to mask is the fear of nonexistence. That, or the secret terror of homosexuality; a mixture of sin, fascination, and fear which drives Mailer to his heterosexual posturing. To be faggot, damned, leprous – to cease to be virile were either to cease to be – or to become the most grotesque form of feminine inferiority – queer.” But why is this new mode of desiring so inferior? Because: “In a climate of sexual counterrevolution, homosexuality constitutes the mortal offense against heterosexual orthodoxy, the unforgivable sin that sends one off irreparably in the vast grey fields of virility’s damned.”existential-crisis

Butler put this nightmare in a way that still rings true in 2014: “Many people feel that who they are as egos in the world, whatever imaginary centres they have, would be radically dissolved were they to engage in homosexual relations. They would rather die than engage in homosexual relations. For these people homosexuality represents the prospect of the psychotic dissolution of the subject.”

Heteronormativity barely allows us to think outside of its barriers. Though it allows for “alternative” identities – LGBT identities – these must be outside a heterosexual “centre.” They must also be containable. In no way may the fluidity that queerness promises be allowed to dissolve this centre and mix up our relationships like spreading ink. That would be psychotic dissolution. inkwaterIf heteronormativity says something must be one thing or the other, queerness says no, it can be both or neither. Hope and loss can be here at once. “We can understand queerness itself as being filled with the intention to be lost. Queerness is illegible and therefore lost in relation to the straight minds’ mapping of space. Queerness is lost in space or lost in relation to the space of heteronormativity.” For anyone who has felt the strictures of heteronormativity as painful, this is solace. Yes, it’s something like pride: “To accept loss the way in which one’s queerness will always render one lost to a world of heterosexual imperatives, codes, and laws. To accept loss is to accept queerness – or more accurately, to accept the loss of heteronormativity, authorisation, and entitlement.” You are lost, but this is why you are able to hope. This is why queerness is not related to your “object of desire” and especially not the gender of that object. It is instead a mode of desiring and a refusal to be mapped by heteronormativity’s instruments.dorothy “Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.” It is tempting to want to be included. Sometimes it is even necessary. Especially when the alternative is the worst consequences of social exclusion – institutional discrimination, violence and death. That’s why queer utopia must be on the horizon for everyone. That instead of the heteronormative dictate that inclusion be on “our” terms, there must be no terms. Millett puts the lack of awareness that comes from desiring normativity – that is, outsiders’ longing for inclusion within heteronormativity – very bluntly: “Oppression creates a psychology in the oppressed. Marxism, though adroit at analysing the economic and political situation of such persons, has often neglected, perhaps out of nervous dismay, to notice how thoroughly the oppressed are corrupted by their situation, how deeply they envy and admire their masters, how utterly they are polluted by their ideas and values, nofuturehow even their attitude toward themselves is dictated by those who own them.” Queerness denies such ownership. Muñoz again dismisses pragmatism by declaring that “political hope fails queers because, like signification, it was not originally made for us. It resonates only on the level of reproductive futurity.” Here he refers to the fact that all political discourse and our ideas of the future are centred on the child – that symbolic force of heteronormativity. Muñoz works with the idea of that uncompromising queer theorist Lee Edelman who attacks the symbol of the child: “Edelman recommends that queers give up hope and embrace a certain negation endemic to our abjection within the symbolic. What we get, in exchange for giving up on futurity, abandoning politics and hope, is a certain jouissance that at once defines and negates us. Edelman’s psychoanalytic optic reveals that the social is inoperable for the always already shattered queer subject.” Depressing? Maybe. But as Millett celebrates in her description of a drag queen, queerness, by refusing all standards of normativity, can show us a horizon unclouded by the anxiety inherent in gender norms, in the protection of the “normal” family, and in the desperation of “living through” our children:

queer“But as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen in drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once – or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose, she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation.”

Being lost isn’t always a bad thing. Confusing people, even causing psychotic dissolution, which may last only a second before someone re-establishes their limits of normativity by casting you as deviant, can be enjoyable. This is the utopian possibility of negation. But of course this must be conscious. After all, as Muñoz puts it, “heteronormative culture makes queers think that both the past and the future do not belong to them.” In spite of this exclusion, we can create. “A nothing is a utopian act insofar as it acknowledges a lack that is normalised as reality and attempts to work with and through nothingness and ephemerality: it is both a critique and an additive or reparative gesture. Queer utopian practice is about “building” and “doing” in response to that status of nothing assigned to us by the heteronormative world.” queertopiaThis is a conscious way of creating the world through a conscious being in the world. Knowing that being in the world is not just heteronormativity’s linear time, romance, monogamy, appropriate feelings, acceptable gestures. A queer mode of being in the world is a fuller experience of relationality. Get ready for the accusations of irresponsibility, childishness, lack of commitment, all the insults pegged at those who don’t wish to comply with heteronormativity. Because, as Muñoz says, such behaviour is often seen as pointless rebellion, without political motive. But “escape itself need not be a surrender, but, instead, may be more like a refusal of a dominant order and its systemic violence.” Muñoz tells us that utopia is about hope and failure together. “Hope and disappointment operate within a dialectical tension in this notion of queer utopia. Queerness’s failure is temporal and, from this project’s perspective, potentially utopian, and inasmuch as it does not queerutopiasadhere to straight time, interrupting its protocols, it can be an avant-garde practice that interrupts the here and now. To perform such interruptions is not glorious or heroic work.” Well, that’s a disappointment. How can we refuse heteronormativity and take on all the backlash that comes with such a choice, if we don’t even have the comfort of knowing we are heroines? More of the disappointment of utopia, I suppose. But is has to be conscious, because of the pure difficulty. I have so much internalised heteronormativity that I need to remind myself daily what queerness is. But Muñoz gives us more hope. Queerness isn’t just intellectual knowledge, a way to critically encounter situations. It’s that way of being in the world. It’s embodied. It’s relational. It’s intimate. It’s here and now, future and past. That is, “We know time through the field of the affective, and affect is tightly bound to temporal.” It’s emotional. It’s ecstatic. For those of us who want to think a way out of heteronormativity without going down a path to existential dread, Muñoz has painted the horizon. This is the utopia of the not yet here, illuminated with the glitter of the past. rainbow

A Fanatic Heart: Edna O’Brien’s screaming women

afanaticheart

This is my first experience with Edna O’Brien, whom I have been longing to read for years, and she did not disappoint. Her work itself and the reaction to it pose a giant problem for the patriarchal literary world and male-dominated society in general. Bolder than Alice Munro, and in the more restrictive context of Ireland, she is just as insistent on recording women’s voices in all their honesty, beauty, woundedness, sexuality, and strength. But why is her unapologetic insistence seldom celebrated by feminists?

O’Brien is well-known for writing about women’s experiences and is certainly a feminist writer. She has been called the “doyenne of Irish literature” and Philip Roth’s admiration has stuck equally fast: he referred to her as “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”

edna1Putting aside the accusations of misogyny levelled at Roth’s own writing, why these qualifications? Why is she “the most gifted woman?” Why the “doyenne,” which means “senior lady” or “grande dame” or something? Ah, the eternal problem of male writers as the default, or the “great writer” signifying a man unless otherwise specified. Why is it that the topics of great literature are simply “human experiences” when written about by a man but if a woman writes about what she knows she is writing about “women’s experiences”?

authorsWho are the great Irish writers?

Joyce, Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Wilde.

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Could it be more obvious that our society is patriarchal when men’s experiences are universal but women’s are specific to us, somehow niche? It is the way textbooks show the human body as male, and the female body may be shown to illustrate reproduction, or for the way it differs from the “standard” of the male body. It is a body marked by difference. O’Brien’s work is marked by its difference from the universal norm of male experience.

This at once shows us our patriarchal heritage (and current condition) and makes her work feminist. She knows she is writing in a patriarchal world. The world she depicts is patriarchal. And she is making a space for the voices regarded as different, marginal, and so often unheard – women’s voices.

Given her generous concern with women’s experiences, it is perhaps surprising that she has been largely ignored or dismissed by feminist critics. Apparently her characters are too defeated, wounded, victimised, dependent on men. This catches her work in an odd in-between place. On the one hand, her first book The Country Girls was banned and othecountrygirlsften burned in Ireland for its depiction of women’s sexuality and she chose self-imposed exile, echoing Joyce and Beckett, to write more freely in London. On the other hand, she hasn’t had much interest from those most critical of patriarchy’s forced silences: feminists.

This may have something to do with the fact that O’Brien doesn’t seem to write from a consciously “feminist” perspective – that is, applying academic feminist theory to real life – and as far as I can tell has never really embraced a feminist label. As a fiction writer also entranced by feminist theory I wonder: how can we creatively represent feminist ideas, undermine patriarchal “real life” society and at the same time patriarchal language and systems of representation that are our legacy as writers in English?

For one thing, we need to honestly give voice to women’s experiences as we know them. Making a decision to write about “strong female characters” may be politically appropriate, but it’s not always ethical. Much of the trouble comes from the fact that women characters are expected to stand in for women as a whole – every single woman everywhere right now. Fiction writers simply aren’t concerned with that. The short story, the novel, are intensely personal and subjective forms. They are not political tracts. They examine the individual: her life, her thoughts, her heart. Of course, this opens out onto the world. But in the same way that men in fiction aren’t expected to represent an entire gender, we need to write weak women, wounded women, women who find comfort in patriarchal certainty, women who try and fail, women who are unsure, women who have no other choice but to live in exile. Fiction writers have a very special relationship to the old feminist adage: “The personal is political.”

For many Western liberal feminists, religion isn’t a popular subject. Writing about Ireland, despite her exile, O’Brien cannot help but be tied up with Catholicism, and she is never apologetic about it. Many feminists have forgotten about the reality of women’s experiences to such an extent that they wish to deny the power and truth of religion in many women’s lives. This cultural imperialism seems to me, if anything, anti-feminist. Feminism is an opening out, a construction of space, in which women’s voices are loud and truthful and multiplicitous.

Failure to recognise the subtlety with which O’Brien writes about the Catholic Church is unfortunate, because it is a failure to deconstruct the kind of patriarchal power the Church circulated, and still circulates today, which can teach us a lot about the patriarchal power that circulates in society as a whole. When asked why she has been forgiving of her father’s “small oppressions” but not so the Church’s, O’Brien remarked:catholicchurch

“The mantle of the Church, the power of the Church, the jurisdiction, the authority, was so overwhelming and not about Christianity. It was very secular. It was about power… What was done to people in the name of God was wrong in every way. It was a murder: psychic, social, and heart murder. And that was because the Church, the bishops and priests, they were omnipotent.”

This is murder done to individual women, and relationships between women. In “A Scandalous Woman” young Eily Hogan is sacrificed following her passionate relationship with a bank clerk and her pregnancy. She is punished – beaten and forced into solitary confinement and finally into marriage. Her future, her sanity and her very Self are sacrificed to a morality that denies women choice and a full sexuality. So the narrator concludes, having visited Eily after some time when they are both married and mothers, “what with that and the holy water and the red rowan tree bright and instinct with life, I thought that ours indeed was a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”

ITV ARCHIVEEdna O’Brien

It is not about religion, it is about power. A centuries-long power that has othered women, objectified them, made them into nothing but reproductive objects. O’Brien does not diminish the crime of this. It’s not simply “the way things are,” that women marry men and raise children, it is murder.

To recognise the wounds this causes is not to represent women as merely victims, but to give them a voice and the words with which to represent this recognition. Her narrators are intelligent. They experience desire and sexuality fully, in a way they are told is only natural for men. O’Brien also knows that to recognise the full force of patriarchal denial is to muddle your way through a mess of alternatives to compulsory heterosexuality, marriage and the nuclear family.

She writes the complexity of women’s relationships with women without resorting to the reductive patriarchal categories of “lesbian” and “heterosexual.” But she retains that sense of transgression that must be present in all relationships between women in a patriarchal hierarchy of intimacy, in which women’s first priority is supposed to be husband and children. Unfortunately this aspect of her work has been largely ignored, which merely echoes the tendency of a patriarchal society to ignore women’s friendships, desires and sexualities.

holdinghandsIn the story “Sister Imelda,” the narrator, a young girl in a Catholic convent, develops an intimacy with a nun that is often blocked given the strictures of their context. She says, “I could cry, or I could tremble to try to convey the emotion, but I could not tell her” and “I dared to touch her wrist to communicate my sadness.” O’Brien narrates the small resistances women find to express intimacy, which in a patriarchal context is not supposed to be bodily. We all know the Madonna/Whore dichotomy that has been a staple of patriarchy for centuries. A woman may only be “pure” (and respectable to patriarchal society) when she denies her sexuality, or in fact when she has none. O’Brien blurs these lines, just a year after Adrienne Rich’s seminal 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Intimacy and desire between women, which for O’Brien cannot be easily categorised as and reduced to sexual or non-sexual, is a way of resisting the overwhelming force of institutional heterosexuality that proscribes women’s futures. And it happens within a so-called patriarchal institution – a convent – which, let’s not forget, is made up of women.

Adrienne RichAdrienne Rich

Writers who are not interested in perpetuating patriarchal systems of thought and relationality must recognise such relationships between women. Just recognising them is difficult enough, because as Rich tells us “We begin to observe behaviour, both in history and in individual biography, that has hitherto been invisible or misnamed, behaviour which often constitutes, given the limits of the counterforce exerted in a given time and place, radical rebellion. And we can connect these rebellions and the necessity for them with the physical passion of woman for woman which is central to lesbian existence: the erotic sensuality which has been, precisely, the most violently erased fact of female experience.”

So in “The Mouth of the Cave” we read the deceptively simple narrative of a woman coming across a woman standing in the grass, dressing. She asks herself “Why am I running, why am I trembling, why am I afraid? Because she is a woman and so am I. Because, because? I did not know.”

That these intimacies and desires are written as transgressive, never fully enacted, confusing for the reader and narrators at once, is explained by Rich too. As she forces us to acknowledge: “What deserves further exploration is the doublethink many women engage in and from which no woman is permanently and utterly free: However woman-to-woman relationships, female support networks, a female and feminist value system are relied on and cherished, indoctrination in male credibility and status can still create synapses in thought, denials in feeling, wishful thinking, a profound sexual and intellectual confusion.”

Her stories focus very little on marriage and children. They confront the expectations of domesticity without depicting its day-to-day details. The beautiful and shocking story “Paradise” tells of a young woman on holiday with a wealthy older man who has been married three times and his friends. The impossibility of being herself in such an environment is painful: she cannot delude herself into the idea of a perfect love affair that only comes from the absence of outsiders. “She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and would leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.”

The small unkindnesses in unequal relationships that usually remain buried become the unforgiveable murder that O’Brien documents elsewhere. In taking swimming lessons the narrator finds both an incapacity for something supposed to be easy and a fascination with something she doesn’t quite understand. Finally, alone, she submits to the water: “As she went down to the cold and thrilling region she thought, They will never know, they will never, ever know, for sure.” The moment is most meaningful for her because she is alone, finally allowed to confront what Simone de Beauvoir would call her “transcendence” or her subjectivity: not how others see her but how she sees herself. “At some point she began to fight and thresh about, and she cried, though she could not know the extent of those cries.”

drowningOf course, the impropriety of her suicide attempt leads to the guests leaving early and the man she is with expresses no empathy and she understands the relationship is over. The strength wrapped up in a moment of apparent defeat is clear in the reaction to her near-drowning: “the guests were polite and offhand and still specious, but along with that they were cautious now and deeply disapproving. Their manner told her that it had been a stupid and ghastly thing to do, and had she succeeded she would have involved all of them in her stupid and ghastly mess.

The desperate measures to which women must go to speak, to imprint themselves on a world that consigns them to being looked at, to immanence as Beauvoir would say – or to being objects – is nothing short of sacrificial. O’Brien’s women aren’t women at ease. How could they be? But they are “strong women.” Along with being wounded, defeated, victimised. I think this has something to do with how O’Brien correlates writing with mental distress.

Name me a writer who isn’t in psychological distress. They wouldn’t be writers unless they were in distress and complex and turbid and disturbed. Harmonious, happy, or for that matter businesspeople, are not creative people, they’re not.

This is because writers must be outsiders. We have no other choice. So too for the women of O’Brien’s fiction, and that is why their voices are painful. They force us, if we are willing to read, to hear them. We feel their disturbance because O’Brien has made a space in the restrictive patriarchal symbolic. As Julia Kristeva says, “Women have the luck and responsibility of being boundary-subjects.” Sometimes it’s only in murmurs or cries or fights that O’Brien’s women can speak. But in the inscription of their voices we are also forced to recognise the shame, murder and sacrifice enacted by the patriarchal silencing that is never without gaps.

screamingwoman

The School of the Dead: The Radical Danger of Readers and Writers

cixous Reading about writing can be something like reading about music. Too meta, too not-quite, too useless. But reading Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing was an experience I’ve never had before. It’s not a how-to, a craft book, but a philosophy of writing and reading and language, how the three are combined so intimately that we feel it more than know it.

cixousbookReading the first chapter, which is actually a lecture, “The School of the Dead,” I felt as if somebody was writing my own unconscious, my own impulse towards writing. She was pulling it out of me. I want to think about how Cixous’ ideas make clear my experience writing my book The Loud Earth and my experiences afterwards, having written it, having others read it. Both were equally strange experiences. “The School of the Dead” took me back to writing the book as if Cixous was transcribing my hours at my desk, which were dreamlike and fast, taken hold of by this story. I felt as if I’d already read this lecture, or heard her speak it, because surely I could not have written something that so perfectly aligns with her thoughts? But I did.

loudearth_full“The writers I love are descenders, explorers of the lowest and deepest. Descending is deceptive. Carried out by those I love the descent is sometimes intolerable, the descenders descend with difficulty; sometimes they stop descending.” She tells us here that literature is meant to be hard. It should not take the easy way out. It should not be pleasant to read, pleasurable perhaps, but not lazy. Sometimes writing flows, I know my pen just moves across the page, I am trying to keep up with the unravelling in my head, but it is never easy.

Cixous tells us that writing is physical. Descending is a physical motion, you cannot stay where you started. For this reason it’s not just paper and ink. It’s nature, dirt, ocean. “The element (and I would like to have you hear this word said by Tsvetaeva, in Russian: stikhia, she means both the element – matter – and the element – poetic verse – the word element signifies both things in Russian), the element resists: the earth and the sea offer resistance, as does language or thought.” I am interested in the descent literally, I’m interested in the dark places in the earth, the loud earth, that we try to ignore though its calls are sometimes deafening. And I’m interested in the places in our heads and in other people’s heads that are secret, hidden, but important. You can go your whole life ignoring these things. But writers – and readers, how can we separate the two? – must seek these places compulsively. Descend, though it breaks the heart and pushes against you.

This is the ladder she is talking about. Sometimes the ladder is invisible. Which is why writing is like scraping through the darkness thinking you see a flicker of light, then another, and if you’re lucky your path will grow visible, though it’s not a path that was always already there, it’s a path you made, out of the darkness, so you have to turn back to see where you went, where you came from, and then retrace your stumbling. Cixous says, “Giving oneself to writing means being in a position to do this work of digging, of unburying, and this entails a long period of apprenticeship.”

And why is this apprenticeship the “School of the Dead”? Because writing always starts with death. “The [death] that comes right up to us so suddenly we don’t have time to avoid it, I mean to avoid feeling its breath touching us. Ha!” For Cixous all writing is about death. Read a book and think it’s not about death? It’s probably lazy, it probably doesn’t want to dig or unbury. We should be uncomfortable when we are reading. Writing should twist our bodies on the edge of pain. Otherwise we are only avoiding.

darkness“I said that the first dead are our first masters, those who unlock the door for us that opens onto the other side, if we are only willing to bear it. Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us.”

I have been told time and again, “Your book scared me.” “You scare me with your writing.” “Please tell me everything is okay in the end.”

They say it like it’s a bad thing. But why would I write if I wasn’t going to try to dig something out that made you uncomfortable? Why would I skim the surface, then brush the dirt from my palms? If you sit with the discomfort you learn that reading is like witnessing the scene of a crime. “We are witnesses to an extraordinary scene whose secret is on the other side. We are not the ones who have the secret. It’s a pictorial scene.”

We know that art isn’t decoration. It’s not an ornament or gardenscaping. It’s a crime scene. “The duel – death – and the picture form a door, a window, an opening.” Art, in making us afraid, lets us go to places we can never go in reality. But it should be just as petrifying, just as soul-altering, just as physical. Yes, “Writing is learning to die. It’s learning not to be afraid, in other words to live at the extremity of life, which is what the dead, death, give us.”

I write about dead people, ghosts, murder, blood, dark places, deathlust, bloodlust, bodies and secrets. Because “we need to lose the world, to lose a world, and to discover that there is more than one world and that the world isn’t what we think it is. Without that, we know nothing about the mortality and immortality we carry. We don’t know we’re alive as long as we haven’t encountered death: these are banalities that have been erased. And it is an act of grace.”

Which is why I don’t understand “reading is escapism” or “reading is entertainment.” I wouldn’t be alive without language. It’s not exactly a running away. I actually had someone say to me, in response to reading my book, “Well, you know, I don’t really like heavy stuff, I like happy books.”

The point just flew away, unseen, I guess.

Is it about being depressing? Is it about wallowing in sad feelings? For me it’s the exact opposite. Only by reading those writers who don’t turn away, who don’t avoid, who go to the edge and look down that ladder, reach as far as they can, am I able to see what it is to be alive. We need to examine our relationship to the dead. Constantly. And it’s not that by contrast that we’ll know what being alive means to us. It’s because being alive includes death. It includes the dead. As Cixous says, be brave: “Individually, it constitutes part of our work, our work of love, not of hate or destruction; we must think through each relationship. We can think this with the help of writing, if we know how to write, if we dare write.”

Daring to write, to read books that make us lose our worlds, means stumbling through a darkness that is dangerous. Cixous’ concept of the writing process is as perfect as anything I’ve read: “Writing is writing what you cannot know before you have written: it is preknowing and not knowing, blindly, with words. It occurs at the point where blindness and light meet. Kafka says – one very small line lost in his writing – ‘to the depths, to the depths.’” That’s why we know that literature and experience cannot be diametrically opposed, as most people imagine. Have you ever been told you read too much, don’t experience enough of life? Well, quote Cixous next time.

But it won’t be easy. You can’t do it smiling. “Try to write the worst and you will see that the worst will turn against you and, treacherously, will try to veil the worst. For we cannot bear the worst. Writing the worst is an exercise that requires us to be stronger than ourselves. My authors have killed.”

Those of us who are willing to break ourselves at our desks may get close, but it takes strength most of us don’t possess.

“In what is often inadmissible, contrary, terribly dangerous, and risks turning into complacency – which is the worst of all crimes: it originates here. We are the ones who make of death something mortal and negative. Yes, it is mortal, it is bad, but it is also good; this depends on us. We can be the killers of the dead, that’s the worst of all, because when we kill a dead person, we kill ourselves. But we can also, on the contrary, be the guardian, the friend, the regenerator of the dead.”

handgraveComplacency may be the worst of all crimes, but it also the most common. Try to talk to anyone about something that runs against the status quo. If you are a feminist you already know this. Most people just don’t want to hear it. But that’s okay. Writing is dangerous. Reading is dangerous. Not the bestsellers, the ones with the masses-approved raised lettering on the cover, but the books that take on this task of befriending the dead.

This is why women writers are not as palatable as men. Black writers are not as market-friendly as white writers. Queer writers may as well bank on a niche readership compared to heteronormative ones.

Perhaps the response to your writing is even more educative than the writing itself. When you are at your desk you will know this is hard, you will know it is dangerous, you will know it makes you cry when you discover that you can turn into language something that crushes your body. But the reaction from people you know once your writing is in print will tell you that you are pushing against the grain every step of the way.

Cixous reveres Kafka.

Kafka22When she writes about his philosophy of language and literature it’s obvious why, and why he is such a rare writer. He writes about books the way true readers experience them:

I think we ought to only read the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

If the stakes are as high as this for writing and reading, then as Cixous puts it we must recognise that there is “always the same violent relationship: the book first, then you.”

If you experience books like you experience life, sometimes more forcefully, then you will understand this. If someone has ever told you you read too much, that you must experience more of life, as if reading and experience were dichotomous. If you don’t wish to numb that frozen sea inside you, or ignore it.

It is useless to describe a book as happy because it is stupid, because it turns away from that frozen sea, because it doesn’t wound us. As Cixous says, “Those books that do break the frozen sea and kill us are the books that give us joy. Why are such books so rare? Because those who write the books that hurt us also suffer, also undergo a sort of suicide, also get lost in forests – and this is frightening.” But it’s only through this intelligent suffering that we will get true joy, rather than the quick, numbing, fast-food joy of bestsellers or “happy” books, forgotten as soon as you disembark from the plane.

This is why writing begins with death, why it is risky. “The writers I feel close to are those who play with fire, those who play seriously with their own mortality, go further, go too far, sometimes go as far as catching fire, as far as being seized by fire.”

Some people simply don’t experience reading in this way. It is a way of passing time. I don’t know what else. Cixous acknowledges this, though she cannot understand it: “Not everyone carries out the act of reading in the same way, but there is a manner of reading comparable to the act of writing – it’s an act that suppresses the world. We annihilate the world with a book.” Those of us for whom reading is a matter of life and death, sanity and insanity.

bloodWe know books are dangerous because we are told so by others every time we pick one up. As Thomas Bernhard wrote:

And they call reading a sin, and writing is a crime.

And no doubt this is not entirely false.

They will never forgive us for this Somewhere Else.

This risk means going to crazy places that seem to draw us though we don’t know why. “And for this home, this foreign home, about which we know nothing and which looks like a black thing moving, for this we give up all our family homes.”

On the other hand, if we wish our reading to be numbing, happy-pill, quickly forgotten, we are not like Cixous. She avows: “I have the inclination for avowal. What would the opposite of need for avowal be? The need to remain silent. Does that exist? Do we really want secrets? Real need is on the side of avowal. The true secret causes the most suffering, because it is the exact figure of death. If we have a secret we don’t tell then we truly are a tomb.”

Some days it’s easier to be a tomb. Not to write a lie, exactly, but to not quite write the truth. It’s easy to write out of a tomb, read out of a tomb, the ultimate laziness. But the next day, when we feel some strength or even such weakness that we are newly grotesque and even masochistic, we can cross all of this out and move closer to avowal. Perhaps avowal cannot be done every day, it’s too exhausting. But it’s okay if it’s slow, as long as it’s painful.

Cixous teaches us that while writing is about crossing borders, transcending limits, it’s also about respecting difference. Respecting the things you cannot know. “In life, as soon as I say my, as soon as I say my daughter, my brother, I am verging on a form of murder, as soon as I forget to unceasingly recognise the other’s difference. You may come to know your son, your sister, your daughter well after thirty, forty, or fifty years of life, and yet during those thirty or forty years you haven’t known this person who was so close. You kept him or her in the realm of the dead. And the other way around. Then the one who dies kills and the one who doesn’t die when the other dies kills as well.”

Maybe part of what she is telling us is that there are some things you cannot write. Leave space in your writing. That’s a hard thing to accept. We want to write everything, we want our characters to know each other deeply, we want to know our characters deeply, we want to put our sons, our sisters, our daughters into our writing as if we have a hold of them. I think here of Levinas’ notion that the other is always unknowable.

levinasThough his writing his utterly sexist, positioning the feminine as the mysterious other, denying any form of feminine subjectivity, and giving a whole new meaning to the male gaze, difference is important to consider from an ethical perspective. In my book the narrator wants to collapse all difference between herself and Hannah, because it is too painful to accept her borders, which explains her deathlust and how ultimately destructive it is to be possessive of another person without really seeing them. Cixous knows that if you don’t see the other person, only yourself through them, you are verging on a form of murder. The narrator takes this literally.

My narrator is haunted by the crime scene of her murdered father and stepmother. Did she do it? She cannot think it to herself, so we have to think about it ourselves, as the reader. Cixous offers an explanation: “the loved one remained inside her, a dead man inexplicably without his death.” When we write, when we call up the dead like this, we are calling up a whole set of confusing feelings that are difficult to separate: what is his? What is mine? “She is staging an unenvisionable crime. What she lives out, and what she rejects with all her strength, is the fact that the deadman reproaches her for being alive. This is something she cannot come to terms with since she is both characters at once, herself and her-him. She is guilty of being a survivor. She didn’t follow him. She isn’t him.”

This works if she was the murderer and it works if she is. I don’t know why I am drawn to texts with this “unenvisionable crime,” these unresolved crimes. Perhaps because as Cixous claims “all great texts are prey to the question: who is killing me? Whom am I giving myself to kill?”

This is why great texts are like crime scenes, so much is at stake. “What finally emerges from the earth of the narrative is that we need the scene of the crime in order to come to terms with ourselves: we need the theatre of the crime. We need to be able to expose the crime and at the same time to somehow keep it alive.”

But this ain’t crime fiction. Because it is unresolved. The social order is ultimately left in the mess we began with. The lack of a resolution is the same as what is in the mind of the narrator. Full of illusions, delusions. “This is how we regulate our way of not seeing, or seeing what we don’t want to see. Seeing, not seeing, making visible, hiding/exposing, what? What is there in that heavy bag he is carrying?” I think this is one of the things people resist. But this is where intelligence resides: to accept the mystery, but to want to know. Desire and murder at once. A few people have asked me “What happened? Did she do it? Did she kill her parents? Did she kill Hannah at the end?” I do not want to answer. For one thing I don’t know. But my favourite thing is when people discuss the possibilities, and are not afraid.

A resolution is tempting, but it isn’t possible. “The inclination for avowal, the desire for avowal, the yearning to taste the taste of avowal, is what compels us to write: both the need to avow and its impossibility. Because most of the time the moment we avow we fall into the snare of atonement: confession – and forgetfulness. Confession is the worst thing: it disavows what it avows.”

But in one sense don’t we have to be afraid? Because reading isn’t “over there.” It is also inside me. Cixous sums up this conundrum: “Dostoyevsky was prey to this character’s mystery: what causes a young woman to bloody the entire house. She is a monster who isn’t a monster. I could be her. I am also you.”

We want to keep intact the other’s difference but we know it is not always possible. In the end Levinas’ idea of radical alterity is not satisfying. Irigaray does a better job, explaining that difference isn’t an opposition, it’s a possibility for creativity.

irigarayImagine a Western concept of the body in comparison to the Eastern concept. The body is bounded in Western thought, in opposition to other bodies, whereas in Eastern thought it is subtle, the bounds of the self aren’t so easily defined, relationality becomes more complex.

subtle-body Writers know that our bodies are subtle even if it’s only an unconscious knowing. Because books have subtle bodies. One person wrote them, quite another person reads them. “The author writes as if he or she were in a foreign country, as if he or she were a foreigner in his or her own family. We don’t know the authors, we read books and we take them for the authors. We think there must be an analogy or identification between the book and the author. But you can be sure there is an immense difference between the author and the person who writes; and if you were to meet that person, it would be someone else. The foreign origin of the book makes the scene of writing a scene of immeasurable separation.”

And if the book is out there, mine, written by me, it is also inside you, read by you. “This turbulent landscape is our inner storm, it’s the curtain-raising of the unconscious. The world is white, we are lost, a great wind blows, and there in the background is a small black spot. We wonder what it is.”

Writing, and reading, are ways to communicate with the other, to experience the ways that our bodies are in fact subtle. Because literature is also physical. “These people have taken us through the storm ‘toward the depths’ where we can’t see clearly what we see, to discover ‘the most known unknown thing.’”

So it’s strange when somebody tells me “You scared me with your book.” Did I? I am not quite the person who wrote that book. Writing is another mode of communication altogether. We simply do not communicate with people in the same way as we write literature. That is why we need it so badly. And those who ask me for “the answer” to the book, as if there is one? I did not write the same book that you read.

If you love writing, if you love reading, if you find literature is the only way you can make sense of the world – and even more than that, the best way to make sense of the world – you must read Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. Cixous has written this book with your blood.