Letter 10

Dear Alanna,

‘Helplessness’ is an odd word. I suppose it literally means ‘without help,’ but the main connotation seems to be ‘without autonomy,’ and with that there is a tacit judgement about those who, supposedly, ought not to lack autonomy. In many phases of life, it seems that the time at which one is not autonomous is the precise time at which one is least likely to receive help, due to some ridiculous delusion of individualism in which needing something is the reason why one doesn’t deserve to have it. And then one really is helpless. Not being permitted to be helpless is what makes one helpless.

Brené Brown studies shame and vulnerability. She has a TED talk on the subject which irritates me immensely, because her delivery matches the double bind of what she says in a way that is poetic precisely because it denies its poetry.

She describes, in the talk, how when interviewing people about social inclusion, she would be told stories of exclusion; when interviewing people about love, she would be told stories of heartbreak. She concluded, through her research, that shame is the most powerful barrier to human connection. It’s a thing we almost never talk about, possibly because the idea that one might feel shame is itself shameful. Not feeling as though you’re good enough – not feeling as though you’re worthy, just as you are, of connection – has become a ‘self-esteem issue’. It’s ‘your problem’, which means ‘you’re not good enough’ – and the cycle begins all over again.

Brown found that the people who were happiest with their relationships (with others and themselves) were those who most believed they were worthy of connection just as they were. These people were most willing to be vulnerable, or helpless – which is not to say they enjoyed the feeling, only that they knew, in permitting themselves to be helpless, that they created the conditions in which it is possible to not be helpless.

Your quote about humans seeing helplessness as a lack seems to be part of the structure of our language. In the last two paragraphs, I’ve spoken about ‘not feeling (worthy/good enough).’ Even if I were to get rid of the ‘not,’ I’d still, most likely, find myself using words that connote a lack – ‘imperfect,’ ‘undesirable,’ ‘worthless.’ Even words connoting need are somehow negative – ‘needy,’ and ‘lack’ itself, which is again where the cycle folds in on itself, because I started writing this paragraph about the undesirability of conceptualising helplessness as a lack, but now I’m at the point where the undesirability of the word ‘lack’ is included in the undesirability of conceptualising helplessness as a lack. Which simultaneously makes perfect sense and absolutely no sense at all.

As I mentioned, this TED talk irritates me a great deal. Brown is talking about this cycle of shame, and she’s doing it in the context of her own psychological grappling – she talks about her love of measuring and her impatience with anything that can’t be measured, assessed, and tidied away into a box. She talks about the breakdown that ensued when she realised how central vulnerability is to human connection, and how unmeasurable this centre is; she talks about the transformation in her worldview that followed. Here is the infuriating thing: she performs this talk in a way that embodies the resistance and irritation she felt at feeling vulnerable whilst grappling with vulnerability. She talks about how much she hates the immeasurability, how much she hates the insecurity of the immeasurability, and how much it sucked to have talk to a therapist for a year about feelings and other wishy washy things. The circularity of both content and delivery are so maddeningly synchronised that I want to bang my head against a wall.

This, I think, is the problem: the performance of the double bind can only occur for the benefit of the performer. The performance – of hating and resisting, and of knowing the circularity and futility of hating and resisting, and of hating this futility, and of hating the accursed knowledge of it – works for the performer when she has become comfortable with the discomfort of performing it. The performer has got to the point where she doesn’t need to step outside the cycle anymore, because she knows that the double- (triple-? quadruple-?) bind already includes any attempt to escape within itself.

I think this facet of performing is only evident for and within the one who performs. Performance is often construed as a single-faceted exchange, in which the performer gives something to the audience, who reward the performer with a performance of their own appreciation. But there is an internal aspect to performing, and there is an internal aspect to watching a performance, and those things are not necessarily (or perhaps necessarily not) evident on the external face of the performative act.

I think the problem with having to perform is not the expectation that one performs. The problem is the expectation that the external performance is the reason for performing, rather than its accidental residue.


I stopped writing for several days, because I was worried that I was expressing these thoughts in a way that seemed to reinforce the whole ‘it’s your problem and this makes you bad which means you have more problems’ thing, when my intention is to say that I think it’s possible to use these helpless things from within the bind, to make something that is workable and good, but only just as workable and good as it needs to be. You know, like your last letter, where you quoted what I wrote in a previous letter, in which I quoted some other people who were basically saying that there is no ‘away,’ no ‘outside vantage point’ – one eventually finds oneself, irritatingly, using all the useless waste, because waste is kind of impossible and inevitable at the same time.

I still worry that I’m not expressing this correctly, but also I am tired of trying to express things correctly. I think I may have mentioned this sentiment before. Anyway, the previous paragraph will serve as a disclaimer that I am aware of the limitations of my expression, but the extent to which I’m going to try to improve upon these is also limited.

Here are some photographs of peat bogs:

Peat Bogs


Here is a largely plotless story:

I worry a lot about being bad, or wrong, or mean, or rude, or sick. The internalised narrative I’ve had since my earliest memories is:

“You’re bad. It’s bad to be bad. If you don’t try to be better (stop crying, do as you’re told, listen properly, show initiative, make eye-contact, don’t stare, don’t yell, speak up, don’t be a bully, don’t be a pushover, answer the question, don’t be a smart-arse, offer to help, don’t get in the way…), that’s bad. If you do try to be better, you’re trying too hard (or not hard enough), and that’s bad. In any case, you’re bad, so you trying to not be bad is by definition bad. If you say you feel like a bad person, that’s bad – you should have more self-esteem. If you think we think you’re bad, that’s bad – how could you say something so hurtful?”

This isn’t a verbal narrative – there’s no inner voice that says these things – rather it is a pervasive and embodied role in which I could not, as a child, avoid being cast. It’s a role that I necessarily played without knowing I was playing it – the knowledge that I was playing it has emerged only very recently.

The problem with this role is the problem of impermissible helplessness. The only way to escape the role is to be happy within it. The only way to remain standing under the weight of an infinite loop of badness is to enjoy the pressure.

I think this sounds either incorrect, or perverse, or both – but as the aim is to embrace badness, incorrectness, and perversity, this problem presents no problem.

When I first became visibly insane (performatively insane, maybe?), I felt that half of my brain had split off, several years before, from the part to which I had access, and was intruding upon my consciousness, trying to hurt me or take control of the body we both shared. This other brain embodied much of the badness double-bind. At the time this was diagnosed as psychosis and I was prescribed antipsychotics, but since then that diagnosis has been questioned on several occasions, and I have become no more ‘psychotic’ since ceasing the medications than I was whilst still using them.

I realised, recently, that this other-brain person has an advantage over me, in that they are comfortable with inhabiting the role of vulnerability and inadequacy without trying to escape it, whereas I still find myself struggling against those multi-layered binds. So I’m trying to work together with Other-Brain these days, and let them take the reigns as necessary.


This letter has probably already eaten itself by this point, so I should stop writing.


P.S. here is a bog emoticon:Bog emoticon


Letter 9

Dear Katherine,

A recurring theme of our letters, which I previously labelled as ‘failure,’ but that we’ve also described as ‘a field and not a path,’ and can be likened to the undesirability of the snail, came to mind today when I read this article I Can, I Can’t, Who Cares? by Jan Verwoert.

In your previous letter you explained that contrary to Sylvia Plath’s description in her poem Tulips one cannot luxuriate in the sensation of nothingness in a psychiatric hospital because one’s behaviour is being constantly monitored. In this setting not acting can be interpreted as a sign of disturbance. You also proposed that perhaps the need to monitor or measure appropriate behaviour was a problem in itself.

In his article Verwoert explains that a characteristic feature of our society is that with the disappearance of factory work, we no longer work, we perform. This notion of performing is particularly applicable to us misc creative types who are attempting to create some traction (maybe even a career) behind their own creative output. This pressure to perform I relate to the requirement to frame ones identity and practice. The instruction by education and society to define oneself as a certain type of artist, with certain define-able, write-down-able in 200 words or less interests, or rather ‘concerns’. Then there’s the requirement  to be available and wiling to perform when opportunity knocks. In the face of the pressure of performativity Verwoert asks the question;

What silent but effective forms of unwillingness, non-compliance, uncooperativeness, reluctance or non-alignment do we find in A Precarious Existence contemporary culture when it comes to inventing ways to not perform how and when you are asked to perform? Can we ever embrace these forms of non-performance in art and thinking as forms of art and thinking?


Recently I saw an exhibition at TCB gallery called ‘Practice’, curated by Anna Parlane. Included  were a collection of notebooks by the artist Adam Parata. These books were covered with finely rendered sketches and notes he’d made as part of his home schooling / self education project. 

In one book there was a drawing of a collections of trees, lightly drawn. I liked these pages in particular because a few years ago resting after an afternoon meditation I had an image occur in my mind of a forest its green leaves shimmering, golden light refracting. The mental image had a soft colour quality akin to 70s footage, and it was blurred as though I was seeing a bad reproduction. This image brought with it a sensation of delicate peace – something like gratitude and something like tenderness.  I was drawing a lot with lead pencil at the time, and I immediately wanted to translate this into a soft pencil on paper drawing, trying to retain some of the preciousness of this experience.

But I never did draw the picture, only a small sketch of it in my journal that I labelled ‘the forest with the finest lines’. Now, years after the acuity of the remembered feeling has faded I am much less driven to create the piece, and if I tried I’m not sure I could render it with the appropriate delicacy. But perhaps it’s not much of an issue as Adam Parata has made the work in some sense himself, and perhaps this goes for most ideas, that they are not exclusive.


In Iris Murdoch’s novel ‘An Accidental Man’ one of the characters Gracie has a somewhat more dramatic tree moment:

 Before her, across a little lawn of cropped velvety grass, there was standing all by itself a single tree with a smooth shaft of light grey close textured trunk of a glowing colour between silver and pewter. Above the high shaft a thick cloud of leaves moved, though there was no wind, with intricate tiny curtsying movements and seemed to wink noiselessly, turning dark and pale side alternately in the absorbed still complex light. The dim leafy cone swelled and diminished, its fine top thinning into an extremity of pure sky. Gracie knew of the leaves, of the pencil-thin peak and of the void beyond, but she gazed at the trunk of the tree, at its perfect smoothness and roundness and she felt a shudder of urgency pin her to the earth as if an arrow from directly above her had passed through her body and her feet and pierced the earth below with a long thin electrical thrill.

She was conscious of herself with a fullness she had never known before, and yet also she was absent, there was no anxiety, no thought even, just this thrilling sense of full and absolute being. She stood quite still for a while breathing deeply and staring at the tree. There was fear but now it was inhibited, impersonal. She kicked off her shoes and stood barefoot, feeling the cool grass creasing the soles of her feet with little precious patterns. She thought, I must walk to the tree, and in doing so I shall make a vow which will dedicate me and alter my whole life, so that I will be given and will never belong to myself again ever. I have to do this. And yet at the same time I am free, I can stay here, I can run back into the wood. I can break the spell which I know I am in some way weaving myself. I can make the tree cease to glow and shimmer, make my flesh cease from trembling, unbind my eyes and disavow this vision. Or I can walk to the tree and make everything different forever.

She began to take off her clothes, her dress fell from her. She stood there white and lithe as a boy, compact and dense, an arrow, a flame. Still in the midst of fear, she began to walk springily across the grass. If she could but keep this visitation pure and whole some greatness would come to be, if she could but cover this precarious space and place her hands upon the tree she would be filled with angelic power, the world would be filled with it. She moved without sound or sensation upon the grass. She reached the tree and knelt, circling it with her arms, laying her lips upon its cool close-textured silvery bark, a little pitted and dimpled to the touch. As she knelt upright now, pressing her whole body against the shaft, she felt an agony of shame, impossibility, achievement, joy. She lost consciousness. 

I suppose, with less grandiosity and detail that’s how I felt about the image of the forest in my mind’s eye.  If (I) could but keep the visitation pure and whole some greatness would come to be. I didn’t, instead I let the image retract and be forgotten.

The importance of acting upon the imagination  is described beautifully in Lewis Hyde‘s novel  ‘The Gift’;

A work of art breeds in the imagination. In this way the imagination becomes the future. The poet ‘places’ himself where the future becomes present,’ says Whitman. He sets his writing desk in the ‘womb of shadows’ . Gifts – given or received – stand witness to meaning beyond the known , and gift exchange is therefore a transcendent commerce, the economy of recreation, conversion, or renaissance. It brings us worlds we have not seen before.

Allen Ginsberg tells the story of the time when he was a young man, out of luck and out of lovers, lying on his bed in Spanish Harlem, reading Blake. He had put the book aside. He had masturbated. He had fallen into a depression. And then, as he lay gazing at the page he heard a voice say Blake’s poem, ‘Ah sunflower, weary of time / That countest the steps of the sun…’ ‘ Almost everything I’ve done since has these moments as its motif,’ Ginsberg has said. ‘The voice I heard, the voice of Blake, the ancient saturnal voice, is the voice I have now. I was imagining my own body consciousness…’ It is Ginsberg’s use of ‘imagining’ that I wish to mark. With a poem as his seed image, the young man imagined the sonority and quiddity with which the older man has come to sing the songs of Blake.

The imagination can create the future only if the products are brought over into the real. The bestowal of the work completes the act of imagination. Ginsberg could have said, ‘O dear, now I’m hearing voices,’ and taken a sedative. But when we refuse what has been offered to the empty heart, when possible futures are given and not acted upon, then the imagination recedes. And without the imagination we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present; we will never be led into a new life because  we can work only from the known. But Ginsberg responded as an artist responds. The artist completes the act of imagination by accepting the gift and laboring to give it to the real (at which point the distinction between ‘imaginary’ and ‘real’ dissolve).


It hadn’t occurred to me before reading Adam Phillip’s essay ‘The Helpless’ that I had unexamined prejudices towards helplessness in myself and others. Phillips draws out the idea that humans are the only animals who feel their helplessness as a lack. The only animals whose helplessness brings them so much pain and distress.

He wonders at some point in his argument;

Why, in short, does helplessness make us think of consolation rather than inspiration? Why is it so associated in our minds more with being tortured that being high-spirited, with being desperate rather than available, with sadomasochism rather than abandon?

So I’m beginning to wonder how I might embrace my own and other’s helplessness in new ways. Perhaps you could offer a practical suggestion beyond my spouting of theory?

In the last week it has hit mid-winter in Melbourne, cold enough that there are no longer any leaves attached to trees and cold enough that riding your bike home late at night is an amusing form of torture. But not cold enough to snow, and not cold enough that the house has a fireplace or sufficient heating or anything that might make winter a cosy hermetic retreat (puppies and children laughing in a carpet of warmth on the hearth).

This is the time of year (and how could I forget every year that it’s going to be like this?) that life takes on a greyer hue and in this relative dismal meteorology, that as much as one would like it not to, affects one mentally. I’m reminded that you told me how Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should treat the mind like a garden. That you can’t throw away the withering mid-winter flowers because, beyond the fact that there’s nowhere you can throw them away to, you’re gonna need them for compost to grow the as yet unsprouted Spring flowers. So, my next step in appreciating my helplessness will be acknowledging the mulchiness of the mind.

Mossed over at times.

Below is an image of the artist Julius Koller’s 1980 work “Anti-Performance”, and below that a picture of some foliage.

Anti-Performance (U.F.O) 1980 by Július Koller 1939-2007