Letter 8

Dear Alanna,

I’m not sure where to begin.

I remember studying that Sylvia Plath poem when I was in high school. I identified, at that time, with the lines you quoted:

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty

I’m reading a book called The Secret Life of Pronouns, which is about how the way we use function words (pronouns, prepositions, etc.) can reveal aspects of our psychology, like how we’re feeling, how much social status we have, and what kind of personality we have. This information is accessible only via computer analysis – no human can count and analyse that many words.

The author writes about one study he conducted in which he analysed the collected works of 18 poets, 9 of whom died by suicide and 9 of whom did not. He found that the subject matter was no different between the two groups – the difference was in the use of pronouns. The poets who died by their own hands, like Plath, used “I” much more than the other group, particularly in poems about more difficult or emotional subjects. Previous studies have shown that when we feel sad or depressed, we tend to use more self-reflexive language – we use the “I” pronoun more – because sadness and depression tend to accompany an inward-looking perspective. The author suggests that the suicidal poets were identifying more closely with their emotions than the non-suicidal poets, whose writing seemed to come from a more distant standpoint.

It doesn’t follow that identification with painful emotions necessarily leads to depression and suicide, but it is still one of the perils of inwardness. I think, in general, we are more afraid of the dangerous within than the dangerous without. Cave diving is ok – a sign of virility, possibly of foolhardiness though not of sickness; self-diving is a problem – a sign of weakness, sometimes without enough agency to even be foolhardy. A perilous identification with the self is not something that can easily be left alone – but I suspect that not leaving it alone is the main contributor to the peril. I think that is the main difference between the two poems you quoted:

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free

and

Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope,
free of mountainous wanting.

I think wanting to be free is probably part of the “mountainous wanting.”

Psychiatric hospitals don’t actually provide one with the opportunity to lie with hands turned up and be utterly empty, as I know to my cost and dismay. Such activity is usually interpreted as a behavioural problem of some kind. Even in “mental” health, the health of the mind is measured according the “appropriateness” of one’s physical and social interactions. Maybe the issue is the need to measure in the first place, rather than its method.

I didn’t know where to begin this letter because I wanted to respond to everything you wrote, but also to do so in a coherent, linear way. I also wanted to not do those things. Although writing can be a difficult exercise, it’s difficult not to be coherent and linear with writing – if you paint something that doesn’t mean anything to anybody, it’s still comprehensible as a thing that exists, but if you type some incoherent gibberish and put it on the internet, it’s not writing, not anything – it just looks like a glitch, only significant to the person who repairs the program.

There was a French theorist, Dominque Laporte, who took issue with linguistic cleanliness. His book, History of Shit, begins by linking efforts to tidy up language and discourse with the evolution of public health and waste management policies. The article you mentioned, We are all Very Anxious, seems to relate well to Laporte’s discussion of 16th century Parisian waste management – “To each his shit.” The edicts of 16th century Paris were about as effective in making people contain their physical shit as contemporary social convention is at making people keep private their psychological shit. Also, Paris at the time had no sewer system to speak of, so ownership of shit was an inconvenient responsibility.

 

Non-productivity takes quite a lot of effort if it’s going to be workable. There’s a book called You Are Here by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, where he talks about loving and accepting all of your mind. He uses the analogy of gardening – a beautiful flower needs compost to grow, and it will become compost itself in the end. All the garbage is just as useful as the produce, but only if you use it – throwing it away won’t do you any good, not least because there isn’t really any “away” to which you can throw things, as we are learning to our cost.

I’m at a point where I’ve lost interest in growing the flowers. I feel like there are too many flowers, and not enough empty places, left fallow and enriched by compost in the knowledge that something will be grown there one day, but that the growing isn’t the whole point of having the field. This is a difficult thought to express in a way that doesn’t seem irresponsible or pathological, that doesn’t provoke attempts to “reassure me” that “I’m wrong.” Such patterns of response are part of the reason I developed such convictions in the first place.

You know what I like about snails? I like that they don’t tick any of the boxes:

1. They’re not cute
2. They’re not cuddly
3. They won’t be your friend
4. They don’t have a recognizable face
5. They don’t have a voice
6. They steal your lettuces before you have a chance to get at them
7. They are mostly unhelpful to humans
8. They leave a residue everywhere they go and they don’t tidy up after themselves
9. When they get together, they slime all over each other in day-long love-fests where nobody conforms to gender norms because they’re all hermaphrodites and therefore indivisible along gender lines
10. Even if you could get rid of them, you’d do so at your own peril, because their undesirability to humans does nothing to diminish their vital role in the world as a whole

I like snails because they are a reminder that even if I find something unpleasant, or inconvenient, or useless, that does nothing to diminish the worth and rights of that thing. It doesn’t matter how strongly I believe it’s about me.

I like snails because they are a reminder that I don’t necessarily need to be pleasant, or convenient, or useful, not even to myself. It doesn’t matter how strongly I, or anybody else, believes we’re in a position to judge.

This is not a territory, and it requires no defense.

The idea that this is not a territory is also not a territory, but apparently I still feel the need to delineate it somehow. One can’t have everything, I suppose.

I keep trying to conclude this letter, but I can’t. I can only come to a stop. Here is a film about a system:

-K

Letter 7

Dear Katherine,

1.

I keep on having to remind myself that it’s OK to be a field and not a track. A collection of thoughts, point, point, point, what does it mean? The end.

I love the way you describe your experience with mental illness in Letter 6, and also in your essay ‘How Mental Illness can Improve Your Life,’ (such an audacious title, funny like a joke, except you’re dead serious, and you outline so clearly how it can, as though it’s an instruction manual). You write in relation to your aural and visual hallucinations that you were encouraged to ignore;

I take the view… that trying to ignore or overcome these perceptions is precisely the course of action that will most pain and disable me, as it invalidates my only measure of what is real and important in the world – my perceptions.

I’ve always felt that one can’t move anywhere new if one doesn’t have a sense of where one already is. For better or worse I’ve placed importance on understanding my state of mind/body at any given time, especially amongst difficulty, and I have privileged honesty as a key to understanding my place in the world. In this context I see your exploration of your hallucinations as honest and useful. Not that the term ‘honesty’ isn’t problematic, it’s not like I’m trying to talk about purity or a perfect diamond of truth or anything. Really I’m just talking about some sort of internal gaze and judgement: not saying you don’t have a headache when you do, or a situation isn’t hurting you when it is, or that you don’t see the walls breathe when they are steadily heaving out and in.

This approach could be seen to be in contrast to a theory put forward by social psychologist Amy Cuddy that “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”. In a popular 2012 TED talk she states that you “don’t fake it until you make it, you fake it until you become it”. This faking involves tricking your brain into thinking it belongs to a confident and successful human with the sneaky use of body language. Examples include: standing up tall with your shoulders back and spending two minutes with your arms in the V for Victory position before you go into job interviews. In a rather teary moment towards the end she explains how the faking it until you become it technique is responsible for her graduating from Harvard after a terrible brain injury threatened to leave her bereft or her previous scholarly talent.

I did try the technique before a recent job interview, standing for two minutes with my arms raised in a bathroom stall, but unfortunately I didn’t get the job. I’m interested in Amy Cuddy’s research because it means we can transform our identity, and I’m interested in the tension between her idea and mine. If both approaches are valid ways of being an effective Self (which I think they are) which approach do you take in which moment?


2.

As I read it , you seized your autonomy back from people who tried to tell you that your illness is not part of who you are, or something you should mark as invalid. If it’s not part of who you are then your identity is fractured, but by acknowledging and even privileging these unique perceptions, you become a functioning entity. You didn’t fake sanity until you were sane, you dug deeper into the experience to find its meaning. (Not that Cuddy’s work claims to be applicable to hallucinatory experiences, I don’t mean to say that).

Also when reading your latest letter, I have to admit to feeling a twinge of envy when I read the following words.

The more insignificant I appeared according to ordinary definitions of usefulness, the more space I had to explore the world in my own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of my actions.

What you’ve described sounds so luxurious, this non-productivity measured lifestyle. It relates to my fantasy of “a time without tension or striving”, and the piling dust. In trying to find this freedom, there could be seen to be two major cages to liberate oneself from: brain cage and society cage. Paradoxically because of your brain cage you were free from certain societal expectations (although you were given others). I’ve often felt the desire to be free of both cages, and have thought maybe if I was sick enough (which I never have been) I could  be put in a white hospital bed and people could bring me food and I never would have to make another decision again. It’s a perverse fantasy I know. When I was about 18 I memorised these lines from the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Tulips’.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

How free it is, you have no idea how free  

The poem describes her recovering in a hospital bed, and come to think of it reminds me of the Rumi poem that I currently have taped to my bedroom wall, This World Which is Made of Our Love of That Emptiness,

Free of who I was, free of presence, free of dangerous fear, hope,

free of mountainous wanting.

This desire to ‘be free’ is starting to sound like a death wish and reminds me of a facebook status update I saw the other day;

If you seek security in life, unknowingly you seek death. The only truly secure place is your grave.

-Sadghuru

It would be a death wish, except there have been periods in my aliveness when I have experienced this perfect dissolution of my brain cage and in turn my perceived society cage and have felt free, and this is something I always yearn to experience again. 


3.

So now I’m wondering how much we cage ourselves and how much society is responsible for caging us. Like Cuddy I do believe to an extent  in the power of positive thinking. I’ve seen tangibly how the changes in my own attitude affect my immediate environment, how people change their responses to me, and what opportunities in the human world open up as a result of my own positivity. Yet that withstanding I can’t help but notice how my state of mind is affected by greater societal structures.  This article “We are all Very Anxious” describes anxiety as a social not an individual responsibility. Anxiety is the public secret of our time, as misery or boredom has been historically. I didn’t know about this concept of a ‘public secret’ until I read this article, but it makes a lot of sense,

Public secrets are typically personalised. The problem is only visible at an individual, psychological level; the social causes of the problem are concealed. Each phase blames the system’s victims for the suffering that the system causes. And it portrays a fundamental part of its functional logic as a contingent and localised problem…

Things like perceived scarcity, surveillance and societal expectations make people anxious, but the anxiety is described within society as an individual’s problem, it’s something they’re doing wrong that’s made them that way. This issue can also be exploited by commerce;

Then there’s the self-esteem industry, the massive outpouring of media telling people how to achieve success through positive thinking – as if the sources of anxiety and frustration are simply illusory.  These are indicative of the tendency to privatise problems, both those relating to work, and those relating to psychology.

In a similar article ‘The Politics of Depression’, Mark Fisher applies a similar theory to the suffering of depression.  He uses the term ‘Magical Voluntarism’;

 The belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be…

Magical voluntarism is the ideal ideological weapon: it offers an illusory solution to feelings of helplessness, and it reinforces that helplessness by distracting from structural causes of our diminished agency…The end result of this is a chicken-and-egg problem. Magical voluntarism is “both an effect and a cause of the currently historically low level of class consciousness,” Mark writes. “It is the flipside of depression – whose underlying conviction is that we are all uniquely responsible for our own misery and therefore deserve it.


4.

I’ve had an interest in depression over the years because of how it relates to a failed stance, and certain melancholic types of art. I’ve often pondered the nuanced differences between sadness and depression. I really have more of a struggle with sadness that depression, but I remember depression from my adolescence as a sort of colourless leaden weight that descends and makes every action and experience boring. Sadness has the advantage of being, in its way, emotionally satisfying. If you fell sadness you see new colours that you don’t see as a cheerful person, you can cry, which releases toxins and has the same satisfying effect as eating, exercise or sex. If it’s not acute sadness though, it’s melancholy and melancholy has a lower frequency hum that can, if listened to long enough, lead to depression, and depression is not a fun pit to descend into.

 One of my heroes Eileen Myles, doesn’t seem depressed at all, but she does speak about being a poet and its relation to  failure and melancholy. She describes being a poet as something unwanted. This is a bit from her speaking at the Atlanta Art Centre (I’ve transcribed so it’s got that awkward speech pattern to it);

One of the experiences I’ve had as a person who besides writing poems, writes about art & things in the world, the biggest problem is always the pitch.

Like you’ve got a great idea, you’re like, oh my god this is so incredible, then you run to all the magazines and journals you have a relationship with and you’re like “dehdehdehdeh”, and they’re like ‘No’ and then you go to somebody else and you’re like “dehdehdehdeh”, and they’re like ‘No’, and it’s just like this attrition thing where your excited idea just keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller …

And first it’s like you have a great idea, you’re really excited about writing it, and you wanna get paid, and you want everybody to read it. And then you’re like, you’ve got a really great idea,  you want people to read it and you wouldn’t mind getting a little money. And then it’s like, you have a really great idea… And it goes on until it gets smaller and smaller, the worst thing that can happen is that you just don’t write the piece at all, and I’ve wasted some of my very best ideas in that approach…

You know, because the jerky thing about being a journalist is really, unlike say poets, you really actually expect to get paid for your thoughts, you know, so when they pull the wallet away from you and you’re the jerk on the sidewalk reaching, you just kind of collapse, whereas a poet sort of starts off melancholy and you just keep writing because nobody wants it,  and then you’re surprised when they do, it’s like this reversal.

In the way that she describes the poet is a winner in her failure because like you, she is free to  explore the world in her own way, without having to immediately justify the ‘worth’ of her actions. It’s what I hope for us and this bog. We’re on a field not a track, let’s wander through marshland.


5.

I was thinking a little about failure and music last year when I realised that very unlike my previous self, all I wanted to listen to was Pop music, and I was talking to my friend who, like me had been a melancholy tune junky, and she told me that she didn’t know what was happening to her because these days all she wanted to listen to was Soul music. So I said – well Folk music, singer song writer stuff it’s all about melancholy & failure, about being a victim of one’s self pity, or a victim of the world, but Soul music is about resilience in the face of difficulty…and well I suppose Pop music is  just about about falling in (or out) of love and always dancing.

I love the singer, song writer stuff, I love a melancholy individual warbling about how sad they are, I found it remarkable how when Conor Oberst grew up, got famous and more emotionally stable his music concurrently became less powerful. His music had ridden on a wave of emotional energy that couldn’t be sustained, all that self flagellation must have been exhausting.

Jolie Holland has a similar fracture in her voice, which I find totally absorbing. She was a homeless teenager, she’s an untrained musician, she sings songs about her coat wearing thin as she wanders down lonely highways, she says the hardest thing in her career has been to pay her rent, which is sad because she’s so talented, and when I found her music it was like a precious discovery.

Her voice pinpoints a particular unspeakable emotion for me, like an acupressure point.

In ‘Mexican Blue’  she sets up the story up with the first line.

You’re like a Saint’s song to me, I’ll try and sing it pure and easily.

Which she continues to do, the words roll on, there’s no verse or chorus,  the song continues until it loops around at the very end where and repeats the first line.

You’re like a Saint’s song to me, I’ll try and sing it pure and easily.

Her voice is lazy, open throated, touching a place inside that she’s found by breaking herself open through pain or difficulty.  This song takes me to a place of helplessness created by adoration, being happily crippled at the feet of someone you’re in love with. As music can, it takes me to a very specific remembered feeling. It’s Art that’s like a faulty mirror, or parallel universe of emotion. You feel your thoughts have been mirrored or explained for you, but in reality the singer’s story and is likely to be entirely different from yours. The notes just catalysed a sentiment for you. In a 2012 interview Jolie describes the metaphysical effect of music;

Like, when I saw Marc Ribot play, the set that he did changed my life. And I walked out of there and felt amazing and called my best friend … Only a couple of times in my life have I felt like having kids, some moment of romantic insanity or when I watched this because, like we were saying, I just don’t like how my family raises kids… anyway, when I was watching Marc Ribot, it was so crazy, this feeling came up in me where I was like, “I could have kids.” It was so weird and I was telling my friend about that and he goes, “Well, that makes perfect sense because real good music and children come from the same place. They come from the center of your being.” If it wasn’t for him saying stuff like that a lot of things would be mysterious. But he’s so eloquent about really simple metaphysical mechanics. So I think things that bring you back to your experience, like your reaction…to some of the things that I do, that’s what it is. It’s inspiring you to be centered. That’s my metaphysical take.

If I could work my whole life and make something as pure and beautiful in my eyes as ‘Mexican Blue’, I’d like that. The thing is though, her music would cease to operate without a failed stance, because she sings with a cracked beauty, which if it was patched up would fail to have the same bittersweet resonance.


7.

This letter is becoming a little epic and I can’t stop thinking of more connections because you know the world of relation is endless and we live in a time of links and gluts of information, and that’s how my mind is kind of working at the moment, it’s buzzing, which worries me slightly because I think I do my best thinking when it slows down. Perhaps in the next letter I’ll delve deeper into something instead of skirting over the surface of other people’s words like this. Still I wanted to quickly segue from Jolie Holland to Nicolas Jaar (and how did I get here?), because I read this interview with him where he describes a shift in tone from his first album ‘Space is Only Noise’ to his second ‘Darkside’. For him,  idealism and beauty is lost by entering the ‘adult world’ depicted here as technology and politics. It’s cool that he can eloquently explore these polarities, both in his music and his words.

Is this dark perspective evident in your music now?

I was in a very idealistic place during my first two years of college before Obama was elected and when I was making my first album. You can hear it. Idealism in music can be very beautiful. But I can’t be in an idealistic mindset anymore. I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I feel like we’re living in dark times right now, or if it’s because I just graduated from school and realized the world is a big, bad, cold place. Reality just hits you. Everything that I was excited about when I was making my first record were these super idealistic things like: What is love? What is the sky? It’s not like I thought of these things explicitly, but you can listen to some of these songs and think of clouds, earth, rain, or water. Now, I can’t be in that state. I have to get this next project out of me, which is based around TV static, technology failing, and intensity. It’s not a passionate, beautiful, loving intensity, but the type of intensity that you don’t know how to be rid of. The place I’m in now is a much more difficult place to make music in. What I’m interested in saying is more complex. I’m just not interested in showing you a picture of clouds anymore.

There’s so much more to say,

but,

Till next,

Alanna