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

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Letter 6

Dear Alanna,

There is a book entitled Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. On its cover, it’s billed as “a metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” I never finished reading this book, but I definitely made it past page 152, on which the author demonstrates his (somewhat tongue-in-cheek)

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

^^^^^

Due to a series of complex and pervasive internal tendencies and environmental events, I spent most of my adolescence and early twenties wishing I could avoid doing or being anything at all. The options with which I had been presented had always seemed undesirable, and I was becoming increasingly aware of how incompatible I was with them. At the same time, I had been taught to endure things rather than to seek better alternatives – any deviation from a particular definition of the norm was not so much unacceptable as impossible. It took a long time to unlearn this, but I think I still did so on a kind of fast-track, by virtue of becoming insane.

When one becomes sufficiently mentally ill, a lot of ordinary pressures are immediately lifted (although, obviously, a lot of other pressures become immediately more apparent). When one is judged to be medically ‘incurable’ with a life-long disability that is expected to render one unfit for almost all of the activities commonly regarded as ‘productive’, then suddenly one’s failure and inadequacy become, in the eyes of many, not a feared possibility but an inexorable certainty. This conclusion is arrived at not due to any real understanding of one’s situation or potential, but simply by habitual definition.

My previous letter’s description of failure as an untrodden field, rather than a deep hole from which to escape (which seems to be a more common conception), comes from what I’ve learnt about language and social expectation as a result of being seen (by many, though not by all) as someone who is trapped in a dark pit, from which I could not even see the pit, much less the surface.

Although I agreed with this pit-definition (or peat-bog-definition, perhaps?) for a time, eventually I began to question this assumed relation between other people’s definitions and my tangible reality. I began to enjoy ‘being sick’ because it allowed me so much freedom to define my life and work in a way that made sense to me. The mental-illness-as-pit-of-eternal-woe conception I encountered in others became a kind of disguise. 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.

I also realized that the act of appearing productive is often the only method we have for judging productivity, even within ourselves. I had been largely absolved of that particular responsibility, and yet I felt that my time was much more fruitful now that I had no reason to care about its actual or apparent products.

Things are a bit different for me these days, but the insights I had then are no less pertinent now. All of which is an incredibly long-winded way of answering your questions

When are you getting things done?
When is your seeming unproductiveness generating seedlings beneath your feet?

The short answer to the latter question (and possibly also the former question) is: “probably always.” The short answer to the former question (and possibly also the latter question) is: “I don’t know, because I’m not entirely sure what I’m even trying to do in the first place.”

Your quote from Quentin Crisp provides an even shorter expression of my thoughts:

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

^^^^^

I’ve been constructing a little darkroom in the basement, taping cardboard over all the sources of light. I thought I’d blocked it all out until I sat in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, at which point all the little glowing spaces became visible. I called Adam down to confirm to me that there were still gaps for light – that I wasn’t just imagining them because I’d been down there too long with nothing to look at – but he couldn’t see them. He hypothesized that this was due to his eyes not being properly adjusted to the darkness, rather than me being in the dark for so long that I had to imagine there was something there, when really there was nothing.

^^^^^

Your comments about Slack Time and Against the Rage Machine made me think of an incredibly prescient book I’m reading at the moment, Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It was written in 1985, and starts off like this:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
[emphasis mine]

Postman wrote this before the internet came into public use, and he died in 2003, before the explosion of social media, YouTube-comment wars, and Twitter #protests. His book, a discussion of the way in which the content of discourse is changed (he thinks damaged) by an image-heavy, context-poor medium, was based upon an analysis of the epistemological assumptions inherent in the medium of television.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet, so I don’t know precisely what the author’s conclusion is going to be. I do agree that Huxley’s dystopian vision is closer to our reality than Orwell’s. But I also incline towards the idea that part of the problem is the unquestioned definition of irrelevance as detrimentally murky or unproductive – something to be overcome, a hole out of which we are constantly trying to escape. Perhaps irrelevance has proliferated, but I don’t think our knee-jerk definition of it has changed, even though it seems we are all feeling increasingly bogged down by irrelevance’s necessity.

…don’t lose your nerve because after the first four years the dirt won’t get any worse.

worm mrow