December 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


A Thousand Substitutions: Reading A "Mourning Diary"

I’ve been reading memoirs, letters, and other people’s diaries. Human lives are complicated. It seems like people are always getting blindsided by each other. I like it when it turns out that there’s a good explanation for everything. I like what happens when chaos gets turned into a story, chiseled into coded language. Then again. I’m walking through a cold subway station, headed to a party, wearing a black trenchcoat, reading Mourning Diary. I glance down at the tracks and realize that the world would be bigger, maybe, if I stopped trying to mark everything with my thoughts, to record everything, to pin it down. What’s a diary? Life? Lies? A toilet basin, full of vomit? A toilet basin, properly full of pee? Art? The truth, exposed? Or just taxidermy?   

In Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s, Marijane Meaker (aka M.E. Kerr) and Patricia Highsmith are talking, sometime in the middle of their love, about the suicide of Arshile Gorky. Before he took his life, his wife was leaving him, taking their kids, his work had been burned in a fire, and his neck was broken. Pat -- who is hard-drinking, difficult, and looks a little like Nureyev -- says she could handle the first thing and the third thing, but not the second. Marijane, who writes under pseudonyms all the time, and can’t leave a girlfriend without having another one on the burner, says she wouldn’t be able to stand any of it.

Reading diaries, biographies, and memoirs leads to thought distortions. I start to make Freudian rules about how things work. For example, if you have an overinvolved, emotional-incest-ish relationship with your mother, you’ll either end up in a series of wrong and misguided attachments that don’t work out, or you’ll be freed, once she’s dead, to finally fall in love. In No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, Brooke Berman slips into a happy marriage right after her mother’s funeral. She’s finally able to say goodbye to a man she’s been on-again, off-again with for many years. In Diana Souhami’s Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, Romaine Brooks never quite recovers from the icky presence of her crazy mother. Marguerite Duras writes and rewrites, living in a loop of ritualistic response to her mother’s legacy. Then there are the Frenchmen -- your Roland Bartheses, your Marcel Prousts, your Gustav Flauberts -- who think that their mothers are perfect, who live with their mothers for years, like (sexless?) lovers. Surely, it’s no accident that these men are our most masterful chroniclers, ever, of erotic solipsism -- that Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, is a crazed and comprehensive anthology of every manifestation of romantic narcissism and the sickening anxiety of unrequited love? Of course you experience love as nausea and despair, if you’ve never let yourself get away from the sticky clutch of your Oedipal complex, right? But then, these guys were also sickly and frail. And, they were writers. So where, exactly, do the laws of cause and effect come in?  

I keep a journal in my bag, so that I can write down anything that needs to be written down. And I keep a journal on my computer, where I record my thoughts and feelings and selective details of my life, unedited but accidentally expurgated. Sometimes I feel like these diaries are talking back to me. It’s a bad relationship, audienceless, like sharing your love with a parent in some house near Rouen rather than braving the transition to getting to know a real other person, outside of infancy, outside of fantasy. The reason for the in-my-bag journal is fiction, the parts of a made-up-on-purpose story that can’t wait inside me until I get home. But I’ve been filling it with stories about my real life. On that subway platform, suddenly, I decide to stop. Because of all of the things I leave out, that were there -- I write down the green eyes of someone I love, but leave out his mouth that looks older since last time I saw him. I write down the empty subway tracks, and the way I look at them, but I leave out the man behind me, looking too. I leave out the dirt on the walls, the rip near the heel of my boot, the mouse scurrying away, with its tiny beating heart. And I put things in, that aren’t there, that never existed. Freudian rules about myself, or Roland Barthes, or Romaine Brooks. Ideas about how the world works or ought to work. Self-chastisement, self-aggrandizement, mystification. It’s taxidermy, for sure, isn’t it? Stuffing something dead into the shape of a live thing.

Barthes’s Mourning Diary isn’t a real diary. It’s notes on index cards, written in the years after his mother’s death. Like his other work, it is beautiful, incisive, complicated, and profound. Like his other work, it’s an act of art. And like his other work, it’s an act of neurosis. Is it neurotic to mourn, to be lovesick, to be backward-looking, to have a kind of hypomanic awareness of past, present, and future? Maybe, maybe not.

May 25, 1978: “When maman was living (in other words, in my whole past life) I was neurotically in fear of losing her. Now (this is what mourning teaches me) such mourning is so to speak the only thing in me which is not neurotic: as if maman, by a last gift, had taken neurosis, the worst part, away from me.”

October 6, 1978: “Hence, actually: Winnicott’s psychotic, I fear a catastrophe that has already occurred. I constantly perpetuate it in myself under a thousand substitutions.”

And, back on October 31, 1977: “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it -- or without being sure of not doing so -- although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths.”

November 2, 1977: “What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind.”

The fear of making literature of it.

There’s this wonderful Maurice Blanchot essay, “From Dread to Language,” where he talks about how funny it is when a writer tries to write, “I am alone” -- addressing a reader, and using methods that prevent aloneness. Of course, you can choose not to write. Or you can write like Kafka, wrongly expecting that some Max Brod will burn all of your journals, as instructed, when you’re dead. You can tell the story of your love affair, or your intimate friendship, with a dead person, like Marijane Meaker does with Patricia Highsmith, or Ann Patchett does with Lucy Grealy. You can tell the story of your love affair with a live person, like Mircea Eliade did with Maitreyi Devi, who tried to defend herself, or like Joyce Maynard did with J.D. Salinger. You can publish your journals while you are still alive. You can decide never to write anything down, to tell yourself a poem in your head and keep it inside you, forever -- but it all still begs the question, what are people doing when they’re writing? Obviously, for a lot of bad and badly-edited American misery memoirists, there’s no fear of making literature of it -- more of a scramble to make a product out of it.

But what about when it’s more authentic than that, more a self-reckoning act, more a neurotic ritual, more an episode of artistic combat with lived reality, more a losing battle with one’s presence of mind? Blanchot points out that writers live in the throes of treacherous contradiction: “Work is temporarily possible in the impossibility that weighs it down.” They get tempted into “bizarre projects,” like trying to make a work from which the possibility of a reader will be excluded, or destroying work as soon as it’s made. “These attempts have in common the fact that they are seeking a complete solution to a situation that would be ruined and transformed into its opposite by a complete solution.”

The writer does not write in order to express the concern that is his law. He writes without a goal, in an act that nevertheless has all the characteristics of a deliberate composition… he is responding to a demand, and the response he makes public has nothing to do with that demand. Is there a vertigo in dread that prevents it from being communicated? In a sense, yes, since it appears unfathomable… he says to himself: I will never convey this suffering faithfully. But the point is that he imagines there is something to convey; he conceives his situation on the model of all other human situations; he wants to formulate its content; he pursues its meaning.

I know some very intimate things now, about Roland Barthes. His mother, calling to him from her deathbed, “Mon Roland, mon Roland!” Now I was there, or am there, just as now you’re with me looking at those subway tracks. Now I see people differently, the way he does -- the ugliness or beauty he didn’t see before, the ineluctable “having-to-die” that hangs on them. I am (I was?) now a part of his mourning (“Mourning: a cruel country where I am no longer afraid”) and his suffering. But then, November 26, 1977, it is scary: “What I find utterly terrifying is mourning’s discontinuous character.” And then, November 30: “Don’t say Mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.” It makes me think of pop-Buddhism -- pain is mandatory, suffering is optional. Clean pain is the shock of a real event, and dirty pain is your thoughts and rituals and revivals of it afterwards.

And then I have the cold-subway-station revelation -- writing is suffering! Writing is mental illness, dirty pain, repetition compulsion, not just neurosis but an act of psychosis, even! I just have to write down this brilliant thought, surely a great contribution to the annals of literary theory or psychoanalysis or at least to some essay I’ll write someday, or if not that, an important note for my own journals, when I go back and try to understand myself better by wading through all of my recorded history. I lean against the dirty wall and write this in my notebook, and then three seconds later it’s clear that it’s a wrong thought, of course not really original, definitely not really true, and I’m still looking at the empty tracks because the G train never comes, and I want to figure out, before the party, all the things that writing really is, and all the things that writing really does, or I want to stop thinking about it at all, the way sometimes you want to stop re-imagining someone’s face after you’re not going to see them again. And I’m suddenly scared, like a psychotic might be, of how discontinuous everything is, and then in the same moment or maybe in a moment strung right after it, I enjoy the chaos and the way it shares time and space with everything making perfect sense. I go on to the party, and I don’t write this down.  

Later, I write to my friend that I think first-person nonfiction should be like ballet -- the ballerina’s body is onstage, she’s showing the curves of her breasts and her soft inner arms and her rounded ass, she’s not hiding anything. But she isn’t just padding out onto the stage naked, squatting, and taking a dump, either. If you show some part of yourself onstage, there should be a reason for it. This takes practice, painful hours of practice and study, for something that looks effortless because of the way you do it. I’m obsessed with ballet metaphors, I use them for almost everything, and later I realize that this one is especially wrong, since a woman taking a naked dump onstage might be an exquisite performance, as valuable and tender and artistic as ballet, or even better. I try to figure out how to articulate the difference between icky journals or the self-congratulatory purging about eating disorders and involuntary stints in rehab that comes out of pricy writing workshops, and writing as art, and I can’t find a way to say it at all. Either there aren’t rules about it, or I don’t know them. I just know that there’s awe-striking ballet, and awe-striking seventies performance art, and there are awe-striking genreless acrobatic stage acts, like James Thierree’s, that can sweep an audience into a different world and leave us there, and it is less about the medium than about the artist’s practice, his or her purity and diligence and courage and charisma and genius. I also know that in my dip into memoirs, and biographies, and other people’s diaries and letters, I’ve been butting up against the ugly and the beautiful, the fascinating and the workaday, the phony and the real-seeming -- almost as if I were bumping my way through a crowd of human bodies. Another great idea for the notebook! The memoir-reader is a kind of parasite, visiting someone else’s innards without offering them anything. Or, the memoir-reader is, metaphorically I mean, the object of a Frenchman’s unrequited love, the witting or unwitting victim of a parasite, of someone’s presence of mind -- not a real person, but a mere projection, destined to never fail or die, destined to never be imperfect, destined never to respond, except within the cyclical confines of the memoirist’s fantasies.

“The opposite of automatic writing,” according to Blanchot, “is a dread-filled desire to transform the gifts of chance into deliberate initiatives, and, more specifically, the concern to take upon oneself, as a power in every way similar to chance, the consciousness that adheres to rules or invents them.”

Barthes, December 29, 1977: “The indescribableness of my mourning results from my failure to hystericize it: continuous and extremely peculiar disposition.” But he is describing it, describing its indescribability, like Blanchot’s author, ironically writing about his solitude to a not-yet-realized reader.

May 31, 1978: “It’s not solitude I need, it’s anonymity (the anonymity of work). I transform ‘Work’ in its analytic meaning (the Work of Mourning, the Dream-Work) into the real “Work” -- of writing.) For: the “Work” by which (it is said) we emerge from the great crisis (love, grief) cannot be liquidated hastily: for me, it is accomplished only in and by writing.”

I’ve been visiting that private moment between Pat Highsmith and Marijane Meaker in my head, where they were together in their home, lovers who would someday stop being lovers, lovers who would someday die, talking about Arshile Gorky, a favorite artist of mine, an artist I’ve thought about, myself. If I had to guess a reason for his suicide, I would’ve probably gone way back into his past, all fleeing and exile, all genocide, his mother dying of starvation when he was in his teens, a trauma irreparable, even by painting a haunting portrait based on a photograph. Maybe it is wrong to guess at the reasons for someone’s suicide. Some people cope through mourning, through suffering, and some do not. Writing about it, painting about it, is temporarily possible in the impossibility that weighs us down, building angoisse about a catastrophe that has already occurred.

If we tell other people our stories, we do it so badly -- or so well -- that we turn them into something else, art or lies or half-truths or words on pulped trees or mounted heads, whatever can outlast the clean moments of real life.

We are alone.