August 2011

Elizabeth Bachner

features

Charmed: Reading "Humiliation"

“When nude/ I turned my back because he likes the back. /He moved onto me. // Everything I know about love and its necessities/ I learned in that one moment/ when I found myself/ thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon/ at a man who no longer cherished me.” I’m on a bus coming home from Wildwood, New Jersey, reading this section of Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay” in Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation. I somehow got a sunburn on my ankles and near one shoulder. I have a bag of books -- Antonin Artaud’s The Peyote Dance, Nabokov’s Pnin, a book of essays on infinity and the sublime, Snakes with Wings & Gold-Digging Ants by Herodotus, Mark Kurlansky’s What? -- but I didn’t read on the beach at all. I didn’t even think. I just stared at the alien surf and smelled the salt, a good smell, a reason people have always come to beaches for healing.

I’m reading the Wayne Koestenbaum, which talks about Michael Jackson and Eliot Spitzer and Artaud’s awful shock treatments, and ejaculating when you don’t want to, and The Swan and the Holocaust and African women with fistulas, and ends with a short run-down of his humiliations -- sexual, scatological -- stories of insults, rejected essays, failures, begging. Some of them are other people’s shames, and he is only a witness. Humiliation is complicated -- it unites us and divides us. I’m thinking about what, if anything, I’ve learned about love and its necessities. On the beach, I was trying to tell my friend about being at some lake in Bavaria as a teenager, and a woman there who was friends with the people I was with, how she was topless with drooping breasts and hairy armpits, how her face was starting to look old, and how now I want to be like that woman, my body lolling around for the world to enjoy, happy and shameless. But I didn’t feel like talking. I drifted into the horizon.

Camus -- according to my Mark Kurlansky book, which is illustrated by dark, beguiling woodcuts -- defined charm as “a way of getting the answer yes without asking any clear question.” And I think maybe the opposite of being humiliated isn’t being proud or unashamed -- maybe it’s being charming. Maybe it’s being cherished, unabandoned, getting a yes instead of a no, even without asking for anything. My catalogue of humiliations has changed over the years. Now the one that keeps getting to me is hope. In Donna Leon’s Handel’s Bestiary: In Search of Animals in Handel’s Operas, a book I couldn’t wait to read, with illustrations of the twelve animals and an accompanying CD, there’s a beautiful aria from Admeto about love reborn, like a phoenix rising. (“Like the phoenix,/ Reborn from the flames/ In me slowly, slowly,/ Love is reborn./ My heart tells me/That my beloved/Is coming happily to me/And will cast away my pain.”) But the shrieking soprano’s heart is wrong, because it turns out that over the time she’s been agreeing to die in his place, he’s hooked up with someone else. That’s opera. Then there’s poetry -- it uses humiliation, plays with it, exposes it, manipulates it, releases it, without actually being humiliating. Or, maybe poetry is humiliation itself. Are those lines by Anne Carson humiliating, or an un-humiliating exploration of humiliation, or something entirely different? After all, she’s always calling things essays that aren’t essays, autobiographies that aren’t autobiographies.

“Tell it to me, Anne!” writes Koestenbaum. “Which is more humiliating -- the action, or its repetition in a poem? Carson becomes an artist… because she has the nerve to put her little burning red backside like a baboon into a poem that is nominally an essay. Carson isn’t humiliated. She is elevated…”

He’s assuming, of course, that the “I” in the poem is Anne Carson, one of my favorite translators of tragedy. That it’s her ass, Anne Carson’s little red ass. That it’s her lover, Anne Carson’s lover. That it’s true, whatever true means, that this lover, Law (“the man who left in September”), no longer cherished her at that moment when she gave him her naked back. It’s a thrilling thought, that a moment in a poem or story or essay made of glass is something real, a true event held naked in a spotlight, undying, precise, wing-pinned and fixed in time. It’s also a thrilling thought that a moment or event can be written so it feels real, when actually it never “happened,” not in the way things happen to us, outside of words. It satisfies me that Wayne Koestenbaum brings up “The Glass Essay” in his chapter on Antonin Artaud, for whom writing was a kind of psychic surgery. A world-twisting. It also satisfies me that he uses a Sylvia Plath quote (“Fine Jew Linen”) to title the previous chapter, because this whole question -- of the humiliated, sexed body in a poem, or in life -- makes me think of that poem, “Lady Lazarus,” a line that runs through my head over and over again -- I do it so it feels real. (“Dying is an art/like everything else./I do it exceptionally well.//I do it so it feels like hell./ I do it so it feels real./ I guess you could say I’ve a call.”) Plath’s Lazarus rises out of the ash with her red hair like a phoenix. Donna Leon notes that the Arabian Phoenix, in medieval bestiaries, was hermaphroditic. It sprang from a worm. It was a suicide and a pyromaniac. When it felt like it was going to die, it would build a nest of spices, then use the sun to set itself on fire, by frantically flapping its wings. It would burn to death. After three days, it would come back to life out of its ashes.

The hermaphroditism is important, because, whether Anne Carson is the same as the “I” in “The Glass Essay,” whether that poem is pure autobiography or impure autobiography or a twisted version of events, a purified version of events, a dirtied version of events, the author inhabits and animates, in the moment of writing, both the naked lovelorn girl baring her ass, and the man who leaves her. Artaud, writes Anne Carson in a different poem, “felt God pulling him out through his own cunt.” Koestenbaum gives a rundown of Artaud’s psychiatric treatments that hurts to read: he was “injured and terrified” by fifty-one electroshock treatments, which fractured one of his vertebrae and sent him into a coma. He had intestinal hemorrhages. He lost his teeth. The poem Anne Carson is referencing is “Artaud the Momo”: “god/sat down on the poet/in order to sack the ingestion/of his lines/like the head farts/that he wheedles out of him through his cunt.” She assumes -- like Koestenbaum assumes about the naked girl in “The Glass Essay” -- that Artaud is the same person as the poet in his poem.

On the bus on the New Jersey turnpike, almost everyone is sleeping, and I’m listening to the bus driver lecture a young girl about her love life. How she should learn to cook. How yes, her ex was a dog, but she has a tender heart and she shouldn’t take her hurt out on the next guy. I start reading Pnin, where the narrator is definitely a different man entirely than the hapless protagonist. The narrator is a master of language, while the protagonist, in exile at a Cornell-like school, speaks in musical Russian but his English is murder. The protagonist has missed the Cremona bus, and has the wrong lecture in hand. The narrator appears. “Some people -- and I am one of them -- hate happy ends,” he writes. “We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would’ve preferred him to discover, upon his arrival in Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner -- a fruit cocktail, to begin with, mint jelly with the anonymous meat course, chocolate syrup with the vanilla ice cream.”

I, for one, love happy ends. Love triumphing. Dead birds coming back to life and soaring away, being adored by the man who is clutching my naked body, being on the right bus, getting there in time for dessert. But the girls (and sometimes boys) in my writing are usually fixed in a moment of being charmless, uncherished, wanting to die. If I read it properly, these are stories of my life exactly. If I read it properly again, they are completely unfamiliar. In real life, I’m on the salty beach, I’m on the bus, I get a yes answer, I make it to Cremona on the first try. If it doesn’t work out that way, I guess I rise up and do it again.

A friend recommends Max Frisch’s Montauk, which, even though it was written before I could walk, turns out to be about me and a man I know. Even though I don’t have red hair or small breasts, even though he is not sixty-four, even though neither of us is anything like either of the characters, and we haven’t just been to Montauk, and we haven’t been involved for the past few years, or maybe we were never involved. It’s out of print in translation, so I order it at the Strand. On the back, it says it’s an autobiography, but actually it’s a novel, with unchanged names, with characters from real life. “The writer,” reads one of the sections set in the White Horse Tavern, “is afraid of feelings that are not suited to publication; he takes refuge then in irony; all he perceives is considered from the point of view of whether it is worth describing, and he dislikes experiences that can never be expressed in words. A professional disease that drives many writers to drink.”

In “The Glass Essay,” Anne Carson, or the woman in her poem, fears turning into Emily Bronte whenever she visits her mother’s house. “my lonely life around me like a moor,/ my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation/ that dies when I come in the kitchen door.” When she reads the section of Wuthering Heights where Heathcliff clings at the lattice in the storm and sobs, “Come in! Come in!”, she falls to the carpet and sobs, herself. “She knows how to hang puppies/ that Emily.” Anne, or her protagonist, is enthralled by Emily Bronte’s biography, by the details of her real life, her real body, the real or invented lives and bodies in her collected works. Anne herself, or the poem-girl, remembers too much, according to her mother. She remembers that childhood feeling, when “hearts shut /and fathers leave to go back to work /and mothers stand at the kitchen sink pondering //something they never tell.” “Why hold onto all that?” asks her mother. “Where can I put it down?” asks the poet. I can’t read the description of what happens -- in that poem, in life -- around that scene with the burning red baboon sex without crying. It isn’t humiliating. It’s something there aren’t words for.

The last time I saw Law was a black night in September.
Autumn had begun,

my knees were cold inside my clothes.
A chill fragment of moon rose.
He stood in my living room and spoke

without looking at me. Not enough spin on it,
he said of our five years of love.
Inside my chest I felt my heart snap into two pieces

which floated apart. By now I was so cold
it was like burning. I put out my hand
to touch his. He moved back.

I don’t want to be sexual with you, he said. Everything gets crazy.
But now he was looking at me.
Yes, I said as I began to remove my clothes.

Everything gets crazy. When nude
I turned my back because he likes the back.
He moved onto me.

Everything I know about love and its necessities
I learned in that one moment
when I found myself

thrusting my little burning red backside like a baboon
at a man who no longer cherished me.
There was no area of my mind

not appalled by this action, no part of my body
that could have done otherwise.
But to talk of mind and body begs the question.

Soul is the place,
stretched like a surface of millstone grit between body and mind,
where such necessity grinds itself out.

Soul is what I kept watch on all that night.
Law stayed with me.
We lay on top of the covers as if it weren’t really a night of sleep and time,

caressing and singing to one another in our made-up language
like the children we used to be.
That was a night that centred Heaven and Hell,

as Emily would say. We tried to fuck
but he remained limp, although happy. I came
again and again, each time accumulating lucidity,

until at last I was floating high up near the ceiling looking down
on the two souls clasped there on the bed
with their mortal boundaries

visible around them like lines on a map.
I saw the lines harden.
He left in the morning.

It is very cold
walking into the long scraped April wind.
At this time of year there is no sunset
just some movements inside the light and then a sinking away.

This was her first love, so “it was like a wheel rolling downhill.” She starts meditating. Every morning, she has a vision -- a naked glimpse of her soul. She calls them Nudes, Nude #1, Nude #7. Nude #13 is a naked figure that comes unexpectedly, not in the morning but at night, “trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones. /And there was no pain. /The wind //was cleansing the bones. /They stood forth silver and necessary. /It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all./ It walked out of the light.”

I’m starting to head towards home, towards Secaucus, towards Elizabeth, where of course I am inside myself. Soon I’ll be back in the city, my city, where there is an Elizabeth street, where it’s too hot to have a good summer anymore, where the air smells warm and unnatural these days. I start reading The Peyote Dance, Antonin Artaud’s true (?) 1936 story of tripping with the Tarahumara Indians in Northern Mexico. “The Tarahumara live naked in the winter in mountains that are made impassable by snow, in defiance of all medical theories… Incredible as it may seem, the Tarahumara Indians live as if they were already dead. They do not see reality and they draw magical powers from the contempt they have for civilization… For them, to live in the city is to be mistaken.”

Of all the poets and painters and relatives and acquaintances and strangers and public figures that Wayne Koestenbaum invokes in his meditation on humiliation, he concludes: “My favorite humiliated artist and writer is Antonin Artaud.” I can see why. Artaud was always ranting about how books and poems should be destroyed, how they were unreal and untrue. He thought that writing was filthy. But then, even off in the wintry Mexican mountains (where he wrote that his three days on the hermaphroditic, erotic peyote root “seemed like the happiest days of my life. I had stopped tormenting myself, trying to find a reason for my life, and I had stopped having to carry my body around. I realized that I was inventing life, that that was my function and my raison d’etre, and that I suffered when my imagination failed, and Peyote gave it to me”), he is still obsessed with concrete art and literature, with Plato and Bosch, with artifacts that capture heaven and hell and recreate them, pin their wings and fix them and leave them behind. And who knows what the real lives of the Tarahumara Indians were like, their true experiences, their true bodies, their true economy, their triumphs and subjugations, their prides or shames.

“I would like to write a Book which would drive men mad, which would be like an open door leading them where they would never have consented to go, in short, a door that opens onto reality.” He tried. Like every real poet, he succeeded. And he failed. His work was charming and humiliating. In Interjections, he writes about a “type of book absolutely impossible to read,/ that no one has ever read from end to end,/ not even its author,/ because it does not exist.” Koestenbaum relates to Artaud’s feeling of trying to get a book out, “pullulating, in the body of Man,/ turned over and over like a turkey on a grill.” Koestenbaum says, “That is what it feels like to write: I’m nailed and buggered and stabbed by incubi and succubi. And each stab, each penetration, each pullulation, is a phrase I try to turn into a complete sentence. The process of making art -- no party -- has the atmosphere of an internal crucifixion.” It makes me think of Henry Miller’s rosy version, in Plexus: “Once I thought that I had been wounded as no man ever had. Because I felt thus I vowed to write this book. But long before I began the book the wound had healed. Since I had sworn to fulfill my task I reopened the horrible wound. Let me put it another way... Perhaps in opening the wound, my own wound, I closed other wounds, other people's wounds. Something dies, something blossoms. To suffer in ignorance is horrible. To suffer deliberately, in order to understand the nature of suffering and abolish it forever, is quite another matter.” According to Wayne Koestenbaum, Jean Genet (a sexy “criminal-lyricist”) represents the principle that “although humiliation hurts, it is an oblique pathway to transcendence,” with transcendence being the wrong word. “Perhaps I mean the cessation of suffering.”

Koestenbaum himself sees writing as a place for purging, “a regurgitation.” I’m not sure whether I see it that way. Maybe my miraculous, live body, lolling happily on the beach, is the site of poetry’s purging, and not the other way around. I love happy endings, even when maybe, like Timofey Pnin and not his narrator, my language is murder and not music. I count on the rare moments when doom gets thwarted. I always think, lurching around on a wrong bus, that I’ll be arriving in time for the fruit course.

Bestiary phoenixes, writes Donna Leon, have the unfortunate tendency to look like dodos “or, well, like a summer barbecue.” These magnificent birds suffer from the problem that no artist has ever seen one. The phoenix’s triadic coloratura “gives a sense of someone doing handsprings for joy,” for she is sure her beloved’s return “will drive away all suffering.” Poetry is my first love. I’ll always hold my little ass open for it, always let it see me shrieking and jumping for joy even when it won’t meet my eyes, always let it charm me, always hop, dodo-like, onto the grill and burn all over again.