September 2012

Elizabeth Bachner


History of My Mind: Reading “The Walk”

I’m standing in the dirty lobby waiting for books. “It’s my birthday,” I say to the mailman. “Happy birthday!” He says. “How old are you, sweetie?” I say, “I’m thirty-eight,” and I remember how long it used to take to get ready to be a new number like that, seven instead of six, eighteen instead of seventeen. “I wish I was thirty-eight,” says the mailman. I say, “You look thirty-eight,” and he does, he looks exactly thirty-eight. He says, “Thanks, you made my day. The problem is I don’t feel thirty-eight.” “I know!!” I say, “I feel about a hundred!” “Exactly!” says the mailman, “It really kicks the shit out of you, doesn’t it?” When I was thirty-six, I was suddenly with a younger man, the kind of man who treks and ice-climbs and snowboards and surfs, you had to put him on a loop trail or else he just wouldn’t come back, and I started getting carded everywhere I tried to buy beer, even places where they didn’t card college kids, even when the younger man was nowhere around. There was something about the happy molecules of my body, of my face, that looked a little like extreme youth, even though a few months before that I’d felt old. Now I’m thirty-eight and the younger man and I aren’t in touch, except he texts me two days after my birthday, “I can sail without wind, I can row without oars.”

For my birthday, books come. Sometimes when I was seventeen and pretty I felt old and ugly. Sometimes now when I look at people I can’t see ages at all, just the weird mystery of how they got here and what they’re doing here, the puzzle of why they won’t be here very long.

The weekend before my birthday there was a meteor shower, but I was here in the city so I couldn’t see it. I didn’t make any wish. I walked up and down along the Hudson River greenway, looking at a beautiful purple sunset over the buildings across the water in New Jersey, sitting on a granite bench, or looking at my thirty-seven-and-eleven-twelfths-year-old face in the mirror of the dark public restroom by the soccer field.

I had Robert Walser’s book The Walk with me, a tiny light book, the right book to carry on a walk, and I kept rereading the devastating, complicated passages right at the end, right before he decides it’s getting too late to keep walking: “As I observed the earth and air and sky, a melancholy overwhelming thought seized hold of me that forced me to say to myself that I was a poor prisoner between heaven and earth, that we all were miserably locked up in such a way… As I asked mankind to forgive me, still lying there deep in thought, that girl fresh with youth came once more to mind with her so childish, pretty mouth and enchanting cheeks… how when I had asked her not long ago whether she believed I was sincerely devoted to her, in her doubt and disbelief her lovely eyes had looked away, and she had said No.”

Robert Walser was thirty-nine when The Walk was published, three years after his father’s death, a year after his brother Ernst died in the Waldau mental home, two years before his brother Hermann committed suicide in Bern. “(We) were all miserably locked up in such a way… for all of us there was nowhere a path into the other world save the one path that led down into the pit, into the earth, into the grave. So then this rich life, all beautiful, bright colors, this joy in life, and all this human meaning, friendship, family, and beloved, the tender air full of gay, delightful thoughts, houses of fathers, houses of mothers, and dear gentle roads, moon and high sun, and the eyes and hearts of men must one day fade away and die.” Once Robert Walser was institutionalized for good -- he suffered from depression, anxiety attacks, hallucinations, and bad insomnia, and he was vague in response to questions about his suicidal ideation (years earlier, he had tried to kill himself but failed because, as he put it, “I couldn’t even make a proper noose”) -- he quit prose and poetry. “I’m not here to write,” he told a visitor, “I’m here to be mad.”  

At thirty-eight years old, according to Eric Hanson’s A Book of Ages, Henry Miller picked up and moved to Paris, where he met Anaïs Nin for the first time. Titian painted Sacred and Profane Love. Ezra Pound moved to Italy, “where he would fall deeply in love with Vivaldi and Fascism.” Pete Townshend announced that The Who was over, and took a publishing job at Faber and Faber. Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian, Albert Einstein had his first divorce. Chekov took back his vow to quit theater forever, and restages The Seagull in Moscow, where it’s a huge success. Boccaccio, who had survived the Black Death of 1348, started writing The Decameron.

At thirty-eight and one-week old, I’m reading piles of library books about psychiatric drugs and schizophrenia and clinical depression. I’m reading Coming of Age on Zoloft. I’m reading books by Ram Dass, including a meditation guide with wonderfully soothing drawings of small, round meditators -- they remind me, for some reason, of the marmosets described in Peter Kramer’s Against Depression: “softball-sized monkeys convenient for laboratory research.” I assume the little monkeys are convenient that way not because of their size, but their humanness -- their capacities for fear and grief, their attachment to love objects, their inability to always live in the moment with abandon. The research model involves “traumatizing a pregnant mother with startling noises.” My questions about whether we’re here to write, or here to be mad, or just here, or not really here, aren’t different now than they were when I was six or seventeen.

I have a nightmare where I’m seventeen, I’m scared as hell not sure why. When I wake up it’s three or four a.m., and I’m more frightened than in the dream, and then I take in my surroundings -- the dark room, the thirty-eight-and-one-week-old body, the pile of menacing books about mental illness. I flick on a light, and there are colorful greenmarket fruits, and birthday cards, and the fear fades back into my dream.

I’m arguing with Peter Kramer in my head. I like reading Peter Kramer. It’s not that I’m pro-depression. It’s not that I think writers and artists need any particular form of illness or madness or suffering or trauma to work, any more than dancers need plantar fasciitis or torn ligaments to work. It’s just that, if a prima ballerina trains properly, at some point her body will get injured from the training or in the performance. Her body will also be honed and stretched, brutalized and seduced, into something more beautiful than it might be if she sat on the couch all day and never danced. Maybe, rarely, like Margot Fonteyn, she will dance Giselle at age forty-two and it will be an incredible Giselle. Always, no matter how she trains or how beautiful she stays, no matter how many drugs she’s given, no matter how many scientists experiment on how many sad monkeys, her body will give out for good and she will die and not dance again, the way Margot Fonteyn died of cancer at age 71 in Panama City. Do I think we shouldn’t try to treat diseases? No, of course we should try to treat them -- but we should be careful not to treat tendonitis by lopping off a dancer’s legs.

Should we try to find technologies that make sure human beings will never physically die anymore? I don’t know. Maybe.

Peter Kramer believes that, despite life’s setbacks, “most people muddle through happily enough.” I don’t know whether he’s right, but, in the tedious imaginary arguments I keep having with him in my head, I think he’s missing the point. It’s not that mental or emotional jaggedness or distress cause revolutionary creativity, or that they must always coexist with it -- it’s just that usually, the work involves pushing yourself past capacity, intense wear-and-tear, even when there’s happy muddling, too. Tendonitis doesn’t cause a genius for ballet -- the genius comes from a combination of magical, inexplicable talent and tortured, brutal, euphoric, relentless training. The training causes injuries -- a study in the journal Anxiety, Stress, and Coping found that the injury rate for ballet dancers over an eight-month period was around 61%, comparable to other elite athletes. People who never dance or write or paint get these injuries, too -- sprained ankles, hallucinations, clinical depression, hypomania, wrecked rotator cuffs -- it’s just that pushing emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually usually shakes up the system. I’m not sure you can ever dance Giselle like that without ending up in Panama City with an arthritic foot -- literally, metaphorically. (An observer, on Fonteyn and Nureyev: “If most people are at level A, they were at level Z.” Fonteyn: “Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.”)

I’m thirty-eight and one-week-old. I will never, ever dance Giselle like that, not at six and not at seventeen and not at forty-two, not at seventy-one in Panama City. I won’t be dancing Giselle at all. But here I am, beautiful in my own way, and one of a kind, like every happy muddler, like each softball-sized monkey. I have to train anyway, and training is dangerous.

In the nightmare where I was seventeen I was screaming at my mother: “I’m not an adult!”

On the cover of the 2012 English-language edition of Stephan Zweig’s The Struggle with the Daemon: Holderlin, Kleist, Nietzsche, there’s Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare. The nightmare in that dream-painting is a stout imp, angry, hunched on the belly of the white-clad, sleeping woman -- all blond and rosy, her soft neck exposed, her arms dangling, closed eyes rolling back and her mouth ajar, like maybe she’s dead instead of sleeping, of course. If I believe that my nightmare is a thing outside of me, a real thing, a monster or beast or demon or man, maybe I need an antipsychotic, or maybe I’m just working. On the cover of my library copy of Julia Kristeva’s Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, there’s a detail from Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of his wife and children. It’s just a profile of a face, sad and innocent.

Reading too much could be a sign of (hypo?)mania, or maybe I’m just working. At age thirty-eight and one-week, I haven’t been diagnosed with mental illness, but I’ve found myself and everyone I know in the pile of psychiatric books by the bed where I had the scary nightmare. The spectacular, lobed brain each of us has, perched unsafely on our skinny necks, is harder to read than a ballerina’s foot or leg. A quote from Empedocles, in the beginning of “Fall into the Infinite,” Stephen Zweig’s chapter on Holderlin turning thirty: “What is unique, breaks.”

I like Empedocles, his theory of a universe of love and strife, his obsession with the pores of the body, with breath. Of course Empedocles was probably not one of the happy muddlers. He threw himself into an active volcano, hoping to be turned into a god. (He just turned into a corpse, like everyone else. The volcano spit out his sandal.)

A friend who forgot my birthday forwards me an e-mail from a beauty editor at a magazine, looking for women who are willing to get Botox between their eyebrows and be photographed as “befores” and “afters.” Weirdly, I’ve just gotten some of my vaccines for an upcoming trip, and I’m having less-usual side effects from an injection, including extreme itching. I am feeling rejection-sensitive like always, but unusually injection-sensitive, too. I google around and read about Botox-injected monkeys. I’m reading a section of Ram Dass’s Still Here, where he goes to give a talk at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills for a Swiss company that makes “age management” cosmetics -- it pays thousands of dollars, he rationalizes, which will go to his foundation supporting cataract surgery for the blind. A skin nutritionist talks everyone through a test where they pinch the skin on their hands for five seconds, and watch how long it takes for it to move back into place. Ram Dass’s hand-skin is not youthful or supple -- the pinch of flesh doesn’t move until he pushes it. I find Ram Dass comforting now, the way I found Sesame Street comforting when I was six, or Anaïs Nin comforting when I was seventeen. I pinch my hand for a long time. The skin moves back into place right away.

A friend who remembered my birthday got me lots of wonderfully Tang-scented organic cream and oil. I rub it all over myself. I picture the mailman slathering himself with lotion and cream, and Peter Kramer doing it, Anaïs Nin and Holderlin and Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, Holbein and Fuseli and Stephen Zweig and Virginia Woolf and the beauty-editor-friend-of-friend, and Robert Walser who truly looks miserable and hangdog in the photo I have of him, and Heinrich Von Kleist, whose body was in perfect health when he killed himself, all of his organs intact, a body for ill people to envy. Zweig: “Other imaginative writers have lived more finely, have rowed with a longer stroke, have been in closer touch with life, furthering by their own existence, and transforming, thereby, the destinies of the world. None has died more splendidly than Kleist.” Before Kleist’s death, says Zweig, “no one wanted him.” He wrote a self-portrait akin to Rousseau’s Confessions, titled History of My Mind, which was described as very moving by the few people who read it, but either he burnt it himself or the people left with his literary estate destroyed it, along with a couple of his novels. I picture the skin on all of these people, how everyone’s skin gets saggy and un-dewy at a certain point unless we die too young.

Eight years before his “bodily suicide,” Zweig tells us, Kleist adopted the “more desperate… mad expedient of spiritual suicide” -- he read his work and found it wanting. He went to Paris and burned it all, a finished manuscript and several manuscripts in progress. But “the destruction of the manuscript had been as unmeaning an act as that of one who should fire at his image in a mirror. True, the menacing reflection may be shivered into fragments, but since that is merely a wraith, the true double continues to lie in ambush.”

I think about a section of Coming of Age on Zoloft, where Katherine Sharpe tells her therapist that dealing with her self-hatred is like trying to scratch her left elbow with her left hand. (The therapist says, “That’s why there are two of us.”) I think about distinctions between the “body” and the “ego” and the “spirit,” the “real self’ and the unreal (?) self, distorted by pharmaceuticals or by illness, my thirty-eight-and-one-week-old skin, my wrinkled face at sixty if I’m lucky, or a world then with the absence of my face. I think about “real” writing and art, and the fake kind. When I was six and when I was seventeen, I thought work could only be good if a daemon showed up to make it. I still think that today. Someone interviewed in Coming of Age on Zoloft describes questions about who we really are, the “authentic’ self, as teenage and cheesy, and it’s true, at thirty-eight I’m teenage and cheesy, just like I was at six or at seventeen, love-obsessed and dippy and into Romantic art. In Be Love Now, Ram Dass says that the guru and God and the self are all the same thing, and I think this is true even if you don’t believe in gods or gurus or selves, true according to the laws of physics and mechanics, true in the sense that we’re all part of the same wild pile of energy and light. We’re ourselves and each other, both. Maybe it’s not a prison. What is unique, breaks.      

I’m reading the final pages of Robert Walser’s The Walk again, the part where evening comes. He’s on a quiet, pretty path, and his old failures flare up, self-accusations that “made [his] heart a burden to [him].” He’s astonished by his “countless frailties, unfriendliness of various sorts as well as all the lovelessness which I had caused people to feel.” I wonder how autobiographical The Walk really is, since the poet-protagonist says he loves writing “passionately.” If he didn’t walk, didn’t get invigorated by “beautiful nature” teeming with “living poems,” he would “not be able to produce an essay, let alone a story.” Walser (not his protagonist, or, maybe his protagonist after the end of the story) quit writing, but he always kept walking. He wasn’t a suicide in the end, and he didn’t die young -- he was seventy-eight, out on one of his strolls. It was Christmas. It was a heart attack in the snow.

Stephen Zweig says, of Holderlin and Nietzsche and Kleist, that “they hurtled towards the infinite in a parabola which seemed scarcely to touch our world of actualities… they knew that their actions were not the outcome of their own volition, but that they were thralls, were possessed (in both senses of the word) by a higher power, the daemonic.” Which, according to the DSM-IV, is something that ought to be corrected as soon as possible. But is that like curing someone’s tendonitis, or treating her tendonitis by lopping off her leg? (And then reporting, “The patient now has no tendonitis.”) Maybe it’s a trite question. Everyone has a daemon, according to Zweig -- that unrest, that part of us that strives “with tense passion” to “rejoin the superhuman,” that part that drives each of us “out of himself and into the elemental,” towards danger and ecstasy. But most people keep a tight lid on it, “chloroforming it with the dicta of conventional morality, numbing it with work…” We’re all here, still here, even if we never paint a Sacred and Profane Love or write a Decameron. Was Robert Walser (his protagonist?) right? Is there “no path into the other world” except the path leading down into the pit?

Thirty years ago I was on vacation in some southern state, not my vacation but a grown-ups vacation, and every day I would take a long walk in some private animal garden, a not-quite zoo. In one cage was a softball-sized marmoset. No matter who else was looking at him, he would always pick me to visit. He would crawl along the metal bars towards me with his tiny, human hands. No matter which animals were in the other cages, in the other little prisons, I would always pick him. I don’t know how old the marmoset was -- maybe eight, also? He had wise old eyes. I wanted to ask him, Why are we here? I made a wish that I could know his birthday. I wished I could bring him some books, some pens and paper, even though marmosets don’t use those things, even though maybe those things don’t help.