31 May 2017

The Political Is Personal

First on the Wire.
In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, 'All our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.'
Every word here – and in the book itself – serves to underscore how primal experience is. Terminology is important; studying the events that make the world what it is – that’s important too. But all of this, all this reportage and study, our obsession with current affairs, with having an opinion on current affairs, might yet obfuscate the impact of the affairs themselves, of the individual strands that make up collective memory, the faces that add up to statistics.
Critics have been prophesying the death of the personal essay – and, by extension, the memoir – for a few years now, disdaining the inward struggle in favour of subject matter of wider import. But interiority lends focus in times of upheaval; subjectivity can be a matter of relevance and even necessity. How does one disengage from oneself, from identity politics for that matter, while addressing events of global significance? And how are these events to be amputated from the inflections of the body and mind and heart?
To eject the self from the larger narrative is a kind of renunciation that might be celebrated for objectivity, but objectivity can be a kind of laziness too, a kind of fence-sitting, a refusal to commit to a stand or an opinion. To forget that the part can stand for the whole is also to miss the trees for the woods; to liken the personal essay to the narcissism of the Instagrammable moment, to the capsule-sized wisdom of a viral tweet, is to rob the first-person ecosystem of grades and shades and nuance. Not every personal experience is reflective of the state of the world, but is it so reductive to say that some of them are? Isn’t this what we do anyway – mine the richness of personal history for insight?
How is one to untangle the labours of grief and tragedy without surrendering to the yawning depths of rawness and honesty with which our greatest writers have given it voice? There are sentences in H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald or The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion that I have stared at for hours, unsettled by the accuracy with which the writers seemed to be disassembling feelings that I had thought were my very own, and mine alone. The comfort I have taken from the books, the solace, is not merely in identifying with them; it is in knowing that bereavement is a thing that has been experienced by people other than myself, that others have gone there, to wretchedness, and – here’s the thing – that they have returned; that in wreckage and rubble, there is room for construction, for magical thinking. And of course I am fully capable of coming to this realisation on my own – just as MacDonald is fully capable of recovering from her loss without training a goshawk named Mabel – but these little acts, reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, are ways of looking for ourselves within the design of human complexity, of taming our sorrows alongside our falcons.
There’s hardly a sentence that I haven’t underlined in my copy of A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit or in The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan or in Living by the Word by Alice Walker, my marginalia mapping my own journeys alongside theirs. Personal criticism – my favourite writers on their favourite writers and artists – cultivates intimacy with the unknown with a kind of connectedness that cannot be anything but a private relationship laid bare: Teju Cole on Virginia Woolf in Known and Strange Things, Pico Iyer on Graham Greene in The Man within My Head, Zadie Smith on Katharine Hepburn in Changing My Mind.
It doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t always work the same way for everyone. I’ve been unmoved by Haruki Murakami on music, Cheryl Strayed on survival or David Foster Wallace on anything in the world (but especially on Dostoevsky), and I’ve failed to take to Knausgaard on the subject of Knausgaard, but I’ve seen these writers annex the thought patterns of other readers in ways of which I’ve been jealous. Where the form does crumble is when the writer takes precedence over the text, when the medium becomes the message, when provocation is the intention and not the result; that’s the vainglorious, self-righteous petulance (I’m looking at you, Lena Dunham) that leads critics to compare the art of the personal essay to the espresso-shot cleverness of the social media missive or the thought-for-the-day calendar,
Reading is a hall of mirrors that winds unendingly, each reflection a jolt of memory and consciousness. It is a reminder of the unknowability of the self and the desire to know it anyway. The personal essay, even when seemingly unserious, humanises the universal and locates the global within the local. The subject can be less important than the way it is unpacked. I’d read an essay on a toothpick if it was written by, say, Annie Dillard or Jeanette Winterson or Mary Oliver. The personal essay – the kind that is intimate and indwelling, confessional and probing, raw enough to be tender and real and blistered, the kind that scrapes away the clean neutrality of verifiable fact in favour of the wringing, dirty cesspool of emotion that is the effect of these facts – is a spectacle of empathy, a way of reacquainting you with yourself, yes, but also with the world.
The personal is political because the political gets personal. If we forget this, we might forget to read each other.

22 April 2017

Jo March: the Calm and the Storm

First on Scroll

This is the culture of apathy: drizzle, don’t drench; don’t let anyone know you care. Emotional investment, or even the appearance of emotional investment, weakens you. Coast along. Don’t let art speak to you. Don’t even look at art long enough for it to speak to you. Do not care. And if you have the audacity to care, don’t, for god’s sake, let anyone know. Stay casual. Aloof. Chill. Netflix.

Except it’s mind-numbingly dull to never immerse, to never have enough conviction in anything to go for broke. The absence of immersion is not an insurance policy, it’s a forfeit of pleasure altogether. If caring is too much effort, then not caring, for all its ease, is a kind of exhausting vacuum, a hollowness, a paralysis of sensation, a shallowness of feeling. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s pretty damn dull.

All of which is to tell you why exactly I found myself drawn to Jo March as a young reader of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It was not just because of who she was, but – as in the case of any real engagement with art – because of who I was. I found her liberating; she seemed to be legitimizing an earnest sort of ferociousness that is so frowned upon by the purveyors of ‘chill’ with all their cynicism and snark. Her blood rose fiercely in tempers both good and bad, in both love and fury, in the density of emotion and the soaring lightness of rapture. Above all, there was the free-wheeling abandon with which she allowed herself to feel things. No restraint for our Jo, thank you very much.

All of this had a profound effect on me. It had a potency that punctured every flimsy intention, every casual pursuit I strayed towards. Nothing, Jo appeared to be telling me, would be good enough if it wasn’t explosive: art had to make you cry and books had to make you sigh; you had to hunger for things; what you had to seek were experiences rather than possessions (Jo’s eagerness to go on that trip to Europe with Aunt March must be the origin of every listicle ever written about reasons to travel in your twenties). Getting by would not cut it for her. Passion was strength, and detachment was weakness.

Years later, I chanced upon that oft-quoted passage from My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl: ‘I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.’ This reminded me so much of Jo March, who could never do anything by half measures. I have felt this, always, in the people I admire: a throbbing heart, a ferment of intensity, a madness, white-hot and passionate.

There was too in her a sense of self-doubt that would never leave her, a quest for self-improvement, a strain that runs through all of Alcott’s fiction, but most particularly in this wild child. ‘I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end,’ she says. That very mutability kept her fluid, it made her strive to be better each day than the one that before it. While I adored the self-possession of the Austenian heroine, it was in Alcott’s Jo March that existence preceded essence. I found that it pierced something in me. How keenly I felt this too, this never-ending desire to remake myself.

And that elasticity of temperament – of essence ­– was, for me, a function of her androgyny. That has always been the classic appeal of the tomboy figure. Always full of binaries, she seemed to be saying that you never had to be of just one humour, that your nature could be contradictory and still be meaningful. Jo was just as capable of proudly chopping off all her hair as she was of bawling pitifully at the absence of the same hair.

It even felt as though the dichotomy between Laurie and Fritz was centering Jo. In Laurie – the ostensible man-child with surprising depth – existed the same curiosity and restlessness, the perpetual disquiet, the appetite for struggle, the vexation with smallness, the urgency to be free, the itch to see more, to feel more, and indeed to love more. There was an almost fearful conviction in these two that the world would not be enough. But Fritz! While Laurie stoked fire with fire, Fritz was pacific, a replacement for Beth, almost, with his tenderness, delighting in Jo with an adoration that might have been paternalistic had it not also been so respectful. If one was the eternal boy, the other was the wise older man, but neither fully belonging to either trope.

Fritz’s expertise stemmed elegantly from his reading; Laurie’s shrewdness derived from an innate mordancy. Our Jo, though, analysed everything afresh. She had no capacity for rote. Her suffrage argument was a product of such carefully reasoned thinking: ‘I find it poor logic to say that because women are good, women should vote. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are male, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.’ Remarkably, she came upon this entirely on her own, not through any preexisting familiarity with, say, Susan B. Anthony. If Fritz’s knowledge was scholarship and Laurie’s cleverness was wit, Jo’s wisdom was investigative, in a constant state of development, never fully formed. Each opinion she espoused was constructed anew, diligently worked out and inferentially unscrambled in that very moment. Almost nothing was a long-held view, lazily regurgitated for argument’s sake.

I don’t suppose I can get away without admitting allegiance to either Team Laurie or Team Fritz, but I’ve always been the girl who wanted both Paris and Menelaus, both Peeta and Gale – and neither Wickham nor Darcy. Laurie and Jo brought each other alive; Fritz and Jo harmonized with each other. And in both relationships there was a sense of bedazzlement: they were always marvelling at each other’s brilliance, never a moment when one grew too accustomed to the other’s radiance to cease to be amazed by it. My reading was populated with men who attempted to tame their shrews, but these two men let Jo be. If Laurie whirled into the tornado, Fritz stilled its blast. As far as I was concerned, Jo needed them both. Between the two, they mirrored her twofoldness. Neither possessed her duality, and although I wished Alcott had created, for Jo, a man (or, indeed, a woman) who was part Fritz and part Laurie, I had no trouble seeing them as two sides of the same coin. It’s a coin I’d flip every day.

In one of their cozy chats, Beth tells Jo: ‘You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone. Meg is the turtledove, and Amy is like the lark.’

Contentment is all very well, but Jo knew it took a storm to stir things up. 

28 January 2017

Paradise Lost - and Regained


Apathy happened almost imperceptibly. It spread like slow poison, a piecemeal thing at first. Then, it grew insidious. I saw the rupture only after it had actually happened: I seemed to have stopped reading. Sunday afternoons passed without my picking up a book. There were, all of a sudden, unwatched shows and unfamiliar music and neglected friendships crowding my time and mindspace; there was something there at first, discovery, rediscovery, the unalloyed empiricism of fresh experience, the thrill of uncharted waters, the reaffirmation of old intimacies. It wasn’t so bad, this not-reading thing, I reasoned with myself with a desperation that reeked of the sourness of grapes; maybe this was what they called a well-balanced life.

No, it wasn’t that I couldn’t read or concentrate or that I lacked the attention span. In any case, the fact was that I was reading, and reading constantly, for work. But when I desultorily picked a book off the shelf, I seemed to be treating it like that most prosaic of activities: a chore. I was reading as though what I wanted was the final product, the feeling of accomplishment that came at the end of a book, the knowledge of having finished it, not the exploit of reading as a thing in and of itself, of staring at a sentence until it swirls around so fast that it begins to make sense in thirteen different ways, of that lurching, hard consciousness that, for the lack of a better word, I will call recognition, but by which I mean finding oneself revealed in the pages of a book, finding one’s private adventures filched from one’s brain and rendered with the particularness of a particular writer, and by which I mean the thing that Pico Iyer refers to as ‘hauntedness’. And by which I mean this: instead of reading to decode the world, I was reading to decode the book.

I was frightened. This thing, this creeping sickness of mine, had become a barnacle; it had latched on to me, and I didn’t know if I even could fight it off. Of the many fears that plagued my overwrought spirit, the unexamined life was a principal player. When I longed to make sense of the ways in which the world ravaged itself, and sometimes me, I would glance wistfully at my bookshelf, feeling cheated and resentful that books were not granting me deliverance. It was like sudden faithlessness: it was in my darkest moments that I most needed the light. In the past, reading had helped me uncover my demons so often and so elegantly that without it I was a worse person, or at least a much less self-aware one. I found myself grasping for metaphors that I could not auto-complete because I no longer had the reference points to do so. On sleepless nights, in the haze of insomnia, I would reach under my pillow, like a creature of habit, for a book that was never there. Reading had become my phantom limb, my ex-lover, the tan mark of a wedding ring taken off. I chanced upon terminology for what I now was, a ‘lapsed reader’, but diagnosis was not a cure.

It snuck back up on me, though, my reading habit, a few months after I first noticed its absence. And let me admit to you: it was the Kindle that saved me. I’d owned a Kindle for years, but had only used it occasionally – long-haul flights, road trips, out-of-print books, that sort of thing; it was a sometime companion. I romanticized the scent of paper, the texture of a hardcover, the folding of a crease, the dog-eared ends of a well-loved volume. But one day, due to nothing more dramatic than boredom, I ended up sliding back, not to reading but to rereading. I’m tempted here to quote Nabokov: ‘Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.’ But in truth, I had no lofty intentions at the time. I was alone in an airport. I had missed my connecting flight. I had hours to myself, no cellphone reception, no wireless connectivity, no laptop, multiple coffee vouchers – and my Kindle. And so, feeling a bit woebegone, I flipped my device open and my eye instantly fell upon a novel I had read several times before but hadn’t read in years.

It doesn’t matter what the book was. Oh, all right. It was Of Human Bondage. It had been recommended to me in my youth by a teacher as a pairing for Great Expectations, which I was meant to be studying at the time. I had read Maugham then with twin sensations that are so often found in each other’s company: trepidation and impatience. I’d discussed it with that teacher for hours, even written a paper on it, and argued endlessly about it with a friend (so endlessly that references to that exchange pop into our conversations even today). So you get the picture: it wasn’t just any book, it was a book that held meaning for me at several points. When I acquired the Kindle, it was one of the first to be added to my digital bookshelf. There was a history there, an important one.

I read tremulously at first, stricken with terror that it would now lose meaning for me – or, worse, that I had imagined it in the first place, in that plaintive way in which I sometimes snap up the coincidences that inevitably conjoin distant occurrences. But that barnacle had transmogrified now into a different creature, a persistent straggler inhabiting the last light of a better day, clamping on to the footboards of an overfull bus about to depart.

I was reading skittishly still, scared of something different now, because I knew how blithely this beast of mine could leap off the rampart. If I made too many sudden movements, if I stopped to eat or drink or breathe, if I overanalysed the moment, would it flutter away? I treated it delicately, as a brittle object, a soldier come home from war.


What happened next was the relapse of an addict. One book led to two, which led to ten. Which led, of course, to freedom.