In the first week of my undergraduate class on literature and attachment, we discussed excerpts from John Bowlby’s foundational work, A Secure Base (1988) and Bruno Latour’s essay “Factures/Fractures: From the Concept of Network to the Concept of Attachment” (1999). Although Bowlby and Latour approach the subject from very different perspectives, they agree on one thing: there’s no wriggling out of attachment.
As Bowlby writes, having explained the three basic attachment patterns—secure, anxious resistant, and anxious avoidant (based on the findings of his former student, Mary Ainsworth), “each pattern of attachment, once developed, tends to persist.”
As Latour puts it, “We can substitute one attachment for another, but we cannot move from a state of attachment to that of unattachment.”
For Latour, the important factor is not the attachment pattern but the object to which the subject is attached, and whether, as he puts it quite starkly, the object is good or bad, “morbid” or “redemptive.”
Latour doesn’t elaborate on what he means by good or bad but his main example is that a smoker cannot hope to become detached from smoking but only “that other attachments will come to substitute for this one.” Latour cites a study about substituting methadone for heroin, so I took that model to be what he had in mind, that model being one in which “the aim is to substitute methadone, a legal, oral opiate with a long half-life, for the illicit, parenterally administered heroin, which is associated with a high risk of morbidity and mortality. (Anderson, I B and T E Kearney. “Use of methadone” Western journal of medicine vol. 172,1 (2000): 43-6.)
Or, in the example I breezily presented to my students, “I get really distracted by my phone,” I confessed earnestly, “but my Mum just taught me to knit and I’ve found I’m spending much less time on my phone!” Here, I gestured smugly to the knitting stashed in my Virginia Woolf tote bag.
The class went really well and ended on a high note when one student posed a final question that used the Bowlby to gain a new vantage point upon the Latour.
She looked worried as she asked it. “So Latour says the important question is whether your attachments are good or bad. And that you can substitute good attachments for bad attachments.” But what,” she continued, “if you’re the anxious resistant type, and you’re just always attached to bad things. Or what if your attachment pattern makes things … even good things … bad?”
I was so jubilant at how she’d so deftly woven the two texts together that, in the moment, I just stood there, admiring the question as it hung in the air like a glittering spider’s web in the rain; and then we were out of time, so I just grabbed my knitting and left.
Knitting insinuated its way into my life so smoothly. These days when I leave the house for work my last minute check has an extra step: phone; wallet; keys; laptop; knitting. Part of the reason knitting integrated itself so seamlessly into my daily routine was that the knitting itself was easy. I was knitting a blanket square by square. Once I’d got the hang of casting on and off, completing a square was delightfully straightforward. My hands wanted to knit even when my hands were empty. Sometimes when I wasn’t knitting, I would fantasize about knitting. Dive under; loop over; push through; slide off; dive under; loop over; push through; slide off.
But then, a few nights ago, I hit a snag. A strange excrescence had appeared out of nowhere below my right needle, its lumpy appearance marring the effect of the rows of even stitches below it. What to do? I had absolutely no idea, I realized, of how to go backwards. Stay calm, I counseled myself. Theseus used the ball of thread to get out of the labyrinth. You just have to retrace your steps.
I tried, gingerly, going one stitch back and then one stitch forward; but neither undid the mess. I felt myself start to panic.
What’s done cannot be undone.
I was completely stuck. Suddenly I was just holding a ball of wool and two sticks. What the fuck even are these, I thought to myself, staring at the knitting needles in dismay. The whole thing had become completely illegible to me, just a big, poky, tangle.
It was time to start reading stories to the younger and she’d gotten to bed late the night before.
She came in to see what I was doing.
“It’s all gone wrong!” I wailed.
“Just call Elo!” she urged.
“I can’t,” I whimpered, “it’s in the middle of the night there.”
She sighed again.
“Well just call her tomorrow.”
I knew I needed to lay the knitting down and start reading but I could feel tears filling my eyes at the very thought—at the idea that I would lay it down and not know where to pick up.
Let me just try to figure out how I can fix it, I thought. I Googled unraveling knitting and watched snippets of various YouTube videos and found a technique for unknitting stitch by stitch. But it didn’t seem to work and the sensible no-nonsense tones of the knitting YouTubers rubbed me the wrong way. I was left with even more of a mess.
My cheeks hot and my heart beating fast, I laid down the knitting and picked up Mary Poppins, which we’d just started reading. The younger was now overtired and fussy and I was irritable. She wanted Fudge-a-mania not Mary Poppins.
“But the thing is,” I tried to explain steadily, my voice growing shrill, “I actually don’t think I can read that book out loud again.”
There would be no spit-spot into bed that night.
When she was finally asleep and I went back to my own bed I thought about going to sleep but I just couldn’t. I picked up the knitting. It didn’t look so bad. But when I studied the two needles and the stitches held between and tried to imagine how to undo the defective stitches or transfer them from the right needle to the left, it engendered the same feeling of vertiginous panic as contemplating a horrendous equation. I felt nauseous.
All of my attempts at rescue produced more knots, but also, unfairly, a bigger hole. I watched more YouTube videos and finally decided, close to midnight, to attempt a drastic solution. I removed both needles and started unraveling my knitting down until I reached the part that was free of knots and holes. The yarn yielded stitch by stitch, as I gently pulled. It was pleasurable the way that ripping something along a perforated edge or toppling a line of dominoes is pleasurable. I could see the danger; once you started unraveling, it was difficult to stop. But I did stop. And then, holding my breath, I re-inserted the needle. It seemed to work. I knit forward with alacrity, eager to finish the square. The finished square was not perfect; there was a deviation in one of the rows, like a scar, I thought; but I felt ecstatic.
It was after midnight.
The next morning, galvanized by my triumph, I talked sternly to the younger, with Poppins-like authority, about dawdling at bedtime.
But as we were walking to school I admitted, “But it was my fault too. Because I wanted us to get bed early but then I got distracted by trying to fix my knitting.”
“Why did you get distracted?”
“I don’t know. I just felt like I couldn’t put it down.”
“It’s like knitting is your screen time,” she observed casually.
“Hmm,” I said.
“And then you stayed up till midnight knitting,” she went on. “You’re really addicted to it!” she exclaimed.
“Huh,” I said, uncertainly. “I guess I am.”
I have to finish proofreading something tomorrow. I had been putting off even starting it for weeks and today was the day I had resolved to start. So I went to the yarn store and picked out some beautiful soft yarn for a new project. It was thicker than the yarn I’d been using for the blanket so I needed some new needles, but I wasn’t sure what size. I asked the very patient assistant who had already been advising me.
“Well, it depends on your knitting style,” she said. “What’s your pattern, do you tend to knit loosely or tightly?”
I shook my head. “I really … I really have no idea,” I said … “Uh, perhaps you could look at my knitting and tell me?”
She smiled, but her gaze did not drop down to the knitting in my bag to which I was gesturing. Instead she held my gaze for a second, strode to the back of the store, grabbed something off a rack on the back wall, and then strode back to the cash register.
“I think these will suit you,” she said, handing me a pair of needles, each one the thickness of a fountain pen. I believed her.