juvenilia

I’ve been going through a lot of old papers recently and today I came across a lot of artwork I produced in my teens. (Be forewarned, then, that what follows is simply a sampling of the artwork I encountered, and that, like most children’s artwork, it is unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than my Mum and me.)

For me, though, this was a really exciting discovery–it had been at least twenty years, maybe more, since I opened these sketchbooks and folders. In viewing the contents I found myself marveling–not at the work itself, but at how much time I devoted to making art, and in recalling the combination of freedom and discipline that constituted my art instruction.

The practice was to spend time, a long time, looking, really looking, and making marks on the page that were as authentic as possible to what you observed. That was it.

The objects we were encouraged to draw included: still life (the art room always had objects and plants in various shifting configurations for this purpose); the human body (we had life models who would pose for us at school, and we were also encouraged to draw ourselves); and landscape–in this case, the urban landscape of North London. I remember the many hours I spent, to my Mum’s slight concern, hanging around King’s Cross in the years when it was a pretty barren and seedy area in the midst of huge construction. My friends and I would take the bus from school and then park ourselves somewhere on the building site and spend hours making drawings of piles of rubble and half-demolished buildings.

We were also encouraged to spend time making sketches of art objects, whether images of artworks we found in books or objects in museums. Many times, we’d show up for art class and our wonderful teachers would encourage us to go and park ourselves at one of London’s museums all day and just draw for as long as we could. Those were well-spent hours.

at the British Museum

east pediment

 

Assyrian spirit

at the Victoria and Albert Museum

victoria and albert purse box

drawings from books

Seurat

Degas

schiele black ink

Dancers

I took ballet classes very regularly throughout my childhood and teens. Although the sketches below were made from photos, I also remember observing some classes and making very quick sketches from life. Drawing dancers while they are moving is really really hard.

greek dancersdancers

Life drawing

One day I want to write more extensively about the I think fairly unusual fact that in my mid teens (15, 16) I spent a lot of time making pictures of the naked human body, not least my own. We regularly had life models in our art classes at school. I drew myself naked all the time. I happily posed for my (female) friends in my art class. My friend from college, Sarah Jane, tells how, when she met me, she was startled by how much I seemed to like my own body–which I still do–even though it never did look in the least bit like the bodies of models I saw in magazines.

I think now that although at the time I happily embraced Sarah Jane’s notion that I just had a naturally “healthy” body-image, the truth is slightly stranger. For me, the combination of practicing ballet and painting made me regard my body almost as an abstract aesthetic object: a form that could be endlessly rearranged to make beautiful shapes.

I’m struck now by the fact that, in the third picture below, where I’m sitting cross-legged, my breasts look really uneven. Everyone’s bodies are, of course, asymmetrical; both my body and face are quite strikingly so and, while I’ve certainly felt self-conscious about this at times, I don’t think it ever occurred to me when I was making these drawings that what I was seeing was anything other than a pleasing combination of curve and line and light and shadow. Maybe that’s what comes from hours gazing at Grecian ruins in the British Museum.

The technique, by the way, in the brown-colored sketches before is one I only have ever used in secondary school. The head of the art department, Joe Kusner, had developed this technique: he would brush liquid potassium permanganate onto brown paper. We would then make sketches on the paper using charcoal and use lemon juice (which would bleach the potassium permanganate solution) to add light. I still really love the atmospheric effect it creates.

tendu self-portraitcross legged self-portrait

cross leg lemon

portraits and self-portraits

This is a watercolor I did of my Mum in Iona in 1994–so the summer I turned 20. I think it may have been the first time we went back to Iona after my Dad’s death.

Mum watercolor

I find both the self-portraits below quite strange, but I like them as a pair: one ethereal, one earthy, almost as if my face is made of clay. I think I was maybe 14 or 15 when I made both of these.

self portrait potass lemonself-portrait acrylics

things from home

I still have the waistcoat from which these details are taken. I actually wore it at my father’s funeral, when I was 18. I probably bought it at Camden Lock market.

Pakistani fabric

The two items below remind me so strongly of home. My parents were both devoted drinkers of Lapsang Souchong tea. Loose tea was kept in the Japanese-style caddy (made in Sweden)!

tea

chocolate bar design project

For one of my GCSEs–the two-year courses that, in England at the time, you took between the ages of 14 and 16–I chose a graphic design course. It was probably my favorite course, besides English, and this project–designing a chocolate bar–was my absolute favorite. It involved a lot of “research” consisting of buying and consuming the full spectrum of chocolate bars available at the shop around the corner from my house. Honestly, what I love most about the image below is the border, of which I was especially proud. I drew it in black and white and made photocopies and hand colored each page individually using felt-tip pens, which I remember finding incredibly soothing.

choc final idea

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belongings, collected

  • Shoeboxes containing Christmas tree ornaments individually wrapped in newspaper, two
  • Plastic water bottles, the kind you might use while hiking, two
  • Box containing some kind of insulating tiles for soundproofing (maybe?), one
  • Carry-on sized suitcase, one, in which was packed the following:
    • Dog bowls, two (one plastic, one wooden)
    • Ceramic bowl decorated with dogs that the kids bought him one year for Christmas, one
      • Was it meant for humans or dogs to drink out of? We could never tell. It was from Anthropologie, so I don’t think it was ever intended to have any use-value as such
    • Zip-lock bag of dry dog food, one
    • Black white bandanna, one
    • Pair of Williams sweatpants, one
    • Monogrammed residency graduation jacket, one
    • T-shirts, two
      • striped, one
      • with some kind of nihilist quotation on it, one
    • Bills, two
    • Long letter his ex-girlfriend wrote him after he met me and broke up with her, one
    • Contact lenses, an odd number—which is always irritating with contact lenses, isn’t it
    • Clothing that belonged to his Mom that I kept after we went through a bunch of her old clothes and were deciding what to give to Goodwill, three items
      • fleece socks, one pair
      • Cream-colored linen dress that I kept because I thought it was pretty, but I never wore it, one
      • Her wedding ring, which I zipped in the right-hand pocket of her fleece jacket; at first I put it in with the contact lenses in a zip-lock bag but that felt wrong, one
    • Beach umbrella, one
    • Boogie boards, three (three!)
    • Beach chair, one
    • Foldable cart for carrying beach gear, one
    • Beach bag, one, in which I housed:
      • Several Russian dolls, well-used and well-loved in this house. They will be missed

 

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Six Feet Over

In darkness, and with dangers compassed round,

And solitude; yet not alone, while thou

Visitest my slumbers nightly, or when morn

Purples the east: still govern thou my song,

Urania, and fit audience find, though few.

(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 7, l.26-31).

 

Just a quick note to say that I’ve temporarily decamped to a new space: https://sixfeetover.blog

Why would I create another site when I have a perfectly adequate one here? Did I need another blog? Did the world?

Of course not! And do I need to eat dinner at a restaurant, or to hug my friends, or to travel to faraway places to see far-flung loved ones?

No, I do not need any of these things in the sense that I can survive (I am surviving) without them. Such activities do not constitute the necessities of life. But how sorely I miss all those things and many more that are not necessities but which make life so much sweeter.

In making another site—another blog—then, I was giving expression to the impulse I articulated in my previous post: the impulse for more than enough, for what is superfluous, gratuitous.

So, if you’re not in the mood for any content right now that gilds the lily or over-eggs the pudding, you should definitely not subscribe to Six Feet Over here.

Because if you’re in the market for useful information, top tips, or proven data, Six Feet Over is definitely not for you. Subjects explored in recent posts include: a Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth dance number performed to a song by Cole Porter; Mary Ainsworth’s Strange Situation procedure; the uncanny eighteenth-century genre of eye portraits (I even tried making one myself—see below!); sewing inspiration from The Sound of Music; a taxonomy of masquers; and much more.

You see? All utterly useless.

Oh, actually, I take it back. I did have some tips for mitigating the coronavirus catastrophe on a global scale.

I know the prospect of venturing beyond the duck-rabbit hole’s cozy confines may seem unappealing in these troubled times; but you can rest assured that, those tips for global-catastrophe-management aside, Six Feet Over’s content is not viral in theme; moreover, its readership is so very small that its potential for going viral is negligible.

I hope to have assuaged any qualms you may have, and to see you there. I’ll be keeping an eye out for you.

warm eye

Govern thou my song, Thalia, and fit frivolists find, though few.

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Fattening the Curve

“… wherever, for the sake of the necessary motion of the parts, with proper strength and agility, the insertions of the muscles are too hard and sudden, their swellings too bold, or the hollows between them too deep, for their out-lines to be beautiful; nature most judiciously softens these hardnesses, and plumps up these vacancies with a proper supply of fat.”

(William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753)

 

Remember when you didn’t know what “flattening the curve” meant?

Like you, I am now all too aware that the phrase refers to slowing the speed at which a virus spreads, and that, in our current moment, the phrase is usually invoked in reference to social distancing as a practice that it is hoped will diminish the rate at which COVID-19 is devastating the world.

But cast your mind back, back through the mists of time to February.

Back then, I, for one, would have taken the phrase “flatten the curve” for a Hogarthian term of art in reference to the necessary measures needed to correct a “too bulging” line.

plate 49

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1, Figure 49

Or perhaps, along the same lines, I might have taken it for a mantra used in a barre class to be repeated under your breath as you contract your abs.

“Abs.”

The other day, after her bath, the younger was standing in the hallway in just her underwear admiring herself in the mirror.

“I have a 4-pack!” she announced proudly. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” she added.

I rolled my eyes and pulled up my shirt.

She examined my torso, frowning.

“Are you tensing?” she asked.

“Umm, I think so?” I said, uncertainly.

Finally, she declared, “I don’t see much.”

“A 1-pack?” I suggested.

“Let’s say a 2-pack,” she said generously and then added, consolingly, “don’t worry, I know you’re still really strong.”

This was more than a week ago, before I’d really settled into to my daily supining regimen, which has since become a full-blown lifestyle.

Now, this lifestyle, to be sure, comes more naturally to me than to others. You could say I have a gift for it. Remember how in Working Girl (which I just re-watched, and recommend you do the same) Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) tells Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) that she has a head for business and a bod for sin? [1]

Well, I, rather less impressively, have a head for blogging and a bod for slothing. [2]

In days gone by, if I didn’t have to go to campus, I could easily spend 75% of my day supine on my sofa, which is where I do the bulk of both reading and writing (yes, I’m there right now). But these days I’m really cultivating that muscle: the supining muscle, which you develop by relaxing into the posture.

You know how in yoga when you’re standing in Tadasana, your instructor will intone, “Feeeeeeel the soles of your feet siiiiiiinking into the earth”? Well, cultivating your supining muscle is like that that except you have to feeeeeeel your bum siiiiiiiinking into the sofa.

Maybe this doesn’t appeal to you. But too bad, because this isn’t for you, it’s for the public good. So suck it up and lie down.

I might be wrong, but “fatten the curve” has a lot of potential as a new public health slogan. Like:

Fatten The Curve To Flatten the Curve.

And then there could be a little illustration. See, I’ve made a rudimentary prototype:

 

The stick person on the right is, yes, a bit bigger than the one on the left. But that is on purpose, you see, because the person on the right is fattening the curve.

The benefits of committing to this form of inaction are, I submit, both ethical and aesthetical.

Let me be clear; I am not advocating for complete atrophy. Strong muscles are important; I am myself, as my daughter observes, very strong. Moreover, there is surely no supine sweeter than the supining of muscles fatigued by extreme exertion. So do whatever you enjoy—I recommend dancing like there’s nobody except the people you live with watching, because there isn’t—unless you’re live Instagramming your performance to the world—to keep your muscles supple and your blood flowing.

But the hard-bodied physical ideal that reigns supreme—here in Los Angeles at least—feels impoverished. It’s an ideal that, as Milton says in Paradise Lost (admittedly in a slightly different context) “perverts best things” by reducing their value “to their meanest use.” Hogarth reminds us that it is “for the sake of … necessary motion” that muscles are “hard” (my emphasis). But we are not beholden to necessity. Nature, given a chance, “most judiciously softens these hardnesses”—and supining your self is one way to encourage her softening effects.

People pay plastic surgeons to fill up their vacancies with a proper supply of fat (I know; I’ve marveled at the results on Montana Ave., back when I used to walk on Montana Ave.). But you can achieve superior results for free and in the comfort of your own home by reclining on your sofa.

We all need a proper supply of fat to plump up these vacancies—to fatten the curves of our bodies but also to flesh out our daily trajectories—trajectories that, these days, feel increasingly skeletal, reduced to the bare outlines of existence.

In my case, the existence contained within those outlines is comparatively luxurious: I’m still getting paid; I can easily work from home; I have a yard, for which I have never felt more grateful. And, although (my prolific blogging and Instagramming of late notwithstanding) I am “working,” it seems wrong to use the same verb to describe what I’m doing and what essential workers and others adjusting on the fly to alternative modalities are enduring.

So I feel aware that a paean to the fat of life might seem glib or jarring at the present time; if there was ever a moment when needs must, this is surely it.

And yet.

(One of my supervisors at Cambridge once wrote dryly in the margins of one of my essays, “Thank God for “And yet”!”; he noticed that I tended to rely upon the locution when I had written myself into a corner and needed to get out of a tight spot.)

Where was I? Oh yes, and yet, it’s a grim irony of the way our world is organized that even as some people are literally working themselves to death, others, like me, have copious amounts of unstructured time on their hands. And this is why I find myself here, writing this entirely gratuitous essay. This is the fat that is helping me to plump up these meager, vacant days. I hope, if nothing else, it softens the hard edges of your day too.

 

Notes

[1] I was struck while watching Working Girl—which features a lot of both Griffith and Ford semi-clothed—that there is a beguiling softness to both of their bodies, a softness that—even though in many ways we see a much broader range of bodies onscreen now—is rare these days.

[2] I can’t believe “slothing” is a real word! But it is! I just found it in the OED!

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Rendezvous At The Counter: A Tale of Forbidden Touch

I decided last week that I need a new knitting project, not because I need to remain “productive” in this period of social isolation, but because knitting has proven an effective method of self-soothing in the past. However, I find myself in an awkward position: on the one hand, my knitting skills remain … rudimentary. On the other hand, I am really bored of knitting rectangles, i.e. blankets and scarves.

I put this problem to Dr. Lake and she suggested that I knit myself a poncho, which was a good suggestion since a poncho is basically a rectangle with a hole in it. And I’m already a pro at holes—have made several in my previous knitting projects without even trying! After perusing possible poncho patterns, however, I started to feel that I am not a poncho person.

That is, I was not inspired as I scrolled through pictures of poncho-clad ladies strolling carelessly on the beach living their best poncho lives until, all of a sudden, I read the words midnight rendezvous capelet and my heart skipped a beat, because it struck me that perhaps I am a midnight rendezvous capelet person.

In a gesture of radical hope, therefore, I have decided to knit myself a midnight rendezvous capelet.

I describe this as a project of radical hope because embarking upon it entails committing to at least three debatable propositions.

  1. That I have the knitting skills to make such a garment (Louise, what do you think? Mum has her doubts. If you don’t think I’m up to it, could you recommend, shall we say, a more basic capelet? Something in the line of a happy-hour-with-colleagues-capelet? Or perhaps an elevenses capelet?).
  2. That rendezvous—that is, a meeting of at least two people, in which at least one person has to leave their home—will be an existent social practice at some time in the future.
  3. That I and also other people with whom to rendezvous will exist in the future. (One might ask: is a midnight rendezvous capelet still a midnight rendezvous capelet if there are no vous with whom to rendez? But let’s not ask that question.)

Even if all of the above conditions were to obtain, it remains true that I’m really only “a midnight rendezvous capelet person” in an aspirational sense; I’m usually tucked up in bed by 10pm. I’m trying to recall, in fact, the last time I stayed out after 10pm and I honestly can’t remember. Have I ever stayed out past 10pm, I wonder? Anything that happened more than a fortnight ago now feels indistinct, bathed in the sepia-tinted glow of yesteryear.

Ahh, the very very very early 2020s. It was a simpler time, wasn’t it?

EHA, do you remember how, in the olden times of Before March, we’d rendezvous at midday for lunch on Montana, and we’d often sit outside, sometimes at a table just 2 or 3 feet away from other people?

Katie, do you remember how, Before March, we went to plyojam and got all sweaty in a room with other people and then we went to Trader Joe’s and we didn’t have to queue somberly outside before entering and I didn’t even wipe down the cart handle?

KJ Rabbit, do you remember how, Before March, we had a midday rendezvous at that place on La Brea and when you asked if you could get something left off your sandwich the woman at the register was a bit snippy, like, “Umm, do you have an allergy or is it, like, just a preference?”

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a snippy person at a counter now!

And, speaking of counters, remember when surfaces were just useful things to put other stuff on, and not death traps needing to be constantly wiped down like the sneeze-droplet-filled-germ-lairs that we all now know them to be?

That’s how I know that all those pictures of poncho-clad ladies are from Before March: they’re all languorously draped over various pieces of furniture without a care in the world! One woman, who clearly has a death wish, is leaning on a banister, and there’s no Lysol in sight. Doesn’t she know banisters are high-touch areas?

Knitting a midnight rendezvous capelet would also, then, express another hope: that we will at some point in the future once again inhabit a world in which, we will not only rendezvous, but, by God, we will also sidle up to counters and blithely lean on them with wild abandon.

 

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Lock up don’t shut up

“ … they locked themselves up and kept hid till the plague was over; and many families, foreseeing the approach of the distemper, laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased, and then came abroad sound and well.”

(Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722)

“P. 145: Robinson Crusoe called “formulaic, repetitive, boring.” WHAT have you been smoking? BORING? You’re breaking my heart. FORMULAIC? Defoe INVENTED the formula (not the same as previous shipwreck narratives–radically different)–a formula subsequently imitated in tons of fiction. REPETITIVE? For very good & original reasons. See Defoe and Fictional Time. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five. No penance could be easier & more fun, right?”

(from Paul Alkon’s notes on the manuscript for Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder. Email correspondence, 2013)

 

I have been thinking a lot recently about my friend and fellow dix-huitiémiste Paul K. Alkon, who died suddenly in January. Mostly I’ve been thinking about him because he was my friend and I miss him, but I’ve also been wondering what he would have made of the current moment in which we find ourselves.

Paul had an extraordinary range of passions and fields of expertise, but one of his earliest and abiding interests was in Daniel Defoe, and Defoe’s influence on later science fiction writers. In The Origins of Futuristic Fiction (1987), Paul shows how early nineteenth-century attempts to render “the phenomenology of apocalypse” like Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s 1805 epic poem, Le dernier homme and Mary Shelley’s 1826 novel, The Last Man, drew upon Robinson Crusoe as a “saga of isolation” (167, 190).

Of course, it was not only Crusoe but also Defoe’s vivid portrayal of plague-ridden London in A Journal of the Plague Year that left its imprint on fictions like Shelley’s Last Man, which portrays, as Paul describes in his 2002 book, Science Fiction Before 1900, a “devastating plague set in a twenty-first century future” (25). The line of influence here is clear enough; less obvious, perhaps, is the affinity Paul observes between Defoe’s Journal and Horace Walpole’s genre-making gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (1764), both of which Paul characterizes as experiments in historical fiction in the mode later developed by Walter Scott (25).

Paul’s discernment of something gothic in Defoe’s realism also, I think, informs his observation that it was not Defoe’s lunar voyage narratives but rather Robinson Crusoe that gave later writers a compelling account of “alien encounter” (24). As Paul writes, “the print of a man’s naked foot” in the sand that terrifies Crusoe marks the possibility of a presence that is “both human and alien (24).

Paul doesn’t describe this moment as uncanny; but, given that he discusses Crusoe as an instantiation of Darko Suvin’s concept of cognitive estrangement—an effect in which, as in the uncanny, the familiar is made strange—I think he might have allowed that part of what terrifies Crusoe about the footprint is that it is at once alien and familiar. As such, the footprint raises the possibility that the alien that produced the footprint might be Crusoe himself, who owns that he is not in his right mind but “like a man perfectly confused and out of myself … mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.” [1]

Note, by the way, here, the importance of the simile: what Crusoe admits is not that he is “out of [him]self” but that he is like “a man perfectly confused and out of [him]self.” That like is the only thing standing between Crusoe and madness, and, as such, it operates as the linguistic equivalent of the footprint, which is also a likeness, a delicate similitude that at once aligns Crusoe with and distinguishes him from the specter of the other by which he is haunted.

That iconic footprint in the sand dramatizes what I think of as being the gothic’s most unsettling twist: the barbarians are always already inside the gates. [2] I don’t mean that this idea is unsettling because of the xenophobic fear that the trope of barbarians-at-the-gates stirs up—even though, clearly, that trope is explicitly at play in Robinson Crusoe: the footprint indicates to Crusoe that a foreign other—whose barbarity is presumed—has already set foot on the island. Rather, I’m thinking of the idea that the novel also raises—both in having Crusoe express his own doubts as to his own sanity, and in having him eventually acknowledge Friday as the better Christian—that Crusoe himself is the real barbarian. And if it is Crusoe who is the barbarian who is already inside the gates, he is also a Manfred, that is, a version of Walpole’s usurping king who begins to suspect the jig is up in The Castle of Otranto.

When the barbarians are already inside the gates, the question is only how far inside (see A Stranger Calls, Us, Parasite, and any fiction featuring evil alter-egos from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde onwards). This uncertainty feels particularly palpable at this moment, in which, as in Defoe’s Journal, we feel, all of us, in the impossible position of trying to escape an enemy whose presence we can’t detect until it’s too late. Tell me you don’t relate when you read this passage from Defoe’s Journal:

It was very sad to reflect how such a person as this last mentioned above had been a walking destroyer perhaps for a week or a fortnight before that; how he had ruined those that he would have hazarded his life to save, and had been breathing death upon them, even perhaps in his tender kissing and embracings of his own children. Yet thus certainly it was, and often has been, and I could give many particular cases where it has been so. If then the blow is thus insensibly striking—if the arrow flies thus unseen, and cannot be discovered—to what purpose are all the schemes for shutting up or removing the sick people? Those schemes cannot take place but upon those that appear to be sick, or to be infected; whereas there are among them at the same time thousands of people who seem to be well, but are all that while carrying death with them into all companies which they come into. (Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year).

When I read this passage, I imagine I see something of the affinity that Paul might have seen between Journal of the Plague Year and The Castle of Otranto. As portrayed in this passage, the infected person inadvertently “breath[es] death” upon his own children.” As such, Defoe’s “walking destroyer” embodies the qualities Walpole later personifies in the villainous Manfred, whose capacity for destruction surprises even himself when he mistakenly stabs and kills his own daughter. [3]

It’s a terrifying thought: not the thought that you might accidentally stab your daughter when you were actually trying to stab your daughter in law—that’s on Manfred—but rather the thought of kisses and embraces being unknowingly weaponized. I’m haunted by the idea that we might, any of us, find ourselves turned murderers through some similar act of careless negligence.

I find myself hugging and kissing my children even more frequently and tightly now, somewhat to their bemusement. They are not here this weekend, and the prospect of the days that stretch before me that won’t include any human touch is bleak—though not as bleak, I know, as the prospect facing those of you who live alone full time. But it’s that sense of anticipatory loss and isolation that I think has moved me to write and post this dispatch this weekend. I know no-one can hug me through the ether—which seems deeply unfair, by the way, since apparently the virus can transmit itself through the ether. But still, locked in as we all are, we can’t completely shut ourselves up or off.

I find myself taking comfort in Paul’s mock-stern injunction to me to revisit his 1979 book Defoe and Fictional Time: “just take it into a room, lock the door, and re-read it, carefully, four times. Make that five.” He was being facetious—sort of; he, after all, he had just taken the time to read, very carefully, my own book manuscript—but I also like the way his injunction imagines locking yourself away, not as a retreat from the world but rather as an act of devotion to the particular kind of intimacy that comes from reading and rereading someone else’s words.

Defoe and Fictional Time

I don’t actually own Defoe and Fictional Time, though I have read it before—sort of, meaning, I’ve read it the way I read a lot of books while writing—by browsing the index, scanning the opening chapter, and picking, gingerly, scavenger-like, through the rest. Defoe and Fictional Time is partially available on Google books, and I started reading it today—actually reading it, from the beginning. I turned eagerly to the Acknowledgements—usually my favorite part of any scholarly monograph—sure that Paul’s wit and style would be on display. But his Acknowledgements were disappointingly terse and impersonal and I felt a pang of grief that I wasn’t going to find the Paul I knew in these pages.

Nonetheless I pressed on and kept scrolling past the references and abbreviations and on to the first chapter. And then I started laughing and laughing and almost crying. And then I texted my beloved friend Emily, to whom Paul introduced me it must be 15 years ago now, because I was just pregnant with my now 14-year old son, and she immediately texted back and she and I laughed together over text.

The first sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is:

 

“Defoe often mentions time.”

 

And all of a sudden there he was: wry and deadpan and alive on the page. I’m actually crying as I type this; I think all kinds of grief: old, present, anticipatory, are becoming rolled together; but it’s OK.

The second sentence of Defoe and Fictional Time is: “He makes the reader’s hours interesting.” Now I felt chastened and heard anew Paul’s indignant, “BORING? You’re breaking my heart” as defending not only Defoe’s words, but also Paul’s own words, here.

To make the reader’s hours interesting; isn’t that what we all want, as both writers and readers? We certainly have a lot of hours ahead of us now to fill even as hours are now the largest unit in which I feel confident predicting the future.

Exchanging words feels like one of the few kinds of intimacy left to us now. I’m going to keep writing in the hours and whatever-longer-units-of-time that lie ahead. I hope to keep reading too. Paul, in the person of “Paul K. Anonymous” was this blog’s most avid interlocutor. It saddens me to think that I can no longer look forward to the whimsical and witty responses he would often post in response to my posts.

Where are the bloody rest of you? Don’t tell me you don’t have time: I know you have time. It’s criminal, is what it is, the non-reciprocal nature of this blogging racket.

You’re breaking my heart.

But don’t worry; it’s not too late. To redeem yourself (maybe), just take yourself into a room, lock the door, and write and re-write your musings, carefully, four times. Make that five. And then press “send.” No penance could be easier & more fun, right?

 

Notes

[1] Paul might have allowed this; on the other hand Paul certainly took issue, in his notes on my manuscript, with my sometimes fast and loose invocation of the concept of estrangement: “unless distinctions of degree are made,” he scolded, “saying estrangement is inherent in the phenomenology of reading is about as useful as saying there is always weather.”

[2] It’s not clear where the phrase “barbarians at the gates” comes from; but it’s an image that Edward Gibbon invokes in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89) in reference to the Goths (the northerners who overthrew the Roman empire), the OG barbarians. The sense of Goth meaning “one who behaves like a barbarian” becomes current in the eighteenth century (OED).

[3] Manfred doesn’t mean to kill Matilda; he’s just not paying attention: “I took thee for Isabella,” he explains to her. Oops!

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Social distancing, vintage edition

“ … all these Reflections are just History of a State of forc’d Confinement, which in my real History is represented by a confin’d Retreat in an Island; and ‘tis as reasonable to represent one kind of Imprisonment by another, as it is to represent any Thing that really exists, by that which exists not.”

(Daniel Defoe, Preface, Serious Reflections During the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, 1720)

 

The LIfe

Further adventures, forthcoming.

 

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Day 218: a capacity for withdrawal

I was reading a book recently (Helen Thompson’s Fictional Matter (2016)) that cited a line from John Locke I couldn’t stop thinking about: “What sort of outside is the certain sign that there is, or is not such an inhabitant within?”

The line is from Chapter 4 of Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), “Of the Reality of Knowledge.” Locke poses this question in the context of considering whether the shape of a body necessarily reflects its essence. Locke does not think that shape is a reliable index of a substance’s essence; but he notes that, in general, we are apt to conflate shape with essence: “people do lay the whole stress on the figure, and resolve the whole essence of the species of man (as they make it) into the outward shape,” he observes. Locke notes that this tendency is particularly pronounced when it comes to making distinctions between species. We assume, falsely, Locke believes, that “these two names, man and beast, stand for distinct species so set out by real essences, that there can come no other species between them.”

The duck-rabbit would seem to perfectly illustrate Locke’s point about the fallacy of such an assumption. The fact that it can switch between two distinct species shows that shape does not determine essence. Moreover, the duck-rabbit’s identity as neither duck nor rabbit but as duck-rabbit vividly illustrates Locke’s point that the range of species concepts available to us does not determine that there might not “be a species of an animal between, or distinct from both.”

Let me now rephrase Locke’s question: if a duck-rabbit is your outward sign, what does that tell you about the inhabitant within?

I don’t know the answer to that question; but I have reflected recently that my insides and outsides feel much more closely aligned than ever before. For much of my life I felt that my insides were just too much—too soft (which, come to think of it, they are, not to mention gooey and bloody), too desirous, too fearful, too selfish, too scattered, too lazy, too sentimental—and that, lest anybody suspect such a frightful mess lurked just beneath the surface it was important to project an outside sign—serene, thoughtful, happy, competent, disciplined, altruistic, hard-working—that might plausibly suggest—and might even conjure?—those traits within.

My midlife crisis (my first midlife crisis?), I realize in retrospect, consisted of the revelation that this exercise wasn’t working out terribly well. I was arranging my life in ways to fulfill the desires I attributed to the person I wanted to be, not the person I was. I began cautiously experimenting with voicing thoughts outside my own head that chipped away at the exterior persona I had built. I remember how truly terrifying it felt to say, haltingly, ashamedly, in my first appointment with the referring psychiatrist I saw, “I’m … not … happy.”

In the past five years, this blog has been one way I’ve experimented with exteriorizing my insides, an experiment that has mostly been deeply rewarding. But lately I’ve also had the nagging feeling that my insides and outsides have become too closely aligned. I feel like a Momus glass, as if everyone can peer in and see the maggots within. I look good stark naked, but still. The line between feeling seen and feeling exposed is a fine one.

One of my favorite essays by Winnicott is “Communicating and Not Communicating Leading to a Study of Certain Opposites.” (If you would like to read it, let me know, I can send you a pdf.)

Winnicott tells a story in that essay about a patient:

The patient said that in childhood (nine years) she had a stolen school book in which she collected poems and sayings, and she wrote in it ‘My private book’. On the front page she wrote: ‘What a man thinketh in his heart, so is he’. In fact her mother had asked her: ‘Where did you get this saying from?’ This was bad because it meant that the mother must have read her book. It would have been all right if the mother had read the book but had said nothing. Here is a picture of a child establishing a private self that is not communicating, and at the same time wanting to communicate and to be found. It is a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek in which it is joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.

Sometimes this blog has felt like the perfect version of this vision: I write “my private book” and you—a you that includes sometimes my actual mother and other people I know intimately but also those I know less well or not at all—read it but generally don’t ask me about it; and so I can feel seen and hidden at once.

I’ve been thinking a lot about hide and seek lately. I remember how, when I was very young, I believed that if I covered my eyes, whoever was seeking me wouldn’t be able to find me. (I believe this is a common belief among preschool age children). Sometimes I think the same illusion has sustained my writing in this blog; I can’t see you, dear readers, so I have a hard time believing that you can see me.

This relationship between blog-writer and blog-reader is a version of “parasocial interaction,” a term and concept I learned about from Elaine Auyoung’s wonderful book, When Fiction Feels Real: Representation and the Reading Mind (2018). Sociologists coined the term “parasocial” in the 1950s to describe the kinds of non-reciprocal social relationships audiences have with radio or television performers—or, as Auyoung explores (in an application of the concept I find very suggestive), the relationships readers have with fictional characters. I’m interested, in my scholarly work, in thinking more about the parasocial aspect of readers’ relationship with literary characters. But I invoke the concept here for a different reason: because writing this blog can feel parasocial in the opposite way—like I’ve been having a five-year correspondence with an implied reader. I’m teaching A.S. Byatt’s Possession at the moment, and I was struck today by the observation the Browning-like Randolph Ash makes in his correspondence with the Rossetti-like Christabel LaMotte: Browning refers to himself as “an author of Monologues—trying clumsily to construct a Dialogue—and encroaching on both halves of it.” That’s me, that is.

Later in his essay on “Communicating and Not Communicating,” Winnicott observes that, “in the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.” For Winnicott, what is important is that both needs are acknowledged as healthy—which means valuing not only the ability to communicate but also “the acquisition of a capacity for withdrawal.”

What is it, exactly, that I’m trying to communicate in the post? Search me. I’m honestly not sure where I’m going; but I do feel as though I am at a threshold.

I am not sure if I will continue to write this blog or not, but, for the present, at least, I’m going to make Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole private, which means you’ll only be able to read it if I add you individually as a “reader.” If you are already subscribed to Notes From the Duck-Rabbit Hole in some fashion, I will go ahead and add you, unless you tell me not to do so. If you are not subscribed, but you are reading this and would like to be able to read any future posts, please let me know, and I will add you before I allow the Notes to sink back into the hole from whence they came.

I thought of concluding this post with a drawing of a duck-rabbit leaping back into its hole, cotton tail stuck in the air, webbed feet akimbo. I’ve been drawing and erasing, re-drawing and erasing. The back end of a duck-rabbit is surprisingly tricky to render. I thought I could make it silly and charming but instead, in my sketch, it’s trite and graceless: I see now that it’s best left unseen.

 

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Day 217: the 405 is closed

405 is closed

Recently a series of memories have become threaded together in my mind, like worry beads on a string that I find myself turning over and over.

The first memory is from thirty years ago. Our family was on a summer holiday somewhere in the Mediterranean. We were staying in an apartment. I remember lying on the thin twin bed in the bedroom I was sharing with my brother and sobbing.

All I could say over and over was, “I don’t have any friends.”

This wasn’t really true. I was maybe fourteen—the age my son is now—and had some lovely friends; but I also felt immensely guarded in front of them—in front of everybody—as if the real me was shielded by a carapace and that the jig would be up if I ever let it down. I imagine this to be a fairly universal experience of adolescence.

My Mum had tried comforting me, “You DO have friends!” to no avail.

Then my Dad came in, and he took a different tack. I cried and he sat on the bed next to me. I tried to explain. “I just don’t feel like anybody really knows me. I feel so lonely.”

“You and I are very similar,” he observed, and he caught my attention. I suppressed my sobs to try to listen to what he was saying.

“Do you think I have a lot of friends?” he asked.

Yes …” I said hesitantly.

It was certainly the case that my Dad appeared to me to be enmeshed in a large and close-knit social network. If I picture my Dad in his element, I imagine him sitting at the center of a crowded dinner table, his chin leaning on his hands interlocked together, a wry smile playing on his lips. My parents were friends with lots of couples and I remember observing that, with many of them, it seemed that the initial connection was through my Dad; they were people he knew from his psychotherapy training, or other people he knew through his work.

As a result, what he said next startled me.

“No,” he said, “I don’t.” “And I never have,” he added. “Because I don’t need them.”

I frowned, feeling that this talk was not headed in the direction I had anticipated.

“And I think you’re the same,” he said. “People like you and me, we don’t need other people, we’re loners.”

I frowned again, trying to take in what he was saying.

“I mean, I have Mum,” he added, “but I don’t really have any close friends.”

I reflected to myself then and also later that I didn’t quite understand where he was positioning my mother in this equation.

“But,” I hesitated, “but that’s not what I want. I want friends.”

He nodded, as if he understood, “yes, but people like you and me, we’re special, we’re thinkers, and people are never going to understand us, so we’ll never really have any friends.”

I’ve reflected long and hard and talked many times in therapy about whether my Dad meant what he was saying here and what effect he meant it to have.

I did not react positively. “If that’s true,” I yelled, “then I don’t want to be like you. That’s not what I want.”

He kind of shrugged as if to say you get what you get and you don’t get upset. I started sobbing harder than ever and he left the room.

***

I was reminded of this exchange by a recent conversation with a friend. I was expressing some version of this same feeling, a kind of cosmic loneliness. Now it manifested as a yearning not for friends, per se, but for some deep sense of connection, a sense of seeing someone and feeling seen in return, a kind of connection that, my Dad’s comments to the contrary notwithstanding, I had always thought was a kind of intimacy I wanted and was capable of but that increasingly seemed to recede from view the more I tried to reach for it.

I confessed to my friend that I felt this gnawing envy of people—like him—who seemed to feel in their bones a kind of sureness about the person they had chosen to make a life with. He agreed that he was very fortunate in this respect—though, of course, it’s not only good fortune, it’s also inhabiting an attitude that I’ve always struggled to muster.

I started talking then, about the many other sources of joy and fulfillment in my life—most of all, the unfolding, intricate relationships I have with my children, these creatures whom I know both more and less intimately every day as their worlds become ever wider. I was talking about those rewards and more, but also how the whole was pervaded by a sense of something missing.

Then my friend observed, quite cheerfully, “Well, maybe this is just your lot in life.”

“My lot in life?” I repeated, a little taken aback.

“Yeah, I mean, maybe you’re just not a person who is ever going find happiness in a conventional monogamous relationship and you have to look elsewhere in your life for other sources of joy and fulfillment,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Hmmm.” I thought about this. “I mean, that makes sense but ….”

I paused and laughed. “There’s just something about that phrase, ‘your lot in life.’ It makes me think, I dunno … governessspinsternun

***

For the next few days, I would murmur to myself, “it’s just my lot in life,” and crack up. It so vividly summoned a very particular style—both behaviorally and sartorially—of renunciation. I would probably need a plain, high-necked black or possibly dark grey worsted dress, I thought to myself. Possibly a twill. Something that wouldn’t show the dirt. And my hair scraped back in a severe bun. I pictured Miss Hardbroom from The Worst Witch television series (based on the books by Jill Murphy), which I’ve been watching with the younger. I could fancy myself as a strict witchy headmistress resigned to my lot in life of keeping all the young witches in line.

A movie I watched by myself with great pleasure the other week, “The Little Hours,” slyly draws out what I started to think of as the comedy of closure … that is, the comedy of being closed in, closed down, and making do with your “lot in life.”

The movie’s plot is based loosely on the first and second stories from day three of Boccaccio’s Decameron. The main characters are three nuns—Sisters Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda. While Ginevra and Fernanda are relatively content with their vocation, Alessandra, who has joined the convent at the insistence of her wealthy father, pines for a worldly life. In one scene, Alessandra’s father, Ilario (Paul Reiser), comes to visit Alessandra (Alison Brie) at the convent and tries to comfort her.

ILARIO: I know how eager you are to be married, my baby. I know, but maybe it’s … maybe that’s not your calling. How’s your embroidery going? You still doing that?

ALESSANDRA: Mmm-hmm.

ILARIO: Good, ‘cause you’re so good, and maybe that’s your calling, you know. Some people, it’s marriage and family and the warmth of a home, and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. You know, keep … please. Keep your chin up.

and maybe for you it’s … it’s the detailed embroidery. Dads, eh? They always know just how to comfort a daughter.

There’s a passage in Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Villette (1853)—a novel that I read when I was about the same age I had that conversation with my Dad—that perfectly captures the soul-crushing effort of striving to be satisfied with your lot in life in a world that feels like it is closing in. Here is Lucy Snowe, Villette’s narrator:

Those who live in retirement, whose lives have fallen amid the seclusion of schools or of other walled-in and guarded dwellings, are liable to be suddenly and for a long while dropped out of the memory of their friends, the denizens of a freer world. Unaccountably, perhaps, and close upon some space of unusually frequent intercourse—some congeries of rather exciting little circumstances, whose natural sequel would rather seem to be the quickening than the suspension of communication—there falls a stilly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion. Unbroken always is this blank; alike entire and unexplained. The letter, the message once frequent, are cut off; the visit, formerly periodical, ceases to occur; the book, paper, or other token that indicated remembrance, comes no more.

Always there are excellent reasons for these lapses, if the hermit but knew them. Though he is stagnant in his cell, his connections without are whirling in the very vortex of life. That void interval which passes for him so slowly that the very clocks seem at a stand, and the wingless hours plod by in the likeness of tired tramps prone to rest at milestones—that same interval, perhaps, teems with events, and pants with hurry for his friends.

The hermit—if he be a sensible hermit—will swallow his own thoughts, and lock up his own emotions during these weeks of inward winter. He will know that Destiny designed him to imitate, on occasion, the dormouse, and he will be conformable: make a tidy ball of himself, creep into a hole of life’s wall, and submit decently to the drift which blows in and soon blocks him up, preserving him in ice for the season.

Let him say, “It is quite right: it ought to be so, since so it is.” And, perhaps, one day his snow-sepulchre will open, spring’s softness will return, the sun and south-wind will reach him; the budding of hedges, and carolling of birds, and singing of liberated streams, will call him to kindly resurrection. Perhaps this may be the case, perhaps not: the frost may get into his heart and never thaw more; when spring comes, a crow or a pie may pick out of the wall only his dormouse-bones. Well, even in that case, all will be right: it is to be supposed he knew from the first he was mortal, and must one day go the way of all flesh, “As well soon as syne.”

Following that eventful evening at the theatre, came for me seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper: no word was written on one of them; not a visit, not a token.

About the middle of that time I entertained fancies that something had happened to my friends at La Terrasse. The mid-blank is always a beclouded point for the solitary: his nerves ache with the strain of long expectancy; the doubts hitherto repelled gather now to a mass and—strong in accumulation—roll back upon him with a force which savours of vindictiveness. Night, too, becomes an unkindly time, and sleep and his nature cannot agree: strange starts and struggles harass his couch: the sinister band of bad dreams, with horror of calamity, and sick dread of entire desertion at their head, join the league against him. Poor wretch! He does his best to bear up, but he is a poor, pallid, wasting wretch, despite that best.

Towards the last of these long seven weeks I admitted, what through the other six I had jealously excluded—the conviction that these blanks were inevitable: the result of circumstances, the fiat of fate, a part of my life’s lot and—above all—a matter about whose origin no question must ever be asked, for whose painful sequence no murmur ever uttered. Of course I did not blame myself for suffering: I thank God I had a truer sense of justice than to fall into any imbecile extravagance of self-accusation; and as to blaming others for silence, in my reason I well knew them blameless, and in my heart acknowledged them so: but it was a rough and heavy road to travel, and I longed for better days.

I tried different expedients to sustain and fill existence: I commenced an elaborate piece of lace-work, I studied German pretty hard, I undertook a course of regular reading of the driest and thickest books in the library; in all my efforts I was as orthodox as I knew how to be. Was there error somewhere? Very likely. I only know the result was as if I had gnawed a file to satisfy hunger, or drank brine to quench thirst.

***

My therapist’s office is on the fifth floor of a high-rise on Wilshire Boulevard. You get a good view of the smoke curling up from the fires up there. The other day I barely made it on time because of the fires’ impact on traffic.

When the Lyft driver had picked me up in Burbank, I’d asked how the traffic was.

“Oh, it’s terrible,” he said.

“Right, because the 405’s closed because of the fire?” I said.

“Oh no, it’s not closed,” he said.

“It’s not?” I was surprised, having been following traffic updates all morning.

“No,” he said.

“Oh, it must have just re-opened then, at least that’s good!” I said, assuming he must have more up-to-date information than I did.

So we took the 5 to the 405 until we had to get off at the 101 interchange, because the twenty-five mile section of the 405 between the 101 and Sunset Boulevard was closed because of the fires.

“Huh, you were right!” he exclaimed. “But it was open last night!” he protested. “What was that you said about a fire?”

“The fire started early this morning,” I explained wearily. “The freeway’s been closed for the last couple of hours.” I didn’t bother stifling a sigh.

For the next hour and a half we crawled along in a line of cars that snaked its way through every inch, it seemed, of Bel Air, the roads so winding you could see nothing ahead, the air growing thicker as we neared the site of the fire.

I was irritated with the Lyft driver for dismissing my information but, more than that, I was angry with myself. I knew the 405 was closed. But I wanted to believe he knew better. So I suspended disbelief and assented to the possibility that my information was wrong. Deep down, though, I think I knew I was right. I knew the 405 would be closed but I didn’t want to argue with him about it, so I just let it play out. As we sat at a standstill in the middle of Bel Air and he cursed under his breath, I wished that I had tried harder to make him understand that things would turn out this way, that I had seen it coming. Maybe we still would have been sitting here stuck, unable to see the road ahead; but our nerves wouldn’t have ached with the strain of long expectancy. I took out my knitting and tried to keep my chin up.

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Day 216: movers

I looked at him appraisingly across the restaurant table.

“Are you cold?” I asked, as if neutrally.

“No,” he replied. “Why,” he added, reading my gaze, “do you want me to take my jacket off?”

I shrugged. “I know it’s silly. It just makes me feel as if, even though we just sat down, you’re about to leave.”

He rolled his eyes and took off his jacket.

“Oh, that reminds me of something I wanted to tell you about!” I exclaimed.

It was about something I’d just been writing about: a phenomenon the attachment theorist John Bowlby, in the first volume of his trilogy, Attachment and Loss, calls an “intention movement.” An intention movement is a movement whereby “an animal, unable to express fully one of its tendencies, nevertheless shows an incomplete movement belonging to that tendency; for example, when in a conflict between staying and flying, a bird may repeatedly exhibit most of the behaviour of take-off without actually doing so.” Although Bowlby was a child development specialist, he was strongly influenced by ethology—the science of animal behavior—and his writing on attachment is filled with examples of animal behavior, examples I find oddly poignant.

“I think it explains why it makes me anxious when people don’t take off their outdoor jackets when they come inside,” I explained. “It’s because I interpret keeping the jacket on as an ‘intention-movement’—as an indication that the person is thinking about leaving.”

Later, when the waiter put down our main courses (pasta for him, fish for me), I casually mentioned a trip I was planning to take in October—to go to a conference.

He put down his fork.

“You’re traveling again?” he asked.

I hadn’t actually bought the tickets yet—still haven’t, come to think of it. My declaration, too, had been an intention movement, a wing flutter; and it was he who felt anxious, caught off-guard.

“This is why I’m leaving,” he muttered.

My stomach tightened. I pushed the fish around my plate.

Later we cried and held each other.

“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing,” he confessed. “What do you think I should do? Should I move?”

“I don’t know,” I said, stroking his hair. “I think it may be the right thing for you to move. It’s sad. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing.” I paused. “But it’s also all right for you to be undecided. Maybe,” I added, “putting down the deposit was an intention movement, like flapping your wings without taking off. It was a way of trying out the idea of moving. Seeing how it felt. That doesn’t mean you have to go. It’s three hundred dollars. You can lose three hundred dollars.”

He nodded.

“Intention movements,” Bowlby writes, “are common in mammals, including man. They afford important clues whereby we judge the motives and likely behaviour of other people.”

The movers come tomorrow.

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