Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.

The Pleasures of “Emotional Difficulties”

In his review of several exhibitions showcasing the work of Félix Vallotton, Julian Bell writes:

Vallotton is not so much an autobiographical artist as an artist who coolly and procedurally recognizes that his own emotional difficulties might supply him with viable imaginative material.

Vallotton wouldn’t be the first or last artist to recognize this, of course. Writers are among the most notorious exploiters of their autobiographies as source material for their works. So much so indeed, that many a writer has to strenuously object to critical assessments of their work that insist on viewing it as mere revisitation of their life’s previous narratives.

There is another kind of artist who draws on his “own emotional difficulties” to “supply him with viable imaginative material”: the neurotic.  Here, the afflicted soul, familiar–at unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels–of the many traumas and crises that have thus far impinged on his life, uses them to construct all manner of fantasy, again, at varying levels of availability to his conscious self. There are daydreams aplenty, many revisitations of conflict, and lastly, and most interestingly of all, the construction of an elaborate mythology around daily life, the events of which acquire a distinctive hue because of their coloring by these repressed and available memories.

The neurotic, or the depressive, can thus become a tragic hero of sorts–to himself. His past now has a value all its own; it is that which has made his present dramatic and invested it with a poignant quality. He can now conceive of himself as a traveler through a landscape of trial and tribulation, bravely weathering the many storms it sends crashing down on him. He carries a heavier burden than most, he tells himself; his steps are slow and measured in recognition of this crushing load. Sometimes he is Sisyphus, sometimes a composite mythical figure constructed from heroes and saints alike.

There is thus value in this kind of self-conception, this kind of self-portrait. The afflicted life is dramatic and heroic; the resolved and cured life not so much. Small wonder then, that when lovers urge their neurotic partners to get help, to seek palliation and cure, so as to bring relief to their troubled relationship, the neurotic resists. His afflictions, which torment him so, are what make his life not humdrum. They are what render him unique and set him apart from the boring, teeming masses.

The neurotic is aided in his endeavors by the artist. Novelists devote great works to the forensic examination of flawed characters, carefully dissecting, and yet bringing to life, the tormented and the tortured. Artists graphically depict the sufferings of the damned. Those in pain are the subjects of works of art. The neurotic sees his life, this limited span of time here on this benighted earth, as his canvas, his blank page. The materials with which it these can best be drawn and written and brought to life are at hand: his past life, his troubles.

Who needs a cure when an illness can give so much meaning to an otherwise ephemeral and transient life?

Lord Byron on the Writerly Compulsion

In Oryx and Crake, Crake quotes Lord Byron

What is it Byron said? Who’d write if they could do otherwise? Something like that.

Who indeed? Byron’s supposed description² of writerly obsession is by now familiar to us: writers write because they have to, they must, they can do little other; their activity is as much compelled as chosen.  It is a description that elevates writing to a calling, the answering to an inner voice that must be heeded, that brooks no interference in finding its realization.

This description of writing lends it the beauty of suffering, of the price paid for playing host to a terrible, demanding, desire. It is, as might be evident, part of the self-mythologizing of the writer, a long and honorable tradition of turning yet another profane human activity into something that partakes of divinity, that flirts with infinity. It sprinkles star dust upon the entirely earthy.

Why do writers describe themselves thus? In part because self-mythologizing is narcissistic and writers are nothing if not afflicted by Narcissus‘ disease (What other race of creatures would imagine that anyone else would be interested in its thoughts, its views, its particular rendering of the commonly experienced?); in part because writers are afflicted by the converse too–they are deeply insecure about what they do, always struck by the absurdity of trying to make concrete the unfathomable, of trying to freeze into the written page, all that swirls about within and without. So writers like descriptions like these of their work, because they seem to capture its difficulty well; they dignify its long fallow periods, its flirtations with disaster and sublimity alike, they make bearable the moments–and they occur often–of self-doubt and loathing.

A description of writing as compulsion also helps in understanding the peculiar misery that overcomes those who are unable or unwilling to write but would consider themselves writers anyway; they are so because their lack of fidelity has exacted its punishment.  It makes bearable the discipline that must be imposed in order to write: subject yourself to this chafing constraint because the alternative is worse.

It is also worth acknowledging the flipside of this description of the writer’s state of being: the writer looks longingly at those who do not write; the writer wishes he were not overcome and helpless; the writer dreams of not writing, of putting down the pen (switching off the machine?). It suggests a vivid, animating fantasy of overcoming: to write to the point of exhaustion, to fully spend all that lies within, to purge and bring forth, and then finally, by that writing out, by that expulsion, to be finally freed, allowed to live life in other ways. So at last, the last page written, the fire dies out, the itching stops, and the writing can end. That could be the animating passion; the promise, the dream, of the end of writing.

Notes:

1. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, Anchor Books, New York, page 167

2. I have not been able to locate the original source for this line. Pointers would be appreciated.

The Coven’s Vision of Hell and ‘Repetition Compulsion’

American Horror Story‘s third season, The Coven, ended last night. The show as a whole did not quite meet my expectations–a critique echoed here and here; but still, for various reasons, I quite enjoyed the season’s finale.

Among them was it’s take on hell: each of us has our own private one. Misty, the “swamp-dwelling, resurrecting sweetheart obsessed with Stevie Nicks” ends up in a school biology lab, forced endlessly to kill and dissect a live frog at the insistent bidding of a loud, cruel, bullying teacher; Fiona meanwhile is “doomed to an eternity of being smacked around by the Axeman in the afterlife.”

This vision of hell is not new for American Horror Story; indeed, one of the most chilling twists on our understanding of a ghost’s life was provided by its first season, when we realized that being a ghost meant staying alive forever, stuck not only in a  particular place–the Murder House–but in a particular stage of psychological development, and confronted again and again by conflict with others also locked into dead-ended trajectories of mental being. A ghost is trapped for eternity in the afterlife; unable to die, unable to move on, unable to ‘get over’ anything. It turns out traipsing through haunted houses and spooking visitors is no fun at all.

So hell is other people all right–as some French dude once suggested–but it’s also you yourself, unable to snap out of a groove, a rut, a slippery well whose walls you slide back down again and again.

This kind of hell is one we actively aid in constructing; our own lives, our patterns of behavior, our responses and pathological modes of behavior slowly develop a place–in the mind–that we dread visiting; and when we do find ourselves in its environs, we are unable to escape.

All of this is–as should be obvious by now–as Freud suggested in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through‘  a neurotic’s suffering, in which:

[A] person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again. This includes reenacting the event or putting oneself in situations where the event is likely to happen again. This “re-living” can also take the form of dreams in which memories and feelings of what happened are repeated, and even hallucination….’repetition compulsion’…describes the pattern whereby people endlessly repeat patterns of behaviour which were difficult or distressing in earlier life.” (Jan Clark and Jim Crawley, Transference and Projection: Mirrors to the self. (Buckingham 2002) p. 38 -as cited in Wikipedia article.)

The most frightening aspect of the neurotic’s behavior–for those who observe it, and those who experience it themselves–is that it is painful and unpleasant and yet compulsive; the patient seems to experience a powerlessness to exert her will over herself, to bring to an end, by her own agency, her self-inflicted pain.

The hellish afterlife is just that slice of this life which we have found to be the most unbearably painful. It is all the more so for being of our own making.

Note: Milton too, in Paradise Lost, had noted our interactive construction of our own private circle of pain.