‘Hara had to think there were better ways to say fuck you, although it did take a certain ballsiness, what he had done, in the middle of their divorce no less, and she could see, in fact she couldn’t not see, that the flip side of this prickishness was the quality she loved in Zeke, loved best in him perhaps, when she did love him, and she did love him – she still did – she just hated him now too.’
I cannot help feeling, on being invited to contextualize my own fiction, that the least qualified person possible has been asked. It is more still: hesitance, dread, that as a blind man in a failing aircraft I have been offered the yoke. I imagine it is the same for other writers, for the very fact that you write a story, and not a critical essay, suggests that near everything you hope to say lies outside the bounds of explicit statement. You write it because you don’t know what it is about. And yet, here is the distressing thing, whether you like it or not you are going to be taken as the definitive expert on your story, and this very simply means the doom of exactly what you hoped to accomplish in writing it, which was to open up a space sufficiently primed and elastic in its signification that other alive, alert and vital minds might step into it with a sense of freedom or ownership. Here a shrewd reader will say, I imagine, ‘Yes, fine. But really, aren’t you being coy? Don’t you at least think you know what your story is about? Did you not consider it explicitly while you were writing, and are you not now feigning ignorance in either the interest of a false modesty or, worse, the cunning hope that someone will project into the very imperfections and lacunae of your work her brilliance, which, so long as you have not enumerated your intended meanings, you can then claim as your own?’
Hmm. This reader is not entirely wrong, and one would be so lucky, one feels, to have readers of this clarity of mind. Because of course we are taught these days to employ modesty in service to its opposite, and if collectively this can be rather nice – to feel the rampant, seething, furious ambition of people softened by the performance of self-effacement and packaged in a fuzzy, or at minimum sophisticated, understanding that living in society entails going through at least the motions of decency – individually, each time modesty is so employed, a small part of us dies, because at the end of the day we want honesty more than niceness. We want some sign from people that behind the performance they are as vulnerable, uncertain, confused and lonely as we are. And for all the things we may believe we purchase through performance, the only thing we are ensured of getting is loneliness. And not because we are alone, let us be clear, but because the principal thing we are teaching one another, again and again, is that it is fundamentally not OK to be ourselves in company.
Such is the difficulty, the Hobson’s choice, the dilemma of living with and among one another, and what we like to say is ‘Yes, truly, it’s awful, but there are certain people we find – not many, but a few – certain spirits or temperaments with whom for strange alchemies of responsiveness, playfulness or ways of being mutually quiet we transcend the dilemma and can be ourselves while in company. And no doubt this is the case, but how much is it the case? That is, how much can we be ourselves? For how long? And what happens – what are the consequences and what therefore the hidden costs – when the person who with us completes this unlonely companionship says, taking from his wallet an old schedule of trains, ‘About that being-yourself thing, maybe you could do somewhat less of that. Maybe you could be someone else. Maybe you could be someone so radically different, in fact, that I am going to go out looking for that person parceled up in a different body.’
It is a cliché, a truism, and now it seems, dying that particular nominal death of things we have long known to be living truths, a ‘scientific fact’, that there exists a thin line between love and hate, and isn’t at least part of it that love opens us up most vulnerably to the prospect of being rejected for being ourselves? So not only rejected but at once returned – from the happy condition of being unalone and ourselves – to that initial, unbearable circumstance of having to choose between being alone or else performers in our lives. The word perform turns out to bear traces of the word furnish more proximally than form, initially meaning to execute, achieve, or complete – to carry out – taking on only later the secondary sense related to drama, to acting and the arts, and finally the connotation, so subtle it does not appear in our dictionaries, that what is carried out in performance stands in contrast to what is held back. That, in brief, performance is a lie. A lie at least in the way that art is one. And yet, if in art we accept that the lie may be the necessary price of a more elusive truth, might the same not be true of our performance of ourselves?
Yes and no, I have to think, depending rather a lot on where we locate the authentic self. It is a bit commonplace to point out that our word person derives from the Latin persona, meaning an actor’s mask or a dramatic role. And we conclude from this what the Romans apparently knew all along, perhaps because they presided over an essential chapter in the long, slow birth of our concept of the individual – one French sociologist Marcel Mauss locates in the last centuries BC and first centuries AD, when Roman law no longer permitted fathers to kill their sons – that the thing we take to be ‘ourselves’ is an act we learn to reproduce in public, a role we play in the social ensemble, a costume thrown over the ineffable substance beneath – a substance, I might add, which we do not create or choose, cannot hope to understand, and which therefore seems unlikely to deserve the veneration we look to attach to it. Claude Lévi-Strauss remarks that no society does without totemism and that in the West we merely treat the individual’s personality as her totem.
A totem is a locus of spiritual significance, often an object but not always, frequently a joint at which the spiritual and material worlds touch – an atomic unit of meaning in the sense that meaning inheres in the totem but is not further divisible. In this view a totem is a way of marking a boundary of inquiry, like a word. And literature, we might say, is a rubric for a type of totem hunting we do, a method of tracking and trapping the totems of experience, those confluent residues meaningful as they relate but irreducible, meaningless, apart. So when I say that I do not know what a story of mine is about, have no ambition to know, and frankly took not-knowing as the signal precondition for writing it, I am being, I believe, about as forthright as I am being coy. For even if I think I know part of what I mean, this only suggests that the long process of writing and revising will be spent penetrating the superficial knowledge with which I began to reach a more profound state of ignorance. Because it is the experience of profound meaning alongside a corresponding ignorance that tells you you are finally beyond the realm of what is easy to know. You are in the realm of totems and therefore of magic. The realm where to schematize meaning is probably to deform it fatally. ‘Tear a mystery to tatters,’ Barthelme says, ‘and you have tatters, not mystery.’ What we mean by magic too, it seems, is the point where explanation perforce ends.
What may distinguish literature is it may offer us a method to investigate and arrive at points where the pregnancy of meaning is as great as the meaning itself is unnamable. The more accurate the word, the less it means – until at last we reach the proper name, the totem meant to encompass the full being, meaning precisely nothing in itself. ‘Hara had to think there were better ways to say fuck you . . .’ The line, from God knows where, enters my head. Already I know too much. I think I do. I think there is some stable quantity invoked in the name ‘Hara,’ the fluid ‘you,’ that certain things are ‘better’ and by implication others ‘worse,’ and yet my own brash pretense to knowing things is a mirror of Hara’s. In implying a context prior to the first line – an absurdity on its face – some part of me hopes to replicate the bluster Hara uses to disguise her own confusion. And then we turn in to the confusion, I no less than Hara, annotating the bluster with qualification, nuance, contradiction – the ‘yes, but’ ‘yes, but’ of von Rezzori’s narrator in ‘Pravda’– working, that is, in whatever way possible to slip into the cracks between experience and the words we have for it.
Artwork by unknown artist, from The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England Begun in the Year 1641, 1825