What’s in a state of mind? How do we describe emotions, or the complex relationship between individuals and the state? What did Barry Lopez feel about diving under the ice in Antarctica? What caused the seemingly telepathic communication between Siri Hustvedt and her husband, Paul Auster? What happened in Max Porter’s therapy session with his brother? Those are some of the short pieces in this issue – we titled the series ‘State of Mind’, and asked a number of writers to contribute. There are sadder moments too, some more elusive than others. Mary Ruefle thinks of names; Marcel Proust longs for silence; Margo Jefferson resists her inner voice whispering defeatist messages; Andrew Solomon meditates on gay identity and depression; and Han Kang describes her baby sister, who was born prematurely, and died long before Kang was born: ‘a girl, with a face as white as a crescent-moon rice cake.’
Our lead piece, ‘Notes on a Suicide’, by Rana Dasgupta, delves into the mystery of Océane, the young Frenchwoman from the outskirts of Paris, Polish-Turkish by origin, who live-streamed her suicide on Periscope, a social media platform. Who was Océane, and what can her life and death tell us about the state of France? She was nineteen when she died – a girl of some talent who had imbibed the ennui of the French cultural tradition; a girl estranged from her father; a girl who had been beaten and raped by a former boyfriend. For Océane, that act of violence was too much – she had, it seems, nothing left to bind her to this world. But her public act of self-destruction was also aligned with the cultural logic of the environment she lived in, the banlieues, a space of male violence and petty degradations, of youth unemployment, graffiti and tattoos. And add to this the virtual world, a new dimension distorting and enhancing reality; add, too, ancient cults of death merging with the cult of celebrity, and the act of Océane – who is still there, on YouTube, pink hearts floating up from the bottom of the screen as she speaks, cigarette in hand – begins to make a disturbing kind of sense.
Jack Shenker lived in Cairo for many years, researching his book on Egypt. His evocative piece in this issue is about the aftermath of the revolution, the current repression that has seen scores of human rights activists jailed or disappeared, and many others going into exile. Shenker shows the reality behind words like ‘political repression’ – people tell him of hanging naked from their hands and feet; about suffering electric torture; about negotiating floor space in an overcrowded cell. The holes and crevices in the walls and bridges become a symbol in this text, standing for the anarchy and creativity of the revolution, in contrast to New Cairo, the sterile government suburb erected on the banks of the Nile, far away from the life of the inner city.
Charles Glass and Don McCullin, travelling in the Kurdistan Regional Governorate in Iraq, found an ISIS fighter in custody. As a teenager with al-Qaeda, Ali Qahtan kidnapped and killed policemen; with ISIS, he killed Kurdish fighters. He now expresses remorse. Was he tortured? Glass asks. For the first time, Qahtan makes eye contact, and answers, emphatically, yes. He is not allowed to say more – it is an operational matter, the Kurdish intelligence officer says, briefly.
Don McCullin’s photograph is dense and bleak, showing a young man leaning slightly forward, handcuffed. He has killed many people, and betrayed his ISIS comrades too, who were subsequently arrested. A man sits behind a desk across from him – the Kurdish jailer I thought at first, impressed by his humane demeanour, then I look more closely and see that it’s Charles Glass himself. Here he is, with a man who embodies the enemy of the West, a known killer. And here he is, with an ordinary guy in a black jacket, anxious and defeated.
We think they are one thing, and then suddenly they become another.