A form that does not wound
memoir, trauma, theory, femininity
Welcome to the Wednesday newsletter—today’s free essay explores themes of trauma, femininity, and theory through personal narrative. The March tarot reading for paid subscribers, complete with tarotscopes for each sign, will be out Saturday. Thanks for being here!
“I can’t spy the center of inception or the core of my being. I only know the timing.” –Caren Beilin
What do I know about structure? Or, should I say, what do I know about form. Saturn and Uranus smother each other in my natal chart, caught perpetually in the moment before excision, before Saturn uses his big scythe and lops off Uranus’ balls, and then chaos becomes a fleshy thing, cut, shaped, discarded into the sea. Venus, the story goes, is born from the cutting, masculinity’s excess submerged and changed by Neptune’s waters, and voila, from pain and daddy issues we get beauty, we get pleasure, we get the body, we get art. Constraint fosters creativity, I used to lecture as a girl, to my sisters, to my boyfriends, to anyone who would listen, about why I loved poetry, Emily Dickinson, weird punctuation and punishing rhyme schemes so much. As a graduate instructor who had to get her job materials together for a job as non-existent as Juno’s empathy, I stated it with a bit more emphasis, a teaching statement that begins heavy with pretend confidence: “I have little use for the phrase ‘thinking outside the box.’” It’s a sentiment I’ve borrowed from Mary Cappello, an experimental writer who likes to bend genre well enough but without the pretense of doing away with narrative all together.
I’m supposed to be talking about form in the language of theory, in the language of the women of theory who first reintroduced me to myself. Butler with her re-readings of Plato and Freud, form and sex, and the meanings of form and sex, the meaning of biology itself, dependent more on the human mind’s cowering in front of potential than we could ever hope to parse.
Butler with her revisions of the mother in Kristeva, and Kristeva with her revisions of the mother in the world—motherhood not as divine, not as institution, but as matter, as possession, as possessed, the mother’s body rendered into sound: “My body is no longer mine, it writhes, suffers, bleeds, catches cold, bites, slavers, coughs, breaks out in a rash, and laughs,” Kristeva writes. “Let us listen again, therefore, to the Stabat Mater, and to music, all music. It swallows goddesses and strips them of necessity.” And Butler, one imagines her listening, cocking an ear, raising her own point: “to speak … of bodies that matter is not an idle pun, for to be material means to materialize, where the principle of that materialization is precisely what ‘matters’ about that body, its very intelligibility.”
Suffering, intelligibility, l’écriture feminine, leaking and bloat, blood, blood, blood, Medusa laughing, 500 pounds a year, some bones for good measure, nothing idle, everything in wait: the history of feminist thought on form, structure, the body, is rife with such words.
True, there is the part of me that yearns for that hanging space: a blank page, a stretch of hours, an empty stomach, my open legs, my open brain, my whole self body-less and air, multi-verse, god, Uranus, the potential to rain diamonds if I wanted. But to remain that way, all potential and nothing else, is to remain nothing, is to remain drunk, is to remain trapped in the form of someone or something else, mother, father, capitalism, media, academia, America, all of them just as fucked up as I am, only differently. If I must render myself into “imperfect” form, let me at least be saddled with my own imperfections and not another’s, my god.
But let us be wary of the word “imperfect” at all. We’ve known how it morphs in the mouths of men: imperfect to mean woman, to mean wound, to mean lack. How does it morph in the mouths of women? Imperfect to mean woman, to mean wound, to mean money. Imperfect to mean power. Imperfect to mean Me. Can we not Brené Brown our way through this one please? Can we not capitulate to the healing journey as we’ve learned to tell it to ourselves through the Reese Witherspoon movie club, the Oprah Winfrey book club, the new markers of made-it feminism that simplify a life down into what hurt, who was to blame, and how to hero your way through it, after all?
Leigh Gilmore, searing in her interrogation of neoliberal life narrative—the Oprah effect—laments how it seeps into the language of so many women writing their traumas these days, producing “a therapeutic narrative that takes pain as material for self-transformation rather than an adequate politics.” (I like the idea of pain as what moves a person toward politics, even if self-transformation looks more like pricking your fingers against the stray shards of yourself than it does like Botticelli’s Venus on a clamshell).
“Part of Winfrey’s canny appeal,” Gilmore goes on, “depends on traveling a neoliberal path of personal redemption that does not lead to political analysis or action.” She distinguishes Winfrey and her memoir boom-ers from the testimony of other women’s life writing that seeks to illuminate the connective tissue between personal pain and structural harm, that wants to connect “submerged histories of violence” to contemporary trauma not as a path to individual redemption but instead as a revelation of the violence of a country, a history, a present, a future built upon domination and death.
How do you know whether you are doing one thing or the other? What is the difference between writing yourself into redemption and writing yourself into critique? And how does one engage in critique without secretly hoping it is the very act of sharpening and shaping her words that will save her, finally set her on the hero’s path? (Am I seeking a new body politic or hocking my story now that my body won’t do)?
“People want, understandably, to be able to pursue happiness on the terms of the culture they live in (terms to which we all submit to one degree or another in various areas of our lives),” Susan Bordo wrote back in the 1990s, pinpointing the connection between the alarming rise in eating disorders in 20th century women and the wave of hysteria diagnoses among their Victorian counterparts a century before. “But they also want to feel that they are self-determining agents, and some want to be reassured that their choices are ‘politically correct,’ as well. It thus becomes very important that they believe their own choices to be individual, freely motivated, ‘for themselves.’”
Bordo was writing toward the cultural construction of eating disorder pathology at the turn of the millennium as other scholars from other disciplines—Emily Martin in cultural anthropology, Angela McRobbie in contemporary media studies, Claire Colebrook in affect theory—launched their own critiques of the form of contemporary narratives about mental illness, pain, feminism, social media. What counts as freedom in the manic-depression of our age, they ask, everything co-constituting everything else, work and brain, gender and body, love and personal brand online, Democrat and Republican, victim and redeemer? Who is the victim? Who is the redeemer? When is loneliness just loneliness and when it is something else, something that needs the structure of diagnosis, the oblong little SSRI, Prozac after the morning brushing of the teeth, the toothbrush electric, the better for whitening, the better for the Instagram smile, the Instagram ads for adult braces one wishes one could scroll past but instead lingers over, through long sips of coffee that will stain the crooked bottom teeth past fluoride’s repair.
And what can theory offer if it is not translated into a form more than language, a body more than text? The bodies of these women of theory I have loved as text, and their imperfections: Butler writing campaign checks in support of Kamala Harris, no matter her track record of incarcerating truants and young mothers. What of Butler’s language of nonviolence, then, of performativity and play, subversion and drag? Kristeva, spying for the USSR, the powers of horror, indeed, the struggle of me-not-me, but with higher stakes than instituting a renewed appreciation for the grotesque in wealthy little bulimics with pretensions to intellectual ascendency. Further back, Gertrude Stein with her praise for the Nazi responsible for removing all the Jewish children in the French town where she and Alice spent part of the war, or Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre trash-talking their old Jewish lover, abandoning her during the occupation. (De Beauvoir, by her own account, was bloviating in the yard at L’École Normàle Supérieure, when Simone Weil walked by and overheard de Beauvoir’s assertion that what people really needed, rather than revolution, was “more meaning in their lives.” Weil’s response went something like: It’s clear you’ve never actually gone hungry then).
Weil on culture: “to be rooted is perhaps the most recognized and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define.”
Define, name, shape, scythe. As a child I knew my body best at the base of the willow tree in our front yard. I imagined the roots, of my body, of the tree, just as its branches: long, entangled, buried in a hushing wind of dirt and worm and rock rather than air.
It is not that I want them, these women of theory, to be perfect. Is it that I want them to be perfect? Is it that I think Weil attained a kind of perfection here, on earth, in form? I first encountered her writing in a graduate class on women’s crime fiction. My professor assigned her essay The Iliad or The Poem of Force to provide a theoretical foundation for thinking, talking, and writing about violence. Like most theory, Weil’s writing provides a sweeping, poetic view on a terrible human condition. Unlike most theory, her abstractions didn’t seem like abstractions to me. The men who specialize in critical theory in our department love to talk of Agamben, states of exception, the muselmann as walking dead. I don’t really care about it on their tongues. But Weil, on the page, even before I knew she died by starving herself, I can feel her (I can feel me) feeling the force of which she spoke:
“Nearly all human life has always taken place away from hot baths.”
“Those to whom fate has loaned force perish through it.”
“The temptation to excess is virtually irresistible.”
Weil implicated me, reading this first essay in between throwing up bagels, bathing, and weeping over a doctor’s phone call to say my husband might have cancer. (He didn’t; he had the bubonic plague, and after implicating me, the essay comforted me, as I read it over and over again in the hospital waiting room while Kiernan underwent surgery to remove the diseased sack and puss that had accumulated along his larynx).
These days I keep a copy of Gravity and Grace as near as my mother keeps her Bible, and I’m captivated by most everything else she’s written and, more still, by the way she lived her life—managing to hold firm to her beliefs and, to paraphrase Shlomo Sand, to steer clear of any compromise, even temporary, in the face of the greatest crimes of the 20th century: Western colonialism, Soviet Stalinism, and German Nazism.
But what did it get her in the end, besides an early death, besides the disintegration of form, besides a world left without another decade, two, three, of her perfect writing, her perfect brain, all that potential, perfect and untouched? What does it mean for me to deem her perfect at all?
To live differently, politically. I start my online composition course during the 2020 elections with Weil’s essay “On The Abolition of All Political Parties” and Claire Colebrook on the end of the world: “What has always called itself the world is actually the end of the world. What looks like the end of the world is a possible new world.”
My students, names on a screen, wrestle in their introductory discussions with the seeming impossibility of this statement and of Weil’s writing. I read through their dialogue, imagining their Canvas posts as faces, text as cheeks, declarative sentences as flush. Weil is not wrong in her belief we are too quick to “pick a side” and unintelligibly stand by everything the platform argues for, one young woman writes. However I do believe each person becomes more educated through endless social media and news outlets. Another asks in a kind of no-eye-contact vagueness: Will it get better? Another, all shoulders-straight, chin-up, voice rising into not-quite-a-question: This made question my place in society and whether or not my political beliefs are valid.
Unintelligibility, speed, platforms, social media, society, politics, beliefs, validity—some of the reasons I’m interested in this essay against political parties written by Weil nearly 80 years ago now, the time it takes Uranus to transit a natal chart. What might Weil have to say to about the time in which we’re living, to my students who want to write better arguments, to me, who wants to write at all?
First there is Colebrook shaking down our understanding of “the end of the world”—or at least what we pay attention to or conjure up in the theatre of our imaginations when we talk about “the end of the world”—how it’s all a bit off. What if, instead of some cinematic, ashen landscape of the apocalypse, the end of the world is really contained in the brokenness of the very structures we uphold, rely on, and champion as essential to the way our world works today? You know, I say to my students, my words casual, my body tense, things like fossil-fuel-burning cars, student debt-mired university systems, the medical industrial complex’s inadequate response to human pain, and, too, what Weil would call the inherent totalitarianism in our modern democracy itself.
I want to use Weil’s argument not as a reaffirmation of the apathy of our time or of the fear of doing anything about it, but instead as a rupture of our binary thinking about and organizing of the world.
I want Weil to act as interruption, as illness can act as interruption, as plague can act as interruption, as theory can act as interruption, as mysticism can act as interruption. I want my students to arrive at Weil’s unflinching tone in her assertion, “the essential tendency of all political parties is toward totalitarianism,” and I want them to flinch, as I did, when I first read this text.
I want us, in the discomfort of our online space, to consider alternatives to either/or, us/them, private/public, offline/online, body/text, being/writing, me/you, self/other, life/death, perfect/imperfect, but I am not perfect, and after finally learning how to be a teacher’s body in a classroom, I am still struggling to figure out how to be teacher’s body on a screen. I am pretty sure our discussion, with its nervous starts, its retreats into comments like both sides have their faults and everyone should express their own beliefs, turns out to be a failure.
Bound by time and space, the short naps of my son, my own struggle to transform what I’ve read, what I know, into knowledge, into wisdom, at the end I am a large part of that failure: I summarize Weil’s life as if she were a Wikipedia page, as if we can know her at all through a paragraph, through a list. As if my love of juxtaposition alone will do the hard work of breaking down the oppositions: her writing, her work. The fancy schools, the French mines. Anarchy, resistance. Woman, soldier. God, refusal. Wisdom, youth. Philosophy, mysticism (theory, astrology. Academia, God).
I recount her death at 34 by malnutrition, stumbling over words like “symbol,” words like “fatal.” (I sweat, I cringe, I wonder: Am I encouraging my students to meditate on radical activism, or I am failing to understand my own capture, yet again, by narratives of form and control, form and wound)? When class concludes, I leave the screen and become a body again. But the baby is still sleeping, so I pick up journal and pen and enter a text. A form that wounds, seeking a form that does not. What does it mean to live, to write, to know, to create here at the end of the world? Chiron, woman, mother, willow, Venus, beauty, at the end of the day, Saturn was afraid of his children, too.