I recently read and was disappointed by a few new nonfiction books I had been looking forward to reading, and which I had bought in hardcover. Hardcover! I won’t say which books, because there’s nothing especially wrong with them, just a sense I had reading them, of I’ve heard this conversation before. This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of writing, and of reading ‘contemporary’ books generously. To get out of the habit of venerating the ‘great men’ or ‘singular geniuses’ of the past, we all have to accept that when people write books, especially books of ideas, but also books of stories, the ideas and stories are collectively sourced, they’re more or less documents of conversations and experiences that are happening at a certain time and place, and they should in many cases be read as documents of the publics that produced them rather than evidence of the singular, out-of-time genius of the individuals who decide to take down notes and publish them.
Writing with this in mind is difficult because it we all long to surprise ourselves and bring forth a surprise in the world, and it’s disappointing to forgo the urge towards self-seduction. Reading with this in mind is often a reminder that there are lots of good books to read in the world and most of them did not come out this month/year (even though some of them did). To avoid feeling like the bubble of the culture is suffocating you with repetition and sameness, I recommend reading old books, especially old books about the past, which are unfamiliar and in many ways freaky.
For example, I am finally reading from cover to cover a book I bought a couple years ago for a specific reference, now irrelevant, called Holy Feast and Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum, which is an early 1990s study of medieval European women’s relationship to food. One of the (many amazing) insights Bynum has is that there are bountiful metaphors by which women’s fasting in the late medieval period can be understood. Many of these symbols fasting women referred to are religious, i.e. emulating the figure of Christ’s emaciated body with their own bodies in a process of collective Christian identification; enduring suffering as a symbol for the drama of the body from which the spirit seeks to be untethered; rebellion against the wicked materiality stored in wine, meat, fat, honey, etc. etc. One of the symbols which surprised me is symbol of agency over the imposed meaning of the female body—fertility. In other words, when women fasted they made themselves infertile, a powerful refusal of women’s symbolic and material function, a de-gendering of sorts, though this refusal of marriage and childbirth was often expressed through the heightened ‘feminine’ language of maternal and erotic love for Jesus (some of the writings by these women are very hot and weird!). In comparison, the contemporary metaphors of fasting are impoverished and refer mostly to pathology: illness, control, and occasionally, beauty-seeking as acquiescence to extant heterosexist power relations. These metaphors are obviously, comparatively, sad! And while I would not personally like to live in late Medieval Europe as a woman, child, or even really a man, I would prefer to live in a small part of the world where there are more ways of understanding human bodies and acts than ‘sick/well’, and ‘normal/abnormal’. I am not up the ‘body elongation’ chapter of the book yet, but I greatly look forward to reading about how medieval devotees sometimes had parts of their peers’ bodies mysteriously elongate, like Gumby.
I was sick recently, sleeping all day, shitting blood, it lasted about a month, work piled up around me, late emails, apologies apologies, wanted to put my foot down and declare that I can’t do it, I won’t, but I was afraid as always that if I did say no I might never get work again at least not before my next bout of illness, which now felt immanent. Would I write about it?, I thought, about being sick? I’ve certainly run out of ‘life’ events to write about, or perhaps I’ve just lost interest in real life, a casualty of the lockdown, so this brush with danger might have been a blessing. Alas, it was after all too dull an experience to document. I had a good enough doctor, the treatment worked, my lover brought me cups of herbal tea in bed, and at no point did I have to toss a dry loaf of bread at my child’s feet while in a three-day fever delirium, which is how a friend described feeding her three-year-old while under the spell of a dreadful flu. In other words, I could not seduce myself into believing that this experience was meaningfully generative or important, thank God, but I did suddenly feel ravenous for books about illness, because I felt that I had joined that parallel realm of existence, if only for a month, and it seems I needed my illness books in hardcover. Illness memoirs are in that category of book that emerges from the conversations of the culture. Relevant, always, because everybody is already or will inevitably be sick; occasionally boring because it’s hard to squeeze new surprises from our pain, blood, and flatulence, especially when we know we are not to impose ideological narrative arcs onto suffering bodies.
I wish I had read the medieval food book while ill so that I could come up with an alternative—a rich, erotic meaning for my peptic ulcer. The facts of it were not only dull but I’ve come to believe an insult to suffering, which should be made bearable, sumptuous, even, with a legible overlay of obviously outrageous, gilded meaning. Dull, because I am conditioned to avoid metaphors and narratives when it comes to illness. We are all supposed to steer clear from the narratives of illness because they are almost always ideological, i.e. the cancer as ‘a battle’ metaphor, with winners (survivors) and losers (those who succumb). Sontag frames these ‘punitive and sentimental fantasies’ as a kind of victim-blaming, and Boyer argues that it erases the supremely diminished conditions in which ‘survivors’ often have to endure once the ‘battle’ is over. I obviously agree with all of that, that ‘illness as xxx’ is usually a way of sacrificing individual suffering to a smug ideological supremacy. The metaphor of the battle is impoverished, but I am starting to believe that so is the metaphor of illness itself. When I think of illness as a metaphor, and the tendency we have to pathologise suffering (outside the clinic, where is it often useful and important to do so, i.e., to get up-to-date treatments which sometimes work), I see that it has something to do with culture of control, a culture dominated by the urge to avoid the fact of suffering, a fact that is so deeply human, i.e. disgusting, that it is terrifying (see Kristeva!). Maybe illness is a useful metaphor to articulate the harms that have a social and economic origin (and can therefore be remedied with policies of economic redistribution, time off, cleaner environments, gender and reproductive justice, blah blah). But isn’t that an impoverished metaphor, if it is the only one available? That we exist only as material things with material problems, seeking material solutions? I really think that the main failure of the Enlightenment is its irrational misbelief that human beings are rational animals.
So, we have not eliminated death, to our dismay, and this is why illness—plus addiction, weight differences, bearing dysfunctional traces of dysfunctional pasts—is cordoned off as clinical abnormality. States of physical suffering and maladaptations to control links birth with death and our (human) inability to control our own fates. Yuck!
In fact, my small bout of illness, now over (for now) conformed to a three-act narrative arc, and by the end, I was transformed. Truly! Why not.
P.S. I won’t bother your inbox with this letter again for another four-to-six months. Mwah.
Some links of things that came out recently which might interest you:
A fully-online course over at KYD on ‘Voice and Persona’
I’m taking a break from group teaching/workshops and clinics, so this one will be the ‘class’ I instruct for a little while (it’s pre-recorded—forgive my extremely weird body language).
I am enjoying mentoring and manuscript consults at the moment, so if that’s something you’re interested in, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A short piece I wrote for the beautiful Irish journal Mirror Lamp Press, on an amazing, brutal medieval artwork called The Martyrdom of the Apostles:
I think I have something coming out in the next edition of Overland, too, late (Australian) Spring.