I have not been reading lately, at all, or writing, much at all. I am in the throes (death rattle) of editing my incest-text, specifically the Monkey section, and I'm trying to somehow distort the character's language, using texting language as an inspiration, but this mostly involves removing letters and punctuation and putting it back in. And freaking out and wondering whether I've written a mad text, a bad text, whether I've written something so weird and incoherent no one will read it (the ghosts of Virginia Woolf, la la la la). I hate editing. I despise it. I can suffer at it two hours a day, maybe, and then I despair and shutter into myself the rest of the day. I remember that Virginia Woolf would always fight terrible melancholy when she was editing - I am inspired by this, I think about this, the process of editing, to scratch out, to make disappear, to self-abnegate. The only worse experience than editing for me is to be edited, such a violence to this, that unleashes me at my psychotic, most childish, rage-filled worst. This is what I want my text Mad Wife to be about, the not reading and writing, the stages of silence, of being erased, the experience of being edited, of editing oneself.
But it is so painful and impossible for me to write the silence, on which I languish my island. When I am euphoric and clear I can write on and on, but it doesn't last, and something happens to murder my self, returning to teaching, creative and professional rejections, a series of rejections, family, often, illness, like recurrent sinus infections (I remember that Simone Weil had sinus infections, I remember that Sylvia Plath had sinus infections, I take solace in these parallels, so strange). The anorexic/bulimic divide perhaps also the depressive/manic, aesthetically speaking. But when I am depressed I simply cannot inhabit the necessary space, to read, or write. So often in my creative process, my life, it is a series of two weeks on, one week off.
And then I close forth like Samuel Beckett on his rocking chair (lacking not only verbosity but language, at all). Before when we had a television I would flip and flip for hours, my own private catatonia. My partner John knows when I am at this state and he lets me be. When I am in that strange gray state, choosing to pause myself. As John Barth writes in "End of the Road": "My moods were little men. And when I killed them they were completely dead." Now that we don't have a television I have taken to reading historical romance novels. Now I feel no one will ever read this blog again! But it's true. I began researching romance novels for Under the Shadow of My Roof, because the mother character is an Emma Bovary, and I thieve from the language of romance novels heavily. But then I became utterly seduced by them, some sort of dangerous kitschy Valium. So sometimes when I am Esther Greenwood and cannot read when I cannot challenge myself cannot be stimulated at all, I read total crap. As a way to shut my mind down. I have a pile of perfect books to read - Vanessa Place, new Action Books titles, stuff to read for Nightboat...considerations of the concept of impenetrability in the text...but sometimes I cannot. Does anyone else feel this way?
Anyway. Was reading this blog that's new to me, Repat Blues, and I am loving this sort of dialogue with kindred spirits. She reminds me how essential Sarah Kane is to me, her Psychosis 4.48, Cleansed and Blasted. I love this, from Repat Blues (she is channeling Psychosis 4.48 and Plath here):
And then you cut yourself maybe because they expect you to you take a razor and slash your thighs and they say
“Does it relieve the tension?” and you say
“No it doesn’t relieve the tension. Who the fuck told you that?”
“Many people do it. It relieves the tension.”
They tell you they understand you.
And you say:
“Excuse me but no this doesn’t relieve the tension I don’t know where the fuck you read that but it doesn’t.”
They all believe this now.
They also believe that you feel empty and that your emptiness is part of your mental illness.
“Do you mean to tell me that you don’t feel empty Dr This or Dr That?”
And the doctor just nods then.
Which makes me think of Woolf satirizing her incompetent law-making doctors in Mrs. Dalloway, which is the Woolf for me, the one that inhabits my mind the most often (also perhaps To the Lighthouse, the narrative about the enigmatic mother, the grieving father). And I am I guess possibly teaching a course on "Female Criminals" at the university next fall, and possibly one on "Women and Madness" (which by the way, is basically everything I teach anyway), and so have been thinking of texts by women that both write madness as well as narrate and critique the experience of being a mental patient-patient, of being taken up by the psychiatric establishment. So I thought I would list my favorite novels by women writers dealing with madness. Whenever I teach texts by women, mostly, my students always freely diagnose. Especially when I teach The Awakening. But even though I love The Awakening I will not put it on this list because I do not think it's about madness, at all, but breaking through to the other side, realizing one's imprisonment.
Jean Rhys' Good Morning, Midnight & Wide Sargasso Sea
I know all I do is blather on about Jean Rhys (in Under the Shadow my Monkey interviews Jean Rhys down in the cellar, and paints her toenails, and asks her about Ford Madox Ford). But I have taught both texts many times. And to me they are the most perfect novels. Sasha Jensen's unravelling, how Rhys writes this in her fragmented, musical way, the anger and paranoia and violence...And then how she resurrects Charlotte Bronte's paper tiger, breathes humanity into her. To me Wide Sargasso Sea is about identity and how madness is the loss of self. The two types of deaths, the real one (spiritual, the loss of self) and the ones everyone knows about. Rhys admired Anna Kavan, and especially her title for her slim tropical revision of an earlier more traditional novel, Who are You? And she has said that she wished that's what she should have named WSS. Who are you?
This is from Wide Sargasso Sea:
Very soon she’ll join all the others who know the secret and will not tell it. Or cannot. Or try and fail because they do not know enough. They can be recognized. White faces, dazed eyes, aimless gestures, high-pitched laughter…She’s one of them. I too can wait – for the day when she is only a memory to be avoided, locked away, and like all memories a legend. Or a lie…
Anna Kavan's Asylum Piece
Asylum Piece is I think the best invocation of madness ever written. There. I truly believe it. I cannot describe it. These shards of fragments, essayistic, sometimes like journal entries, the hallucinogenic paranoia.
Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina
My partner John adores Malina, and Bachmann, so much so, that for a while I was too jealous of her and I couldn't read it. Is it about madness? It's about a fractured psyche, and a strange Other who may or may not exist, and about erotomania and paralysis and dread and....
Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway
I had a student refer to her as "VDubs" in an essay. This work is about madness to me. Septimus Smith standing in for the author? Her fear of incoherence. Clarissa Dalloway a shaky gray sparrow, overwhelmed, afraid to push too deep.
Elfriede Jelinek's The Piano Teacher
Yes, about violence, and rage, and losing oneself.
Emily Holmes Coleman's The Shutter of Snow
About the experience of being institutionalized after having a baby (Coleman is a fascinating figure in modernism, she was Emma Goldman's secretary, she was really Djuna Barnes' agent and editor in championing Nightwood). Haven't read it in a while, but I remember the language to be gorgeous and disorienting.
Janet Frame's Faces in the Water
Janet Frame saved from the lobotomy by having her collection of poems win a prize.
Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar
Such a brilliant, darkly funny, dystopic novel. As Repat Blues has written, who doesn't wonder about the uselessness of washing one's hair? Esther Greenwood decides not to participate, she decides not to be the perfect image, and so she unravels. This is a great existential crisis, she is not some frivolous girl. I love how Plath mirrors scenes in a maternity ward with scenes in the asylum. How at the end, in the language of marriage and rebirth, you're not quite sure whether Esther has escaped, or whether she has put on an appropriate performance of conformity in order to reenter the world.
I'm sure I missed a lot. I love the hysterical portraits in Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies, but decided that didn't count, the degradation of Robin Vote in Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, the obsession of Elfriede Jelinek's Piano Teacher. I haven't read Leonara Carrington's work on madness in a while (The Hearing Trumpet?) And I'm realizing I'm also stuck in modernism.