Postscript, Stranger: Dishes Best Served Cold
by Nyla Matuk
Recently, I turned my attentions to writing prose and immediately encountered two works of note—late, it seemed, given their subject matter and my foci with my poetry collection, Stranger, and its mix of reflections from a distance and confessional tendencies. The first is “Two Paths for the Personal Essay,” an omnibus book review by Merve Emre, a young, Yale-educated professor teaching in the Department of English at McGill University. The other is the Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva’s Étrangers à nous-mêmes (1988), a book-length essay on the idea of the stranger and estrangement as a condition of Western culture.
Professor Emre critiques Durga Chew-Bose’s book of personal essays Too Much and Not the Mood (2017), holding it up as an example of a set of decadent and meaningless personal concerns extemporized in the essay form and that occupy the place of gravity normally and preferably the purview of the personal essay; Emre argues there is very little for us to care about in Chew-Bose’s pieces because they have neither moral import nor do they give readers any insight into political problems. “The eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical is not new; nor is criticism of the personal essay’s manipulation of its readers (its intimate “grossness,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once sniffed),” Emre writes. “The form has always grappled with the many valences of the term “personal” and the kinds of authorial projections it allows [but] … too many people writing have nothing interesting to say and no interesting way in which to say it.” For Emre, it is the “mindful” person rather than the “educated” one who is now the author of personal essays. By contrast, she offers Mary Gaitskill’s collected reviews and essays, Somebody With a Little Hammer, as an antidote.
Emre describes Gaitskill’s book:
[Reading Gaitskill is like] learning what objects in the world are worthy of our sustained attention. People are less original than they would like to think, and living is both less transcendent and less abject than most acts of narration would lead us to believe. Many of us move through life according to a relatively predictable set of rules and social codes that shape not only human behavior but also the kinds of art human beings produce to reflect their moral universe—the Bible, for instance, but also nineteenth-century novels, romantic comedies, and memoirs. This is a phenomenon that Gaitskill describes time and again as “mechanicalness,” and it grinds all manner of human interactions down into dirty shards of reality: rigid debates about sexual propriety and dating; the preoccupation with being cool; the idle chirping of social media. Since all this further alienates us from anything like a knowable or authentic self, the essayist’s ethical prerogative is to pay close and direct attention to this mechanicalness—to note its predictability, its self-absorption, its avoidance of painful reality: how it “cannot tolerate anything that is not happy and winning,” Gaitskill observes.
Just as I had begun to think Emre’s preferences for personal essays would be disastrous if applied to poetry—because I see poetry as, among other things, consciousness put down on the page—her parsing of Gaitskill’s “mechanicalness” and the importance of being vigilant of its myriad tentacles makes perfect sense when we remember that the worst poetry often mines clichés, the mechanical and rote accommodation of predictable ideation around (as above) dating, the social mediatization of one’s ideas or real-life experience, sexual mores, coolness, troubling political realities, etc. I like to think there is almost a kind of relatability ideology at work in a lot of confessional writing that art’s complexity (the unrelatability and unknowns, the estrangements) could work against. That would not preclude making art on the account of social conditions, political standpoints, dissent, and so on.
While Gaitskill’s writing is still replete with details of personal history, Emre’s point is that these details are not so easily ascribed to merely mindful observation but stand as puzzling artefacts that Gaitskill herself allows to remain as estranged moments; e.g., her own hallucination of a stripper she describes after being hit on the head while travelling on a boat down a river in Russia. Everything about the stripper Gaitskill sees continues to shimmer on its own, despite the urgency of her bleeding head.
So too with poetry, I find. As Emre writes, “we can begin to separate the notion of the “personal” from the adjectives that have clung to and muddied its coattails—not only “messy,” but also “warm,” “caring,” “confessional,” “emotional,” “empathetic,” and “sentimental.” What if personal writing were not a manifestation of intimacy or interiority? What if art were a dish best served cold?”
In a 2005 interview with Francois Caillat, “Éloge de l’étrangeté,” Julia Kristeva says that we are never such strangers, never more realized as strangers, than when in France; she says France is a highly impenetrable country for outsiders, shored up with language (l’Académie française), Jacobinism, and other institutions against which the stranger will feel like an outsider. And in Ethics, Politics and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Work, Kelly Oliver observes that Kristeva has somehow neglected to discuss the exclusion of the stranger or foreigner as a necessity of the narcissistic project of the nation-state. In order for the nation-state to exist (at least, this is the case in Europe) the estrangement of the foreigner must occur.
It is only when we are able to understand the stranger within ourselves (étrangers à nous-mêmes) that we might confront our reasons for creating the stranger. Learning to live with others within us, Kelly notes, means learning to live with others around us. It amounts to learning how to confront alterity; for me this would be, when transposed to a political ideal, the promise of democracy.
Social media and personal essays such as those in Too Much and Not the Mood in some ways force us to confront alterity, but also allow us to erase it, and are opportunities to familiarize the world with what Emre called “mindfulness,” the small observations of living that are so aestheticized as to replace the political and ethical import of essays. Rather than mining the strange in order to present unknowable worlds, in the way Gaitskill might do, every small highly personal care is rendered in tweets, updates, or longer prose within the personal essay/memoir nomenclature now being published.
The dog-whistle racism in the U.S. and Canada, for instance, gaining momentum prior to the election of Donald Trump, and making a scapegoat of the ‘other,’ the stranger, the asylum seeker from the East, is an opportunity to find empathy enough to recognize the ‘stranger in ourselves’ in order to correct that odiousness. But political engagement can’t happen in our written culture, in our ‘personal essays,’ when we do nothing but cling to our small familiar worlds; and here is the case in point from Too Much and Not the Mood, which Emre cites:
There’s an emoji on my phone that I’ve never used, of a shell-pink tower-block building with blue windows. Smaller than an apple seed, crumb-sized—if that—it stands six stories high. Six windows going up: three square, three rectangular. I counted them and double-checked because extra-small things bring out the extra-small person in me who sometimes even triple-checks things; who still chances certainty might exist in asking, “Promise me?”
Citing this passage as decadent navel-gazing may be an absurd way to make the point that jettisoning the political inside the personal essay is a bad idea—Chew-Bose is so far from the mark. While you could argue not everything is political, why bother, as Emre observes, to write anything at all if it is of so little import:
But what makes “Heart Museum” so dispiriting is not the quality of Chew-Bose’s prose. Rather, it is how the essay not only celebrates its aesthetic failings, but also insists that these failings testify to the author’s success as a sensitive ethical thinker. If the prose is clunky, if the posturing is overindulgent, if the plot is lost and never found, then, Chew-Bose would have us believe, we have no recourse as readers but to grant how the formlessness of her writing—she would call it the “breathlessness” or perhaps the “messiness” of it—forces us to reflect on timeless quandaries about life and art. Is the writer a reliable witness to the past? Can she ever truly know the human beings she writes about? Can she ever truly know herself? Chew-Bose’s answer to all these questions is “I guess? Sort of.” “Is there anything better, more truthful and sublime than what cannot be communicated?” she concludes in “Heart Museum.” “The marvelous, hard-to-spell-out convenience of what’s indefinite.” These are pretty phrases that mean nothing and teach nothing. Their only purpose is to “clinch” (to echo Chew-Bose) the author’s status as a beacon of complex selfhood. But for whose benefit?
‘Complex selfhood’ is a useful term for thinking about the image-curation that is so commonplace on social media, in particular for artists or writers. Drawing from the German Romantic tradition’s tenet that the writer is a unique, god-like figure capable of genius, the ‘complex selfhood’ of authorial figures devolves to the kind of decadence that sees ruminations on emojis deserving of book publication, and, then, credible and more than passable authorial respect. At least when Huysmans described a jewel-encrusted tortoise’s shell, it was openly admitted to be brazenly decadent.
The anti-immigration imperative behind Brexit, economic protectionism of the sort Donald Trump promised in his election campaign (in addition to the increased suspicions, threats and actual violence visited on black people, Mexicans and Muslims fuelled with his accession to power) and the restriction from receiving public service for niqab-wearing women in Quebec (Bill 62) are all examples of anti-democratic policies, of rendering strange those who are different from within, what Kristeva should label the estrangement of the foreigner for the purpose of keeping the existence of the nation-state paramount. What is left when those who are believed to be different are turned away? The banality of a small and myopic set of observations, agendas for the restoration of the lost ideal and actuality of a national “greatness,” or the passing of a law predicated on the presumption of secularism leading to some ersatz idea of liberation for women (in the case of Quebec’s hypocrisy about building a truly secular society). Is it possible to maintain any self-irony when we turn out those perceived as Other in these ways? I wonder what distance we need from ourselves to allow us to express to others what’s worth caring about: ethical, political or aesthetic cares.
It seems self-alienated thinking and writing could open the way for empathy, imagining another person in all her complexity and unknowableness, as opposed to an Other from whom we could easily seal ourselves off in discriminatory ignorance. A political education, meanwhile, would remind us that it was protection of minority rights (toleration) that was so critical in formulations of nation-state democracies as they were discussed by John Locke and others.
In his poem “If I Were Another,” the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes,
If I were another on the road, I would have said
to the guitar: Teach me an extra string!
Because the house is farther, and the road to it prettier—
that’s what my new song would say. Whenever
the road lengthens the meaning renews, and I become two
on this road: I … and another!
I want to suggest that taking a long look outside ourselves is an act of empathy in political life as much as an act of beautiful estrangement in art. The beauty is not found in the hothouse of the self but rather in the cold dish of strange wildflowers served in a meadow far from home.
Image by mallix.
About the Author:
Nyla Matuk is the author of two books of poetry. Sumptuary Laws (2012) was nominated for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award for a best first book of poetry in Canada, and Stranger was released in October 2016.