I write about politics. Or, properly, I attempt to write politically. When I sit down to write, the task is, practically speaking, always the same. I charge myself with disentangling a particular text (used in that vague Art School sense, where a system of government might be ‘read’ along the same lines as a book or a film) by artificially separating it, for the purposes of analysis, from the assumptions on which it rests, the conditions under which it was produced, the ways in which it is interpreted. This is done in the interest of offering some unexpected or perhaps deliberately silenced understanding of just how that ‘text’ works, why it matters, what effects it has on us and the ways in which we think of ourselves as political beings.
I look for gaps, discontinuities, and misconnections, because that’s where politics happens: in negative space. In the yawning vacuum between the way we presume things to be and the many ways in which they might be otherwise, we find the exercise of power, the sliding of power into force, the disintegration of force into trauma and loss, and the organization of trauma and loss into identities and identifications that try and fail to seal the vacuum up once again.
The upshot of this kind of writing is that, given how truly terrible the world is on a regular basis, I rarely find myself in want of topics. I don’t, like many fiction writers and poets I know, regularly panic that I’ve written my last screed. Writing does not feel to me like uranium or fresh water or redwood cedar. It won’t truly run out, dry up, or be mined out of existence by my regular indulgence. There will, miserably, always be some atrocity, some trauma, some violence to be addressed. Even more abundantly, there will always be other political writers setting reprehensible things to paper that I, in a righteous huff, will declare myself responsible for critiquing.
Of course, this is not the case, but such is my thought process.
Despite this grim abundance, however, I have struggled in recent months to commit any of it to print. There’s a reasonable chance that this struggle is simply a function of my increasing despondence at how absolutely dreadful this world is capable of being, indeed how dreadful this world seems to insist upon being. It may be that my heart, my compassion, my patience are simply used up. But there is something more, I think, to my late falling out with words.
After all, I know where they are. I still store them in the same places, keep them on the same shelves as I always have. And their stocks are robust. Like I said, words do not strike me as finite. Take, for example, my unfailing ability to come up with and loudly share large quantities of them when they are most unwelcome and unneeded. The words remain, the same as they always have, the same as they always will. But these days, I find myself ignoring them more than ever, glancing sideways out of cowardice rather than squaring with their expectant gaze. I just don’t love them the way I used to.
And so here I find myself, staring down the most terrifying of all written forms (the personal essay) as a first step to sorting out just where, if anywhere, that affair has wondered, where the spark might have strayed.
Perhaps I have misjudged. Maybe I should have treated my profession like uranium, after all.
Rest assured, though, the present effort will not be some Kerouackian musing on the waifishness of Writing and the ways in which it suffocates Truth (you know…because Kerouac is terrible). Rather it will be more like a Lifetime movie, probably. I can’t look my words in the eye anymore primarily because we’re bored with one another. We’re staring down 40, and I’ve yet to take that trip to Switzerland that I planned with my college roommate all those years ago. We stay because it’s convenient and safe and it feels fine. We look good together at parties and sometimes, if we don’t eat too much at dinner, the sex is great. But we’re sick of each other all the same. We sleep back to back now, telling each other that it’s because of our leg pain and our fear of looking out ground-floor windows at night, respectively.
Which is all to say that we’re embarrassed by one another, my writing and I. Or probably that we’re embarrassed by ourselves in one another’s company. Often, when I review what I write, I find myself cringing less at the grammar and the claims than I do at the imagined sight of my own face as I read. It is this embarrassment, this humiliation that best defines my relationship to writing. What other word can capture those sheepish shrugs that we exchange as we make our way out the door in the morning? That elevator small talk that we use to get through another day?
Because I am a perfectly predictable moody urban something or other, this puts me in mind of a song by someone I admire, and for a description of this sensation, I defer to its lyrics: “I took off my glasses while you were yelling at me once–more than once–so as not to see you see me react. Should have put them, should have put them on again, so I could see you see me sincerely yelling back.”
All the same, I’m not quite willing to give up on it all. There is something that keeps me in this mostly unhappy arrangement with what I produce, with what I often fail to produce. Given that I have no intention of discovering that something via a whirlwind tour of Italy, wherein I learn to let go and love both carbs and my knobby knees in equal measure, here is what I can offer in the way of an explanation:
Arundhati Roy, the Indian author and activist, writes words that I love with an unqualified heart. Even on the rare occasion when I find myself moved to quibble with her political analyses, the compulsion withers under the weight of my love for her prose. It is crystalline and insurgent, simple and breathless, sweeping and present. Alice Walker, writing of Arundhati’s book Listening to Grasshoppers, gets it completely correct when she says that “The fierceness with which Arundhati Roy loves humanity moves my heart.” This painful, wrenching, acute love for human life, paired with a righteous and rigorous opposition to those forces and conditions that make human lives unlivable, gives Roy’s words the menacing weight of a properly-swung sledge hammer.
But unlike that blunt instrument, Roy’s writing leaves scars instead of bruises. It doesn’t take much of a tactician, after all, to leave a bruise. A misguided backback on a crowded bus can do that well enough. And that lack of care shows: bruises fade. There’s nothing particular, nothing persistent about a bruise. It’s shallow. It’s like when a contestant on a reality TV show cries: It’s ugly, and sometimes it spreads and discolours into even uglier forms, but it fades all the same.
Scars are different. They’re precise and contained, left by sharpened edges that vanish exactly where and when their utility is to be performed. They never spread, but they stay. They stay and they stay and they stay. No matter how many scarves or gloves or watches you use to distract attention from them, they will stay.
Arundhati’s writing scars me. It populates my skin with awkward, stubborn little baubles; baubles that, like the one on my left knee (the knobbier of the two), I resent for several years before coming to love as my own. They mimic their origins daily: they mark where I have been sewn up and healed, and so anchor the memory of how certain words struck me, landed in me. They are little sutures, little stitchings-up around which I can organize myself and against which I can keep time. The way parents sometimes do when they scratch their children’s height on the inside of a doorframe.
All of this is to say that Arundhati is a tremendous writer who you should 1) start reading immediately in the event that you haven’t already, and 2) listen to on matters of writing as a practice.
In a recent essay called “We Call This Progress,” she says this about why she writes:
Quite often, when you see what is being done to people, it creates rage in you and humiliation if you keep quiet. People ask me why I write, and I say it’s in order to not be humiliated. I don’t write for anything else except to not be humiliated. Every time I write, I keep telling myself that I won’t do it again, but it’s like I can’t contain it inside my body; I write, and it’s a relief.
As I have already said, I am embarrassed, often and increasingly so, by my relationship with words and how I use them. I am reasonably humiliated, for example, by the fact that not 700 words ago, I quoted extensively from a Fiona Apple song in my very serious essay about writing and humiliation.
I am, like Roy and people at Fiona Apple concerts, terrified of silence and the humiliation that usually comes after. As such, every time I write, I constantly rehearse a kind of perverse rosary in which I convince myself that what I am doing is necessary and, while not exactly heroic, is also not exactly nothing: “This is important. This needs to be said. There is a silence here that must be broken. This blog post, which will be read by 29 people and earn me the title of Hamas apologist, will be a force.”
Of course, I know this to be mostly untrue. With the notable exceptions of Malcolm Gladwell and anyone who has ever written a book about a road trip, writers are usually acutely aware of the fact that what they do is basically frivolous.
With this in mind, the function of my rosary is two-fold: it is 1) an act of self-defense that I use to shore myself up against my own frivolity, and 2) it is a bulwark against the humiliation that I would experience if, at some point in the future, it were revealed that when given the option between writing (not exactly nothing) and staying silent (exactly nothing), I had chosen the latter.
But what happens when the bulwark against embarrassment is itself an increasing embarrassment? I write out of self-defense, out of the fear of being humiliated, but find myself no less humiliated when I look upon what I’ve wrought. It always turns out as a tangle of words that get lost in themselves, like moody teenagers, dragged around by sentences that don’t care because they have work to do. It all leads to some climactic fight between the two where very little is resolved, but at least someone usually cries. And in Lifetime movies, that’s a good enough reason to fade to black.
In philosophy, by the way, this is called Dialectics.
Either way, when I write, I find myself not relieved but embarrassed all over again. Perhaps it’s because what I string together seems to me so obviously meant to absolve myself of culpability, to spare myself the discomfort of not having taken a side when push finally comes to shove. Or perhaps I’m embarrassed that this, of all things, is my strategy in the first place. Maybe I’m embarrassed at having made the wrong decision with respect to coping strategies to begin with
After all, some pick exercise, some pick the fine arts, others pick protest, and still others pick landscaping. But me…I picked writing. And not just writing, but political writing, which for those who don’t indulge, is a world made up of two kinds of people: those who don’t know what they’re talking about, and those who know even less, but are better at faking it and usually have better hair. In having made such a choice, I feel vaguely like the worst kind of contestant on The Price is Right. I’m that idiot who tries too hard to listen to too many people in the audience at once, panics, and completely forgets that he has the option of saying “four hundred and one dollars, Bob.”
So why do I stay? Without the relief that Roy finds in words, it seems senseless to keep this up. After all, it’s no way to make a living. It’s not even a way to live a life.
After all this: I stay, probably, for the scars. For the little marks that my humiliation leaves on me that I will hate for several years then return to with a reluctant smile; or, minimally, with a tolerance that exceeds tolerance, a tolerance that isn’t exactly warmth but isn’t exactly nothing, either. I stay for the chance, amid the rewrites, the uncertainty, and the sting that comes with the first blush of a new embarrassment, to trace the weird contours of the figures that will persist somewhere, somehow.
I stay because the best gift I ever got was a book, an eighth or ninth-hand copy of Querelle of Brest by Jean Genet, which a friend gave to me for a birthday that I no longer remember.
That book, and the clumsy, unstable, often unpleasant circumstances in which I inherited it, remain a lump in my throat. I recall being incapable of making the text perform as either pure fantasy or pure documentary. I could push it into no service, move it towards no end. Genet’s searing prose left me as misty as the dark ports-of-call through which his swarthy sailors lurch. I devoured the story but found that it failed miserably the instant I attempted to “put it to use,” either as escapist fiction or didactic parable.
Despite my best efforts, it became the unexpected centre around which a desperate, sometimes ugly, frequently boozy, oddly caring moment of my life could be organized. It gave shape, if not dimension, to a time that I’m glad I still recall, and hope to always recall, one that I hope will not dislodge. That is to say, it became a scar. It became one of those discontinuous little marks that anchor and re-anchor a life, this life, otherwise wrapped up in its ludicrous circuits of vanity, self-doubt, and humiliation.
I feel a compulsive need to enact these kinds of scars; to create stubborn knots that have no names–or at least names that I can’t speak–but that name themselves in the demands they issue to me (and with any luck, to others): to allow myself to come up short and be always incomplete; to remember that this body can be marked by the world, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better; to know that I can return to the places where those marks reside–more or less embarrassed at their presence, more or less willing to be at home with them–and they will still be there; to know that this return will never be easy, that it will always be frivolous. But to know that it will stay.
 There are, as I have already mentioned, certain similarities between how I live and how people live in Lifetime-style movies. But there is a limit to those similarities. That limit is called Eat, Pray, Love (though the actual knobbiness of my knees is truly a sight to behold).
 This is true and recent.