The Present Breath

Another piece written for translation for my column in the Goteborgs-Posten.

It’s getting increasingly uncanny to see the way in which the present neoliberal plot to reduce the state purely to an enabler of private profit, clicks as neatly as a jigsaw piece into the attempts of the children of the new age of Aquarius in the late1960s to explore their own inner space. We could never have imagined it.
We baby-boomers – as we are better remembered – took the idea of our minds seriously, and, as well as getting stoned out of them, sought to learn more about them, to see what minds were capable of and how minds in other cultures had developed differently because of other social practices and assumptions. We took drugs and read the Bhagavad Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead; we fell hook line if not sinker for the Marharishi Marhesh Yoga and admired Alan Watts, we listened intently to sitar ragas as well as to the Doors. We investigated other cultures, as we thought, with humility, to discover what our discarded materialistic upbringing had forgotten about the human condition. What we didn’t notice was how much like our colonial forebears we were in our assumptions that we could just wander around the world, or leaf through the writings of other societies and take what we thought they were saying as our own. We weren’t humble, we were naïve and arrogant. We supposed we could just charge around the world, by foot or by book, and just understand what we read and saw. We imagined we could take on the habits of a society different from our own for thousands of years, just as we slipped into jellabahs and kaftans. Nevertheless, we were seekers. For that I still salute us. We looked for ways to expand the mind; and for all our arrogance, we guessed that there was more to mind than our western colonial heritage had led us to believe.
Now, almost every week, I open a paper, or click on an article onscreen, to be told by some government body or representative that it would benefit our society greatly if we were to meditate every day. Not long ago, I read that 95 members of parliament had completed mindfulness meditation courses. The day before an article headlined ‘Why we will come to see mindfulness as mandatory’, was written by Guardian writer, Madeleine Bunting, who is part of a university group supporting ‘an all-party parliamentary group on mindfulness.’ What interests them, she says, ‘ is the potential for public policy. What role could mindfulness play in schools, in the NHS or in the criminal justice system?’1
This is beyond the wildest dreams of the 1960s counter-culture. While we charged at other cultures like bulls in china shops, and tried to insert ourselves into religions and practices that we had no preparation for, this modern push to mindfulness has moved in a different direction and more or less stripped the oriental and transcendental out of the practice. It asks little more than that a person should sit for between fifteen minutes and an hour a day concentrating on the in-and-out of their breathing. Once the Buddhism and technical precepts have been disposed of, what emerges is the common sense of paying attention to the present moment and not worrying about and fearing the past and future. ‘Close your eyes, bring your attention into your body, to the sensation of your feet on the ground; the movements of your breath, the expansion of your rib cage. Stay with these tiny physical sensations.’ The obscure texts we struggled with have been replaced with extremely simple practical instruction. No difficult postures or sanskrit terms. None of the severe warnings that a lifetime of work would only put the aspiring meditator on the first step to the road of enlightenment. Just sit, pay attention, breath. Then go to work, or get back to the children. This is all it takes, academic studies have found, to achieve a 20% reduction in symptoms of stress and depression. It is good for us to meditate, and if it prevents people from taking time off from work and needing the services of doctors and medicines, it is good for the country. So good that even business and the military are providing courses in it. The message is that meditation is no longer to be considered quirky or foreign, it is to be thought of as keeping the mind well, just as jogging keeps the body in good condition. Never mind any other reasons why people practice meditation. Western capitalism has finally been convinced that ancient techniques can save them money, and what is more, the onus is on the individual, not the state, to ensure that they maintain a sound mind in a healthy body and get to work 20% more often than they are managing to do now.
I am not mocking, or at least, I’m not mocking the benefits of meditation. I know for a fact that there are immediate benefits. For some years I have been practicing the modern sort of mindfulness, to help me cope with chronic pain that strong drugs only partly help, after I discovered the CDs of Jon Kabat-Zinn who ran the prestigious Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. His guided breathing meditations and explanations are compelling and I use them whenever the pain is too strong. I try to do it every day, but I don’t have the sort of personality that allows me to succeed very well at that. But by concentrating on my breathing, then focussing on the area of pain and breathing in and out of it, I’ve found it is possible to make it seem to disperse, almost as if it were a cloud breaking up into harmless droplets. By breathing into pain and thinking of it not as pain, but unemotively as sensation, I can tolerate and moderate it to some extent in my mind. It is a real help, even if, when I stop, the pain returns. I don’t need a guru, I just need silence and a certain amount of energy to get it going.
But although I do appreciate how much this pared down meditation can help pain and stress, there is something about it that troubles me, just as there was something about the more Buddhist version I tried to practice long ago. The key phrase in mindfulness is ‘the present moment’. The point is to exist in the here and now. In that immediate space where nothing was and nothing will be, there is relief from all manner of ills. The mind is relieved of its restlessness and the restlessness of the world. Yet living in the present moment, as Buddhism and now the British parliament is exhorting us to do, means that we are not to trouble ourselves with what has gone before or what is to come. It is precisely not how a writer can exist. And how convenient such a state of mind is for governments, businesses, the military, the financial sectors, to have a populace and workforce who, if distressed physically or mentally by state and corporate acts of greed, incompetence and ideology, can slip into meditating on the mild and uneventful eternal now. We have discovered with our modern scienctific measuring devices that such meditating actually changes our metabolism so that the wellbeing we feel as a result can be explained by actual chemical processes in our brain. Whenever Jon Kabat-Zinn intones ‘Bring your mind to the present breath, because that is all that exists’, I find myself fighting the rush of pleasurable endorphins in my brain to remind myself  as a member of society and as a writer, that the present is not all there is. It’s OK for an hour a day, but without the narrative of the past and present, cause and effect, we risk becoming contented sheep. You can see how attractive a population of meditators might be to those who get their wealth and power from manipulating the material world.
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1 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/06/mindfulness-hospitals-schools

Fairy Dust on the Pavement – The Power of Glamour

This is an review of a book, The Power of Glamour by Virginia Postrel, which was published in Harper’s Magazine last year.

 

In the late 1970s I was pushing the pram down Heath Street, a vertiginous road in Hampstead with Heath at the top end and Hampstead Tube Station and the High Street full of fancy shops below. From the top of the hill I saw a bright glow down by the Tube, but it was too far to make out what was going on. Certainly, something. It was an aura of light easily outshining the broad daylight, shimmering, gleaming. People are always filming in Hampstead, using its quaintness to signify older times, when it was a village, in a garden of which Keats wrote Ode to a Nightingale.  I supposed that was what was happening (although the tube station siting was a bit of a twentieth century give away). Arc lights and the strange mixture of limbo and fevered activity of a film crew on the street you are walking along, when your normal day bumps into them. As I descended, the light got brighter, increasingly dazzling but still contained in a small area. About halfway down the hill I could see there was no technical equipment, just a small circle of regular-looking people standing around the origin of the light. Eventually I got near enough to identify the source of the illumination. The brilliant shimmer I’d seen from the top of Imagethe hill transformed into an aura around two quite small people, still too far to see details, but nothing obviously special about them apart from that bright aura flowing directly from them. Closer still, the couple’s features became clear. The mysterious shimmer resolved into Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Or as we called them then, ‘Richardburtonanelizabethtaylor’. They had been taking a stroll around Hampstead and were waylaid at the station entrance by a handful of people wanting autographs. These were the starriest stars I’d ever seen close to in ordinary life, top of the tree stars, and I still remember their physical aura as actually light. It/they sparkled and fizzed. It struck me that they had absorbed and accumulated all the decades of spotlight, arc-light, limelight that had shone on them, all the excitement of eyes that focused and peered at them, all the giant waves of attention, adoration and curiosity that continually engulfed them, and now, like fleshy batteries, they radiated it back as visible energy at the world. If it wasn’t true light, it was a core of specialness so powerful that it burned through them and out to the surrounding air. Without that brilliant aura, until I was close enough to recognise them, they would have been a slightly over-dressed (some priceless diamond or other on her hand lending an extra sparkle of its own, his hair more tailored than cut), moderately handsome though plump, couple of tourists, American probably, like many who had wandering around Hampstead on their itinerary. With the light, they were Marc Antony and Cleopatra, The VIPs, Faustus and Helen, George and Martha, the Oberon and Titania of Hollywood, stepping out of the big screen into the regular day and shedding some of their fairy dust over the pavement. 

That was my only face-to-face with indisputable glamour. Meeting ordinary famous people is different. They are what they do, what you admire or despise them for. It’s interesting or disappointing. You engage with them as experts or producers.  This high glamour encounter was different. It was electrical and electrifying. There was no way in which an onlooker could engage, only look and be amazed. It was also in one way, strikingly similar to my previous looking-at-a-distance encounters with glamour: in the audience at the movies with the added patina of time and vintage clothes. In the presence, unmediated by screen or page, the radiance functioned as an electric fence, a safety screen, as well as being an inner glow of stockpiled attention. I wondered if there was an on/off switch: either they were lit up all the time (even when they were alone together, or alone alone?), or their lights clicked on as soon as they were recognised and hands reached out, ostensibly for autographs, but really to feel the tropical warmth of their glamour glow. 

Virginia Postrel in her book The Power of Glamor would suppose the latter. Glamour, she tells her readers ‘does not exist independently in the glamorous object…but emerges through the interaction between object and audience….One may strive to construct a glamorous effect, but success depends on the perceiver’s receptive imagination.’  According to her, Mr and Mrs Burton’s light would be in the eye of the beholder. A member of the Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian rainforest wouldn’t have seen their light, unless the missionaries and anthropologists had brought a copy of Cleopatra to their neck of the forest and given them a lecture on the cultural history of western cinema. Yet, what about that glow of specialness I perceived in the distance long before I had the faintest idea of its source?

 

Webster’s Dictionary in 1902 defined glamour as ‘a kind of haze in the air making things appear different from how they really are’. This, rather nebulous explanation, would make glamour free-floating, existing prior to or separate from either object or beholder. Unattached fairy dust. Magic looking for somewhere to settle. This is not really glamour as we understand it in the 21st century, but it does have something of the etymology of the word. Glamour, first used by Sir Walter Scott in literary English, is a corrupt form of the word grammar from the French gramarye or grimoire. [see OED] From a book of spells, to forms of knowledge both occult and academic, to Burton and Taylor. Postrel finds the word in Jane Eyre who has ‘the glamour of inexperience over her eyes’ enabling her to see Rochester’s gloomy mansion as splendid. It is a veil that deceives. For Joseph Conrad, the young are susceptible to glamour. ‘Oh, the glamour of youth!’ and ‘the deceitful feeling that lures us on to joys, to perils, to love, to vain effort.’ A haze again, a charm that deceives. So the magic is there, but there’s more of conjuring about it than magic. A sleight of eye that deceives us about the humdrum world. In real life, according to the etymology, nothing is glamorous. We have been warned. Postrel then quotes Garbo, as the world-weary, loveless and disguised Queen Christina, discussing the differences between Swedish and Spanish methods of courtship with John Gilbert’s Spanish Ambassador, Antonio. She calls his Spanish ways ‘glamorous, and yet somewhat mechanical.’ 

Christina: Evidently you Spaniards make too much fuss about a simple elemental thing like love. We Swedes are more direct.

Antonio: Why, that’s civilization – to disguise the elemental with the glamorous.3 

(Films in 1933 trusted their audiences’ wit enough to play meta-fictional games around their most glamorous and disguised pair of movie stars.) 

So glamour is something that doesn’t exist in and of itself. It consists in yearning and lies. If magic’s not your thing, then call it editing, which some people, those concerned with ‘glamour businesses’ — film, photography, fashion, publishing —  feel lends respectability to their endeavours. George Hurrell, the Hollywood photographer during its glory years, who is repeatedly quoted, says, a little mysteriously: ‘All of us glamourize everything, including the documentaries [sic] who glamorize filth and squalor’. Designer Isaac Mizrahi follows up the attempt to dignify glamour workers: ‘If glamour is magic, if it’s really about casting a spell, one should happily confront the manipulation of it all. It’s adult to manipulate and only human.’ It doesn’t seem to me that the second part of the sentence is explained by the first, though it must be supposed to. There is, Postrel emphasises, ‘something civilized, and distinctly human, about glamour.’  You can’t really argue with the human-ness of glamour. Very few animals, as far as we can know, edit reality. If they could, it would presumably seriously hamper their life and reproductive chances. Survival in the natural world is about knowing what’s what and if it wants to eat you. But the word ‘civilized’ slips in to Postrel’s argument rather too easily. Phrases like ‘adult and only human’ and ‘civilization’ pack a lot of assumptions. Postrel signally fails to examine them.

This is odd because her stated intention in the book is to provide the popular understanding we all have of ‘glamour’ with the theory which has been lacking, even, apparently, for cultural-studies scholars. Her theory of glamour, she says, is needed to prevent these scholars from falling into such ‘ludicrous’ error as the claim by historian Stephen Grundle that Paris Hilton is “indisputably glamorous”, when clearly she was ‘the anti-Grace Kelly’ who, Postrel tells us, is indisputably glamorous. Her aim is to help us to sort the Kelly-wheat from the Hilton-chaff. Hilton was merely ‘rich, famous, photogenic, sexy, pretty, and stylishly dressed’.  ‘Subjectively speaking’, you might expect her to add, given her insistence, just four pages later, that glamour depends on the ‘perceiver’s receptive imagination’; but not so: with Hilton and Kelly and so much more we are being handed a Postrel-dictated objective truth.

Postrel’s position and arguments throughout the book are often opaque. She chides the cultural-studies scholars for lacking theory, but has an evident animus towards what she calls ‘intellectuals’: ‘Sophisticates often kid themselves that they’re realists immune to [glamour’s] influence…’ She is responding to historian of science Rosalind Williams’s contention (Postrel calls it ‘lecturing her readers’) that ‘Truth is not found in dreaming’. Postrel continues: ‘One job of intellectuals is to puncture glamour by reminding us of what’s hidden. But intellectuals are by no means exempt from glamour’s effects. They simply have their own longings and hence their own versions of glamour, including in some cases the ideal of a life without meaningful illusions.’  She nowhere shows that intellectuals exempt themselves from the concepts with which they engage and analyse. I’m not aware that there is a unified job description for ‘intellectuals’, but if there were it would be to do with examining ideas, their origins and development, not merely with bursting everyone’s favourite balloons. Postrel sets up the intellectual as her straw man who is out to do battle against her truth of the positive virtues of glamour. In fact, she references only two ‘intellectuals’, cultural historian John Berger and Rosalind Williams in order to dismiss their negative views and failings. This lack of substantial sources makes her text as light as whipped egg white. She counters Berger’s association of glamour with social envy with a quote from Jay-Z ‘that dream-self we all long to be’, and a eulogy by Naomi Wolf, in Harper’s Bazaar, on Angelina Jolie. ‘Over the course of the essay, Jolie’s life functions as proof that the longings that inform Wolf’s own oeuvre are attainable’7, blindsiding the 99.9 recurring of the world’s population who have not and never will attain an iota of Jolie’s life. She gives us Cate Blanchett’s view from an interview in Glamour UK, and designer Norma Kamali’s view of 1930s glamour. She references to pop singer Fergie’s 2007 video for her song ‘Glamour’, but nowhere do we get anything of Lacan on the unconscious gaze, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology or Roland Barthes’s Mythologies, all looking towards our perception and creation of icons. Nor is there any mention of  Guy Debord on The Society of the Spectacle from 1967, or Walter Benjamin’s 1939 key essay Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility both of which reflect directly on the idea of representation taking over from direct experience, and rendering it a distortion. The nearest we get is an Annie Leibovitz advertisement for Louis Vuitton bags, in which Angelina Jolie sits moodily alone on a deserted jetty in Cambodia with nothing but some designer fatigues and a completely inappropriate LV bag, explained by Postrel as intended for a high end audience that dreams authenticity but rarely tries to live it. It evidently is enough to prove her point that glamour is about transformation and escape. Either she believes that intellectuals have nothing to tell her whatever they say, which is more arrogant than any intellectual I’ve come across, or she doesn’t want to muddy her book’s potential with anything that might look ‘difficult’.

For Walter Benjamin, the revolution in reproducibility (mass publishing, photography, cinema, all forms of popular media) that started to become technologically available in the 19th century, is the very source that brings glamour to the cultural fore around that time, and what strips the individual – the ‘authentic’ – object, of its ‘aura’ as he calls it. 

The stripping of the veil from the object, the destruction of the aura, is the signature of a perception whose “sense for the sameness in the world” has so increased that, by means of reproduction, it extracts sameness even from what is unique.

There are many seriously and interesting ideas in philosophy and cultural studies available for a thorough discussion of the theory of glamour, but Postrel doesn’t seem to have delved into any of them or thought them worthy of mention. It seems impossible to write a book on the nature of glamour without a single reference to Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp, at least, or some philosophical, historical background on the nature of beauty and taste. All this is absent in any serious way in Postrel’s book. Instead she seems satisfied to limit her theory and make glamour virtually synonymous with the function and activity of advertising: ‘By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure even as it heightens our yearnings. It leads us to feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more.’  This she directly equates to the undeniable fact that advertising is the heart (if that’s the right word) of capitalism. Her first precondition for glamour is ‘the willingness to acknowledge discontent with one’s current situation along with the ability to imagine a different, better self in different, better circumstances’ And western commercial culture is what facilitates this. ‘By opening up opportunities for economic advancement and offering goods and services that beautify, educate, and otherwise promote self-improvement, modern, commercial societies provide many such avenues’. Sometimes it reads more like an advert for the advertising industry.

She wants to rescue the concept of glamour from any accusation that it is malign and to show that glamour ‘is a life-enhancing force for the good.’ In the end, being able to take seriously Postrel’s theory of glamour depends on whether you can take her complacent view of the social and economic society in which glamour thrives. In order to rescue ‘glamour’ from its negative aspects, she sets up John Berger as her arch intellectual villain. She does so by reducing his ground-breaking and humane 1972 investigation into the social perception of art and advertising, Ways of Seeing, to a single sentence. She calls it ‘an influential theory’, rather undercutting her claim to be providing the first theory herself. But she tells us, Berger (who has read Benjamin) argues that glamour ‘elicits social envy in order to sell commercial goods, by showing us people who have apparently been transformed…and are as a result, enviable”. Although she admits that his description captures ‘glamour’s transformational promise’ it seems his ‘desiccated view’ misses many of its most potent appeals. ‘He is blinded by envy, conflating it with desire.’  There are few people less dried up in their thought or their being than John Berger, whom she also, later, refers to as ‘crabby’. His chapter on what he calls publicity in Ways of Seeing, proposes that advertising offers images that ‘make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life.’ It offers pictures of how the spectator’s life could be; ‘glamorous day-dreams’, Berger calls them, which leave a palpable gap between an individual’s reality and what he would like his reality to be. Envy and desire in a sense that Postrel fails to comprehend, are indeed coterminous in the image he sees of the dream on offer. He envies his own future, dream self, as if he were present in the advertising image, and links that to the idea of being envied by others – of himself becoming that distant unachieved object that seems to constitute happiness and success. ‘The happiness of being envied is glamour’ he says. This is parallel to the modern desire to be famous: the state of being known and envied by others who you don’t yourself know. We want to become these glamorous creatures, but we don’t want everyone to be them; we want the exclusivity, the unreachability that makes glamour glamorous. What Postrel variously calls glamour’s necessary mystique or mystery. ‘Publicity does not manufacture the dream. All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable – yet could be,’ says Berger, whose thesis is hardly different from Postrel’s: ‘[Glamour] reminds us what [sic]we find lacking in real life and who we want to be. It stokes discontent.’

The break between them comes in their underlying positions. Berger is a Marxist thinker who relates social and cultural formations to power and authority structures. Advertising and glamour do not use the discontent they stoke to suggest other social possibilities, on the contrary they use it to sell both the product and to use the desire for it and the life they propose in order to maintain the status quo. They offer snippets of the glamorous life (a scent, a handbag) to those who will never in their lifetime have the means to buy the couture dress the model is wearing to sell them the real money-making product. Maybe if you save up, you could buy the Louis Vuitton bag that the whole life of the astronomically rich Angelina Jolie is being paid to sell. Commerce offers to make you happier in the world as it is, rather than proposing another world in which desires might be different and less constituted by envy. Postrel appears to be quite content with the world as it is: 

To understand glamour as no more than deception is to miss the psychological truths – and the real-world possibilities – it reveals…Every unironic evocation of the American Dream is an exercise in glamour and, however illusory the dream may sometimes be, the country is better off for the inspiration.

 

What are those psychological truths? Apparently the virtue of glamour is that it can ‘point its audience towards a better, more satisfying way of life…’ Such as sitting alone beside a Cambodian river (not a Cambodian in sight) with a Vuitton bag? But the key here is her word ‘unironic’. An unironic evocation of the American Dream is one that would need to deny almost all discussion over the past half century of the nature of the American Dream and how it has actually worked out for individuals, America and the rest of the world. So much passionate and serious discussion around the idea of the American Dream, in the form of written debates and the literary, dramatic and visual arts of the 20th and 21st century, would have to be disregarded in order to speak unironically of the American Dream that it is impossible to imagine how America or anyone trying to think seriously about the world could be better off for it, or how such a deluded, partial, narrow view might inspire a nation. As it stands, her statement says no more than that an unexamined sentimentality is what keeps America dreaming. Actually, it’s worse than that, according to Postrel the nature of the dream offered by glamour, then and now, seems to depend not only on dusty, pinhole-visions, but on the most spirit-draining, life-crushing clichés. She says that although ‘We may appreciate the longings stirred by the New York skyline, a red carpet moment, or a sports car on an open road,’ her ‘fuller theory of glamour allows us to expand beyond the obvious’. It ‘lets us understand what a little girl sees in a princess or a young man imagines in the Marines…’  We really don’t need a theory of glamour to understand that. The mystery that Postrel seeks to comprehend requires (and has received) the attention of social historians, cultural analysts, political theorists, philosophers and feminists. Looking at the nature of the gloss which is glamour’s form does little to explain anything except its superficial effect. Postrel’s book never gets beneath the skin of her subject, and this must be because she has not really seen what her subject is. She is content to accept the world that the glamorizers portray, even when they themselves have started to move on from notions of little girls and princesses, and young men and the Marines. She looks backwards and likes what she sees, but that world has for a long time been the object of struggle by little girls who have grown up to examine their desires and to whom or what those desires really belong.  

 

Jenny Diski 

September 2013

 

The Gossip

A late word about celebrity gossip from my column in Swedish in the Goteborgs-Posten.

 

Last month, sadness and surprise settled over the nation after the news was announced of the death of Peaches Geldof, the 25 year old daughter of Bob Geldof, famous for a long defunct pop group and more so for so charismatically starting rock’s involvement in charity fund raising. His marriage to Paula Yates made them a kind of royal couple, much more interesting than the Beckhams. There was a vigour and intelligence about him and a childlike joy in stylish, even wild domesticity about her. She was famous for – well, being stylish and married to Bob. For being on television, in programmes produced by her husband, for being charming, pretty and part of a publicly loving couple. I think the way in which she was so obviously adored by Geldof imparted something more about her qualities than just having a flair for style and wacky children’s names. She gently mocked his pomposity, but you felt that somewhere she was being held by his serious strength. Then the children: Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Little Pixie. It seemed quite likely that the names were thought up by Paula and ever-loving serious Bob was dragged along in her frivolity. Later after leaving Geldof for Michael Hutchence, Paula Yates had another child, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily. The nation was both sorry for children given these names and also delighted by the freedom for daftness that they took.

The divorce was ghastly, these delightful loving people who even seemed to care about the poorer sectors of the world, revealing all manner of unkindness about each other in the fight for custody of the children. Then when Hutchence died from hanging himself either in suicide or a sexual act gone wrong, Paula Yates fell apart and the newspapers found a new victim, long term as she was pictured regularly in various states of drugged and drunken disarray. Finally, in 2000, she died from an overdose with her four year old daughter alone in the house until a neighbour found them. 

I know all this, because everybody – almost everybody – knows the story of the Geldofs. Gilded and then muddied. Children with fairy names who lost their mother before they were fourteen: and in the youngest’s case, both parents. We also couldn’t fail to know what happened to the children if we were in any way alert to the world around us. Particularly Peaches and Pixie, who were generally referred to as ‘socialites’ who were in their early teens given columns  in newspapers, did a bit of DJ-ing, modelling, and were seen out and about at fashionable places being the worse for drugs or drink. Famous teenagers famous for being the children of famous and notorious parents, taken up by the fashionable world because of that, and slotted into activities that required little more than a desire for a fashionable life. Bob Geldof’s fierce and generally effective good intentions were more or less forgotten. I more of less stopped taking an interest, as much as it was possible. I didn’t know that Peaches married for a month and then divorced. I didn’t know that she became far too thin on a diet of juiced vegetable. I had known simply that she was around, although I got her and her sister muddled. I hadn’t followed her ‘career’ but her name popped up on the front pages of newspapers or online sites. I gathered that she seemed to be staggering towards disaster, like Amy Winehouse, but without her talent. However faintly, I thought I didn’t want that to happen again, although it was none of my business. I vaguely knew that a couple of years ago, she married again and had two very young children, and that she declared that she, like her mother, adored domesticity and Twittered loving pictures of the babies. Who wouldn’t be pleased at the idea that such a troubled family, which had started out so charmingly, should return to being contented?

Of course, it was nonsense even to notice them. Rich and spoiled, for all their early tragedy, what did they matter in a world where so many were poor, starving, homeless, imprisoned, fighting and dying for freedom. I was slightly ashamed of even knowing they existed. Still, I did, even if I didn’t think about them. They’d been around outside my life for so long, they were a narrative. And anyway, pain is pain in the rich as well as the poor. The bankers and CEOs getting away with a disgustingly privileged life is a disgrace, but the Peaches and Pixies of the world hadn’t asked to be born into their mix of privilege and public tragedy. Why not hope the best for them? Why not hope that the tinsel world lost one of their own to a more substantial life? Or at the very least hope that the two new children of such a troubled family might grow up without too many troubles of their own? None of it my business or my concern, and I never gave it more than a passing thought.

Then the news on all the front pages that 25 year old Peaches had died. Who knows why? The post-mortem was been inconclusive. Later, it seemed it was a heroin overdose. I was sad that a 25 year old has died. Even sadder that her death adds to a string of tragedies. Just hours after the death, her father eulogised his middle-daughter: ‘She was the wildest, funniest, cleverest, wittiest and the most bonkers of all of us.’ Once again the Geldofs, living inside the cliché, somehow reach beyond it to be genuinely human and moving. 

I see that the newspapers are now saying that the youngest, 11 month child was found beside his dead mother. Who knows if it’s true? The banal repetition of her mother’s death is reported with too much glee, whether it’s true or not. I’m going to skip any further news about the Geldofs that I come across from now on. Nothing more I know or find out will add anything positive to my life or anyone else’s. My reading about it (or writing about it) will contribute nothing to the world or how we can understand it. The knowledge of the death of Peaches Geldof was unavoidable to anyone keeps up with the news. It struck me with the shock and glare that tragedy, fictional or real, strikes outsiders. It is said that Greek tragedy is cathartic. That audiences work through the sadness and arbitrariness of their own lives by immersing themselves in the on-going horror of Aeschylus’s house of Atreus. I imagine something like that is what is going on. Or we could put a psychoanalytical interpretation on it. That’s why it becomes interesting even in spite of one’s attempted resistance to gossipy glee. But in this case, I think, a little knowledge is enough. Catharsis easily becomes indulgence, even sadism, when its personae are real people, seemingly acting out tragedy on our behalf. Perhaps this very article is part of the problem.

 

Blackness Ever Blackening

Yet another piece on depression by me. Always something new to say. Always another angle to look at pointlessness from. Until there isn’t. This time in Mosaic. With marvellous illustrations (yes, that is me as a vile murderous young woman) by Martin Rowson.  http://mosaicscience.com/story/blackness-ever-blackening-my-lifetime-depression 

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Me and Her

Here’s a piece from my before translation Swedish column in the Goteborgs-Posten in the early spring.

It’s spring again. I know that because the frogs are furiously at it in the pond and the faintest of greens is appearing on the birch tree. There’s even a hint of sun after the Cambridge morning mist has passed. Why am I sunk in gloom, barely able to get out of bed? Certainly not before morning has almost passed into afternoon. Why am I dreading the passing of the week because it means there’s another one in store? Waking in the morning with a concrete block of dread inside my chest weighing me down? Looking forward only to the moment in the evening, much too early, when I turn off the light and that brief startling relief that I am in the dark and can let myself, with chemical assistance, fall asleep – until I wake every couple of hours during the night?

Well, chemistry might answer those questions. I’ve been here often enough before, both with and without real life events to trigger the condition. It’s my character, my type, my destiny, the way the molecules fell and the cookie crumbled at the fertilization of the egg that became me. The blackness falls over me regularly, although, in the last twenty years during which I’ve been medicated, usually better controlled and for shorter periods than at present. It lurks in the ingredients of my brain recipe. There’s also what they call environmental factors. A weird childhood that caused one psychiatrist to say I was lucky I haven’t turned out psychotic. I’d be crazy not to be a depressive, another said to me. In addition, there’s the death of four people, three who I’d known since my teenage years, one my oldest friend, two of them and the arrangement of their funerals within the last four months. And still the deaths continue and the past is chipped away.

You can mix and match the chemical and environmental reasons every which way, or take just the one or the other. It doesn’t matter, there are very few choices in the management of this thing, even if you include alternative therapies, whatever the cause. I’m too self-aware and armoured, apparently, for talk therapy to be much use. CBT, even if I had the energy for list-making, box-ticking, and contract writing, doesn’t inspire me with any confidence. So only sitting through it and medication remain. I’ve gone for medication – new and different anti-depressants – because I know that sitting through it is not only agony, but dangerous, as well as very difficult for other people to deal with. Actually, the medication option includes sitting through it, because of the way that antidepressants famously don’t start to work for a month or so, and often make you feel worse, with mind numbing side effects. And then, of course, it might turn out that they are not the right pills for you. So start again, another month of sitting through it. At some point, one is too old for the wait to seem worth it.

Another question is how does it come about that I am writing this, and have written a couple of long articles since the dark settled over me? That’s two questions really. First, I seem to have a ‘writing head’ that clicks on when I set my hands on a keyboard. Writing has nothing to do with the daily living me, even if it uses the daily living me as a conduit. It’s a mystery to me, really strange as I watch myself do it, but the psychiatrist I saw said that she thought I’d probably always been ‘disassociated’ and wasn’t surprised that I could write while I could hardly talk or move. I didn’t go into it any deeper than that. It rang true to me, but I don’t want to think about it too much. I don’t like mystery and magic about writing and ignorance easily settles for mysterious.

The second part of the question is why on earth would I write such intimate stuff about myself when I could be writing about the state of the world, the latest must-see US TV series or whether street fashion echoes the fractured structure of the government coalition. Why take such an unwarrented interest in myself? And why expose myself? One answer is simple narcissism. People who write, especially people who write novels and memoiristic non-fiction must by definition be narcissistic. Another answer, which might be the same one, is that everything I write is writing about me. The state of the world as I write it, is happening through my eyes, inevitably; filtered by my mind, turned into opinion and sentences by my fingers. I don’t have a sense of me in here and it out there as a writer. The writer and the state of the world are both in here and out there together. For the non-writer me, part of the darkness is a refusal to turn on the TV news. To refuse to acknowledge the world. Yet at the same time I’m unable to stop myself reading intently online about mean and vicious world events, which are as bleak and warlike as myself at the moment. The world perhaps always reflects one’s state of mind, although it’s hard for me to imagine observing the events in the Ukraine and Crimea in a happy, cheerful mood and coming away optimistic. The world always looks bleak to me, and always has. I understand that this is not the case with everyone, although I can’t imagine it. It might be that my lurking darkness exists in that way all the time, even when I’m perfectly ‘well’. Most importantly, if writing matters, it matters that writers write about the world, and that there is always and only their view that you are at any given time reading. My writing for publication of any sort, is not the beginning of a dialogue. The round-up piece of everyone’s views is useful, but it’s not writing as I mean it and do it. In whatever mood, (though unfortunately I don’t have many so my work is hardly kaleidoscopic) I reject the idea that I should not be included and include myself in whatever I write about. How could I uninclude myself?

But what about privacy? Don’t I mind about exposing my inner state to anonymous readers anywhere in the world, whom I don’t know and who don’t know me? The answer is, I’m not. I’m sitting here in bed writing this on my screen in silence in an empty house (the Poet is having a break, giving a paper in Oxford). No one is reading this except me. That I know some people will read this (those that don’t turn to other less narcissistic matters) doesn’t matter. Forgive me, I know you are each an individual with a live mind and a beating heart, but to me as I write you simply don’t exist. I am talking to myself. The ‘you’ I address right now is me-as-reader. Nothing gets beyond these four walls. Sometimes, to my surprise, I get messages from readers talking about a piece I’ve written or books of mine they’ve read, and it really does shock me, for all that I understand the reality. Someone read that, and is talking to me! Or they think they are. They are, of course, really talking to the me that goes about in the world. The one who reads the emails. The writer-me isn’t available, all she does is write. Sometimes though she hears the faint sound of world out there, and it’s a shock when the fraction of the world that reads me makes itself known. When I started writing and people came up to me to say they’d read something of mine, I had to stop myself reacting as if they’d stolen my private diary and remember that I sent the writing out into the world. Very inconsistent. But there it is. I don’t mind being that. We are, all of us, difficult, inconsistent creatures.

I’ve chosen not to look up ‘dissociation’ in the psychiatric diagnostic books, but the word does make some sense to me. As a handhold on reality, I think I should be grateful for it. There have certainly been times when I’ve been in this condition, when I have been silent and unmoving for months on end, taking most of the day to get the energy even to have a pee. As black and bleak as I can ever imagine it being. But since I’ve been ‘a writer’, I’ve been able for short periods to keep my hands moving on the keyboard and focus through some small hole in my mind on the words appearing on the screen. Dissociation works for me. I wonder if integration is the opposite of dissociation. I imagine so. I also imagine that an integrated me would be silent. In writerly terms it would be an absence of words, a full stop. I think the silence of an integrated self must be akin to the perfection of the terminal point without a word before or after it.