Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Sebold

I started reading Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones on Saturday - and, of course, though I'd promised myself that I'd only read a couple of chapters, a brief detour from my schedule of proper (work-related) reading, I'd promised myself with my fingers in a twist behind my back. These are the first sentences: "My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973." It was clear, from this point at least, that I wasn't going to get back to my essay until the book was over.

I loathe the way I'm attracted to narratives about trauma. I sat last week poring over the bushfire news footage, knowing before I clicked my way to the papers that I would be crying within minutes. I empathise for as long as I'm reading, or watching, and when the story's over I empathise a bit more, and then I get back to my life, it's 6 o'clock and all's well. Sometimes the empathy prompts me to do something, something helpful, or something that I hope will be helpful, but sometimes there's nothing to do, there's no remedy or gesture towards remedy within my reach, or, though I feel deeply for a moment, the moment passes. I go to these stories, not because encountering them will enable me to help, but for the pleasure of emoting. It's a kind of pornography, the trauma narrative, a depiction of suffering intended to excite a visceral, pleasurable response. (Or perhaps more accurate to say that in having this response, I pornographise such stories.) Last week I was anguished - as we all still are - to think of the people who have died, and whose family have died, and of the dogs trapped in sheds, and the cows burnt to death in their paddocks, and of losing homes, and of forests incinerated (even writing these words, I'm lathering up my own horror). One thing to be deeply saddened and to do what you can to help, but I kept going back again and again to those stories, needing to read more of them, as if my ongoing reading did anyone any good. I went back to them and I kept on crying, for a suffering that isn't mine, indulging and exalting in my tremendous capacity for fellow-feeling. If anyone can come up with a more ennobling explanation for my fascination, please send it this way.

Sebold's novel is about how Susie lives in heaven with the memory of her rape and murder, and with her ongoing surveillance of her old, changed world and of the man who killed her. It's an exhilarating story. Its exploration of what it would be like to be dead, to watch the living, to long for revenge, memorialisation, life, is a way of making literal the idea that certain experiences change a person so fundamentally, deprive them of so much that they valued, it is as if their life is over.

At lunchtime on Monday I went to the library and borrowed Sebold's memoir, Lucky, a tale, so the blurb tells me, of "what it's like to go through a particular kind of nightmare" and "what it's like - slowly, bumpily, triumphantly - to heal." A man raped and beat Sebold in a park when she was eighteen; she prosecuted, successfully. It's hard to tell where the triumph fits into all this, or the healing. Perhaps the fact that there is a memoir at all is meant to be proof that Sebold is now triumphantly healed: there certainly isn't a lot of triumph within its pages, where the central act of violence is compounded by what comes after, a father who asks Sebold how she could have been raped if the attacker didn't have a knife, etc, etc. Etc. It's not as crafted a book as The Lovely Bones, but I've been wondering if some memoirists cultivate a deliberately anti-literary quality, because literariness, associated with fiction, might be construed (questionably) as the opposite of truthfulness. So it's not apparently as crafted a book, but - maybe because I read it so quickly after her other - it has crawled into me. I am full of the horror of violence. I am sad, sad, sad at the thought that a person can deliberately do so much hurt.

Not that sad does any good. I'm suspicious of what draws me to the stories that I know are going to bring me here. I can imagine the need to tell or have one's story of suffering told. I can imagine wanting it to be read, and wanting the reader to feel angry, sad, indignant, maybe even vengeful, on my behalf. But my reading isn't to oblige this want in the writer. It's for my pleasure, masochistic though that pleasure seems to be.

27 comments:

Ampersand Duck said...

I usually try to read wurty books like that in the privacy of my own crying chamber, but I happened to start it just before we travelled to Woodford one year, and ended up sitting on a hillside amongst hundreds of joyous poi-swinging hippies, bawling behind my dark glasses with my head down as glorious Indian ragas swirled around me. It was one of the most disjointed experiences I've ever had.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Personal crying chamber's a very good idea. Otherwise, I tend to get cranky with all the people around me for being so jolly. "Don't you realise," I want to say, "That the world is a TERRIBLE place full of MISERY?! How can you be whistling, you insensitive cad. Is that chocolate you're eating?"

lucy tartan said...

It's been a while since I read Lucky & it's not an experience I'm eager to repeat, but this thing about crafted but appearing uncrafted is interesting. As far as I remember I thought the writing seemed unusually deliberate / intentional - the words seemed very intensely 'chosen' - that would be quite compatible with its having a rawer quality than TLB which is a very gothic book.

I dunno about the other thing, the compulsion to consume bushfire stories. You're describing very familiar thought patterns. Another stage in it is when you get disgusted with yourself for the self-absorption involved in self-analysis / self-scrutiny. I've been wondering if perhaps the reason I'm checking the newspaper all the time, & listening to 774 when I normally wouldn't, is just to get out of the vicious circle of thinking dissatisfiedly about my own morbid response to the tragedy.

The appetite for disaster material reminds me of the bit in White Noise where the family watches tv about a landslide, and reminds me that DeLillo is very good at catching the precise exact quality of these kinds of experiences (of living in a mediascaped world) but what's both exciting and frustrating about him is that he does it without commentary / interpretation / hypothesising or any of the other explanatory dimensions we want from novelists.

Maria said...

"A young girl in Melbourne came to a terrible and sobering realisation. She was drawn to the despair and trauma of others. She loathed herself for it. Her mind writhed; she couldn't work properly; her mind was constantly diverted to the pathetic stories of others."


Was this a sad and desperate enough beginning to a tale to get you hooked, Alexis, or would I need to amp it up a little?

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Ah, Maria, thou mock'st my pain (and rightly so - it's eminently mockable).

As for the self-disgust cycle, Lucy: absolutelement. Not only am I doing the emotional tourism in the first place, there's a whole nother layer of self-involvement to be had in contemplating the ethics of my emotional tourism, and now in contemplating the ethics of contemplating the ethics of ... etc. Who here exactly had their house burnt down?

Come to think of it, there are lots of artful things about Lucky (withholding the rapist's race identity until well into the story, even though, as becomes clear later on, she is vexed by the implications of race for her case). There is a sort of rhetoric of authenticity at work - and a documentary quality, especially in the reporting of the court proceedings, where she's obviously had the aid of the transcrips.

I'm interested in the memoir as an artefact that's meant to attest to "recovery" or "healing". Kate Holden's In My Skin positions itself as proof of its author's wellness too, though she publishes it just a couple of years after ending her career as heroine addict and prostitute. It's full of episodes of her "getting clean" and relapsing a week later, troubling the finality of any detox or recovery. And the implied message, that sex work made her feel so desirable and valued she was empowered to save herself from heroin, undermines, for me, the credibility of her salvation.

Martin Kingsley said...

I understand, but am loathe to applaud, the push towards wellness. There is nothing wrong with being broken by something or someone, which is to say, everything in the world is wrong with such a thing, and moving towards, moving 'forwards', moving on, into what could quite possibly be an artificial state of 'wellness', of being 'fixed' and 'mended', as if that is the appropriate form of progress to be making (similar to the implications of 'developing world'/'developed world', as if democratic late-stage capitalism is the only form of society worth considering) doesn't to me seem the absolute, unquestionably appropriate road to take, when the reality may very well be that you have experienced something terrible, something frightening, something for which there is no cure and from which there is no salvation, and that no amount of tea, warm blankets, hugs, kisses, comforting words from understanding partners, expiating manuscripts or heart-to-heart talks with Oprah Winfrey will save you from the fact that deep down inside, you have been changed forever and for the worse. (I like long sentences: the longer, the better!)

Nothing, then, will ever make this right, and the thought of making peace with that fact could very well see me drowning in my own bile.

Personally, I've always favoured staying angry and staying raw and staying wounded, and I've never, ever thought that accepting an apology or recompense, be it material, legal or psycho-spiritual as a way to absolve yourself from the need to do violent, elaborate harm to others was anything other than a cheap way out of dealing with the brutal, base desire to beat someone until their eyes bleed.

On the other hand, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and so on and so forth. I accept this to be true, and I don't encourage such an approach to be taken up by the general populace, not least because it's not at all socially constructive nor functional nor contributive nor anything other than vicious. This is why I want to wear Tracy Grimshaw's head for a hat whenever I think about the shit-stirring her and her ilk have been doing in creating a foaming-at-the-mouth public vis a vis arsonists. I don't argue for it in anybody other than me or groups larger than 1 person (also me), but I do argue that it occurs naturally in people other than me, and to ignore it or deny it seems equally as perilous as engaging with it.

When such things happen, I don't think your desires, wants, needs and thoughts have to be socially constructive. I imagine, limited though my experience might be, that some people naturally feel well-disposed towards the world (inexplicably), and such a horrible, bastardly event gives them access to a whole gamut of emotions and feelings they hitherto hadn't experienced in any quantity, and reject such feelings out of hand, when I've found there to be some quite constructive facets to embracing them wholeheartedly.

Where are the autobiographies detailing the author's successful quest to kill and eat her oppressor, is what I want to know!

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

I have to get ready for my karate lesson just now (speaking of violent tendencies, sublimated), but this deserves a long and considered response, Martinski, which response I promise to formulate in the fulness of thyme. Meanwhile, I notice that my fingers managed to produce the words "heroine addict", which I guess is the status of someone who reads too much Jane Austen (if such a condition is possible).

kiki said...

this post is long, too long for a reader like me.
please inform me when you resume posting short, quirky blogs

TimT said...

It's not possible to read too much of Jane Austen, because there's too little of Jane Austen to read too much of. (Six novels!)

lucy tartan said...

and the rest Tim, and the rest...

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

All true. Jane Austen also wrote the less well known What Fanny Did, What Fanny Did Next, Six Bennets of Cherry Tree Farm, Elinor and Ed's Excellent Adventure, and Miss Moreland and the Case of the Suspicious Shopping List.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

MK, this answer isn't going to do justice to your thoughts, which are thoughts indeed. But a few things, briefly:

1. The world has very limited patience with victims. It's prepared to let them grieve or hurt for a prescribed period, but then it gets grumpy: the "don't you think it's time to move on?" line. Your counsel for more recognition that sometimes there is no moving on, that sometimes life can be so altered that it takes a lifetime to relearn how to live, is a wise one. And I will do my best not to expect people to Recover.

2. I have found, though, in my own very limited experience of being hurt (very limited), that there can come a point where staring my hurts in the face has just become too exhausting. I have needed to do that thing called "moving on" - which in my case has involved doing my best to smother the memory of the hurt, to anaesthetise with as much distraction and busyness as I can. The great revelation of psychoanalysis is that repressed hurts bubble up through consciousness in the form of illness - but really, sometimes repression is the only thing that makes life liveable. It means burying an important part of who you are, and there's nothing to stop what you've tried to forget from sneaking up at unexpected moments and turning you to jelly, but maybe that's better than spending every night awake and sobbing. I dunno. I very much doubt this is a one-size-fits-many situation.

3. I'm very suspicious of the mythology of vengeance, the idea that some kind of proportional (or even disproportional) punishment will make things better. I accept that it makes some people feel better, perhaps because it's a distraction from their loss, or because it creates an illusion of remedying the loss. It doesn't generally work for me.

4. Tracy Grimshaw would not make a good hat. As something of a hat-afficionado, I say this with some certainty.

5. Long sentences all to the good, especially when they're as well turned as yours.

Martin Kingsley said...

I seriously doubt such vaguely-impassioned rambling actually deserved such a carefully considered response. Personally, upon examination, "piss off, really, just piss right off, y'big mad bastard," would have more than sufficed.

My main problem, after much thought, is with the idea that wellness is much sought after but also, amazingly enough, always attainable, or so a bogglingly corpulent number of ghostwritten celebrity autobiographies (generally penned in the many and various aftermaths of minor health scares, being as it is quite, quite difficult to rape someone with a full security detail and a multi-million-dollar sponsorship deal from Coca Cola) appear to tell us. I have this problem because I cannot imagine that any more than the tiniest number of victims ever 'get over' their hurt or loss like the movies, books and lovingly illustrated pamphlets tell us, leaving them to wonder, when they (in what can only be called a highly spurious attempt at research into their condition) nigh-inevitably get around to reading such fantastically fucking wretched entries into the literary canon, "what's wrong with me?"

On a somewhat tangential note, there seems to have been some kind of society-wide push to understand at all costs the psychology and motivation of the rapist, the murderer, the arsonist: on an institutional scale, this is very much a Good Thing. Ph.D students are not the ones with the irrevocable loss, and given that objectivity, they're happily able to piss about in the shattered remnants of what's left behind or pore over the paperwork. There was a report issued in 2002 that stated that we know almost nothing about the psychology of the Australian arsonist or pyromaniac, which is frankly baffling given our more than casual national acquaintance with wildfires.

Also, vengeance-as-healing-aid has always been a ridiculous implementation of the concept by grief-crazed or logically-challenged people who can't follow such a thing through to its hypothetical conclusion. Vengeance, to my mind, shouldn't be about making you feel better. It's about sharing pain and loss by making others feel worse. It's a base, vile instinct, but it exists and it's a part of us and the attempt to understand violation on a personal scale is an attempt to channel and civilise such an impulse, and I don't feel it's nearly as successful as has been claimed.

Anonymous said...

While I found 'the Lovely Bones' quite irritating (begin death by torture, and admittedly, it has something to do with it being in one of my high school comprehension assignments), there seems no better moment to draw upon 'Precarious Life' (Butler 2006) and 'Regarding the Pain of Others' (Sontag 2003) for such compelling - albeit inconsistently in terms of Butler - the very reason why we are so drunkenly drawn to images of tragedy and mourning. I think it may be that we find the presence of absence somehow comforting and confronting, and it is, quite possibly, the most poignant way that we engage with the very purpose of our ties to our mediascape (for want of a less wanky and useless term). See the amazing artworks of Christian Boltanski and Doris Salcedo - what they achieve in a very overt visual sense, our favourite texts generally have to do with some form of 'lack', a term I prefer to loss, and our corporeal responses that we just.can't.justify. I think it is the mark of a wonderful artist/writer/poet/etc that makes that chill go down your back and make all loss seem universal.

-- A random (Kathleen)

Anonymous said...

*Erm, "compelling - ... - accounts of". Sorry.

Fittingly, the word verification this time around says "dyingsam". Google/blogger, can you hear me?

TimT said...

I think it may be that we find the presence of absence somehow comforting and confronting...

Next Christmas instead of giving out Christmas presents, I'm going to give out Christmas absents. It sounds much cheaper.

R.H. said...

Oh my goodness, but I'm a rotter, thousands killed and I couldn't care less.
So it's hug time again. Really? What's it called, this thing, postmodernism? Who knows, but it's the latest, you bet. (Well a cuddle and a feel up, I wouldn't say no.)
Revenge, who wouldn't do it, pay back everyone, case by case. But some things were too much, complete ruin.
And so I have a fantasy. It's about my daddy, walking away from me in the street: He changes his mind and comes back. Hooray!
How ridiculous. Yes.
Well it was so long ago. Impossibly gone. But if I could make it happen, or believe it did, I'd be so nicer to everyone, including myself.

Martin Kingsley said...

R.H, you are a strange 'un. Potentially lovable, but anomalous nonetheless.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Kathleen, I dunno if you're likely to be back round these parts to read this, but: thanks for your thunks. I'm there with you on the "lack" over "loss" thing; "loss" implies that you were once complete and now are not. So, are you suggesting that we pursue texts about lack because they offer an analogy for our own lacks? because they tell a story about lack which allows us to pretend we can make sense of our own?

TimT said...

Let's not become complete lackies. If we completely lost 'loss' I'd feel the lack. The lack of 'loss' would be a loss.

R.H. said...

Well I have to be careful, there's huggers would murder me for what I've said, boil me in oil, for telling the truth. But it's okay here, that's what I thought, Martin and me are old pals.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

No, you're safe round here, R.H. This is a vegetarian blog.

R.H. said...

That's funny.

And it's strange you say that, because at Laverton trash market on Saturday my consort said: "You know, vegetarian as I am, when I smell that meat cooking I get awfully tempted."

And golly, it gave me a fright, startled me; you can't trust anyone.

Martin Kingsley said...

Baron: I like where you've taken that. I would also argue that we tend to be unable to deal with self-pity for too long without it also conferring a sensation of self-consciousness and shame. Pity for other people, on the other hand, is viable and entirely legitimate, since we are, at heart, sensitive flowers all of us.

Anonymous said...

And back, yet, here i am. The last message was fuelled by a few bad wines, this post is equally as inspired (as a terrible pre-cursor for inconsistency and incoherency): but I truly think so. As much as one can say "I have spent the past 'x' years researching trauma and whatever else", I think we are inherently drawn for that very same visceral feeling that you so potently describe. I really think that it is a wonderful thing to read a text about loss and ascribe whatever feelings we feel are worth drawing upon to relate to this collective idea of trauma and lack. The degree of our distraught is irrelevant; it is the diagnosis of a universal experience of grief that i think we enjoy, and that the visceral experience we endure is very similar to the idea of watching a horror film for the adrenalin. These are very undeveloped ideas, but really, isn't that what the guv'ment is providing the APA for?


But to finish - I think the art of Christian Boltanski is the perfect example of the lack applied universally; his art is quite specific to the Holocaust and yet it manages to transcend that historical specificity. Lovely images of piles of clothing left in religious-looking buildings. And yet, I can apply - somehow - that lack of corporeal assignment to my own mourning or grief. Particularly despite its religious significance - something I cannot identify with.

And, erm, very embarrassingly, I have just realised that I am an ex-student of yours from Sydney. Erm, hi. How odd! You would definitely not remember me, and therefore it is less strange. I have been reading PhD students' blogs for the past year or so and ended up on your page.

As for the presence of absence (god, I AM a wanker when I drink), I tend to just throw up in boxes for birthdays with the tag 'From the bottom of myself'. Works a treat.

Alexis, Baron von Harlot said...

Student? Ex-student? From Sydney? Must be from a kabillion years ago, K.

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