On Losing Your Critical Mind
Part of the reason I started this section of my website was to attempt find again my ability to think critically, deeply, carefully, hopefully originally, about art and literature. This has, however, remained a frustrated goal. I do not have the sense that anything has been recovered. In fact, if anything at all has happened, it has been an acute deepening of my sense of loss, of privation from my internal library. (I worry, too, that even if I did manage to find it, those battered cartons of books would refuse to allow themselves to be unpacked.) What is it about trying to learn to write again that makes writing again so much harder? What kind of perverse feature (or bug or warning or dead hand or trap) induces a thing to get worse as you attempt to repair it?
I’d imagine that it would seem likely, to anyone who may be reading this, that this is a case of writer’s block, and while I have no doubt struggled with the actual act of writing (as I just suggested a moment ago), I’m unfortunately going to have to dissuade anyone of that misdiagnosis. It is in fact a stranger, more subtle, mode of discombobulation. It feels suspiciously more like a loss of grounding, or of orientation, not so much an inability to write as an inability to think, to judge, to hope, or to imagine. It is almost as if a part of my brain has atrophied, rotted away, been extirpated and bleached until dead, like my skull has begun to encroach into my mind, brain to bone.
I have just finished Andrés Barba’s novella Las manos pequeñas, translated by Lisa Dillman into the admirably exclamatory and Germanic Such Small Hands. The plot, supposedly mined from a true crime of Brazil dating to the 1960’s in which the girls of an orphanage murdered one of their own, dismembered her, and played with her body parts for a week, follows Marina, a seven-year-old who has just survived a car wreck which has left her parents dead, “her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital,” as the open sentence incants. In a taut, blood-haunted, 83 pages, we alternate between Marina and the unnamed choral mass of voices of the other girls in the orphanage, both of which intimate, and then abruptly descend into, the midst of a fatal and inexpressible ‘game,’ of make-believe, itself a kind of lyrical, childhood mode of confession and reception that adults can identify with only analogically, but with a dull sort of recognition, like a time-damaged memory.
Each scene of the novella, from the recounting of the wreck itself (“The care falling, and where it fell, transforming.”), to the penultimate confession (“We played with her all night, so still.”), highlights the savagely atavistic poetry that Barba is capable of so succinctly producing. It is familiar as unfamiliar but still recognizable things so often are; it is the language of rough speech, the kind we spoke as children, when we had mastered our own private mode, but the idiosyncratic angles and edges had not yet been buffed out. Perception is internally consistent, but not externally consistent enough to be sharable with others, except through play. It is perhaps this that makes the novella so compelling: there is something so insidious in the happy play of children, a darkly insistent core that exclaims, as Winnicott and others have so often noted before, “play, unlike work, is the a serious thing. It is deadly serious.” Marina and the choral agonies of the others testify to the complexities of the inner life of children who have been deprived of the necessary warmth of primary caregivers, instead made to do with one another as surrogate: it’s Lord of the Flies but muted, quieter, and with a refreshing and extremely necessary feminine voice. It has swapped island for insularity.
But it is also the best I can do in order to explain my sense of unthinkability, my lack of critical voice: some part of me has been split between the impulse to speak as a child again and the resistance to that impulse. I am in resistance to the darkness that world invokes, it’s necessary perceptual violence. The dismembering that inimically hovers over everything at the girls’ orphanage is as literal as it is symbolic. To understand, especially primarily, anatomically, is in some sense to destroy whatever object is under examination. This can be seen in banal and prosaic histories describing the arc of Western culture out of systematic Medievalism into Enlightenment Empiricism, and for a moment I am inclined to invoke both Haekel’s elegant but simplistic evolutionary holism and Vico’s more competent reification of the engine of world history : “Die Ontogenese rekapituliert die Phylogenese,” and “Verum esse ipsum factum.” Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny and, what is true is what is made. To me, as it thematically and macroscopically was in the ideology of my received world and word, and as it has been in my child- and nascent adulthoods, there is emerging a sort of cycle of what is true, how it is true, and how it was made. And it always contains within it a violence and a darkness which manifest as quasi-knowable aporias. Marina’s reality is the reality of primal violence, at the level of patrimony of human life as much as in the womb, standing at the door of the world, and in machinic violence of the car crash that undid her childhood too soon. In all of these instances, we should take pains to confront the transactional, the expected and un-effacable, kinds of harm that go into the simple friction of being-in-the-world. Some part of me has given up and accepted this as the cost of life, the entropic assumption that goes into complexity and system. Yet, part of me has become exhausted by it, and I fear permanently: it will not let me let go of some things in favor of other, sharper, ones.
The solution is painfully simple, I fear. Like Barba and Conrad and Gillman and Acker, and so many before them: the act itself is prior to and perhaps identical with the healing. It is theranositc: writing precedes and transcends innocence. It constructs and breaks down consciousness. It’s not a sickness of the glands but of the genii. It’s a primitive and painful cure, like bloodletting, but it is the best cure that we have. There is no other way, except dismemberment.