“It was a brilliant cure, but we lost the patient.”
Electroshock therapy bludgeons patients into conformity, under the guise of returning them to a state of contentment. The therapy is successful as long as what is lost in the process (burned away with electricity) isn’t missed, and as long as the parts that were erased were the products of trauma, I guess. Ernest Hemingway famously complained that he lost important memories to electroshock therapy—a terrible blow for any kind of writer, but a greater blow to Hemingway, who traded explicitly on his past, and who always claimed to be saving his “best material” for last. He shot himself just days after returning home from his second round of treatments.
I spent this summer intensely committed to my own annihilation. Not through electroshock, but a radical enough “retraining” of the mind. And now I find myself in the weird position of feeling alienated without quite understanding what or who I am alienated from, of feeling like I am far from myself without an idea of what it would be like if I were close.
Last fall, feeling sorry for a mayor that I thought was on his way out—out of public life, maybe on the verge of suicide—I wrote a clumsy article about what I called the “Rob Ford Grotesque.” I’m not linking it here, because of its aforementioned clumsiness, and because I’m not sure I really captured the idea of the grotesque. It’s an embarrassing article. Tonight I talked to someone who mentioned that her thesis is on Bakhtin’s idea of the grotesque, as applied to the work of Gabriel Garcia Márquez. And it was only later that I vaguely remembered that I had written the article on Rob Ford, though I couldn’t remember anything I wrote. In order to write this, I had to load it up on Google and skim the contents after getting home.
Thanks to Roberto Bolaño and his frustration with the “Boom” writers, I haven’t read much of Márquez’s work, but what I have read—a single story in Leaf Storm, about an old man who inexplicably grows wings, is a perfect example of using grotesque imagery to elicit sympathy, which is—I think—the subject of my friend’s thesis. In the article I made the mistake of leaping from the idea that grotesque imagery can be used to elicit sympathy to the idea that because Rob Ford is a grotesque human being he deserves our sympathy (I implied that something might happen to him). Instead, I should have realized that a major part of Rob Ford’s appeal is his grotesqueness, that we can’t look away because we find his sloppy, sweaty, oafish antics sympathetic and so endearing, no matter how much we might loathe the man or his politics.
If you haven’t seen it yet, and you have a half-hour to kill (I’ve had many, you might have none), his coffee date with deadmau5 is the perfect illustration of this phenomenon. It is weirdly gripping to watch Ford go on about potholes and city politics, watching him order five espressos in a single cup at Tim Horton’s and then leave it chastely unopened, claiming not to ever drink or eat while driving even though he’s the passenger, even though he’s been seen reading while driving by multiple witnesses. He’s a wreck, and it’s infuriating that he should be Toronto’s mayor, but it’s hard to summon any anger while watching him so closely. All I want to do is look closer, shake his hand just to be near him, buy him another coffee.
Why did I have so much trouble remembering the article I wrote? It wasn’t posted very long ago. Lately I have found myself sitting at parties or at bar tables and nodding my head in a way that I know denotes attention but is really a statement of my own oblivion. I want to be engaged but I am not. I can speak, I can think, but it seems rare, lately, that I do both—or even one of the two. When I do say something, especially to someone I don’t know very well, especially if it comes to me quickly, I find something in me crystallizes, and I wonder if I just disrespected that person profoundly. Even if I was only continuing the conversation, saying what was on my mind to someone who is—by choice or circumstance—engaged.
For a long time I was in an intimate relationship with someone who thought that the actions of other people were kinds of (always unreasonable) demands. Simply by occupying a room with them, choosing where to sit, what to read, I was unknowingly advancing battalions, firing artillery, in this person’s mind, participating in a kind of psychic warfare I didn’t know how to play. Nothing could be said without the possibility of being accused of committing violence or unkindness. This was not an ideal situation. In fact, it was horrible. I must like other things, too, like structure and order, and self-deprecation, for it to have ever worked.
Today I wondered—in the way of Sheila Heti, maybe—whether my true talent might not be for writing but for conversation. I mean trading ideas. Communicating abstractions. Critiquing media. I wondered this before I met the person with whom I (sort of) discussed the grotesque, and that conversation felt good, and now I am wondering it even more. I think it’s more that I understand fiction or narrative and I like talking about it, and that I understand narrative because I have spent so much time writing. Conversation is therefore not my true talent, though it is a part or byproduct of my talent. And it is pleasurable to put one’s talents to use after what feels like a long time.
For a long time I thought I could only have the kind of coversations I had today—not just with my new friend, but with others, too—with that one person, the with whom I was also, against my will, doing battle. That’s not the case. I can have those conversations with anyone. I have had many of them in the time since I last saw her.
I am writing this now several days later, and a little light has squeaked into my life. I see the possibility of life. In a few days I am returning to school. A difficult situation has been resolved. I am using my talents in ways that makes me happy.
If I am terrified that I have lost something, like Ernest Hemingway after his electroshock therapy, I also wonder if my loss means I was clearing the ground for something new to grow. I am still young, and I have less hanging in the balance than he did. I am less ready to die. I am hungry and I only need to return to my discipline, my kind of discipline, and finish the projects that I have for so long neglected, and then perhaps I will feel better.
A friend and I wrote a short script about old friends reuniting, and in the course of talking about it we wondered what it was that made some groups of friends keep up the memory of those they have been separated from. And why they can often do that better than the ones who have left. I suggested that groups of people are able to store memory more efficiently than a single person, because it is spread across a larger area, so a group of friends will inevitably retain more information than a single person who has left them and moved on with her life.
There was a couple I used to know who had an in-joke about a streetcar “melting”: a long time ago I had apparently made the surreal suggestion that that was the cause of the traffic we were experiencing. I had no memory of the incident but they had kept it alive between them, like a ping pong ball passed back and forth over a table. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen them, and I hurt someone they loved, so it seems unlikely that the joke has continued. In the same way in-jokes between close friends and family and former intimate partners have faded as they’ve passed out of my life or I have passed out of theirs. They go when you realize there is no one who remembers them. Or when telling them makes you sad. But these memories aren’t gone forever.
All it takes is a madeleine, or a familiar neighbourhood, or a favourite book, or a band, or a scent. We leave the past behind because it can sometimes be painful, but it is also an important part of who we are. In the past few months things have changed a lot for me. They will continue changing still. And I am looking back, almost frantically, and wondering how so much can have changed. Wondering how I can remember so little. Where has it gone? I have been out of the world of books, bands, scents, things. I didn’t live. I chose instead virtual entertainments—fine in moderation, perhaps, but they leave little trace in you. They call out to little more. In that time it feels like I did not make memories. It feels like I rejected my old memories because I have spent so much time away from myself, unable to recall. Perhaps that is why I chose those forms of entertainment. Maybe I didn’t want to recall.
It is has been extremely difficult to write because writing is a process of recalling—recalling the way things were or could or should be. Recalling myself to myself. Recalling others. Having time for them.
Now I am going to school and it is my job to do the kind of writing that I love most but have had difficulty doing. It is my job to go back into all of the painful rooms in my mind. I don’t think I want to go back there. I have avoided that place. I have been on vacation. Not an entirely pleasant one, because I have always known I would have to return, and that if I didn’t return I would die. That I didn’t belong in the world of vacations. It feels wrong there.
It is hard to do the kind of work I chose for myself. It is hard but I have to do it. It is the only work I can do. I know that and if I delay any longer I risk losing the only thing I am good at. Luckily I have little choice but to press forward. It’s not over for me. I can return to myself. I am like Hemingway in that I have lost something but I am not like Hemingway in that I can retrieve it. I didn’t burn it away. The connections may be rerouted but I can return there. I can return. I will go.