Let’s first start somewhere else. Perhaps somewhere close to home.
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night’.
It is the day after, and it is the beginning of the short story The Swimmer by John Cheever. Made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster, it is probably the best known of his stories—except, perhaps, his own. The first time I heard of Cheever was in an episode of Seinfeld in which George Costanza’s fiancée Susan and her family find out her dad is gay after coming across a hidden chest of love letters exchanged between him and… John Cheever. I wonder how many others first came across him in this way and started to read his stories and I assume the fact that he was even referenced in Seinfeld somehow indicates the degree to which his posthumously published diaries became a news story. John Cheever—the ‘Chekhov of the suburbs’, the pre-eminent writer of the new American post-war middle class and masterful narrator of suburban lives, hopes, repressions and pretensions—turned out to have a secret of his own. In what would have been a perfect fit for one of his own stories, his diaries revealed a secret life of homosexual loves and desires. But I digress, let’s return to the beginning. It was one of those midsummer Sundays …
The Swimmer, written in 1964, starts on a Sunday afternoon, at a pool party in an American suburb. Neddy Merrill is a family man. He has a wife, who is also at the party, and four daughters at home. It is a warm day and he is suddenly struck by a desire to swim home, from pool to pool through the neighbourhood. Although ‘far from young’, he feels youthful and daring, and he is excited about the adventure, already in his mind naming the stream of pools the Lucinda River after his wife. Running through the suburbs and through the lives of his neighbours, friends line the banks of this imaginary, yet real, river. He sets off and in the next door garden he is offered drinks by neighbours happy to see him, he kisses the women and shakes hands with the men, and continues his travels from pool to pool. He hears a distant thunder, thinking to himself how he likes storms, and at this point something becomes unsettled. Continuing his journey he slowly grows weaker, and he no longer feels as welcome everywhere as the neighbours talk about dark events that he has no recollection of. Feeling cold, weak and pitiful, he eventually starts to cry, and then, when he finally arrives home, there is no home. The house is empty, dark and falling apart. During just 13 pages a man’s life comes apart. It’s hard to tell if what happens is the disintegration of his mind, denial, a mental breakdown, or if it is simply the punishing unravelling of time passing. One way or other he has been immersed for too long and his world is gone.
He shouted, pounded on the door, tried to force it with his shoulder, and then, looking in at the windows, saw that the place was empty.
No more home. Which brings us back to the quote at the beginning of this text. There is something about The Swimmer that always made me think of the Untitled poster which Christopher Wool and Felix Gonzalez-Torres made for Printed Matter in 1993. A common feeling of loss of course, returning to a home that no longer exists. Deprived of the most classic of endings to a story, of returning (safely) to a (stable) home at the end, the feeling is ambivalent. It is‘the end of the world’ which interestingly is no ending at all, since this disappearance of what supposedly defines us, leaves everything wide open.
Only while writing this did I realize that the text on the poster is a quote from The Revolution of Everyday Life (Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations) written in 1967 by the Belgian writer Raoul Vaneigem. After buying the book I found out that the part quoted by Wool and Gonzalez-Torres is itself a quote. Vaneigem quoting the sentence from an essay by Vasily Rozanov called The Apocalypse of Our Time (Apokalipsis nashego vremeni). I looked up Rozanov and read that he was a Russian philosopher who in 1919, shortly after writing The Apocalypse of Our Time, in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, starved to death. Apart from these few biographical details I do not know anything about him, but considering the time and circumstances under which this text was written, it seems quite possible that the part quoted by Vaneigem, and then by Wool and Gonzalez-Torres, originally could be read as literal. The audience really did leave the theatre to realize that there was ‘no more home.’ In Rozanov’s text the sentence is preceded by: The iron curtain descended over Russian history with much noise, creaking and screeching, which is believed to be where the term ‘iron curtain’ was first used. There’s a thread of unravelling running through these very different works and lives, book-ended on both sides by the all too real disintegration and death of Rozanov from hunger and Gonzalez-Torres from AIDS—the disintegration that was integrated into many of his works. At this point I am starting to feel an unravelling of what I thought was to be the thread in this text. So, returning to Vaneigem, a blurb on the back of my copy of The Revolution of Everyday Life calls it ‘the starting point of the subversive current which first appeared in May ‘68’, and, as French speaking readers will have recognized, the original French title actually translates as the rather different Treatise on Living for the Younger Generations, a title clearly suggesting a very constructive intention. What sounds like a manual for what to do when home is no longer there, as the younger generation moves away from ‘home’.
In 1969, two years after the publication of Vaneigem’s book, Marguerite Duras wrote the novel Destroy, She Said (Detruire Dit-Elle). Written in Paris—with May ’68 just squeezed in between Vaneigem’s and Duras’ books—the destruction of the known world and known language, and the relationship between reality and language is, as the title suggests, at the centre of the novel. Destruction as necessary before construction, and the end of the world as strategy. The English edition of the book is followed by a 1969 interview with Duras, in which she talks in very concrete terms of the political dimensions of the novel. She directly links the falling apart of language and the ambivalence and openness of the novel’s structure and narrative to the events of May ’68 and to the ‘hippies’ (one of which is her son of whom she seems very proud). I always liked this open ambivalence of Duras’ novels, avoiding dogmatism even while repeatedly and insistently dealing with issues of gender, class, power, which is, I think, not easy. To me this interview, in making such a direct connection between novel and contemporary politics, was a surprise. She talks of: ‘…the destruction of someone as a person. As opposed to what? To the unknown. That the communist world of tomorrow will be. What else? The destruction of every power… I’m perhaps going to change that a little…
The destruction of all police. Intellectual police. Religious police. Communist police. What else? The destruction of memory. What else? The destruction of judgment. What else? I am in favour of… closing schools and universities, of ignorance…’
It is a very short novel, yet it floats in a, typical for Duras, dream-like atmosphere, making it difficult to pin down. It takes place in a provincial hotel, which may or may not be a sort of sanatorium. Two guests, two men, Max Thor and Stein are observing and speculating about a third guest, a woman named Elisabeth Alione, convalescing in the hotel after the trauma of having given birth to a stillborn child. Then Max Thor’s young wife Alissa arrives at the hotel.
‘I’m so happy you are here,’ he says.
She looks around. Then brings her eyes back, slowly.
‘Destroy,’ she says.
He smiles at her.
Alissa, Max and Stein become obsessed with Elisabeth Alione. She is supposed be picked up by her husband to return to her life as before, back to her home and her life as a housewife. The three attempt to drag her into their world, an ambiguous world of games, erotic tension and shifting identities. It is an unsettling world. Stein calls Alissa insane and the two men call her the destroyer, both of which may be compliments. From the moment she says ‘destroy’, the characters, the plot and the text itself falls into ambiguity. Duras from a certain point onwards often made movies from her own writings and wrote the books very much like screenplays and Destroy, She Said is her first attempt at this. The dialogue seem open-ended from shifting positions that occasionally dissolve into one another and the text itself also seems to dissolve with hardly any full sentences left. In this state nothing seems quite stable, the characters are almost like sleepwalkers. Max, Stein and Alissa attempt to delay the moment where Elisabeth will go home. There is a brutal feel to how they surround the fragile Elisabeth. Elisabeth the housewife, targeted by the men and Alissa, the young, the insane, the destroyer… destroyer of Elisabeth, of the world. Looking for that ‘no more home’ they try to persuade her to postpone home and to go into the surrounding forest together with Alissa, but Elisabeth is afraid of the forest. A forest. A favourite image of the unknown for Duras’ which she is certainly neither the first nor the last to use.
The ‘destruction of someone as a person’ is at the absolute centre of The Passion According to G.H. by the Ukrainian born, Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Written in 1964, the same year of Cheever’s The Swimmer, Lispector, like Duras, addresses the destruction of identity, culture and the world through language, but crucially turns it inwards instead of outwards. Instead of destroying someone, the main protagonist experiences the complete destruction of herself.
That morning, before entering the maid’s room, what was I? I was what others had always seen me to be, and that was how I knew myself.
Says the unnamed woman who is the sole protagonist of the novel (the G.H. of the title stands for gênero humano, human kind in Portuguese), recounting her experience of the previous day. It is a pretty wild novel and, I think, impossible to recount, but the actual action happening during the novel’s 200 pages is fairly easily told. A woman, a well-to-do sculptor, enters the room of her maid, who has just quit her job and left. She is surprised to find the room empty and orderly apart from a caricature drawing that the maid has made of her on the wall. She realizes that the maid, whose name she does not remember, did not like her. This unsettles her and at this point she sees a cockroach crawling out of an empty wardrobe and slams the door shut on it, catching it between door and doorframe. She then, for hours, watches its death struggle—only interrupted by the occasional cigarette and, at one point, getting up to look out the window—before in the end eating the foaming insides oozing out of the half crushed and dying cockroach. That’s pretty much it in terms of action. A woman alone in a room with a dying cockroach, and in the end she eats part of it.
However, watching the dying cockroach the unnamed woman has what could perhaps be described as a spiritual crisis, a mystical trip… a religious experience … a mental breakdown … or quite possibly all of the above. She experiences a complete loss of self, not only of her own identity, but a loss of humanity. A loss of all that defines her, an abyss between word and living matter and instead a sense of unity with all. This feeling of unity beyond humanity is what eventually makes her eat the insides of the cockroach, but in the end that physical absorbing of the non-human is also not adequate. It is a complete falling away of what has to this point defined her, an unravelling of self, her identity, her world, her life.
I get so scared when I realize I lost my human form for several hours. I don’t know if I’ll have another form to replace the one I lost.
The book is moving, shocking and honestly sometimes rather exasperating to read. Explaining a complete loss of humanity through the quintessential human form of language is of course a paradox. In the first chapter the narrator tries to explain her intentions.
Since I must save the day of tomorrow, since I must have a form because I don’t feel strong enough to stay disorganized… which is then later followed by, and I may have the courage to resist the temptation to invent a form, and then, but I am afraid to begin composing in order to be understood by the imaginary someone, I’m afraid to ‘make’ a meaning, with the same tame madness that till yesterday was my healthy way of fitting into a system.
These are thoughts, words, that still make clear sense. They are about the disintegration of self, sense, order, home and the world as known, but they are still logical statements. From there the book seems to be zoning in and out between sentences that at times make brutal and direct sense, and then for pages can be difficult to follow. Suddenly unnervingly precise descriptions of being and of loss of self (of fear!) manifest themselves in between parts that are seemingly incomprehensible at first reading, and maybe second and maybe third. Yet when re-re-re-reading, what before seemed clear is now what’s incomprehensible and vice versa. New meanings arrive and disappear in a cascade of brilliantly and beautifully dissolving language and repetitions. Yet at times it can be frustrating, due to its insistence of working against itself as text, the very act of trying to make sense of it might not really make sense.
All sudden understanding is finally the revelation of an acute incomprehension. Each moment of finding is a getting lost.
Lispector somehow uses the language as imprisonment and liberation at the same time. With this collapse of language, culture, self, of what she calls ‘humanity’, also comes a collapse of moral. Something she calls both hell and God. The book is, as the title would suggest littered with religious imagery.
I’ve reached this point, which I thought would be the end of The End of the World, and now I am unsure what I wanted here. I wanted to think of ‘no home’ as a method, of the loss of self and the loss of ‘home’, intentional or not, as end and beginning. A reality breakdown that can be used to re-read and re-think language, signs, images, and thus our surroundings, of readings that can at the same time be literal and symbolic and the possibilities of staying in that limbo for a time. Open, blurred and unsettled without one meaning or a fixed identity. About fear. A position, a loss of self, that is scary, and yet a position which clearly is clearly privileged, since if you are genuinely lost without anything whatsoever to hold on to, physically, geographically, psychologically, then that is of course just frightening. A deliberate attempt at periodic imbalance if that is even possible, but coming to this point I feel that, like the swimmer, I may have been immersed too long and maybe the home I thought I was heading for is gone.
In The Passion According to G.H. Lispector divides the novel into a lot of short sections. Each section starts with the sentence that ended the last one. The end is the beginning.