Let’s start with where I can’t go. I could have one lover, maybe two; I could text someone I don’t know from the Internet and meet them on a street corner, kiss them when we don’t yet know each other’s names. I could stand on the same street corner, abandoned callously by someone else’s lover, weeping. I could get an email from someone I no longer care about, telling me that he saw a deer get hit by a train; and that the look in its eyes as he stroked its head and watched it die reminded him of me. I can’t go there, but I can’t say why.
The last time we were here, I insisted that feeling being-hated was delicate, transient, but now I’m not so sure. Adam Phillips writes in Missing Out that “the lives we do lead are informed by the lives that escape us.” That our lives are defined by the “loss of what might have been; loss, that is, of things never experienced.” In other words, feeling you are hated is necessarily knowing that the thing you desire is not the thing that you don’t yet have—it’s what you’ve already lost. Feeling being-hated entails watching the good life, the better life circulating around you in gentle intimacies—touches, smiles and people in the street. I can’t go anywhere, always on the outside. I’m a mourning that can never be remedied. To feel being-hated is material. It’s to be trapped in the coffin between a life unlived and a life unlivable.
I can’t leave my apartment. I’m sitting in the dark, nursing a cigarette. Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” is playing, careening like a lullaby. I prefer Bridget singing it, shrill and clear like the last time I was at karaoke. The record is soothing but anxious too; wobbly at the end of every phrase. It makes me want to put a blade to my skin. Instead I’m scratching at my upper arm as if I could shred the protective outer layer that somehow marks me as different, as though I could set something loose. I’m reminded of Isabelle Huppert in Werner Schroeter’s Malina (1991), constantly twitching, compulsively lighting cigarettes, her lips a severe line anchoring the rest of the frame. Based on the novel by Ingeborg Bachmann, Malina is the story of a writer—played by Huppert, and who remains unnamed throughout the film—caught between two lovers: the more desirous, but deeply uncaring, Ivan and the stoic, caretaking Malina.
Like the rest of Schroeter’s work, this film is shredded mental theatre. But unlike Schroeter’s other work, which tends towards the kitschy and operatic, Malina is a manic spectacle of banality. Huppert tosses mail everywhere, a cloned mass. Her apartment, seemingly innocuous, becomes a materialized architecture of her mind. It degenerates into literal debris as she attempts to traverse the psychic difference between two lovers, one superego and the other id. Her neurotic shivering intensifies; her arms become disjointed as they flail, there is both more and less of her by the second. I empty the ashtray, flicking my wrist, and an ember lands on my arm, jolting me awake. Like Huppert in the film, also a novelist, Bachmann died from a fire in her bedroom, set by a single neglected cigarette.
In Malina, there’s staginess in the way ubiquitous, seemingly irrelevant objects uproot themselves and multiply in the backdrop of every frame. There are crystal glasses, chess pieces, fruit; even swimmers diving into a lake, a photographer hovering behind them lending a sinister air of claustrophobia, worse still, predestination. In this filmic maze, objects seem to give definitive form to desires and emotions that typically weave themselves as silent undercurrents into the narrative. Simultaneously, the actual subjects of the film (the protagonist and her lovers), or rather, their images, pile up in confusing mise-en-scènes in which they’re fragmented and doubled in any frame approximating an exit—mirrors, windows, doors. Huppert insists on leaving a restaurant, but can’t bring herself to. Instead, she’s suddenly bleeding from an unspecified location, she traps herself in the bathroom, spraying water all over her black cocktail dress, gasping, “There’ll be no tomorrow… People won’t be…” trailing off as water and blood spatters the black-and-white floor. And like all of Schroeter’s work, this moment may operatic, but the real tragedy is that in the film’s infinite hall of mirrors, she can have neither fate, nor destiny. Any life she might imagine with either lover is one she’s already lost.
Sitting on the edge of her bathtub, hair a stringy mess, Huppert can’t meet Malina’s eyes, can only see some imaginary future. When she mumbles, dazed, that “I’ve never been happy, but I’ve seen beauty,” I believe her. Because if anything, Malina is an ode to the impossibility of reaching an ideal destiny. As Ong Ker Shing and Joseph Comaroff write, “multiplication draws forward the threshold at which beauty gives way to discomfort.” Huppert’s beautifully imagined happy endings become uncanny, can only replicate themselves faultily within her present life unlivable. There is no tragic destiny for the being-hated, only an unnerving pattern of dissatisfactory option to be splayed out, lived over and over again. In the film’s final scenes, she sets her dress on fire, self-immolating with sublime vitality. “I’ve broken with myself,” she shrieks. I guess both wood and witches burn. But the saddest thing about this movie is that although Huppert sets fires—so many little fires—in the ruins of her building, she “didn’t go up in smoke, alas, she stayed.”
The saddest thing is about this movie is her indissolubility.
I can’t go where I want to go, but it doesn’t matter. More than any lover, I could have friends. I could get a text about how Claire thinks the new Drake lyric is her epitaph, “still in Miami, most of these girls are too messy / I’ve got to do some reflecting.” Doubling, the kind of doubling that happens between women is neither one nor many. The thing about the girl gang is that it’s not a differentiated group, rather, it’s a “superabundance of twinnish harmony” (Ong, Kemeroff). Attack of the clones. I’m at breakfast on a Friday, playing hooky from working from home, whatever that means (we all know what it means). I’ve just told Claire that my best friend is “exactly like me but she writes fiction and does yoga,”—her retort is that her best friend is “exactly like her but she’s a virgin.” Yoga and virgin: both essential qualities are the exact opposites of ours. If the twin is conflict between the ideal object and its uncanny replication, then perhaps close female friendship is thrilling, a dislocated visual moment—“we’re like, literally the same person, it’s freakish.” In Malina, the desired lives unlived are heterosexual, romantic. But female friendship is seeing yourself see you in other women, watching them take possession of one of your lives unlived. A mutation in replication is what allows you to feel kinship, but also what allows for differential recognition. When your heart takes a leap because you see a loved one, it is still asynchronous.
I’m reading Syd Staiti’s new book, The Undying Present (Krupskaya, 2015). The thing about this book is that I don’t know where I’m at. I’ve been placed in an imaginary city, the City of Margins. As a city, it has markers of my own—buildings, backpacks, refrigerators, bars, lovers. There’s a Second City that’s a small distance away from it, which means its air is different and its boundaries stiffer. There are lovers and bars and doubles there too though, so I’m not sure if I’m making up the difference. There are meetings, but there might not be revolution, there are theories that seem contradictory to historic accounts, and the characters traverse this wasted landscape together or apart. It doesn’t seem to matter. This feels familiar. But I’m not sure who’s “I” or “you”, or “we” here, only that each seems separate, abstractly trapped in different performances of marginality, which is another way of saying, feeling being-hated.
Like the prose in the book, disjointed between sentences but beautiful in clause, every person is lightly contained, resolutely descriptive. “I can see my legs at the bottom of the tub. They don’t look like mine. I place my hands on top of my knees. They are my knees. I swish my feet side to side. They are my feet. The water splashes back and forth but stays contained in the tub.” Even when interacting, these characters seem to drift around each other; they all “look a little like you.” But if replication and its accompanying mutation can be impetus for a kind of kinship, here it’s off-kilter. As though there’s been a tender communal agreement to uphold the fantasy that individual subjectivities could protect themselves by holding a thin membrane between themselves and the world.
The present doesn’t progress in this universe. Constantly mediated by projectionists, screens and lenses, it stop-start freezes itself in frames that diffuse and deflect, contradict and cohere. “The present is always complete in its shattered aspect,” Staiti writes, and I’m realizing this book might ask what it means to perform yourself as a spectacle of time. Like a film reel running at the wrong speed, there’s a stilted pausing that means what you’re looking at is already arbitrarily history. It’s a discomforting mutation of what it once was, or what’s ominously coming. “My double is walking through the building down the long hallway […] in hopes of encountering the arrival of the new, the new one of us or maybe it will be me or maybe an old one.” Like a heartbeat, sometimes a frozen moment is really just the affective outline of a person. Sometimes there might even be a split second of recognition.
Heather Love, in Safe, writes that “accounting for someone else’s interiority involves a certain violence, the violence of certainty, of claiming to have mastered this interiority.” As such, the flatness of Staiti’s The Undying Present might be a strategy of ethics, of comradeship as much as it might be one of disavowal—it doesn’t do the violence of interpretation. As Caryl Flinn suggests, rather than assuming, or deciphering powerful emotional experiences, this descriptive style produces signs of intensity rather than directly giving them to us in melodrama. Which is to say, “feelings are less of the characters” than they are signaled between them. There is nothing insincere about the emotions and desires in this world. It’s just that we can’t find them inside of any somatic source or hung upon any external framework, nor can we consign them to a single body. But they’re not detached either. When you set someone on fire, the flames doing the damage also become the only way for them to signal pain.
Between these bodies, sealed-off and feeling-hated, other emotions languish around, undirected. And they can’t be neutered—joy, frustration, mania, disillusionment; above all, longing. “Figures arise before our eyes as projections in memory or in the flesh or from a future yet uncharted as we reconstitute ourselves at boiling point in this scalding crucible of time and place.” The insistent materiality of Staiti’s descriptive signs mean they can also be “too overwhelming to trivialize.” Feeling being-hated means there is always too much surface, too much refusal of affective circulation because of marginality. This is a style that conveys what is, in effect, the political need for its expression rather than its solution, even if faulty or misheard. Just like how in Schroeter, we hear characters sing even when they’re not moving their mouths. “Something is missing. You reach for my hand. I look for the cue mark.” (Staiti)—The Undying Present “withholds the arias,” (Flinn) leaving us only with spaces we want, that we need to fill in.
Staiti builds imaginary cities in her book, but she builds something else, too. There’s a swelling in the replication of sealed bodies, even if their movements are scripted by forces keeping them individually contained. “There is double action, double reflection — action/reflection — above same as below. I watch the scene projected in the sky.” If this book is asking you to look, it is not asking you to look in. It is asking you to look across, at a parallel mutation. As in the case of Siamese twins, mutation is an encrypted play of loss and melancholic attachment. It reminds you that you’ll never be able look a desired twin world directly in the face, not without surgically removing yourself anyway. And if you can’t see it, perhaps it’ll never come. But at least you know it together.
In The Undying Present, the presentness of feeling being-hated forms its own closed system, mutating within a conventionally totalized network of politics or art — whichever you prefer. In framing together the desired fantasy and the unbearable now, dystopia and utopia, perhaps it the question it truly asks is: what would it mean to “learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like… some versions of these double lives we can’t help but live.” (Philips) It doesn’t have the answer.
I didn’t want to go, but I’m at a meeting at ATA. It’s about women, about recent sexual assaults that have occurred in the poetry community. It’s about structural misogyny that we can suddenly see everywhere. It’s about how we should do better and what we might do to fix it. We’re being smart. We’re polite, we’re talking strategy even if one person’s rage is incompatible with someone else’s restorative justice. I don’t even know what that means. I’m too busy “listening.” I sit with my legs crossed over the side of my chair and make reasonable, okay-ish comments about evaluating individual accountability because it takes too long for the community to make collective decisions. We write action items. We raise our hands to ask questions. We gesture towards the indigenous people whose land we’re on. We’re the perfect little image of what a community should look like. I don’t care. I hate my community for its past. I want it to burn with a million little fires set with strips of my clothing, just like in Malina. I tear a tiny rip in the flimsy rayon of my sleeve. I bet it’s flammable, but my skirt won’t burn. How can we digest the past? Must we do so to destroy it; us too? Or could we begin to move forward? Can we, together, weaponize feeling hated and its replicative quality, this endless projection of the lives we desire but have already forever lost?
The night before the night of the meeting, I’m supposed to go to a reading, but I can’t go. I can’t go because instead, I have friends over, women over, some that I see often, some from far away, all of whom I love. We drink chocolate milk and whiskey from floral-printed mugs and we talk. We talk a lot. We talk a lot of shit, and we talk about the things that hurt, that we are angry about, about how we live, how things are unlivable, and what we cannot do. Some of us fight in front of the others about things that we have stakes in, like race, and aesthetics and allegiances. Some of us feel rage that blows us cold, outside of everything and some of us want to be complicit in being traitors. We might be replicas of feeling–being-hated, but together there is no control over our hatred of the past, nor any limit to the impossible future we might desire. It’s a momentary embrace that brings both, all, everything in confluence with our present identities. And although at the end of it all, there is no list, it feels like work has been done.
Claire and I get dinner next day and she calls it a blip out of time, a feminist utopia. I think about resting my head on Alli’s shoulder, how I can only see her nose out of the corner of my eye, how I feel doubled. I can feel all of her anyway.
The Krupskaya Book Launch Party for The Undying Present (Syd Staiti) and Portrait of Doom (Marie Buck) is on May 8th, 7pm at Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St, San Francisco. Both books are available at Small Press Distribution.