body of doubt
A knife comes down on an idea —
Before the knife cleaves flesh, before one idea kills another, time stops. The surface action — the plot — pauses. In the pause, more becomes possible. In the moment of the suspended blade, I am most interested.
After more than thirty years of pursuing the unattainable, I woke yesterday thinking about Marat/Sade. Maybe it was my location, or rather, dislocation: I was sleeping in the middle of a forest. To get there, I had driven for hours on unpaved roads with the sun strobing my vision. I squinted, tried to stay on the road. When I reached my destination, I stumbled into a deep sleep.
I woke from yet another dream about S. and I woke thinking about revolution, specifically, a book I read about revolution when I was a senior in high school: Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss (1965) (full title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade). A book about how revolution goes wrong. Which it always does.
I believe in dialectical engagement with subject matter through form. I suppose this makes me a formalist, although that word has different meanings for different people. Formalism is dangerous: once you work through your chosen form, it’s tempting to dwell happily in the delusion of a manageable universe. Faith in form has a cost: the form can eclipse your original question. Your subject matter can cease to be rooted in curiosity and die as a self-affirming prophecy. You can believe that you’ve grappled with your subject matter when you’ve only done pirouettes of logic within a “distorting order” (Roland Barthes). This is why activists distrust formalists. If you are an activist formalist, you distrust yourself.
The cost of doubt is form itself.
One form I considered choosing here was the sestina, a French poetic form with repeated end words in a pre-ordained pattern. Because of the repetition of line endings, sestinas have an obsessive quality. Lectures about how to write a sestina recommend that you pick end words with multiple meanings because this will give you more options. For example, every ending word could be love because love has multiple meanings; however, this might lead to an annoying poem.
Waking up from a dream about S. is not unusual for me. I haven’t seen S. in more than ten years, but the time S. occupies in my dreaming life is out of proportion to the time we spent together. Perhaps this is because S. has come to stand in for other things.
S. and I had a bad break-up because I was unfaithful; after a decade of silence, we dated for a few months in the mid-90s; after more silence, we dated again briefly in the early aughts. These later iterations were feeble echoes of our original togetherness, my attempts to rehabilitate a shattered ideology. “I had a dream about you last night,” S. said, during one of our codas, “and in the dream, I was playing with a loaded gun.”
Set in an insane asylum, Marat/Sade is a play within a play, a form I adore for its omnipresent meta-narrative, the parallel universes commenting on each other. A story within a story is a distancing frame. Stories within stories can be repositories for discarded but nonetheless tenacious ideas. Dreams, of course, are stories within stories.
My recurring dreams about S. are chasing dreams. For what feels like hours, I am trying to call S., but my phone is broken or I can’t remember the number. I’m trying to drive to S., but my car won’t start. Or I get there only to discover that S. is married. Sometimes the dreams are negotiations: Just one night, please. Sometimes there is a talismanic object involved: I’ll give you this in exchange. If we touch, S. refuses to have sex, so we end up rolling through space in excruciating, unconsummated proximity. The distance between us infinitely approaches zero.
Only once in thirty years of dreaming did S. and I actually have sex. I felt like I had won the lottery. When I woke, I thought: now the dreams will end. No —
The play within Marat/Sade is based on historical events and directed by the Marquis de Sade, a man famous for advocating for extreme individualism and unrestrained sexual liberty. The play takes place during the French Revolution and culminates in the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, who was like a 1700s, R-rated Bernie Sanders with a skin disease and without the mittens, a man obsessed with the overthrow of the corrupt ruling class, a man devoted to calling out the hypocrisy of revolutionaries.
A young woman named Charlotte Corday killed Marat because he was too extreme; he had played a substantial role in the political purge of the Girondins, with whom Corday sympathized. She was powered by idea.
Things that make me think of S.: Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, the smell of gasoline, people who walk on the balls of their toes.
All of the actors in Marat/Sade are incarcerated invalids. The director is a masochist. The revolutionary is a paranoiac. The assassin has sleeping sickness and melancholia.
In the play, de Sade and Marat have a series of debates over whether true revolution comes from liberating the world (Marat) or liberating the self (de Sade). De Sade mocks revolution’s tendency to replace one set of rules with another. He declaims the activist’s secret shame: the activist is on the side of revolutionary change, but her inner life is cowardly. Revolution stands in for other things.
Over the years, in the dreams, S. is less and less recognizable. S. assumes other genders, other bodies, becomes a wolf. But I always know it’s S. It doesn’t matter what S. looks like—if we touch, it’s the same glorious sensation.
I fall asleep knowing I will have the dream again.
We know Marat’s death will happen upon Corday’s third visit. On this visit, the assassin comes for Marat in his tub, which is in the shape of an old-fashioned high-buttoned shoe with a copper lining. She approaches him. She raises the knife above her head. The expression on her face is one of utter concentration. Certainty.
With Corday’s knife suspended in the air, there is a pause in the action for a didactic song, a taunting rhyme. We are disarmed; we experience the “sensation of time.” (Barnett Newman). “What kind of time is the time of tragedy? It is the time of the metrical and not so metrical line.” (Judith Butler). What an “awful, convulsive experience” to be “torn from one’s tempo.” (Henri Michaux).
The songs in Marat/Sade do not further plot or develop character. They are moves of Brechtian alienation, offering commentary, inserting distance between the action and the audience, flashing a light in our eyes. They make us conscious of our own minds at work. Some think that Brechtian alienation is at odds with Antonin Artaud’s approach to a theater of visceral immediacy, but I agree with director Peter Brook when he writes that, “illusion and disillusion cohabit painfully and are inseparable.”
After the song, the actors resume their places.
The murder happens in slow motion, de Sade mutely looking on.
Between the song and the knife, a half-life —
If you look at my body from the outside, it looks like I am sleeping. The dreams grommet an old wound. They demand that I thread something through the hole. I have no idea what to thread through the hole. The dream is impossible.
Loss interrupts the cadence of a life only to become its new cadence.
Corday was executed for Marat’s murder. At her trial, she said: “I knew that Marat was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.”
Ideas are a form of love —
I ended it because I was terrified of endings, before S. could end it, things ended badly, that’s not what I meant, I meant to say, I didn’t mean, don’t, I meant, can you, how, what I meant to say was, when I surfaced into my body, into the tide of broken ideas, into grief —
My senior year in high school, we studied revolution. Our teacher told us about the “foot in the door” phenomenon: if you get a taste of freedom and then it is taken away, you’re more likely to take up arms for freedom than if you’ve never experienced freedom at all. Around that same time, driving on a sunlit suburban street in Northern California, I realized I was in love with S. We’d been friends for months and talked for hours each night on the phone, but it hadn’t occurred to me, not even remotely, and then in a flash, I realized and exclaimed out loud to myself — I’m in love with S. I rushed to S. that very day in a new, headlong way, not knowing, in that acceleration, S. became a threat to me and I to S.
When I came clean to S., S. said, I knew it. I knew it, I knew it.
Knowledge is partial.
I am coming Marat
You cannot see me Marat
Because you are dead
The essence of tragedy: too late.
Junot Diaz wrote a piece in The New Yorker about how his childhood trauma made him a serial adulterer. He wrote about his fear of commitment, his depression, his rage, the mask he wore throughout his life. I want to be clear: I was not raped as a child, I am not drawing false equivalencies. But his article riveted me. I cut it out and saved it and underlined the part where Diaz wrote, “it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself.”
One day in 2002, S. sat down right across from me on the subway with another woman. S. didn’t see me sitting there, absorbing how the woman looked simultaneously more sultry and more ethically sturdy than me. S. held her hand. I stared at them mutely. A few stops later, as they jostled to the exit, I choked out S.’s name, a gargled avian sound. S. looked back and gave me a bewildered half-smile before the doors closed. The film strip of the receding platform accelerated —
Sometimes I go for long stretches without having a dream about S. I never know if this is a good or bad sign.
My body is a body of doubt,
cut ought ore,
grit limned littered knotted
vow barnacled day,
misprised sigh or
never now —
Image: The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)