Motherland is a good thing of its kind, the kind of thing it is being BBC comedy about how the social lives of a very specific subset of the white middle class are an ever-deepening hell of their own making. Its sustaining tropes are failures of the imagination: the failure to imagine a single mother with a Northern accent as anything other than an imperviously sardonic provider of comic relief, the failure to imagine a male caregiver as anything other than toe-curlingly immature and wet (what sort of man, indeed, would willingly spend time around small children?). I enjoy it (mainly for Diane Morgan) and resent it at the same time: for its wilful narrowness, its refusal to consider it even worthy of remark that its characters come from big houses and budgets*, or that the fundamental generator of incident and plot is their ceaselessly mutually reinforced anxiety over social standing. It may seem odd to complain of a British sitcom that its characters pour tireless energy into making each other miserable – no Steptoe, no Hancock, etc, without this central dynamic – but Motherland’s claim to be “about” the frustrations and impasses of working motherhood is about as plausible as the claim that Fawlty Towers is about the challenges of running a small hotel.
- oh yes
The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he’d been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. (Cormac McCarthy, All The Pretty Horses)
I’m going to talk here about the sense of “fit” that I feel when reading something written from a subject position that seems to resemble mine, the feeling of excited recognition, and how far or in what ways it can be trusted. I had that feeling, or a feeling in that family of feelings, this morning as I read a piece of writing by Melanie Yergau, a self-identified “spectrumite” (that is, someone on the ASD spectrum). It’s a really take-no-prisoners piece of writing, superbly spikily uncollegial, and it filled me with shock and delight. Even as the essay talks about the absurdity of portioning the world of discourse up into communities bounded by sharp circumferences, I feel a proximity to it, or a desire for proximity towards it: it may not demarcate a crisp circle in a Venn diagram, but it opens up a rhetorical space that I feel comfortable in partly because it is ringed about with enough apotropaic barbed-wire to keep hostile forces at bay – and I feel myself comfortably on the right side of that barbed wire, enclosed rather than repelled by it.
At the same time I’m ambivalent about that sense of comfort, which seems simultaneously tempting and presumptuous. On the one hand, it’s tempting to say that it’s no accident that I feel this sense of familiarity and identification: something in me responds to something about that written voice, the experience and perspective it articulates, and this must be because I have something in common with the speaker; perhaps it is that I am also a “spectrumite” (as I’ve believed for a while, in fact). On the other hand, it is unavoidably true that it is also somewhat of an accident. This discourse, this manner of speaking, might never have existed, or I might never have come across it. There is nothing inevitable or necessary about the articulation that has formed between my way of feeling and this form of expression. My identification with it, my use of it as a mirror in which I think I see something about myself reflected, is opportunistic, and might even be seen as voyeuristic or exploitative. One of the concerns of Yergau’s piece is the desire of the “typical autistic essay” to maintain a sharp distinction between those who may legitimately picture themselves in that mirror, and those who are copping an attitude (so to speak). I’m not sure I can reliably distinguish in myself between sincere, well-founded, defensible identification, and trying a position on for size. I’m not not copping an attitude.
I would like, it is true, a bona fide, argument-ending retort to the suggestion that I am simply impossibly stubborn, or was inadequately socialised – that is, whipped into shape – as a child. I know that there is something odd about me that is as incorrigibly resistant to force or persuasion as some people find their sexuality to be. You can squelch it or deform it, but you really can’t make it go away. The world of my childhood was quite sharply divided into people who recognised that this was the case, and people who didn’t; and the latter were and remain an enemy between whom and myself there can never be enough barbed wire. My oddness doesn’t excuse me from making adult decisions about how to function in the world, but it does impose upon me the necessity of weighing up questions such as “will putting myself in this situation cause me to have a frightening and embarrassing meltdown” to which the answer is sometimes “yes” irrespective of all the very good reasons why I ought to just knuckle down and get on with it. The task of cultivating “coping strategies” is, let’s say, ongoing.
It’s not just a matter of mapping internal states, but of giving names to experiences. The experience of being aspified or autismatised, if you like. A while back I was standing with a group of friends, all computer-y people, talking about the sorts of things computer-y people like to talk about. We were relaxed, companionable, fluidly interacting. Then some non-computer-y people came over and started talking to us, and we were instantly “the nerds”. It was efficiently, if subliminally, communicated to us that our confidence in our own social presentation was ill-founded, that in fact we should be ashamed of ourselves for existing. After we prickled at them a bit, the aggravating people (who said nothing outwardly aggressive or harassing) went away and we were able to recover ourselves somewhat. But I was strongly reminded of how much “nerdiness” is a social relationship, a hierarchical relationship, rather than an essence one carries around inside oneself. This wasn’t, in my reading, just ingroup-meets-outgroup (which will always shift the tone somewhat). It was very distinctly an experience of being put in one’s place.
There is always something a bit vicarious, a bit unstable, about identification. Which doesn’t mean that we’re all mistaken in our identities – it’s more that there’s a constitutive instability to the way in which society at large constructs and projects identity categories. We live through others’ ambivalence towards us, and are sometimes forced to bear the consequences of their attempts to resolve that ambivalence to their own satisfaction. That motive seems to me to be at the root of most of the psychic violence that has ever been directed towards me, in any case (and is undoubtedly also at the root of much of the psychic violence that I’ve doled out in turn). It’s a relief to escape from that ambivalence into a positive assertion of identity, but I am always haunted by the feeling that this is a sort of mis-step. The prerogative of deciding belongs to others: when you’re acting peculiarly, you’re being a bit autistic (which is a problem you need to work on); when you’re affirming neurodiversity, you’re not nearly autistic enough to own that position. This is perhaps a better problem to have than the problem of being positioned as irremediably low-functioning, but it’s generated by the same value system. I’ve learned from my wife’s research that there’s a similar catch-22 around class identity, where those with the cultural clout to challenge classist stigma are invariably defined out of the stigmatised group (“not really” working class, or working class but not really impoverished, etc), and can be variously accused of copping an attitude, maintaining a chip on the shoulder that really ought to have been brushed off by now, or illicitly appropriating others’ genuine misery.
It was impossible not to wince when I was introduced to a friend-of-a-friend who had done therapeutic work with autistic children with “oh yes, Dom’s a bit on the spectrum himself” – as I sat in a noisy pub, drinking beer, not noticeably twitching (the beer helps), and even remembering to make eye-contact from time to time. Her diplomatic “well, we’re all somewhere on the spectrum” was I suppose the nicest possible way of telling me to pull the other one. It’s true and it’s not true, because neurotypicality is a thing and not everybody is that thing, and because the prevailing assumption is that neurotypicality is healthy, functioning and socially viable in ways that non-neurotypicality is not. Where some of us are on the spectrum – even if it’s a long way from being constantly excruciatingly over-stimulated by everyday situations – is a problem. Identification with the problematised position comes with a shock of delighted recognition when you see that it is after all possible to speak from within its contradictions.
A scene in the History Channel series Vikings: a man and a woman with a small infant come before the shield-maiden Lagertha (acting as Earl) for justice.
The man complains that after many years in which they were unable to have children together, the woman, his wife, became pregnant by a young man who came to their house; he wants her to be punished for her infidelity. Lagertha replies that the young man was clearly the god Heimdall in disguise, and that the husband should give thanks for his good fortune. The man complains: that’s just a story! Lagertha replies: our whole lives are just stories.
It’s a virtuosic display of judgement: by attributing an ad hoc sexual encounter, which has resolved the problem of childlessness between the couple, to the visitation of a god, Lagertha encourages everyone involved to accept and take advantage of the situation. “Ancient stories” about gods who frequently do unexpected things, disrupting the lives of mortals, provide a symbolic framework for dealing with chance and contingency, and a rationale for bending the rules when things don’t go as planned. The society of the Vikings is repeatedly shown to be one which values surprises: narratives are for twisting, and the most effective actor in such a society is the one who knows how to break out of a deadlocked situation with a flourish of (often brutal) improvisation.
It both is and is not true that our whole lives are “just stories”. Lagertha is able to make this assertion because she is in a position of authority, backed by the threat of violence: it would be unwise to cling to a position of obstinate literal-mindedness in the face of her judgement. The prerogative of suspending the reality principle, of demanding collusion in a shared fiction, belongs to those who are in a position to exercise priestly or shamanic symbolic power.
Literal-mindedness appears “obstinate” because it is a counter-power, an obstacle to collective confabulation. The story-makers will always construe this as wilful, because from their perspective which story you choose to abide by is ultimately a matter of will. If you want to let slip a defiant eppur si muove, you had better do so under your breath.
Our lives are stories inasmuch as our subjective and social experience is mediated through narrative, and subject to symbolic power. The most widely-accepted contemporary answer to the problem of symbolic power being concentrated in the hands of dominant social groups is to insist on “telling our own stories” in retort, taking control of the reins of narrative, becoming shamans of our own lives. Considerable political value is attached to symbolic creativity, subversive meaning-making, magical practices which challenge the power of mainstream narratives which devalue marginalised lives and experiences. At the same time, our lives are not stories, or not wholly stories: to be obstinately literal-minded about it, Heimdall isn’t real. The statement that Heimdall isn’t real isn’t a statement about which stories we should live by, or whose symbolic authority ought to hold sway, but about what exists or doesn’t exist. We try to determine whether or not such a statement is valid not by considering whose narrative it supports, but by working out its ramifications to see whether they are coherent, and reality-testing to see whether or not it holds true.
Isn’t such literal-mindedness missing the point, somehow? I picture an interlocutor saying “yes, we know – we’re not idiots – but: shut up”. Because collusion in shared fictions is what sustains the social bond, what motivates collective political action, and there is no way for either of these things to happen purely based on assertions about what does or doesn’t exist; because statements of fact are inextricably tangled up with espousals of value, and investigation into facts is always framed within a social context; and so on. As true as all of that is, it will never be enough to make Heimdall real instead of not real. Symbolic power is exercised over and against a reality that stands in its way; that, in a sense, is what makes it power. It is only by “missing the point” that everyone wishes us to see and assent to that we are able to force the point – that things are either thus and so, or not thus and not so, and that our lives are no longer “just stories” to precisely the extent that we make this the basis on which we choose what to believe.
Geoffrey Hill said of his late(-ish) collection Speech! Speech! that it was an attempt to bring a sort of energy into English verse that had been missing from it for a long time, an energetic effrontery; and that when presented with that energy, the absence of which they had all been loudly decrying, the majority of critics had simply not known what was to be done with it. He also said (words of advice to young people), “give us a black swan”. I don’t think he’d ever read heronbone – I’m not certain I ever really have, properly.
The oblique-direct: the slantwise thing, in poetry for example, which carries a certain resonance, carries you off somewhere, even before you are able to resolve it into an intelligible reference to something definitely in-the-world. It may never be resolvable; or no inquest suffices to resolve it, but you learn of the connection which anchors it to a context, a concrete situation, much later on and wholly by chance. There is writing, like much of the late poetry of the late Geoffrey Hill, which is oblique-direct almost all the way through. You can try to become a Geoffrey Hill expert, master of the references, but even the best effort will involve a lot of conjecture, and more than a few near-misses. And that sort of mastery is not the point: the point is the way that someone else’s private references, never wholly private because no language is wholly private, still catch at something in you and can even become part of your own lexicon, never wholly private, of things you say to yourself, out loud or not out loud, when you need something to say that is attuned to something otherwise unspeakable about the situation.
“Great gifts foreclosed on; loss and waste offset / by thrifty oddities of survival – / dittander and black saltwort that are found / flourishing on the midland brine” (“Mysticism and Democracy”, from Canaan). Dittander you can look up – it’s a “salt-tolerant plant”, like black saltwort, which is “generally found along the edges of salt marshes but has been increasingly introduced to gardens” – an emblem of transplanted thriving. The botanical references are not simply there for colour. There’s also an absolutely typical Hill double meaning in “flourishing on the midland brine”: the “on” locates it (“found along the edges of salt marshes”), but also has the sense of “living on” – I fed my plants midland brine, and they flourished on it. (He does that all the time.)
I tried out a similar trick in a poem of my own – “Say self-delight, as in the roadside cowslip / flowering in dense stands along the run / of harrowed earthworks, or the mission-creep / of bindweed raising trumpets to the sun” – you can see straight away how “flowering” descends from “flourishing”, how the image of tenacious flora taking root in a harsh environment is adapted and re-used. “Dense stands”, and “earthworks”, are direct steals from the Wikipedia entry on cowslip: “The cowslip is frequently found on more open ground than the primrose, including open fields, meadows, coastal dunes and clifftops. The plant suffered a decline due to changing agricultural practices throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. It may therefore be rare locally, though where found it may be abundant. Additionally the seeds are now often included in wildflower seed mixes used to landscape motorway banks and similar civil engineering earthworks where the plants may be seen in dense stands”.
You might not know that unless I’d told you, or you’d thought to look it up; I’d forgotten where I’d got it from myself, and only sought it out because “dense stands” seemed too good to have been my own invention and I wondered if it was a common way of talking about flowers. It turns out (ask Wikipedia) there’s something called the “stand density index”, although it’s more commonly used to refer to trees. In the context of the poem, it’s brought into correspondence with “self-delight”, a term I took from a section in John Berger’s TV series Ways of Seeing in which a group of women discussed portraits of women: “this sort of self delight of a person”, which the speaker saw as a sort of kernel within the concept of narcissism, something less “pronounced” than it, more quiet and private and less pushy perhaps, although also something that could radiate out of a person and be perceived and enjoyed by another.
Perhaps this is too much like explaining a joke. I’m trying in this way to sketch out the protocols of a public-private writing, an oblique-direct writing which essays (tries out) “that which shall contain / its own passion in the public weal”.
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