This piece originally appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly Issue #2. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.
In the Spring I read an early novel by Rachel Cusk, The Country Life, about a young woman who escapes her unhappy life in London to work as an au pair. At her new job, Stella makes almost every “wrong” decision possible and as she does so she has an understanding of these decisions as ones she wouldn’t normally make. She is reasonable, almost mousy, that is what she seems to believe about herself, and what the reader is to believe as well. But this is not what the reader is shown, in her new life in the country. It makes me think about the moments in which I act out my anger. Something happens and I see that I have a choice to get angry or not get angry. If I choose the anger, I am often performing it; in some ways close to it, in other ways very distant. I watch myself perform it.
The family Stella works for is also very wrong, on many different levels, and so perhaps her wrong decisions bring her closer to them. They exist together strangely; it might be the only way. One very hot day, badly sunburned, disoriented, Stella cuts a pair of pants into shorts. She cuts them too short and then puts them on in front of a mirror. She looks at herself, for a long time.
It suddenly seemed that there was far more to me than I had imagined; that my body, that I had always believed to be immutable or finite in some way, possessed in fact a whole unmined tract of personality, a fresh range of potential to which I had, I now saw, the undeniable right . . . the world outside my window pulsed with promise and invitation. I felt an inner fainting, a falling away of resistances: the desire for physical contact with another human being began to rage like a headache about my mind, drowning out the sound of other thoughts and finally gathering to itself such shape and purpose that it felt like a great horn protruding from my forehead. With so little about me that I knew, I was virtually unpoliced; and it was in this strange savagery that I began to touch myself in front of the mirror, while the dim protests of my more civilized self went unheeded.
I love this passage, this moment, the way it is expressed. The unmined tract of personality, as if the self is a territory, that we have an undeniable right to it, unpoliced; desire that can protrude from the head like a horn. We are truly feral, if we choose to be, even if we experience it only fleetingly, alone, no one else to see it.
Right now I am working a novel that takes place (at least atmospherically) in the late 1800s. It might be a kind of homage to the Victorian novel. A part of me feels terribly old-fashioned, like I am not writing a novel of today, like I am not participating in some important conversation of the now. The narrator of the novel is a young woman who, to support herself, cleans a museum, but dreams of writing about the art she sees everyday, while cleaning. She recognizes herself in the paintings and this causes her to change. I’m eternally interested in things that do this, that cause a shift, however big or small, in who we are, or at least help us see ourselves more clearly, or at least help us think we see ourselves clearly. Is it possible to see our selves as we really are?
If there is a way that technology/social media/the Internet is shifting the borders of the self (or is the self just filtered through it?) maybe by writing a book set in the past I am trying to escape that shifting, escape the distracted person I now am, if I believe that this part of myself can ever truly be escaped. Or maybe it’s a way to attempt to see this kind of present through a lens of the past, to put our “now” next to what we might have once been. I don’t think my characters escape their own ways of being contemporary, for example, even in that 1800s I’ve set them in. Are they still somehow in relationship to the Internet just because I so heavily, sometimes regretfully, am? Maybe I am drawn to that search for the self which many novels of that time seem to mine, mirrored in a landscape or supernatural presence.
I have become a very distracted person. I admit that I look quite a lot at Twitter when I am writing, for instance. I don’t know if my work has suffered because of this, or is simply different than it would have been without these kinds of interruptions. It’s strange how in touch you can be with other writers and readers as you work, if you choose that, at any point in the day (late at night all of the people I follow from England, and Scotland, and India, and the Middle East, and New Zealand, for example, start to come online). What does it mean to be so frequently in a literary conversation, and if not in conversation oneself, then watching it unfold between other writers and readers, or simply retweeting it, broadcasting it to the people who follow you? What does it mean to be so in conversation while writing? Of course it is possible that most writers do not look at Twitter as frequently as I do while writing, are not even on Twitter for that matter. Other writers are healthier than I am.
Then there are the booksellers, editors, reviewers, and agents on Twitter, and it is possible to chat with them too, while writing, and this is also interesting. I haven’t at this point felt it as a bad thing, but I wonder if it does make me more aware of the literary market. There is obviously something “professional” happening here, and yet a true love of books often seems to drive the conversations I see or am a part of. I am not a master tweeter myself; in fact, I sometimes feel a bit invisible on Twitter. Many of the people I follow are razor sharp in a way that I am not. It isn’t my talent and I don’t mind admitting this. Still, I find enjoyment in it. I like the conversations I have. I like the company.
But Twitter is not the only way I distract myself from my novel on the Internet. I look regularly at literary web sites and magazines. And then there is my correspondence with other writers, though I see that as fundamentally different from talking on social media, unwitnessed as it is, writing only for the other, intimate, my close kindreds. These conversations help me to write more than they distract me from it. When I wrote my first book, this email correspondence was all I had. When I wrote my second book, I did sometimes spend time online while writing, though I had not yet joined things like Twitter, and my daily conversations were sometimes about literature, but many of them were not.
Now that I am working on my novel, these social media conversations are with me almost every day. Am I inadvertently suffusing my novel with them? Even if I enjoy them, even if they keep me company? Except for this thinking through I am doing now, I can’t imagine wanting to bring the Internet, social media, email, cell phones, digital literary culture into my novel. I don’t want it to be my subject; I’m not interested in it in that kind of way. Which doesn’t mean I’m not interested in work that does take it up, however lightly or fully; it always, always depends on how something is done, in the taking up itself. When Bhanu Kapil writes in Ban en Banlieue “I printed out the pages from my blog” something alchemical happens. “My fingertip was like an animal, sensing with its delicate, representative snout.” The self in those blog pages and also in the fingertip. Composed. Feral.
Is the self what we’ve lived through, what we’ve felt and thought? Is it what we’ve gone towards, or what we haven’t gone towards but have instead intensely imagined? Is it what we have written? I think the self is everything that flows through us — thoughts, impressions, emotions, states of being — that we are mediums for life, for experience, while we are here. But none of it stays, none of it is the self in any kind of permanent/total way. If I am afraid I am not fear, and yet fear marks me, marks who I am, how I live. But so does great happiness.
What has the self been in literature? It is of course too big a question. It has been unstable. There is a scene from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway that I think about from time to time, that I see in my mind. It is Clarissa, gazing out of her bedroom window before her party begins. In my memory this scene takes place during the party, that she takes a break from it, a moment of quiet in which to think in the midst of all those people. Maybe that’s because it’s something I myself have always done, taken a break at parties. But my memory is wrong.
Big Ben struck the half-hour. How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching, to see the old lady (they had been neighbors ever so many years) move away from the window, as if she were attached to that sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her. Down, down, into the midst of ordinary things the finger fell making the moment solemn. She was forced, so Clarissa imagined, by that sound, to move, to go — but where? Clarissa tried to follow her as she turned and disappeared, and could still just see her white cap moving at the back of the bedroom.
To be that old woman, watched tenderly by chance, in that simple, private moment. What is revealed in it? To be Clarissa Dalloway seeing her neighbor pulled away from the window by the sound of the clock. Clarissa is alone too. It is the reader who sees her. And the reader, coming from this other time. 2015. What does the reader see? I think of Kapil’s fingertip, the clock’s finger of sound. To truly see another. To be seen. I think that is when we feel most loved, close to someone. Maybe I am going too far but when Clarissa looks at the old woman I think she is seeing her own self. Not in the other woman. In herself seeing another. In her time alone.
In the novel I’m working on the narrator thinks about who she is, who she is becoming: “I both liked and disliked going to work. When I was supposed to be cleaning I would look out of the windows of the museum, the paintings behind me reflected in the glass. It meant something to me to see myself with them. Never before had I thought paintings would be important. I was learning how to be another. I would stand in front of the window for a long time, a bucket of water by my side. I watched the rain falling on the grass; at first, I hadn’t even known it was raining.”
To see oneself come together with something else, lightly or very seriously. A painting, a book, another person, a landscape, a hidden part of our own self. To love someone and then not love them; if it is not heartbreaking, it can be interesting. Does the change come from the self, or from somewhere else, in the space between? It is so hard to know. What part of the self browses the Internet? What is that self trying to get to? I feel dumb asking these questions.
I don’t think it has to be narcissistic to wonder who you are. And yet I think so many of us are terrible narcissists; we think about ourselves constantly. Technology helps us do this. Online, we post about ourselves without end, and then we re-post, re-tweet. The monstrous self, curated even, chosen, performed. Luckily, we are never only one thing.
Amina Cain the author most recently of a book of short stories called CREATURE (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013). Her stories and essays have appeared in publications such as n+1, Two Serious Ladies, BOMB, Puerto del Sol and The Paris Review Daily.
llustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.