Reading Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door, I was initially reminded of all the clubs I went to in the late 80s, early 90s, and all the records I listened to: new wave, soul, house. The prose has the same intense energy of all that music. I can feel the sweat, the lights burning my skin, the dizzy feeling that overcomes you when you’re out of control and moving to the beat; you’re rubbing against the skin of strangers, thinking about love, everyone is alive and you’re caught up in the swirl of the sounds and the lights. Sycamore writes: “But then there’s dancing. The way my body can spread out into the whole room. No, it’s not my body, it’s joy. This joy through music. This joy through the music in my body, my body in the room the room in my body and flying, that’s what it feels like, if flying is my body giving way.”
But it’s also a book about loneliness and alienation and about looking for love in all the wrong places. It’s about the search for sexual release and belonging, about relationships that have the possibility of lasting, and the eventual let down caused by a sense of not being accepted, even in the gay community. It’s about the problem of representation:
The meanings of queer and trans are constantly shifting — this is part of the allure. At once identities that declare an end to borders, and identities that constantly build walls, challenging enough to derail conversations and at the same time empty enough to use in the name of a TV show or nonprofit. One problem with the politics of representation is that often it’s about who is represented, but not what.
The gay world has betrayed those who sought its acceptance. It has adopted the structures and attitudes of the straight world; gays can marry, adopt children, live in gated, largely white, communities: “It’s obvious that a gated community is a graveyard. A graveyard has gates, to protect the dead from the living.” There is no danger, no fuel to start any fire in the body, in the heart. No chance for a queen to find love in such a closed off, hierarchical, and militaristic world. Trump wanted to build a wall at the border; the rich want fences around their houses. For Sycamore, “the dream of urban living has always meant a density of experience, that random moment on the street that changes you.” She continues:
But now, when people say increasing the density, they mean building more luxury housing for new arrivals who only want an urban lifestyle with a walled-off suburban mentality – keep away difference, avoid unplanned interaction, don’t talk to anyone on the street because this might be dangerous.
The order of things is maintained by erasure, destruction, induced lack of memory, detention, punishment; the State asserts its dominance over those rendered invisible by the use of violence; and it’s violence against the migrant, against the faggot, against women, against children, against non-white men and women, against animals, against the planet as a whole i.e. against those whose gestures and appearance are not socially accepted and considered inferior. Remember that the Nazis destroyed modern art in order to produce images that conformed to their ideology; paintings of bucolic scenes, with healthy and strong heterosexual women and men maintained their idea of the all-powerful state apparatus while the others were being tortured and killed in concentration camps.
Yet the solution is not to make gay culture more acceptable. She writes, “Whenever I hear about helping people out of the shadows, I wonder about helping people to stay in the shadows if they want to.” A queen having sexual experiences in public parks, being a hooker, or acting in porn, is repugnant to the upper middle class gay world where masculinity rules, where the corporate mindset is all that matters.
The problem is that gay culture, like straight culture, is largely structured by the norms of masculinity. Men who are faggots and queens and sissies are marginalized in gay culture and are often those who face the most violence and abuse. Gay men want the opportunity to join the military and take part in neo-colonial wars. As Sycamore noted in an interview: “There’s too much overlap between cops and gay men, I mean this in every way possible.” Sycamore is against this obsession with a masculine, militaristic mindset and all it suggests about power, the desire to dominate others, to colonize others, and to repress difference.
Sycamore realizes it’s hard to get out of this mindset. But she writes, “…masculinity can be a language too if we get rid of the language it owns. If we get rid of everything but my lips around his dick a craving. Just the way I stand up, and we’re finally making out. Just the way I’m holding his head and maybe masculinity can be pure.” Sycamore’s thinking is open and allows for possibilities; she is working to dismantle the system inside the system, and is not above challenging her own ideas if they seem to be settled or fixed.
Sycamore is critical of the dominant narratives that erase marginal histories; she imagines a different world, where “we would have more options.” Certainly, it is difficult to imagine a different world: “Unfortunately most people only believe in two kinds of history – the history that never was, and the history that will never be . . . Sometimes the violence of people allegedly trying to help is the worst kind of violence.” This present world with its structural problems, racism, xenophobia and homophobia is a world where love and true intimacy seem impossible. There is a kind of existential fear that consumes people these days. Sycamore begins the book by saying, “I remember when faggots kissed hello.” They used to when it was more dangerous to do so. What has all this safety done except make us more afraid to express ourselves. Because safety equals borders, clean streets, the erasure of difference, the status quo. The extreme polarization we are witnessing today seems to be a symptom of what is happening in personal relationships. There is a lack of connection. We fear one another. How can love survive in such a world?
We are fed stories about a mythical golden age to keep us blind to our present realities. Sycamore writes against this kind of nostalgia which is a form of violence. In recent years we have seen the publication of various books on the seventies by people like Patti Smith, or Duncan Hannah, who perpetuate this kind of myth. Sycamore writes, “Patti Smith feeds us the same tired mythology about fame as a chain of coincidences, the one that says you can just go to the Chelsea Hotel with five cents in your pocket, and then suddenly you’re a star. She feeds us that nostalgia for the glory days of a New York that never existed, the one where you fuck some guy who just stole a steak and it turns out to be Sam Shepard . . . ” What about all those artists and musicians and poets who didn’t make it big, who overdosed on drugs, or disappeared from the scene? These books give a false view of the past. But Sycamore sees that this kind of thinking about the past, though nostalgic, and false, must be dealt with in order to imagine a world of new possibilities; otherwise we repeat the mistakes of the past to the point of unconsciousness.
Instead of viewing the world as unified, singular, and bounded by walls, Sycamore proposes that it is more imaginative and revolutionary to view it as multiple, borderless, stateless, and changeable; because the territory is not the map. Sycamore identifies moments when loneliness and alienation disappear. There is a possibility of intimacy and belonging: during sex, in a club, a park, or in porn. About her sexual experiences, she writes, “Maybe this isn’t what I thought I was looking for, how to get fucked by random people in a softer way, but still it feels beautiful. It feels like there can be light in these dark rooms, a lightness in my body, and maybe I can bring this into other rooms.” She is hopeful. Sometimes, she experiences intimacy, fun, a connection, and a loss of the self in other, less complex ways:
Let’s play, I say, let’s play, and then I’m doing that thing where I kind of hum like a little kid, I mean it’s a laugh no not a laugh but a gentle sound of pleasure that means I’m here, all of me, and that’s why Adrian is kind of laughing when we’re kicking pinecones, I mean he kicks a pinecone to me because he knows I love kicking them, and then there’s that humming like I’m a little kid, and I’m free. Finally free. I’m free.
But these feelings don’t last and her sexual experiences are discontinuous. The result of which is a feeling of loneliness: “everyone keeps letting me down. This is my romantic life, my romantic life right now. I want this story to have an ending, but I also want it to have a different ending.” The world seems strange when you’re alone. She ruminates on how, in the clubs, you feel a connection when you’re drunk but then that’s not really a connection. This is what it means “to celebrate.” But the resulting desire and disgust produce self-hatred. Sycamore wonders: “Is this just true for queers, or for everyone? How a universal experience is universally impossible.”
The book is concerned with the problem of assimilation and gentrification; to resist the status quo is to be unique and to preserve yourself; since we were children, we’ve always been taught to work together, to form a group, where there is an eventual leader; this is how you first learn about hierarchy. And of course the person who is different is not allowed to maintain their identity. It must be erased in favor of the group identity. No difference will be allowed in a classroom. But there is always the possibility that this dream of queer solidarity falls into the same structural trap as any other:
How do you unwind the damage, when you’re still so damaged? Maybe I still don’t know the answer. Maybe the dream of queer is just another consumer mirage. Maybe we need to bury the dream in order to imagine something else. But how do you bury a dream, without burying yourself?
The problem is language. Standardized language is the language of the dictator, the colonialist, and of Literature; in The Freezer Door, it is freer, uninhibited, intimate, non-linear, and anti-literary. The language is vibrant, pulsating, and provocative. It is thought embodied in language; it is as if the reader is experiencing the birth of her thought as it happens on the page, like when you’re talking to someone, say, in an afterhours place, or at home, after a night out in the clubs.
Towards the end of the book, Sycamore writes, “When I was a kid, adults would lean down to say: You’re so idealistic. Like this was only something a child could be – you’ll grow out of it, they told me. The problem is that most people do.” This is so true. I often think about how teenagers often keep journals, think about love, and about their feelings, and are inclined to write and read poetry. This is the idealism of those years. Often, these same people go to college, to study business or computer programming, and forget about that idealistic world in the pursuit of profit, as they marry and have children. This is the script. And it’s so ingrained in one’s mind that few are able to fight it. If you step out of this structure, you face persecution, abuse, poverty; and the world becomes dangerous and your life precarious. Sycamore found that there was even persecution in the gay world, in alternative spaces. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s The Freezer Door is an important book because it challenges our assumptions about the world, and in doing so, gives us hope that an alternative might be possible. When reading her book, I can almost see it before my eyes; I know that world is in front of me all the time, just on the edge of visibility. It’s books like these that ultimately help us to see clearly.
Peter Valente is a writer, translator and filmmaker. He is the author of eleven full-length books, including a translation of Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Commune Editions, 2017), which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. His most recent book is a co-translation of Succubations and Incubations: The Selected Letters of Antonin Artaud 1945-1947 (Infinity Land Press, 2020). Forthcoming is a book of essays, Essays on the Peripheries (Punctum Books, 2021), and his translation of Nicolas Pages by Guillaume Dustan (Semiotext(e), 2022). Twenty-four of his short films have been shown at Anthology Film Archives. He is presently working on editing a book on the filmmaker Harry Smith.