Jackie Wang writes a letter to Dodie Bellamy, the author of the buddhist.
dodie, i want to do an epistolary review because i’ve been so clogged lately. it isn’t the same thing as writer’s block. my mind is always reeling—there is so much to be said, especially after reading your book. i just feel like i can’t be loose anymore, uninhibited, whatever. i feel always on the verge of some release but then i pull out . . . i can’t go there . . . don’t know why. so i thought if i wrote you, i could have an excuse to be a little more informal, a little more personal. plus, it’s fitting . . . since the buddhist is a performative writing endeavor that merges lived-life and the word. i don’t find things that excise the “personal” voice to be compelling. the feigned distance. that’s why i liked the buddhist so much. i want to say it’s “vulnerable,” but that makes it sound like i mean weak, and i do not mean weak. i mean an unapologetic TRUST in your emotions . . . at least enough to let yourself live in it and through it and with it.
lately i’ve been repeating to myself: my suffering is not profound. and it drives me to total silence. in my silence i have absolutely no power—that silence rules every aspect of life. using language becomes wrought with so much doubt that it is impossible to articulate anything. i think about how you could have DOUBTED yourself, but you didn’t. you didn’t negate your suffering or write it off as petty, and in the end you created a document that IS totally profound. but not in an obnoxious grandiloquent way—yours is both wild and “everyday” . . . smart, tender, creepy, passionate and bitchy in the best possible way . . . a “fuck-your-bullshit” kind of way.
a little while ago bhanu wrote on her blog, "I have to make enough room for a person to go a little wild, in the first stages of a process . . . . " i think about how the BLOG became your space to go wild (perhaps because it’s not Real Writing, as you wrote). the blog format ended up giving the BOOK a special quality—it’s immediate and has a real-life temporal progression marked by shifts in emotion and fake out endings. even though i was following your blog, reading the book was still really special and a totally different experience.
the buddhist fits in nicely alongside obsessive, performative works such as i love dick by chris kraus. when i was interviewing chris once, she told me that some people were pitying in their responses to the book, as if she was a pathetic, self-deprecating hag who just wanted sympathy. but really—she thought the whole thing was kind of hilarious and was (dis)owning her experience by publishing a book about her infatuation. those who respond with pity toward these unguarded explorations of failure are oblivious to the philosophical weight of such endeavors. i think the “pity” response is another way people try to deflate the power derived from resisting the injunction to suffer your rejection in isolation. i’m only 23 but i’ve always had a huge fondness for raging, sexually candid, unapologetic “hags”—or the “aging diva,” as you’ve said on your blog. i think of robert mapplethorpe’s portrait of louise bourgeois holding a giant lumpy latex phallus. the gorilla fur jacket, the mischievous smirk on her face—the picture is perfect. of course MoMA cropped the portrait so you couldn’t see the phallus sculpture. people couldn’t handle seeing an older woman holding a giant dick while smiling. it lessens the power of the phallus. it is a threat.
this book is a threat. it’s all about the undoing of the power of SHAME. when you have to live with it in silence, shame has the power to eat you up and destroy you. shame has a pact with secrecy because shame derives its power to humiliate from the command that everything be kept hidden. there’s a lot that we’re supposed to feel ashamed about—our unorthodox desires, our emotional excessiveness. but shame’s power is deflated when the veil is lifted and we realize that this shame we’ve internalized is kept out of the public because it makes other people feel uncomfortable by disrupting their normative attitudes, because it opens up the possibility for collective power through the naming of our suffering and sharing of experiences. it’s like you wrote:
“This whole business of women not suffering in public, of having a gag order when it comes to personal drama, such as a break up, connects of course back to larger histories of suppression, such as the literature of victimization, women not daring to speak of rape or incest (and I’m in no way suggesting that my current situation is in any way comparable to those violations), a harkening back to the whole notion that domestic space is private, what happens behind closed doors stays behind closed doors, and somewhere buried in there is the history of the wife being owned by her man and therefore she better keep her trap shut, and bourgeois notions of suffering with dignity—or dignity itself, how oppressive a value is that? Betrayal happens in private (usually), thus betrayal is less of a bourgeois sin than talking about it.”
suffering in isolation can fucking destroy you. i think there is a lot to be said about the strategy of turning pain into an object as a way to move through and beyond that pain—pushing it out and into the world in the form of something to be shared. i know people tend to be cynical about what approaches “therapeutic art,” but such a perspective assumes that art that takes personal suffering as its object of inspiration is solely about the healing of the Self rather than the transformation of something personal into something social. i see power in the process of externalizing pain so that it enters the social. this passage from the book the body in pain by elaine scarry seems particularly relevant, especially if we substitute “writing” for “work”:
“Work and its ‘work’ (or work and its object, its artifact) are the names that are given to the phenomena of pain and the imagination as they begin to move from being a self-contained loop within the body to becoming the equivalent loop now projected into the external world. It is through this movement out into the world that the extreme privacy of the occurrence (both pain and imagining are invisible to anyone outside the boundaries of the person’s body) begins to be sharable, that sentience becomes social . . . . ”
i am also reminded of the work of sophie calle, who is kind of known for compulsively turning her life’s suffering into art. tragedy, rejection, memory, and failure are the subjects of her works: she creates a film out of the ruins of a brief marriage gone sour, has people analyze a break-up letter to turn into an art book, tries (and fails) to capture the moment of her mother’s death on film. as in your book, even the gesture of loving itself becomes communal. rather than holing yourself up and letting the pain dwell in your body and rot your insides—the pain is used to generate something meaningful rather than merely being suffered in vain. in many ways, the externalized personal voice makes singularly felt pain about something other than the Self, something beyond the subject who is speaking.
elaine scarry has something to say about this too:
“To be more precise, one can say that pain only becomes an intentional state once it is brought into relation with the objectifying power of the imagination: through that relation, pain will be transformed from a wholly passive and helpless occurrence into a self-modifying and, when most successful, self-eliminating one.”
judith butler writes about this in the afterward to an anthology called the politics of mourning:
“Indeed, the voice of each might be said to survive the author, but not in a way that extends that authorship. Indeed, authorship is wrecked through its appropriation, and it is the strange fecundity of that wreckage that I am trying to address here.”
i love the phrase “the strange fecundity of that wreckage.”
perhaps this is also related to the part where you write:
“Writing about the buddhist here has been public display, of course, but it’s been a public display of trying to figure something out, I’m not sure what it was—but it’s been compelling to me—something about desire, obviously, and the trajectory of mourning—but also about boundaries, about secret/public, about embodiment and meaning, and the frailty of the ego, about the embarrassment and shame of being left or rejected, about pushing myself into ever uncomfortable spaces in writing. I’m not talking about my life here because it’s particularly interesting, it’s more like the whole ‘push the personal until it’s universal’ cliché, though of course nothing is ever universal.”
i think something should be said about the recurring combination of “spiritual gurus” who are also psychopathic. not that all buddhists are manipulators . . . but i do wonder if maybe there is a type of control-obsessed person who is drawn to the idea of spiritual mastery. i wonder about soft masculinity, too . . . the way “kindness,” sensitivity, and spirituality are subtly deployed in power games. it reminds me of this ridiculous poem i wrote about jesus-as-an-asshole-boyfriend.
in an interview you did recently for the “what is experimental literature” series on HTMLGIANT you said: “For writing to be alive it needs to look at what’s consciously or unconsciously occluded from the now. Transgression in art isn’t necessarily about finding a weird pocket of extremity. It’s about shedding light on what’s all around us that nobody dares look at.” YES—transgression is not about extremity but about confronting what is hidden, discarded, silenced, or removed—what people are too afraid, embarrassed, or uncomfortable to look at. it reminds me of the c.a. conrad poem “she said shit should never come up in a poem.” he writes: “how did shit get such a bad name? why is shit everybody’s dirty little secret?” i am also reminded of eileen myles’s commitment to writing a messy, failed femininity. i think of the phrases you use—such as “oppositional weakness,” “emotional porn,” “operatic suffering,” and “embracing the fucked-upness”—as strategies for exploring the territory of failure and abjection. i loved how you went back and “unwrote” the polite and glossy ending to the book, returning to the messy carnage of abandoned love and paying tribute to the insatiable, overflowing CUNT.
this is going to be a funny review. it’s not really a synopsis at all—it’s a response . . . the associations and ideas that were aroused (hehe) by your work.
the buddhist is available from Publication Studio.
Jackie Wang is a Baltimore and Florida-based writer, artist, and musician. Her writings on literature, art, film, music, theory, politics, and culture can be read at serbianballerinasdancewithmachineguns.com. Her work often uses a hybridized style that combines criticism and memoir.