As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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I spent part of January with the paramour. I think this was the closest we’ve been. We were together for a week, almost all the time. But as soon as I got back to New York, I got a disconcerting message with the unoriginal observation: “I love you but I’m not in love with you.” Believe it or not, he’d written me this line exactly about a year before. It was really irritating. We’d managed to bungle through the first time, but this is not the kind of message you want to receive twice. My lover generously appended a list of reasons I would make an excellent life partner, and yet despite all these “advantages,” it seems that doubt lingered. I was a little too polite to point out all the potential disadvantages, from my own perspective, of our being together, including, among other things, the wrath of the ETA and Homeland Security. Oh, and there was also the little inconvenience that we lived on different continents.
Since we do live so far apart, our love affair has mostly been constituted by e-mail exchanges. At times, our obsession with this process has seemed entirely mutual. At other times the paramour seems to get distracted. My dedication has been unflagging. It’s partly fueled, I’m embarrassed to say, by the vain and yet stubborn belief that my overly informative and yet occasionally insightful missives might be feeding the creative process of a genius. I’m probably entirely mistaken.
I think I can honestly say that I am a woman of extreme moderation. Some people find this attractive. I am neither old nor young. I’m good-looking but not remarkably so. I’m a professional writer—which is to say I make a living as a freelance journalist, and I plug away half-seriously at my poems and, as you can see, the occasional work of fiction. I am a sensitive, intuitive critic, but my own voice has a certain Midwestern flatness about it. Perhaps you’ve already noticed that.
I’d love to convince myself that my politics are radical, but I’m afraid a more cynical observer might label me a garden-variety guilt-ridden white liberal. I’m aware of my complicity in the quagmire of global politics. In an attempt to make amends, I give a significant portion of my income to progressive charitable organizations and microfinance projects. I sew most of my own clothes, or buy them secondhand. I compost. You get the picture.
I am a very dedicated friend and correspondent. Actually, that’s probably my real talent. I’m what you might call a correspondence artist.
JANUARY 23, 2008, 0:42
I FORGOT TO THANK YOU FOR THE LIST OF MY “ADVANTAGES;” FOR SAYING THAT I’M SMART AND MY BODY IS BEAUTIFUL. THANK YOU. BUT WHEN I SAID YOU SHOULD LOVE ME, THAT WASN’T WHY. YOU SHOULD LOVE ME FOR MY PECULIARITIES—FOR BEING STRANGE, AS I LOVE YOU FOR YOUR STRANGENESS. YOU’RE VERY STRANGE.
I DIDN’T WRITE ANYTHING ABOUT THE TODD HAYNES FILM, OR THAT ARTICLE IN THE NLR, OR PABLO’S PARTY, OR THE CIGARS, OR KURT WEILL. STOP PLAYING THIS ANNOYING GAME OF FORT/DA!
That was an unusually blunt message for me to send. I think it signaled the beginning of the end. Or maybe the end began well before that. It seems clear that if I’m going to tell this story, this is the moment at which I need to tell you about the paramour. But for obvious reasons, this is a complicated proposition—in fact, more complicated than you might think. Fame contaminates things. There are people who stand to profit from the most trivial information about my lover, and other people who stand to lose. So let’s pretend it’s the legendary Basque separatist, Santutxo Etxeberria, also known by his alias from his more notorious activist days, the Arrano Beltza (the “black eagle”), or increasingly, since his falling out with the ETA, Txotxolo (“the dumb ass”). He prefers the latter.
“Wait,” you’ll say. “I thought you said the paramour was an artist.” But he is. Santutxo is one of the few revolutionaries who raised the struggle to an art form. Well, of course, he once would have said that all revolutionary acts are works of art, but even in his youth he secretly knew that that was mostly puffed-up rhetoric, and if pressed, he’d confess that every struggle produced an enormous dung heap of bad poetry. Santutxo was another story. He is completely lyrical.
I came to know of him, as most people do, through his blog. There was a link from the official site of the EZLN. They’ve since taken it down.
When Santutxo got my abbreviated response, he wrote back asking what “fort/da” meant. I would have thought he’d have heard about this from his shrink.
Don’t tell me it surprises you that the paramour sees a Lacanian psychoanalyst.
Forgive me if you find this basic knowledge, but given that it had slipped even the memory of my erudite friend, maybe I should remind you: Freud tells the story in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of a little boy who’s always throwing his toys into the corner and under the bed. He’s a nice kid but this habit is a little inconvenient. Then one day Freud watches him playing with a spool. The kid tosses it away and shouts, “fort!,” which means “gone!” Then he reels the spool back and says, “da!,” which means “there!” And Freud figures out that this is repetition compulsion: the kid is rehearsing the big thing he’s learned to do, which is to separate from his mother.
So, you see, my message to Santutxo was not particularly subtle. It was kind of Freud with a mallet. When I reminded him of the story, he seemed vaguely disgruntled, but he said he got it. It was, I must confess, a pretty self-congratulatory interpretation of his pattern of pulling me close and then pushing me away. At the time, I basically believed that this was true—that he was compulsively rehearsing our separations so he could imagine himself to be in control of them. Of course I figured these separations were also replaying some trauma that well predated me. But at this point I’m starting to take his rejections a little more seriously. I think they may be personal.
I don’t know if he took this up with his analyst. I suspect not. I have a funny feeling he’s pretty selective about what he tells his shrink. And you know, appointments with Lacanians are famously short. I’d love for her to read this manuscript. But obviously, that would tell her a lot more about my own neuroses than Santutxo’s.
She’s already got her hands full with him. When I wrote, “You’re very strange,” I wasn’t exaggerating. Of course, what would you expect? Pick your primal scene. He’s seen a lot of things nobody should see. His father’s bloodied mug with a black hole where his teeth used to be. His own bruised, charred, punctured, zapped, and slashed limbs, first at the hands of GAL, and later the ETA. Here’s a shocker: Santutxo’s afraid of dying.
You know, Jacques Lacan had a very interesting way of explaining the repetition compulsion, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to an e-mail from Santutxo that once got trapped in my spam filter (you know, that mechanism that attempts to sift out those pornographic penis-enlargement ads we all get on occasion). I’m referring to the famous “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter.’” In this essay, Lacan analyses a story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the story, which is narrated by an unnamed friend of the private investigator, Dupin, who unravels the mystery, the Queen is nearly caught reading a clandestine letter from her lover. The King walks in and she decides that the best way to hide it is to leave it lying, face down, right out in the open. The King is a little slow so this goes right past him. But the tricky Minister walks in, and he sees right away what’s up. So he nonchalantly lays a similar looking letter right next to the Queen’s, then coughs or makes some other distracting noise, I don’t remember exactly, and picks up the incriminating document and walks out. He holds onto this letter for a long time, and uses it to harass and politically intimidate the Queen. She gets the cops to search his house when he’s not there, and they look in all the most crafty, secret places, to no avail. That’s when they call in this Dupin character, who’s interested in the reward, but also harbors some resentment toward the Minister. He goes for an ostensibly friendly visit, and right away figures out that the Minister is playing the Queen’s game: the letter’s right out in the open, just a little crumpled and refolded with a new address. So Dupin returns the next day, producing a crumpled letter of his own. He creates some distraction, and does the Minister’s switcheroo. Dupin leaves a humiliating little message on his decoy letter for the evil Minister. He gets the reward, and the Queen gets her letter back.
Lacan points out that the Minister is compulsively repeating the Queen’s action. His interpretation of this is fairly complicated. It has to do with the way in which the subject is constituted by the symbolic order. Really, it doesn’t matter who fills that role—somebody has to. The implications are fairly distressing. You think you’re writing your own plot, but you’re really just getting plugged into a signifying chain. And Lacan asks, “And is it not such effects which justify our referring, without malice, to a number of imaginary heroes as real characters?”
Lacan ends the seminar with the famous and perplexing statement, “a letter always arrives at its destination.” A lot of people have weighed in about what this means. It’s obviously nothing so simple as saying the Queen got her letter back and things always go this smoothly. Most people think it means that when we get plugged into that signifying chain, it doesn’t really matter if we’re in the “wrong” place—we’re just playing out our neurotic destiny. Jacques Derrida took issue with that last line, though. He liked the idea of the possibility of letters getting lost in the mail. That is, language that would get detached from a singular, true “meaning.” But Slavoj Žižek said Derrida didn’t get the point: it wasn’t that all letters got where they were “supposed” to go. He said a message in a bottle arrives at its destination the moment it’s thrown into the sea.
MAY 17, 2005, 10:56
SUBJECT: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
I’M SORRY THAT YOU LOST TWO MESSAGES THAT YOU WROTE TO ME, BUT I KIND OF LIKE THE IDEA OF THEM HAVING EXISTED WITHOUT MY HAVING READ THEM. I THINK THIS IS PART OF WHAT I LIKE ABOUT E-MAIL. IT FEELS LIKE A MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE THAT MIGHT GET SWALLOWED UP IN THE ETHER. IT’S SO ABSTRACT.
That was a message from very early in our correspondence. Obviously, there had been some problem with Santutxo’s server. He said he’d composed two long and carefully drafted messages, but somehow they got lost before he could send them. That had also happened to me before. As I said in my message, I kind of like that about e-mail.
When I got the very first e-mail from Santutxo, I wasn’t sure I could believe it was from him. One of the things that seemed weird was that he had a Yahoo! account. On the other hand, what should I have expected? His own address at arranobeltza.com? Obviously I can’t publish his e-mail address, but it’s a kind of lame joke involving one of his aliases. Because he opens up the Yahoo! page to check his e-mail, he often reads the Yahoo! news. Every time he mentions something he’s read there, he refers to it as Yahoo!, with the exclamation point. You can see why this all seems kind of funny, coming from an iconic revolutionary figure. He seems to take seriously the news flashes he reads on the Yahoo! homepage. Sometimes they’ll prompt him to ask me for an update on political events unfolding here. He also displays a surprising curiosity about pop culture items. He says that Cameron Diaz seems like an interesting person.
So in a way, it would seem that Santutxo’s use of the Internet for personal correspondence and general websurfing is like the average person’s. But every once in a while, one or the other of us gets a little paranoid about who might be looking in. These days, of course, he’s not planning any violent actions. Excommunicated from the ETA, even his broadcast political missives are what you might call ex-communiqués. Swerving unpredictably from the radical to the reactionary, nobody actually thinks they’ll come to any material end.
But I promised to tell you about that spam-trapped e-mail: the most significant glitch in our correspondence—the dead letter that almost left me dead as well. You may think I’m exaggerating.
I honestly didn’t even know I had a filter. I get plenty of spam, and I’d sent and received any number of e-mails with naughty bits in them. The filter seems to be arbitrary, and weirdly selective. That’s why when this happened, I really didn’t have a clue. It never occurred to me that somebody could be sending me important information and it could get caught in that net. The filter, I later learned, traps suspect messages for a period of a week, and then automatically and permanently deletes them. (You can pause here to think about Lacan, Derrida, and Žižek, or not, as you please.)
It was during a period when Santutxo had begun to suspect that he was being followed again. He wasn’t sure by whom. His one ally in the justice department swore he knew nothing about the government’s involvement, and the ETA hadn’t seemed to be paying too much attention recently. Still, there were some disturbing signs: objects on his desk that appeared to have been tampered with, a cigarette butt left mysteriously in his toilet, a creepy guy who was hanging out at a lot across the street. He mentioned these things to me, but Santutxo’s neurotic. He also mentioned a lot of medical “symptoms” that sounded pretty benign to me.
We were making plans for a visit. Even though I thought he was exaggerating the risk, I decided to give in to his suggestion that we meet this time not at his place in Donostia, but at a safe house about an hour out of town. It was a farmhouse owned by a friend of a friend—obviously, I’m not at liberty to disclose much more than that. Let’s just say it was a “strange bedfellow.”
When my plane landed in Barcelona, I checked my BlackBerry for messages. There was a bit of Socialist Party listserve spam, something vaguely irritating from my editor, and two short messages from my best friend, Florence, asking me about when she should check in on my son, Sandro, and if I was wearing the black thigh-high stockings she’d given me for my tryst at the farmhouse (Florence is the soul of discretion). Nothing from Santutxo. Everything appeared to be on track.
I found a driver willing to take me out to the safe house. Of course, I didn’t call it that. He seemed a little surprised that somebody like me would be headed in that direction, but a fare’s a fare. I swung my satchel into the back seat and we were off. When we got to the farmhouse, he asked me if I wanted him to see me to the door. It was already starting to get dark, and this was, as you can imagine, a pretty remote location. I knew Santutxo was feeling paranoid, so I said no and then stood there by the road waving, gesturing to him that it was okay to go. Finally he drove off.
Little sticks crunched under my feet as I made my way to the farmhouse. It was chilly out. The door was slightly ajar and there was a dim light emanating from within. I pushed it with my fingertips. My heart was beating pretty hard. I couldn’t wait to have Santutxo’s swollen cock pressed up against my body once again. But before I knew what had happened, a scabrous guy with a shaved head and a pierced lip was wrenching both my arms behind my back, breathing into my neck, and an enormous red-haired woman with a mohawk was sneering at me in derision, calling me, mockingly, the Txotxolo’s little andragai (girlfriend). She had a pistol. I thought I could even smell it.
As I said, I never saw the message that Santutxo had sent. But later he told me the content, and a little about the specific turn of phrase that may have activated the despamming mechanism. Just before he left to ready the safe house for my arrival, he got a tip that there would be trouble. He immediately booked me a room in a Barcelona dive hotel, and then wrote to tell me not to make the trip out to the country. He relayed the name and location of the hotel, and told me to stay there until he sent further word. His message ended: “And even if I can’t be stroking your pussy tonight—as we planned, I’ll figure out a way to get to your hotel in Barcelona. I am getting a very hard wood just thinking about it.”
I had recently taught Santutxo the English expression “morning wood,” which he found very charming and poetic. I told him we also said, somewhat less poetically, “woody” to refer to any masculine erection. He seemed to have confused the terms. I don’t think, however, it was Santutxo’s erection which set off the spam filter. I think it was my pussy.
Barbara Browning has a PhD in comparative literature from Yale. She teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU. She’s also a poet and a dancer. She lives with her son in Greenwich Village. Her first novel, The Correspondence Artist, is to be published by Two Dollar Radio in February 2011.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.