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Archive for the ‘hell’ Category

at the gates

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Even those of them who were believers are still surprised upon landing in the queue. After all, one of the main things about hell is that everyone who gets there is surprised that it has happened. If any one of them had been absolutely confident that this fate awaited them after their deaths, they (obviously) would have acted differently, lived more prudently, treated those around them and themselves better. Hell, for the hell-bound, is a story that they each believed only in the way that we all “believe” in fairy-tales or novels, whose morals and messages are true in many senses but never, to our minds, true in the literal sense.

But here it is, there they are, and this is what it feels like for them once they are there. For each of them it is, of course, a bit different. But in other important senses every moment is, for each of them, exactly the same.

Of course it is overwhelming. Just a moment ago many of them were dying in a hospital, while others were driving their cars or sleeping in bed. A stray subset were taking aim at the enemy or drunkenly walking home along a busy road or robbing a small grocery store or strapped into an electric chair. Earthquakes swell the lines, as do campaigns of aerial bombardment and well-coordinated terrorist attacks. And now they are here.

One might think that their first reaction to their arrival would be to doubt the reality of the situation – to attempt to press what is now their only and final situation into a effervescence of a dream, the passing mental tangle of a bad night’s somnolent screenplay. But somehow, none do. The ordinary and binding logic of everyday earthly phenomenology is non-binding in hell, and somehow those perceptions and experiences that on earth we can distance through doubt they quite simply cannot. Whether the mechanism in question that makes this so is biochemical or architectural, electronic or what we might here on earth call magical, makes no difference. There simply is no relief to be had via the usual human means of self-relief through distancing and dissociation. None of that “Wow – this is just like a bad science-fiction movie” or “Fucking christ, this can’t be happening” works down there, here, below.

So what does it look like, this place where they abruptly find themselves? Through the ages, the décor has changed, and in fact for most of history there had to be several separate entrances for the damned of different places and stations in life: the hellmouth of a French king during the early eighteenth century had by course to differ from that provisioned to a particularly sadistic Balinese chieftain from the same time, just so that it would be properly understood to be what it was. If Dante had actually had an experience of hell before he wrote about it, rather than simply fantasized it in service of the young girl he lusted after, he would likely have been granted access only to the portal available to the Florentine nobility and their immediate subordinates, rather than the universal passo che non lasciò mai persona viva that he writes about in the Inferno.

My guess is, given who Dante was and what he was up to, he found this out for himself soon enough.

But latterly, due to the increasing and unprecedented standardization of human experience, efficiencies have become possible. As you might expect, as you’ve been told in countless of the more sophisticated novels and movies and even gnomic if modern everyday metaphors centered on the topic, the current design is most reminiscent of the bureaucratically-organized space, closest perhaps to a particularly grim airport jetway at a provincial airport well past-due for renovation.

Those who were philanderers on earth still can’t help themselves but search the line in front of them for likely targets and possible acquisitions, just as the enviable and covetous alike still can’t help themselves but size up the probable wealth and success of those around them as registered in the way that they are dressed or act or just generally hold themselves as they slowly pace toward their punishment to come.

When the moment arrives when they are stripped of their garments, which is about three-quarters of their way down the passageway, and each is revealed in their infernal corporeal reality – flesh pustulantly swollen in the places where its not sagging, desiccated and patchy hair, a skeletal thinness holding it all together, oozing sores where pores once invisibly dotted the skin – they, each of them, still can’t help but furtively and then less furtively stare at the sexual parts, the real nakedness, of those standing nearest them in the queue. In death as they would have been as children, the sight of the normally unseen, that which is revealed only on special occasions and has often meant love, greets them with a double beat of the heart, a second and then a third look, as horrible as what they’re actually seeing is. They even think, most if not all of them, of which of their hellfellows they might have seduced and those who would have attempted to seduce them in turn. They evaluate, and almost to a one they imagine themselves to be – that they would have been – at the top of the sexual pecking order, were they otherwise and elsewhere than in the giant line that leads to damnation.

And so it goes, for those invested in other forms of earthly pride – and most in this queue are invested in more than one. Despite the viscerally disgusting nakedness around them, and the fact that the game, all the games, seem to be up once and for all and they have finally lost, the wealthy search for signs of relative poverty, the intelligent for stupidity, the violent for weakness, the once-popular for signs of awkward unsociability, and so on.

A minority of the damned who are very literate – though there are more of these than you might have thought – think of Kafka’s parable “Before the Law.” Some percentage of those that do even recall, word for word, the doorkeeper’s final utterance in that text: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” Of course, they don’t all remember it in English but in the language in which they read it, generally their own language. Others of the same group think the phrase non serviam over and over again, like a mantra, but with in each case deep ambivalence, ambiguous effect.

Almost all of them, literate or not, wonder at various points whether this line is in fact hell – whether there really is an end at all. Cleverly, cynically, they try to guess at the joke in store for them, the joke that is hell. A large percentage actually have the phrase “I’ve seen this movie before!” run through their minds. An infinity spent standing in line amongst moldering bodies and their reek, a queue that never quite ends, how appropriate this would be! The perfect hell for a hellish modern world!

But they are wrong, all of these, almost all of those who are in the line. Eventually, after hours or months – the time goes by differently here – they turn yet another of the jetway-style turns and discover, in fact, that they can see the end. It is a dark yawning mouth, and you cannot see what happens to those who pass through it but the sense that you have is that people are falling off into some sort of abyss. There are signs of struggle that can be seen from far away, as far as the final turn. It seems, from what they can tell, that people resist at the end – grabbing on to the walls and the edges of the mouth, and even those around them, but the forward momentum of the line pushes all of them, however much they struggle, over the edge and into the dark place. Panic rises up in those that turn the corner and see what lies ahead of them, a panic only slightly undercut by the relieved curiosity that comes of realizing that the line does in fact end.

But first, before they find out, there is something to read. A few steps past that final corner, there is a small podium positioned on the right hand side of the corridor. On this podium rest printed sheets of paper. Obviously everyone takes one – there’s been nothing like this anywhere along the way. And obviously, as distracting as the sight of what seems to be the hellmouth proper is, everyone takes a minute to try to read what is on the flier that they’ve just taken.

It starts like this:

Welome to hell. The universe into which you were born favors the meek and the stupid, the ugly and the unambitious, the sexless and the boring. You are none or at least not many of these things. You were astute, given all indications, to doubt the existence of this place. Unfortunately, though, it exists and you are here. And though it is deeply understandable that you would, ultimately you were wrong to believe in the just indifference of the world, in the idea that because there was no escaping your genetic and/or socially conditioned destiny you could not be punished for being who who were or doing what you did. There simply was no escaping this fate, not for you. I could explain all this at length, but I don’t have to and won’t, because I am…

None make it further than this in their reading, because all by this point have fully started to grab at whatever can keep them, even for a second or two, from what lies ahead. The document goes on for pages, though none of them get to read it. And as the neurotic panic that has taken the place of cynical resistance gives way to the raw animal fear – just that of the animal in the abattoir at the moment they know that this blissful or horrible, whatever, bovine or porcine life is about the end and end violently – they slip over the edge and fall into a space that is distinctly not the stuff of joke, or Borsch-belt witticism or Catholic school bathroom scrawl. They fall, that is, into the lake of fire, a fire that burns so hot and hard that there literally is not a moment off from pain to formulate a second thought.

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June 14, 2010 at 2:17 am

Posted in aggregate, fiction, hell

hell 8: david foster wallace in hell

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Via the Rumpus, Tim Martin on David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming posthumous novel:

There is also much unpublished work. For at least 10 years before his death, Wallace was working on a long novel that he called The Pale King. Set in a branch of the US Internal Revenue Service, it aimed to articulate the hard-won thesis of mindfulness that Wallace had come to after years of depression and treatment: “Bliss – a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”

Wallace threw himself into the research. “He was taking accounting classes from 1998 onwards,” remembers Bonnie Nadell. “We found these syllabuses from accounting classes as well as books you can’t even imagine, books that if you were locked up and forced to read them you would die of boredom. You can’t imagine anyone writing a book about it that would be entertaining, but of course this is David, and it is wonderful.”

Michael Pietsch, who is piecing together the many drafts of The Pale King in collaboration with Nadell and Wallace’s widow, Karen Green, agrees. “The thrust of it,” he says, “is an attempt to look at the dark matter of tedium and boredom and repetition and familiarity that life is made of, and through that to find a path to joy and art and everything that matters. Wallace has set himself the task of making a moving and joyful book out of the matter of life that most writers veer away from as hard as they can. And what he left of it is heartbreakingly full and beautiful and deep. He was looking at how one survives.”

As I was saying before, there is a temporality that’s essential to the novel as a form and against which authors can only ever really tweak and vary. The sunniest it gets is purgatorial dullglow; generally, though, it reverts to the infernal on a low-setting. It is something to mark the historical progression of the form and its affectual expectations: we run from Emma Bovary’s (and her author’s) scandalous discovery that all of these heightened moments and blissful intervals advertised by novels were at the whim of repetitive, reiterative time’s erosive power all the way to this: a sense that after years and years of boredom one might, if one is lucky and DFW was not wrong or lying, find one’s way somehow to a narrow window of pleasure drip, measured in seconds, and grounded in nothing more tumultous than a sense that it is on-balance good to be alive.

Of course, this steady slide into bleakness – the reversal of the axes of happiness and the boredom that it costs – is driven in part by the internal logic of a form running its course, a sort of intrinsic tendency for the rate of profit from generic trope to fall as the genre is refined toward fulfilment. But it’s also hard not to take this intensification of the problem, as it runs from Flaubert to David Foster Wallace’s Flaubertianism, as a particularly bleak if also complex index of something that’s gone a bit wrong with the world and our collective and individual daydreams about it.

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August 14, 2009 at 11:11 am

hell 7: brutalism, waiting rooms, messianism, bombs

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I had the great misfortune today of visiting the one masterpiece of London Brutalism that Owen Hatherley will likely never see the inside of: the American Embassy building on Grosvenor Square, designed by Eero Saarinen. I had been planning to phonecam the entire experience for the blog, having been away from the Heimat long enough to forget that the Permanent New Normal has resulted in the prohibition of mobile phones inside pretty much every US governmental edifice.

What would have featured in my photoessay, had I been allowed to stay high-bandwidth, were pictures of the waiting room where I spent nearly three hours. It’s a classic High-DMV affair: lots of uncomfortable chairs, broken scoreboards that should be telling you who’s being called where but are out of service, a Coke machine that eats pound coins returning no bottles of beverage, stacks of magazines that no one in their right mind would ever willingly read (one was called something like Expatria – it’s lead article was on up-armoring BMW SUVs) and pamphlets that tell you little more than that you’re bound to be in this room for a long fucking time, and screaming babies, some of them mine.

Waiting rooms are fascinating; it’s an obvious thing to say but even a relatively short amount of time spent in one re-confirms that hell would be just like that. Nothing to read, nothing to do, but wait for a number to be called (but the PA is too crackly to hear what they’re saying!) that never seems to get called. Someone has something that you desperately need but they have it on the wrong side of the glass partition and they’ve forgotten about you, and now there’s no line to join to let them know that they’ve forgotten you and thus you’re stuck there, in a little eddy of civilisation, forever and more.

I have a terrible fear of bureaucracy. Many of my nightmares and almost all of my worst waking fantasies have to do with the confrontation with someone who couldn’t care less about something that I couldn’t care more about. This might mean that I’m a bad socialist, I’m not sure. It does mean, I will confess to you now, that from time to time I have paid my way out of lines, paid what it costs to deal with someone who wants my money rather than someone who is structurally obligated to blow me off. I have a clear idea the price that I might one day pay for such behavior.

I’m about to start writing a piece (for a fairly swish collection of essays populated by all the better-known London psychogeographers and, erm, me) that will center on waiting rooms, the sort of thinking and desiring and fearing that goes on in them. One of the things that I’ll talk a bit about is the section in Walter Benjamin’s notes toward his theses “On the Philosophy of History” in which he expands a bit upon messianic time as a critique of social democratic ameliorism:

In the idea of classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an ‘ideal’ that the trouble began. The ideal was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an ‘infinite [unendlich] task […] Once the classless society is defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity.

Just to be clear, I’m no fan of messianism. But Benjamin’s description of the temporality of non-messianic politics is frightening, hellish even. Democratic socialism, in this formulation, is a sort of waiting room in which one is destined to wait forever, all while believing that one’s number is about to be called, will be called in the next round, just when the bureaucrat behind the glass window gets around to it, must be coming soon, we’ve been in here longer than anyone else at this point haven’t we?

Still as persuaded as I am by this, after today I am ready to offer a less-than-allegorial counter-allegory.

After about a half-an-hour of waiting, which proved to be a fifth of the way through the time we spent in the embassy, something disturbingly marvellous happened. I’d just run through the last of my coins on a packet of Oreos which we were going to share two each for the three of us, when the loudspeaker in the room started to pronounce suddenly and in a firm tone a phrase that I have never actually heard pronounced save for on television:


My fellow Americans seated in the waiting room were baffled, non-plussed, confused. Not a single person did a single thing except look towards the source of the words, the loudspeak, and wonder what was going on. Was it the kid who had touched the glass? Was it a false alarm?


Assuredly today wasn’t the day that someone rolls a truckbomb up against this basically undefensable redoubt of be-eagled Americanism! I noticed, however, that the embassy staff (who were behind a glass partion, like bank tellers) jumped immediately out of their seats and ran away from the places where they were standing or sitting. This, my friends, was unsettling and I began as swiftly as I could the process of moving my largish family away from the windows and toward the center of the building. And just as I did, ahead of anyone else on the civilian-side of the room, the other shoe dropped.


The truth of the matter is that even when the interruption comes, observation suggests that individuals will neither panic nor become resolute. Individuals, instead, will stand staring with a dreamy sort of awe. The impulse to fear ridicule from over-reaction will outride even the fear of death and disfigurement. Even if the messiah were to arrive, marked as such and announced by a thunderous voice, mostly people will stand an stare at the loudspeaker, trained to wait by the waiting room itself, fingering the ticket that they pulled from a machine and stuck in their pocket, numbly aware of just where they are and how things work where they are….

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August 13, 2009 at 12:24 am

Posted in hell, waiting

hell 6: morning rites

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My wife claims that she can tell my mood and general stance by what she finds me doing when she comes down to the kitchen in the morning. If I am reading the newspaper, that is one sort of thing. If I am typing into a blog window, that is another sort of thing.

The other day she said I miss you and the newspapers, you with all of the newspapers in the morning.

Was it Hobsbawm who claimed that the morning paper was the modern man’s version of daily prayer? When I am happy and invested in the world outside, my mornings are a full church-service of engaged attention in the human. Otherwise, it is something closer to a black mass of interactivity.

Hell definitely isn’t other people, but it probably has something to do with compulsive issueless work and nonsynchronous communication.

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August 12, 2009 at 6:00 am

Posted in blogs, hell

hell 4: discontents and its civilisation (the ruling classes)

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A distinction we don’t make enough, when we think about the ruling classes, is the vital distinction between those who have to work for their power and money and those who don’t. At a slightly earlier stage of historical development, this distinction would have been at the forefront of our minds, but certain changes have occurred to distract us from the central issue at play. And since these types, both types, have so much to do with the organisation of our world, it’s structures and excesses, its pains and pleasures, rewards and penalties, there would be lots of things less valuable than an understanding of how their various clocks tick.

We have neither our Dante nor our Machiavelli, neither our allegorized hell of the powerful nor our demonic realism of realpolitik and its discontents.

One might well start with the difference between the brand of despair that comes of the early realisation that one can have whatever one likes but one can never truly earn what one gets and, on the other hand, the despite that comes of the also early realisation that one must always keep working, never even take a sniff of the gotten gains, lest one lose the whole lot through a moment of apathetic withdrawal. Both are hellish; on margin, the second is undoubtedly worse, if easier to handle psychologically-speaking.

Of course, aristocratic nihilism and technocratic deferral often arrive together, in amalgamations mixed by the vicissitudes of class and the way classes manage their sons. I have been thinking lately that there is something to be written about Bush, about what it means to be a scion of the sort of family that he was a scion of, but nonetheless to do an MBA, which is a degree that scions of old families really don’t need to do. Remember, he wanted, at least at the start, to be known as the MBA president, which only partly means, I suppose, not my father nor Prescott either.

Our previous president, this aristocrat with an MBA would, I am sure, make a fine Chief Executive Officer of one of the middle levels of hell. The aristocratic mock-withdrawal from aristocracy itself, the staged drawl, the vulgar drunkenness, the assumption of a narrative line whose essential falsity indexes the meritocratic pseudoreality of our time – it seems ever clearer that it wasn’t all simply a cynical come-on. The evil trauma of hitting triple cherries with every pull, but having to pretend that somehow you’ve earned it – this is one of the dominant mythemes of our blighted time.

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August 11, 2009 at 8:00 am

Posted in hell

hell 3: some versions of hell

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When I was taught about hell at school, the most convincing rendition went as follows: When you are dead, and bound for hell, you arrive at the gates of heaven and much to your surprise, they open. This isn’t what was supposed to happen, you’re thinking, but what the hell, you step inside. And for an instant, you are swept up in unfuckingbelievable wonder and beauty of it all (you “see God’s face” – whatever that means- the Catholic Church has a way of screwing up the film right when it gets to the moneyshot, no houris for us, etc…) but then, snap, it’s just an instantaneous taste of the good stuff, and you’re back out the gates and down and down till you land back on the smouldering bedrock, there to dwell for eternity on the opportunity that you had but missed. Hell is regret, regret and the self-hatred that it engenders, and nothing more. Hell is, it seems, simply room to think.

It’s a good story, and one that is compatible with certain deeply held family mythologies chez nous that I wonder if dad and even grandad (though he was a protty) didn’t hear something like the same story when they were kids. But I’ve been thinking lately about another one, however, and that’s a bit more true to the way the world looks through my eyes. Let’s take it from the arrival at the gates, and let’s leave undetermined the matter of whether the soul in question feels as though they deserve eternal reward or not.

So there you are in heaven. The houri-less and hour-less wonder of it all and so on. You bask for a bit, and it’s so so nice. But even as you bask, not a minute or two into the thing, something starts to happen at the back of your mind that you try for a bit not to attend to, trying to attend rather to your thorough soak in the rays of his face, the burn-thorough of the infinite delightfulness. You know what you’re thinking – you’re starting to worry that, really, as nice as it is, and it is nice, eventually it’s going to get tiresome, it’s going to fail to live up to your grand expectations and tastes – expectations and tastes that literally reset the metric to point zero with each passing instant of pleasure. The love you feel will eventually feel tepid, a half-hearted affair, and even if there were houris, you’d quickly think they were bored with you – and why wouldn’t they be? Maybe, at the back of it all, you’re worrying a bit that this is really the prologue to hell that you heard about in school, that at any second the other shoe is going to drop, and the length of time that you’ve been allowed to stay (admittedly, this is quite long for an instant) is only an index of the even-greater malignity that you’ve provoked in your creator. He’s letting you marinate a bit, before throwing you even more swiftly and insistently in the fire.

This is how it goes for you, and it is awful. The chaining thoughts roll forward inexorably, picking up speed as they roll. This happens because you’re wired wrong, and you start to wonder what kind of heaven doesn’t come with a free wiring adjustment, a sorting out of the neuroses and misprisions that, Christ, earned you a spot in the Kingdom of God in the first place. In fact, it remains unclear, from start to finish (but there is no finish), whether you’ve landed in a place that’s actually hell which perversely looks like heaven or you have indeed made it to heaven, only you’re fucked up and there’s no one around to help you sort it out.

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August 10, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Posted in hell

hell 2: journaux intimes

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Don’t have it at hand, and it seems to be a bit out of sync with the French version at Gutenberg, so working from (potentially projective) memory… But what was published by New Directions as Baudelaire’s Intimate Journals seemed to be effectively split into two parts, thematically. The first section presents a series of aphorisms and meditations, ever more dark and cynical as CB goes along, about the economics of interpersonal, especially sexual, relationships. That is to say, the darkness derives from the fact that they are economic, endless variations of whoredom and keptness in which either the male or female party can play either part.

The affectual atmospherics of this section, we can imagine, we can smell, were born in CB’s propensity for drink and the way that he arranged his sex life. Hellish stuff, but it only gets worse, as the second section of the book shifts focus from sex to work. A stream of self-chastisements, imploring himself over and over simply to get down to work, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

One must work, if not from inclination, at least out of despair – since it proves, on close examination, that work is less boring than amusing oneself.

Despairing, neurotic work as the only thing better than the unholy finance of sex. To give this sort of thing space, to fill up pages of a notebook with nothing but promises that the work will be better tomorrow…. Do you see the strange math in the passage? The way that the “proof” works? I suppose one reading would be that close examination of work and amusement reveals that the former is more interesting. But I am feel sure that this is not at all what CB means. Rather, I think it’s the despair itself that settles the accounts – despair is less boring than amusement, in other words. In his rendition, and in the world that he describes, there’s only one general equivalent available, and it’s not money but pain.

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August 10, 2009 at 5:00 am

hell 1: the end of therapy

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Infamously, there’s no appropriate time to quit psychoanalysis. Like heaven, there’s no polite means of egress: you either just keep going with it or you fall out of it through an act of disobedience.

The crisis that brought you to it in the first place has subsided, in part due to the work on the couch and in part because time passes and the world and you move on, but there you are, sitting on the self-same couch with ever less to say. On the way there for your morning sessions, you read novels on the train, say Peter Handke’s On a Dark Night I Left My Silent House, and you get blissfully caught up in the idea of rewriting Madame Bovary, except through the eyes of Homais, which seems to be in some part what Handke’s doing. The small town pharmacist and his everyday life, this time in Austria instead of Normandy but that only makes it better. And now it’s the pharmacist, rather than the randy wife of his neighbour, who is addicted to obsolescent romances.

You think the phrase: Madame Bovary, c’est Homais, aujourdhui. And admire, as the Circle Line pulls into Baker Street Station, both Flaubert and Handke immensely. You have found a new friend in the latter, and that is something, that is rare.

But then, in the five minutes that you have to walk from the station to the flat where your analyst has his office, you have to come up with something to say, some fodder for the 50 minutes. This week has been going well so far sounds, within the therapeutic context, like a lie and an incredible waste of money at once. It sounds like a lie because, within the therapeutic context, as is well known, everything’s OK, OK enough is even more deeply redolent of dysfunctional repression than, say, admitting to sniffing your mother’s high heels or having recurrent disturbing dreams about wolves sitting on the tree outside your bedroom.

You wish that you could just stop at a coffee place and give yourself another hour with the Handke. Instead, you ring the bell with nothing prepared, sit on the couch, and begin: This week has been going well, by and large…

Now, and here’s why I’m thinking I’ll quit, therapy, perhaps the most unnatural thing in the world, shares one trait with its verdant antagonist: it, too, abhors a vacuum. And so you dither around for a bit, wandering around the woods of your week of OKness, searching for half-hints of the older problems, the tailhook of crisis and fear. And of course, of course, eventually you find it and there you are back again conversationally reanimating the affective power of something that you’ve spent time and money and unpleasant thought neutralising.

Psychoanalysis, in this sense, suffers from the same infernal logic as narrative prose itself. Handke’s novel stays stuck in housewandering routines of its pharmacist for a bravely long time…. But then something happens, a crash and then the arrival of the fantastic or the projective. It happens, according to the mandates of form – the mandate that time gets formed into instants and events laden with significance – just as my sessions dive away from the depredations of the quotidian and back to my childhood home, the evental break points of adolescence and afterward.

The memoir that therapy would coauthor will accommodate chaos in the present and of course the miserable, belated epiphanies of childhood. But it has no page space for the soft depredations of the static present, of thoughtless animal scavenge, of the softly catastrophic status-quo.

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August 9, 2009 at 7:26 pm