A year or so ago I wrote something prompted by reading a 2017 piece by Claire Dederer about the art of ‘Monstrous Men’. The piece focused on Woody Allen, but moved on to talk about the complicity of accusation – how it is a denial of one’s own monstrosity – and how she herself, as a writer who withdrew her time and attention from those she loved, was also in some way ‘monstrous’.
I thought it was too much to place all writing in the same space as the sexually predatory crimes of Monstrous Men, Woody Allen included, but it did make me want to talk about some writers, all of whom I liked very much, all of whom were women, who deal with the need to share writing and love – love partly in the form of the demands of child-rearing – and in doing so shared something of a similar methodology and voice. To the extent it can be called a ‘voice’ (it would be a disservices to constrain to one voice these different writers), it is the sound of the negation of the dominant, dogmatic male line of argument, the assertion of what is true and what is not true, over a course of a project which is the exclusion of doubt.
This tweet from Jay Owens reminded me I had that unfinished piece sitting in my drafts, but the bit about Dederer was not really relevant to it, so I’ve removed it from here.
I have however taken a quote from her essay as the jumping-off point.
But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.
…There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.
There were a couple of other things in the essay that prompted the thoughts that lead to writing this. One has already been quoted, her reference to Cyril Connolly’s malign phrase, ‘The pram in the hallway’ (‘There is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hallway’). The other, connected, is this:
Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.
These questions, that reference, immediately brought to mind two books: The Last Samurai by Helen deWitt, and Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. Both deal, in different but linked ways, with writing and motherhood.
They’re both wonderful books. They show the capacity for interruption that having a child brings. They use it, are defined by it – by the impossibility of single-minded exclusive and exclusionary focus, which ‘the pram in the hallway’ says art requires. And they don’t just deal with it, they are formally shaped by it. In The Last Samurai there are continual, often quite long digressions of nested interruptions. The interruptions themselves become the content, before the original, interrupted voice, resumes. In this sense they are not interruptions, there is no main thread that is being disrupted. The demanding voice of Ludo (the narrator Sibylla’s child) is as much the book as is the narration. It is a partnership. In a sense it is a handing over of voices.
Little Labors formally represents the capacity for interruption of thought and concentration differently. It is a short book comprising very short entries on having a child and being a writer. The suggestion is that the form has been imposed by the demands, the responsibilities of having a child. Yes they are little entries, but they are undoubtedly labors, because of the presence of a child. The labors are also those of the child. The entire book seems to me an explicit riposte to the pram in the hallway point of view. This was represented beautifully in a passage that was excerpted as ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men,’ in The New Yorker:
I now envy men, but for just one thing. What thing? It is true that at the moment the baby is beating a small wooden cutting board against the ground, that the cutting board had at one point had on it an apricot I had sliced into tiny bits for her, she has since sat on some, and smashed some into the ground, she has taken a lengthy interest in my wallet, she has held the supermarket-discount-points card at a distance, then put it in her mouth, then held it at a distance away again, she has not yet learned to crawl but can drag herself across the floor to the edge of a set of stairs I am hoping to keep her from exploring further, she has gathered fuzz from the shag rug here at this rental cabin that has been obtained as a luxuriously imagined Room of One’s Own, she has been interested in having her hand inside of my mouth, and has not been interested in lying down, she is now trying to pull herself up along a ledge and is now trapped in a position from which she can discover no out and so requires rescue by the large being (me) who is always with her, later she needs rescue simply from being on her stomach, and so in brief moments, between these activities, I have one-third of an associative thought, about that story “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa in which a woman’s sister is pregnant and very nauseous throughout the pregnancy and the narrator begins making grapefruit jam for her nauseous sister, and the sister loves it, it’s the only thing she can bear to eat, and so the narrator keeps making it even though she read a sign at the grocery store that the grapefruit was not safe, and so she believes she has ruined the baby … but really I’m insufficiently upset about not being able to think, and then the baby falls asleep. She sleeps on her back, slightly tossed to the side, with both arms in the same direction, like she’s in a boat I can’t see. Her breathing in this moment is making her glow like an amulet. I had been talking about gender envy. The one thing I envy. The first gender-envy thoughts I have had really in my entire life started maybe not immediately following the arrival of the puma in my apartment, but shortly after, when the puma spent a lot of time spinning a wooden cookie on a rod, or maybe shortly after that, when I took her for her first swim in a pool and she persisted uncomplainingly even as it began to rain. The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that their romantic partner doesn’t know about.Little Labors – Rivka Galchen
For a man the pram in the hall is a potential enemy of art, for a mother it must form a part of it.
For me Rivka Galchen and Helen deWitt give a new voice to literature. It is a non-dogmatic voice, it is humorous and
vulnerable open (edit: ‘vulnerable’ was poor choice of word); because it is open to interruption it is stronger than a voice which is not open to interruption. And by ‘interruption’ I mean anything that might swerve the argument, the focus, the single-mindedness, the dogma, the ‘this is the way it is’-ness, the dominant interpretation or narrative, the power.
Anything that might baffle the paradigm, to use the translated words of Roland Barthes in The Neutral.
It isn’t really interruption as such – it is the fabric of thought and discovery.
This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay on approaching and exploring the ideas and acts of translation, mainly but not at all solely through the act of translating Roland Barthes’ late lectures. In one section she writes about one part of the Barthes lecture course she translated.
In this digressive, excursive teaching, the practice was never to be exhaustive or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalising theory, an ultimate grand idea. Instead to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of a small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, as Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be stimulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life?
[He then cites works which he proposes to look at]
The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I’ll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. Like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I’ll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.This Little Art – Kate Briggs
Although here this method is being used to understand what a community allowing for something like solitude with regular interruptions might look like, to look for examples and reference points, the method he describes is itself perhaps also the method by which this community might be achieved.
Accommodating rather than dictating individual rhythms; this was a notion that came to Barthes when seeing from his window a mother dragging a child along:
In the lecture course titled How to Live Together, the fact that we can go too fast, or indeed too slow, for other people, for the person we are supposed to be accompanying, or is supposed to be keeping company with us, the person you are hoping will stay with you, your listener, your reader, the child you are trying to walk to school, is the central issue: the lecture course’s crystallizing theme. A theme embodied by the sight of a mother glimpsed from Barthes’s window, walking out of step with her son. Too fast. Dragging him along by the hand (so that he is forced to run to keep up). This fact and lived theme of what Barthes calls disrhythmy, and the power dynamics that are in play, and the disturbances it can cause. The question of the lectures, then, will be how to find a way of walking (being, living, also reading, writing and thinking) together that might somehow take account of our different rhythms, not through enforced synchronicity, but allowing for them: you read faster than I do, you get up earlier than I do, and eat later, you race ahead while I walk more slowly, and yet still (in this fantasy that Barthes is hoping to simulate in life) we’ll find ways of coming together, points in the day for companionship, offsetting, modulating, interrupting our competing desire for solitude.This Little Art – Kate Briggs
Disrhythmy, for Barthes, is caused by different idiorrhythms. Of course, the thing with a baby is that its idiorrhythm must be yours, as a mother. It wants something now. Its not interested in a Barthes chequerboard that allows for accommodation. But writing and composing in that way as a method, a method of accommodating that id as a writer, but also of asking ideas, the paragraphs and words on the page, and the reader themselves, to accommodate it as well.
This is not a group of writers, but they do refer to one another – Rivka Galchen to Helen deWitt’s The Last Samurai because…
..it takes so many pages into the main section before you recognize the narrator’s gender as female, and then so many pages more before you realize that the narrator of that section is a mother, in fact a single mother, who is trying to develop herself as a scholar and who tries to solve the problem of presenting a male role model to her son
Kate Briggs to Maggie Nelson’s section on policing mouth-exploring in This Little Art:
When my youngest son was a baby I had a bright hot technicolour dream that was the picture of him choking. This had the effect of elevating my adequate policing to the levels of nervous (paranoid?) surveillance. I’d hand him a slice of squashy ripe pear at lunch-time and watch as he’d try manoeuvring it delightedly into his mouth. Then suddenly doubt the size of it, the consistency of it, and to his great distress, whisk it away (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! – don’t cry: I’ll cube it! Let me mash it!).
Looking back, I think what troubled me the most was the thought (the thought and also the reality) that the smallest lapse in my attention, even (even and especially) with respect to the most ordinary everyday things – eating a pear for lunch, sitting out among the dry leaves in the garden – could have consequences on this other, life-or-death scale. The stakes felt everywhere and for that period of time almost unbearably high.
She also insists, via Galchen’s Little Labors, on seeing ‘little’ as meaning ‘small’ not ‘minor’. If we are to allow this sort of writing to have equal worth, we must allow for its smallness. The fact that accomplishing a brief paragraph of thought may be a form of labour, and may need to be accomplished in small periods of time between distractions. Allowing thoughts and observations to be placed on a square and to relate to the things next to them, not in a tightly ordered narrative argument that says if this is true then this must be true, but to communicate, to be suggestive. A series of partnerships, reader and author, both contributing, author and the people and things that demand their time.
A voice to accommodate distraction and disjunction, whether it’s Galchen’s brief chapters and little labors, Maggie Nelson’s stanzas of thought, the cadences of a child’s insatiable desire for learning in The Last Samurai, perhaps these make way for a new way of writing and reading.
On one of the long afternoons that has since bled into the one long afternoon of Iggy’s infancy, I watch him pause on all fours at the threshold to our backyard, as he contemplates which scraggly oak leaf to scrunch toward first with his dogged army crawl. His soft little tongue, always whitened in the centre from milk, nudges out of his mouth in gentle anticipation, a turtle bobbing out of its shell. I want to pause here, maybe forever, and hail the brief moment before I have to jump into action, before I must become the one who eliminates the inappropriate object, or, if I’m too late, who must harvest it from his mouth.
You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone once adequately policed your mouth-exploring. In the fact of this fact, Winnicott holds the relatively unsentimental position that we don’t owe these people (often women, but by no means always) anything. But we do owe ourselves “an intellectual recognition of the fact that at first we were (psychologically) absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely. Luckily we were met by ordinary devotion.The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
Absolutely dependent. That absolutely dependence relies on the attention of the person who may also be writing the words you are reading. And therefore our intellectual recognition of that fact should perhaps be allowing the interruptions, relishing the tone of voice and type of writing that allows for them. It may also mean reconfiguring what ‘good’ is, so that Dederer’s question “Is your motherhood making you a less good writer?” – with all the demands on time and concentration and emotion – is not somehow determined by the editorial rejection of that voice: the little, the associative, the interrupted.