Michael Amherst

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Shame, Er­ror and Guilt

Prox­ies: A Mem­oir in Twenty-four At­tempts, Brian Blanchfield, Pi­cador, Au­gust 2017, pp. 256, £9.99 (Pa­per­back)

There are chang­ing tides and cur­rents at work in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture. Just as aut­ofic­tion is re­pur­pos­ing the re­la­tion­ship be­tween fic­tion and the self to cre­ate au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, metafic­tional nov­els, cre­ative non­fic­tion is us­ing the self and even fic­tion to bet­ter con­vey the truth it seeks to speak. In this vein comes a col­lec­tion of es­says by poet Brian Blanchfield. While the ti­tles (each is ‘On’ some­thing) evoke the es­say tra­di­tion of Mon­taigne, this is a queer work in ev­ery sense, trans­gress­ing the boundaries of form and con­tent.

The ti­tle, Prox­ies, refers to Blanchfield’s re­fusal to call upon any re­source other than his own rec­ol­lec­tions, mem­o­ries and ex­pe­ri­ence. With­out the sup­port of re­search or fact check­ing, these es­says demon­strate the cre­ative po­ten­tial to be found in fail­ure. Er­ror and mis­take are nec­es­sary parts of the cre­ative act, one that al­ways falls short of the artist’s in­ten­tion. It is a continual act of fail­ing.

In his in­tro­duc­tion, Blanchfield draws at­ten­tion to the ways even the sciences deal in in­com­ple­tion, er­ror and guess­work. ‘In sciences I think proxy ad­di­tion­ally ex­presses a kind of con­ces­sion to im­pre­ci­sion, a fail­ure. It’s the word for a sub­ject you choose to study to pro­duce data that can ap­prox­i­mate the data you’d get from the ac­tual, de­sired sub­ject, if it were not pro­hib­i­tively hard to ap­pre­hend.’

Far from per­fec­tion­ism, the sub­ti­tle ‘Per­mit­ting Shame, Er­ror and Guilt, My­self the Sin­gle Source’ not only speaks to our so­ci­ety’s chronic anx­i­ety about ‘get­ting it wrong’ and the ne­ces­sity of fail­ure in cre­ativ­ity. It also de­scribes a path to un­der­stand­ing that is an­ti­ra­tional – re­liant on ac­ci­dent, mis­taken rec­ol­lec­tion and in­tu­ition. It ar­gues for an epis­te­mol­ogy at once

pro­vi­sional, per­sonal and, at the same time, more ob­jec­tive by recog­nis­ing its ex­pe­ri­en­tial na­ture. In his readi­ness to ac­cept ‘fail­ure’, Blanchfield cre­ates a space rich with cre­ative pos­si­bil­i­ties.

Nar­rat­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties of grow­ing up queer in a work­ing class, Bap­tist fam­ily in North Carolina, Blanchfield ex­am­ines com­pet­ing acts of con­ceal­ment and self-con­struc­tion. But just as the es­says make in­roads from their tra­di­tional form ‘to dis­in­hib­ited au­to­bi­og­ra­phy’, so too Blanchfield’s queer self breaches his acts of ar­ti­fice and per­for­mance. Yet, at the same time, these es­says demon­strate the lim­its of our con­struc­tions and the pos­si­bil­ity to transcend our many ex­ist­ing frames. For ex­am­ple, in one of many para­doxes, we learn that po­etry both draws at­ten­tion to it­self as ar­ti­fice and the self as a con­struct, while po­ten­tially tran­scend­ing both to reach au­then­tic­ity and mean­ing.

Else­where, in his re­flec­tions on Hart Crane’s ‘Para­phrase’, and later on King Lear, we are given cre­ative, med­i­ta­tive re­flec­tions that breach the stan­dards re­quired of aca­demic dis­course. This re­flects con­tem­po­rary think­ing, such as Rita Fel­ski’s The Lim­its of Cri­tique, but also Blanchfield’s de­spon­dency with academia: its tenets, its bu­reau­cracy, its ap­par­ent rot­ten­ness. There is an im­plicit ap­peal to the kind of revo­lu­tion within ed­u­ca­tion that Paul Good­man called for in the 1960s.

In a beau­ti­ful med­i­ta­tion on the end­ing of King Lear and the king’s call for a mir­ror to check for signs of life from Cordelia, Blanchfield re­flects that the mir­ror has been re­pur­posed, not as some­thing to look into, ‘but rather a sur­face on which to man­i­fest what comes from within.’ Amidst all this dis­cus­sion of self-con­struc­tion, there is a sense of some­thing neb­u­lous, be­yond reach; some­thing man­i­festly us, per­haps some­thing like a soul.

In this, Blanchfield re­sem­bles No­bel Lau­re­ate, J.M. Coet­zee, in call­ing for an epis­te­mol­ogy that is em­bod­ied. Such ex­pe­ri­ence is not based on rea­son but that does not make it any less valu­able. He cites a friend, re­cently di­ag­nosed HIV-pos­i­tive, who ‘knew some­thing was dif­fer­ent in­side’, de­scrib­ing it as ‘body-con­scious­ness’. Sim­i­larly, he draws upon

D. W. Win­ni­cott’s work on feel­ings and con­tain­ment: ‘Where is fear, or de­sire, or grief, if not in­side? I know it is within, be­cause I con­tain it.’ These ob­ser­va­tions chal­lenge our lin­guis­tic pre­cepts. Does Blanchfield’s friend know his HIV, or feel it? Both he and Coet­zee are chal­leng­ing the hege­mony of rea­son, both find fault with em­piri­cism and both re­turn us to the body as the lo­cale – or con­tainer – of feel­ings and knowl­edge. (In­ter­est­ingly, both also make re­peated use of the verb ‘to ap­pre­hend’ as dis­tinct from to know or to un­der­stand).

Yet Blanchfield ac­knowl­edges the lim­its of em­bod­i­ment. When de­scrib­ing the sec­ond boy he ever slept with, we are told ‘I barely knew what I wanted from him.’ To de­sire does not al­ways mean to know what one de­sires. But even this in­com­plete knowl­edge can act like rev­e­la­tion. Else­where, he de­scribes un­cer­tainty over the def­i­ni­tion of gay sex, not know­ing what his body de­sired from an­other – save for the fact that it de­sired some­thing. It is this fact, in­com­plete and maybe re­sem­bling an in­tu­ition, that trumped the ‘lu­di­crous ra­tioning bar­gains’ he had made with him­self to deny his same­sex at­trac­tion be­fore com­ing to the em­bod­ied re­al­i­sa­tion, ‘I was what I was; it was in me al­ready.’

Such a recog­ni­tion chal­lenges some of the ear­lier talk of self-con­struc­tion. It would ap­pear that there are parts of our­selves that are brute fact and can­not be ig­nored. Yet, at the same time, we can know some­thing with­out un­der­stand­ing it. Even the body may not give up all its se­crets.

The name Blanchfield gives to this is Hei­deg­ger’s: befind­lichkeit. It is ‘the con­di­tion of find­ing one­self in a sit­u­a­tion that pre­cedes your ap­pre­hen­sion of it.’ (That word again). Ear­lier, he elides his feel­ings af­ter be­ing sav­aged by the fam­ily dog with his ex­pe­ri­ence of grow­ing up queer. In both in­stances, he has a sense of a feel­ing but one that is out of reach. ‘Early on you have a se­cret…the se­cret is there be­fore you…It is so in­trin­sic that you could not, at so young an age, be­gin to know how to ex­plore it. How you feel is the se­cret.’ There is truth here, but it is be­yond our ken.

Truth then has a re­la­tional, an ex­pe­ri­en­tial qual­ity. This echoes Mag­gie

Nel­son, in Bluets, who re­jects the no­tion that the ex­pe­ri­en­tial qual­ity should be in­trin­sic to an ob­ject, so much as an in­di­vid­ual, fleet­ing re­la­tion. Blanchfield de­scribes this in a beau­ti­ful evo­ca­tion of mem­ory, one that fizzes with a qual­ity of alive­ness be­yond mere rec­ol­lec­tion; ver­sions of truth that are more res­o­nant to our ex­pe­ri­ence (and there­fore more truth­ful? more au­then­tic?) than ob­jec­tive fact. Cer­tain ex­pe­ri­ences have, what Blanchfield calls, ‘a charge’. We may recog­nise these as lack­ing a repli­ca­ble, ob­jec­tive truth but, ar­guably, they have an au­then­tic­ity and qual­ity be­yond so-called fact.

In this sense, ex­pe­ri­ence can go be­yond rea­son, be­yond the ma­te­ri­al­ity of lan­guage. Blanchfield ad­mits that the ‘ma­te­ri­al­ity of lan­guage’ means lit­tle to him. In­stead, he talks of ‘a real, steadily build­ing, learned con­vic­tion that there are spir­its, nu­mina, in lan­guage.’ Here he ar­gues that a sub­stan­tive, a noun, ‘is draw­ing on, or rais­ing some­thing like a god.’

For those who may de­spair at this, Blanchfield is re­fresh­ingly can­did. He de­scribes his ex­as­per­a­tion as a child in the Bap­tist Church, look­ing for de­liv­er­ance and only find­ing ab­stract, fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage. He des­per­ately wanted to ‘know…past anal­ogy’. Yet he re­flects that, in spite of this, his own po­etry ‘tries on apho­rism but will not ar­rive at epiphany…I have recre­ated, in essence, the im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence of enigma which so re­pelled me as a child.’

That qual­ity of enigma means an ac­cep­tance that to ap­pre­hend may not mean rev­e­la­tion. It may only mean ac­cep­tance of fur­ther com­plex­ity. I hear fur­ther echoes of Good­man on the ef­fi­cacy of lit­er­a­ture, this time in Speak­ing and Lan­guage, in which he asks how the traits and pow­ers of lit­er­ary writ­ing ‘add up to a war­rant to make true state­ments, in the sense that sci­en­tific state­ments are true?’ He con­cludes that they don’t, but that ‘there is no al­ter­na­tive’, that there is no other dis­course but lit­er­a­ture that is both sub­jec­tive and ob­jec­tive.

To­wards the end, Blanchfield re­flects on dif­fer­ing land­scapes and his po­si­tion as an ob­server, over­seer, of them. He refers to his de­sire in

both his pri­vate and cre­ative life, ‘to see the thing in full…a su­per­vi­sory per­spec­tive’. This re­calls the par­tic­u­lar­ity of queer ex­pe­ri­ence, with the queer per­son at a de­gree of re­move, a recorder of the world, rather than in it. Un­able to be­long or blend in, and forced to con­ceal his true na­ture, Blanchfield sees this as­pect of the queer ex­pe­ri­ence as a prag­matic re­sponse to re­pres­sion, a de­gree of re­move that was ‘a ser­vice to my au­then­tic self, wher­ever he was.’

The un­der­story of a for­est acts as a metaphor for a type of be­ing, from which Blanchfield emerges to unify con­flict­ing per­spec­tives and selves into a co­he­sive be­ing. He ob­serves that he is be­com­ing ‘the other kind of knower, the em­piri­cist, aground and ter­res­trial and can­vass­ing about.’ It is both an ad­mis­sion and a recog­ni­tion that there are dif­fer­ent ways to know. We con­tain a mul­ti­tude of lives and per­spec­tives – from above the for­est canopy, to deep be­neath the for­est floor. As he says, ‘Per­haps it is be­cause now I know I can climb out that I am also con­tent to be in the weeds.’ An ac­cep­tance of dif­fer­ence and un­cer­tainty means hold­ing these dif­fer­ent modes of be­ing in syn­chrony.

Our his­to­ries are richer and more var­ied than the mere chronol­ogy of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. By turn­ing in­wards, by ac­cept­ing the pos­si­bil­ity for er­ror, for fail­ure, Blanchfield pro­vides a pro­foundly brave, un­flinch­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the self. He charts a course ‘from the realm of savoir to the realm of con­naître.’ At the same time, he opens our eyes to the po­ten­tial rich­ness of be­ing in and see­ing the world with all its con­fu­sions and com­plex­i­ties. As the au­thor ob­serves, ‘To an­swer How do you find your­self? by pro­vid­ing a quick-take ac­count of the more pre­pos­sess­ing re­cent cir­cum­stances of your life is to forgo, to rush past, af­fec­tive knowl­edge.’ In­stead, he em­braces this af­fec­tive knowl­edge. Ul­ti­mately, he shows us what it can mean to be hu­man.

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