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.