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  • Ariel Bartlett

Stephen King and Sex and the City: An Explanation for My Absence from This Blog

(Content warning: Gender dysphoria, body dysmorphia, war, and domestic abuse.)

Image source: Carrie 2016 [1976]


‘I imagine my blog persona as a cross between Carrie from Sex and the City and Carrie from the Stephen King novel,’ I recently told a friend in an attempt to create a distinction between myself as a creator and myself as an entity within these personal essays. But this wasn’t entirely honest. While it is true cleavage will always exist between a representation of something (i.e. the I in my writing) and the material or sensory other a representation attempts to conjure (i.e. the questionable-looking transgender corporeality I inhabit)*, to pretend my blog is mere grammar with no relation to any real-world material would be the worst kind of too-radical-for-its-own-good post-structuralist crime. As Horst Ruthrof says in his gloriously lucid and pragmatic book The Body in Language, ‘If we had not learned from earliest childhood, perhaps to some extent even prenatally, how to associate linguistic sounds with nonverbal materials, we would have no meaning’ (2000, p. 30). He elaborates:

[…] language as an ordered sequence of words is indeed empty. It is mere syntax, mere sequences of words. Only when language is combined with something other than linguistic signs is it able to mean. This Other of language is not the world as an unmediated set of data, but rather a fabric of nonverbal signs out of which cultures weave the world the way they see it. When this happens, language is no longer empty but directed (2000, p. 31).

While inconsistencies may exist between the version of me on the screen and the version of me you may have encountered at uni, work, or home (I honestly can’t think of anywhere else I go), what I write is, at the very least, an attempt to represent what I’ve lived. Frankly, I’m way too narcissistic to construct an elaborate persona for whatever trivial artistic purposes this blog serves. If my blog sounds like a cross between Carrie from Sex and the City and Carrie from the Stephen King novel, it’s because that’s how I feel. For years, life in this body has been nothing more than a strained conversation between that tormented adolescent overwhelmed by feelings of undesirability and that fashionably dressed hopeless romantic processing her life through writing. It would be dishonest to attempt to represent my experience any other way, and yet, over the last few weeks, that is exactly what I’ve tried. It is for this reason I have failed to post anything since late November. In the words of every professional carpenter of excuses though, ‘Let me explain.’


During my Honours year at uni, I wrote a collection of poems very consciously in the confessional tradition. For those unfamiliar with confessional poetry, I could point you in the direction of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton, but this Tweet is probably all you need to know:

(Lozada-Oliva 2017)


By the end of the year, harvesting my memories and life experiences in an attempt to produce art made me feel more exhibitionist than poet. I decided my PhD project would liberate itself from my juvenile navel gazing; it was time to produce Serious Art™. What I ended up with was a proposal for a verse novel about a lovelorn girl with body dysmorphia — but it wasn’t about me! It clearly says in the proposal it’s fiction. Learn to read.


Throughout my lifelong love affair with reading, I have discovered a penchant for a very specific character arc. Whether Stephen King’s Carrie, Shannon from Chuck Palahniuk’s Invisible Monsters, or Frankenstein’s monster from Mary Shelley’s science-fiction tour de force, I continually find myself drawn to characters who are undone by the relationships they have with their own bodies. Whilst I have never shamed myself for seeking fiction nurtured by the intersection between body dysmorphia and our inexorable need for human connection, exploring these themes myself has always felt no different to Kim from Kath & Kim crying, ‘Everyone’s so self-obsessed. Am I the only person around here thinking about me?’ (Kath & Kim cited in Lyall 2017).


Such is the anxiety of self-life writing. Its susceptibility to being regarded as ‘too tenderly self-regarding’ (Frost 2001, p. 166) often leaves writers scrambling to conceal the personal nature of their own work.** As someone who’s friends with many writers, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a sentence to the effect of, ‘I wrote in my statement of poetics my story was about the anthropocene, but really I was writing about this cute guy I saw on the beach.’ Gillian White in Lyric Shame attributes this critical aversion to self-life writing — and the fear this aversion engenders in its writers — to the New Criticism movement (2014, p. 99), which was characterised by an increased emphasis on the formal and, therefore, supposedly timeless aspects of a literary text as opposed to its historical and cultural context (Davis 2008, p. xxvi). Consider this quote from T.S. Eliot, one of the movement’s primary influences:

[...] the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material (Eliot cited in Kearns 1987, p. 62).

Such a view creates a dichotomy between mere catharsis and true art. Honesty untempered by technique is obviously not enough, but impersonal writing devoid of technical or formal flair is no more excusable than the sort of self-indulgent, formless blather you’d find in my diaries. One need only read Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, or Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts to see examinations of one’s self and life can be artistically meaningful endeavours. No matter the quality of the self-life writing though, it is contentions such as Eliot’s that always lead critics to ask, ‘But did it do enough to transmute itself from catharsis to art?’ When the work of Queen Plath, my idol, has been subjected to accusations of lending ‘a look of literary respectability to voyeurist passions’ (Kenner 1979, p. 43) or being weakened by its ‘constricting, claustrophobic solipsism,’ (Bawer 2007, p. 17), it’s hard to not feel defeated from the get-go.


More than this, writing from my life and passions often leaves me with more than a few reservations about the limited scope of my interests. I recently asked my roommate for some advice, and he asked, ‘What’s the matter?’ When I said, ‘I’m sure you already know,’ he conceded my concerns tend to have ‘recurring themes’. Put simply: I’m obsessed with the body; the discourses and pathologies that nurture feelings of unlovability; and, perhaps most shamefully, boys and the quest for romantic fulfilment. I would love nothing more than to write about particle physics with the same ardour inspired by a crush’s intriguing choice of emoji, but babes, I’m just not there yet.


Harold Bloom, another (unsurprisingly male) critic of Sylvia Plath, criticised her only novel, The Bell Jar, for failing to ‘transmute a fictive character’s emotion of disgust into an affect that can sustain universal interest’ — universal interest being a quality Bloom deems ‘a requisite for the novel as an art’ (Bloom 2009, p. 7). Such a view, however, presupposes that great art must transmute the idiosyncrasies of the micro to something with macro resonance. Well, I’m sorry, Harold, but this is flimsy. After all, what is the macro other than a tapestry of the micro? In Stasiland, Anna Funder recalls a disgruntled viewer writing into a news station she worked at. He was disappointed in a lack of coverage on post-Stasi East Germany from an East German perspective, noting that ‘[…] [h]istory is made up of personal stories’ (Funder 2002, p. 13). For an alternate perspective on Plath’s work, Christina Britzolakis objects to the burden of ‘lyric’ and ‘confession’ that contaminate pre-existing critical perspectives. Instead, Brtizolakis proposes Plath can be better classified as a ‘Cold War modernist’ (2013, p. 265) because such a category better reflects the global resonance inherent to her ostensibly insular subject matter. In Brtizolakis’ words:

Her work speaks to an optic that is arguably foundational for Cold War studies: a global imaginary of ‘containment’, whose ‘domestic’ reflex connects the familial and the political. Perhaps best known in this regard is The Bell Jar’s 1963 satirical assault on the oppressive effects of Eisenhower-era institutions, notably psychiatric medicine (2013, p. 265).

There is a richness in the parenchyma that’s often lost in an academic fixation on the stroma. On a Snellen chart, domestic abuse and dictatorship are simply the same characters on different lines. It is from this ability to perceive the political, ontological, epistemological, and sacred in the domestic, in the urgent clumsiness of a drunken confession, in the flickering ellipsis of an imminent text, or in the pills on my bedside table that I wish for my writing to evolve. My New Year’s resolution is to be less ashamed of this.


Join me next week for more neurotic rants about the relentless torment of dysphoria and dysmorphia coupled with fervent odes to boys who wouldn’t notice if I died. Is it art? Unmedicated compulsion? A yet-to-be-named personality disorder? I don’t know, but it’s what I do best.


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Notes:

* I’d recommend resources, but structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy is a rabbit hole I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Run while you still can! ** This thought was actually the genesis of my Honours thesis.


References:

Bawer, B 2007, ‘Sylvia Plath and the Poetry of Confession’ in Bloom H (ed.), Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Sylvia Plath (Updated Edition), Infobase Publishing, New York, pp. 7 - 20


Bloom, H 2009, ‘Introduction’ in H Bloom (ed.), Bloom’s Guides: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Infobase Publishing, New York, pp. 7 - 8


Britzolakis, C 2013, ‘Dreamwork: Sylvia Plath's Cold War Modernism’, Women: A Cultural Review, vol. 24, no. 4, pp. 263 - 273


Carrie 2016 [1976], Blu-ray, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., Beverly Hills


Frost, C 2001 [1998], ‘Self-Pity’ in K Sontag & D Graham (eds), After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, Graywolf Press, Minnesota, pp. 162 - 175


Funder, A 2002, Stasiland, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne


Kearns, CM 1987, T. S. Eliot and Indic Traditions: A Study in Poetry and Belief, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge


Kenner, H 1979, ‘Sincerity Kills’ in G Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp. 33 - 44


Lozada-Oliva, M 2017, ‘Me: what makes something confessional poetry…’, Tweet, 28 March, viewed 6 January 2019, <https://twitter.com/ellomelissa/status/846581677384253441?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw>


Lyall, A 2017, ‘Flashback Friday: 10 Kath and Kim Phrases that Changed Our Lives’, Kidspot, weblog post, 2 June, viewed 6 January 2019, <https://www.kidspot.com.au/lifestyle/entertainment/books-tv-and-movies/flashback-friday-10-kath-and-kim-phrases-that-changed-our-lives/news-story/d005e6672c9aa8b837e7a2212c11ff4a>

Ruthrof, H 2000, The Body in Language, Cassell, New York


White, G 2014, Lyric Shame: The ‘Lyric’ Subject of Contemporary American Poetry, Harvard University Press, Cambridge

© 2020 Ariel Bartlett