3. Distressed Reading
Panic and anxiety didn’t just adjust the way I approached my teaching. They also affected my work as a critic. In the final part of this essay, I want to describe what I call ‘distressed reading’: a kind of bibliomancy, in which certain texts appear, swimming up out of the depths of the literary archive, at exactly the moment that you need them. The most famous example of a textual parousia occurs at the end of Augustine’s Confessions (and which is echoed by Petrarch when he turns to the Confessions during his ascension of Mont Ventoux). Tolle, lege. In a frenzy of desire, Augustine seizes the book, trusting in it to present him with the precise fragment that will address his despair. The immediate relief of suffering which is a divine gift transmitted through the written word in Augustine’s experience is so far, for me, a myth. But what I’m trying to describe is more than the quality of some texts to be ‘relatable’. Rather, it seems to speak directly to me; a line or a word springs up with a magnified clarity, vibrating with an electric charge across history and calling to me as if it knows exactly where I am. Over the past year there were two very powerful examples of this, which have reshaped the way I think about poetry, prose, and the techniques of criticism. One was narrative, the other poetic; and these two forms offered very different kinds of reparation.
Over the Christmas break a book appeared in our house. It was called A Dialogue on Love, and it’s an account of Eve Sedgwick’s therapy, mixing prose, haiku, and contemporaneous notes by her therapist Shannon, in the form of the haibun, a seventeenth-century Japanese form ‘classically used for narratives of travel’. This book offered many convenient points of identification. Sedgwick is 42 (I am 43); in her childhood her parents treated her intellect as something ‘anomalous’ which frightened them; she had a recurrent dream of being engulfed by a giant wave. When Shannon looks at her, he sees someone ‘sitting there on the couch so nicely’ who ‘is the product of an arduous and almost endless labor’. I felt exhausted by this labour of self-composition too. Eve had achieved things in her writing that she valued, saying that ‘the canonical areas, love and work—those are weirdly good for me’, as I felt them to be; but ‘somehow the goodness of these good things doesn’t find its way inside me’ (15-16). I recognised that too.
Eve comes to therapy in a state of mild depression which is connected to her dull and historic desire for death. Through the therapeutic relation, Shannon wants for her to have ‘a more continuous sense / of moving through time’, ‘not grappled tight to myself, / just floating onward’. Anxiety, as I experience it, is a drastic orientation towards the future – it is a form of distressed expectation, and it produces a very fucked up temporality. And like a poet, anxiety is constantly out cruising for an object. Whereas phobias or nervousness fix upon some particularity of greater or less worth, anxiety is related to the nothing – Lacan’s objet a. In the book’s final pages, as she deals with the return of cancer (she died in 2009, ten years after the book was published), Sedgwick turns to Tibetan Buddhism for a very different notion of the nothing. The book’s exquisitely beautiful and painful conclusion is not her voice, in fact, but Shannon’s, in effect releasing her to death, just as her textual voice stops for us: ‘She also talks about having come to be able to hear a voice like my voice inside herself when it is quiet that she can trust and have confidence in. I can imagine the voice telling her she can stop’. This closing of the therapeutic circle holds out a promise of a different end point to replace the manic futurity of anxiety in which I am still stuck. This is the therapeutic value of its narrative: it offers conflict and resolution, characters waving back at me from the end of time, to where I am still in the middle of an indeterminable process.
A Dialogue on Love is part of Sedgwick’s very personal critical project, because like all her work it lays bare how strategies of reading emerge from and inform her intimate life. She arrives through therapy at a ‘Proustian’ assumption: when ‘the truth comes to you, / you recognise it because / it makes you happy’ (207). Proust is an important source for Sedgwick’s work, and appears throughout this book, as well as in the closing chapter of Epistemology of the Closet, where she writes: ‘I am now able to prescribe “Proust” to my friends in erotic or professional crisis or in, for that matter, personal grief with the same bland confidence as I do a teaspoon of sugar (must be swallowed quickly) to those suffering from hiccups’ (241).
In therapy, she also alludes to her desire to define for herself a new form of sexuality which expanded the narrow, triangulated love represented by adultery and the couple form (an argument which recalls her book Between Men):
its allure was, you would
get back all of the
erotic energy you’d
sent around it
so that ‘nothing is / ever really lost’. Sending erotic energy around a circuit in which each point is transformed and transformative of the next is a good description of the distinct kind of intertextual criticism Sedgwick performs, and gives the lie to my perception of any narrative – either her own therapeutic one, or the endless perserverations of Proust – as offering resolution. Rather, loving reading entails an openness and a circling that brings the truth with it, rather than an anxious cruising for an object. She describes love as ‘a matter of suddenly globally, “knowing” that another person represents your only access to some vitally / transmissible truth / or radiantly heightened / mode of perception, // and that if you lose the thread of this intimacy, both your soul and your whole world might subsist forever in some desert-like state of ontological impoverishment’ (168). The truth, as we’ve known from the beginning, appears in dialogue. This is what the lover does, and what the book does, when they are opened in the right place.
The second, very different text that swam up to meet me was Emily Dickinson’s poem:
Bound a Trouble – and Lives will bear it –
Circumscription – enables Wo –
Still to anticipate – Were no limit –
Who were sufficient to Misery?
State it the Ages – to a cipher –
And it will ache contented on –
Sing, at it’s pain, as any Workman –
Notching the fall of the even Sun –
F240 (1863); Fascicle 36 (H 97)
This poem occurred to me as a powerful paradox, which required reading both with and against Dickinson. I wanted to be able to sustain both possible readings, because their simultaneity was exactly descriptive of my distress.
Throughout her poetry, Dickinson constantly invokes spatial and temporal boundaries, circumferences and circumscriptions which are the edges of pain but also signifiers of annihilation and death. This poem implies that ‘bounding’ a trouble makes it bearable – we can sustain or carry it, because we have put limits to it. Reading this poem with the grain of Dickinson’s work, I have to assume it means that boundaries are the means of containing otherwise unbearable pain. No one could be ‘sufficient’ in the face of unbounded misery; none could bear its infinite demand. To anticipate pain still to come, to conjecture a limit or a future, produces the interval between the experience of pain and the subject: if we can think about a time without pain, we are also still able to distinguish between pain and ourselves. This conjecture sets a ‘Limit’, in the earlier version of the poem, on ‘how deep a bleeding go!’ (F240 ; Fascicle 9 [H 78]).
Work also sets a limit to suffering as well as causing it: as Dickinson, a hard domestic worker throughout her life, wrote in 1878: ‘I am constantly more astonished that the body contains the spirit—except for overmastering work it could not be borne’ (Letters 284). The body’s suffering as it is mastered by work makes the suffering of the spirit, imprisoned in the body, bearable. In the poem, misery is bound not just by the body’s strength, but by language: by ‘telling’ or ‘stating’, and by song. The reader is being instructed to sing out through her misery, like a worker whose song makes exhausting labour bearable. This imperative assimilates the poem’s own song to an exercise in containing misery which passes the time until evening. That even sun shines on, evenly, despite our misery, illuminating our work and setting its temporal limits, and it would do so even if we had not made ourselves ‘content’ (in both senses) within the form or bodily hexis which is imposed on us by our labour.
Throughout Dickinson’s work, the body is represented as a container which must be carefully regulated because it constantly threatens to escape control. Many of her poems comment on the pain of enclosing the mind within a finite, bounded form: ‘The Brain, within it’s Groove / Runs evenly – and true – / But let a Splinter swerve’ (F563 , Fascicle 27 [H116]), and it is easier to restore the current after a flood than to return the mind to its customary restraint. If the mind yearns towards this oceanic or flood-state of excess, it also associates it with boundless pain and the impossibility of recovery. She fantasises about the infinite capacities of the human mind and heart, miniaturising the universe and expanding the subject, before adjusting the scale again to make the individual just a ‘speck opon a ball’. This seesawing is the interval in which the self can become magnificent and limitless – ‘when all space has been beheld / And all Dominion shown / The smallest Human Heart’s extent / Reduces it to none’ (F1178 [October 1870]) – and then, submit fearfully to its ashamed contraction in the face of the divine: ‘Oh God of Width, do not for us / Curtail Eternity!’ (F1226). The urge to push oneself, to widen the heart ‘beyond my limit’ until ‘The other, like the little Bank/ Appear – unto the Sea’ (F757 ; Fascicle 34 [H50]), a boundary or edge which can be overwhelmed by flood, is synonymous for Dickinson with ‘a Bliss’ she dares not to attempt but constantly imagines as poetry.
Her poetry seesaws in this way on the minute interval between expansive freedom and the contractive finality of death, a space no wider than a splitting hair. She repeatedly presents a subject caught in the interval between intensity and certainty, between the ‘vague calamity’ of suspense and the ‘bounty’ of divine judgement. Sometimes, this subject relishes this playfully ‘cool’ ambivalence as it awaits either salvation or damnation, relieved of the pressures of living and being a body. At other times, this is a ‘dangerous moment’ when ‘the meaning goes out of things and Life stands straight—and punctual—and yet no signal comes’ (Letters III, PF49). The interval can be an emancipation, the mind fleeing the drossy body to encounter the absolute, or it can be a ‘crisis’, ‘The instant holding in its claw / The privilege to live’ or die.
So reading this poem in the context of Dickinson’s work, I have to assume it is advising me to discover the limits of my anxiety, so that I can bear it. But the attraction of the interval invites me towards another meaning which overflows that first and which I need to choose. Pain which is bound or circumscribed – both are terms which bring writing and book-binding to mind – becomes an obligation; these activities of limitation enable us to live with woe, though they also enable woe itself. If binding trouble means that we can bear it, it also means we have to bear it. Unbound trouble, which exceeds all boundaries and our capacities to maintain it, might crush us. But unbinding trouble might also mean we don’t have to retain the resilience which allows us to bear it.
This, for me, is the paradox of anxiety, which is fundamentally a question of form. In Freudian theory, anxiety is the result of too much containment: a libidinal surplus that exceeds ‘the economy of the bodily apparatus’. As panic, it overspills the container, or the container seems too brittle to withstand its outflow. One remedy might be to set a boundary to trouble, circumscribing it and learning to articulate it to the ‘cipher’ of the analyst. But excessive circumscription is likely the thing that produced the anxiety in the first place. Paradoxically, relinquishing the desire for a limit to what is experienced as dangerously unbound affect might be the route out of misery. Dickinson’s poem is therapeutic to me not because it provides a command or a reparation that shows me the destined end of my distress, but because it teeters in an interval of indeterminacy. It offers me the culture’s pat wisdom: learn to recognise your limits, and you can cope with anything. This is the managerial lesson. Will I be bound by it? Simultaneously, it offers a much more dangerous premise: that you only bear this much because you are willing to contain it. The exhausting work of being contented with that ache, day after regulated day, is performed by those who are sufficient to misery. What I want to know is: how might I become sufficient to something else?
You can read part 1 here
…and part 2 here.
 Theodore Ziolkowski discusses other examples, including Kleist and JS Mill, in ‘Tolle Lege: Epiphanies of the Book’, Modern Language Review 109.1 (January 2014): 1-14.
 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, A Dialogue on Love (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).
 R. W. Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson: A Variorum Edition, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).