“It took at least one bottle of whiskey to make a grave. The bottle lay on the brim of the grave. Each man, before he took a turn at the spade, first had a long swig out of the bottle.
‘I wouldn’t go down in the grave without at laste one glass’, I was advised once, as we were digging in the graveyard.
‘Why?’ I queried.
But the man only shook his head sagely as he handed me the bottle.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
During my own earlier return from Madrid – executed by way of train, boat, train and bus – I’d felt the slow creep of desire along my right arm, the worst kind of desire – the desire to write.
It had been complicated by an acceptance that I had nothing notable to say with it, nothing that, I’d felt at the time, should compel me to write anything down, hone it, precision it and craft it – then cast it out and be done with it, as is always the way.
Other business took up my time on my return to the city and the desire to write – if, indeed, that was what it had been – became instead a dull but constant urge, a background sensation to the more functional thoughts and actions of my days.
Not only did I feel then that I embarrassed the desire by having nothing notable to do with it, but I had no time to pursue the embarrassment and comfort it with work into something passable, something that took the edge off – if only for a time.
Being away from Madrid is to blame for all of this, I’d thought, childishly – being away from that mystery of new language.
There was something in that, though, something about being within language, hearing words, not necessarily understanding them – being consumed by the pleasant weakness in all of that.
There’s a chance at vulnerability there, perhaps, I thought – for both sides.
And I get too much faith in some worn strength from well-known language, exactly what I don’t need.
Accept weakness, then, I’d thought, abject your body – not those of others alone but the very hard and awful fact of your sad own.
But that notion, then, of such pleasant weakness – and return to thought in good old English once again – makes me want to be ever more perfect in every way – and this, of course, only makes it ever more impossible to write.
I work, though, on my return.
I go for drinks. I eat burgers with relatives. I talk about books for podcasts.
I receive, one Saturday morning, news from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland that I will benefit from a grant of £1,500 of National Lottery money to aid in the completion of the project this essay is a part of – but all this only compounds my feeling of inability.
I don’t want to write another novel for your consumption, no, nor write a book of poetry. I don’t want to write philosophy or attempt to divulge the purest secrets of my heart. Nor do I wish for extra time to write manuals detailing the correct mode of construction for garden swings, no, not those nor scientific or legal textbooks, no, not those, nor even lists of exact proof.
I continue to read, however.
I read and watch, and I listen.
It’s not, I think, that I’m waiting for inspiration.
I’m just waiting.
And if I wait long enough, I think, no doubt something will happen.
Then, half watching the film Clerks one night, and after having pushed away – or let fall from something – my desire, a discussion in the film catches my attention and I think I realise what it is I want to say – or, at least, I remember clearly that desire I’d once embarrassed.
Dante, one of the eponymous clerks in the film, who’s ‘not even supposed’ to be in at work the day of the story, asks his girlfriend Veronica about the amount of ‘dicks’ she has sucked.
How many dicks have you sucked?
Let it go!
All right! Shut up a second, I’ll tell you, Jesus. I didn’t freak out like this when you told me how many girls you fucked.
This is different. This is important. How many?
At this point in the film a customer appears at the cashier desk to pay for something. There is a polite pause in the dialogue between Veronica and Dante as the transaction takes place.
Well?, Dante impatiently asks Veronica as he hands the customer her change.
Hmm…Something like… 36
What? Something like 36?
Lower your voice.
Wait-wait-wait, what does that mean, something like 36, does that include me?
I’m going to class.
Veronica lifts up her bag and moves out from behind the counter.
Oh, My god, Dante says quietly to himself and another customer appears.
37, Dante says to the customer – my girlfriend’s sucked 37 dicks.
In a row?, the customer asks, genuinely curious.
Dante gets out from behind the counter and goes over to Veronica as she’s about to leave.
Hey, where’re you going?
Veronica gets – understandably – very angry at this question.
You never knew how many guys I’d slept with because you didn’t even ever bother to ask. Then you act all nonchalant about fucking 12 different girls – well, I never had sex with 12 different guys!
No, but you sucked enough dick.
Yeah, I went down on a few guys.
And one of those guys was you, the last one I might add, which if you’re too stupid to comprehend means that I’ve been faithful to you since we met. All the others I went with before I met you. So if you want to have a complex about it go ahead but don’t look at me like I’m the town whore because you were plenty busy yourself before you met me.
As this happens, as I absentmindedly watch the film, as unformed thoughts collect and flicker in my mind, I laugh and then have an additional, more concrete thought – you only ever seem to realise that you have to wait for things to happen – fool – as things are actually happening.
Before that, you always think nothing will ever happen again – that enthusiasm for an idea, for example – that idea in itself.
And then it happens, completely without expectation and you convince yourself of some ability of foresight that of course you knew it would again.
“ ‘Oh, God, what did I do on you at all’, I once heard a man say after God had sent him a third consecutive daughter. No wonder he was displeased with Providence: daughters were a fragile and expensive commodity.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
And I think, days later, travelling through London, about a friend, a friend – is this not right? – yes, yes, a friend – who’s bought some property in the city.
It’s been a while now since I’ve had my own place – a place completely for and to myself – so as the bus moves past the building where his new apartment is I can only wonder at and envy such largesse.
The day before my girlfriend and I’d had an argument about space and time in the apartment we share but – in fact – she owns.
And I’d noticed again, earlier that day on the bus, a general feeling of unease concerning what was happening in my life – I wanted time to write, I suppose, I still wanted to try to quell that sad desire.
I wanted peace and quiet and space and a certain degree of order.
One does not get such things in London – not cheaply. Perhaps one does not get such things cheaply anywhere, anymore.
How does one survive then?
I’m not sure why I’ve equated writing with survival. I can see how that is – perhaps, for some – a step too far.
But I realise, then, on seeing this apartment – on recalling the purchase of apartment by this, our mutual friend – that what I really want is neither space nor time nor ownership of anything.
I want, very simply – but equally as worrying – to always, always write.
For let us be clear from the outset, no, no, what am I writing, this is not the start but now the end: only a fool writes, owns nothing – has no desire.
I remember then, on the bus – and thinking still about apartments – my father telling another joke, remember his ability with jokes, he’d said – I’m not sure in what particular context but recall my girlfriend and I were once again in Ireland – something about a priest giving a lecture in Mass on infidelity.
In the joke the priest tells a story of a woman with her dress partly open and says, if any man looks upon there, God will strike them blind.
Och, I’ll risk one eye a fellow at the back says quietly to himself.
Be homeless, then, I think – feel displaced – see what comes of you.
Rejoice in your displacement, your general inappropriateness.
Reject belief in ownership of your body, shit down your leg, shit on the street.
But I too fall prey to the thought of ownership. I take jobs purely for the money, watch it then accrue with constant glee.
The thought of it alone should be enough to keep you going, I often – cruelly – think.
Returning home to our apartment I collapse on the sofa in the living room and sit there for hours, unable to talk. I’m not sure what’s caused this new exhaustion – perhaps it is such thoughts of giving up.
I lie down on the sofa and look up at the books that line the shelf above me. I see the book I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. The only thing I can think about then doing is reading parts of this book, I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. I pull down the book from the bookshelf and flick through the pages.
I read the last few lines of the chapter Add it Up:
“I threw up twice before getting on the plane.
36. Dear Dick,
No woman is an island-ess. We fall in love in hope of anchoring ourselves to someone else, to keep from falling,
For a man, I don’t mind falling, I think – but I’m moved, then, to admit my own reprove.
Much later, browsing once again on Twitter, I notice a link to a video of Salmon Rushdie ‘summarising’ the plot of Ulysses. I touch the link and the video appears, then immediately starts playing.
Middle aged, cuckolded, Jewish advertising salesman, walks round Dublin for the day – letches after clubfooted girl at the beach – goes to red-light district – gets even more drunk – meets young guy – brings him home in the middle of the night. Maybe tries to pimp out his wife to young guy. The end.
The fantasy is basically the sad dream of Joyce, I think, of writers, male, female, trans, rich, queer, of any color, strange, incapable or (maybe) poor – to own, but not be seen as owner, as will be repeated – one’s power – or desire for it – ignored, sublimated, in the promise of depravity, depravity of language, euphoric, enthused, contained, misunderstood, mcbridled, complete freedom, the delusion of risk, where no risk exists – this fantasy of ownership, control – and thus: the very novel.
The pornographic urge, the urge to extract payment from another, to sell, and, in selling, indicate what once was owned, that you, seller, can own, words, could own again, words, have owned, words, women, men, things, desire – but are not owned, in return.
A true imagining would be – abject, as has been said, I cannot imagine, I accept your zone, your self, whatever that might be, beyond control, release the paradox, as tight, now, as mathematics – minimising one’s desire to own ≠ (but often truly does) wanting to lessen the desire of others to do so – even, strangely, over only themselves.
And I know what you’re thinking – of course that’s not the end.
And you’re right but – so what?
It’s still control, the end, even if he imagines what she thinks. Why must he imagine it, come to his good terms with it? Why not simply let it be?
You think you know what’s felt, writer, you think you have an idea, or worse, some control over other matter – you’re ok with it? – some ownership?
I’m sorry but – you don’t.
And so, then, months later, travelling to Manchester, I feel similarly to how I felt when my girlfriend was away before – I feel…well, who cares, now, how I feel?
Haven’t we had enough of all of that?
So, instead: In Manchester, where I have taken up a new role as a commercial lawyer, one day I notice on the webpage of my firm a point of interest about the subject matter property.
“the centrality of land law to society in an economic system based on the concept of private ownership”
Later that same day I watch a television programme on Channel 4, a show called The Gypsy Matchmaker. It’s about a man trying to find a bride for his young son.
All the girls inquired about are no older than 14.
The matchmaker explains to camera how this is the gypsy way: girls are married off typically at this age; money often changes hands; once wed the woman must support the man.
The matchmaker travels around, presenting the boy, offering money, making deals.
During one negotiation with a female head of family, however, his request is politely declined. The female head refuses to wed the young girl, rejecting, even, money.
After the matchmaker leaves, she talks straight to camera.
Some of the gypsy traditions are good, she says – but not the one about young marriage.
Back in London I find myself watching another film, the Nick Broomfield documentary Biggie & Tupac.
Broomfield talks halfway through the film with a woman, Sonia Flores, who was once the simultaneous girlfriend of two Los Angelean policemen. Both of these policemen, it’s alleged in the film, were thought to have been somehow involved in the death of Biggie, as well as general police corruption.
Before he cuts to his interview with Flores, Broomfield asks of these two police officers – as voiceover –
I wondered if they represent the new breed of police officer, whose values Hackey talked about.
Hackey is a retired police officer and is introduced and interviewed by Broomfield earlier in the film.
After asking his question, Broomfield then cuts to a shot of Hackey speaking once again.
What cop doesn’t want to be in the limelight, you know? Everything is about authority, power – being in control. I mean…everybody wants to be around money. Everybody wants to be around, you know, women. That’s just…that’s the nature of the badge.
Broomfield then talks with Flores and her lawyer.
The lawyer seems a bit pushy, a bit seedy – he prompts Flores unusually, saying, out of nowhere, in relation to one of the policemen
Did he ever ask you to experiment in a sexual way, with women, or more than two people, or three people?
After a while discussing this point generally Broomfield asks, about the very fact of her two boyfriends,
And they shared you?
No, I shared them, Flores replies, confidently, then clarifies – not they shared me.
You shared them? – Broomfield says, surprised.
How did that work?
Well, because, girls decide who they’re gonna sleep with, you know. It’s not a guy who’s gonna decide, I’m gonna sleep with this girl, it’s the girl who decides I’m gonna sleep with these guys.
And I think back then to law school, think about reading theorist Roberto Unger.
I look up his work again on the Internet, using work subscriptions – scan quickly through some text.
“In the high classicism of nineteenth century legal thought, the property right was the very model of right generally. The consolidated property right had to be a zone of absolute discretion. In this zone the rightholder could avoid any tangle of claims to mutual responsibility. It was natural that this conception of right should be extended to all rights.”
“our dominant conception of right imagines the right as a zone of discretion of the rightholder, a zone whose boundaries are more or less rigidly fixed at the time of the initial definition of the right. The right is a loaded gun that the rightholder may shoot at will in his corner of town. Outside that corner the other licensed gunmen may shoot him down. But the give and take of communal life and its characteristic concern for the actual effect of any decision upon the other person are incompatible with this view of right and therefore, if this is the only possible view, with any regime of rights.”
After that I read, for free, an article by Tom McCarthy in The Guardian – paid for by advertisements – wherein he quotes De Certeau:
“To write…then, is to be forced to march through enemy territory, in the very area where loss prevails, beyond the protected domain that had been delimited by the act of localising death elsewhere. It is to produce sentences with the lexicon of the mortal, in proximity to and even within the space of death.”
“Since Mallarmé, scriptural experience has deployed itself in the relation between the act of moving forward and the death-dealing soil on which its wandering leaves its track. In this respect, the writer is also a dying man who is trying to speak. But in the death that his footsteps inscribe on a black (and not blank) page, he knows and he can express the desire that expects from the other the marvellous and ephemeral excess of surviving through an attention that it alters.”
I think then about a system of ethics based on only text, words uttered with certainty and surety. What about the words of those who are not sure, not certain? What about words uttered by those who have no agency over their body any longer? What about those with no words, no body?
Can they make rules too?
Or are rules only for people who want ownership of their own body, of others, crave it – believe it in fact possible.
But I can’t answer this, for I’m later further distracted – and once again online – by news of a Charlie Rose interview of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard.
The click-bait headline of the article reads ‘Karl Ove Knausgaard on Charlie Rose: ‘My Struggle’ as the Great Middle American Novel of Protestant Shame’.
One edited video of a section of the interview, embedded in the article, catches most of my attention – the title reads ‘self-loathing is a big part of my life’.
Has it been cathartic? Charlie Rose asks some way into the video, and then repeats one word – Cathartic?
Ehh…For me? Writing this?
No. No it hasn’t. I was…em…occupied with making novels out of, you know, my own life, I was not interested in…it’s not this therapeutic thing for me and em…
You, you were interested in making a novel out of my own life?
Not in a sense of dealing with my own…
My own troubles…
No. Not at all. No.
And…but so what is, though, the consequence of doing this…other than being able to publish compelling reading for…people around the world.
The consequences for me personally?
Is it a feeling of success? Accomplishment?
It’s…em….one major subject in these books are, you know, self hatred, self loathing…eh…and I’m…that’s a big part of my life.
Ehh…I think…that’s one of the things I’m looking for in my writing, try to figure out why.
To answer why?
Yeah, that’s one of the things, why? I mean, I was forty years old when I started to write this book and I had, you know…
You were forty?
Yeah, when I started. And I had three beautiful children, I had a beautiful wife, I had, you know, a house, it was like the Talking Heads song…
I had all this, but I wasn’t happy and that’s one of the seven deadly sins, you know, not appreciating your life. And I didn’t, it was like everything was grey. So I…Why? Why? How did I get there, you know? That’s the question in the book and, and, and…
And what’s the answer?
Why were you unhappy?
It’s like…that’s…for me, now, when I wake up in the morning, every morning, I start my day unhappy, you know. And, and, having this success doesn’t help at all, that’s just like, well, all those people are mistaken, you know, it’s like, all this is a lie, all this is, eh…something that’s not true, even, so it’s very hard to take.
I’ve forgotten my objective with all of this, though, haven’t I?
Clearly – don’t remind me. Lost my way. Oh well, that’s all right. I wanted to re-write this Kavanagh, I think, I wanted to own it for myself.
And what was it I once wrote of love, loss and Ireland?
But no, what was it, then, remind me – not own, foolishly, no?
Well, yes, perhaps – not love, no, nor men nor women, no, not food, no, nor even yourself and not even words, surely.
You feel exactly as I do – I think – you may think differently about it, but you feel exactly as I do, excepting one difference that perhaps you can’t elude – you’d rather spend 20 seconds in solitude than any amount of time sharing space without reward.
So no, your generosity is not enough – your violation is required.
Relax – Just kidding.
I don’t want to own anything – I don’t even want dominion over my own body, let alone another.
And I know, then, that I am a fool, yes – am I not? – as I don’t want any agency over my body.
For of all sins – if it can still be said there are such things – one stands out – that of refusing to own, having no sense of dominion, even, “God help you”, they will say, over that most inviolable of things, your own ridiculous body.
Instead, I’ll give you agency over my body, oh cloud, oh service provider, government, oh market, provide me with all.
I am part cloud, hard drive, random memory and I take no responsibility for anything at all.
Expose your weakness, then, that is, your sacred zone, and what?
Become a man eating branches on the street, screaming outside Costa?
I saw a man eat burning leaves in Manchester, a man sleeping on the street.
I saw a man screaming outside Costa Coffee.
New green fools – so I end up doing these things instead of joining in.
Because don’t forget, it’s not allowed – discrimination is prevented in all areas but one – that of not wanting to own, of being poor – of having no sense of property.
Watching television once again I see a report about a pilot who lives some distance from his wife and child.
The Worst Place to be a Pilot in the World, the show is called.
He lives in Indonesia, she and the child in Hong Kong.
They talk on Skype. Indonesia is the ‘Ring of Fire’, as he calls it, with the regular threat of earthquakes and tsunami.
‘No place for a woman or a child’, he says, but fine enough for him it seems.
It makes me sad, watching them have their Skype conversation.
Allow and engage with life around you, I think, not, not only, not only…well, what?
And I think, then, of the character of Eeyore again, think about whether Oe was writing about an actual event, his real son connecting literally with what was around him, and what was wrong with that?
I think then about how I react to others, to people, present, absent – about how their bodies – bodies generally, our own and those around us – are just too much for some.
So do without your self, without your precious, sacred zone?
Abject, yes – oh really?
Well, yes, please, yes – really.
Come on now – no.
The fool, then, is I, or you, the writer, he or she who mocks the sacred zone, leading, then, to what we think is therefore justice.
The writer wants dominion, and yet – the writer is the fool, but not the fool imagined heretofore, not green, no, nor even very new – a simple fool.
Property might be the best you can hope for, really – and what you do with that is up to you, you get the laws that you so well deserve – Jesus, Christ was nuts – if you want to disregard your love for self, love for your own body, you must abject the body, not things nor those of others, yes, yes, easy, but you, your very own, you, be quiet, move over, let me in, let me in, some space please, some space, these people, that’s mine…
“I returned to Ireland. Ireland green and chaste and foolish. And when I wandered over my own hills and talked again to my own people I looked into the heart of this life and saw that it was good.’
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
It’s undeniable – everybody wants to own, to have some dominion over something even if it is only themselves, everybody wants to own and yet – to not be seen as owner.
But how about just not be?
And at some point it will all stop anyway, the eyes first, perhaps, then other parts and words will be no succor, or, at least, not as much as they once had been – perhaps, even, you’ll lose the will to write, or speak, lose the words themselves, the words and what follows from them, all those things, thought, clear witticisms, clarifications, memorandums, orders, expectations – all lost, perhaps it will happen in a lecture theatre, you’ll be sitting there, calm, and then – nothing, not even desire.
Not even your own body.
Your only thought will be:
You’ll think of all of those that you had loved, had wronged.
You’ll want to quietly weep upon their body.
“Before night the whole country was laughing at the story. And the story was adorned with a thousand fantastic flourishes.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh
So what are you still reading this for? – and why do I read Kavanagh, McCarthy, or any of these damn fools, old, new, green, no matter, for on we write anyway, those who choose to read, ceaselessly, old words, new ones, but always, joyously, foolishly, words, borne back, ceaselessly, ceaselessly – yes? You know? Good for you, you own them, they are yours – into the very past.
And now I know what it is that I should write about – for this, it is the voice of a dead man talking.
Alan Cunningham is a writer from the north of Ireland. His first book, Count from Zero to One Hundred, was published in 2013 by Penned in the Margins. This essay is part of the New Green Fool series, partly funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. Previous essays have appeared in print and online at gorse, and online at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and Minor Literature[s]. His next book, Sovereign Invalid, will be published later this year by VerySmallKitchen. @alanmcunningham