“Je copie – je copie – c’est aussi emmerdant que d’inventer – mais l’écriture est une chose vivante – écriture chose vivante – la lumière ne vient pas du ciel elle arrive de très loin”
I copy – I copy – it’s just as boring making shit up – but writing is a living thing – writing living thing – light doesn’t come from the sky it comes from very far
– Sophie Podolski, Le pays où tout est permis
Is literature symptom or illness, isn’t it schizophrenic? The act of writing like a copying that occurs while wandering serpentine patterns. An author authorizes herself to leash it, take control. There’s the ritual of writing; it’s about containment, the managing of powers. Literature serving to put the disorder of consciousness into orders mirroring the validated world is named valuable. Untranslated, raw consciousness can’t safely carry meaning. Some of what’s produced is unauthorized because it doesn’t follow the proper rituals of writing.
Authority is a thing an author can give herself but if it’s madness or illness it’s not counted as literature, because literature, so close to illness, is wary of being seen too close to illness. Blake invented a poetic cosmos and still introductions begin with the question of madness. Artaud is known perhaps only because the Surrealists couldn’t rid themselves of him entirely and writers like Susan Sontag were able to read him. The letters between Artaud and those who couldn’t see him as anything but ill are evidence. On their own terms these texts are lucid and sane, but deranged, disordering, violent against a reader clinging to orders and certainties.
Sophie Podolski suffered; her suffering was named schizophrenia. Now it would be named something else. A name is required for the body afflicted to be accepted into the cosmology of medicine. The sick don’t rule the world; the healthy do, and they demand health or at least an illusion of it. “C’est parce que nous sommes au Paradis que tout dans ce monde nous fait mal. Hors du Paradis, rien ne gêne car rien ne compte,” she writes, It’s because we’re in Heaven that everything in the world hurts us. Outside of Heaven, nothing disturbs for nothing counts. Poets suffer from being able to imagine otherwise. To see possible worlds overlaid on the existing one is violent; to write this necessarily transmits violence.
“Les pharmacies sont pleines de médicaments inutiles,” she copies from herself into ink, the pharmacies are filled with useless medication. If she affirms what’s called sickness how could the medications for producing health be useful? She took acid, speed, smoked joints.
She wrote in a streaming state of intensity between episodes of depression and despair, hospitalization, without caution, volcanically. Reading her is stepping into a torrent that began before the text and continues after it. It’s the wake of a mind across pages.
There’s a world where she was capable of loving herself but she had to invent it: “le jardin – fluorescent désiré – musicalement,” the garden – fluorescent desired – musically. Simultaneously, she inhabits a world ruled by cruel orders of capital and male domination of women: a certain-world where love, gender, and health are fixed properties ruled by production and life outside is not permitted. She called her only work, published in 1973, written by hand, tangled with drawings, Le pays où tout est permis, “The Country Where Everything is Permitted.” The Sophie writing in her own text says, “je commencerai par un suicide,” I’ll begin as a suicide: to get into one world requires an exit from the other.
She gave herself permission to everything, a permission which was not given to her. In and out of hospitals for treatment, severely limited, she gives herself permission, envisions gardens of liberty, the globe comically swinging between a man’s legs, imagines her suicide, enacts literature as “a living thing.” In the end she did try to kill herself, lingered for ten days, then died. She was twenty-one. “Je ne suis pas ici pour être plus fort que vous,” she copies, I’m not here to be stronger than you.
Her selves is better to say. “…maintenant il faut aller mieux tout le temps – toutes le sophies l’ont dit,” she writes, now it must go better all the time – all the sophies have said it. All the Sophies is not a theme or a thread but actuality. The author of Le pays où tout est permis isn’t a stable position but constantly shifting. She writes illness, she is her writing like her writing is her, refusing to hide or translate this, affirming it against the false sanity of capital and hospitals that make non-being preferable to being.
They’re positions from which to marvel at herself as a body and be disgusted by it, the formulation of a loving that can recognize her as her love recognizes others and is anti-Romantic because she gives it to herself where she sees shit and vulgarity too. She’s the moth drawn towards glowing things, “je ne cesse de penser à ceux que j’aime – ils sont loins – ils ont tout mangé – ils savent tout et me connaissent,” I never stop thinking about those who I love – they’re far – they’ve eaten everything – they know everything and know me. There are names, like Cactus and Joëlle, but they’re interior, too, there’s no moment outside of Sophie. She flutters towards the parts of her mind where love can be found. Poets make what they need to survive out of any available material.
Survival as literature: a political and philosophical act. Le pays où tout est permis is not a philosophical essay, not even in the loose and metamorphosing forms Hélène Cixous uses or the stressed, remaking language deployed by Luce Irigaray. Both play in unreadability but from greater positions of control: they’re overwhelming but don’t drown themselves in themselves, where Podolski is the flood that carries her selves away in foam.
Copied from her selves into writing is a form of late 20th-century feminist thought distilled to an acid corrosive to every institution. Sometimes she seems a feral precursor, ahead of Cixous and Irigaray (Speculum was published in 1974). She wasn’t at the Sorbonne but part of an artistic community called the Montfaucon Research Centre in Brussels, founded by the artist Joëlle de la Casinière. The storms of an era, CIA, KGB, Red Brigades, Maoism, the incipient triumph of capital, impacted all her sensitivities: “le vert acide tendre comme le rose acide – politique des nerfs – politique intérieure des nerfs – guerres civiles,” the green acid tender like the pink acid – politics of nerves – interior politics of nerves – civil wars. The wars within a body produced by capital mirror the wars within nations eating themselves alive for capital.
Roberto Bolaño, a contemporary who read and never forgot her, called to her ghost repeatedly. She’s one of the lost poets of a generation, disappeared in Latin America and ended by suicide, dead by brutal accident and vaporous violence. In one story she appears in a literary magazine called Luna Park (a real magazine, though short-lived) which the protagonist travels to Belgium to investigate, but otherwise belongs to writers “who not only can no longer be found in bookstores but can’t even be found on the internet, which is saying a lot, as if they’d never existed or as if we’d imagined them” (Bolaño, Between Parentheses). In a poem she’s “A girl who wrote dragons completely fucking sick of it all in some corner of Brussels . . . ‘Assault rifles, guns, old grenades … The sun on the Nile behind the curtain of dust at sunset’ … A Belgian girl who wrote like a star” (Bolaño, “The Nile,” from The Unknown University).
Isn’t this too much praise, for what can read like what a twenty-one year old on acid might write and later be embarrassed of? Except she has that shocking touch of real poetry, the kind that never has the same form but is instantly recognizable, the way Rimbaud, even younger, remains shocking. You couldn’t do this, but they can:
“Ils se souvenaient de leurs gestuelles très exactement. Le rite nous y oblige – Notre – Rite – Oblige – à nous souvenir du rite – le vice de l’écriture est un rite qui n’est pas donné à tous – le vice d’écrire – même un nombre restreint. J’erre serpentueuse – suis-je diaphane? J’aime me tordre. Tordez-moi. Enlacez-moi. Suis donc mal aimée – pour être tant aimée. J’irai beaucoup plus loin un jour je cesserai la cure. J’arrêterai d’écrire – et je foncerai vraiment – pute ou non – oui ou pute – morte vivante sans aucun rappel – je commencerai par un suicide – je ne serai plus aveugle.
la révélation d’une cosmologie unifiée qui cessera d’être coupée en deux par les anciennes antinomies de l’esprit et de la matière – de la substance et de l’attribut – de l’orbite et de l’événement – de l’agent et de l’acte – de la matière et de l’énergie – et si cela doit nous conduire à un univers dans lequel on ne pensera plus – on ne sentira plus l’homme comme un sujet isolé confronté à des objets étrangers et menaçants – alors nous posséderons une cosmologie qui ne sera plus seulement unifiée – mais aussi joyeuse. Ça c’est vrai comme je suis la musique – le cerveau devrait pouvoir exploser – depuis que des choses ont explosé dedans”
They remember their gestures quite exactly. The ritual obliges us to them – Our – Ritual – Obliges – to our memory of the ritual – the vice of writing is a rite which isn’t given to everyone – the vice of writing – even to a limited number. I wander sinuously – am I vaporous? I like to contort myself. Contort me. Wrap around me. Aren’t I badly loved – for being so much loved? I’ll go much farther one day I’ll finish the treatment. I’ll stop writing – and I’ll darken deeply – whore or not – yes or whore – living dead without any name – I’ll begin by a suicide – I won’t be blind anymore.
the revelation of a unified cosmology that ceases to be cut in two by the ancient antinomies of spirit and matter – of substance and attribute – of orbit and event – of agent and act – of matter and energy – and if this must drive us to a universe in which one doesn’t think anymore – one doesn’t feel human anymore as an isolated subject confronted by strange and menacing objects – then we’ll possess a cosmology that won’t just be unified – but also joyous. That it’s true like I am music – the mind must explode – since we explode things within it
Illness excuses nothing: the text is there and can speak for itself. Boccaccio and Kathy Acker both remind that radical acts of literature can be enacted in vulgar forms. Don’t read biography onto the text, one has to say again and again. They are vulgar, but much of the rest, posing as sensible, is shit. That won’t just be unified – but also joyous…it’s true like I am music.
Sophie Podolski wasn’t supposed to exist as more than a ghost. The chances of encountering her work on its own remain close to zero. Her textual internet presence is effectively a digital version of Le pays ou tout est permis, uploaded by Paul Legault, and the translations from it he has made into English. These can be found in an edition of The Seattle Review, a few other places and are the only published translations available, totalling far less than the complete text. Before coming across these contributions by Legault’s she seemed purely an invention of literature.
Translation is the ordered disorder of one mind passing again through another, which must re-order it. With Podolski, with any messy writer, this effect is magnified by reading the certain-world most of us inhabit without question over her possible-world of rage, joy, and difference. Her text isn’t familiar, it’s alien. One is allowed to be many, one is allowed to love oneself and make a literature that is a copying of the turmoils of consciousness without translating it through the laws of common language. She speaks for her-selves; to read her in French at least keeps them close to their own tongues.
Writing is a living thing; how can a living thing be translated, except to become dismembered? Maybe translation is another cruelty, another way to twist her into what she is not. Legault’s translations don’t betray her; she isn’t made familiar or less startling, but translating her carries the unavoidable danger of trying to make sense of the text, which would be a crime, and one has to decide whether this is a crime worth committing anyway. So much of translation can appear an attempt to mask sickness, what’s seen as dis-ordered from a position of order, with health. It’s still a question without an easy answer: how to transmit across language a text in defiance of coherence, like deliberately passing along a pathogen.
It may be best that she remain a ghost, having written a living thing that touched Roberto Bolaño in his youth in Mexico City, lost volumes waiting to be found by accident in used book stores, a set of images scanned and uploaded to the internet, as far as possible from hospitals and capital.
* The essay’s title is taken from the poem “Sophie Podolski,” by Roberto Bolaño, appearing in The Unknown University, New Directions, 2013.
**All quotations here are from Le pays où tout est permis, by Sophie Podolski. Pierre Belfond, 1973. All translations are by Aaron Boothby. The text in full is available here: https://issuu.com/legault/docs/le_pays_ou_tout_est_permis_-_complete
Sophie Podolski was a Belgian writer who wrote one book, Le pays où tout est permis, and died in Brussels in 1974 at the age of twenty-one.
Aaron Boothby is a writer from California now living in Montréal whose poetry and essays have appeared in The Puritan, Cosmonoauts Avenue, Axolotl and Liminality. Pieces of a poetic project engaged with the work of Sophie Podolski have been published in various locations online; links to these can be found at secretinterference.info. Tweets, thoughts and mischief appear @ellipticalnight
Internal book images courtesy of Aaron Boothby.