Practicing for death
The ways in which we could have been
Several years ago I saw an exhibition of Czech artist Blanka Kirchner whose work at the time was concerned with recording and collecting of personal data and fragments. On an A4 sheet of paper, Kirchner wrote the things she did not yet experience as a 35 year old. She did not yet have a child of her own; she never tried snails; she never had an exhibition at MoMA. It seemed in direct opposition to the advice I have been hearing and seeing in various wellness, watered-down-psychology and therapy-related online spaces in the last few years, which is to be grateful, first and foremost, for what you have. Why consider and record that which is not and which you don't have?
In her memoir Recollections of My Non-existence, Rebecca Solnit does not contemplate whether this question is necessary. Instead, she attacks with an answer head-on. Solnit brings forth a memory-cum-current-situation of a devastating impact the culture of violence has on women. The matter is raw and laid down precisely. No qualms. Solnit says, I wasn't murdered or assaulted, but many other women were. The genre of memoir is often derided on the account of selfishness of the author and their apparent need for self-preservation through words. Let's be honest, we hate a memoir even more if it's written by a woman, for the salacious exposé of her life is thought to override her work and the possible intellectual contribution to society. As Solnit says, “sometimes the women (...) insistent on their own desires and needs are reviled or rebuked for taking up space, for making noise. You are punished unless you punish yourself into non-existence in this system.” She takes a matter of violence that can be so personal, a matter that is often spoken about only by the individuals involved, and weaves it into the bigger epidemic. It's a state of war that half the population experiences every single day.
It makes for a bleak reading, but you gain a sense of what she is doing: recounting all the ways she wasn't and couldn't have been because of being in the system imposed on her. Out of the ways she was silenced as a woman, especially in her early twenties, comes up a portrait of a writer who slowly and steadily gained her voice. The silencing led to a certain flourishing, but Solnit's presentation is far from a proverbial every cloud has a silver lining. Her answer to this fallacy is an argument missing from contemporary discussions of violence: “Mostly we hear from people who survive difficulties or break through barriers and the fact that they did so is often used to suggest the difficulties or barriers were not so very serious or that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Not everyone makes it through, and what tries to kill you takes a lot of your energy that might be better used elsewhere and makes you tired and anxious.” Is the celebration of the survivor squashing the remembrance of the broken? Is the celebration of the survivor and their toughness just a way to distract from why they are surviving in the first place?
I like this exercise of anti-gratitude. Solnit is doing us a service: you are not crazy for thinking and feeling in your deepest bones that you miss out on life because of oppression. The vicious and energized attacks on misogyny, formulated through words, are still important, even if their only outcome is an affirmation of your understanding of the world. Always look on the dark side of life.
The title of this newsletter is taken from a section from Maggie Nelson's The Red Parts, in which she describes being alone as a woman in potentially dangerous places at night:
“It's a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. (...) You've been told a million times that to be alone and female and in public late at night is to court disaster, so it's impossible to know if you're being bold and free or stupid and self-destructive. And sometimes practicing for death is just practicing for death.”