Me, On Strangers

One of the best things about working at The New School, apart from all the bathrooms I have access to around Union Square, is getting the chance to be a part of programs like New Talks. Was honored to read along with other academics on the theme of Strangers. Check out the livestream of "Strangers" here and read an excerpt from my talk below.

In her essay “On Being Ill,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “…always to be understood would be intolerable.” And at first I did not believe her. Thought she must have meant the opposite. A facetious joke.

After all, who can resist the gooey indulgence of feeling understood? As if knowing were a kind of loving.

It was access to a kind of love that drew me to nonfiction in the first place. As a teenager I began obsessively recording observations of strangers and of those who for whatever reasons I’d deemed un-strange, because it filled me with empathy, both for myself and for others. I believed the act might illuminate some connective tissue, creating a net that could catch and include me in a world I felt mostly outside of, mostly alone in, curating to some degree what Mark Doty calls, “A collector’s catalogue, a record of the body’s travels…”

“How else will I know the world,” he asks, “if not by finding, in the bodies of my lovers and fellows, my coordinates?”

As an essayist I am fascinated by the constant negotiation between the world and the self,  between watching and being watched, hiding and parading. As a woman I inevitably also consider the ways in which I, too, am observed, both IRL and on the page. I think of female poets and artists I admire, how they’ve exposed their abject, vulnerable properties on varied creative planes. Performance artist Marina Abromovic, for instance, literally uses her body as the vehicle of expression, even risking her life in the process of connecting with the audience, whom her curator considers, in effect, “a lover she needs like air to breathe.”

Perhaps this is what we can and want to do in autobiographical writing: at once risk our own lives while saving them. Like any stranger, readers are vessels for both real and imagined intimacy. Which is to say, a real and imagined sense of being seen and then—or still, or now—being loved. A Lacanian desire, driven by lack. As Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary, “If people could see through me, they could not stop loving me, forgive me.”

But in truth maybe I don’t actually want all that, at least not so completely. Maybe Woolf wasn’t messing around. Maybe we only look at the other to gauge the mileage, the outlines, the distance, finally unattainable in our separateness. And maybe there is power in that mystery, a power that seems to speak to the churning undercurrent of my female experience, my own sense of otherness, control, sexual identity, desire, loneliness, and fatigue.

Poet Paul Lisicky writes of Walt Whitman: “His listing, his habit of naming what he sees, high and low, monumental and minuscule, raw and cooked—isn’t he in fact inscribing boundaries in language? Isn’t he saying ‘you’re not me, and you’re not me, and finding delight in that? The exquisite loneliness of the poet striding down the sidewalk. How else could intimacy happen if we don’t carve boundaries between us?”