“Before I Began”: On the Wisdom of Not-Knowing

By Emmalea RussoOctober 17, 2019

“Before I Began”: On the Wisdom of Not-Knowing

Disquieting by Cynthia Cruz

And, with it, out goes the pilot

Blue light of the mind.
Everyone said

I was pretty back then.
Maybe, way back then,

Before I began.

So ends the poem “Diagnosis,” from Cynthia Cruz’s second poetry collection, The Glimmering Room (2012). In reading and thinking through her new collection of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence, the above lines acted as a kind of anchor for me. They’re the words under the words, the rhythm under the intricate silence of Cruz’s essays. The poem’s final three words, “Before I began,” point to a liminal space that is both before birth and after death — and that is also, perhaps, the location of Disquieting itself: haunted with relief (finally, no more body) and anticipation (let us not give up). When the pilot light goes out, what are we left with?

This book of timely and timeless essays tackles a number of trenchant issues: anorexia, mental illness, institutionalization, psychoanalysis, melancholia, neoliberalism, class, gender, repetition, and nothingness. In the book’s introduction, Cruz writes:

Often in my writing, repetition conveys what cannot otherwise be relayed — repetition both within the sentence and throughout the collection makes a mark, creates new pathways. This stuttering performs not-knowing and holds open the space, resisting the reductive binary that results from “knowing.”

Repetition of the same words or acts — chanting, prayer, repeating a mantra — can be a method to transcend the body-mind, as language deliquesces into mere sound. Sounds and vibrations, gestures and movements are perhaps one step closer to silence than language. And so much, Cruz reminds us, cannot be conveyed in words. When repeated, words shimmy out of their assigned meanings, as logic and reason soften. A relief, a release. We can subsist inside the quiet closeness of not-knowing. When we know that we don’t know, and can’t know, we’re a little freer. Unfastened. Our bodies fill and empty, fill and empty, repeating the metabolic movements that rest only in death, a state we might say that Cruz is writing into or writing after.

In neoliberal culture, a subject Cruz writes about with precision and expansiveness, knowledge is paramount: facts and figures, graphs and other metrics. The poetics of not-knowing is not a commodifiable mode. And so, Cruz’s book is a manifesto of resistance. John Cage famously said, “There is poetry as soon as we realize we possess nothing.” And this, from Sylvia Plath’s draft of a letter to Richard Sassoon: “Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything, it is because we are dangerously near to wanting nothing.”

In the book’s first essay, “Melancholia and the End of the Future,” Cruz writes about Lars von Trier’s 2011 film, Melancholia, and the inherent “No” of depression. In the film, Justine describes her melancholic body as being weighted with gray yarn; this No — Justine rejects her marriage, her job, her family — is a resistance that’s deemed pathological and wasteful in a neoliberal culture. Cruz writes:

In Justine’s refusal, the melancholic is wasteful. Indeed, what she wastes and hoards and absorbs is time. The idea of doing nothing, of “wasting” or “spending” time inefficiently rather than being inside the endless stream of production (and with it, the constant stream of necessity and distraction and dissociation), seems pathological in neo-liberal culture.

In the film, Justine doesn’t explain her reasons for refusal. And the story comes to inhabit the space of her wasteful and unruly silence — of pauses imbued with awkwardness, of breaks from social interaction and social codes (get a house, go to work, be successful). Near the movie’s end — and the world’s end, as the planet Melancholia is about to collide with Earth in an iridescent explosion — everyone panics. The seemingly nonfunctional Justine, on the other hand, rises to the occasion. She knows the end of the world is coming: she’s felt it, not only in her mind but also in her body — that heavy gray yarn. Cruz reminds us that Justine knows things but we don’t know how she knows them. This kind of not-knowing knowing might be called intuition or wisdom. But neoliberalism doesn’t value such things, as they aren’t readily translatable into capital. In a culture focused on numerical growth, we aren’t taught to look at or listen to those who’ve been deemed mentally ill, lazy, outside-of, other-than. They’ve been stamped with suspicion and DSM codes, often to the culture’s detriment.

Justine embodies what neoliberal society, with its utilitarian bias, sees as wasted potential: the seeds of her aptitudes will never flower and contribute to the machine. The film makes us ask what happens when we use our aptitudes to create nothing rather than something. And Cruz asks us to consider what the slow accumulation of nothing might look and feel like in the body and mind. Phrases like these pepper us every day: “He had such potential”; “She threw away her potential”; “She could’ve done anything she wanted”; “He had the world at his fingertips”; “He got off the path.” Such language covers many scenarios — mental illness, addiction, institutionalization. There’s living (functioning well according to neoliberal standards) and there’s dying (any of the above options). Disquieting is interested in this aftermath, not simply as aftermath but as an event in itself.

Cruz argues for a more expansive understanding of anorexia and other DSM-classified illnesses. She asks: “What would it mean to understand a symptom not as a pathology but as a marker of the emotional experience we have repressed?” In the revelatory essay “All Bodies Are Classed,” Cruz considers the costs — and the opportunities — involved in American culture’s erasure of the poor and working classes:

If one is invisible or has been rendered invisible by a culture that refuses to recognize one’s existence, what then might it mean to claim the very existence the dominant culture is trying so hard not to see? The act of coming out as working-class is, in fact, an act of suicide: it gives up any pretense of assimilating.

In elementary school, Cruz was ridiculed by older boys because of her clothes and body. “Ashamed, I said nothing,” she writes. “Because they remarked on my appearance, I understood that if I just looked different, I would be okay. By junior high, I was anorexic, which is to say I no longer succeeded at anything but restricting what entered my body.” Cruz’s trauma became a means of both self-protecting and self-destroying: anorexia is a way of making oneself smaller and also — as Cruz points out in the following essay, “Gender, Anorexia, and a Call to Being” — of occupying a liminal domain, the space “between childhood play and intellectual activity.” In grades five and six, Cruz was snapped out of this haven where she wasn’t defined by her body, where she wasn’t yet “called into being” as a woman. She writes, “Before these calls, I was blissfully unaware of my social existence. I was simply myself. Once called, however, there was no undoing my knowing.”

How much of oneself is defined by the culture that calls one into being? Is it possible to ever feel like “simply ourselves,” after being called into being as a woman, an anorexic, a depressive, a working-class person, and so forth? What if we don’t heed the call? Is it possible to write back into the space “before I began”? The middle space that Cruz describes, a space where she neither has to adhere to social norms nor eschew them, is one of a healing nothingness, of a thoughtful not-knowing. It is the space of poetry.

In a class society, attempted adherence to social norms can make us sick, but resistance to those norms makes us sick too, at least according to prevailing definitions. How then, do we define true health, true sickness?


Not long before I began reading Disquieting, I heard someone refer to criminals and drug addicts as the “dregs of society.” Dregs is the title of Cruz’s most recent book of poetry, devoted to the leftovers, wastes, remnants — those things or people deemed, under neoliberalism especially, to be of little or no value. Those who can’t work or don’t, those who are ill, those who don’t or won’t pull themselves up and climb the social ladder. As I read Disquieting, I often thought of these supposed dregs of society and the border that separates them — this invisible edge beyond which people I love (and I myself) have subsisted, and where, perhaps, all of us exist before we begin.

Cruz’s collection of essays is unafraid to dwell in this disquieting betwixt, this space that asks for radical listening, for redefinitions of worth and value, and for resistance to assimilation. Throughout the book, we learn that resistance is both necessary and painful, destructive and healing. We also learn that these binaries are not helpful. Cruz writes with crystalline clarity and poetic nuance, in an art-making that is a kind of metabolic mystery. When the binaries break down, when doubling turns into erasure, we get a third thing, a fissure that is both no-thing and the seed of creation itself. Cruz’s book inhabits this gap with generosity, rigor, and urgency.


Emmalea Russo is a writer, artist, and astrologer living in New Jersey. Her recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ArtcriticalBOMBThe Brooklyn RailCosmopolitanHyperallergic, and SFMOMA’s Open Space

LARB Contributor

Emmalea Russo is a writer living at the Jersey shore. Her books are G (2018) and Wave Archive (2019). Her poetry and writings on film, philosophy, and art have appeared in Artforum, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, SF MOMA’s Open Space, and elsewhere. She is pursuing a PhD in Philosophy and edits the multidisciplinary journal Asphalte Magazine.


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