Feeling Like Shit: On Christine Smallwood’s “The Life of the Mind”

October 3, 2021   •   By Alena Graedon

The Life of the Mind

Christine Smallwood

IN A SCENE near the end of Christine Smallwood’s excellent debut novel, The Life of the Mind, the protagonist, Dorothy, sings karaoke. She doesn’t sing joyously, or unselfconsciously, or with abandon, as she apparently once did. Now, the appearance of the karaoke machine “filled Dorothy with dread.” When her best friend Gaby hands her a microphone, Dorothy sings ambivalently, cheerlessly — in a word, melancholically:

Some time ago karaoke had stopped being fun, and then it had become a chore, and then a kind of poison that caused Dorothy’s internal organs to shut down one by one, but still she did it — sometimes it was even her idea. It was hard to stop doing something you had once liked doing. There always seemed to be the possibility that you could like it again. Could be the person you had been, who was now a stranger.

Dorothy has been having a rough time. The novel opens with her sitting on the toilet, taking a shit. She’s also excreting fetal tissue from a recent miscarriage. She’s also ignoring a call from her therapist, to whom she has disclosed neither the pregnancy nor its end. (This is her first therapist; she’s “cheating” with a second one, who has decided not to invite Dorothy onto her podcast. “‘It’s not that you’re not sympathetic,’ she said, ‘but—’” “I get it,” Dorothy responds. “I don’t think I’m sympathetic, either.”) Dorothy received her PhD from a New York City university, where she now resides in “adjunct hell,” having so far failed to secure a tenure-track job. She’s teaching a course called “Writing Apocalypse.”

Dorothy is highly self-aware, often self-critical. She realizes her life isn’t apocalyptic. Or does she? “These days, Dorothy was pretty sure that she actually was living at the end of something, or too many somethings to say.” She’s experiencing a slow, relentless drip of loss, both figurative and literal (she’s been bleeding for days, then weeks) and is “starting to fear it might never end.” She almost longs for the end — any end — to replace this “ordinary, odorous, calendrical drip.”

But how can she make anything end? Or begin? She doesn’t believe she has much power: not to make significant contributions to her field, and certainly not to save the world from malignant ills like climate disaster. Probably not even to change her own life. For Dorothy, desire has been foreclosed. So, it seems, has love. She doesn’t love her partner Rog much. (“She had entered a period in which he did not pertain.”) She doesn’t love her best friend Gaby much either, or at least doesn’t trust her enough to confide in. She wants approval from, but feels rejected by, her mother, her dissertation advisor, and her second therapist. She doesn’t love her students or colleagues, and she certainly doesn’t love her work. Nor does she expect to find better work. “She vaguely recalled a time when wanting to do the job she had trained for did not feel like too much to want. Now want itself was a thing of the past.”

She’s behind on her manuscript, “as all of [her] circle knew,” and yet she throws out every sample chapter she writes for job applications. “I make garbage,” she tells her therapist; “she hated producing so much waste.” Dorothy is obsessed with waste: intellectual, ecological, digestive. (She spends a lot of time in bathrooms, where she inspects, prods, occasionally even ingests her own excretions.) At one point, while rereading Franco Moretti’s 1987 book The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture on a Vegas-bound plane en route to an academic conference, she imagines the book as a bully: “Your work is superfluous,” it says. “You […] are a dilettante, a prosaic clog in the pipes of discourse. […] Don’t you know anything, you joke of a humanist, you walking fatberg of consumer debt?” It then avers, succinctly, “The problem of the twenty-first century is a problem of waste!

The Way of the World isn’t the only allusion here. Like her protagonist, Smallwood has an English PhD, and the novel is dense with references: Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog,” Rebecca, The Magic Mountain, etc. The title seems to be a reference to Hannah Arendt’s unfinished final work. There is no mention, though, of a book I kept thinking about while reading this one: The Psychic Life of Power (1997) by critical theorist Judith Butler. (Dorothy’s library toilet, it amused me to note, is “by the critical-theory reading room.”)

Butler is Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Program of Critical Theory at UC Berkeley, and, incidentally, she’s the Hannah Arendt Chair of The European Graduate School. She was also a visiting professor at Columbia (where Smallwood got her PhD, and on which Dorothy’s university may be modeled) in the spring of 2012, 2013, and 2014 — while Dorothy was likely writing her dissertation. (Dorothy’s dissertation advisor — coincidence? — is named Judith.) Butler is probably best known for her books Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), in which she explains the concept of gender performance. She’s also written about censorship and hate speech, the political role of public assembly, the ethics of nonviolence, and media depictions of armed conflict, among many other subjects.

I wanted to reread The Psychic Life of Power after finishing Smallwood’s novel first because I’m very literal (they’re both about the “Life of the Mind”), but also because I thought that Butler might help me better understand why Dorothy perceives herself to be so powerless and, in turn, why the many Dorothys I know (I’m sometimes a Dorothy) can believe ourselves to be so divested of agency. One question this novel asks is: What if knowledge isn’t power? When she sees her advisor at the conference, Dorothy thinks, “no one of [her] generation would ever accrue the kind of power Judith had, and this was a good thing even as it was an unjust and shitty thing.” 

In The Psychic Life of Power, Butler examines the role power takes in forming conscience and consciousness. She studies Hegel’s unhappy consciousness, Nietzsche’s bad conscience, Foucault’s regulating regimes, Althusser’s concept of interpellation, and Freud’s theory of melancholy. “In each case,” Butler notes, “power that at first appears as external, pressed upon the subject, pressing the subject into subordination, assumes a psychic form that constitutes the subject’s self-identity.” I recognized a lot about Dorothy in nearly every chapter of Butler’s book. But Butler’s analyses of the unhappy consciousness and melancholy struck me as especially relevant.

It seems safe to read Smallwood’s title as ironic. This isn’t a work of philosophy; Dorothy is mercifully light on “deep thoughts.” The narration is also ironic in that it has many layers of signification: there are lots of gaps between what Dorothy says and what she thinks. She lives more in her head than in the world. In that way, the title is sincere.

Dorothy is extremely withholding. “[I]ntimacy,” she thinks, “wasn’t in itself a good thing.” Near the end of the novel, she confides a version of the truth about her miscarriage to Gaby. But her version “was distinct enough from the truth that Dorothy did not feel she had lost anything or given it away.” Even as she feels relieved, she’s glad to have “kept herself to herself,” almost as a test of will. (“I am a person with experiences of which you know nothing!” she thinks. “I have depth and interiority!”) The consequence, of course, is that Dorothy often “felt entirely alone; even with the people she loved most she felt encased in a diving bell or a clear plastic box.” While she “knew it was wrong to resent Gaby for not knowing things she hadn’t told her, […] she also knew that sometimes you resent someone for the wrongs they have done to you and sometimes you resent them for the wrongs you have done to them.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her reticence, she’s a frequent target of others’ confessions. (“[T]here was something so relaxing about being around a talker,” Dorothy thinks. “All you had to do was keep them going.”) Thanks to this unilateral communication, she’s often as occluded from other characters as Faye is in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. Here, though, we’re in deep with Dorothy. We understand her bifurcation better than anyone, even her. (In her second therapist’s office, there’s “a tattered copy of Psychology Today. YOUR DEEPEST SECRETS: WHAT YOU HIDE, EVEN FROM YOURSELF,” the cover reads.)

But what’s the cause of Dorothy’s alienation? Why does she live mostly in her mind? “Gaby had no way of understanding what a decade in academia could do to a person,” Dorothy thinks, “but if she had, Dorothy wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with her.”

In describing the unhappy consciousness, Butler uses Hegel’s metaphor of the bondsman and the lord. The bondsman, a “relentlessly self-sacrificing being,” realizes that “whatever he makes, he also loses” to the lord — “his labor and his products are presumed from the start to be other than his own, expropriated.” The result is terror: in the objects’ transience, he recognizes his own mortality. But his fear also engenders consciousness: “The flight from that fear, a fear of death,” causes him to vacate the body and cling “to what appears to be most disembodied: thought.”

Dorothy, as contingent faculty, is not exactly in bondage. She’s also not exactly “free.” The objects that she creates (syllabi, assignments, etc.) both are and aren’t her property; they also belong, in a sense, to the university. Because of her long, doomed academic slog, she, like the bondsman, sees the transience of everything: academy, planet, human life.

By the time the novel begins, with Dorothy on the toilet, she thinks that her “whole useless existence […] languished in abject futility.” And “consciousness in its full abjection,” Butler writes, “has become like shit, lost in a self-referential anality, a circle of its own making. In Hegel’s words, ‘we have here only a personality confined to its own self and its petty actions, a personality brooding over itself, as wretched as it is impoverished.’ Regarding itself as a nothing, as a doing of nothing,” it thus sees itself “as excrement.”

Which sounds, I’m afraid, very much like Dorothy.

A consciousness this degraded tries to avoid contact with fallen and debased material reality, Butler claims, so that it can avoid feeling like shit. One of the few references we get to Dorothy’s work (something she’s created versus something she’s afraid she’s wasted or destroyed) comes at the Las Vegas conference, when she delivers a paper on Christminster cookies:

What is the meaning of this ingestion? was how one long section began, a section that did not ultimately resolve the meaning of anything but indicated, by certain very long digressions about the Eucharist, baking, nineteenth-century discourses of the digestive tract, and the cholera epidemic, that the meaning, forever deferred and desirable, was profound.

We might infer that Dorothy’s argument travels along these lines: contact with reality, like meaning, is best put off for as long as possible; if not, one could, like a cholera patient, shit oneself to death.

But how did Dorothy’s consciousness come to be so abject? Why does she feel like shit? Is it just because her labor is expropriated? I think there’s more to it. The main cause, I think, is melancholy. Butler’s argument culminates in an analysis of Freud’s notion of melancholia and what differentiates it from mourning. Both states are caused by loss, but they’re processed very differently. “In mourning, Freud tells us, there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious. In melancholia […] the object is not only lost, but that loss itself is lost, withdrawn and preserved in the suspended time of psychic life. In other words, according to the melancholic, ‘I have lost nothing.’” She adds, “a loss in the world that cannot be declared enrages, generates ambivalence, and becomes the loss ‘in’ the ego that is nameless and diffuse and that prompts public rituals of self-beratement.”

Dorothy is ambivalent, and she might be sublimating rage. She certainly engages in rituals of self-beratement. But does she have undeclared losses? Certainly, there are several that she freely claims. And yet it seems to me that she is also suffering some losses that she disavows, most notably her miscarriage.

The novel treats Dorothy’s miscarriage seriously. It’s the book’s through-line, the event that starts and ends it, essentially. This is an anti-Bildungsroman, without much epiphany or plot. (It’s “art without progress,” as Dorothy says of an underwater puppet show she attends.) Dorothy teaches, bickers with Rog, goes to therapy and to the doctor, attends the conference and Gaby’s party. That’s more or less it. But the miscarriage is always happening in the background. It’s the loss that seems to stand in for everything else in Dorothy’s life that has miscarried. It also stands just for itself: the secret black hole at the novel’s center. But Dorothy disclaims its seriousness and denies that it’s caused her pain. At the conference, for instance, while out with a friend whom Dorothy starts to suspect is pregnant, Dorothy was

surprised to note how jealous and angry the thought of pregnant Elyse made her. It wasn’t that she wished herself pregnant — more and more she believed the miscarriage to be some kind of divine intervention that had spared her the thing she most feared in life, making a choice — but she felt there should be something in life that Elyse didn’t get.

Thou doth protest a lot, Dorothy, I thought. I thought it again at the end of the novel, when Gaby reveals that she is, in fact, pregnant. For a moment, Dorothy wants to tell Gaby about her own pregnancy. But she doesn’t. She’s afraid Gaby will “start feeling bad for her,” will want “to hold her hand and grieve.” “There was nothing to grieve,” Dorothy claims. “It was just another false start.”

The closest Dorothy comes to treating the miscarriage as a loss happens at her follow-up OB-GYN appointment. Of her fetus, she thinks, “What kind of loss was it for one of these creatures to fail to progress, and what was the appropriate feeling to have in response?” What feeling indeed. (Feelings scare Dorothy. “Feelings, Dorothy often tried to explain to her students, could be catching as a cold. You never knew ahead of time how sick they could make you.”) When she sees her “onscreen uterus, vacant of all but a few reluctant bloodstrings,” she claims not to feel “that she was looking at her own death, or a premonition of her death, but something more like a foreclosure.” But she asks for a printout of the sonogram, and although this request alarms the doctor — “‘We don’t usually do that,’ she said, ‘in situations like these’” — Dorothy won’t relent.

What of Freud’s description of melancholia as the process of “absorbing” a lost object into the ego? “Clearly,” Butler writes, “the ego does not literally take an object inside itself.” But in fact, Dorothy does seem to take this idea literally. She may not eat Christminster cookies, but she does consume her own fetal tissue. “It was perverse,” Dorothy proclaims (as she’s trying to listen to the closing credits of a TV show), “the effort a person had to exert to achieve closure.”

But melancholy shouldn’t be avoided and, in fact, can’t be avoided. As Butler notes, “[T]here is no work of mourning that does not engage melancholia.” And it’s unavoidable in another way: it’s crucial, Butler writes, to the process of subject-formation: “[W]hat melancholia shows is that only by absorbing the other as oneself does one become something at all.” It’s melancholia that engenders reflexivity and consciousness. It’s melancholia, in other words, that brings about the life of the mind.

It also brought about The Life of the Mind. And the fact of this novel, its creation, gave me some hope for Dorothy. She didn’t write this book, of course, but it feels like the funny and moving and true book that she might write if she ever worked through her own melancholy.


Alena Graedon is a novelist who lives in Brooklyn. You can visit her on the web at alenagraedon.com.