NOVEMBER 13, 2016
I’M TEMPTED to begin by comparing Mary Cappello to other contemporary literary nonfiction writers who meld memory and lyric impression with intellectual passion. Writers who come to mind — Rebecca Solnit, Maggie Nelson, Wayne Koestenbaum, bell hooks — certainly share borderlines and affinities, but none of their works really resemble the books that come of Cappello’s singular voice and lens. Cappello’s compositions are at once sonic memoir, embodied criticism, and narrative cultural observation, drawing the attentive reader into what we might call the queer corporeal idea.
Cappello’s forms include essay, critical memoir, embodied criticism, experimental lyric poetry, and even email. I include the latter only partially in jest — Mary and I first met on a panel at a literary conference, but I’ve since come to know her better from many email conversations on subjects such as writing nonfiction, lesbian literary voice and reputation, the shock of illness, sound tours of old cities, academic manners and politics, and the delicacies of Italian cuisine. And I’m not the only one who would say my connection with her is one of the most valuable and collegial of my writing life, the sort of constantly unreeling old school discussion that doesn’t occur between faculty members in university English departments as often as one might imagine, but may live on most successfully within the chosen literary family networks the digital age has allowed us to maintain.
Cappello’s new book, Life Breaks In, is at once rhapsodic, sensate, and intellectually captivating. This book, her fifth, is in many ways a joining of the streams of all her previous works. Her debut, Night Bloom (Beacon Press, 1998), was a multi-genre memoir of family and place; her second project, Awkward: A Detour (Bellevue Literary Press, 2007), explored the social and bodily conditions of intimate discomfort; her third book, Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life (Alyson, 2009) — which she calls an anti-chronicle about her experience of breast cancer treatment — eschewed sentimentality and flipped the conventional illness narrative inside out; and her fourth, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them (The New Press, 2011) was a meditation on the collection of swallowed or aspirated objects she discovered housed in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, as well as a biography of the doctor who fished all these items out of his patients. Though the subjects of her books are far afield, they share an immersive curiosity that the new book picks up on and articulates further.
In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called Life Breaks In an “illuminating celebration of enveloping moments of being.” And in the first chapter Cappello writes:
If I could sum up the aesthetic challenge of this book, it would be this: not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood — but to notice it — often enough, to listen for it — and do something like it without killing it in the process.
Reading Life Breaks In is, indeed, a kind of listening. It is time spent in a language-made listening room, a stroll into shifting human emotive time, a resounding of memory, imagination, story, and thought. I turned back to our email correspondence to ask Mary to tell me more about the making of the book.
BARRIE JEAN BORICH: Thinking about your “almanack,” what strikes me is that you’ve created a text which works in many ways like a literary mood ring, in that the writing doesn’t so much define or chart moods but rather leads us into atmospheres. In other words, this book, in deeply pleasurable ways, makes me “moody.” Was the creation of an experiential read part of your intention?
MARY CAPPELLO: I’d love to hear more about the deeply pleasurable moods (or moodiness) you found yourself experiencing, or even better, the art you felt called to create from those moods, because this is a large part of what I’m after here. I’m always interested in getting at affective states that are off limits or that efface the cribbed playing cards of happy, sad, angry, and bored. I definitely hoped to create atmospheres, but I wasn’t entirely sure what the aftereffect of all that I drew together might be. As I continued working on the book — over the course of a number of years — I came to have a clearer sense that I did indeed want to make available to readers the possibility of entering a space of hover and drift, of rapture, and of sensation. Odd as this might sound, I wouldn’t even mind if parts of the book put a reader to sleep (perchance to dream) — and from there led readers to differently wake. I see the book as a call for new mood states for our times, especially if we agree that we might be entering a moodless age, or one constituted by new forms of be-numb-ment. I was also interested in exploring places that bring feelings to surface for which there is no explanation or no name.
You explore mood as tone, as tint, as incomplete cry, as anticipatory state, as spirit, vapor, aroma, porous container, zone, hue, wash, transparency, atmosphere. We might say, in homage to your Joni Mitchell passages, you’ve looked at moods from both sides now, or better yet, most sides. When you began, did you understand the tremendous breadth of your subject, or did the scope expand as you wrote?
I think I did and didn’t anticipate the breadth of the subject, but wow, once in, it was incredibly daunting and felt impossible. To say that mood is amorphous is an understatement, and I well remember a walk and talk with a writer much more famous than I who, when I told her about the book, said she was glad someone was writing a book about something even more vague than what she was writing about at the time. Mood ramifies in every area of human existence and has been written about in a variety of disciplines, especially by philosophers and psychologists and musicologists. You know I’m the kind of writer who believes in reading what other people have written on a subject when I take it up, so the sheer volume of what was out there was difficult to tackle.
As with awkwardness, though, I suppose what kept me both untethered enough to remain inspired, and grounded enough not to feel (too) crazy while writing the book was the imperative to let it reveal what it would to me and trust myself to allow my own quirky methods to bring mood to light in new ways. I knew I didn’t want to try to explain it (as my friend, the writer Lance Olsen, reminds — in his book [[ there. ]] — the root of explanare is “to flatten”) — I wanted to do something like mood, in the manner of John Constable, who wrote that he was doing something like clouds in painting them.
Though you remark on the capaciousness of my approach, I’m only offering partial knowledge here. (In fact, I recently happened upon a sabbatical proposal that I wrote for support of the project in 2006, and the plan for the book had at least 10 more sections than what currently appears.) It turns out that mood is a subject we cannot see to the end of.
By the time I arrived at the end of the book, though, I realized that my small contribution might be a call to folks in other disciplines who have different knowledge sets at their disposal to replace mood’s conflation with an age-old taxonomy of emotion: what would happen if we explored mood as gravity and air; architecture, envelope, and sphere; niche, sound, skin, and reverberation; wave, voice, and hue; temperature and tempo?
All those things you’ve listed above get us out of the reductive spaces of DSM-IV categories like “depression” or “bipolar disorder.” I found it really sad to discover the number of people who equated mood with depression when I told them I was writing a book about mood. They also assumed that perhaps I was writing from the experience of a mood disorder. I hope it won’t disappoint readers to learn that that is not the case.
At certain key junctures of feeling overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject, I’d regain confidence, as when, for example, I happened upon an essay by J. M. Coetzee in Salmagundi (nos. 166–167, Spring–Summer 2010) in which he called for a psychology for our times that would “pay more serious attention to mood.” That certainly made me feel I was in good company. And after completing the book, I had the happy occasion of hearing Israeli philosopher, Hagi Kenaan, address the subject of mood at a conference hosted by Warwick University, where I was also performing. His ideas about mood as constantly, dynamically changing, never closed and never fully determined, inspired me all over again. And Susan Bradley Smith’s mood- and cloud-informed poetry moved me like no poetry has in a long time — and I’m now collaborating with photographer Katja Hock, whom I met at the same conference, to bring her subtly shape-shifting cloud photography into mood-imbued public events. Mood seems suddenly timely.
We might say writing itself is a kind of mood, though of course not just one. Did you ever experience a dissonance between the mood you were in and the mood you were writing? How did you navigate the climate of your composition?
I agree that the mood is the writing, and can’t be unwoven from it. And yet there’s always a dissonance between the mood I’m in and the mood of writing — which is why I write. Because the mood I’m in is cramped and I can’t see a way out, whereas the mood of writing is a vast and intimately graded, subtly nuanced place — thanks to language.
I wrote in a climate marked by ever-diminishing time given the exigencies of age and the fact of having had cancer and my wanting to work on two other books that have been brewing for a long time, too — but I’ve never been able to work on more than one book at a time, so, while I wouldn’t say I wrote with “urgency,” I did feel that, as the time spent working on this book became more and more protracted, I was constantly doing battle with a kind of “it’s now or never” mood. There were also times when something I was writing about in the book required that I pause and write a hundred-page essay that had seemingly nothing to do with this book.
The forms of this book are as multiple as the moods themselves. Miscellany. Aphorism. Lists. Memory vignette. Reflections on photographs. Descriptive images of sky. Essays on the nature of clouds. A questionnaire. You even propose the invention of new forms, such as the “sonophoto” (which, in my role as an editor of a digital magazine, I very much hope you will create). You do pretty much everything but conventional story. Is mood intrinsically anti-narrative? Talk about how you come to form, structure, approach, and book-length completion.
I’m glad you like the idea of the sonophoto, and I’m not sure why such a thing doesn’t yet exist, but I would love to try to make some with you.
Speaking to the multiform nature of the book: I wanted to see if I could create a literary form that could do justice to mood. Could I test the boundaries of new nonfiction forms, the elasticity of the essay, the short form, the aphorism, all in the name of a subject that asks for its own form? I want you to feel that you can enter and exit the zones created by the book as you please, from the cirrus-like segments of “Mood Modulations” to the stratus-like expanse of “Synesthesia for Orphaned Boys.” I came to call what I was trying to do “cloud-writing.”
My method is one of assemblage and collage: arranging, rearranging, cutting, arranging again. The Stanford comparativist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, in his book Atmosphere, Mood, Stimmung, literally suggests going at mood by way of hints and hunches — he also then suggests that the most fortuitous form for thinking mood might be the essay (!):
Following a hunch means trusting an implicit promise for a while and making a step toward describing a phenomenon that remains unknown — one that has aroused our curiosity and, in the case of atmospheres and moods, often envelops and even enshrouds us.
(I read this startling book when I was pretty far into the work, and was happy to find it so companionate. There’s a single sentence in Gumbrecht’s book that haunts a later essay in my book.) At a certain point in the process, I decided to generate a set of “hints” and “hunches” and write from those. A lot of those are in the “Mood Modulations” — I considered using them as headers, but then I realized, if carefully arranged, they could constitute an atmosphere all their own.
But I love your question about whether mood is intrinsically anti-narrative. I’m tempted to say, “Yes.” And, as I reflect in one section, not just anti-narrative but preverbal. One of the things I did not pursue in the book was a question I had about the acoustic space of dreams: how do we hear when we’re dreaming? I felt that if I could answer that question, I could find the place where mood is lodged. And that would require entering a nonnarrative place.
On the other hand, I think there is a lot more narrative in Life Breaks In than meets the eye — but I won’t draw attention to it if you didn’t notice. (Maybe that’s a good thing if it means that story morphed into something other than plot.) I’ll just say that my mother’s voice not only frames the book, but is also its sonic glue and through line, and the atmosphere that holds all the sections together is the queer ebullience of my life with my partner of 30 years, Jean Walton.
I’m thinking of the passage in which you write about yourself as a child too young to see beyond the mood of her moment, dreamily watching television and using her play scissors to cut off pieces of her own hair, simply because the texture and movement of the act enthralls her — until her mother walks in and shouts, “Mary, what have you done?” For the reader, the awareness of the mood is illuminated by the mood’s interruption. How and why did the theme of interruption, a theme echoed, of course, by the title of the book, enter this work?
I was just recently revisiting an essay that I contributed to Iron Horse Literary Review (13.5, 2015) for a special issue on creative nonfiction a few summers ago in which the following sentence appears: “Life is one big interruptus without the accompanying coitus.” That seems to sum it up! I believe that for most of us as children, play, or the imagination, is at some point crucially interrupted, and that artists are people eager to return to the place of interruption, to push against the interruption, or who just generally refuse to accept its terms. Is mood co-terminus with life or does it exist in a place apart? Does life interrupt mood or does mood interrupt life? I hope that readers will enjoy the various ways in which breaking and interruption figure in the book. The title, of course, hails from a Diary entry composed by Virginia Woolf that reads:
How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.
In so many ways this book reads as a continuation of all your other books. The memoir sections bring the reader who knows your work back to your first, Night Bloom, about a working-class, Italian-American childhood; the body-based, subject-is-form immersion is reminiscent of Awkward; the images of the beleaguered body refer directly back to Called Back; the associative and personalized research reminds us of Swallow. Talk about how your previous work flows into this one. When were you harkening back, when were you continuing what you’d started, and when were you breaking new ground?
I think you nailed the ways in which Life Breaks In fuses aspects of all of my previous books — let’s hope this doesn’t mean I’m finished now (!), but that something new is happening. I’ve thought for a long time about the necessity — especially as queer writers — to break out of family-of-origin content if we can, and to tap into what I call our absent interlocutors. I think of writing as the opportunity to create new kinship structures, but sometimes I can’t help the way in which an early childhood trauma asks to be revisited, or, oops, here comes Dad again, loud and clear when least invited into the prose. Certainly, the familial dynamics are something quite different in this book than they were in Night Bloom — which was an entirely different form of painting: watercolor versus abstract expressionism might work as an analogy.
Maybe with each new book attempt we’re saying, “Let’s see what the childhood looks like at twilight since I already pictured it at break of day.” Am I trying to get it right? Not really. But to morph it once more.
But the lives and creations of others are also important to what I do, and I enjoy dedicating myself to the details of other people’s lost and forgotten existences. In this book, that dedication turns to Charles Daniel Hubbard and Florence Thomas and Margaret Wise Brown — who, after I spent time in their ghostly companies, I realized, were all, in some way or other, queer.
I think there are degrees of formal experiment — and allowance — that are points of departure from my earlier work. Is it an arrival, or a return to an antecedent text that all writing tends toward in the end? The book before the book before the book? That might be what this book is. There’s so much I still want to learn, and so little time.
Of all your previous works, this book, in terms of form and approach, seems most like Awkward, the book Mark Doty called an “associative taxonomy of discomfort.” Clearly you are drawn to the embodied, invisible human conditions that are both impossible to render and yet shatteringly urgent to any inward-looking human. I think of your subjects as the sort that shock us into internal attention, precisely because they focus on the not-extraordinary, and therefore are seemingly unworthy of deep attention, until we realize that in fact we are made of little else but these subjects — as if waking up and suddenly realizing life is happening not just in your own body, home, and daily ritual, but in a vast, intersecting city where everyone else is stumbling as well. Your work so effectively yokes the intimate with the public. What is your draw to this sort of subject, what are the joys of taking this material on, and what are the impediments?
Thank you, Barrie. You get at the heart of what I’m after here, and I do see the book as a companion work to Awkward.
I’m interested in writing as a release from a call to busyness, and in this book, I have to say, it began to feel more like a spiritual quest than in previous work because I came to experience mood as something that has been in the room with me all the years of my life but that I haven’t deigned to notice. Will I notice it before my days are through? That’s really the question. Mood — like similarly essential but unremarked aspects of our humanness — will, it turns out, wait for us, and I found that mood even anticipated my stupidity around it. The suspension of one sort of attention enables another sort of attention, but most people aren’t given the opportunity to suspend their attention. I will be turning to the nature of study (as verb and noun, as act and place) in the digital age, and after that, to interest and aversion, in the next two books I plan to write.
On page 11 you write: “Our moods are strange to us yet abiding. I want, if nothing else, to produce a form of strange beauty in mood’s name.” So you describe this strange beauty as form without density, as spaces, as moments, and most notably as the resonance of sound, and the sonic landscape of the book includes songs, sound walks, phonetics, a soundtrack, and many other aural states. You’ve also made a playlist for the blog Largehearted Boy (one in a broad collection created by authors to accompany their books) that includes selections from Judy Garland to Mozart to Jimi Hendrix to Tibetan Gong and Singing Bowls. Describe the experience of using sound as both subject and methodology. How did you come to this approach, and how did it change your ways of researching?
The sonic (and silent) dimensions of the project are huge for me. The most startling way a focus on sound affected my research methods was in this: my realizing that I not only needed, but also wanted, to read children’s books as part of the research, and most especially the “quiet, noisy” series of books by Margaret Wise Brown (better known for Goodnight Moon), introduced to me by the extraordinary work and mind of Hillel Schwartz, who discusses the series in his 900-plus-page book on noise. It’s possible Brown taught me more about mood and sound than the heftiest philosophers and psychologists.
My interest in sound dates to early childhood — really explicitly — but then I tutored myself in an area now called “Sound Studies” starting about 10 years ago, at a point when I felt called to think about Emily Dickinson’s poetry in terms of an acoustics of space. Here’s the maybe curious thing — at eight years old, I imagined two futures for myself: that of a radio announcer or a teacher of the deaf. There was no clear influence or reason, but the idea of working with sound seemed to create a milieu for my personality, an (imaginary) mood I could enter into. I wondered if in the course of writing “mood” I would arrive at an understanding of what those childhood interests were about.
Mood and sound came together for me in a number of ways in the book: in a desire to foreground sound as a producer of mood, but more essentially, to link sound with mood, since, after all, they seem to have a lot in common. In the interests of space and time, I’ll just quote a succinct connection from the work of sound theorist Veit Ehrlman, who writes in one of his books, “For how can that within which one lives become an object?” This is the challenge entailed in writing about, or studying, sound, and also the challenge entailed by writing about mood. The sound-mood connection solidified for me — and might even have figured as the basis of the book entirely — after reading the work of French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu and his interlocutors, especially British cultural theorist Steven Connor, for whom the concept of the “sonorous envelope” is key (i.e., the suggestion that we derive our sense of skin, literally of being embodied, from the voices of our earliest caretakers). Not only was mood, then, intimately yoked to listening, the heard world, sound atmospheres, acoustic pleasures, or dins, but also, in particular ways, to the voices that carry us.
Hans Gumbrecht offered another essential connection — really sealing and beautifully reopening the matter for me — between mood and sound in his exploration of Stimmung. Turning to German, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht reminds us of how the word that translates into English as mood or climate — Stimmung — more richly connects with the German Stimme, meaning “voice,” and stimmen, to tune an instrument. Mood is thus, by way of the German, intimately associated with attunement, music, sound, and, by affiliation, touch.
I was trained as a poet, so I’m always attentive to the sound of words, but my methods were influenced this time by work I carried out about five years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, where I got to work directly with one of the founders of the World Soundscape Project, Barry Truax; to meet with and discuss ideas with acoustic theorist Steven Connor; and to become tutored in the phenomenon of the “sound walk” and its attendant musical traditions with Andra McCartney while immersing myself for several months in electroacoustic music, sound atmospheres, experiments, and conferences on sound. Back home, my students and I orchestrated our own sound walks of the campus, which led us to think about what sort of sonic environment might be most conducive to learning, and how the campus soundscape radically changes with the shift of seasons. At one point, I returned to my childhood neighborhood and tried to write comparatively from the space of a sound walk — what I may have been sonically tuned to in particular locales as a child, and what I would notice in the 21st century as an adult.
You reference many kinds of creators in the book, not just songwriters, but painters, television writers, and installation artists. The book includes a portfolio of the natural history still-life art of Rosamond Purcell, which collects and documents as much as it renders mortality. How is your work a collaboration with other kinds of art-making?
I can’t recommend enough the just-released documentary about Rosamond Purcell’s life and work, An Art That Nature Makes, directed by Molly Bernstein. I consider Rosamond to be a visionary genius. And I’m never surprised to learn that, whenever I think I’ve made a discovery, she has already been there long before me. This was true with the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body collection, whose photographs she allowed me to use in Swallow; and now Life Breaks In includes a color gallery of her work inside the LC Bates Museum. Rosamond’s photos helped me to find a language for Charles D. Hubbard’s singular dioramas, which I engage at length.
One of my hopes with this book is to create a series of inter-art or interdisciplinary “mood rooms” with people. The translational space between reader and text that happens in solitude with the written word is a sacred pact of sorts. That’s one type of literary experience. But then there is the separate life that writing comes to have off the page and in performance. I mounted my first mood room on November 1 at the university where I teach, in a program in which I performed parts of the book alongside recordings of Berlin-based trumpeter/composer Paul Brody’s sound installation, “Talking Melodies,” in concert with my collaborator Katja Hock’s cloud photography and a live performance by pianist/composer Kirsten Volness of her work, “Nocturne.”
On a queer note, I want to mention that I was initially inspired by Bernard Cooper’s unsurpassed rhapsodes in Maps to Anywhere, the achromatic tonalities in the paintings of Winslow Homer, and perambulations in the manner of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Eventually, John Constable came to figure more largely for me.
The source archives included in this book are ample, the devotion inherent in your research evident. You also mention the pull of the research rabbit hole. Talk about your relationship to your sources, and the creativity that propels the inquiry at the base of all your books.
I’m embarrassed to say that there is a separate book inside of the notes at the back of the book on Charles D. Hubbard and his philanthropist cohort George W. Hinckley. It’s a problem that I have with finding pretty much everything interesting. It might be pathological. Or it might be what makes me an essayist. The rabbit hole has also gotten deeper and more vortex-like in the e-age. But I think the real creativity happens in archives and in concert with great archivists — which, in Life Breaks In, brings me back to childhood library reading rooms and the tables of arts and crafts — mood rooms. Actual archives will never be supplanted by internet searches. I remember discovering a three-leaf clover tucked inside of Chevalier Jackson’s wallet, and then was interested to see how small his coat was (just my size). The discovery of Hubbard’s childhood sketchbook was nearly accidental, and then the correlations that enabled between his childhood drawings and his adult renderings, the inklings of a mood later realized — magical. The great textual scholar Marta Werner is a model to me of how to create stirring, tactile, lovingly researched, breathtakingly associative, poetic, memoiristic, and historically exacting writing out of journals and documents, the brittle traces of lives of others found in archives.
Do you care what we call this work? Do you connect, for instance, to the concept of “autotheory” used of late to describe Maggie Nelson’s books? Do you consider what you do a literary-scholarly hybrid? Lyric research? Nonfiction assemblage? Or perhaps simply the essay? Do literary categories help us expand the territory of the creative nonfiction experiment or limit the scope of our attempts?
My take on genre is that we each need to create the form that answers the call of our aesthetic problem or question each time we sit down to write. I think of each of my books as a very different type of thought experiment. Insofar as I try to find my place amid the categories, I tend toward literary nonfiction, lyric essay, and experimental prose — but this really has mostly to do only with the way the categories figure as recognition devices or search tools. Years ago, my friend, the writer James Morrison, referred to my work as “lyric intellectual.” I think that might capture it, especially in a culture where intellectual sits on a scale ranging from dirty word to nonexistent, and definitely doesn’t square well with “woman” or “lesbian.” I aim to bring a poetic sensibility together with a scholarly ethos.
When a book of mine is referred to in reviews as “uncategorizable,” like a lot of writers, I experience that as the highest praise. But one doesn’t gain a ready readership that way. The marketing mavens, of course, have never been more obsessed with categories, and it can really drive both a reader and writer mad (I especially bristle at the Netflix mode of categorizing films, which is also, of course, about anticipating a consumer at every turn). What sort of work do we want the categories to do? Is the point of them to find readers, to create community, to make possible conversation? To slot what we write into marketing niches? Is there much of a politics to any of these categories, especially where creative nonfiction is concerned? I mean, is it ever really clear what is at stake, and is it significant that the genre distinctions are mostly maintained by a largely white middle-class writership?
When I was living in Berlin, I gave a reading at Topics, a bookstore in Neukölln, where the approach to books and reading struck me as truly brilliant. They categorize books according to (seemingly) arbitrary “topics” that the owners devise: from fatherless childhoods to time machines. The “topics” bring books together that might otherwise never appear on the same shelf; it’s all about collocation and metaphor, and I love it. What if books could have this endlessly rhizomatic relationship to one another, so that we’d never know where one would spring up and among which companion creations?
If I were to categorize Life Breaks In, I’d say, though there is a content to it, to be sure, at its best, it’s a sound-form (like poetry) and a space. If Liz Willis will allow me the comparison, I think in this book I’m doing what I have always found operating in her poetry, which is invoking a sense of language’s ghost. Does that excite you or put you off with opacity? I don’t mean to sound mysterious. It’s all in the experience of reading.
When I was asked about my nonfiction aesthetic nearly 20 years ago, I explained that I was interested in decolonizing the imagination — which doesn’t aim to make for a happy or seamless cohabitation. And I was inspired at the time and continue to be inspired by work like Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, where the “auto” is held in abeyance, never taken for granted, actively undone and reconceived.
“Autocriticism” (a term I often used back then but have since dispensed with) or “autotheory” have been around for a very long time. There was a movement in the 1990s where a group of literary theorists and literary critics started to bring autobiographical meditation into concert with their critical training: I’m thinking of Cathy Davidson, Jane Tompkins, Alice Kaplan, and Marianna Torgovnick, who were doing this quite self-consciously. At the time, entire issues of PMLA were given over to interrogations of the category of the “personal,” and my students in graduate seminars in the contemporary memoir in theory and practice studied this moment in depth. Patricia Williams, bell hooks, and, in anthropology, Ruth Behar all define this moment politically and aesthetically for me. Or Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat. To name just a few. And why not all of the Language school of poets who were deeply engaged with literary theory and philosophy, from Marx to Wittgenstein and others. For that matter, what theory worth its salt isn’t autobiographical, from Hélène Cixous and Derrida to maybe the most famous exemplar, and certainly my favorite, Roland Barthes?
For my own part — and I’m sure it’s a matter of generation — I’ve recently felt moved to return in my teaching to key works of experimental criticism or autobiography that we’ve barely plumbed the depths of and that are deeply relevant all over again. For me, this includes Avital Ronell’s The Telephone Book (which I brought back into graduate classes last semester) and Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (which I’m teaching in undergraduate courses this semester). Maybe a case in point here — and this is so hard to believe, but Anna Deavere Smith’s masterpiece, Fires in the Mirror, is not available on DVD.
Public awareness of mood has been inescapable in the United States in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election. By the time this interview comes to press the election will (presumably) be decided, but the ways public and private moods have meshed during this electoral season will undoubtedly linger. As someone who has spent years thinking about mood, what do you have to say about the mood of the times we all now inhabit?
A friend of mine has coined the phrase “the Trump meridian” to explain all manner of calamities many of us have experienced since his rise to prominence. The world is out of joint, to quote the Bard. I’ve considered how, after he loses the election, we might continue to suffer from PT(rump)SD. We joke to try to temper our own anxiety around what any of it could signify about the moment in which we are living. Either the effects of the havoc wreaked in these past 10 months will be long-lasting and pop up when we least expect them, engulfing us, or he and his grotesque moment on the political public stage will disappear as quickly as it came into being, as though it never happened. Either alternative is certain to keep us ill at ease. Or maybe just queasy. For the most part, I think the entire campaign has been a disastrous distraction when we think of what we could have been paying attention to.
I watched all three debates for their historic import, and I felt I was experiencing new forms of disaffected melancholy following each one. I experience Trump as a type of monster bred by the digital age. He talks the talk of anonymous comments, the uncivil discourse that is confused with free speech, the rhetoric of stalkers and trolls, and the techniques of those too. Is misogyny a mood or a collective illness? Because that, to me, is the most horrifying piece of all of this: how a woman’s running for president has unleashed the fundamental hatred of women that is always roiling just beneath the surface of our daily lives.
Are we really, though, stuck in a moment of a perpetually bad, or incurable, national mood? We could also celebrate the moment for how teachable it is. My students seem more hungry for knowledge, understanding, and insight. To be coerced by noise isn’t the same as a mood. I think it’s very hard to tell the difference between what one might be feeling if given the chance to have a feeling, or what one might produce if given the chance to create a collective atmosphere, over and against what we are repeatedly told the mood of the nation is. The reiteration of noise and static has a bludgeoning effect, but it also seems largely fictitious to me, or a phantasm produced by digital-age media onslaughts.
The unidirectional sound of voices in a political pulpit is only one type of sound. The sounds of birds and the sounds of art are amphitheatrical. We need to fantasize a tenor for these times.
Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic, winner of a Lambda Literary Award in memoir, and My Lesbian Husband, recipient of a Stonewall Book Award in nonfiction. She’s an associate professor at DePaul University in Chicago where she edits Slag Glass City, a journal of urban essay arts.