APRIL 6, 2016
ONE OF MY FAVORITE kinds of essay begins with misdirection — not only in terms of content but also in its primary method of delivery. A good example is M. F. K. Fisher’s “The Broken Chain” (probably her most famous piece not related to food), which begins this way:
There has been more talk than usual lately about the abuse and angry beating of helpless people, mostly children and many women. I think about it. I have never been beaten, so empathy is my only weapon against the ugliness I know vicariously. On the radio someone talks about a chain of violence. When is it broken? he asks. How?
We read this opening paragraph and expect Fisher to tackle the issue of domestic abuse in broad, sociological terms; or maybe we think what follows will be a journalistic exploration of the subject, with statistics, anecdotes, and interviews of survivors and those who advocate for them. What we don’t anticipate is an autobiographical narrative; after all, Fisher has explicitly stated that this hasn’t happened to her — that she can’t answer the question by examining her own experience. And yet, at the start of the following paragraph, she writes, “When I was growing up, I was occasionally spanked and always by my father.” We’ve pivoted from the abstract and hypothetical to the personal and specific, and that’s where we’ll remain for the rest of the essay, by the end of which we’ll realize that Fisher understands the chain of violence very well — it has been part of her family’s legacy since before she was born.
So why begin with the broad cultural frame, the distancing reflection? For one, it allows Fisher to enact the denial that links the chain from one generation to the next. In describing her punishment, she says it took place “occasionally,” though in the very next sentence she writes that she “often” had to go upstairs to be spanked, with a hairbrush, at first, and later with “an expert upward slap.” Likewise, her father, who was beaten ritualistically as a boy, has deluded himself into thinking that because he never strikes his children in anger, he’s freed himself from violence. Instead, he discovers that in suppressing his rage and denying his own capacity for harm, he’s kept the chain intact.
The opening paragraph, meanwhile, has disarmed us. We may be led into difficult territory, but the writer’s alleged innocence will act as a buffer: we’ll be observers but not participants; we’ll be able to express outrage at the conditions that allow abuse to occur, feel sympathy for the victims, concur with prescriptions for improving the situation. We won’t, in other words, be complicit in the phenomenon of domestic abuse. We’ll ponder the problem, but once we’ve finished reading, we’ll be able to forget all about it. Until, that is, we’re confronted in the very next paragraph with the image of young Mary Frances Kennedy baring her bottom to her father’s swinging hand.
A number of the essays in Brian Blanchfield’s remarkable new collection, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, employ a similar strategy, opening with intellectual examination or rumination before turning to memory, narrative, confession. As does Fisher, Blanchfield often begins by standing us at a safe speculative distance, allowing us to consider the complexity of human endeavor without immersing us in its messy physicality, so that when he finally does plunge us into the intimate details of his own autobiography — with excruciating honesty — we are left defenseless. Armed with mind only, our hearts and guts are left vulnerable, and the narrative tears them open.
As an example, let me describe what may be the most moving piece in the book, titled “On Peripersonal Space.” It starts with a straightforward definition: “Peripersonal space […] is the entire volume of space within a person’s reach, or within a single conceivable momentary extension of his person. Think da Vinci, and the geometry of his jumping jack in extremis sketch.” From here Blanchfield moves to the term’s association with dance, then to a Science Friday segment about conceptions of self as related to objects and people in close proximity: according to the show’s guests, a pair of psychologists who co-authored a study, “the self was not just the corporal body and the sensate, sentient being in its form; it was also everything within its immediate orbit.”
This extended meditation on self and space forms a lens through which Blanchfield finally focuses on the essay’s true subject. The co-authors on the radio happen to be mother and son, a coincidence which spurs the essayist into considering his bond with his own mother and its impact on his identity. For the rest of the essay he dissects this fraught relationship, from early intimacy to eventual estrangement, due largely to his mother’s fundamentalist beliefs and his sexual orientation. Above all, the piece explores the agonizing process of separation; reading it you feel the pain of being torn away not just from someone loved but someone attached. You were once part of me, the child says; how can you now be so far away?
What I admire most about Blanchfield’s analytical framing — what I’m identifying as his formal misdirection — is that he never uses it simply to be coy or to manipulate. Rather, it seems to arise out of a deep humility in the face of complex emotion, a diffidence that relies on the intellect to prepare both writer and reader for the soul- and body-baring disclosures to follow. In “On Peripersonal Space,” Blanchfield directly acknowledges the challenge of transitioning from the abstract to the specific, of shedding theoretical buffers and entering the fray of experience:
Since I began this project, I have tried a number of times to write about my mother and me, and have abandoned a few attempts already. If these essays are, in part, inroads to disinhibited autobiography, as I have come to claim they are, and demand they be, I feel the imperative to address the subject above all others. But ours is a relationship so deep and damaged and (still) so tenuous it has defied emergence.
For all of its revelations about family, its depictions of gay sex, its lamentations on love and labor, Proxies strikes me finally as a book that, to its credit, remains modest despite its bold confessions. Blanchfield knows that “disinhibited autobiography” will lead to perception, discovery, emotional connection, but exhibitionism does not come naturally to him; we feel the tension between his need to expose and his essential shyness, his distrust of self-aggrandizement, his fear of self-indulgence. He begins each essay with the same qualifying subtitle, or perhaps incantation: “Permitting Shame, Error and Guilt, Myself the Single Source.” The result is that each of his confessions feels like the culmination of struggle and doubt and sleepless nights, uttered only after overcoming his reluctance to speak.
The essays cover a wide range of subjects, from foot-washing to house-sitting to the use of abstraction in poetry to the disappointments of academic life, but if anything binds them it’s a desire to wrestle with the irreconcilable influences and histories that form a complex identity. To reckon, for example, with what others see as the contradiction of a queer intellectual writer beginning life as the child of “a truck driver, a Harley rider, a grifter, a cad,” who eventually abandoned him, Blanchfield meditates on “the leave” in pool, a game at which his father excelled. Those billiard balls that are left on the table between each shot provide him a metaphor for reclaiming his father’s role in his identity formation, not only as a source of wreckage, but also as a starting point for new construction: “It can be very attractive in one’s narrative to replace the given with the leave,” he says, following an episode in which he uses the story of his father to seduce a man at a bar. “Because if I equate my foundational circumstances with the leavings, the discard, the refuse — even the ruins — of others, I feel more entitled to them, to build from that rubble.”
Until now, Blanchfield has been known primarily as a poet, with two published collections, the most recent of which, A Several World, was longlisted for the National Book Award and won the prestigious James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Like other poet-essayists, such as Lia Purpura and Maggie Nelson (the latter provides an enthusiastic blurb for Proxies), he foregrounds language, reveling in the interplay of syntax and sound, allowing the intuitive and associative movement of thought to guide him from image to image in a way that makes prose writers like me envious. But he also shares much with a lineage that we might trace from the wide-ranging speculation of Michel de Montaigne to the cultural analysis of John Berger to the semiotics of Roland Barthes, whom Blanchfield explicitly acknowledges as an influence. His titles, some of them absurdly specific, make a nod toward the grand tradition of single-subject essay but also poke fun at the stuffy seriousness of the form: “On Sardines,” “On Tumbleweed,” “On Frottage.”
While Blanchfield’s poetry consistently wows me with the breadth and depth of its intelligence, as well as with the intricacy of its music and the surprise of its allusive associations, I sometimes feel I’m not quite up to the task — which I take to be its intended aesthetic, one in which words never lull us into comfort but rather prod us constantly into alertness. The essays are no less erudite, dancing from Philoctetes to Heidegger to contemporary queer theory, touching on the work of dozens of poets, offering sentences that necessitate careful parsing. But for me they invite an attentive reading more readily than the poems — perhaps because they reward us with the pleasures of narrative, but also because they welcome us so fully into the life of their speaker, allowing us to spend close time with him, his family, his partner John, his friends and former lovers. His presence is a generous one, his voice surprisingly approachable despite its sophistication, his modesty negating both pretension and undue self-regard.
This is humility as seduction: when Blanchfield prostrates himself before beginning each essay, acknowledging his inevitable courting of error and shame, you can’t help but trust him and lower your guard. Then you lean forward, listen closely, and follow wherever he leads.