Saturday, December 15, 2018

Dec 15: Heather Wells Peterson on Brian Blanchfield's PROXIES

Brian Blanchfield uses the word illeity a few times in Proxies, his essay collection. From its Latin root, ille, a pronoun used to refer to something far away from oneself, I take illeity to mean “thatness”—the externalization of something, making it an object outside of ourselves. In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes of the estrangement that occurs when an object is removed from its context, the creepiness of seeing it separated and complete unto itself. Specifically, I believe in a footnote, he recalls from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet a scene in which an ear is discovered, and it is no longer attached to a head. To see an ear by itself, unhearing, is to relearn what an ear is. This, to me, is illeity: the act of removing something so far from its home that it becomes something else, something to be re-known in a profound way.

Proxies begins from two constraints. The first is to write each essay without returning to any books mentioned or researching any assertions made—as Blanchfield says in the note at the book’s beginning, “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.”
     In an interview for David Naimon’s radio show and podcast, Between the Covers, Blanchfield says this project began when he was having difficulty writing, the constraint a “prompt into language in the morning, to have the internet off, and to write what I knew or estimated or remembered or misremembered about a topic at a time.” Words can have a frightening fixity, and using words can feel more like lepidoptery—catching, euthanizing, pinning into permanent position—than like observation of movement, of flight. I imagine Blanchfield’s prompt allowed him out of the lab and into the field, net in hand. To let the knowledge you hold, which is more like a story you’ve told yourself than a collection of facts, to be the single source of authority in a piece of writing seems both liberating and terrifying, and both sides of that, the freedom and the fear, come through in these essays. As Blanchfield notes beneath the title of each essay, they were written, must have been, “permitting shame, error and guilt,” with himself as the single source.
     Blanchfield, raised in North Carolina, left home at seventeen years old to earn his BA from the University of North Carolina and an MFA from Warren Wilson College. He’s the author of two collections of poetry, Not Even Then (2004) and A Several World (2014). Proxies, published in 2016, earned a Whiting Award in Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Gay Nonfiction and a PEN USA Literary Award in Nonfiction. He has worked in and out of academia, teaching creative writing at The Pratt Institute, Otis College of Art and Design, Cal Arts, University of Montana, University of Arizona, and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, while in between working in arts admin, radio, and publishing. Though he expresses much ambivalence about academia in Proxies, he has returned to it, teaching creative writing and literature at The University of Idaho and the Bennington Writing Seminars. In his interview with Naimon, he identifies one motivation behind the writing of these essays as “a psychological integrative urge… to say what I knew not only as a ‘queer intellectual poet’… but as the son of a trucker and a Primitive Baptist from central Piedmont, NC, but also as a professor who has been on the margins of and absorbed by and expelled from academia over the years, I wanted to say what I knew in a number of different subject positions which many people or some readers might perceive as unlikely.” Blanchfield lists further subject positions in his introduction: “I have been stepson, house sitter, replacement faculty, liaison, trustee, interim director, secretary, adjunct, sub, temp, warm body, and for a short while acting editor of The Prostate.” 
     This miscellany of subject positions is reflected in the miscellany of subjects approached, removed from home, and estranged anew in Proxies, each title beginning with “On” in an echo of Montaigne’s “Of,” a man often noted as the originator of the modern essay who famously both said, “I am myself the matter of my book” and asked, “Que sais-je?” or, “What do I know?” Some of these titles include, “On Owls,” “On Sardines”—he means the hiding game, “On Propositionizing,” “On Tumbleweed,” “On Minutes”—he means those taken at a meeting, “On Dossiers,” and “On Frottage.”
     In the Naimon interview, Blanchfield says there was another urge behind the constraint to suppress all authoritative sources: “in my mid-thirties, going into my late thirties then, I wanted to say what I knew.” The full title of the collection is Proxies: a Reckoning. The moment of reckoning comes at the end of the night when the bartender brings the bill; meanwhile, in Christianity, the day of reckoning comes when the dead are called to final account by God for their actions in life. One also reckons when making an estimation or relying on memory. These essays, then, are less on their stated topics, and more about what Blanchfield reckons about them and what that reckoning can reveal about himself, what is significant to him, and what he has chosen to remember—that final tally at the end of the night, that moment when he answers for his life thus far.
     Blanchfield’s second stated constraint was to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability.” Vulnerability comes from the Latin for wound, and wounds recur in this book, both fresh and healed, however imperfectly. Each essay explores a surface until that wound, that vulnerability, that place of entry, can be found. We know the wound from the outside, its borders, its cause, the narrative—if one exists—of its healing, and we know the wound from the inside, climbing into it, feeling its dimensions and walls, and looking newly out onto the world from its depths.
     “On Footwashing,” an early essay in the collection, takes as its subject the practice of foot washing as a sacrament in some Protestant orders, including the Primitive Baptist tradition in which Blanchfield was raised. We begin wide, with a scene in which members of Blanchfield’s church process toward a row of basins and, in twos, take turns soaping and rinsing their partner’s feet. Blanchfield, at thirteen years old, is witnessing this ritual for the last time, singing hymns and watching his mother’s face “grimace and blush” as an old woman takes her feet in her hands. “A thirteen year old,” he writes, “knows his single mother’s foot. An 8 1/2 narrow: back when a Naturalizer salesman would bring his shoehorn and ramp-stool over to straddle his customer’s fitting,” Naturalizers being affordable, professional shoes known for comfort. We follow that psychological integrative urge, the plunge from the wide surface of the subject to the vulnerable depths of Blanchfield’s experience of it.
     Vulnerability is at the center of the ancient Greek concept of xenia, which comes from xenos, a word meaning, first, guest. The secondary meanings are stranger, foreigner, or refugee, from which we get the term xenophobia, which now means a fear of people perceived as “foreign,” usually immigrants, but started out, in the late 1800s, sharing a meaning with agoraphobia, a fear of entering the strange, foreign world outside the home. The concept of xenia is the inverse—the act of welcoming a stranger, rendered vulnerable by their removal from familiar territory, into one’s home. Meaning “guest-friendship,” it refers to the ancient Greeks’ principle of hospitality, which they believed should be extended to anyone seeking it. Jesus Christ, in this tradition, washed the feet of the apostles who would soon betray him, participating in what Blanchfield calls an “economy of hospitality.” Because most wore sandals, the feet would be the most unclean part of a traveler entering a home—the greatest, most humbling act of hospitality a host could perform, then, was to wash the feet of the arriving stranger. To deny hospitality was a grave sin in ancient Greece, and in literature and myth often resulted in dire consequences, particularly if the stranger turned out to be a god in disguise.
     Blanchfield relates this act to Philoctetes, a play by Sophocles about the eponymous man who, in competing for Helen, was then conscripted to sail to Troy to help return her to her husband. On the way to war, Philoctetes is bitten by a snake, and the wound, without killing him, causes him constant agony. He complains all the time, and his foot gives off a putrid smell. Soon, Odysseus, who is sharing his ship, can’t take it anymore, and he leaves Philoctetes on the island of Lemnos.
In Philoctetes’ wound, Blanchfield finds his own. His stepfather, Frank, has a “chronic wound on the sole of his right foot,” a result of advanced Type 2 Diabetes. Though nerve loss means Frank feels no pain, he is in constant danger of life-threatening infection. The wound changes size and quality, but never closes. “I have seen it three or four inches deep,” Blanchfield writes. “Even then, it was frightfully clean, like a throat.” Why is it so frightfully clean? Blanchfield’s mother, every night after making dinner and doing the dishes, sits down with her tools to clean it: “After twenty-five years of marriage she knows this part of his body best. He hasn’t ever really seen it.”
Frank often “humiliates [Blanchfield’s mother] in the company of family or friends… relentlessly, set off by her miscomprehension of something or an oversight he has discovered.” Yet, she continues to perform the sacrament of washing his feet, continues to practice the guest-friendship of welcoming these strangers, Frank’s anger and his wound, into her life, and caring for them both.

Blanchfield explores the peculiar dynamic of housesitter and house owner in “On Housesitting,” which deals, too, with an economy of hospitality—“commensalism,” he writes, “or mutual benefit, is a constitutive premise of housesitting, or maybe an enabling fiction.” The idea being, then, that even with no pets to feed and walk, no plants to water, it is better for the home’s permanent resident that someone is there, just as it is better for that someone to have this place to stay, to have, in leaving his own home, this “new life to try on,” with an “established normalcy to play at.” However, the ultimate obligation of the housesitter is to leave everything exactly as it was found, to take off the life tried on and put it back on the hanger, unwrinkled and unstained and still smelling like the person meant to be wearing it.
     In this relationship can be found the transience of queer existence, a “tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”—never being allowed to, perhaps never wanting to, fully own and occupy a space as one’s own, the way a heterosexual couple has (seemingly) always been able to marry, buy a house, live in it permanently together, without fear that that space might be legislated or otherwise violated or taken away. There is also the expectation that queerness will tidy up after itself when allowed to occupy that heteronormative space—the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that queerness can exist in the world as long as it isn’t immediately identifiable. Try on that life, it says, but don’t let your slip show, and certainly don’t tailor it to better fit you or leave any other sign that you’ve been inside it.
     Blanchfield recalls one friendship lost over a perceived unmet housesitting obligation. His friend’s husband came home a day earlier than he was supposed to, to find Blanchfield in bed with someone, the carpet rolled up and to the side, the table used as a desk, a plate used as an ashtray, breakfast dishes as-yet unwashed. The husband called his wife, Blanchfield’s friend, irate at what he’d seen. Later, the friend told Blanchfield she was deeply disappointed, and he had the “uneasy sense that the apology elicited and that I gave was for sleeping with a man in their bed.” We learn that the man was a friend who had recently tested positive for HIV, and that he had come all week to the house seeking Blanchfield’s support and comfort. As I read this I wondered if it would matter to Blanchfield’s friend that they hadn’t had sex in the bed, only slept. I would guess probably not.

In The Odyssey, when Odysseus first returns home after sixteen years away, presumed, by most, dead, he discovers that his wife’s suitors have taken over his home and made it unrecognizable, and that he, himself, has been rendered unrecognizable to all of them. Older, war- and sea-ravaged, dirty, his hair and beard too long, he presents himself as a beggar and his wife, son, and rivals can’t see through the disguise. In the traditional act of hospitality, Eurycleia, Odysseus’ wet nurse and, later, his son’s, bends to wash the stranger’s feet. She is the only person to recognize him without his telling her; she notices, just above his knee, a scar earned boar hunting as a young man. Because she essentially raised him, she knows the scar intimately, and through this knowledge, knows him.
     “On Containment” begins with Blanchfield’s own childhood scar. His father, a trucker who has been away a while, comes home, and nine-year-old Brian races the dog, Sam, to greet him at the backdoor. Like Odysseus’s Argos, whose skeleton waited on shore where he’d died still searching the horizon for his master’s ship, Sam was loyal first to Brian’s father, and “turned on his rival… in a single motion, prefaced by a low growl, seized and ripped the flesh off the right side of [his] face, cheek to jawbone.” As they drove to the hospital, Brian kept reaching for the visor, wanting to see the wound for himself in the mirror: “What was the damage was the question, yes, but also, What does it look like inside me? I could hardly contain myself.”
     Eventually, Blanchfield writes, “the wound became scar and for the next eight years tightened and traveled from my cheek to my chin as I grew into the face I have.” Recently, in reading work by and about Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist of the 17th century, I learned that scar tissue is created by collagen, which the body must constantly produce to keep a wound closed. I had always thought of a scar as the remainder of a wound now-gone, but if there is still a scar, the skin is actively working to stay together—the natural state of a wound, in fact, is to be open. Samuel Pepys, forty-something years after surgery to have an enormous nest of bladder stones removed, developed scurvy, which affects collagen production and, though the surgical wound had been closed for decades, without collagen, it spontaneously reopened, as deep and painful as before. A scar, then, doesn’t replace a wound—it contains it.
     Though Blanchfield’s scar has shrunk and moved, it remains on his face. “There are a lot of nerve endings gathered in it,” he writes, “and it drives me a little crazy, distributes a sort of unsettling, illocable energy within, when a lover plays with that part of my face. I feel the same about my navel.” I know the sensation he’s describing—I have a scar on the tip of my left finger that is only a few years old, and touching it has the same effect. “Illocable” is such a perfect word for it that I can’t think of a second for explication. I can only say that, usually, a triggered pain has a clear source in the body—you stub your toe, your toe hurts, even if the surrounding area hurts as well. This nerve pain, though, has no single, determinable source, and because I cannot locate it to a single point, it achieves an unsettling illeity, as though it is occupying the air around me, rather than coming from within.
     Blanchfield recalls an idea in Adam Phillips’ book of Winnicottian essays—though he admits it may be simply his own theory, and not Phillips’: “beyond any fear is a broader, circumambient fear—a  terror—that one will be insufficiently able to hold that fear… In sustained tickling we know (we learned) there exists an outer lip or membrane between the simpler immediate excitement of fear and the shameful and complete loss of bodily control and mental composure.” When, after the bite, the other dogs in the neighborhood reacted violently to Brian’s presence, a boy told him they could smell his fear. “Early on you have a secret,” Blanchfield writes. “It is almost as though the secret is there before you. You are ever in relation to it; you are its container… How you feel is the secret. Or, it is not untrue to say, the secret is how you feel.” Brian was afraid of dogs, which the dogs could sense, which then made them more worthy of his fear. But he was containing something else, something he was more afraid would escape containment: “I couldn’t have said by what extroversion, but I knew eventually I was coming out.”
     We can see in this the writer’s dilemma. In writing, the writer must pass the brink of pleasure in tickling a subject to reach its point of disintegration. They must flip the mirror to view the wound’s full damage, to ask, “What does it look like inside me?” Yet, the finished essay also acts like a scar, locating the wound and containing it, working, like the body, to keep it closed and in one place.
Reading a personal essay is also like housesitting. We try on the writer’s life, see how it feels, walk through the rooms of the writer’s mind and pull open the curtains, roll up the rug, use its plate as an ashtray. We feel as though we know what it’s like to live there, but we don’t know, not really. Eventually we leave to go live somewhere else.
     This experience of a writer’s mind is a privilege, and we are given it because the writer practices xenia, guest-friendship. This is another economy of hospitality, the commensalism in which the writer allows us into their house, and we, in turn, do them the favor of living in that house respectfully, of observing it closely, appreciating what has been so carefully placed where and why.
     Of course, too, a personal essay is a wound at the bottom of the writer’s foot. A wound on one’s extremity achieves illeity because, unlike the flesh ripped from Brian’s face, that wound cannot be easily seen, the damage not easily reckoned. Only others can truly see into that clean throat, and only if the writer chooses to prop it up on the butcher block table to let us get a look inside. This is vulnerability—the writer, prone, showing us their wound.


At the end of Proxies waits what Blanchfield calls a “rolling endnote,” titled “Corrections,” where he corrects much of the things in these essays that, in suppressing authoritative second sources, he gets wrong.

In Levinas, the idea of illeity circles that phrase “there is,” an impersonal manner of being. I think of what we mean when we say “it is raining”—what is that it that is? Levinas calls this there, this it, “neither nothingness nor being.” Blanchfield writes in his beginning note that a proxy, in the sciences, “expresses a kind of concession to imprecision, a failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate[emphasis his] the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.”

In How Fiction Works, James Wood only spends a few words on the ear from Blue Velvet in a footnote. A clip of this moment from the film can be found easily on YouTube, in which Kyle MachLachlan, as Jeffrey Beaumont, pauses in a field while throwing rocks at empty bottles to part the grass and find, nestled there, an ear grown moldy, crawling with ants. This footnote elaborates on a concept Wood calls “The Awful and the Regular,” using Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education as an example. He notes that, in moments of shock or trauma, the awful details and the regular details will strike the viewer at the same time: “Frédéric felt something soft under his foot; it was the hand of a sergeant in a gray overcoat.” The estrangement occurs here when, like the ear in the field, the hand is viewed as separate from the rest of the body, but that detail—a hand is not where it belongs, it is that of a dead man, body strewn underfoot—is given equal weight to the man’s rank and the color of his overcoat. Blanchfield’s essays achieve a similar effect. In an essay on owls, he writes of a raptor center outside Charlotte, NC, the second boy he ever slept with, giving a brick as a gift, a poem about taking ecstasy and not having sex, Little Professor—the children’s game, Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Owl in the Sarcophagus,” the etymology of the word sarcophagus, boredom, a text from his mother, the wingspan of an owl. These details gain equality through their association in Blanchfield’s mind, and as he removes them from their home in his mind and puts them on the page, they serve as proxies for his imagination, and in that removal they achieve illeity by being neither the thing they represent, nor nothing, but something new entirely.

Heather Wells Peterson's fiction and essays have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, American Short Fiction, Subtropics, Lucky Peach, Literary Hub, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles.

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