I dug into Erik Anderson’s Flutter Point as soon as it was pub’d by Zone 3 Press after winning their annual creative nonfiction book award. We seem to be fans around here: Nicole Walker also recently conversed with Erik about his previous book, Estranger, put out by Rescue Press in 2016 (that’s right, two books in two years; who is this guy? How’s he doing this?), and – no small thing – he may have just tied Didion and Louis C.K. for most mentions here at Essay Daily. How is that possible? Yet here we are.
Flutter Point is essays, all are good, some are great, a few are over my head (Anderson seems to be roughly 3X the intellectual I am), and one super pissed me off enough that I read the book a second time a month later because I was still thinking about it, in particular about how this one essay seems to violate the essayistic principle I hold closest to my slightly tachycardic (four cups of coffee this morning) heart: that you go ALL IN.
If you’re going to write about Tunisian activist Amina Tyler posting a topless photo of herself on Facebook with the words My body is mine and not the source of anybody’s honor – an act for which she was threatened with death by stoning – and if you’re going to write about FEMEN, which self-describes as an “international women’s movement of brave topless female activists,” and if you’re going to suggest that a righteous response to a Missouri rapist’s acquittal would be posting a naked photo of your male self on the internet with the words “This is not an instrument of rape” written on your abdomen, then you must do it! You must, because once you throw the idea out there you need to follow through and see where it goes. That’s what good essayists do! And yet, Erik Anderson, a solid essayist, I think, did not do this. He backed down. wtf?
Luckily, I have his email. No reason to stew alone.
I enjoyed Flutter Point a lot, though I’ve gotten kind of stuck on this one essay, "FOR A BODY NOT TO BE," in particular this:
...it occurs to me that, to protest the mysterious dismissal of charges against her assailant, engineered no doubt by his powerful relatives, I might take and post online a naked photo of myself with the words "This is not an instrument of rape" written on my abdomen. That this is almost the last thing I will actually do strikes me as a sign of the complacency that is the sine qua non of my demographic.
You give a nice intellectual out in the rest of the paragraph, but I keep coming back to this: You acknowledge that your choice not to include such a photo of yourself is "a sign of the complacency that is the sine qua non of my demographic", and yet it’s exactly this complacency the essay is writing against, I think, or at least is interested in bringing to the front. Shouldn’t the essay try to overcome this complacency rather than simply rationalize it? Why not just include that photo of yourself in the book?
Why resort to the intellectual? Why not double-down on the action?
Love your question. Goes to the heart of what I was arriving at in that essay and, maybe, in the book as a whole.
A couple years ago I heard Kristin Dombek say - she may have been quoting John Jeremiah Sullivan, but I can't quite remember - that you should never make yourself the hero of your own essay. I usually resist prescriptions like this, but I think there's some wisdom in this one. Had I included an Amina Tyler-like photo of myself at the end of the essay, I would have been asserting the kind of heroism Dombek (and/or Sullivan) advised against, but more importantly, from my perspective, it would have claimed (rather than enacted) a bravery I don't possess, a bravery that belongs to those, like Tyler, whose visibility as bodies (unlike my own) requires courage, even audacity. I felt such a photo would have been disingenuous, at least in part because, demographically speaking (straight, white, middle class, male), I am not the oppressed but the oppressor - even if my political loyalties run in the other direction.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, points out that white people are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. I want to go in the opposite direction. I want to assert my complicity. Not to revel in it, but to name it and, with effort, to move through and hopefully past it.
Something like #notallmen (even though it's true that not all men are violent, sexually or otherwise) conceals and extends the problem. It treats stories like Daisy Coleman's as anomalies, when they're anything but. This week you have the president spewing more misogyny on Twitter, but the response that this is somehow out of the ordinary is absurd. Hating on women is part and parcel of the culture. And as long as we keep pretending that it isn't, it will continue to be so.
I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here, but this is the line of thinking that went into that essay and others. That it's not time for white male heroism but for some serious self-scrutiny.
Does this all make sense? Does it seem silly or stupid or self-defeating?
Hey, again, Erik,
This resonates: "I felt such a photo would have been disingenuous, at least in part because, demographically speaking (straight, white, middle class, male), I am not the oppressed but the oppressor.”
I was thinking the obvious end to this post would be for me to do what you have chosen not to – to follow through on your idea, i.e. to post a nude pic of myself with your line this is not an instrument of rape on my abdomen, you know, actually acting out the action you decline. But as straight white middle-class males maybe this is simply not our place to act? There’s little to no risk involved in you or I posting such a naked/political photo, and maybe that’s the point? Maybe the fact that there’s no risk makes the action worth less?
But, is an easy gesture less of a gesture? Is an easy action less helpful for being easy?
Or worse, does an easy action belittle others’ actions where more is at stake? (E.g. Amina Tyler's life was actually threatened as a result of what she did...)
I've got two boys tearing though lunch right now so this is only a half-formed thought but I wanted to tug at this line - "That it's not time for white male heroism but for some serious self-scrutiny".
Sure, this makes a lot of sense, intellectually, but when does this serious self-scrutiny just become navel-gazing, and what's the point, really? Why stop to think about our complicity/complacency when being complacent leads to more awful things actually happening?
What good is thought without real action?
These are all great things to tug at. I don't think it's navel-gazing, nor do I believe that thinking and action are mutually exclusive. Thinking/writing is a kind of action, much as reading or writing, say, is not separate from real life but in fact is real life. An essay is an action, a public statement. It participates in the public cognitive scene, lets others know your thoughts, links one life to another, allows us to connect/cross-pollinate through the membrane of the page. That this essay has raised the possibility of you taking such a photo, for instance, well, I find that totally delightful - whether or not you take and post the photo.
But here's another way at this: the t-shirt that reads, "This is what a feminist looks like." I would never wear that t-shirt, even if I align myself with feminist principles. I don't feel it's my place to call myself a feminist, my place to determine whether I am successful in my efforts to be an ally. (Feminist friends have, of course, disagreed with me on this.) It's not that the gesture of the t-shirt is an empty one, but that the more necessary occupation, to my mind, is a far less public one. It involves, say, you and I raising our sons in a different way, counter to the culture. It involves, for my part, speaking less, listening more, avoiding the mansplaining trap, trying to create room for other voices, and encouraging my son to be something other than the proverbial bull in a china shop. You know that moment in "Notes of a Native Son" where Baldwin talks about finding for the next generation a better antidote than the one that was available to him? I love that.
I've taken part in a lot of political actions since November, as I'm sure you have too. I've often been a body in public space, not any body precisely but certainly not the central one. My solidarity depends upon, among other things, my humility - as not seeing myself and my story and my needs as central - whereas the t-shirt, the photo, these moves feel more overbearing to me.
They might not be to others, and I respect that. I am, by nature, self-effacing.
I'm with you about hungering for action - I totally get that. But again, there's Baldwin, regarding us with those keen eyes of his, not only the most important American essayist of the twentieth century, I would argue, but also the essayist of the Civil Rights movement. Baldwin knew King and Malcolm, of course, but he saw his job as something fundamentally different than theirs: on one hand to witness and on the other to analyze, which he did with such perspicacity and rigor. He was not a man of action in King or Malcolm's sense, and yet his voice remains active, prodding us onward.
Which brings me back to that membrane of the page: I feel now that we've met, haven't we? And that here we are, doing the cognitive work together. That feels to me like action, whatever comes of it in the world.
Yeah, it’s action, I get it, I see it. And your anecdote in the book about the guy in your high school who performed Nirvana’s Rape Me in drag hits hard this idea of OCCUPYING YOUR LIFE, which is great. I’m gonna offer a quote for those who haven’t read the essay:
I don’t know whatever happened to Marc, the would-be Kurt Cobain from my high school, so I can’t say whether these days he’s still dressing in drag or whether he’s now a corporate accountant with a smattering of kids and a house in the suburbs. Maybe it’s both. As an emblem of revolution the executive in drag may be a little uninspiring, but such a person, if he exists, may be occupying his life on a profound level. I wonder about all the people for whom any demonstration is merely an outgrowth of the way they live their lives. This maybe the truest occupation, in every sense: rather than the message mediating the life, or vice versa, the message becomes the life, and the life becomes the message.
I'm tempted to leave off here. I don’t really think anyone reads past 1000 words anyway, and that’s a beautiful idea there in that paragraph – but, as nice as the intellectual knot you tie may be, I think I found a way out: Don’t ditch the larger action (the photo) – just take yourself out of it.
We don’t want to make it about ourselves, right? I think that’s right, so post the photo, but no face, just your penis, and your words – applying This is not an instrument of rape not just to yourself (as the #notallmen folks seem to), but to ALL MEN.
Remove yourself from the statement, but make the statement. Then see what happens.
Realistically, nothing will happen. And then we can go back to everything else?
I have thoughts on that, some of which belong to “For a Body Not To Be,” some not so much. My impulse is to leave the question open, however, to resist resolution – in the essay and in life.
I would only add that one of the tragic ironies of the Tyler photo is that her body was not, in effect, her own, and that for others it was a source of somebody’s honor, despite her heroic effort to reclaim it. Could something similar happen with this other photo? Would its primary function be to protest or to highlight its own ironies? What would the photo achieve, and for whom? Would it defeat itself? I don’t mean to goad you, but I suppose there’s one way to find out…
I should probably post this photo now. When I started all this I thought I was prepared to. It was early summer and the tiger lilies were just stalking up. Life seemed so warm and easy and endless.
But now, somehow, it’s fall, and that courage seems to have cooled. Easy ‘nuff to bare your brain, even your soul, but your penis? Shit.
So I guess that title is just clickbait then.
Craig Reinbold curates this site's Int'l Essayists column and recently co-edited, with Ander, How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader. He works in the ER of a Milwaukee-area hospital.