The writer-as-mystic

I think the notion of divine inspiration, and of the mystical artist, is fundamentally a self-curated image which vanguards the arts from everyone who could create. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’ve wasted time because I don’t believe time is a resource which can be wasted. I have spent my life living and life must be lived in order for anything meaningful to be made, but I resent how much I internalised this myth: that one day, when the time was right, when I had lived enough, knew enough and could be true enough, I would be able to ‘be a writer.’ For this reason, I have discarded more than I have ever written, mostly before I ever wrote it. 

Something changed when I had this dream last summer; it was an image I couldn’t let go. I plotted it as a short story and it got longer. The characters began talking to each other, and then to others; the kind of madness which might otherwise be psychosis unsublimated, which I used to think was another bullshit line people say to support the artist-as-mystic mythology. Then I wouldn’t hear them for weeks and it hurt. I decided the whole thing was a dead-end. I still hadn’t found that fully-formed thing I’ve heard people speak of when they speak of themselves as conduits, like “I didn’t even have to find the story, the story wrote itself through me.” Feeling the compulsion to write as the first and last thing you experience in a day, with no object, is agony. It goes on like this for months. 

I’m watching the news, I’m talking to a friend, I’m in the shower and I make myself implant the characters I abandoned to stasis into scenes. I think less like someone waiting to be a mystic and more like a journalist and then try to behave like a director. I begin to see them in the world around me and their world becomes more real. They begin to talk again and their conversations get bigger; I begin to understand what the mystics say when they say you can walk around in a world you have created. But it’s not a lightning bolt, it’s not a moment of divine clarity. It’s every day and all-consuming, it’s holding one world over the one you’re trying to live in, trying to be present with real people, and every moment of it hurts apart from the brief respites when you look and realise you like what you have made. 

Signs of life

Signs of life are quiet. They are entrances carved into boarded housing, sheets stapled to holes in walls, smoke plumes and small children disappearing into small spaces. This building isn’t squatted, it stands in for those that are. The city is filled with them, squeezed out into the margins so the Acropolis can sit undisturbed. I wonder about the work that must be done to produce holiday brochure images once again for future summers when the city is hollowed out. Come and tan on top of Bunker City.

in hindsight

I used to love someone whose love resisted all representation. Not when she was she, but when she was we, she dodged cameras, resented portraits and found the digital confessional hall of mirrors in which we live odious. Once, when we lay tangled up in sheets in a moment I wanted to preserve like an artist, she looked at me like I was a taxidermist and said, ‘Don’t write about me. Don’t you fucking dare.’ Her telepathy scared me, so I never did. 

Learning how to love her was like learning to love with a full wing span, without the obstruction of being wanted. That kind of dick-swinging-eyes-boring-holes-right-into-the-core-of-your-sex kind of good-for-a-quick-pick-me-up-plug-me-in-for-a-hot-minute then left sort of high and dry form of being wanted, which I was done with. In comparison, the echo of her recurring recessions permitted the growth of something like love which needed a new name. Because I was loving with the whole of my self for the first time, I confused my own love for hers. 

She told me to be gentle with her, that every day she was learning how to breathe and that’s why holding each other would always be a one-sided affair. She was busy learning to do things you should know from birth. Only she was holding others just fine.

One side of the brain is male and one female, they say. That’s a lie; they both look the same on a chopping board. I split mine in two looking for the right words because her secrecy gagged me; I confused it for modesty. 

what it was like

She swallows vitamins and wonders where her appetite went. Did it really go or did she force it out in place of an emptiness she could admire the way people admire a perfectly organised cabinet? This is an old behaviour. Six hours and she’s not hungry. Beyond another six there is a lightness of being you can only get on the other side of want. The emptiness is a shrinking horizon, always moving. If she can transcend the need for nourishment then she can transcend anything. The emptiness becomes a counter for the weight of love. She wants to be beyond want. She wants to be nothing but will and word.

Lines through Schengen

One thing about the virus discourse has concerned me the most, and that is how it has built a system of antagonism against all the infrastructure which supports migration. In only a year, I have seen numerous people who identify as leftists, who had been engaged in conversations about border abolition, become supportive of all kinds of border infrastructure which, either implicitly or explicitly, goes beyond its function to contain contagion, and contains people. If you are tempted to interject, at this point, to claim that restriction of movement stops the virus, this is where I beg we interrogate our use of the term virus with a capital V, and see how the logic of contagion might be extrapolated and applied elsewhere. 

I have had to travel throughout lockdowns this year. London was too expensive to live in; my father died; I couldn’t get healthcare; I want my European citizenship; I needed to be in nature; I needed to work; I needed to prioritise my mental health. I have been a medical and economic migrant, one with the privileges of my passport, nationality and savings in the bank. This is important to mention because we should all think about this barometer we use. ‘Essential need’ is a term which has wedged itself into public imagination in a way which worries me, because I see how it could be abused. Often what I considered my essential needs have not aligned with the State’s definitions. This means I have broken guidelines but no laws. When a government suggests people do not travel but does not mandate it, what happens? Apparently, a surge in internal shaming, policing, and a chaotic effort to define terms like essential, leisure, work, play, etc. When yet another lockdown was announced in the UK with little notice, people fled London. This seemed inevitable to me, but both the press and people from across the political spectrum condemned them for their lack of civic duty. 

What do we know about the flow of people fleeing containment and all its social, psychological and economic ramifications? At one end of a spectrum of Essential Need is a person moving from one end of a country to another for their second home, at the other is a person risking death to cross the sea without permission and in the middle is a whole lot of grey. If we are going to draw these lines in the sand, we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing. While a discourse of containment is normalised, the usage of Ascension Island to indefinitely contain migrants is being discussed, and this is no accident. This is how crisis capitalism functions, to create infrastructures of oppression and profit on the back of fear, and have people celebrate their own loss of liberty because the alternative is unimaginable. 

I’m in no position to speculate how best to contain a virus, but I have seen plenty of the infrastructure at work this year. I have seen an awful lot of money spent on bio-surveillance technology and policing, profit made on vaccines while research in the use of already-existing medicine has not been funded. Political establishments, facing mistrust and civil unrest, have moved out of their homes and into a kind of medical establishment-corporate-military complex where one particular kind of Public Health discourse has become the Big Other. We must eradicate the virus at great costs, both profit and loss. 

Interrogation at borders is perfectly normal again, not a product of post-9/11 racism; just what needs to be done. What kind of travel is correct? What kind of relationships are correct? What kind of dwelling, what work, what papers, what blood? These questions are all being re-integrated into the infrastructure of movement, and this should be frightening. Only it’s not so frightening moving within the Schengen Zone, and this is where I’ve noticed some significant political intersections. 

In order to travel from Greece to Portugal recently we had to transit through Italy, a distinct jurisdiction with distinct regulations. The bureaucracy is arguably deliberately complex and internally contradictory. Portugal requires no PCR test upon entry but Italy does, on paper, and carries hefty consequences if your specific situation is misunderstood by the components of the bureaucratic machine which all seem to operate independently of one another. For this reason I was anxious. I wasn’t illegal in Portugal, but I might have been in Italy. 

Only nothing happened in Italy. I mean this literally: the systems of control which exist on paper do not exist in reality because the infrastructure of border control in the Schengen was dissolved decades ago. There is no border, there was no one to take all the paperwork we had painstakingly done. There was only military in snappy uniforms with expensive toys, stores selling surgical masks mass-manufactured in China for €5 a packet. In Greece this disconnect between lockdown-on-paper and lockdown-in-reality has been most clear to me, because of its poverty. I took a bus full of citizens, migrants, people using it to move house and postal workers using it to move mail, and there was no policing of our numbers, no checks at a single toll-booth. I took a train again crammed with people into a city meant to be under curfew; all I ever see is a group of police munching pies or chain smoking. Apparently their policing is reserved for making an example of migrant neighbourhoods. Taxis, however, are heavily regulated. We had to pay our driver and his friends three times the fare because they are only permitted to carry one passenger at a time, to drive them to and from airports where they sit on fully booked flights. 

There are no borders in Schengen. This is signifiant when the UK government discusses how to deal with the pandemic, and is parallel to how it plans on moving on from Brexit. An MP recently claimed that the UK is more familial with Australia, New Zealand and Canada than its former EU member states because of ‘shared values and a belief in Parliamentary Democracy,’ unlike France and Germany, those one-party dictatorships… Obviously this is untrue. Obviously its political underscore is an attempt to reclaim the Commonwealth in whatever possible form, and its geopolitical underscore is clearer. When they talk about new trade deals they are also talking about migration, and when they talk about the virus, they are also talking about migration. This kind of rhetoric is a disguise of the real claim which drove Brexit in the first place and is embedded in legislative responses to the pandemic: that the more isolated the nation, the ‘safer’ it is from being impacted negatively from the outside. Whether that impact is commercial, from migration or contagion, it all becomes synonymous.