I read Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing on flights to and from a canyoneering trip in Moab. On the last full day of the trip, we found petroglyphs—cupreous handprints, pressed palm to rock—in an alcove in a wide, verdant valley that emerged (like something Moses might have sought in the Old Testament) after a hike across desert slickrock and through a shoulder-width slot canyon. The petroglyphs are a material communication, a collection of fragments from one, some, or several authors, a synecdochic expression of some Self. They are not high up, situated instead within the standing reach of their makers, very near. You can, if you so choose, reach out and touch them.
From the first sentence of the first essay, ostensibly about owls, Blanchfield swiftly connects the self and the subject. He essays not owls but his own past relationships, reaching out toward an object of thought only to draw up and out of hiding the self, or “what might be called a self,” as he says. These essays harken back to Montaigne, asking as Blanchfield does in the opening “A Note,” Que sais-je? That is not to say these essays feel familiar. The voice and identity here feels totally new, the intimacy and intelligence here completely Blanchfield’s own. I think maybe a second, perhaps better question to illustrate the project of Proxies than What do I know? might be the one Blanchfield poses to his students, per Heidegger: “How do you find yourself?”
In a brilliant essay “On the Leave” (the term for the position of the pool balls after a shot), he concludes,
I mean, the magic act of the leave is that gradually, motionlessly, the frozen scatter of independent entities are reorganized into relational possibilities along a single-point perspective, a subject position, interpolating the next new agent of the game, calling him to stand where he needs to be.
This describes these essays, but it is also an exact comment on the nature and construction of the self. Because the self, he says elsewhere, “is a construct,” it is an abstraction—as in “to draw away”; the self is that which we abstract from the array of experiences, just as the player’s position is abstracted from the stochastic arrangement of pool balls on the table. Blanchfield explores a peripersonal and proprioceptive notion of the self: “near space, the entire volume of space within a person’s reach… It is not wrong to call it a body’s gravitational field”.. The self contains its immediate environment, just as the essayist contains both his mother on the floor pretending to weep so that he will pretend to be their puppy, circling her, just as he contains the painful refusal on her part to read his book or to accept that he’s gay.
Proxies is a series of meditations that are free to move as they choose, and as each essay’s repeated “invocation” reminds the reader, they permit “shame, error and guilt,” with the self as “the single source.” The essayist “stay[s] with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability.” A separate section lists corrections for all the preceding essays, like, for example, that though Blanchfield thought of Aristotle’s distrust of poets, Plato’s is better known; that though Valor and Dolor are abstractions, they are not Greek gods. He also clarifies a mention of seminars taught by Roland Barthes, who “was fatally struck by a laundry van as he left campus” three months after the third seminar began.
Blanchfield’s book is perhaps comparable to the description in/of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes: “Though consisting apparently of a series of ‘ideas,’ this book is not the book of his ideas; it is the book of the Self… it is a recessive book (which falls back, but which may also gain perspective thereby).” There are images of this falling back to gain perspective throughout. My favorite is in “On Completism,” where Blanchfield describes the achievement of collecting all the baseball cards for the 1981 Phillies, saying it is
that a comprehensive perspective has been prepared, a panorama in miniature, a panorama ne plus ultra. The completist can see all at once the entirety of the 1981 Philadelphia Phillies club and so has looked upon his own death. That is, he has done the advance work sufficiently to pull out widely enough to see the thing in whole.
Describing Man Roulette (where “opposing theories of self are [validated]”), he says, “What is different about Man Roulette is vantage, a kind of inherent third-person perspective on the both of you and your date. You get to see it all.” Later, he views an audition tape for One Life to Live in which a series of different actresses inhabit the same role, delivering the same lines. This ‘text’ was never meant to exist, was never intended to be a composite portrait; but this is how Blanchfield experiences it while house-sitting at an actor-friend’s place: a single document containing “a set of reliably dynamic relations,” as he says of an essay by John Berger. He describes the discovery:
The illicit pleasure of screening footage not meant for me was partly in reviewing what each actress could not see: the cheap guile with which she was one of many beheld as if singular by the consecutive executive. Finally authorship itself is reassigned by this structure; if anyone it is the reading viewer… who has created this art.
In this way, too, the reader is given that recessive view, given the experience Blanchfield describes while watching the tape, an experience of witnessing the essayist at his almost private work.
In the penultimate essay, Blanchfield admits to a secretive childhood love of making maps, saying, “Each map I made invented a place, a place suggested by the schematic of the place, as beheld from an implicit aerial vantage.” Place is often significant in these essays, though I think it’s not inaccurate to say each place is necessarily informed or even invented by the people within it: his childhood in the south, the peripatetic academic path that leads him from New York to Los Angeles to Missoula to Boston and finally out of academia and to Tucson. He narrates life in New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic, most poignantly perhaps by way of a repeated ride on the C Train to Bed Stuy. On the second ride, to receive the results of his test, two men board the train and face each other from opposite ends, a powerful parallel to the essay’s exploration of external-only sex, two lovers facing each other with the threat of something haunting the space between them, as well as the essay itself: the final line turns outward, faces the reader, asks a question.
The book’s architecture manages to be both/and: individual essays that are complete unto themselves, and yet which function necessarily as part of a whole, as nodes of a network. Or what’s a better metaphor? A relationship, maybe. Each one is dialectical, experienced between two individuals, just as each essay is Blanchfield essaying his chosen subject; but, as Blanchfield says of his past lovers after they’ve faced each other and now face forward together, “Each one a piece of me.” It’s a beautiful book, and as the essays move forward chronologically (from the earliest to the most recent) the arc of it is from a date with “the second boy I ever slept with” to lasting love with his partner, John; they “mark their anniversary” from Election Day in 2010 and “tell everyone every year we re-elect each other.” Through all these titular subjects, the voice is immediate, musical, and easily speaks about both theorists like Jose Muñoz and his dad’s truckdriving and barroom hustling. Blanchfield blends the intellectual and the personal projects of the essays, in a form where “lifewriting is indistinct from a kind of free intellection,” as he says of Maggie Nelson and Alison Bechdel in an interview on Essay Daily.
One of my favorite of these essays is “On House Sitting.” There he compares the nominal subject to playing house, a type of “identity rehearsal”: “You’re writing a future into a present, you’re writing an other there onto the self here.” The essay opens with his following Eileen Myles in the role of house sitter for their mutual friend Rodney, though he did not know her yet. He finds a book, The Boston School, and sees that “some place—not Boston—united them, a scene, a life.” By the essay’s end, Blanchfield connects this reflection on housesitting to the first person plural he used throughout his second book, A Several World, which named a “queer kind of family,” a deft and emotional notion of community, of connection. As he says, “it reminds me of medieval thought, when likeness (in appearance, in disposition, in leanings) was understood to be the effect of some kind of contact, metonymic not metaphoric in relation, something that passes via touch in a realm subtending to this one, a contagion.”
A proxy, as Blanchfield mentions, can mean “a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary,” as well as the “subject you choose to study” in the sciences “to approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject.” Like the petroglyph palms, these essays are avatars, agents, standing in for the essayist’s self, fragments as Barthes describes his own writing; but they are also approximate in the etymological sense, as in the verb to “bring close,” from the Latin proximus, “very near.” They are pieces of the self that invite contact, that draw the essayist’s self out while bringing the reader in close, very near. They invite a sort of stepping into the essayist’s self like an auditioning actress inhabiting a character, or like an arrangement of individual pool balls that call to us and tell us where to stand. Proxies manages not just to answer How do you find yourself? for Blanchfield via this recessive, implicitly aerial view, but also to connect the reader to the essayist and maybe to make a likeness from that contact, to create a community.