A few weeks ago, I sat with my seventy-year-old neighbor in the mountains of New Mexico while she defrosted her refrigerator—boil water, put hot kettle in ice box, collect drippings, repeat—for hours. We talked about faith, corruption, and smoking cigarettes. Jeannie quit smoking when she was thirty-five, a few years older than I am now. She told me how quitting comes all at once. It was like that when she quit drinking, quit eating meat, quit working: one day you’re doing it and the next you’re wondering what to do instead. I told her I planned to quit smoking when I started having children.
Her glare came like a mother’s slap on the wrist. I already knew the story about Jeannie trying to have a child, about those six months she sat in the forest and watched her belly swell like summer pinyon needles. Then, suddenly, a miscarriage that happened all at once. Now I knew what happened the next day, when she was left wondering what to do instead.
I thought of Marguerite Duras’s 1976 essay, “The Horror of Such a Love,” of the story of her own miscarriage, the one that begins: “They told me: ‘Your child is dead.’ It was an hour after his birth.” The story that continues as a dialogue, Duras asking to see her dead son, the nurses’ denial, Duras’s insistence, asking to hold him. “He belongs to me,” she says. The nurse: “You’re not serious… I cannot give you your dead child.” A dialogue that can only end by skipping ahead to the next child, the child Jeannie could not even imagine past the void that Duras describes as “Nothing. I had nothing left.”
Duras came into my life in the same mysterious way Jeannie did: fate or chance; I’m not so sure there’s a difference. I’d moved to the mountains because I was struggling to live in a society dictated by convention. Even grammar seemed a tyranny. Here, I am detached and largely unobserved. There is nature’s order, but there are no rules. So I write about nothing as an end in itself and about time passing. But to do it truthfully, my sentences have to start breaking. They have to learn to make room for mystery. In December 2019, a friend who saw my rupturing recommended Duras’s new translated collection of nonfiction work, Me & Other Writing, published for the first time more than twenty years after the author’s death. The translators, Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan, give no particular reason for the obvious question: Why now? They say only that it was difficult to translate Duras without destroying the mysterious syntax so crucial to her portrayal of the truth. Duras spent most of her life writing autofiction and cinema—creative realms in which we can tolerate fractured realities. Cynically, I wonder if our reality had to fracture in order for Duras’s truth not to get lost in translation, that the world had to catch up with Duras’s wisdom that nothing had the substance of everything.
Regarding the cigarettes: Jeannie’s glare stayed longer than most others I’ve received, which are usually just flashes, movements toward an emotion or a soliloquy or both. Jeannie let her eyes speak: a warning against giving myself away to a hypothetical child, to a future person other than myself, for both of our sakes. We skipped ahead and talked again about corruption, about the rhetorical battle for the rights of children in cages at the border. Then we turned to the heart of the matter, the slippery slope of compromise, how first you give away a piece of yourself, then another, until eventually there’s none of you left. “Women have beginnings,” Jeannie said, the next phrase implying “until they don’t, until they have nothing,” in near perfect mimicry of that line from Duras: “Nothing. I have nothing left.”
For a moment I looked at Jeannie and couldn’t tell the difference between her and Duras, between Jeannie and the woman I hoped I would become. That Jeannie had spent a life in the woods, Duras in the city, hardly seemed to matter. As Jeannie looked at me I wondered if she saw who she once was. But a moment ago her glare had been an annotation of the difference between us, the void between two individuals—or was it past and future self? Either way, I thought of the word responsibility, and wondered if it meant anything at all.
I recently misused the word responsibility. I was in school, in a halogen-lit classroom, swiveling in a swirly chair, talking with classmates about what it meant to be an adult. I was trying to sum up what I’d heard Zadie Smith say about the mysterious vanishing of adulthood in the “techno-utopic state,” how we’ve all become robots, aka children, aka beings who have traded in thinking for Candy Crush. My professor gave me a look like the one Jeannie did: be careful with the word responsible, a word over-full of duty and control, of one at the cost of another. His admonition reminded me of the therapist who’d warned against the word appropriate.
How can anyone draw such a line?
Back home, I looked up what Zadie Smith actually said, which had been inspired by the words of Kierkegaard: most of us fail to be most of the time. She said: “An adult can make, how do you say? Gradations. And an adult can say, ‘I like this but I don’t like this,’ ‘this part of the book is wonderful, not so much this part.’ That’s the job of an adult…” Smith stopped there, but if she were to have gone on I imagine she would have said: to be discerning.
In the essay “Motherhood Makes You Obscene,” Duras writes about her family: “I have separated myself from them in life. We separate ourselves from people by writing.” Dan Gunn, in his introduction to Me & Other Writing, suggests it is this very separation—Duras’s mysterious “double self”—that allows for writing by posting a critical distance between artist and experience: “The role of the artist has become that of bearing witness, precisely, to the repercussions, on every level from the most public to the most private, of… breakage.” Gunn doesn’t specify what, exactly, is breaking, but I assume he means “breakage” in the universal sense, i.e. our collective inability (or is it failure?), not to be, but to be with. We fail in sympathy with the world, but we write apart from it.
Every essay in Me & Other Writing exists simultaneously as an honest account and as a dystopian portrait, life inextricable from the ineffable pain of distance: between self and nature, self and God, self and self, self and other.
Of the environment, Duras writes: “We know that it will begin with the depletion of water, then of plants, animals and that it will end with the sweet and tender despair of what’s left of humanity, a thing I call happiness. Already they resemble one another.”
Of God: “It’s not because God doesn’t exist that people should kill themselves. Because the statement God doesn’t exist makes no sense. Nothing will replace the inexistence of God. His absence is irreplaceable and magnificent, fundamental, brilliant. Let us be cheerful, in joyful despair because of this word, God.”
Of self: “What moves me is myself. What makes me want to cry is my violence, me.”
Of other: “Of my child’s laugh. I put my ear to the shell and I heard the sound of the sea. The idea that his laughs might be dispersed in the wind, that was unbearable. I captured it. It was mine. Sometimes when he yawns, I breathe his mouth, the air of his yawn. ‘If he dies, I will have had that laugh.’ I know they can die, I measure all the horror of such a love.”
As for me, I might never have a child, but I know the horror of loving another, the desperation of trying to grasp the beloved, the impossibility of being with another.
I take a break from writing. I’m outside, snow falling out of an impossibly clear sky, a cigarette dangling from my mouth, and a line from Duras comes: “The most important experience you can have is to write. I have never had another experience so violent—except, yes, the birth of my child. In fact, I can’t discern a difference between the two. Writing is wholly equivalent to life.”
And then another: “It is the writer’s duty to fail.”