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The Unsayable: a conversation with Cynthia Cruz

Cynthia Cruz interviewed by Paul Rowe.

Cynthia Cruz’s latest book of essays, Disquieting: Essays on Silence (Book*hug Press 2019), is an illuminating collection that blends the critical with the personal focused on silence, anorexia, mental illness, and other forms of disquietude as methods for rejecting the culture of neoliberalism.

Here, Cynthia talks to Paul Rowe about Disquieting: Essays on Silence, her recent work, and her influences and interests.

3:AM: Hi Cynthia, how are you doing, and what is currently taking up your time?

Cynthia Cruz: I am currently in the United Kingdom, where I have been the past two weeks. I have been working on a series of essays. One, on phenomenological space, I’ve just published at Degree Critical, and I’m writing two additional essays this summer: one on the libidinal in working class bands (i.e Joy Division and The Fall) and one on the photographer William Gedeny’s work in Kentucky. I’ve also just completed a collection of poems, am working on the proofs on my forthcoming collection Guidebooks for the Dead (2020), and have begun some new poems, as well, in the past months. Right now, the title for these poems is Terror Lullabies.

3:AM: This is all so exciting. I have much to say about your essays in Disquieting: Essays on Silence (Book*hug Press 2019), and I’m thrilled to read your new article at Degree Critical, but I’d like to talk about poetry for a bit before we dive into your recent book.

In our last conversation in minor literature[s], you mentioned that the way you perceive your work has changed. Instead of viewing each book as a distinct progression from the one that came before it, you described your books as process of dilution with Ruin as an origin and subsequent works becoming “more and more diluted” as you “became more and more immersed in worlds outside of where [you] came from.” What can lovers of your poetry expect from Terror Lullabies? Are these new poems a new beginning, a return to your roots, or something else?

CC: I would say the new poems are a new beginning in that I have recommitted to entering the unsayable; to writing what I cannot, will not, am too ashamed to put down on paper. In this way, then, I’d say that perhaps these new poems are, indeed, a return to the earlier work. Whenever I sit down to write, I never think of an audience, what people will think when they read the work, and yet, over the years, I can see how the work has become more “refined,” more shielded. While the two first books, because, in a sense, I didn’t know anything yet (about the writing world, its expectations, what is considered popular (and what is considered unpopular), etc. I wrote with absolute freedom. It is out of this sense of freedom that these newer poems are being written.

3:AM: What strikes me about your description of your new poems is that they approach or express the “unsayable.” Your new poetry then parallels Disquieting: Essays on Silence.

In Disquieting, you explore different modes of resistance to neoliberal culture, a culture that, as we exchange messages for this interview, continues to marginalize and silence the working-class, the poor, LGBTQ people, and all people who do not accept the commodification of their minds, bodies, and selves.

One thing I noticed when reading is the clarity of the picture you paint of neoliberalism, a form of capitalism alive and well here in the United States and the United Kingdom that is notoriously difficult to pin down for critique. It is so blindingly ubiquitous, so seeped into our everyday activities, it seems at first notice to be unspeakable, un-seeable, bafflingly opaque. To quote your book:

Adhering to neoliberalism’s ideology of the commodification of the self with no safety nets, such as socialized medicine or secure employment, leads to exhaustion. But how do we resist a system we cannot see, a system we are told does not exist?

How did this project of envisioning (and embodying) alternative ways of living in this world begin? Was this something that incubated over time, or did you, yourself, over time, begin to see aspects of your own work, your own life, as alternative ways of moving through a world that has, willingly or not, been shockingly altered under neoliberalism?

CC: Your question is a difficult one, in that it’s hard to untangle when and where the actual moment is when I began to notice neoliberalism’s effect on me. What I can say is that the project began by interrogating “Silence,” what it means in our culture, why it’s considered a lesser affect, and then how those who are silent and/or have been silenced might resist this exclusion. As I began to explore this topic I began to see then how neoliberalism with its constant calls for selling one’s self (the commodification of self in all aspects), and all this entails (presenting one’s self as a sleek product, etc…) are related to this broader topic of marginalization: those who are marginalized are often those who refuse or cannot will themselves to this ideology. Also, I looked at the ways that neoliberalism informs my daily life, how it informs the literary world, for example, academia, and the arts. There is no question it informs all aspects of our lives and the culture we live in and, as a result, it’s impossible to completely withdraw from it. It’s very much like the air we breathe. But recognizing it, looking at its ideology, has helped me to resist it. By naming it, I can see where it exists and then where it does not exist. For example, my move toward a more authentic writing is directly related to this realization. I want to write without any concern for the market, for whether my writing will “sell” or not, will be “popular” or not. I want to write the most authentic writing, taking risks, saying the unsayable.

3:AM: Thank you, Cynthia. Disquieting develops unique ways of saying the unsayable. These alternative ways of communication or spaces of non-communication—caesuras—as you rightly call them, are forms of resistance, refusals of commodification.

I’m especially inspired by the ways your work converses with the late Mark Fisher’s work. In Capitalist Realism, he explores how communicative exchanges within the neoliberal system break down into incessant soundbites and slogans that are post-lexical—“Teenagers process capital’s image-dense data without any need to read – slogan recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-mobile-magazine informational plane,” Fisher writes, connecting the argument of Deleuze and Guattari that “Writing has never been capitalism’s thing. Capitalism is profoundly illiterate.”

In your excellent chapter “Melancholia and the End of the Future” you analyze how this strand of illiteracy expresses itself in Lars von Trier’s <em>?Melancholia</em>:

Rather than reading and comprehending Justine’s gestures—her extreme lethargy and repeated attempts to escape—as obvious forms of desperation, her family and guests hunt her down and force her back to the party. And once returned, she is expected, like a mannequin or a robot, to behave as if she were happy. But each time she re-arrives, Justine disappears again.

Justine rebels against her family’s inability to interpret her signs, her family’s inability or unwillingness to “read” Justine, and her own ways of “saying the unsayable.” What makes Justine and Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Justine so important to your project examining how we can make ourselves understood when what we have to say is inarticulable, or at least inarticulable to and within our culture?

CC: Justine’s family can’t see her or what she is telling them (Justine explicitly describes her melancholia to her sister, Claire, only to have her sister deny it). When, finally, she is pushed beyond her abilities—no longer able to explain what is going on, overwhelmed, now, completely, with the melancholia, she tries, in a final attempt to express her desperate state, by utilizing gesture. This, too, goes unnoticed and, as a result, she is rendered incapacitated, in part two.

In the end, Justine is neither seen, nor is she heard. Even her husband and boss can’t see her—they can only notice her appearance and are incapable of seeing beyond this facade.

And yet, despite the fact that Justine’s attempts at communication are ignored or passed over by others, I will still argue for the symbolic, which is the language she is utilizing both in her attempts to share how she is feeling vis a via leaving the art books in the study open to pages that express how she is feeling and through her actual body, which becomes weighted down as she becomes more and more incapacitated by the melancholia.

It’s important, too, to note, again, that Justine has attempted on a number of occasions to communicate her inner state to others. Specifically, we watch as she describes the state of melancholia to her sister. And yet, her verbal communication, as well as her gestural communications, are ignored or passed over because those around her are unable to digest what she is saying. To swallow what she is telling them would mean accepting a truth they can’t accept: the contemporary world is sick and has transmitted this illness to Justine. Everyone in the film has conformed to the neoliberal world, which, in itself, takes a tremendous amount of effort. To recognize that the ideologies of our contemporary culture are making people sick, making us sick, would mean having to look at the terrible truth: the meaninglessness of it all. For example, conforming to a culture that prizes notoriety and wealth as the most important goals. Rejecting the culture one lives in, turning away, takes an enormous amount of courage and means accepting the fact of one’s living outside one’s culture, marginalized, an outsider. In other words, it’s easier to ignore what Justine is telling them than to see and hear her and have to accept the terrible truth.

3:AM: Fascinating. It seems like Justine’s family is unwilling to see or hear her, as if this kind of blindness to individual truth is a form of collective self-protection. It feels like this illusion is what makes life bearable for them.

While we are talking about melancholia, you make a very important distinction between the states of depression and melancholia in your book. I’m wondering if you would share what makes this distinction so important to your project. What are the differences between depressive and melancholic states, and what makes these distinctions so essential to your line of thinking in Disquieting?

CC: The main difference to me between depression and melancholia is that depression is what is occurring on the outside, one’s symptoms: (sadness, lethargy, loss of appetite, etc.) while melancholia is what is actually happening within. Furthermore, melancholia is a definition of what occurs when one is unable to grieve the loss of something because they are unable to determine what exactly it is they have lost. Because in melancholia one does not know what one has lost, there can be no resolution; there is no way to recover. This is the case for class trauma (the trauma that occurs when growing up working class/poor in the contemporary US) and trauma, in general. The definition of trauma is that the event that has occurred to create the trauma has created a shock and that shock results in a black out where no memory exists (the psyche protects us from such traumatic memories). Because these memories are not recoverable, what has occurred cannot be remembered, which means it cannot be re-experienced and grieved.

3:AM: It is a revelatory distinction in your book that allows further revelations to crystalize in Disquieting. You note that while the experiences of the melancholic and the depressive share “similarities,” the difference between melancholia and depression “illuminates the difference between the Western culture contemporaneous with melancholy and that with depression.” And in the following passage you interpret the significance of Herbert Marcuse’s astute observation that language in contemporary capitalist culture is utilitarian:

It [language] serves to assess worth and then label people and things based on their assessed value. In a culture that deals predominantly in the production and creation of wealth for wealth’s sake, nuances–such as feelings, body language, gestures, and symbolic actions–lose their meanings. Currently, Western culture values scientific, utilitarian thinking and language that quickly diagnoses and “fixes.”

And later:

We have lost holistic treatment, and instead focus on managing the patient’s symptoms rather than finding their causes. We are constantly reminded–by the ubiquitous advertisements for pharmaceuticals on TV, the radio, and the internet, on billboards and buses, and in subways–that we are flawed and must be fixed so we can become productive members of capitalist society. These messages that we are unfit, that our symptoms need to be eradicated rather than listened to, inform our emotional and psychic life–they contribute to our depression.

In your reading of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, the film takes us away from the utilitarian understanding of depression and approaches the topic through, in your words “the more nuanced and allegorical lens of melancholia.” What I’m interested in, now that I have you to talk with about this, is how the film’s apocalyptic scenario takes on the allegorical and symbolic. What does this endgame scenario mean for Justine, and for others who find enigmatic ways to refuse that which they do not believe in?

CC: Justine is suffering from melancholia until, and this is a terribly important until, the world she lives in begins to mirror her internal state (the inevitable collision of the planet, Melancholia, with earth.) When this occurs, when Justine realizes the world is coming to an end, her melancholia disappears. That’s one, perhaps enigmatic, answer. The other answer is that there is no escape from melancholia—the thing that has been lost remains unknown to the one suffering and, as a result, she is unable to grieve her loss. The only true escape, then, is death. This is the terrible answer and yet it is unavoidable when discussing this film. Justine finds relief only when she knows the world, which includes her endless suffering, will end. Again, this is the terrible answer and, to be honest, I’m afraid even to utter it, here in this interview. But then I also wonder if whether our avoidance, as a culture, of the topic of death and the choice of many to take their own lives, only pushes the topic further and further into the darkness in the same way Justine’s family cannot accept her melancholia, as if by avoiding the topic, it might vanish. And this, in turn, parallels the denial Claire has about the possibility of death and/or the inevitable collision of planets. Death is a part of life, obviously. It seems, then, perverse the way our culture refuses to acknowledge it or the places where its shadows occur (anorexia, depression/melancholia, old age, suicide, etc.).

3:AM: Thank you. And yet as you relate in your essay, the planet’s collision with Earth serves as a “symbolic manifestation” for Justine’s melancholic affect. This strikes me as incredibly important. When the universe itself brings out a symbol that represents her internal experience, in your words, “Justine experiences relief.”

As you note in our last exchange, this relief comes with her resignation to death, but it is also validation of her ability to find herself in the world around her, validation of her skill as a reader of the symbolic world around her. Unlike Claire and John, and other characters in the film who are wrapped up in the illusions of neoliberalism, it appears that Justine is the only person who is in touch with both the truth of, on the one hand, finite existence, and on the other, the nuances of a world that is charged with symbolic, mythic energy. Melancholics appear to me to be those who are able to, or through harsh experiences, learn to, manifest their painful conviction that in modern reality, something priceless has been lost to human beings. To my mind, this points to the consequences of reification, what French-Brazilian sociologist Michael Lowy describes as “the dehumanization of human life, the transforming of human relations into relations among things, inert objects.”

It feels like Justine re-enchants her world with qualitative—as opposed to quantitative—meaning through acknowledgement of symbolic meanings, symbolic values, that imbue these objects with meanings beyond exchange value, meanings that correspond to the humanity of her inner world. Once reality responds to Justine’s recognition of symbolic meaning and nuance, ambiguities that literally do correspond with the realities found within and without—in nature itself—when reality seems to validate her yearning for significance beyond capitalism’s banal creed of commodification, she grasps life itself in the face of death. I agree that it’s death that helps her escape her melancholia. Yet, in some sense, is her melancholia life-giving?

CC: Melancholia both removes life from one’s life (rendering one without life force, unable to move, eat, or otherwise function, etc.) but, as you suggest, yes, I do believe it is or can also be life giving in the sense that you suggest. If depression is the contemporary means of describing this ailment, by describing only what is occurring on the surface, symptoms that, in turn, are dealt with only by pharmaceuticals, melancholia, as the psychoanalyst and writer Darian Leader suggests, is a metaphorical means of describing what is happening. Melancholia speaks both to the symptoms and to the internal landscape that has and is producing these symptoms. Similarly, melancholia imbues one’s life with a metaphorical landscape: the world takes on secret meanings. Here, I am not referring to hallucinations or delusions but, rather, metaphor and symbolism, allegory. Lars von Trier paints his film with these meanings: the horses, the mansion, the end of the world, the paintings, and so on. It is a richness, a richness the world offers that we become unable to read once we are mired in the landscape—external and internal—of finance and late stage capitalism where all meaning is related to transactions and commerce. In this sense, Justine is “old school” or left behind, she doesn’t “get it,” and as a result, she drops out of this world. This richness is the world of poetry, a world that is becoming more and more (in the US, at least) marred in the language of advertising, the language of transaction, a language devoid of richness, symbolism, metaphor and allegory. I, of course, prefer to live in this world and write inside this world of language.

3:AM: Brilliant. Your chapter “Asylum” explores another way that the “unsayable” can be expressed. In this chapter, the anorexic body becomes a kind of metaphor that can tell us something about the anorexic’s inner world and the reality around her.

How was this chapter shaped by your own experience with anorexia? How did your own experience create an opportunity for this kind of rich exploration?

CC: First of all, thank you for this wonderful question. I have lived with anorexia in its various iterations since I was eleven years old. I have been going to therapy since I was 19 and in the middle of graduate school for my MFA in poetry I checked myself into an institution for my anorexia. In other words, I have met with an endless stream of experts: psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers, and in the end, no one, even now some 50 years since anorexia began its current epidemic form, knows where it originates. In all this time, too, I kept coming up against the same crude treatment: that of re-feeding, the idea being that if the anorexic simply ate and gained her weight back, she would be cured. Of course, this is sheer nonsense. The crudeness of this solution and the lack of curiosity on the part of the researchers and therapists made me realize that I, in fact, as someone who has lived with this symptom for most of my life (and all of my adult life), might have something to say; might have some wisdom to impart. But none of the professions were interested in my ideas in regard to anorexia because the theory is that the anorexic, because she is anorexic, is not sane. But even when I am at a “regular” or “normal” weight for my body size, even then, I am still “anorexic,” because anorexia is a way of being in the world, it is a way of thinking, a kind of ongoing resistance and refusal of the world.

My belief is that we ought to ask those who are suffering how they are, listen to them, and not treat them (us) as if we are children. In fact, the act of listening is already a curative. My anorexia bloomed, originally, from my having felt invisible, not-listened to. As a result, I made my body into a symbol–in a sheer act of desperation–in order to relay to the world how I was feeling. Therefore, to be seen and heard could be a first step toward helping the anorexic. These ideas led me to discover other, kindred thinkers, such as Deligny, Oury, and François-Tosquelles, and also led me to psychoanalysis, where the main task at hand is for the analyst to listen to the analysand without ever giving advice or correcting her. Furthermore, all of these thinkers and the practice of psychoanalysis do not aim to cure but, rather, to listen and learn from them in a collaborative fashion.

3:AM: Within neoliberal culture, the anorexic human is not fully heard, but rather prescribed medications that aim to “fix” the person to make her more productive, to make her more able to function in a world of competition and exploitation. In your book, though, you turn away from this trend and explore psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic treatment. How does psychoanalysis inform your work in Disquieting?

CC: I would say at this point that psychoanalytic theory most informs my thinking and work (rather than my work as an analysand). But before and during the writing of Disquieting, my experience as an analysand greatly informed my writing of the book. First and foremost, the practice of speaking the unconscious three times a week in a room where I assumed I was being heard and seen was paramount. The anorexic, having not been heard or seen her entire life, is reduced to using her body as a vehicle of expression. It is the ultimate final gesture. In psychoanalysis I was able to verbalize everything that came into my mind, as it entered. The result of this is a diminishment of shame and a sense of agency: I can speak and I can be listened to. So, this was the first building block. Speech and writing are, of course, intrinsically linked. So, knowing that what I said, without censorship of any kind, was okay, was legitimate, allowed me to begin to write through this same voice—to write what I had before felt unable to utter. My writing in Disquieting and my writing since is informed by my experience in psychoanalysis and the resulting experience of loosening some of the shame of being. This is only one of the ways psychoanalysis informed my writing of the text but I would say this is the more important aspect of it.

3:AM: In “Asylum” you focus on two mental health care institutes where psychoanalysis was foundational: Saint-Alban and La Borde. You explore how they created restorative environments that provided patients with, in your words, “both a refuge and a home.”

How did these institutions come to inform your work and what is it about these institutions in particular that might serve as models for inclusive, effective treatment?

CC: What I found and continue to find most inspiring about both Saint Alban and La Borde is the lack of hierarchy in both institutions. This is, of course, revolutionary. To even imagine such a place today seems delusional when these days—we manage ourselves now—we take meds for anxiety, fear, and to do well on tests or interviews. But the idea of an institution where the doctors and patients are truly seen, and their experiences are viewed as equally important, their experiences and ideas, equally valid—I think such an institution would, as the collaborators involved with Saint Alban believed, seep out into the culture. To see such a non-hierarchal system in our culture—that would be amazing. In an educational setting, for example, or hospitals, treatment centers—name it. Because I believe inherently that each of us has the answers inside us. My symptoms, for example, speak for me—my current terrible and ugly habit of chain smoking, my proclivity for eating sweets, my anxiety at all times (not related to any specific upcoming event) —these symptoms belie a larger issue that resides within me. No one medication, no one treatment plan, diet, or nicotine patch, will be able to name this for me. I have to discern what it is that floats beneath my symptoms and then begin, slowly, over a period of time, to touch that issue until eventually it dissolves.

3:AM: These perspectives and approaches regarding mental health are refreshing, especially in the U.S.

What led you to your recent work exploring the libidinal in working classes bands like Joy Division and The Fall? I’m wondering if you might describe for our readers your initial exposure to these or other post-punk bands in your early years. What were these experiences like? How were these experiences formative for you as an artist, and what is it like to now re-explore these artists in a fresh critical light?

CC: I was first exposed to The Fall and Joy Division in high school. I listened to both of them but was obsessed with Joy Division. I was not writing at the time. In fact, I did not begin writing until my last year in college when I took a graduate level poetry workshop. Mark Fisher is extremely important to me. Though I never met him, I consider him a mentor of sorts, a thinker whose work has greatly informed me, my thinking, and my own work. I love his essay on Joy Division and have read it a number of times, now. And yet, when he says the band generated a kind of male cult I both agree and disagree. As I said, I was a huge Joy Division fan in high school. I loved the music and the lyrics and perhaps more than anything I related to Curtis—it didn’t matter to me that he was a different gender. In fact, I never thought about it. So, this is one thing I started thinking about, that got me to take the path of writing the essay. The other aspect I disagreed with was Fisher’s assertion that the band and/or Curtis was without libido. I disagree. In fact, the very thing that powers the music, the lyrics, the band and, of course, Curtis, is his libidinal energy. And this is the topic I ended up writing an essay on. When I first imagined the essay, I thought I’d write an essay on working class British bands and the libidinal but, in the end, I wrote so much about the libidinal and how it crosses over into the death drive (in some instances), that I never even began writing about the working-class aspect. I’d still like to write that essay but for now that essay is on hold.

Another band that informed me/formed me was The Jam. When I was in high school my best friend Melanie and I were both obsessed with The Jam and had mad crushes on Paul Weller. Of course, by the time we discovered them, they were already retro, but it didn’t matter to us. We’d sit around her in apartment all afternoon smoking cigarettes listening to The Jam, not doing much else. Anyway, we weren’t yet class-conscious but we were both coming from working class backgrounds and so it’s no surprise to me we were both so enamored of the band. And of course, also Joy Division, the early Smiths—bands that were talking about resisting assimilating into the wider middle-class culture, its ideologies and values. I’d come out of the punk scene where much of this was already going on with those bands as well but here the history of the working class, references to the actual experience of its world—its neighborhoods, the work, and the legacy of it—these bands were talking or rather singing about these things, and as a result, they filled me with pride and energy. Again, I wasn’t aware yet of class—not in a conscious way—and yet, I intuitively understood, felt, a kinship.

3:AM: In addition to your work on music, you’ve also been writing about photography. Tell me more about what inspired you to write about William Gedney’s photographs of rural Kentucky? What is it about this work, this world he captured with such exactitude, that resonates with you?

CC: What drew me to these photographs was my own surprise—at the playfulness and spontaneity in the images. But perhaps even more—the surprise at both the inherent sensuality in them and the gender play. The bodies—though captured engaging in quotidian actions—are sensual. The men’s bodies appear grateful, feminine, like the bodies of ballet dancers. In this way, his photographs call gender and gender roles into question. What is so profound about this is the context—both the time period (1960s and 1970s) and the roles of the men photographed (miners and the children of miners). In other words, his photographs are subversive, ahead of his time—in this gender play. The women, too, though not imbued with “masculine” traits, take on the role of the male—in their body language, for example, but also for instance in a photograph with a young couple where the man’s head lies in the woman’s lap, her hands on his face. In contemporary photography such images are perhaps not considered subversive—but we have to keep in mind we’re living in a post-Butler, post-gender, and queer world while Gedney was making his work before any of this hit the mainstream.

3:AM: Before we end our conversation, what books have you been reading and what have you been listening to?

CC: I am currently reading Eva Hesse’s dairies for an essay I am working on and lots of Freud and Lacan on Lack, Negation and Desire and Duras, for another essay I am working on. For fun, I’m rereading Genet and a book titled Modernists & Mavericks by Martin Gayford on British artists post WWII, and rereading the correspondence between Celan and Bachmann. Music: I’ve returned back to Will Oldham’s earlier projects, Palace, Palace Music and Palace Brothers, and also Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me.

Cynthia Cruz was born in Germany and grew up in Northern California. She is the author of five collections of poetry, her latest being Dregs (Four Way Books, 2018). The editor of a new anthology of contemporary Latina poetry, Other Musics (OU Press 2019), and author of the essay collection Disquieting: Essays on Silence (Book*hug Press 2019), Cruz is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, and a Hodder fellowship from Princeton University. She lives in Brooklyn.

Paul Rowe has produced literary criticism on topics ranging from Romanticism to the indigenous cultures of New England. Residing just north of Boston, Paul is contributing editor at Pen & Anvil Press and Rhythm & Bones Press. His words appear in Literary Imagination, Berfrois, Queen Mob’s Tea House, Moonchild Magazine, The New England Review of Books and FIVE:2:ONE. His reflections on music and film appear in PopMatters and The Boston Hassle.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 26th, 2019.