After School(s); or, The Tactic of Failure
‘[I]t occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: ‘Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?’ And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: ‘No!’ At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down.’ – John Stewart Mill, age 20, 1826
You will remember your school days well.
My secondary schooling was so well effected that the abyss which wrapped itself around my throat when it ended – though it was a sunny afternoon in June – like a scarf in winter, has continued to garrotte my being ever since.
A void appeared and made itself material. A void appeared and blossomed, staking out its convex cavity like a desiccated canyon turned on its head, its chasm strangely inverted and bulbous, a boil on the landscape. This boil was destined, though I did not know it at the time, to become a feature of my inner cartography, a negativity which became definitional and, as such, tyrannical. A void within me, a void around me, a void coiling its way like a fence, like a moat, like an arid riverbed telling of that which it might be, of that which it should be, of that which, in essence, it is, but which it cannot proclaim other than by its absence: That which is not here, is not here.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof…
No sound. That afternoon long ago, that afternoon long, long ago, that afternoon on and in which the milestone called Schooling’s End was dropped and planted, turned out to mark not so much a position achieved, but the completion of an assault. Its parched ripples were destined to undulate out and out, over and over, for the many, many years to follow.
All have been wronged.
You will remember your school days well.
My school was an old one. It was founded in the first quarter of the 17th Century by a well-meaning, or else God-fearing, Day of Judgement credit-buying fellow, to whom we owed both the school’s name (it was his own) and the low-ceilinged, red-bricked, fancy-corniced , thickly-painted parts of the premises. We expressed our debt by way of an annual Founder’s Day, which was marked out chiefly by teachers’ stern reminders about the finer points of our uniform’s dictates (heels and skirts were to be measured, so shoes would be swapped, skirts rolled down; blazers were to be donned and ties lengthened, if not outright replaced for another (our resistances to authority took, at the time, the form of picking out, using the pointed ends of our compasses, strands from the pale blue portions of our light- and dark-blue striped ties, creating an individual, strobe-like effect, added to which we affected to wear the skinnier tail end of our ties longer than the fat end, sometimes letting the thin extremity hang to our waists whilst displaying scarce three inches of the tie’s official ‘V’, like a cravat, high up near our throats)), and by the long assembly, the singing of the school Song, the slow crawl of increasingly hunchbacked, increasingly few alumni up the aisle of our plastic-chaired Great Hall. It was an old one, but we were new, we were the chosen ones, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, having laboured invariably but never, to each other, admissibly, with tutors in our bedrooms after our suppers for months on end before the bizarre nonverbal-reasoning-skills test, a test of speed, a test of instinct, mysteriously able, it was said, to pick out the best from the rest, to sort the wheat from the chaff. We were new, we had watched our parents spool themselves into tight coils of hope as we were accepted into the public schools which were Not Affordable but Would Be Managed Somehow if our new, if this, school had failed to come through, had we failed to remain in hand, in bowl, in net, after that great nonverbal sift through thousands of eleven year olds. It was an old one, but we were new, and we soon discovered that though we were smart, we were not all that smart, that the test had let through quite a bit of the chaff, and that the chaff were the cool ones, the ones who came to rule the social world such that we were damned if we did and damned if we didn’t, damned horizontally when we worked hard, and damned vertically when we didn’t, and strangely but inevitably, I look back now and find that these chaff have become, since, the most worldly successful among us. We were new, and we were smart, and we were eager to impress, and it took us a while to learn that, try as you might, you can’t impress everyone, and that whatever you do, Shame Will Function.
It was a highly academic school. It prided itself on its long musical tradition. The latter meant that, desirous to take up the piano (and even this not really), I was forced instead to take up the instrument-with-orchestral-potential flute (I never joined, in the end); whilst the former meant that we were well-trained dogs. Doing well academically meant – or required – a number of aptitudes beyond a marketed musical commitment. Most important were the abilities to Efface Oneself, and to Think Ahead. Our school motto was, Qui Patitur Vincit: He Who Endures, Wins. Naturally, the ‘He’ has since been removed, but the ethos remains. Allow me to paraphrase the gist, as an old alumni now myself. It means: Life is Elsewhere. And: Life is Coming Later. And: Keep an Eye on the Prize. And: Any Means For Said Prize, Even Annihilation. And: If You Can, You Must. And: You Can – For If You Don’t, You’re Out.
Many of us were very, very good at this. We got, on the whole, excellent, enviable results. We did the school proud; it retains an excellent reputation to this day. The reason we did so well is as invisible and as insidious, as violent and as elemental as any stratagem deployed by the successful empires, colonies, and cults of yore: we didn’t even know that we were, in fact, Enduring. As the school held fundraisers and built extensions and refurbished science labs with pentagonal desks, it built, concurrently, inside us. The architecture I left with on that June day was nothing like that I entered with. Of course, I had the makings of it – they would not have accepted me, had I not already displayed the sticks and stones, the planks and nails, the bricks and the wet mortar, ready, latent, waiting to be erected into the Highly Desirable residence with which others would wish, as a matter of course, to make use. To see me would be to snap me up; to encounter me, all, any of us, would be to see a thing that one could mine. We were being shaped to be citizens, we were being sivilised – as Huck Finn recoils so vehemently against – and we were being groomed into ambassadors, as ambassadors of our school specifically, and as representatives of the well-oiled System, that vague noun whose denotation is too nebulous, perhaps even too mystical – its functioning is invisible – to expound with any academically acceptable adroitness, but a noun which I shall make use of regardless, heedless of your definitional concerns, and shall merely say here: the System, that is, that hazy force which is general, which is ubiquitous, which is embodied in society but larger than society; the System, that is, power and its hierarchical, punishing structures, generally.
Seventeen years hence. What was that void which I felt so potently hollowing me out on that day? What, that blankness engulfing me?
At school we were, as is common practice, instantly divided into Houses. To foster a sense of Healthy Competition and Purposeful Activity. Each year group was assigned its own corridor and, along these corridors, six classrooms would accommodate that year’s incarnation of each respective House, which in practice meant thirty students sitting around at thirty lift-top wooden desks (we didn’t have lockers and, deprived of secure storage, lugged everything around with us, most of the time), at 8.30 each morning. Within each classroom, before the tutor entered to take the day’s register, we sat grouped, on average, in three smaller alliances whose hierarchy was unspoken but plain: the Cool (girls with long hair, usually blonde; openly ‘bad’ boys, the drinkers, smokers, swearers, bunkers); the Acceptable to Be Seen Talking To (these no-man’s-landers could transition between all three groups); the Boffs (kids outcast by all, who lived in their own mysterious worlds, worlds which seemingly involved many hours spent playing card games featuring wizards and warlocks. I recall with sorrow poor adopted midget Arnauld; recall with shame incontinent, obese Imogen, ever teased and recoiled from, with skin as pale as bone china and a stench of urine which tailed her wherever she went). The corridors for each year were so assigned that, as one progressed from one year to another, one physically moved from one end of the school to another – from the drafty eastern end in the old wing, nearby nothing but the stinky changing rooms, to the newer western extension, proximate to the common room, the canteen, the more exciting gate near the corner shop, caff and chippie. A clear sense of progress. Of going somewhere, of Destination. I recall being impressed with the scheme, even as an eleven year old. With the manifest sense of order, the embodiment of the Advancement which was our unquestionable due.
It was impossible not to begin to frame the world in terms of success, failure, and striving. Doing well at school elicited praise. There were reports. There were prizes. Points accrued in House activities yielded the D-r Shield, the J-s Cup, or Nothing. There were special mentions in assembly, there was displayed work. There was work reproduced in the take-home magazine for parents. There were the hallowed Commendations, with their private reception in the principal’s office, the annual School Prize, conferred in public, on stage. There was the prefect system. There were Head Boy and Head Girl. There were monitors, the student council elections. There were concerts, sports days. Open evenings at which the most presentable might be chosen to act as guides. As ambassadors. As representatives for the great, mechanical animal which was school. To be a proper digestee of this beast meant not only to excel academically, but also to join clubs and societies, or to do as I did, and become a director in the feted Young Enterprise’ scheme. It meant securing internships each year from the tender age of fifteen (what did those businessmen and women think, I now wonder, having to take seriously a fifteen year old in heels and too much blusher, wandering around their offices, lurking behind their ergonomic chairs, desperate to please?). Much of the prize-giving seemed skewed to reward good presentation. How I envied Camilla, renowned for her shading of maps and diagrams! I would spend hours in turn drawing ornate and identical borders around every page of whatever project was to hand. Curlicues and flowers. Sometimes to theme: medieval helmets or religious symbols, repeated ad nauseum. My right fingers would often need to be forcibly uncurled from the pens I had been gripping so feverishly. My presentation skills were recognised, however; my Endurance paid off. I often received accolades. I knew I was Good. My life was full of Promise!
In the art rooms, tucked away at the top of a staircase all their own, I drew machinery, carved wooden cogs which slotted into each other, turning upon a larger board in endless rotations which progressed, exactly, nowhere. I photographed my mother’s empty hands, palms turned towards me like the Buddha’s halting gesture – No, demon – and painted my father, my father towering over me, as I looked up at his conical, looming form. I fashioned masks from clay and chicken wire, masks like gorgons, petrified into Munchian screams, and mounted them on wires afore shattered mirrors, left to stare at themselves in mortified expressions of silent horror.
Were we terrified, terrorised, into submission? No, we were not. We were neither mortified nor whipped; school was not an ordeal, as such. This is why it was so effective: It felt like love. Love! When work was returned with an A or an A*, love! When I was called on to answer a question because the teacher knew I would get it right, love! When my reports were sent home, love – love doubled. My father, so proud. And I, so, so Safe in his pride. We were very young, I see that now. I see that, as mere children, already fashioned at primary school into the outline of the form which would be perfected at secondary school, we were unable to understand that we were not simply our parents’ cherished progeny, but in fact carried the weight of all their own unmet hopes. We were regarded, by our makers and keepers, as liabilities – as loose, dangerous cannons, as well as as diamond-rich mines. We were our parents’ gambles. They clasped us tight in their hands, sweating. Fixing us with their stares. For we, as both the bearers of future Promise and the justification for the alienating labour System our parents were mostly already mired in, were the source of meaningfor the selves they had already betrayed, and we had to be kept carefully guarded, trained and controlled. If we did well, their broken backs would be legitimised. Their hungry souls, appeased. We, the children, had to feed them.
We were very young. It felt like love. When I, a shy child, gathered together over tens of minutes the small fistful of trembling pluck sufficient for me to finally raise my hand in English class and volunteer an interpretation – Sir, it says the bells are ‘pealing’, perhaps this shows that he is peeling away layers and understanding something more deeply, or becoming more honest? – and was, if not laughed at exactly, then, there is no other word, was snorted at by the teacher, with a short but unmistakable little grunt which the rest of the class absorbed and echoed with, twenty nine faces with silently indolent stares all turned my way, I did not think: Fuck you all. Did not think: Screw you all and your wills to please, with your attachments to your own successes so great that you delight in others’ failures! I did not think, as I sat on to the left side of the central island of desks, ah, isn’t this interesting, this is the System, this is Power, playing out in twenty nine vulnerable little sponge-like bodies, and one very foolish teacher, whose primary concern was control. No, instead I turned my head down, shut up my voice, muted any enthusiasms which blossomed within me, anything which could possibly be taken as original (original came to mean, stupid, suspect; delete), and heeded instead the Shame as a guide. Shame, which came both when I was myself (not allowed, ridiculous) and when I was not myself (a tiny, diminishing spark calling to me of my own self betrayal), became my constant companion. I had begun the process of becoming docile, was being broken in. In short, none of my thoughts could be trusted any longer, and so the Other became the Thing. The Other was the System, the Other was the System’s impersonal judgement, the Other was the prize! I needed to anticipate the Other, pre-empt him, and become him, inasmuch as I possibly could. I did and could not acknowledge the Shame I felt, even though all of my actions, from the moment of Shame’s birth, unconsciously stemmed from the need to alleviate the screaming conviction I now carried of my own badness. I wanted to be irreproachable, that’s all I knew. I felt best when I knew I was Good. My main aim, perhaps all of ours, became: to not be blameable.
Shame and pride. Other events, other sores. Falling in with the wrong crowd, the principal, holding me back, says to me: Them, okay, but I would not have expected this of you; I am Disappointed in you. Shame. Conversely, in assembly: Miss E-‘s wonderful piece of work will be displayed on the main display board, outside the principal’s office. Pride. In maths class: E- and Ir-, you will be held in detention if you continue to talk! Shame. At netball practice: never picked, left on the sideline. Shame. At Cambridge: mute, looking at the old white man, holding my previous day’s paper in his large hands (Would Scotty still be the same man if he was beamed down from the Starship Enterprise to Mars, if his body was decomposed and recomposed using different particles in the process?); unable to utter a word. Rejected. Shame, shame, shame. And with Shame, secrets.
At home – those other houses – school asserted (extended) its presence in different ways. It is almost too naff to draw the distinction thusly, but thusly it was: my father, O patriarch!, supported school and school’s noble principles. Supported all my endeavours. All my Endurings. Supported is not the right word. School was the turf upon which he could tread and bank upon securing me. My school-self was the self he could harness. The more I drowned in school’s maxims, the more he found himself met with a measurable, quantifiable daughter, her worth measured out in grades and sanctioned laudings, a daughter he could boast of, and call, “Mine.” My school-self was the one of whom he could tell the world, My daughter, she’s so much smarter than me, she’s all set, I’m looking forward to a very good retirement! He may or may not have managed to refrain, during such marketeerings, from rubbing his, likely hot, likely pink, likely blood-spotted and swollen palms together with glee. My precious…My dear. Of course he encouraged. If I needed materials, they were purchased. If I needed anything – well, let’s just say, I had everything I needed. For school, that is. My father was happiest when he was cooking a Balanced Meal, making wholewheat pastry from scratch, putting so much Love into it that dinner might not be served till nine pm, whilst I was in my room, starving, and doing my homework. He would think to himself, My daughter is in her room doing her homework. I am supporting her in ways my parents never did me. She is all set. Most importantly, he was buoyed up with his own conviction: I am a Good father. At parents evenings, he took copious notes, and typed them up for my mother to read (she never took much more than a glance). I knew that, for him, my success was the measure of my worth. I was not the sort who needed to be told to do things. I’d learned long, long ago how to take orders, had indeed learned so well that I now knew how to give them. I kept myself in check. I was my own keeper. It made him happy.
Another kettle of fish, my mother. My father told me often that she was a Bad mother. The Old Bag. Whilst my father was Responsible, she was, in his terminology, lazy. A Failure. Although all I could see was her brilliance, her intellect, her speed, eventually I came to Evaluate using the terms I had been trained in. It is not what we are, but what we do, that counts. She did not do. She was disillusioned. All I could see was the executive career she’d jacked in, the bed she’d chosen as replacement. My mother, in bed. Not responsible. Capable perhaps, but hysterical. Crystals in the house. Washing up in the kitchen sink. Ready meals in the freezer. She did not try to change me, did not seem to attach much import to my hard-won achievements. I resented her for the latter, and could not see the former. I did not understand that, for her, my worth did not need to be proved. Besides which, the System to which the school and my father had extracted my allegiance, would not stand for such understandings. I saw her = not without torment – as the socially-shunned Failure I was desperate not to become.
So, my life, doubled – and only now do I begin to see. Crunch point – for there must be a crunch point, you will have seen it coming, you will have had your own perhaps – arrived, I’d say, about twenty years ago. The denouement of dissolution, the sealing of the concrete around whatever personal truths I’d been taught to regard as impermissible. It came to that point in my school ‘career’ at which I’d been required to make Decisions, to choose my Future. I was sure to be high-flying, I saw myself in business, consultancy, anything which was i) saluted, and ii) would disappear me, by the self-sufficiency such a career would both demand and enable, from the seize of that from which I did not know I was fleeing. I thought I could use the System to escape it. How wrong I was. The Decision was not arrived out without a degree of turbulence, I can say that at least. Art. Oh, how I neededwantedmustcouldn’tnot do art. The prinicipal: You’re a smart girl, you should go to a Good University, doing art is a waste of an A-Level; only stupid people go to art school. My father: nodding like a toy, taken in. Lapping it up, like a dog. For if I was a dog, so was he. We all sat there, well-trained beasts, circus animals, the two old white men having gone through their respective rings of fire and coaching me to leap through mine, it was the only way out, would always and ever be the only way out, the whip was on my heels; we sat in the small office, talking about what was Sensible. It was decided. No art. Maths instead, a foreign language. A humanity – literature – the sole concession to joy. I adopted the sell. Tried to sell it to my mother. She was not to be bought. Oh, how I screamed at her.
What do you know of the world, you just stay in bed!.
Well, so what is it that am I trying to tell you about? About school manifestly, yes, but more broadly and more deeply, I am trying to tell you about powerlessness. No. I am trying to tell you about Power. No. I am trying to show you…how Power works, how Power breaks each of us in, as it has broken in our fathers and our teachers, our politicians and our preachers, should we have them, before us. Each and every one of us. Like dogs. Like a new pair of boots. A new wife. A new child. Proust’s tyrannical M. de Charlus has the game down pat when he ‘insist[s]…on expressing his fondness for hi[s brother]…just as, with the object of creating future salutary associations of memory for the future, we give a lump of sugar to a dog that has done its trick.’ (Vol IV, p. 135).
Our fathers, our schools, our employers and institutions, they hold the Power, but they too, are broken things. Are they victims of a larger conspiracy, are they, too, the embodiment of tragedy, an assault done unto them? Yes, and yes. And yet. The cycle perpetuates. Can we blame unconsciousness for its remaining unconscious? It is in its nature to be so. Can we blame the blind for being blind? It seems that all are the undone ‘Many’ whom Eliot observes so bleakly trudging, like automata, across Waterloo Bridge. All fail to see what has been done to them and, most dangerously, fail to see their own sorrow. Culpability enters here perhaps: as emotion breaks in, or fails to. The undone Many stand vigilant against an invasion, eternally on guard against an outbreak, and it is this I cannot forgive them for. They remain unfeeling. Admit nothing. Concede nothing. Allow no crack to infiltrate their barricade. They toe the party line, and repeat what has been done to them. Ah, I do not forgive my father’s blindness. And I do not forgive my schools’.
They have committed the sin of unawareness.
Power is the ability to rob the individual of her sense of, and connection to, herself; it is the power to decentre, reposition and falsely embody that same self in exteriorities – be they grades, or smiles, be they people, places and things, be they concepts, or dreams, or achievements. The System’s power is in its ability to locate the nexus of Value utterly and entirely outside of the self. The best power systems function like addictions: they develop their own feedback loop, driving us ever further from ourselves in pursuit of whatever it is the System promises to bestow. Round and round we spin, unwitting hamsters on our wheels, Sisyphean and sweating behind our craggy, view-obscuring rocks; in fact, all we ever find, should we by some miracle momentarily seem to land upon the promised Object for which we toil are dusty, mocking relics, tombstones to the selves we had not even realised we had lost and are in mourning for. The self we gave up – the self which was stolen from us, which knew its Worth without the A-grade, without the public laudings and the social shamings, the self which simply was and was enough without any falsely affirming smiles – becomes eventually ground down, but a shadow of itself, crying out via that abyss which wrapped itself around my throat so many years ago when I found myself not only suddenly destitute, without a school to prop up my name, but also, by school’s absence, I became for the first time aware of the extent to which I had become utterly identified with the institution that had made me. I had become, in short, a Frankenstein, a monstrosity built for the purposes of another, a piece of merchandise – for oh yes, saleability was the primary aim – dropped off the end of the production line and branded, along society’s evaluations, Well-Baked. I had been given the seal of approval, and yet I was also fermenting, sparking with a resistance which I did not know how to name. Inside the polystyrene packaging into which I was being buried, an ember glowed. I knew I was meant to sell myself, now, knew I was meant to use that abyss to promptly tie myself to another legitimising institution, knew I was meant to stave off the despair by way, again, of the Other. Simultaneously, however, I knew I was empty. I knew the Love was sham. But that knowledge was buried far beneath, and I did not know how else, other than as I had been taught, to function. It was all I was. The ‘I’ that I had once, perhaps, been, the child that I was pre-schooling, had collapsed into its training, had been folded up and digested and spat out, and there I was, cider in hand, just another brick in the wall.
Power provides both definition and a value system, answering the questions, Who am I? and What am I meant to do? It tells you and I what it means for each of us to be of Value, and what we need to do to have worth. It defines the terms of success, and tells us which of our actions, which of our interests and our very emotions, Count. Art, for instance, did not Count. That moment of Decision-making (or inflicting) was perhaps one of the more visible assaults. More insidiously, any emotion which was poised to get in the way of Action, which seemed readied to sabotage our noble Endurances – such as sadness, disengagement, despair – was one to be disposed of. To be flatly denied. No you don’t feel like that, don’t be silly, it’s fine, you’re fine. I am Fine: the mantra of the dispossessed. My buried spark was useless. Resistance cooled to a cinder which smouldered in ever more disguised ways. Manifestly, I did what I was told. University. Internships. Part time jobs. Travel. Languages. Periods Abroad. University, again. Manifestly, I was Fine. Palpably Fine. Until I palpably was not.
But I had not been Fine in ways that did not Count, I knew, for years.
For, as I say, when the power is well effected, we become its purveyors. Nothing exterior is needed any longer to keep us in line, for a seed has been planted and we have grown our own proprietors. We regard ourselves from a distance, holding ourselves up to the light for perpetual criticism; we examine ourselves as a secondary thing which we, too, must keep in line. Ringmasters have sprung up in our torsos perpetually on stand-by, ready to seize our jerking, panicked hearts tight in their fists at any moment at which our gazes might waywardly be drawn towards the thick forests flanking the well-trod, Approved Path. If I was to resist, I had to become devious. The spark, after all, was still there, if not blazing away, at least emitting a fetid, dull glow of resentment. To push openly and straightforwardly against the System which held me in its commanding thrall was simply not possible. Resistance demanded subversion, subterfuge. It demanded a hysterical, cruel application of its own dictates to their heightened, absolute – one might argue, to their logical – ends. The ethos of Endurance, and the kingship of the Goal, became the ferociously held axioms of my existence.
And so I tried to get Out, whilst pretending I wasn’t.
This was distinctly not to my benefit. I knew this, somewhere amid the fog that transpired in such zealous striving, but the pain I was submitting myself to was so well concealed, so well obscured under so many layers of fervent training, that I was unable to articulate what, exactly, I was playing at. Was it a game? Was it spite – if I couldn’t have me, then they damn well wouldn’t get me either? There was some of this, to be sure. More plainly, I just didn’t know how to say No. It’s not that I wouldn’t effect a ‘clean’, a direct resistance; I couldn’t. I was distinctly unable to say, No, this is not for me. No, I’m going to go my own way. No, I don’t need your adulation, nor even your approval. I did need the approval. And the disapproval I encountered, if ever I turned around in my mind, like some fantastical thought experiment, the notion of deviating from my school’s, my father’s, and that hazy concept called ‘society’s’ sanctioned Path, was vicious, and issued from my own mind and judgements. I couldn’t fight against myself. I resorted to subterfuge. I hid.
Hiding – or subtle resistance – came in various forms. For one, if Goal was all there was, then logically there was no life here, no life now. Everything would, and must, be later. Time and place were displaced, rendered remote; what was elsewhere – for a Goal must always be elsewhere – became sovereign. I folded up, in consequence, like a telescope once again: this time into pure Idea. Idea was enough. The Goal was over there. Tomorrow was everything. I no longer needed to do anything at all. I jumped from idea to idea, reading endlessly for my MA, making endless notes, always expanding, expanding, and never arriving at the moment in which I would actually have to write. I browsed the London event listings in a weekly culture magazine, highlighting exhibitions and screenings and gigs, and never, I found, felt the need, when it came around to it, to go to or see any of them. Contemplating them was sufficient. To bring them into being, to experience them, would destroy the Goal – the basic and fundamental state of Lack which undergirded said Goal’s philosophy. I had to remain in Lack, I had to be Lack, to maintain my state of lauded Endurance. Don’t get me wrong, I always intended, I thought, to do and see these things – just as I intended to write my thesis. My eventual physical decrepitude – say the word, go on, whisper it (oh the Shame!) – my, or the, anorexia which formed the final and finally articulated – but still, here, not quite, never quite articulated – No, was, in essence, an affliction of Goal. A disease of Endurance. I was not trying not to eat. I was, always, just eating tomorrow. Tomorrow was where Life was. Tomorrow I would be of more Worth. Legitimacy came later. Later, I would have Achieved and I would Be of Merit and I would be allowed to live. For now, Endurance was everything. I am repeating myself. I know this. But you need to know.
There is something in all of this which reminds me of Marx’s worker, estranged from her labour process. School – the Power, the System it inculcates in us all (I’ll say again: I realise that the terms are vague, but how can we speak of forces so total, so ubiquitous, forces that we are drowning if not drowned in; how can we give much of a name to a force which has no borderline, no boundary over which we can step and look back, from afar, saying, ah yes, “that Thing”) – is an institution that makes childhood into a production line, with children themselves the products which need to be groomed into workable shape. We are made to understand that life functions as work, or capitalism, we might venture to say, does: the Good is what is done for profit – the Goal – and we are but servants, slaves to said profit. There is absolutely no joy, no life to be had in process. Production is a means to an end, and it is usually someone else’s end – though we mostly believe their coup d’état of a lie, which is that that end is ours, also. It’s for your own good. Play and process, the here and now: stolen. Of course, as Marx enjoins us to see, the notion of labour for reward is troublesome – and yet it is embedded in our neural pathways by religion, also. School, religion, capitalism – all function upon the fundamental trump card, the Afterlife. Afterlife is simply a synonym for later. For Goal. All is, in this schema, always a doing-for. Just a doing, just a being, in which it is not that there is no reward, but said doing or being are their own rewards, are regarded with deep suspicion. Often, to do with no purpose, no intention-imbued industry, is called idle, infantile or even outright insane. The devil makes work for idle hands. As Marx says, the culmination of all this is a worker – not a human being – utterly degraded in her personhood, a worker who, unable to take pleasure in her own doings, unable to find in her labour her own expression, if not her individual enhancement, is a human utterly mutilated.
To do something for ourselves we must become like a thief in the night, hiding from the System which owns us. We must hide our hungers, must hide our inabilities to stand the noble state of Lack for, under the glare of the Other’s gaze, we must always appear industrious, purposeful. Desert, or deservedness, is something which is always to be earned, and the carrot is ever jolted further away. To consummate any kind of satisfaction here and now is, then, a crime.
And so we feel ever more ashamed of ourselves.
Am I being hysterical? Anorexics – that female disease – are considered Hysteric. My father would tell me, whenever I became angry, to “Stop getting so excited”. To stop being so demonstrative. If I slammed a door, there would be hell to pay. My rage didn’t go away. It went within. My spark flared, incandescent.
That’s not to say I didn’t have successes by way of obeying the System’s commands. To be sure, I owe all of my (mild) worldly successes to it. Because I have certain qualifications which are recognised, I have had certain opportunities made available to me (despite the travesty which was the dissolution of my MA because I worked too hard, not too little, and this because working hard, for me, meant that I always wanted to go further, and further again, until I passed out – quite literally – in exam hall). Well, so I have a first degree, at least. I have managed to gain employ at an assortment of businesses of varying repute, and have somehow managed, from all that training, to present myself as a Good worker whenever I have needed to secure some kind of job. By presenting myself in the Trained manner, I have managed to flee the house of my father, in fact even the country of my father, by securing a job – that of teaching – and maintaining it for the past few years, abroad.
Teaching, you cry? Teaching?
Well yes, indeed.
A pause, a concessionary sigh: your indignation is incisive. A teacher. Indeed. Regrettably, I often think, but naturally, we have only the lives we have lived and it is a fruitless enterprise to wring our hearts over the mysterious could-have-been-otherwise. How I fell into teaching is a story which may be told in two ways. The first thread weaves its way along the passageway of passivity, the, ‘it happened to me’, the, ‘it was circumstantial,’ the, ‘it was an accident of chance’ and ‘an unfortunate, unavoidable practicality’ path. This simple, fact-based narrative centres around my wish to remain in a country in which, though my mother was a citizen, I myself was not domiciled. Red tape, visas, powers confronted yet again: I stood against the nation’s bureaucratic Goliath, which called me Alien and demanded I bent to its will. There were, once again, certain ways to Count, and to be outside of these categories was, quite simply, Not to Count. My mother’s status did not Count – because she was a woman – such that my status as the child of citizen could never get off the ground. No, here, as in all things it seemed, all that Counted was that I was in Gainful Employment, and the only way to be recognisably, justifiably so, as an Alien, was to teach. And so teach I did.
It broke me. Or broke me open. Rent the bunker in which I had enclosed my being asunder, cracked a rift in the sediments beneath which I’d hunkered down – to take shelter from that old abyss – almost two decades earlier and which had, since then, waxed into such a hulking fossil of a ‘shelter’ that I had, until I found myself once again in the belly of the beast, been powerless to wrench it open. I was cleft. Two jobs, five years; a fissure needled its way into the edifice I’d built and eventually I fell apart like a chocolate orange slammed repeatedly against the wall at Christmas.
It took a while for me to muster the nerve to quit, though. I still clung to the Success that was my time spent teaching. I clung to it, not because I am especially, nor even remotely fulfilled by teaching, but rather because I still retain that inner Ringmaster and, with him, the fear of his whip. The old ring of fire still blazes before me, mortifying me before I can take any ulterior action – such as, for instance, run screaming from the damn circus tent – or dedicate any creative energy to finding a course alternative to the known, to the oh-so-comfortably familiar leapings it demands me to perform. To be frank, I found teaching to be an excruciating and endless return to that burning hoop, one which was unrelentingly painful, often unbearable, but this made little difference, for it also presented me with a darkly convenient way to fill my days. To burn my days up. To be teaching in a school is, after all, not so different from being taught. Identical power structures pertain, and the System reigns supreme. In the familiarity, I was comfortable. My students were ones driven by Shame and anxiety, ones being bullied by their friends and their parents as well as by their teachers, ones with explosive rage that would surface on the football pitch against another, or in the seclusion of their bedrooms, in blades turned upon themselves, or in the interment of a toilet cubicle, in throats run acidly raw. These same students were full of an Endurance which seemed to me only amplified from my own school days: their Shames were more potent, and their ambitions – their Goals – even more far-reaching. All wanted to – believed they would be – famous. And in their soliloquies to their futures, their faces would light up, as though it was in this activity alone – conjecturing about the Elsewhere and the Elsewhen – that they expressed the truth of their beings. Their identities had dissolved into their dreams. Their dreams had devoured them. They seemed to have no other outlet than these aspiration-meditations, by which to access their respective sparks.
Well, so each day I would drag myself into work, always cutting the margin of time before the bell ever finer and finding the rift between my not-at-work self and my work-self ever more wide. Gradually, the Love I felt from being, it seemed, a respected member of the teaching team, ceased to give any return. The ordeal – the labour of production – was yielding no profit at all for me. Pay was always minimal – I do not mean literal profit – rather, the meagre sense of satisfaction, the Safety of being part of a sanctioned community of workers, dissipated more and more until, boom: there was none left. I didn’t give a shit anymore. This was not love. This was a community of performing clowns. I had, as I say, to get Out. Again.
It was difficult. The fact remains that I had, at that point in my no-longer-young life, still only ever said No when I had incapacitated myself. Remember: If You Can, You Must. Old messages die hard. I prevaricated for at least a year before resigning (amid an episode of sexual harassment (oh yes, me too) I was receiving from my boss). It seemed, amid all the deliberations, the five-times-a-day back-and-forthings, that I still didn’t know how to step, how to walk, away.
The five years were, as I have acknowledged, one of my Successes. See how I continue to cling? Can, Must. Tyrannies die hard. Must, did. The experience, like all of these System Successes, can be identified as such by asking the question, would I put this on my CV? Well, err, yes. Yes I would. It is an experience which Counts. I have many other experiences, which I have touched on, which Do Not Count. The MA. The anorexia. The recovery. The profound development in my capacities for self-awareness and empathy that these entailed…nope, doesn’t Count. The endless writing of diairies, the recording of my dreams, the simple trauma and practice of day-to-day living without a Goal…doesn’t Count, either. In fact, most of what has preserved me, most of what has enabled me to simply survive, Does Not Count.
Now I am unemployed. I have finally said No, and in my No, I occupy my first creative – rather than evasive – failure.
And I don’t know what to do.
One thing about having been through a period of terror, of having somehow survived the slow, choking System of education and of having retained, in some small secret crevice lodged deep in my soul, a spark of resistance against the System’s megalomaniacal, Goal-oriented monopoly on meaning, is that I have learned that I am, in fact, not alone. That there are others who have been brutalised and have survived, others who have inexplicably preserved a spoke of integrity amid the constant whirr of their – very own, inner – wheel given over in service to the machine. We develop a radar, of sorts. And find an irregular kind of community, consisting not so much of consistent group fellowship but of random, sporadic and light-filled interactions, light-filled connections, spread staccato over our aging years. A certain person we may meet, a glance or an energy or a vibe exchanged, perhaps certain terms used which we recognise, experiences of exhaustion alluded to, and, somehow, we find a momentary and surprising communion.
There are the obvious markers, of course: many are physically, mentally, emotionally bearing scars – addiction, in all its myriad forms, the most common. Our escapes. Our extreme seekings of the Elsewhere. The basic fact is that the noxious outcome of our training is total madness. This endpoint cannot be underplayed. She who has been bent out of shape, she who has been so thouroughly colonised and re-made from the inside out, remade in all except this lone sparking, resistant particle, she who has been built upon, who has been built in, who has been mined and gutted and sold and has thought herself, in the ultimate gaslighting, thereby to be prosperous, to be Good, comes out the other end not only shattered into a thousand segments, but in a schizophrenic state of divided selfhood. She can no longer trust her own impulses, her own thoughts or desires: are they in service of the Goal, or of my self; is this or that desire a desire in and of and for itself, is it authentic, or does it stem from Lack and is it, thereby, in actual fact a plea – the essential plea upon which the Goal ethos is built – for Love? For the false semblance of Love, for Love which has been sequestered, tapped out of us as though we were only so many rubber trees from one of the master’s estates? To seek to secure a Love the giving of which is predicated on something we must do, is corrosive: it is to remind ourselves constantly of our basic and essential worthlessness, to remind ourselves that we must change ourselves; it is an addictive form of self-annihilation. I do not believe in myself. Do you believe in me? Let me show you how good I am. Let me earn your adulation. It must be yours, since I am incapable of providing it. I am, basically, unlovable, unless I am of use.
I revelled in my brokenness whilst I taught. Work as an escape became the latest transfiguration of my addictive personality. I sought Love, endlessly, from my colleagues. A disparaging word, an ‘off’ look or tone of voice: these had the power to derail my days. I was constantly paranoid, I hated everyone, and yet I was drawn to them over and over again, smiling, laughing, offering conspirational gossip. I sought out with even more vehemence those whom I suspected of not liking me – as those who are ashamed of themselves seek out ‘those who are most directly their opposite, [those] who do not want their company, forgiving their rebuffs [and] enraptured by their condescensions’. I asked my colleagues, constantly, how they were. Spent hours sending messages across the office, joking gifs and pictures. I could not eat in front of them, though. This was an act which required un-armouring, and vulnerability; in the office, I starved. I presented myself as happy, as far as possible, and was, quite simply, one of that ‘race upon which a curse is laid and which must live in falsehood and perjury because it knows that its desire, that which constitutes life’s dearest pleasure, is held to be punishable, shameful, an inadmissible thing; which must deny its God,…[which] must before Christ and in his name refute as calumny what is their very life’ (Proust on the homosexual ‘inverts’ of early 19th Century Parisian society). I could not say I did not want this, that I wanted something else, that I wanted more; could not say that the Else I wanted was not a Goal, not a work of Endurance, but a desisting, a residing, a stopping, a resting, a halt.
Eventually of course the gnawing hunger, the hollowness – that old abyss, again – which beset me with ever more unmanageable a ferocity at work put an end to my deliberations. Eventually, I knew. I must Out.
It is an ongoing struggle. To say No is to be left, it seems, entirely alone. So ubiquitous, so expansive, is the central narrative of what it means to be Living a Life, that when we voluntarily choose to deviate from its Path, we are compelled to regard our own deviant selves as the peculiar, the perverted, the anomaly. As Proust continues when he delineates what he imagines to be the innermost feelings of the shunned homosexual, we ‘still take to be rarer than it actually is [ou]r way of love’. I look around and see Functioning and Successful people – my peers. I look ahead and I see only chasm, mists, darkness. The way I am choosing to go seems untrod, and unilluminated. The waters are murky. And I am as though blind.
So yes, I have, finally, quit my job. Tragically or comically, I have spent thirty years, on and off, in education. And here is the confession, the secret I hold close: the No is not ecstatic. It is neither synonymous nor simultaneous with liberation, it does not denote return to self, a reset to authenticity, a relief from tyranny. It is terror all over again.
Immediately I quit, I set about seeking new ways to re-enmesh myself in the system. The pull to school, to be schooled, is strong. Or perhaps it is not a pull as such, but more of an autopilot: it is all I know how to do. I have not yet assumed residence in the here, the now, so I tread the worn pathways of the Elsewhere, and I engage in doing-for, the only species of activity I seem able to permit myself. As I say, it is all I know how to do, even were I able to disregard my need to justify my thoughts and activities. I wonder sometimes whether I might perhaps go easy on this kneejerk reaction: I owe my survival not only to my spark, after all, to my ember, but also to the great enormity of my being that allowed itself to be broken. The crux of surviving despotism is to believe the despot. To survive the System we must have, to a degree, let it in. To be here now, I need to have not been entirely taken in. To be here now, I need to have been sufficiently taken in.
It turns out that saying No to work is just the tip of the iceberg.
It is the risk-taking which is the problem. To go against all that one values, to capsize one’s entire belief system, results in nothing short of total, inner and outer apocalypse. The world is falling apart as I write this. I am falling apart. I am floating, in free space apparently – only I do not feel free. I feel distinctly tethered. I have no ground to stand on. I cannot affirm my own choices, for I don’t know how to. I cannot affirm my own choices, for all the choices which seem to have issued from me alone (that is, those Failures that the System has refused to take responsibility for, pushing ownership, culpability, entirely onto me) are ones that have been disastrous. All that is mine are the ‘choices’ to fall short of my MA, and to starve myself right up to the penultimate point, quite literally, before death. When one has come so close to having not existed, how does one trust oneself? One’s own judgement? How does one take that risk?
I have said No.
I start applying to new, myriad institutions.
And now I don’t know, any longer, what I am doing. Personal statements have been laboured over (with dark, secretive satisfaction), and now I find myself with an array of places held, an array places accepted – and yet all I can do is sit here, wrestling with my No. Do I dare…? The abyss is pressing in. Do I dare to release myself, to untether myself in the most profound nether regions of my soul, do I dare to go beyond mere unemployment, to go beneath to where I must engage with the more profound closing of negotiations with my Ringmaster? Do I dare the liberation I’d dreamt of when I finally sent in that one line letter (Please accept this email as notice of my resignation…) – or am I condemned to repeat, repeat, repeat? Condemned to retie myself to the old cart and to gaze moronically at its carrot suspended eternally out of reach? Am I destined to gawk for eternity upon the old ring of fire, as one transfixed by a spell? Am I to be that dog let, finally, off its leash, but by its long Training, never be able to leave the front lawn, not realising, or unable to enact, my manifest liberty?
Is it too little liberty, too late?
Is it too meek a No?
IS the emancipation I have sought, but a sham?
I stare at one admission letter, and another, and another, opening pdfs of course descriptions and fees repeatedly as I ask myself what, if I don’t go, there is to lose? The answers I procure: Opportunity. Success. Good-ness. A sense of Competence. Of Progress. Of being Respected by Others. Of not having Failed by quitting my job; instead to be regarded as having positively chosen Active Advancement. In all of these concepts – that is, by applying them to my conjectured future self – I know that I am watching myself with the lens of the System. Am inspecting myself, moreover, whilst held under the duress of the Ringmaster’s whip. They are answers that come from the old axiom: If You Don’t, You’re Out – and, thereby, they are Fear’s answers. If I don’t return to an institution and engage in Activity which Counts, what the hell am I doing? FailureFailureFailure. Lay about. But now, in the name of fairness, I must do my best to ask myself what there is to gain. To gain? In Failure? My breath stops, my heart starts to skip and trill; a rising panic: this is not allowed. For what I have to gain, potentially, is true transformation. In doing what Does Not Count, I – and here my breath stops, again. But perhaps you know what I mean. Here lies the true opportunity. To overthrow the System within me.
What I actually end up doing is to keep hold of all of the places at all of the institutions. I hoard them. I can still go, I tell myself: I am Safe. I draft emails stating my regrets at having to turn down the place after all, and these emails proceed to rot in my draft box for…for the past three weeks, and counting. Still, they are there, my mind is not made up, no one can make me go: I am Safe. I imagine, daily, what it would be like to go, leaping with my mind’s eye directly into the golden Goal, perambulating the sunlit new cities in my imagination, the new cities with their Excitements and their Fresh Starts and their Beautiful Young People and I feel momentarily exhilarated until, in half a heartbeat, I realise that all I feel is Shame. Over there is cleanness, perfection. Here, now, I am in a swamp of late nights and late mornings, sleeping beyond midday and not leaving the house, resorting instead to groceries delivered to the door. Here, now: I daren’t look at it. And so I lift my head and stare out into the fictional distance, at all those carrots only superficially transformed, carrots I believe I will get my hands on if I enrol at these institutions but which I know, in full honesty, are the same carrots, carrots in new clothes to be sure, but whose guise is oh-so-familiar. I know that they will not stay in my hands, even if I go – they will be jerked ever further away, and the assuagement offered my current anxiety will have been only temporary. I know in the pit of my stomach, how to recognise the warning signs.
Here and now, as I am tyrannised by the Promise and Advancement which I may very well turn down, I bend beneath the old whip and launch myself into the perusal of university websites and I watch their soft focus promotional videos obsessively and I imagine the glossy careers guaranteed subsequent to attendance of the glossy institution and its brand of Approval which I could, if I so wish, wear, use to sell myself, and then I return, swiftly, to the room in which I sit; return, swiftly, to my mother’s hazy advice – You’ve cleared a space, don’t fuck this up – and I wonder, yet again: what am I doing? I am rooted to the spot. Days go by. I book zero flights to zero cities. More weeks go by. Zero flights. I read more Proust, and light upon his reflection: ‘It is the explanation that opens our eyes; the dispelling of an error gives us an additional sense.’ Some additional sense keeps me rooted to the spot. But what the fuck am I doing?
I am nothing, I am nobody, I am a Failure.
And it is my only way Out.
‘Now the abstract had become material, the creature at last discerned had lost its power of remaining invisible’. Proust again. This doesn’t mean it is easy. The No sinks deeper and deeper but still does not take hold. The pain I face as I contemplate not re-institutionalising is – well, yes, it is once again the abyss. The void. But to such gargantuan proportions it the old void grown, such that engulfs me in a layer thicker than Antartic ice, and to such powder-fine a substance, to such a multiplicity, has it cunningly and simultaneously ground itself down to, that I feel more powerless than ever. It suffuses my body, it possesses in every cell of me. It stakes a claim on the air I breathe, is an anthrax which cannot be sifted from the historical atmosphere I breathe. Yeeeawwhghargheeahhhhhh. A knife twisting, a fist gripping. I cry out: I don’t know how to walk when it’s not on a path pre-formed, and given me! I am begging, on my knees. I don’t know how to un-tyrantise. How to un-train. I don’t know how to become a wild thing. To be my own ambassador. One of Henry James’ Ambassadors, the unfortunate Strether, confessed that he was ‘always considering something else; something else,…than the thing of the moment’, and it took him the entire novel to learn how to become his own, rather than someone else’s, envoy. I have been out of work for six weeks. Is this a long time yet? There is no guide.
So this is my confession: though I have gone through the motions of empowering myself, I still struggle to believe that there is life after school. And yet, of course I believe that there is – and believe it with all the conviction of that tiny buried spark which alone resisted the Shame of my school days. I both can and can’t answer my own question. Is there Life after school? It is clear that I don’t know what I’m doing. I scarcely even know what I’ve done. I do not trust my own voice, but nor do I trust the Goal which would try with all its might to stamp it out. I have now lived long enough to see that when I have thought I’d known what I was doing, it has never worked out. I am floating in free space. A whip still stings me. My faith in my spark is so precarious that I can hardly believe in its existence, and it certainly cannot stand the pressure of naming. It is not a thing apart from me, it is not a thing at all, I am unable to regard it, I am unable to noun it. And so I talk around it, talk of my doubts unfolding in all directions, never quite able to say: I want this, this thing, instead. If I don’t want that, then what do I want? I cannot own my own resistance. For even this question issues from the ring of flames. There is no thing I am pursuing – if there is, it is only to desist from pursuit. All I can do is wait. Trust – or learn to. I do not move. I am utterly in between.
I don’t know if anything will emerge. I may be a Failure, may be mauled by the abyss, in perpetuity. It’s perfectly possible. I am, as Proust found himself when he found himself given the freedom to choose his own destiny, ‘plunged…into that state of doubt in which I…suddenly felt myself burdened with too great a responsibility,…and that melancholy which we feel when we cease to obey orders…and realise that we have at last begun to live in real earnest, as a grown-up person, the life, the only life that any of us has at his disposal.’ (Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Vol IV, Pt.2, Ch.2, p.377; my stress).