In the Meantime: Shipwrecks of the Self

Literature

28.11.2016

In the Meantime: Shipwrecks of the Self

Ingrid Horrocks considers her time at Princeton during 9/11, how the public and private selves combine, how the last decade and a half of world events make the future seem uncertain, but how we can begin again.


In the summer of 2001 I looked after a large sunny house on the edge of the Princeton campus. The house had a small neat garden with pink and yellow roses in beds between gravelled pathways. The summer began quietly but by its end everything felt different. I was a year into a doctorate, and for reasons I still find hard to explain, I keep returning to this period when the world seems at its most intense and precarious: when I have moved between cities and when my daughters were born; but also, when world news seems too terrible to hear, when I heard of the Paris terrorist attacks, and over the week when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president.                                                                                      

On the evening before the house owners, Bridget and Jonathan, went away for the summer they invited me around for dinner. Bridget was editing her new book at the kitchen table when I arrived, while outside the early summer evening gradually honeyed into a deep scented yellow around the trimmed roses. Roxy, their cat, moved from one bench to the next to lap up the last warmth, and upstairs their new baby slept. I remember sitting in the dining room in a quiet, wine-softened state, for once released from the crippling sense of homesickness that had suffused the past year.

After Bridget and Jonathan left, the house became the centre of my new social group. One night we all arrived back from a party and I found I’d locked myself out. Two of the physics boys, Joel and Jeff, all of us a little in love with each other, helped break a window so we could get in, the shattering glass somehow thrilling in the warm night.

More often the house was silent inside. Many nights I arrived home only on the last train from New York, or after the graduate student bar down the road chucked the last drinkers out. When I came home in the still hours I’d find Roxy outside meowing to be fed and let in.

The whole summer was hot and thickly humid in a way I’d never experienced before; the thunder and rain would come suddenly, crashing through the sky and falling in wet, consuming streaks.

*

There are a number of images from the summer that I find hard to recognise now, a decade and a half on. There was something I said at one of the many gatherings we had at the house, a pot-luck dinner to mark the end of a theory course. When a woman I hardly knew remarked that I was good at hosting, I agreed, adding that I didn’t so much want to be an academic or a writer as to marry one, and then I could talk to academics and writers at parties. Around the same time there was a trip to California with one of the physics boys. We drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles in his father’s silver convertible and I gave him a blow job in the car on a cliff top over-looking the dark desert. Just a year earlier, I’d arrived to take up a much-longed-for scholarship, bringing with me a new girlfriend, bags full of books, and the draft of a travel book on my computer. A year on I seemed to be trying to live a clichéd version of an American College movie.

I should add here that this wasn’t just about America. I now recognise this feeling, equally pleasurable and terrible, from other times in new places – first in a gap year teaching in Japan, and then later when I began university in Wellington.

Four months in Japan saw me change from being a small-town school girl in a pleated school uniform to a woman who occasionally danced in a hostess bar called the Tropic of Cancer. I often stayed out all night there too, catching the first morning train home from Tokyo to Chiba where I taught high school. There was no one there who’d known me before to question this self. I was, and am, pleased to have thrown off the school girl, but it took years to assimilate and jettison the hostess.

In Wellington, at my first ball, I discovered champagne and at a party soon after, rum. Again, the nights turned long and flirtatious. But in Wellington, when it became too much, I could ride the Sunday morning train home to my parents’ farm in the Wairarapa, where in winter we sat around the woodstove and pretended I’d never left.

I have a feeling that this sense of wildness, of being unanchored in a new place or situation, is familiar to most of us. The further from home, in whatever way, the further it is possible to move from your usual self, and the harder it is to remember that former version of yourself when, or if, you want to. I had come to America on a one-way ticket.                                                        

*

Soon after Bridget’s return, I moved back to my shared student apartment. The apartment was in a converted army barracks across campus and my girlfriend and I, in the brief period before she left, had furnished it with a mixture of cheap Ikea furniture and second-hand rugs that still smelt of years of pets. But quickly Bridget asked me to move back in. Jonathan had signed on for a re-enactment television series, The Ship, and wouldn’t be back for weeks. While Bridget and I were far from home, Jonathan had embarked on a replica of the HMS Endeavour. The sailing was to retrace James Cook’s 1770 route between Cairns and Jakarta, the first leg of Cook’s homeward voyage following a two-year sweep of the South Pacific, and exploration and charting of the Society Islands and New Zealand.

Over the summer I’d read Jonathan’s book, Preserving the Self in the South Seas. In it he meditates on the effects on those early sailors of such long voyages, and of deeply unsettling encounters, and at times fatal confrontations, with new people and places. Jonathan writes about the chronic homesickness experienced by eighteenth-century voyagers, which emerged as intense longings for both home and land, and in strange ‘voluptuous’ accounts of events. Joseph Banks, the gentleman botanist on the original voyage, described them all as ‘pretty far gone with the longing for home,’ literally sick with melancholia, and with what the physicians of the day were calling the new modern illness of ‘nostalgia,’ a chronic condition caused by excessive physical or mental movement.

‘A number of duties fall to the self,’ he writes, ‘that it has no hope of successfully discharging. These chiefly concern the explanation of how events unfold.’

I found myself wondering about the effects on a Princeton professor of weeks at sea. Jonathan had written of the original sailors that ‘they became periodically distracted, behaving unlike themselves owing to the stress of isolation, disease, fear – and occasionally exquisite pleasure.’ This was deeply troubling to their contemporaries, as changes to the self were usually ‘regarded as improvement,’ involving ‘the acquirement of correct judgment and good manners.’ ‘In ships and on the beach, it is the reverse: the self suffers a sea change into something odd and strange, subject to moods, passions, and corruptions not easily transmitted to a polite audience.’ It seems to me that this is still the case, and not just on ships and beaches.

Reading his book, I also became fascinated by Jonathan’s exploration of the troubled relationship between a private and a social self that emerged at the same time as both global warfare and a modern market economy. ‘A number of duties fall to the self,’ he writes, ‘that it has no hope of successfully discharging. These chiefly concern the explanation of how events unfold.’

*

I only saw the one episode of The Ship; I can’t remember where, possibly later when I was visiting New Zealand. The episode was filmed on September 12, 2001. The fiction of the programme was broken in on in this episode as the crew were told the news that had come by ship radio. Many simply sat down on the deck. Others turned away and cried. Some eventually asked to be taken off the ship. The director of the series later said, ‘I cannot imagine anyone else from the Western world being in such a state of self-imposed isolation.’ Gradually they must have realized that, like Cook, although they had only been away for six weeks to his three years, they would be going back to an altered world.

Jonathan, the man who writes so eloquently about the strange effects of being at sea has, as far as I know, not written about this experience. His journal entries in the official publication remain commentaries on such things as eighteenth-century paradisal descriptions of Suva; Banks’s strangely ambivalent passion for durians, pineapples, and mangostans; and, wry passing references to himself being ‘as shore-hungry as any scurvied Jack Tar.’ But in my mind this episode of a 21st Century reality TV show has forever fused together the disorientation of those eighteenth century sailors with our own bewilderment in the face of a new situation, of which September 11th is only one potent symbol. Trump’s election would seem to be another.

Back in Princeton, two hours from New York, Bridget became nervous that someone was going to steal her child. Or at least that’s how I remember it. She wanted me to move back in for a few nights. I came reluctantly. I had my own life – I wanted to go to the bar that evening. In fact, I needed to go more than ever. Even though I knew Bridget wanted me there while she was asleep I went out anyway, not returning until late. I was in the spare room next to the baby and when I did get to bed I couldn’t sleep, moving restlessly about in the heat on the hard futon mattress. Outside, cars whirred by and cicadas screamed. Every hour until twoish I heard the clanging bells of the Dinky, the small train that connected Princeton to the main line from New York. Despite the two months living in her house, the next morning I told Bridget I couldn’t stay.

Only much later did I wonder what was going on for her. Like me, Bridget is from New Zealand and, at nearly forty, she was a new mother in a place far from where she grew up, with her husband now away, floating on open seas. That night in the house with her came back to me in intense shadowy detail years later in Berlin where I’d moved to be with the person who is now my partner. I’d missed a flight out that we were both meant to be on, and waiting in public parks for the next flight I became momentarily without a place in the city, unsure of who I was without him there. I also thought of Bridget in those first months I spent at home with my own children, radically separated from my familiar identities. But in both these situations the cities I was living in hadn’t themselves changed. In 2001, Bridget taught at Fordham University in Manhattan, just uptown from the World Trade Centre. She developed her fear for the baby – an aching, crippling parent’s fear of loss – only after the attacks. Perhaps I had to retreat to the isolated army barracks because my own instability couldn’t take such proximity to another’s quakes.      

*

When classes started again the next week I signed-up for a course with the famously difficult theorist, Judith Butler, who was visiting for a semester from Berkeley. The seminar room was full and she prickled with anger in her black tee-shirt. She told us she had wanted the course to be by application, but either through administrative error, or deliberately because this wasn’t Princeton’s style, we’d simply been allowed to enrol. Now there were thirty of us packed shoulder to shoulder. The course, she said, was to be on the need to suspend judgment.

For a long time on the first day no one but Butler spoke, and only gradually did a few people get bold enough to voice opinions. After that first session we shared rumours that up the road in the Columbia Comparative Literature Department, postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak interviewed prospective students in German before allowing them to take a course with her. I would go through the next twelve weeks without speaking in class. I approached the assigned reading with a debilitating sense of being adrift in unfamiliar language and terms.   

Again, only much later did I come to understand that the course had become in part about the events of September 11th. In class this was never discussed directly, and the language of debate was such that I found it hard to enter; but outside, all around us, university faculty were grappling with what could be said, and how they could possibly help shape a response beyond that of anger. Princeton has close connections with Wall Street, and in those months it was not clear how, or against whom, the United States would act. We were all waiting. 

Later I read parts of Butler’s book, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, begun at this time and written in response not only to the attacks on New York, but to the wars they came from and have led to. She writes against the logic that quickly emerged which put people and countries in either the ‘with us’ or ‘against us’ camp. She also wrote against the logic by which some deaths – some people – count for more than others. She was blogging again about similar things in the immediate aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015, warning against acting in the moment of fear and rage: ‘It is difficult to think when one is appalled.’ In the intimacy of Butler’s seminar room that summer in 2001 we seemed shattered to a great distance not just from each other but from ourselves.

*

After that semester I suspended my enrolment and went home to Wellington, moving back in with my family. I finished the manuscript of the travel book that I’d arrived at Princeton with, and then for a period looked after the hillside house of poet Dinah Hawken with more care than I had Jonathan and Bridget’s house with its small rose garden. But home, too, had changed. In her ‘Diary Notes: The Softening of Steel,’ written that September in Wellington, Dinah wrote of hearing how the steel of the Trade Towers became ‘so soft in the heat it collapsed down and down’ and of a ‘complexity impossible to grasp and so it is basically overwhelming. How ignorant I am and have been.’

Some of my own responses in the following months were published in three emails to friends and appeared in The Penguin Book of New Zealand Letters in 2003. I’ve lost all my other letters from the time, so this is all I have of my voice then and it’s hardly more recognisable than that of the letters by strangers. The talk of ‘America’s actions and policies’ and of it being ‘just horrifying to have Bush in charge right now,’ along with reports on the front covers of the New York Times, sound not like expressions of individual emotion or understanding, but like others’ talk – and curiously like something written for a public stage. Perhaps this was the kind of talk through which I understood one was meant to experience and communicate world events. They are not quite personal emails; perhaps at this point I didn’t have, or feel the right to have, a person to write from. Each email ends with a carefully positioned casual mention of having slept with someone or having been turned down by someone I’d propositioned. ‘My life carried on in scary normality after Sept.11.,’ I wrote. ‘None of us did much but walk around and talk, or not, for a month or so.’

However trivial, these comments feel like a better record of how things felt – about confusions and attempts and failures to connect – than my declarations of public fear. But a sense of violence persists in these emails, even those sent to American friends when I was back in Wellington, along with a curiously passive formulation about where this violence originates from: “The big weather continues – the sea seems to be exploding across the land. High winds are closing roads and rocks are being thrown up out of the ocean at seaside houses.’

*

Against the expectations of Bridget and Jonathan amongst others, after six months I returned to Princeton, going on to write a thesis on ‘reluctant wanderers,’ in which I attempted to describe literary forms evocative of a kind of ‘deep homelessness’ – literal, metaphorical, and psychological. I became fixated on books that place melancholic wanderers at their centres, and then in some sense collapse in on themselves, performing a kind of inability to narrate the stories they seek to represent.

In particular, I found myself returning again and again to texts that managed to pull some kind of politics from these bleak performances of failure: Mary Wollstonecraft narrating her wanderings with her illegitimate baby in the aftermath of the Terror of her beloved French Revolution; divorcee Charlotte Smith’s long verse meditation on how refugees arriving by boat from Revolutionary Paris should be treated, written as she herself was evicted from her home with her numerous children; Frances Burney’s long, seemingly endless, novel chronicling the precarity of life for a young emigrant woman without money, a home, or access to steady work. But in that summer in 2001, when I could hardly read during the days, when I walked around the library needing someone to sit beside, when my body constantly sang for intimate company and my brain was thick with undigested theoretical reading and unfinished writing, I was years away from finding a way to make my reading and writing answer my need to ask particular kinds of questions.

By the time I read Butler’s book I had become, amongst other things, a scholar of Romanticism, and I came across her Precarious Life in Mary Favret’s book, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime. Favret is interested in how writers have tried to evoke the sheer strangeness of our daily encounters with a wide world – and in particular encounters with distant violence – and in the kind of mental unhousing that comes with this. She explores how we can be unhoused even when seemingly most at home.

Favret begins with a poem by a Princeton poet, C.K. Williams. In Williams’s ‘The Hearth’ a poet sits alone on a winter evening, having just turned off the evening news, and finds that he is ‘thinking, / as I often do these days, of war.’ It is 2003, and the build up to the invasion of Iraq is underway. From there Favret moves back to parallel scenes in Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’ and William Cowper’s long poem, The Task, in each of which a writer (British in this case) sits in front of his home fire thinking about wars being fought elsewhere. Favret asks how war became ‘part of the barely registered substance of our everyday, an experience inextricable from sitting at home on an evening, recalling absent friends, staring at a fire, gazing out a window.’ Her title phrase ‘modern wartime’ refers to the experience of those living through but not in a war; those living in the meantime may have a sense of ‘despair which folds into the body so completely that inertia and apathy – lack of feeling – are its only signs. Wartime here defeats human responsiveness.’

Her title phrase ‘modern wartime’ refers to the experience of those living through but not in a war; those living in the meantime may have a sense of ‘despair which folds into the body so completely that inertia and apathy – lack of feeling – are its only signs. Wartime here defeats human responsiveness.’

What Judith Butler proposes, instead, is the necessity of a kind of ‘radical un-housing,’ in which response might initiate ‘a re-imagining of the possibility of community’ not on the basis of security and home, but on the base of vulnerability and loss. We need new narratives, she suggests, and an ability ‘to narrate ourselves not from the first person alone.’ She means this on the level of the nation as well as the individual. I read elsewhere that she lost a friend in New York on September 11th, and the argument of Precarious Life moves outward from personal grief to how we are ‘undone’ and ‘no longer master’ ourselves in such moments, when faced with something unaccountable and strange. This is a point from which, she suggests, we might try to begin again.

*

For a long time I’ve been trying to write about this but it won’t take shape. I initially set out to write about my first year in Princeton, but quickly found the period so entwined with the tendrils of historical events that it became impossible to separate out my own biographical narrative. Once begun, I have found myself returning to September 11th as the single strongest image I have – and perhaps much of my generation in the ‘West’ has – of the insecurity of every home. I find myself holding on to it now as a reminder that we cannot live our lives without thought for others, wherever we are. Of course, people in other parts of the world have been forced to know this for a long time, but for me at least, particular events – September 11th, the Paris bombing of 2015 and even Brexit – have brought this shock home. No matter how much I think a revolution of some sort is necessary, perhaps like most of us, I am conservative on some level, shocked by events that radically alter the texture of the world. It does not seem wrong to be frightened by the various forms change is taking.

With the election of Trump I have been here again, trying to deal with the headachy motion-sickness of being on multiple websites at once, my phone pulsing in my hand as I push refresh, refresh, refresh. The news of his lead came through as I was driving my daughters, now seven, home from circus school. By the time we reached our house one of them was asking me if there would be war in New Zealand and the other burst into tears. I thought of Judith Butler’s devastated, and so devastating, seminar room.

The next morning, finding myself unable to go to work, I rewrote this essay yet again, and for the first time sent it to Bridget and Jonathan. By the time they responded with their memories of shipwreck, loneliness, and anger, the earth in New Zealand was shaking from the 7.8 Kaikoura earthquake. Since then, I have experienced the intermittent vertigo of phantom quakes; walking through my own home feels like being on a ship, and I am uncertain where my next step will fall.

*

On a visit to Auckland in 2003 I sat with my grandfather watching the evening news. We both had TV dinners and we sat in matching Laziboys. My grandmother had recently gone into a ‘home,’ leaving my grandfather living alone after sixty years of marriage. He seemed to be coping well, as my family put it, but that evening he leaned over his dinner plate, watching grey tanks and yellow earth flash across the screen.

Behind the TV the gallery of family photos lined the bookshelves, stretching from his own ghostly wedding photo with four men in uniform, to the latest grandchild cocooned in her mother’s arms. Pushed a little further back was the photograph of his wife’s uncle, also in uniform, who a generation earlier had been fatally wounded during the Gallipoli campaign. That evening it was as though this new war – the kind that would become a part of his grandchildren’s everyday experience – marked a collapse of what he thought his wedding party, his best friends, his brother-in-law, his uncles, had died for; a collapse of victories some of them had thought they’d brought home with them. Sitting in the chair he could not have seemed less at home. Turning inward and away in ‘The Hearth,’ C.K. Williams moves from thoughts of war, to thoughts of his own family: ‘I was thinking of my children, and their children, / of the more than fear I feel for them.’ I gripped my grandfather’s hand.    


Notes

References, in order of appearance, come from: Jonathan Lamb, Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 7, 12, 18; Simon Baker, The Ship: Retracing Cook's Endeavour Voyage (London: BBC, 2002), 171, 198; Chris Terrill quoted in ‘Modern Sailors Battle Cook’s High Seas,’ 20 August 2002, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2191198.stm; Judith Butler, ‘Precariousness and Grievability—When Is Life Grievable?’ 16 November 2015, http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2339-judith-butler-precariousness-and-grievability-when-is-life-grievable; Dinah Hawken, ‘Diary Notes: The Softening of Steel’ Landfall 205 (May 2003), 18-19; The Penguin Book of New Zealand Letters, ed. Louis Lawrence (Auckland: Penguin, 2003), 367-69; Mary Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 1-10; and, Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) (London; New York: Verso, 2006), 8. Photo Credit: Russelstreet, used under Creative Commons.

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