29 May, 2020 • • 43.5AutobiographyLiterature

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Dream House as Politics, Dream House as Art

Maya Krishnan

Carmen Maria Machado
In the Dream House
Graywolf Press
2019
264pp
$26.00


Good writing requires avoiding clichés. Writers use their imaginations to create the world anew, rather than rehearsing familiar figures of speech and tendencies of thought. So goes one stereotype about good writing, at any rate. According to this account of good writing (and, indeed, good thinking), originality is a sign of success. But while literary storytelling often prizes novelty with regard to both form and content, there are more everyday kinds of storytelling for which originality presents a risk. The domestic violence victim seeking a restraining order needs to present the judge with an account that conforms to tropes that constitute the common understanding of “domestic violence”. The more the rape victim’s account hews to familiar formulas regarding rape (what it looks like, who can be raped, who can rape), the better the chance of conviction, or even just acknowledgment. There may be some scope for arresting, non-clichéd language—Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement in the Brock Turner rape trial provides one example. But the questions that Turner’s attorney asked Miller (“How much do you usually drink?” “Are you serious with your boyfriend?” “Would you ever cheat?”) underscore the importance of conforming to the archetype of a rape victim. While “original” functions as praise for the creative writer, the victim whose account is “original” in the wrong way may face incomprehension or dismissal.

There is something that bad aesthetics and bad politics have in common: both can result from over-reliance upon stereotypes. Unfortunately, this does not mean that good aesthetics and good politics are easy to unite. Some ambitious literature attempts to bring about a confrontation with what poet and literary critic William Empson called “the real thing strange”—that which resists categorisation according to existing conceptual schemes and perhaps even points beyond all possible conceptualisation. Even if one does not go so far as to valorise direct encounters with an unnamable Being, respect for the recalcitrant and incomprehensible elements of experience is plausibly linked to successful art. In contrast, effective political practice creates pressure to develop expansive and all-inclusive categorisations. Philosopher Miranda Fricker argues that “hermeneutical injustice” obtains when marginalised groups lack apt concepts for describing their experience and subsequently advancing their claims to recognition and redress. The development of concepts such as “marital rape” and “sexual harassment” represents political progress precisely because such developments allow marital rape and sexual harassment to stop being encountered as “the real thing strange”, and start being treated by lawmakers, employers, and courts as rape and harassment. The questions that Turner’s lawyers asked Miller indicate how important it is that society possess a sufficiently inclusive concept of a rape victim. Comprehensive categorisation is a political ideal. The different valuations of originality in the creative writing seminar and the courtroom, then, to some extent reflect the different preconditions on aesthetic activity and political activity. While over-intelligibility is a threat to art, under-intelligibility is a threat to politics.

This tension between good aesthetics and good politics is real. But it is just that—a tension, not an insurmountable dilemma. Carmen Maria Machado’s recent memoir In the Dream House (2019) provides a welcome example of writing that is at once politically oriented and aesthetically ambitious. The explicit motivation for Machado’s memoir is political. Machado tells the story of being in an abusive relationship, and, in the process, argues for an expansion of what experiences can be categorised as “abuse”. It can be perpetuated by a 105-pound blonde woman; it can be what one woman inflicts upon another woman; it can be predominantly emotional and psychological. But while Machado is able to draw these conclusions in the aftermath of the relationship, the poor fit between her own experience and common assumptions about what constitutes genuine abuse and who can be an abuser leaves her unable, at first, to make sense of what is happening. Machado is regularly shouted at. She is instructed to list what is wrong with her. She is called a cunt and is told, “I hate you,” and “I’ve always hated you”. “Afterward,” Machado writes, “you’ll wish she had hit you”. For at least that way, Machado’s experience would have exhibited the features commonly considered a precondition for the application of the label, “abuse”.

In the Dream House can be read as a case study in confronting hermeneutical injustice. A strange, disorienting experience is gradually recognised for what it is, and its accurate placement within a taxonomy does important political work by broadening cultural understandings of what is possible in a same-sex relationship and of what counts as abuse. Machado frames her account in terms of the political goal of “expanding representation”. She opens the book by invoking the figure of “the archive” (a favourite image of mid-to-late 20th century continental theory that enjoys continued popularity in queer studies), and states that she “enter[s] into the archive” the fact that domestic abuse can take place in same-sex relationships. Self-categorisation within the archive conduces, in turn, to the further goals of intelligibility and visibility, of “helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean”.

So far, so good. But In the Dream House is much more than an entry in an archive. After all, Machado is a creative writer by trade. Her 2017 short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and in 2019 she won a Guggenheim fellowship. A significant part of the relationship between Machado and her abusive ex takes place while Machado was getting an MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop (where Machado’s ex was also enrolled). In the Dream House is not the story of someone who was abused who also happened to be an artist; it is an artist’s response to the difficulties inherent in telling a story that takes place at the boundaries of social comprehension.

In the Dream House is written in what one might call a self-consciously high-literary mode. The most striking formal aspect of the book is the way it is divided into mini-chapters inspired by different genres and literary devices: “Dream House as Picaresque”, “Dream House as Idiom”, “Dream House as Word Problem”. A choose-your-own-adventure sequence that leads in a circle is particularly successful. Part of the effect of this strategy is to dramatise the way in which an emotionally intense and complex event, even when correctly described as what it is (abuse, in this case), nonetheless seems to resist containment. The constant switching between styles and modes creates the sense of a frenzied effort at communication that is never quite complete. The strength of Machado’s adherence to her central conceit varies—for instance, some chapters do not fit the pattern as well as others (“Dream House as Apartment in Chicago”,  “Dream House as Warning”). Still, as a way to intimate a sense of the “real thing strange” while also making a clear political point, it is effective.

Another move Machado makes is to annotate her story with footnoted references to American folklorist Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, which built on the earlier work of Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne. The motif-index is a monumental work of mid-twentieth-century folklore studies that comprises six volumes categorising common folktale motifs, such as “mythical animals”, “marriage tests”, and “capture by deception”. Machado’s footnoting creates an ironic effect that undercuts the risk of self-seriousness inherent in writing a nonfiction book that prominently features oneself. But the footnoting provides more than just a few wry, clever twists. It also suggests a way of relating to pre-existing tropes and shared categories that differs from a quasi-Romantic valorisation of originality, or Empson’s almost-Heideggarian invocation of “the real thing strange”. Storytelling in the folkloric mode necessarily relies upon the use of common figures that have an easily recognised emotional, psychological or spiritual significance. The use of such figures is not a sign of imaginative failure so much as the condition of the possibility of telling a story at all. The repeated (semi-ironic) invocation of folkloric motifs suggests a different way a writer can relate to the act of categorisation, according to which success consists in invoking a commonly imagined world that is understood using shared meanings.

But while Machado’s footnotes invoke the motifs and implicit values of folklore (or, at least, the values that post-Romantics are inclined to project onto folklore), In the Dream House is not itself a work of folklore. It is a clearly recognisable instance of the contemporary genre of literary memoir. And as such, it is written in a way that foregrounds the distinctively “literary” value of individual artistic virtuosity. One might, accordingly, raise a skeptical question about the high-literary character of In the Dream House: aren’t all these formal features (the style-switching, the footnoting) somewhat unnecessary—a bunch of over-the-top literary pyrotechnics? To some extent, they are unnecessary. There is something excessive about the formal aspects of In the Dream House, which lend a “look-at-me” quality to the very construction of the book. Inevitably, some attention is deflected from the narrated material. However, the over-the-top quality and consequent direction of attention from material to form are also part of what makes In the Dream House pragmatically successful. They are central the way that Machado addresses another tension situated close to the intersection of politics and aesthetics: how to make a political claim on the basis of one’s pain, without reducing oneself to the sum of one’s most humiliating experiences.

This is a problem that arises with particular intensity where confessional writing meets identity politics. Or rather, it is a problem with the confessional mode that identity politics tends to encourage. Within identity politics, one key way to make a claim is via the revelation of one’s own identity-linked trauma. By saying how you have been hurt, you become the embodied proof that various systems, structures, etc. are profoundly fucked-up. Or you become the archival entry that demonstrates the importance of expanding a category to include what happened to you. Giving voice to painful experience is the process by which damage becomes epistemic and political power.

The power gained in this way is not wholly illusory. But the type of self-assertion encouraged by the pain-as-power paradigm lives uncomfortably close to self-debasement. The paradigm risks reducing the speaker to a trauma vessel, whose words require attention not because of what she does—conceptualising, theorising, crafting descriptions—but because of what happened to her. Although it is common practice to praise autobiographical writers for “sharing their experience”, this locution places emphasis on the very act of speaking rather than the effort that goes into shaping what is said. The difficult experience seems to matter more than the difficult artistry, and the resultant threat is that the status of the work as genuine work is thereby undone. There is a substantial market for narratives of minority pain. Indeed, the glut of pain-narratives that emerged from the interaction between identity politics and last decade’s so-called “personal essay boom” support the killjoy Foucauldian thesis that raising your voice isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Machado manoeuvres within this fraught field by writing in a way that is so formally ambitious that the reader cannot look at the material of Machado’s experience without also seeing the force of her skill. It is easy, when reading a story of something terrible that happened to somebody, to become entranced by the events themselves and flip through the pages of the book as if it were a thriller. But each time that Machado switches styles, she prevents complete immersion in the events by calling attention to the way that the events are narrated. The overall effect is to ensure that the reader never forgets that Machado is a skilled writer who is not blurting out her pain so much as structuring a world. The heavy emphasis on formal elements comes with an aggressive subtext: Do not forget that I am in control.

In the Dream House is ultimately a work that celebrates artistry and the associated values of originality, virtuosity, and imaginative power. It succeeds according to these values, while also making a political point about achieving accurate representation and expanding categorisations. It seems appropriate that Machado would respond to the events that she narrates by producing such an ambitious book. Writerly ambition is a theme that appears throughout Machado’s account of the abusive relationship. At first, Machado and her ex would write while sitting at the same table, both of them “tapping away with verve and purpose”. Later, Machado’s status as a writer becomes a threat. “Don’t you ever write about this”, Machado’s ex says while screaming at her for the first time. “Do you fucking understand me?” And in the list of Machado’s flaws that her ex makes her recite, included is the following: “You have an ego: you believe you are good at what you do”. When reading In the Dream House, there is the sense that one is witnessing the culmination of a competition between two talented writers. It is all the more appropriate, then, that this is a memoir in which form predominates. This is not predominantly a book about Machado or Machado’s ex so much as an experiment in bringing individual experiences under familiar categories without foregoing literary aspiration. It is undeniable that Machado is good at what she does. Writing well is the best revenge.

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Maya Krishnan is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at All Souls College, and is an Essays Editor for the Oxonian Review. She works on metaphysics, theology, and Kant.