This is a series of posts looking for enjoyment and pleasures in a time when both are in short supply. The first one was about music.

Yesterday was hard. The blunt fact of Neal’s and my living situation hit us again, as it does, despite our attempts not to think about it—viz. we are a couple in our 40s living in a cramped 500sqft 1-bedroom at the whims and mercy of our landlords who, while mostly okay, would like nothing more than to get us out of this rent-controlled unit we’ve been in for 7 years so they could start making even more money. To move into something larger, we’ll have to either leave the city and spend money on a commute, or pay around $3,500 a month, and given that Neal was among the people his company laid off this summer for COVID reasons, it doesn’t look like that’s happening soon.

So the prominent feeling of the home we’ve been mostly trapped inside since March is that we’re trapped.

I spent my whole childhood and adolescence dreaming of living in a big city. People continually tell me, a tenured MFA Program director in a big city, that I have a dream job. Yesterday felt like every dream is a nightmare if you see past all its bullshit.

But wait, I promised Pollyannaism, and what does this have to do with books?

At some point during yesterday’s nightmare, I considered the ways higher ed either bred insecurity in me, or capitalized on my insecurities (or most likely I entered into and engaged with higher ed out of insecurity), presenting insecurity as the foundation for an intellect—such that if I wasn’t the first person in the room to name the precise form of artifice behind, say, the stylized tableau depicted on that box of lemon cookies over there, then I was then clearly an idiot with nothing to show for myself.

In other words, I usually see the world as an ongoing grift, a series of people and mass-produced objects trying to lie to me about what’s real, and the only way I know not to get screwed is to be smarter than them.[*] Critical Thinking is what I call this tool I use, and it starts with the question, What is this thing I’m looking at trying to get over on me?

I love lies, it should be said. I’m usually happiest when art is delivering me good, new lies I’ve never seen before. But given the overwhelming presence of lies in the world over truths, my thinking about thinking should feel good and healthy. But often it doesn’t. Often it feels like another trap, this home I’ve made for myself that I no longer fit inside. How, exactly, did this happen, and how to think instead about thinking?

Enter Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty. Picking up this book helped me to think again, in a time when I’ve been overflooded with feeling. I prefer thinking over feeling. I find feeling confusing and unsettling. I don’t know what to do with myself when I feel.

I know: thinking isn’t the antidote to feeling anymore than exercise is the antidote to sleep. Thinking and feeling are in relation to each other, and the good life seems to call for the right balance of both. But lately I’ve been on a feeling binge, and those feelings have been mostly doomy.

Nelson’s project here is to consider forms of art (visual, literary, performance, cinematic) that take either cruelty as their subject, or that enact a cruelty on their audiences. She is disinterested in explaining-away what cruelty may signify. Cruelty and violence for Nelson are not slaps in the face art gives us to “wake us up” or “bring us back to our true nature”. She’s got pages effectively calling bullshit on artists who have historically felt they needed to brutalize their audiences toward truth. A welcome counterexample she returns to once or twice is Cage’s 4’33”, which she says excels as art and as bringer of truth by providing the space audiences need to be delivered.

That said, the book is not a critique of the uses of cruelty or violence, either. Nelson loves a lot of violent works that depict the most brutal cruelties—Paul McCarthy, Mary Gaitskill, Francis Bacon, Marina Abramovic, and Brian Evenson are touchpoints. If there’s anything she is aiming to wake people up about, it’s that art doesn’t affect us the way we often assume it does. Violent art neither begets violence nor, via Aristotle’s catharsis theory, calms our violent urges.

So what does it do instead?

Before I get there, I want to go back to Mary Gaitskill, because it’s Nelson’s reading of the former’s debut story collection, and then her novel Veronica, that brought me to some new ideas about thinking. There are some pages of summary about Gaitskill’s books, which maybe you’ve read (I read Veronica the first semester of my master’s program back in 2003), but the long and short of it is that, in the stories, “the principle task of intelligence … is to slice through the veil of cant and cliché,” whereas Veronica explores additional forms of intelligence that emphasize what Nelson calls “blur”—i.e. accepting that the truth rarely comes as a crystal beacon:

When [narrator] Alison recalls [her dead friend] Veronica’s story of being raped by a stranger in her apartment—a story Veronica ends by saying, “My rapist was very tender”—Alison has the following train of thought: “Smart people would say that [Veronica] spoke that way about that story because she was trying to take control over it, because she wanted to deny the pain of it, even make herself superior to it. This is probably true. Smart people would also say that sentimentality always indicates a lack of feeling. Maybe this is true, too. But I’m sure she truly thought the rapist was tender.” What impresses me here, especially in contrast to Gaitskill’s earlier work, is the space made by allowing there to be more than one way for “smart people” to respond, as well as the suggestion that while “smart people” might offer incisive, imposing diagnoses, they might also miss the boat entirely. That an intelligence focused solely on puncturing or mastery may end up deaf, dumb, and blind to other ways of knowing, of perceiving. Or that, at the very least, such an intelligence, with all its probing and psychoanalyzing, may miss the surface truth of what another is actually trying to communicate.

The feminist way to distill this is to pit vaginal thinking (or uterine, really, in that Nelson’s pointing not just to accommodating, but incubatory space) against phallic thinking—which I seem to unconsciously be doing, like when I paraphrased that Cage’s work “provid[es] the space audiences need to be delivered.” Nelson is very big on space, and she favors art that can provide a space for the varying, shifting responses audiences will have.[**] The best cruel art, Nelson shows, creates a space that allows for audiences to think for themselves, feel for themselves, and come to their own conclusions.

Space is distinct from alienation. It is fundamentally about volume, rather than about distance. Space also defies the vertical logic of revelation, which insists there is something beneath the surface of our every day—be it ultimate meaning, the face of God, our fundamental nature, a final terror, ecstasy, or judgment, or some combo of the above—that will be revealed when the veil is finally lifted. In lieu of this logic, space offers a horizontal spreading, the possibility of expansion into dimensions no one yet thoroughly understands.

In needing to be the smartest in the room, I’m rarely giving myself the space to think.

This is probably material for a post on its own, but it’s worth pointing out here how little space Twitter and social media in general give you. Picture it: you’re sitting on the toilet, phone in hand, trying to occupy your time. Maybe you’re in a good mood for a change. Then here’s a post that kicks you into feeling something you weren’t already feeling, and you weren’t prepared to feel. What is the effect of that disruption on your thinking about the subject of the post? This isn’t about letting people stay ignorant to the world’s abuses and cruelties, it’s about giving people space to consent and agree to think alongside you.

It’s one reason why I blog. Let’s come over here for a moment, whenever you’re ready to. And it’s one reason why I try to read the news just on Sundays. On Sundays I know I can be fully ready to face it.

The Art of Cruelty has risen to become my favorite of Nelson’s books. The Argonauts is still a wonder, a masterpiece, but while that book’s greatness was buoyed by its perfect synchronicity alongside developing public conversations about gender, The Art of Cruelty came out about 6 years before we needed it. (It was published in 2011.) It’s the book I’ve needed every year of this nightmare administration. We should be issuing it door-to-door.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Or “…than they are”? My intellect only goes so far.
  2. She taught a class with this book’s title, and talks here about encouraging her students to take stock of the array of feelings they had throughout their experience with a work of art, and not to privilege just the one they ended on.