I'm reading The Buddhist by Dodie Bellamy

by on May.28, 2012

I remember reading Jackie Wang’s epistolary response to Dodie’s book, The Buddhist, on a blog and wanting to read it, and also being envious of the both of them, who seemed/seem strong, wise, and bonded through kinds of radical vulnerability (a phrase I got from Kristen Stone from somewhere else I can’t remember). I am reading The Buddhist after recently devouring I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, and it seems like they are building on a giant chaotic mass of an energy that I miss (or don’t have) in my life, a kind of active relating to feelings.
I’m only a few pages in and I feel like I have to talk to the book by writing through myself and my dirty navel. The place I had to stop first was at the description of the hungry ghosts. “The hungry ghost is ravenously hungry, but its neck is too skinny to swallow any food. it represents deep-seated longings that can never be satiated.” So far, the Buddhist is like a fleshy, massive plant sprouting from a dense mass of pain that cannot be grasped. A woman is ridiculed for her vulnerability and desire by a Buddhist and she writes about it and her feelings, and it’s a blog, and it’s public. The relationship/affair with The Buddhist could be a “frame” I suppose but I don’t know. I can’t say “broken frame” without then implying that there was a frame to be broken. Relationships/bodies have never been easy to frame (to me)…because bodies rupture each other. Thinking about the word “capture” and how close to “rupture” it is phonetically. I love that other relationships pour through the text, recollections of conversations with other writers, poets, people I admire, who “nurse” the plant.
Like “I Love Dick” and “Coeur de Lion” (Ariana Reines), this book is reflexive disobedience. But I should say that it is not homogenous in its reflexivity/reflectiveness and I think of the line from Kraus’s Dick book about “walking straight into it.” Sometimes it gets very close to the heart matter. These women walk straight into mess in front of everyone. It is public. Suffering in public is so taboo. One of the many things people say to ridicule writers/poets is to point at their fake suffering, because the melodrama of feminine suffering looks fake, unless dressed in appropriate attire. So this fits nicely with various conversations here at Montevidayo. It points to the domestication of desire and emotion and their expression: aesthetics. I remember growing up with this idea that the suffering woman must be beautiful and look a certain way when being watched, restrained but showing a neat vulnerability. Not gashy or rage-y. (I can’t help but think about poems having to be beautiful in their restraint and tension, rather than excessive and overwrought…*see Lucas’s previous posts. It’s something that most people grew up with, I think.)
What about ugly girls? Somehow it is even more offensive for an ugly girl or “hag” to have feelings and desires, especially sexual. One of my favorite parts of the book so far is “Flinching before the Gaze” in which Dodie presents a quote from Franzen’s Freedom and then says “FUCK YOU JONATHAN FRANZEN.” The quote in question is an example of what I hate reading in my limited experience with a certain type of high lit contemporary fiction written by men, and I don’t know if there is a name for this thing so I’m being very vague. The Trend: the condescending male perspective spends copious energy lacerating other characters and climbing way up high so as to gain a good view of how much better they are than everyone else, because they can see through you and your weakness, and paint a picture of just how ugly and disgusting you, and possibly all of society including themselves, are:
“Then she waited, with parted lips and a saucy challenge in her eyes, to see how her presence—the drama of being her—was registering. In the way of such chicks, she seemed convinced of the originality of her provocation. Katz had encountered, practically verbatim, the same provocation a hundred times before, which put him in the ridiculous position now of feeling bad for being unable to pretend to be provoked: of pitying Lucy’s doughty little ego, its flotation on a sea of aging-female insecurity.” -Franzen
I actually have a copy of Franzen’s very thick book, and so does Obama. I don’t know where the book is now, but before I moved, I used it to keep the head of my bed from hitting the wall and disturbing the neighbors when I moved around in bed or had sex.
The asexuality of the laughing hag is threatening to the male gaze. But this book is also about the unruly, horny ladybeast that comes out of infatuation, and the self-annihilating aspects of love. One can be both at the same time. One can be bad and experimental. Or “more than good,” as Ariana Reines says.
Plus a great quote from Jackie Wang:
“suffering in isolation can fucking destroy you. i think there is a lot to be said about the strategy of turning pain into an object as a way to move through and beyond that pain—pushing it out and into the world in the form of something to be shared. i know people tend to be cynical about what approaches “therapeutic art,” but such a perspective assumes that art that takes personal suffering as its object of inspiration is solely about the healing of the Self rather than the transformation of something personal into something social.”
More soon.
Here is a sea pig:
5 comments for this entry:
  1. jackie w

    Feng Sun Chen–i seriously want to connect with you. maybe we should write reaalll letters to each other. i am trying to transfer my email correspondences to smail mail exchange. is that a real sea pig? it is real? your book i must read. i am in a weird place but i think more things are possible here, in the weird

  2. Johannes Goransson

    Hi Feng, great post.

    I have a few questions: can you clarify what you mean by “aesthetics” being the “domestication of desire”?

    Also, there’s something interesting going on with gender roles in your post. For example, if there’s something feminine about suffering, melodrama (and I would add Art overall), and something masculine about the illusory mastery (as represented by Franzen)- what happens to the man who loses control? Can a man lose control in “a masculine way”? Or can Franzen become feminine in the way he seems to freak out in public (Oprah’s book club etc). I see the point in these divisions between masculinity and femininity, but I also don’t want them to turn into Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus; ie too stable, prescriptive.

    Dodie has written some great essays about Plath (in Academonia). I disagree with Dodie about some things (and she has written about her dislike of my reading of her work), but these essays I think are right on.

    Plath is maybe an interesting way of rethinking the male/mastery thing – because she’s so masterful that she becomes unmasterful, she loses her shit with her mastery, Art leads her astray.


  3. Feng Sun Chen

    Hi Johannes, yes, you are right that it could get too prescriptive and boring to lean on the gender binaries that this post does. And it does, but I don’t want it to seem like masculinity are for men only and that gender is not performed. It’s a watery messy spectrum. My experience with feminism is very old school, but I love the stuff that’s talked about in this blog. I think that men can be hysterical too. There are huge limits to thinking about the masculine and feminine. I actually prefer how the blog talks about mastering or being mastered by text or art, so I probably should have paid more attention to that. When Jackie talks about working through a problem or trauma in the work ( above link ), I am reminded of Lucas’s thesis presentation when he talks about being mastered by his subject and by his grief, turning into a bird/alligator. What I like about the writers here is that they have no qualms about being mastered by their subject matter, and in some ways the text in Dodie’s book is about working through this kind of power play. At one point she says it’s hard to write through the perspective of the non-master or through failure, because writing is itself a practice of power, even messy, out of control writing is a way of directing forces of desire. But, in this post, for some reason I was thinking in binary terms–I think this has to do with my reflecting on my past growing up. I went through this horrible period when I tried very hard to be feminine (like, the lady part, with demureness and submissiveness) and I don’t know why. I think it’s still a struggle.

    To me aesthetics has to do with how I relate to and respond to sensations of the world, including desire, which I think is more than wanting something. Desire to me is inside relating to anything or anyone, and drinking in the other. So forming as aesthetics, or a set way of looking at things, and absorbing prescriptions of how to deal with feelings or behave feels like domestication. The tension between the Buddhist and Bellamy in the book feels like a whipping that tries to domesticate the unruly and messy, what is not “selfless” or “open” or “spiritual”… but the interesting thing is that these “wonderful” things are used to make the woman feel guilty for standing up for herself, for her body, discounting perhaps a history of domination because the body doesn’t matter anymore. It’s like the opposition between transcendentalism and potatoism. I’m not sure if this is coherent and I’m probably saying a lot of dumb things, but hopefully it makes a bit of sense. I will think more.

  4. Feng Sun Chen

    Hi Jackie! It is a real sea pig. And snail mail is the best for leaving a sticky mucus trail <3

  5. Johannes

    Hi Feng,
    I’m really interested by the things you bring up in this post and your comment. I hope you keep writing along these lines.

    I tend to think art is incredibly “messy” – something that I think you get at with your “capture”/”rupture” description in your post. Perhaps it ruptures by capturing? Ie it can’t capture or fully be captured. Ie art is not something that merely “domesticates” but something that moves through our bodies, exciting and stimulating affect rather than domesticating it. Or: Art doesn’t come “after” feelings, bodily sensation etc; Art generates feelings, interacts with the body, ruins the stable sense of self, produces and proliferates an excess.

    One of the things I love about Kim Hyesoon’s fever-dream poetry is exactly this sense: all this material that moves through the speaker. It seems some people are unsettled by how “passive” KH’s speakers seem, how the art/media moves through them.