Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lost at Sea / Forlornly Hopeful (in the style of Lorrie Moore)


Herewith, I share the text of my short piece for the roundtable session that Jeffrey organized, under the auspices of GW MEMSI, under the rubric of "Lost." I was somewhat nervous about presenting this because of its personal aspects, but after hearing Christopher Roman, in his gorgeous and moving piece "Lost Time," reflect on the role of food and eating in relation to time, memory, nostalgia, devotion/praying, love, and sorrow via the lenses of medieval mysticism and also the narration of a break-up with a boyfriend that involved eating brownies together, I breathed a sigh of relief. And as the session ended with Anne Harris's moving tribute to her father, whose brain injury led to 9 years of a condition where he forgot nothing but it was "all forest and no trees" ("Lost in Thought"), there was an interesting autobiographical thread within the session that also showcased really smart, and also funny as hell, presentations on dual number pronouns in Old English & two-ness (Daniel Remein), the obscure and now mainly lost Middle English word steven (Randy Schiff), air pollution in West Virginia and the loss of breath (Lowell Duckert), and words that desert one lingua franca and take up covert and often subversive residence in other lingua francas, like "double agents" (Jonathan Hsy).

It will be a long time before I forget Dan Remein's impersonation of a 1940s noir-style private eye who is looking for the lost pronouns, or his handout, which included an illustration of a milk carton, with the caption "Have You Seen Me?" followed by examples of all six dual number pronouns in Old English. Nor will I forget Lowell using an Air Supply song ("Lost in Love") as his structuring frame, nor Jonathan using a rubber superball to demonstrate how some words bounce into other languages and then pop back out in ways you would never expect. Indeed, Jeffrey had organized the session by first asking us to choose/invent our own "lost" catchphrases, and then a few months before the Congress, we each received an object from the Dept. of Found Objects, which we were asked to weave into our presentation somehow. In point of fact, I never received my object. I received an envelope that had been ripped open, and some green tissue paper (Lowell suffered the same fate but chose to make the tissue paper his "object" -- quite brilliantly, in fact, as it stood in for him as lungs, as well as air). The fact that my object did not arrive -- the idea of never arriving -- thus became central to my presentation, written in the same frame of mind I was in when I gave my Harvard talk (see HERE), in which I was feeling a bit depressed about how, frankly, hard it is to keep heterotopian ventures afloat (i.e., BABEL, punctum, Studium, etc.) while the endlessly self-replicating machinery of neoliberal capital is grinding down all of us who aren't trying to monetize everything, who are trying to do something else. Being at the Kalamazoo Congress was energizing for me and personally refreshing (thank you, FRIENDS!), and thanks to intensive conversations and strategy meetings with certain persons (more about which ... later), I feel that "everything will be okay." Even though, most days, it doesn't always feel that way. Hence, my paper:

Lost at Sea / Forlornly Hopeful (in the style of Lorrie Moore)

loss, from the Old English los, “damage,” “destruction,” Icelandic los, “dissolution,” “break-up,” and Proto-Indo-European *lews, “to cut, sunder, separate,” leading at some point also to lost, the idea of not being able to be found = missing

forlorn hope, false folk etymology, from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally already lost heap” = “already lost troop”

You’ve never felt so lost, unmoored, and adrift in life as you do now, at this particular juncture in your life. And yet part of your job (which you invented for yourself and which no one asked you to do) is to spend at least part of every day pretending everything is okay, or is going to be okay, and to project that feeling out into the world at large. Because you’ve always been of a mind that, no matter how dark things get, if people are depending on you, you have an obligation, as John Irving once wrote so memorably in The Hotel New Hampshire, to “keep passing the open windows.”
            It’s probably no accident, in relation to the strains of your own lost-at-sea-ness, that the other memorable line of that novel is, “Sorrow floats.” The Old English Seafarer, stranded in the middle of a dark and stormy sea, bereft of his home and comrades, and one of the losers of history, knew this all too well, but he had the wrong plan—he imagined his soul corkscrewing out of his body and flying away into the heavens, leaving behind his frozen corpse, bound by frost and icicles, bobbing up and down in his rudderless bark, like that was a good thing. But he also spent so much of his time thinking about (and missing) his friends that he started to imagine that the sea-birds were his friends, singing to him from the sea-cliffs as if they were all still in the mead-hall together.
            You want to consider the Seafarer and his birds as a “verloren hoop,” literally, in Dutch, an already lost troop, with “hoop” here meaning “heap,” but also, in a somewhat famous false etymology, “hope.” In its original meaning, a “verloren hoop,” or “forlorn heap,” were a group of soldiers sent on a hopeless mission, one they would never return from, but which might pave the way for another group of fighters to advance the field. They were the first wave, like the guys who landed first at Normandy on D-Day, and simply got mowed down, which was actually part of some general’s (successful) plan to secure the beach. Somewhere along they way, “forlorn heap” got mis-transcribed via homonym confusion as “forlorn hope,” and you want to hang on to this meaning, which isn’t as false as it appears. False etymologies are still real etymologies.
            You want to figure out how a troop can be lost together, and, if not survive, at least have hope. You want to also travel along the other fork in this branching etymological pathway, where the meaning of “loss” as destruction, damage, dissolution, and brokenness somehow morphed into “lost” as separated, cut adrift, and gone—in short, not able to be found, out there somewhere, at large, missing, like the Scythians in Book IV of Herodotus’s Histories who so frustrated Darius and his Persians that they had to return home over the Ister River without ever engaging the battle. You want to know if it’s possible to craft a hopeful politics of the forlorn troop, the lost band, the ones who went to fight the battle they already know can’t be won, but who are also “missing in action.” This would be something like the “radical hope” formulated by Jonathan Lear in his book Radical Hope and the Ethics of Cultural Devastation, which “anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”
            It all started when you did something perverse that went completely against your usual character, although it didn’t look that way to many. You’ve always been, let’s face it, a Type-A, obsessive, nervous, anxiety-ridden, and even controlling personality who’s mainly afraid of everyone and everything. At one point, and for many years, it took a lot of Jack Daniels and valium and certain trusty talismans to get you on a plane, you shunned and dreaded travel in equal measure, and your day-to-day contentment was only possible in direct proportion to living and working in spaces of what might be called domestic calm and a certain aesthetic rigidity. You were the kind of person who, if everything wasn’t in its proper place, like a magazine set at just the right angle on a coffee table, you just simply and totally freaked out. You had stomach problems, like all Virgos do. You wanted to stay in one place where nothing would ever change. You thought you were supposed to meet the love of your life and live with them forever and plant trees with them. You were really obsessed with the tree thing. When you broke up with your partner after 17 years—the person who, when they walked into a room, even after all of the bad and horrible things that happened between you, your heart still lifted—the thing that hit you the hardest was that you weren’t going to live the rest of your life in one house and see all of the trees grow taller. It felt like a stupendous failure of a certain romantic landscape architecture, and everyone knows how long it takes trees to grow. You really fucked it up this time.
            You really hate it when people say, “a crisis is an opportunity,” but perversely, it really is. Every time you taught literature courses at Southern Illinois University, you took an almost cruel pleasure in telling your students that the greatest miracle in life was change, precisely because it so rarely happens, and that all great literature was really just about this miracle of change that almost never happens in real life (or about the resulting tragedy of those who can never change or who are not allowed, by society or whoever, to change), and that most of them would never change and that nothing really different would ever really happen to most of them and that no one ever really learns anything really true about themselves and then does something about it, and they would all grow older always making the same mistakes over and over again, even after experiences that one would think ought to obviously lead to change, and therefore, please, you would say to your students, please embrace change, but also know how painful it will be, how it will hurt like hell, yet nothing could be more necessary. And you would say this just before going back to your house where nothing ever changed and where you never changed and where you kept clinging to things that weren’t really good for you just through sheer force of obstinate will, all evidence to the contrary.
            So one day something cracked inside of you, and sometimes, as they say, one thing leads to another, and little by little, you literally chucked away or put into storage absolutely everything that belonged to you (even your entire library and all of those small objects that we all collect throughout our lives and that mean something only to us) except for one car, one small dog named Sparkles Joy, a few photographs of loved ones, and as much clothing as you could fit into one car, because whatever would happen, at least you would do it in style. You would go down swinging with flair. You quit your job, invented some new jobs that have no salary, and went on and on to anyone who would listen how freeing it all was. Except every single day entails some sort of “freak out” moment, anyway, because you really don’t have any idea if any of this is a good idea, but nevertheless you want to insist that everything really will be okay, although you have no idea, but still, it will be okay, although it may never be okay and how could you possibly really know, but still, everything really will be okay, and you get the picture, and we’re all passing the open windows together. And you don’t want anyone thinking any of this is brave because, honestly, it’s more like stubbornness, and maybe even self-destructiveness.
            You believe in your projects, and in all the people helping you with your projects (insert here: BABEL WorkingGroup, punctum books + records, etc.), but you’re also savvy enough to understand that what you and your friends are trying to make happen is designed on purpose to be weird, illegitimate, misfit, queer, vagabond, unmoored, anti-authoritarian, unpredictable, and just plain good old-fashioned anarchist, and one doesn’t get Mellon or NEH grants for such ventures. In the end, it turns out everything really is about money, and if you don’t have it, you can take your foolish utopian ideas and just stuff it. As the pages fly off the calendar like in the old Hollywood movies, more and more, you’re running scared, and like Dante in those dark, forbidding woods, in the middle of your life, it feels as if you’ve lost your way.
            And then you recall, this is how all stories begin, something else you would always tell your students. The narrative form itself, the very genre of narrative, always begins with someone being lost at sea and also stranded. Think Apollonius of Tyre, Homer’s Odysseus, Chaucer’s Custance, and so on. There’s always a family drama as well: the origins of narrative are rooted, as it were, in dysfunctional families and the havoc they wreak, especially families where parents actively seek your destruction by breaking you down mentally, piece by piece, or just outright try to maim and kill you. One cuts the Oedipal knot, breaks out or is cast out, gets lost, and then returns to their so-called rightful place.You don’t really care about the return or anyone’s, least of all your own, “rightful” place. You just know that if anything is to happen at all, you have to first be cast adrift. You have to be lost at sea. You’re not worried about the ending. You just want to be going somewhere. The other twist you want to add to the oldest story is to not go it alone, but to be lost, to be forlorn, with your heap, and your troop, which is also where the (not necessarily false) hope comes in. 
             Which brings up another way to embrace rocky and uncertain beginnings but to reject traditional endings, which is also about, finally, your new talisman, a necklace engraved with the phrase “amor fati.” In the conventional, medievally fatalistic reading, this means something like loving your fate, and especially, loving your own (untimely) death, ideally on a battlefield. But for you, it means something else. It means that while Byrhtnoth is embracing his bloody end on the field at Maldon (a sacrificial death his patriarchal culture demands of him), while also chastising his comrades for deserting the field, the rest of you should run away together. Like the English knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you want your new battle cry to be, “Run away!” In this scenario, what “amor fati” means for you, and hopefully for your friends, is that, no matter what happens, you won’t hate, nor scorn, your life.

will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at:
will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at:
will it be possible to survive as an idealist, as a humanist, or will the endless machinery of neoliberalism really grind all of us down who aren’t focused on monetizing everything? - See more at:


Anonymous said...

lovely eileen, always heartened when people manage to free themselves of the shackles of the known and risk the unknown, most don't take the leap.
one (of the many) travails of being a shrink is that i'm often helping people to make such moves without my having much in the way of hope that they will have access to better options ahead (tho i know the dire costs to their souls to betray themselves and stay bound) but you have managed to beat the odds (and some sense the system) and i'm grateful for your example and the hope you bring (and no doubt bear).
yers, dirk

A.W. Strouse said...