What could be more self-absorbed than a break up? You have a situation which is so very vast, so all-consuming, so devastating, but also so completely related to you. Given the limits to which the empathy of friends/family can stretch, and the limits to which you can lie in bed looking at their Instagram, it is perhaps not surprising that people turn to art, music and/or writing as some sort of consolation.
I’ve been reading this book lately — it’s called I Love Dick. It’s not particularly new (1997), nor particularly obscure (it has own TV series starring Kevin Bacon), but it is quite singular in its depiction of a break up. It deals with the main character (Chris Kraus — also the name of the author), and her unrequited obsession with a friend (Dick Hebridge) of her husband’s (Sylvère Lotringer— her actual then-husband), which leads her to write him hundreds of letters, which she then turned into a best-selling book.
It captures quite well something I have felt in my own life. How can I, as an educated & intelligent woman, be so very obsessed with if this person does or does not call me?
Chris: You’re forgetting that I really want for him to call. I’m tingling all over waiting for the phone to ring. I’ll be really disappointed if he doesn’t call.
Sylvère: Well this time you should talk to him. Why let us two white guys decide the course? I got him in. It’s your turn now.
Chris: But I’m afraid he’s not gonna call at all. What then? Do I call him? It’s already feeling like the Frank Zappa song You Didn’t You Try And Call Me.
But of course when Dick does call, as she explains in one of her many letters,
‘The telephone became a schizophrenic instrument, the “therefore” placed between us, two non-sequiturs’.
I email my (ex) girlfriend the entirely of my 2016 journals to read.
[Is this so out of the blue?
— We had both watched that movie, Cruel Intentions, only a few weeks prior.
— Intentions is the pop-adaption of yet another epistolary novel, Les Liasons Dangereuses.
— Both versions climax with the main character (‘Valmont’) giving his journal/letters to the girl he loves, in a desperate attempt to win her back.
— In the film it works].
My journals were, in a way, just letters to her (‘A did this’ or ‘Things with A went well today’ or’ A looked especially beautiful as she was sitting on her bed in her white shirt this morning’).
A. texts me:
‘Woah! I got your email by the way, it was really lovely — thank you.’
And I can see she is on Netflix, watching her eighth episode of Gossip Girl that day.
(It was nine o’clock and I was sitting at home.
I was watching television and you didn’t try call me.)
— “Why Didn’t You Try Call Me? Frank Zappa (1966)
Sylvère calls Dick.
S: ‘Uh… Well I wrote you a letter and she wrote you a letter… and it sort of grew into a, um, 20, 30, 40 pages and then it became impossible to send you that (laughs). We, uh, got the idea that maybe we should just go back to your place…but basically it would turn into some kind of an art piece with a text that could be, maybe, hanged on the cactuses and your car and something like that?’
I message my friend, O.
J: “I just emailed A. my journals I’m sooooooooo Fucking TF.
O: “What why.”
J: “IDK LOL.”
O: TBH it would prob send her into shell shock HAHAH.”
Schizophrenia, Kraus explains earlier, can be summarised as ‘placing the word therefore between non-sequiturs’. I wouldn’t get a speeding ticket; I will die within the next five years. I didn’t get a speeding ticket, therefore—
A didn’t reply to a text; A cheated on me. A didn’t reply to a text, therefore—
Why is it that in Kraus’ novel, she does come off as somewhat unstable, whereas in Alain De Botton’s similarly epistolary work, Essays In Love, he appears, well, intellectual?
‘The sickness, the nausea, and longing that I had times felt at the thought of Chloe might in some societies have been identified as signs of a religious experience…’
— Essays In Love, Alain de Botton.
Are you love sick, or just self-indulgent?
When A cheated on me, I lost five kilos in five days. ‘Aren’t you looking slim,’ said my boss approvingly. Which on an intellectual level I found inappropriate, but on an emotional level, oh so satisfying.
‘I have to let you know,’ I said ‘How I felt last weekend in LA after I saw you.’ (It’d been ten days and my body was still locked up with sickness.)’
You said: ‘I’m sick of your emotional blackmail.’
— I Love Dick, Chris Kraus.
— ‘Actually it’s changed. It’s turned into an epistolary novel, really.”
— ‘Ah, that’s so bourgeois’.
— ‘Didn’t Habermas say once that the epistolary genre marked the advent of the bourgeois novel?’
Jürgen Habermas (the German sociologist to whom Chris, and her friend ‘Rachel’ are referring) basically thought that:
- A ‘bourgeois public sphere’ is one where the world of private people comes together publicly, and that,
- The most private thing ever, are one’s ‘Letters are containers for outpouring of the heart’
Publishing your letters (or texts/emails/whatever), brings the private into the public. If we think of the feminine as private, and masculine as public (as our culture generally does), then the epistolary novel becomes a radical act. It is ‘necessarily concerned with determining the boundaries of public and private — and with questions of gender… that are inextricably involved in this definition’.
Is this why the letters of Botton and Laclos seem analytical and self-assured, but this article comes off as kind-of self-indulgent and obsessive? Or why Botton’s Essays In Love demonstrate the universal experience of love, but Kraus’ novel is basically for inner-city feminist circles?
The epistolary form has been around since Ovid, but in the eighteenth century was thought of as a “women’s” genre. In fact, male epistolary works of the time were produced by ‘imitating the female voice’, and ‘the practice of males imitating female writing constrained how women would be able to use the genre by setting precedents and deciding which attributes of writing were “feminine.”
The epistolary form today revolves more around the digital world. Is it true (as Esther Milne writes) that this shift ‘offers females even more freedom to deviate from the established traditions and break gender roles’ (i.e. as conventional signs of gender are absent online). Honestly? Lol, probably not.
‘Love Like You Are Trying to Fill an Insatiable Spiritual Hole with Another Person Who Will Suffocate in There’
— Is an essay by Melissa Broder, from her book So Sad Today. It revolves around a relationship between her and a guy she met on Twitter, which proceeded to formulate itself entirely through sexts.
Him: I want to go deep in your Twitter feed and fave an unfaved tweet as a means of communicating that I respect your act and love your pristine feed.
Me: I keep my pussy even more pristine than I keep my feed.
— Melissa Broder, So Sad Today.
Unlike Dick, random Twitter guy actually replies to Broder’s messages. But as she tries to get beyond their jokey, cynical content, she hits a road block.
Me: sometimes i feel sad u r not mine. this is a scary thing for me to txt u bc i don’t want to txt u this and make u scared that I am “attachy”.
Him: Be careful working me into your plans bc I have no idea what lies for us outside the bounds of what we have now. Like, I don’t know.
If you can’t even opt-out of gender roles on the internet (i.e. clingy women/detached man in this case) then what can you use the epistolary form to do?
Ultimately what is striking in both Broder and Kraus is their willingness to assert the meaningfulness of the epistolary form as both the personal and the feminine. That is, that the personal is literary, and by extension, that the feminine is canonical. Both authors don’t shy away from the trope of the scorned woman, but rather embrace it.
I want to say: i am writing a personal essay about not knowing what love is. can i ask u some questions.
I want to say: was i real to you? when r u coming back to me in the way i want u?
Obviously it is embarrassing to divulge your personal life on the internet/in a book/etc. There is, however, very much a commonality in the pain of break-up, which I would argue that in fact, men are actually not really that embarrassed of divulging (think: Botton, Dante, Hornby’s High Fidelity, Great Gatsby, etc). Maybe because when they do it, it’s not crazy/intense/stalkerish: it’s just deep and emotional.
Say: ‘It’s love for me that’s made you thin,’
and tear for tear tell you of my sufferings
— Ovid, Epistulae ex ponto.
Jemimah Tarasov has written for Overland, SMH, Stir, Bossy & others. She is a current editor of Overpass (https://overpassmag.com/) and a previous editor of Demos Journal. She is especially interested in queer issues, pop-culture and (of course) feminism. She wishes she could write like Chris Kraus, Helen Garner and Christos Tsiolkas.