WRONG LOVE: On Writing, Love, and Failure
X Poetics 2011
for Sam M.
So, I have been thinking lately about the relationship between loving and writing—and about the relation of both of these movements that I think of as creative ventures to the experience of failure. I keep returning to the etymology of the word writing—a strange word, one not related to the Latin scribere (from whence we derive our script, scribe, inscription, description).
Writing, the word itself, arrives to us through Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old Norse, tribal languages, and it means literally to draw the figure of something by carving it out, to form an outline by cutting into the surface of something, to score or mark through the gutting movement of making an incision.
To carve, to cut, to incise. The early movement of writing engaged knives as the ancestors to our pens. And something in this brings much to my mind of loving—an experience that also carves itself into being, making a mark that cuts deeply so it may seem, at first, indelible. But like marks carved in ancient stone that must have seemed at first so clear, as soon as these lines are forged they open themselves to the dulling, softening, fading of time, perhaps one day (after many storms) to be smoothed over all together, returning to the surface of the stone.
There is a moment in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red when the red‐winged monster Geryon’s whole body forms “one arch of a cry—upcast to that custom, the human custom of wrong love.”
Wrong love. Thinking of this phrase as having many skins, the top one, surely, is the idea that the love between two people, or the love that one person has for another, can be bad or wrong or ill‐fated which maybe just means that it doesn’t last, or causes pain, or doesn’t make room for a person to live conventionally. But I wonder, of all these things, are these bad? And this has made me wonder whether wrong and bad can actually be said to be commensurate or whether we are in fact thinking through two very different qualities.
What lasts? What causes no pain? What real value is there in living conventionally? This led me to think of the many ways in which being wrong can move a person both toward her own depth as well as, perhaps one day, towards a notion of what might be right.
As I sat to write this piece, a second skin of the phrase caught my attention and that was the notion of love itself as a mover through the world, alighting on certain heads, certain moments, perhaps herself trying to find a stable ground to rest. So she lands somewhere, thinking it looks good and finds quickly that she was wrong, wrong love, that the ground there was not stable, that she could not set down roots, much as she may have tried.
Wrong love here not of a person or of two people but of the quality of wandering love herself, simply looking for a safe place to be, thinking she’s found one, and being wrong.
What has all this to do with knowing, with writing—and what to do with failing? Seems like everything and again, being wrong seems the only path—at least the only path I have ever known—toward learning.
When I was twenty years old, I was obliged to write a thesis in order to graduate from college and I spent the weeks of spring break alone on my campus wandering through the strange landscapes of my mind to eventually produce 160 pages of text that I thought, initially, opened up a new kind of epistemology, a new kind of working inside language around nothingness and negation, a new way of being in words.
My two advisors were old men. Lovely men. One was stiff and tight and white haired and slim and elegant and lived in New York and stood when we met in his office and often pointed his finger to the sky when he made a point. The other shuffled when he walked and wore a straggly gray pony‐tail, had grown up in Berkeley, had turquoise rings, and his tweed jackets were enormous to fit over his ever‐widening body. He wore spectacles and spoke rarely and had in his eye the most kindred glinty mischief spark I had at that point ever seen. I trusted both of them as guides and knew that somehow their oppositional qualities would balance out so that my work would be even‐keeled and strong.
One morning, in the middle of writing my conclusion, I had a moment that was the opposite of blindness—the kind of moment where the universe cracks open and breathtaking light is let in, a kind of light that, for me, actually hurts. I saw that the entire path I had been on was wrong—that my idea didn’t work, that my theory was crumbling beneath me and all I could think, with this newfound sight, was that I was surprised it had taken so long to realise. I cried like a child and had no other recourse but to turn it all in anyway.
I was given honours for my thesis, was commended in all the ways my college allowed. Privately, this made me angry, I thought of it as consolation, a way in which they could acknowledge I had worked so hard and failed.
When I met my two advisers, the pointy and the vast, in the soft gray basement of the philosophy building, they asked me how I felt about my work. I cried fresh tears. And told them, shamefacedly, that I saw now—that I realised—what they must have realised all along: that I was wrong.
The vast one smiled wide and the pointy one shifted to his toe tips and they both agreed with me, and then welcomed me to the project of philosophy.
This early lesson is one that in love I am still learning. That it need not last or feel good or be right. But that even wrong love, perhaps only wrong love, can lead to knowing.