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A Crack in Everything: part 1

Essay | 20 minute read
In the first of a three-part essay on friendship and rejection, Grace McCleen writes about ghosts, mirrors and the chasm within

1. The Trials of Lucy Snowe

Whatever we identify with can kill us. Whatever we identify with we place above other things, even life itself. I was watching a YouTube video recently featuring a reasonably well-known experimental novelist, though he may prefer to be called an ‘artist’, as he says he finds visual art a fitter medium for expression (in fact he doesn’t like the word ‘expression’ either, at least not in relation to art). I know the writer a little and like what I know of him. We used to have the same German publisher and met with other writers for an annual meal near Portobello Road. He invited me to a party of his, the only memory I have of which is trying to convey how ingenious I considered his first novel to be, all the while aware I was slurring my ‘l’s and attempting to hold up the braces I was wearing (the dress code was ‘louche’ and I seemed to be the only one who had tried to follow it. I had had to look the word up).

I still consider his first novel to be one of the most brilliant ever written, so what I am about to say doesn’t stem from ill will or scorn, but rather that I was watching the writer talk fervently about the wrongness of the humanist worldview that still afflicts fiction, and the rightness of the post-modern (‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were his words); about the absurdities of realism, the idiocy of expressing emotion through art, and so on, and I suddenly thought: ‘A__ would probably rather go to the stake than accede “realist” novels are superior to experimental ones.’ I thought: ‘An idea’ – because that’s all it was – ‘can take us that far.’

For an artist, the reason for living is Art, and within Art their personal conception of ‘good’ Art. For a politician it’s their political persuasion. For a believer it’s their religious belief. For a scientist it’s Science. For others it’s their looks, their partner, their children, their career…

A___ thinks that his work and his way of life is right, is the truth; is everything. Considering his hatred of humanism and love of self-reflexivity, I would have thought that the novelist could place (even) himself within the circle and see that his beliefs were conditioned rather than autonomous, that his self was constructed and contingent, that no mind-constructed worldview is final, all-embracing, adequate or absolute. A worldview is just as much a product of our life as our teeth or our watch or our memories.

Our selves are a construct and in the vast majority of cases they have not been constructed by us but by others. Our identity is composed of a composite of reflections from external mirrors that give us messages about what we must to do more and less of, what and who we like or dislike, and depending upon whether we obey or ignore these messages we feel more or less secure, more or less ‘ourselves’.

The most powerful reflections come from other people. The problem is that the way people treat us as adults depends to a large extent, unless we have done considerable work on ourselves, upon how we were treated as children. In fact, it is only when we are able to observe our ‘selves’ that we can begin to act and think freely, to ‘be’ our ‘selves’.

For the majority of us, the most significant reflection we can lose is that of a person we value or of that person’s good opinion; other identifications are often only substitutes for such a loss that occurred earlier.

You can lose a significant other through death; insanity; through them terminating the relationship because they are dissatisfied but giving a reason; through them terminating the relationship, perhaps only implicitly, and giving no reason; or through them vanishing or being abducted. The last two ways seem to me the worst because of the apparent meaninglessness and open-ended nature of the trauma, which sows seeds of doubt about one’s self and others that can grow exponentially.

When the mind doesn’t know what to think about something, it cannot adopt a particular position, a predicament it finds unbearable. In cases of random loss, rejection or abandonment, our constructed identity takes a hit that is potentially fatal. The mind cannot effect closure. A chasm opens. We can become haunted by the person we have lost, as if they have taken a piece of us with them.

I recently watched a programme about ‘ghosting’, the growing practice of cutting communication with someone, usually virtually, without explanation. The person who does the spurning becomes a ghost to the person they cut off. Rather than vanishing, their spectre haunts and preys upon the shunned; a long-term and possibly fatal visitation whispering that all is fundamentally not well. Ghosting was part and parcel of the online dating world and, during my brief stint at it a year or so back, I’d experienced it plenty.

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It can wreak lasting havoc and is testament to a lazy, cowardly and calloused society: often, people don’t do to others as they would have them do to them, but rather do to others what has already been done to them. A society in which – if there are no immediate negative ramifications – an action is freely engaged in. A society that inches towards infinitely greater acts of insensitivity and indifference (there are no insignificant actions: small acts reveal an individual’s propensity for larger acts should the circumstance arise).

Listening to people explain the effect ghosting had on them reminded me of the sense of hurtling I remembered from childhood, when a peer betrayed me or shunned me without warning. I thought again how much more destructive it is to ‘passively’ reject than directly chastise.

Humans depended upon being part of a herd for physical and psychic survival. Infants die if they don’t receive enough affection; one of the best ways to damage a child is to ignore them. It is easier to break the spirit through solitary confinement than physical deprivation or assault. Being shunned as a child can make a person more likely to be shunned as an adult. Cities are full of people dying because their early identity was informed by experiences of being shunned, shamed or made to feel worthless, which nearly always become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Recently I imagined, or perhaps really did experience such a rejection. Because the termination was not overt and I could find no reason for it, I found myself turning it over in my head; I was unable, even after months, to effect closure. The rejection had come from an unexpected quarter, completely left-field, which made it harder to question. Over the coming weeks, feelings of pointlessness grew to the point where brushing my teeth seemed ridiculous; if I was not worth replying to, why should I? Because the discomfort was so potent, confronting it was less painful than trying to ignore it, and in confronting it I realised several disconcerting truths about myself, truths that have survived years of therapies. I believe these truths are present in all of us to a degree, but when cushioned by life (as many are), they remain hidden – and they evaporate like a bad dream on the situation improving even a little. But as long as we don’t fully recognise them they remain just beneath the surface, dictating the smallest of our actions. The first truth was one I’d already guessed:

1. Being rejected is the biggest fear I have, the most intractable aspects of which are that a judgement has been passed and I am unable to respond to it, sometimes even unable to understand why it had been dealt out, and so my identity cannot right itself. Instead, seeds of self-doubt begin to grow as tenaciously as grass through concrete. Random rejection does not allow for closure, or revenge; in the game of rejection, the first one to act is the winner. Revenge is hardly a good way to heal an injured self, and I am not advocating it, but it is better than complete implosion, at least to begin with.

The first truth led me to the second:

2. In the face of rejection it matters not a whit what I think of myself or what I have or haven’t done right or wrong. All that matters is what the other apparently thinks of me, how they are treating me.

3. I do nearly everything in my life for others, not in a selfless but in a desperate way, craving attention and approval. Early in life this must have seemed the most viable route to me. I had to work; I had to achieve; I believed I had nothing innate to offer, so I would have to create my worth, and the belief stuck.

4. At the drop of a hat, life is no longer worth living: perceived or actual rejection can render everything I am doing, have done and plan to do, null and void. It can also render every other relationship meaningless, the reasoning being that if this individual has rejected me, there must be something fundamentally wrong with me.

5. I would do anything to gain the other’s approval again. All that matters is the surface, not the depths.

6. I cannot, ultimately, count on anyone. Anyone may desert me, sometimes through no fault of their own. The recent rejection came without warning, from a person I valued and highly esteemed; the last person, in other words, I would have expected it from. All-importantly for me because so rarely found, I had believed this person ‘got’ me. Essentially, this person was a mirror held up to the best version of my self, the identity I wanted to believe I possessed.

7. My relationship with others is ultimately selfish. As, I believe, is most people’s: we don’t care if the friend or lover is happy when they reject us in favour of someone else or they terminate the relationship (as they must, humans always choose what makes them happy over that which makes them unhappy), which surely we would if we truly cared about them. Instead – quite naturally – we focus on our own pain. All relationships (except parent–child and other exclusively caring ones) are essentially selfish: people like or love us because they receive something. If we no longer added anything to their lives, they would probably eschew us.

8. To live like this is exhausting and unsatisfying.

These were not comforting truths, though it did make me feel slightly better when I realised they applied to more or less everyone: we all crave approval; that’s why we follow fashions, why public speaking is one of the most common terrors, why our default response is to blame ourselves if someone treats us poorly rather than assuming their behaviour is a reflection of themselves, and why the breakdown of a personal relationship is one of the deepest pains we know.

It was just that I took these feelings to greater extremes than most people, I thought: others would be hurt by groundless rejection, but not too hurt. They would, after a while, brush themselves off and go on. Perhaps even get angry. Perhaps reject the other person in return. But they wouldn’t feel everything is pointless.

In practical terms, such dependence upon others’ opinions puts you at a severe disadvantage: you put off doing things all your life for fear they will go wrong; you rarely take risks or, if you do, you do so out of despair; you don’t trust your instincts because you don’t have any; you don’t experiment. You can’t have fun. You are susceptible to abusive relationships (there was a time in my own life when a person’s value depended simply upon whether they could be counted upon to reply to me). You can even become unwell. This isn’t really surprising: the recent rejection I experienced was accompanied, immediately, by a sensation of falling, nausea, diarrhoea, intense heat all over my body, a feeling of constriction in my chest and stinging, painful skin. For the next couple of days I experienced trembling, disturbed sleep, extreme weakness and a feeling of leadenness. It felt, not like someone failing to get back to me, but terror. Like death, actually; as if the sentence of death had been passed.

These sensations eventually gave way to anxiety and paranoia: for some days after the recent incident I forgot how to reply to friends, questioned how many ‘x’s to put on texts, dissected the wording of emails, assumed another friend had blocked me on WhatsApp. In checking if they had, I caused still more upset.

Beyond the anxiety is grief. Behind that, exhaustion. Then blankness, a void. The rejection had gone to the nub of whatever it was that constituted my sense of ‘me’. I didn’t know what to do about the truths I’d discovered. I didn’t see a way of changing myself. Perhaps the time had come, I thought, to eschew contact with people altogether, as I sometimes considered doing, when the peaks and troughs of human interactions were too harrowing. Even on the occasions I had a good time with people, I had found it difficult to sleep afterwards, turned over every phrase, interrogated each gesture and look, crucified myself about this and that.

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If there was despair in isolation, I reasoned, at least there was not the gamut of other feelings. There was, instead, a space. A gap. Nothing. One long and final full stop. I would move to the Hebrides and embrace the feeling of abandonment. It seemed, after a certain point had been reached, senseless to try and pretend there was any other reality. I would go into the wilderness, where there was no possibility someone would rescue me. I would set up specific circumstances that would allow me to experience the rejection fully, once and for all.

And surely, through seeking it out, I would no longer be its victim. My actions would cease to be secretly motivated by the desire to eschew abandonment at all costs. I would discover if I truly could care for another regardless of their approval or disapproval of me. Most importantly, in that vacuum, I would discover what – if anything – constituted my selfhood; what existed apart from the reflections the world bounced back. I would learn whether I was made of some thing – or entirely of lack. The only problem was: if I took such an action, could I say the ensuring experience was really happening to me? Or must I let life do the rejecting? Let the great abandonment find me, instead?

It was about two months after my friend became a ghost that I arrived at a passage in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette that seemed to be speaking directly to me. I have never turned to literature for guidance or support; those who believe in art for art’s sake would probably think it is well not to, though it is not for that reason I didn’t. I included C. S. Lewis’s famous statement, ‘We read to know we are not alone’, in my application to study English at Oxford, no matter how ill-advised it seemed, because at one time in my life I did precisely that, and I am sure that some writers, in addition to readers, write (amongst other things) to ‘be with’ aloneness, to wrestle with and explore it, and perhaps survive it.

I found in literature depictions of suffering which equalled or exceeded my own; watching a documentary or listening to the news didn’t do the trick. It’s hard to put my finger on why this was: music was too painful to listen to and visual art had never moved me, so it was not a case of ‘art’ in general being of use. I suppose the intelligence, the beauty (for want of a better word) and the sensation I had that in reading certain books I was in touch with a consciousness expansive enough to contain or contextualise my own pain, was of comfort. I sensed in the ‘best’ books something larger at work, and the ignominy, rage, grief and squalor of my situation were held by that larger thing – which both expressed the baseness of it all, and crucially translated it into something else, suggesting in doing so that something surpassing and transcendent might exist somewhere, somehow, infinitely far removed from me at that moment. If beauty or meaning simply existed, then the meaninglessness, degradation and wretchedness were somehow balanced. And often, in the ‘best’ books, that beauty, transcendence or meaning was reached through darkness, through turbulence, through filth; it being precisely the books which plumbed such depths that also contained the elevation.

Charlotte Brontë (Getty)

This vague possibility was all that literature offered. It had never spoken so closely to my personal plight as the passage in Villette, and I was so surprised by it that I did something I never do when reading: I laughed out loud and felt a warm rush of affection for the author. I had always felt a kinship to Lucy Snowe, the novel’s heroine. She is continually thrown down and dashed to pieces by perceived rejections and desertions, then bobs up again, euphorically, because of a kind word or gesture. Most of the action in Villette happens inside her head – for some readers this is a weakness, but I believe it was an approach that greatly expanded Brontë’s art and constituted one of the reasons for the ‘preternatural’ power that George Eliot ascribed to the novel.

The challenges Lucy faces are isolation and emotional deprivation, and the terms Brontë uses to describe them (‘nerves inflamed’, ‘nameless agony’, ‘palsy’) might seem melodramatic to those who have never experienced such distress. It is terrain, Charlotte says, often deemed ‘too intricate for examination, too abstract for popular comprehension’. Just before the passage I alighted on, Lucy has been bereft of contact from those she loves for an extended period and makes her way to a priest, to whom she confesses that she is ‘perishing for a word … or an accent of comfort’, ‘a pressure of affliction … [of] which [her] mind … would hardly any longer endure the weight.’ The belief that she had been abandoned by people she cares for had opened up seemingly irresolvable internal contradictions, a chasm, in her psyche.

The comfort I derived from the passage was soon diluted by life continuing, however. Ultimately, books couldn’t help, at least not in practical terms, I concluded. They were a thin blanket and bowl of watery gruel that that could make survival possible. They drew a sheer veil between oneself and reality that remained intact as long as my ability to concentrate did also.

What did become clear to me, however, as I perused Villette again (the last time had been nearly twenty years earlier), was that the various characters in it – M. Emanuel, John Graham Bretton, Polly Home, Ginevra Fanshawe, Madame Beck, the ‘ghost’ of the nun who was buried alive – can be seen as screens or mirrors held up to Lucy that reflected different aspects of herself. Some of them horrify her, some show her glimpses of bliss. Perhaps this was partly why the novel seemed to possess greater depth, at least to me, than Jane Eyre all those years ago, continually gesturing away from itself, as it seems to, towards something else.

I told a friend about my recent upset and discovery of the passage; how it seemed to describe my experience exactly, the way in which Brontë dramatised Lucy’s identity by splitting it into various embodiments. She suggested I look at similar processes in other texts and write about what I found there.

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