An Anxious Doubling

The following is an experimental short story that I wrote as my final project for a class called ‘The History and Practice of Perspective’. My professor was amazingly inspiring, providing both academic rigour and positive encouragement. I had to incorporate one of the ideas/readings that we had gone through in class, and somehow I ended up choosing Jacques Lacan even though he is, colloquially, a bitch to read. I found a lot of similarities between his ideas and the story of Jackson Pollock’s deterioration, which was introduced to me in my music class and which intensely moved me (all this is pretty much elucidated in the story). Threw some elements from Jorge Luis Borges and Roland Barthes in there, and revisited a few memories, all while writing in a semi-academic style. I ended up with something stitched together from a number of “narratives,” creating a new, non-traditional narrative of my thought processes. The product is thus stream-of-consciousness with footnotes (I am aware this unintentionally echoes the techniques David Foster Wallace, whom I have not read).

Probably the most cerebral thing I have creatively written, but at the same time, emotional.

An Anxious Doubling

A (non-)fiction inspired by Jorge Luis Borges, Jackson Pollock, and Jacques Lacan


It must have been the 17th or 18th of March, 2012 – I know it was after I had found out about her and how she had changed, what she had become – that I first read that story. At the time, I was more than halfway through Borges’ Collected Fictions, and thus far, most of my epiphanic experiences with his writing had been rooted in the realm of the cerebral. Before my encounter with “Covered Mirrors,” Borges had merely spoken to me as an admired and skilled writer would to someone who only occasionally attempted to write (I feel slightly ashamed for having to use the qualifier “merely,” as if this cerebral connection that I had made with his writing was somehow lesser than the one that I am about to describe).

The story began unremarkably enough, as most Borges texts do. A man describes his childhood fear of mirrors. Man meets woman; they were lovers, though they were not in love. Then I read this, and felt a faint sadness:

I must have told her at some point about my horror of mirrors, and so in 1928 I must have planted the hallucination that was to flower in 1931. Now I have just learned that she has gone insane, and that in her room all the mirrors are covered, because she sees my reflection in them—usurping her own—and she trembles and cannot speak, and says that I am magically following her, watching her, stalking her.[1]

I don’t know if I would have had as emotional a reaction to this passage, had I not read the story on the 17th or 18th of March, 2012. It had been soon enough after certain events about a certain person had been revealed to me for the text to evoke an intense resignation, but long enough after the reveal such that I could process the gravity of the situation, and how it had come to this. It didn’t matter that I had displaced his words. Perhaps I had even misplaced them. But I knew that as I read about what had happened to Borges’ Julia, in my mind it described what had happened to her. I wanted to understand, and the text tried to help me.

Borges states:

As soon as it began to grow dark outside, the constant, infallible functioning of mirrors, the way they followed my every movement, their cosmic pantomime, would seem eerie to me… I feared sometimes that they would begin to veer off from reality; other times, that I would see my face in them disfigured by strange misfortunes.[2]

If one is afraid of looking in a mirror, one must be afraid of what one sees in a mirror. Julia claimed that her fear of mirrors stemmed from her fear of seeing the fictional Borges in the mirror, following her everywhere. But whenever one looks in a mirror, the only constant that one sees is the reflection of the self. Hence, if one is afraid of looking in a mirror, one is afraid of looking at the self. Perhaps Julia’s justification for her insanity was just an excuse to hide the fact that only one who could truly, persistently stalk her was herself. She had shifted the blame away from her own reflection.

I think now of Lacan’s mirror stage.

While the infant still feels his/her body to be in parts, as fragmented and not yet unified, it is the image that provides him/her with a sense of unification and wholeness…This identification is crucial, as without it – and without the anticipation of mastery that it establishes – the infant would never get to the stage of perceiving him/herself as a complete or whole being. At the same time, however, the image is alienating in the sense that it becomes confused with the self. The image actually comes to take the place of the self. Therefore, the sense of a unified self is acquired at the price of this self being an-other, that is, our mirror image.[3]

Julia must have hated what she saw when she looked in the mirror, that other Julia – maybe it was more perfect than her, maybe it was as imperfect as she didn’t want to think herself to be. But she would never be able to understand that the reason why she covered all those mirrors was not because of the fictional Borges, but because the act of looking is an act of confrontation, and to see one’s image doubled is to confirm what one is afraid to recognise in the self. The failure to be self-aware must have been due, at least in part, to an ego that had been bolstered to the point that it was unable to support the flawed self.

The function of the ego is, in other words, one of mis-recognition; of refusing to accept the truth of fragmentation and alienation.[4]

She must have hated herself, even if she couldn’t acknowledge this fact.

This is what Freud calls “unrealistic anxiety” – an anxiety that is in excess of what its apparent object merits.[5]

///\\\

On 21st March 2012, a few days after reading this story, I witnessed the immensity of Jackson Pollock’s personal suffering. He was never one of my favourites, though I pause at his painting that hangs on the 4th floor of MoMA a little longer than I do at most paintings. But I was upset as I sat in class that day, absorbing the narrative of how it all fell apart. His was a tragic state of mind, that of someone who feared that they had already reached their peak.

This is the story: Pollock had been creating his (in)famous drip paintings for a few years, and had already been hailed, perhaps simply out of circumstance, as the great American painter. Nonetheless, his celebrity status – his exposure to the gaze of the other – underlay the fear that he had already reached his peak, which in turn fueled his personal insecurities.

The gaze sees itself…the gaze that surprises me and reduces me to shame, since this is the feeling he regards as the most dominant. The gaze I encounter…is, not a seen gaze, but a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other.[6]

In July 1950, he was approached by Hans Namuth, a German photographer suggested filming a documentary that explains his painting process. (Lacan declares:

What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside. It is through the gaze that I enter light and it is from the gaze that I receive its effects. Hence it comes about that the gaze is the instrument through which light is embodied and through which – if you will allow me to use the word, as I often do, in a fragmented form – I am photo-graphed.[7])

The artificiality of the filming process – the way he performed for the camera and the way the creative act had been deconstructed – somehow convinced Pollock that he was a “phony.” This “unrealistic anxiety” (a term that assumes an unnecessary condescension) led him to return to drinking, and six years later, at the age of forty-four, he died in an alcohol-related car accident.

In that moment, I must have projected something of myself onto him. Perhaps, as someone who makes art, I empathised. To be an artist is to engage in a constant struggle to define the visual (external), and thus the internal, self. You build yourself upon the creation of visual images and upon the expectations of those who view those images. They come to represent you – but defining yourself is an overwhelming undertaking. Re-defining yourself is even more so.

For the human subject to emerge it must not simply be conscious of its own distinctiveness but must be recognized as a human subject by another.”[8]

For the artist to emerge, it must not simply be conscious of its own distinctiveness but must be recognized as an artist by another. How then do you make sure that recognition lasts? How will you make sure, not just that they accept you, but that they forgive you? But first – how do you know that your distinctiveness is real?

I see only from one point, but in my existence I am looked at from all sides.[9]

Pollock must have thought: I see only from one point, and that is from myself. But I am looked at from all sides, and I am afraid of what they see. I am afraid that they will see what I imagined to be true (from this one point). If they see what I imagine to be true, I will no longer be able to deny it.

As we watched clip after clip of and about him, it grew more and more sickening to me that an artist that was so tortured by how he was seen by the world – that the memory of this man, for he was only a man after all, could only be preserved by the weight of the gaze that burdened him. Our image of him is shaped by the impressions that he made on others; only the gaze is left. They said these things about him, and we are expected to understand:

As soon as a technique develops, it’s a trap.

—Milton Resnick

He felt that the world was redefining him, and he couldn’t live up to this persona that Namuth and life and everybody else wanted.

—Steven Naifeh

Unfortunately he was a painter, and so part of a painter’s job is to put your paintings up on a wall in a gallery, but that’s like putting your soul up there. And especially for Pollock, whose life was so fragile to him and so deep within, to put his work out there and have it criticized and then praised, and then he feels whole – “I’m worth something.” And then if people don’t like it anymore – I mean, this guy didn’t have the apparatus to deal with that kind of thing.

 — Ed Harris[10]

I am conscious that the words I have used in describing him – “suffering,” “tragic,” “tortured;” in a few sentences I will use the word “destroyed” – are heavy with myth. What I have written, and what I will write about him after the conclusion of this sentence, is only what I choose to take from him. What is left of Jackson Pollock, the man and not the artist, that could somehow speak for himself? I listen as he describes his artistic approach in the Hans Namuth film with a monotony of voice that one only develops when one reads from a script. A script is the text that mediates the self from the self; even if it is not written by another, it is written for another. It struck me that as we study and are intrigued by him today, from this documentary and all documentaries and all that was ever written about him, from the first LIFE magazine article that asked if he was the greatest American artist, we are reenacting that which destroyed him (see, I have made him a martyr without his consent).

This is what I, very melodramatically, scribbled in my notebook that day:

Sometimes you just want so desperately to not realise that you exist. But even as I write this, I am conscious of how I want to appear to the world. You can’t escape yourself.

(I wonder if Jackson Pollock was afraid of looking in the mirror.)

///\\\

All the time I think about how they see me. I look in the mirror – I look in it obsessively so as to better imagine my eyes to be those of someone else’s, and I wonder if they might feel disgusted. I feel like I’ve been doing this ever since I can remember. Sometimes I don’t care, of course. I don’t care enough to wake up early just to put on layers of makeup, or wear heels even if I have to walk all day, or whatever it is that women do when they think that the act is what makes them feel better about themselves, but really it is the effect of the act on the gaze of the other that validates them.

Then I remember how I used to arrange myself for his sake, back when I still referred to him as “you,” when I still wrote about him (he’s not close enough to be a “you” anymore). The thing is, I didn’t always want to look perfect for him. In fact, I wanted him to see me even when I was least attractive. I guess I wanted him to see that I was mad, and to accept it:

I am mad to be in love, I am not mad to be able to say so, I double my image: insane in my own eyes (I know my delirium), simply unreasonable in the eyes of someone else, to whom I quite sanely describe my madness: conscious of this madness, sustaining a discourse upon it.[11]

He didn’t love me at all of course, not in the way I wanted him to. But if he ever did, if he could accept me in spite of that image that I had presented to him, it would also be a form of validation, one that was nonetheless based on the gaze. Idealisation is not a prerequisite of an image, but a flawed image does not make it true.

I think also of the image that I presented of myself, the one that could show him how much it hurt, out of spite or some kind of warped sense of vengeance, or perhaps like a parent who wanted his or her child to feel guilty for all that had been sacrificed.

Leaving the outdoor café where I must leave behind the other with friends, I see myself walking away alone, shoulders bowed, down the empty street. I convert my exclusion into an image. This image, in which my absence is reflected as in a mirror is a sad image.[12]

I wanted him to see that I was sad, as if that proved something.

When, in love, I solicit a look, what is profoundly unsatisfying and always missing is that – You never look at me from the place from which I see you.

Conversely, what I look at is never what I wish to see.[13]

///\\\

One doubles one’s image – one imagines the image that lies within the gaze of others – but the truth is that what informs this image is not what the other sees but what we already see in ourselves, or what we want ourselves to be, or what we are afraid that we are.

Is there a self beyond the doubled image? There must be, I have… I think I have felt its presence. But what if the doubled image is our entire self – what if we fail to separate ourselves from our doubles? What about the doubled image that drives some of us more insane than others? Perhaps those who still seem sane are those who do not know that the doubled image exists…

I am almost at the end of writing this. I think about how I am afraid to read it over, to see all the mistakes, especially the ones I don’t know how to correct. I think about how this happens every time I write, and how my excuse is that I do not want to revisit the emotions that I have released through words. Now, I realise that what I have written is a carefully constructed image of myself, and to be afraid to read it is to be afraid to look in the mirror.


[1] Jorge Luis Borges, “Covered Mirrors,” Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998) 298.

[2] Borges 297.

[3] Sean Homer, Routledge Critical Thinkers: Jacques Lacan (New York: Routledge, 2005) 25.

[4] Homer 25.

[5] Henry Krips, “The Politics of the Gaze: Foucault, Lacan and Žižek,” Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research Vol 2, 2010: 93.

[6] Jacques Alain-Miller, ed., The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1998) 84.

[7] Lacan 106.

[8] Homer 23.

[9] Lacan 72.

[10] Jackson Pollock: Love and Death on Long Island, dir. Teresa Griffiths, BBC, United Kingdom, 1999.

[11] Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 2002) 120.

[12] Barthes 133.

[13] Lacan 103.

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