In her essay collection Impossible Loves (Rock Paper Tiger Press), Erin McNellis touches on such varied subjects as Christian mystic Simone Weil, Georges Bataille, Timothy Treadwell, Burning Man, and Werner Herzog without losing focus on the embarrassing, complex and impossible emotion that feeds most art—love.
Erin McNellis received a Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Irvine for her research on forms of attention in 20th-century American poetry. She blogs about poetry, ethics, and pop culture at http://uncomplicatedly.wordpress.com.
You speak of “Wisdom” and how it affects us, its consequences, its light. In a few words, can you summarize your thoughts on this word, any why?
What’s always struck me about Richard Hugo’s poem “Morning Wisdom,” which I discuss in my book, is the way that it makes light of wisdom—which is supposedly one of the most serious and sacred things around. The whole poem is basically a joke on the name of a tiny Montana town called Wisdom, which seems to be a quaint tourist trap, but Hugo eventually decides that its “false fronts [are] really what they seem.” What does that even mean? Is he saying that “wisdom” is fake, or that it’s real? Maybe both. It’s probably always foolish to think that you’re wise.
What do you see as the threads connecting the various authors and thinkers you reference?
The two writers most central to the book are Simone Weil and Georges Batailles, and I became interested in their relationship because it blew my mind that it existed at all, that they actually knew each other. Weil was a strict moralist, giving charity to the point of self-deprivation, while Batailles was basically the poster boy for libertinism. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that their opposite life philosophies could be seen as very different solutions to the same set of philosophical problems. They’re both concerned with figuring out how deal with the fact that, as Batailles puts it in Theory of Religion, “between one being and another there is a gulf, a discontinuity.” I would describe this as the central problem of my book, too—I bring in other thinkers (such as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the poet David Antin, and Mark Greif, who is one of the founders of n+1) in order to explore a variety of theories about whether, how, and to what degree it is possible to bridge this gulf between people.
And what threads of thought and theory connect your essays?
The two main solutions to the problem of the “gulf” between people that I investigate in this book are attention and language. The essays on Bataille and Weil are mostly focused on the role of attention in ethics, and I argue that attention both to the self and to the other are necessary—that an awareness of the otherness of ourselves is an important counterpoint to the Biblical demand that we recognize others as ourselves. The last set of essays in the book explore the limits of language; they ask whether it’s a good idea to declare that certain thoughts or emotions are “beyond” language because of their complexity or sacredness.
What attracts you to the themes behind, within, these threads, and what larger tapestry do they paint for you?
I find attention to be a fascinating subject of intellectual inquiry because it brings together so many aspects of the human condition: it’s the filter through which the mind interacts with the outside world, and we think of it as being under our conscious control—but we also want to blame bodily things (such as neurobiology) and external things (such as the internet) when our attention breaks down. This book mostly focuses on attention’s role in ethics, but in the dissertation that I recently finished, I investigate how and why experimental poets in the 20th century explored states of attention and attentional dysfunction. The questions about the limits of language come partially out of my personal relationships, some of which I actually discuss in the book, and partially out of my experiences and frustrations as a writer.
Can you speak more on the “false fronts” of love and how they manifest themselves as real, or “the true Wisdom”, in our everyday lives?
In the poem by Richard Hugo, he realizes that although the town of Wisdom is made up of what he called “false fronts”—a tourist trap—these “false fronts” are nonetheless the reality of the town: “the true Wisdom.” I do see a connection between this and my essays about the limits of language, now that you point it out. Probably every genuinely loving relationship has a core that is to some degree “unspeakable”: it would be impossible to articulate exactly how much this person means to you. But the way you live that relationship every day, even if any given day doesn’t seem to live up to the depth of your feelings, is this truth.
You say of Simone Weil, “Weil has a gift for making counterintuitive statements that are strangely compelling, forcing you to change your habits of thinking.” The same could be said of you. What is it about Weil that intrigues you so and invites your many discussions of her?
I find Weil’s drive toward self-erasure fascinating: it’s both an act of attention and an act of self-sacrifice, and it shows what these things have to do with one another. Any act of attention is to some degree a self-erasure: your experience of yourself falls away as you attend to the external object or person. She also had an admirably unflinching moral code, giving away nearly all her wages to the poor and living in bare, unheated rooms. The popular images of that kind of sacrifice are people like Jesus and Mother Theresa, divinely-inspired and difficult to emulate. Weil, by contrast, was just a French-German intellectual living her Kantian morality to its logical conclusion. She shows us that anybody could do that if they had the fortitude.
For someone who hasn’t read your book, what’s the essence of the divide between possible and impossible love?
I define an “impossible” love as one that asks us to change or grow. The most obvious kinds of “impossible” love are those that are either unrequited or prevented by circumstances—and in those cases, the change we have to make may be abandoning the love altogether or learning to transmute it into something else. But the third and most interesting kind of “impossible” love is the love that we—impossibly—receive: love that is a miracle, and that we must work to deserve.
Do you align yourself with contemporary feminist theory? Where do you feel the movement is accurate and where does it stray?
Yes, feminist theory continues to be an absolutely necessary voice in literary and cultural conversations, though I would prefer to use the wider term “gender theory” in order to in¬clude queer studies, among other things. In one of my essays on Weil I argue that her desire to erase herself is not, as it might initially seem, antifeminist—but this is not at all meant as a critique of feminist theory.
Can you clarify your thoughts on the significance of “loving oneself as a stranger”?
Like “impossible loves,” this is another of Weil’s cryptic phrases that I have attempted to make sense of in this book. She writes that “to love a stranger as oneself implies the reverse: to love oneself as a stranger.” She is talking, of course, about “love thy neighbor,” but the substitution of “stranger” seems to reflect the sense of the parable of the Good Samaritan: it shouldn’t matter whether you know or like a person in need; all that matters is their need. Weil doesn’t actually explain what she means by “to love oneself as a stranger,” but I think it suggests the need for the same unflinching love in our relationships with ourselves: an ethics of universal love means that in addition to loving others as ourselves, we need to recognize the otherness of ourselves. Nobody is perfectly good, honest, or consistent, and to think otherwise is to miss some of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition.
You speak in different ways and toward different ends on the divide between personal responsibility and escape from it. You also discuss the practicality of this divide in religious dogma. What do you see as the church’s role in the ethics of responsibility and if it succeeds in its promise?
I actually don’t feel qualified to answer this question—despite my great academic interest in religion, I am not very traditionally religious and I really can’t pronounce on what “the church” is doing or not doing. I do think that organized religion has the potential to make very positive interventions in the world as a force for organizing volunteers, donations, and goodwill. But in American politics, “the church” seems almost exclusively to mobilize itself as a force for diminishing the personhood of gay people and limiting the agency of women, which it’s hard for me to see as anything other than conservative in the most literal sense of the word: clinging to outdated and unjust values and power structures.
Turning a critical eye to poetry, you discuss the School of Quietude and the price of vision and full human consciousness poetry pays when practicing this school. Can you say a few words on this school, or trend, and its failings?
The term “School of Quietude” is Ron Silliman’s, and he uses it to remind people that what we tend to think of as “normal” as opposed to “experimental” poetry is in fact just one of many aesthetic possibilities. Another word for it is “workshop lyric,” because this is the style taught in most creative writing programs today. These are quiet poems of modest epiphany, written in a “natural” voice, often occurring in nature. But the range of human experience is so much broader than that, and poetry can take so many different forms.
What contemporary poets do you think successfully buck this trend?
One of my favorites is Rosmarie Waldrop, whose poetry manages to be beautiful while also being very weird and thought-provoking. Charles Bernstein and the other Language poets—Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, etc—are also wonderfully playful and interesting. And I find Susan Howe’s archival-collage work fascinating. I’d also like to mention some of my friends who are doing brilliant work: Jen Tynes takes the weight and measure of words like a pastoral Gertrude Stein, and Mike Young’s manic imagination is always delightful.
When do you think people are most themselves: when turning a critical eye inward or outward, or is it a bit of both?
Absolutely both; it’s important to have a realistic understanding of both yourself and others. Loving a fantasy, whether it’s a fantasy of yourself or somebody else, robs your love of its genuinely transformative power: its generosity.