In Virginia Woolfs essay, A Room of Ones Own, she famously makes the claim that, ‘one cannot think well, love well or sleep well unless one has dined well.’ The entire essay is a gorgeous exploration of the necessary conditions for good writing. As she makes her way through an Oxbridge campus, we’re invited to imagine how moving through the world as a woman has impoverished her imagination, interrupted her thinking and left her malnourished. It’s a profound meditation on the effect of privilege. To me, the thinking that seems seems most startling is her unapologetic enjoyment of what is on offer to the other sex. She wants in on that privilege. She desires not the ritual castration of men, she does not critique or ridicule their world so much as asking for the same sun to shine on her. She doesn’t demand martyrdom from them: she doesn’t demand that they taste the paltry supper she is forced to endure later on in the women’s college, to suffer the poverty hitherto endured by her sex, but rather she desires enfranchisement. She wants to be wined and dined like these men, she wants the soup and partridge and brandy so that her sex can write good fiction too. The starving artist’s hovel is not a seductive fantasy to her because her sex has lived it and they haven’t written well in that room.
In contrast to claiming a room of ones own is the post apocalyptic genre of films. I loathe them. The fantasy of apocalypse is the opposite of the question posed by Woolfs essay. It is a non question, a sort of fatalistic, pre-determined pessimism which extinguishes the destabilising nature of desire.
The logic is simple. If the apocalypse has already happened, a tin of beans and a crossbow is the immediate, pressing need: the world compresses neatly into a manageable question: how do I make it out of here alive? There is no time to ask what human beings need to thrive, how to make good literature or art or fiction, how to mother well, what would you most enjoy for breakfast, what should we do today, how should we live and love? These questions are the difficult ones. These are the ones that take time to answer, emotional IQ, a sense of knowing thyself, of being able to bravely bear the consequences of having desires that spill over edges, that don’t quite conform to social norms, that testify to ones limits, capacities and idiosyncrasies. The answer to these questions are what make us human, these questions tell us who we are and how to organise our lives accordingly. They tell us what to protect, what to fight for, who to spend time with, how to spend our money.
If you live in a post-apocalyptic universe, however, there is no privilege to be enfranchised into, no room of your own to claim. There is a paring down of the world, a narrowing of choice, and most tragically, an obliteration of subjectivity. This is perfectly exemplified in the film The Road. Even the title speaks to the notion that the whole quest is reduced to the singularity of one path. This is the seduction of locking into ones amygdala: it is a fantasy of living only in reptile fight-or-flight brain, living from one adrenal thrill to the next. It speaks of a paranoid existence where ordinary pleasures and fantasies happen in the margins, in the quiet moments or not at all: there is no time or energy to spare cultivating one’s individual appetite or lusts or pleasures.
I speak from experience. I have lived through my fathers own personal apocalypse. He drew us in to his frightening nightmare psychic-scape where everyone was monitoring him, infrastructure was on the brink of collapse, and the outside world was seen as a real risk. We lived as if our safety was constantly threatened by indoctrination- news, schools, friends, family, advertising. They could lure us in to normalcy. The crucial task was not be be duped, to remain intellectually (hyper) vigilant and avoid brainwashing. To paraphrase Winnicott, the breakdown my father feared had indeed already happened, maybe In the cradle or maybe at the school desk or in the womb. Who knows. Just like the beginning of The Road, the event itself is unnamed, it is a forgotten history which dictated not only his future, but ours as well. Whatever his trauma was, we lived this as-if existence in the rainforest of Costa Rica. The only question, will we survive? Was manifested in the tins of beans, the rifles, the isolation, the judgment levied on our childhood friends who were considered to be ‘delusional’ and ‘still connected to the matrix.’ The price of survival was loneliness, physical deprivation and intellectual wilderness.
Perhaps the most debilitating aspect of this home-brewed apocalypse was where it left me. I had no guts or soul when I emerged. A recurring obsession of mine was the fantasy of being disembowelled: Anatomical venuses fascinated and horrified me. I interpret this as my total inability to ask myself what I wanted. There was a point when I would inexplicably cry in cafes when asked what I wanted on my toast or send confused emails to my therapist asking him why I was crying when presented with two choices of milk. I cried, confused, when my husband kindly bought me flowers early in our relationship. I didn’t know what it meant or how I felt about it, and I had no neural pathways to heIp me access my internal world. Eventually, I felt simultaneously embarrassed and eager reporting to my therapist newly discovered pleasures: birdsong, muddy vegetables, pastries. At one point in my analysis I remember singing, “these are a few of my favourite things”, to him as I lay on the couch, listing ridiculously normal pleasures. As simple as these revelations are objectively, they were mysteries to me. This was not knowledge I had instant access to. I felt even noticing them was trivial: the glamorous urgency of apocalypse had obliterated my ability to revel in the normal, the everyday, the complex textures of ordinary existence.
These moments of psychic disorganisation are rarer now. I don’t email my therapist in floods of helpless tears anymore. I’ve learned how to follow the contours of my appetite and I’m schooled language for expressing preference and desire. I have learned to imagine new possibilities, more choices for myself than just tins of beans and physical survival.
I joke that I have claimed a womb of my own, my own internal conditions I need to mother well, to love well, to enjoy whatever time I have in this body, on this planet.
A close friend admonished me when I was six weeks pregnant, ‘but of course you’ll give up therapy three times a week once the baby is born!’ but I didn’t. I’ve claimed therapy as one of my internal conditions for mothering well, for taking pleasure in the ordinary, inter-subjective relationship with my son. I’ve claimed spending time with friends. Friendship has offered sanity and an opening out into the infinite, because no family can be all things to one person once your needs escalate beyond the bottom bit of Maslow’s triangle. I’ve claimed a daily 45 minute yin yoga practice first thing in the morning. I have claimed a Tuesday afternoon Infinite Jest reading and now writing group which feeds me intellectually. I have claimed quite allot of time alone for walking the city and smoking cigars and wallowing in the poetry library. I am loved and listened to and I don’t switch into my reptile brain that often because of this privilege I’ve spread into. I’ve asked for allot, and in my own estimation, I’m writing well and loving well and living well.
So I have some sympathy for the character of the mum in The Road when she leaves the men to themselves. They want to play cowboys and Indians. I imagine her waving goodbye to them and walking a few miles through the woods to the high street where she can get a job as a librarian and buy lipstick and eat bacon. That is the film I wanted to see, the more interesting Road(s). She refuses to buy in to the myth of austerity or apocalypse or scarcity. She wanted to be enfranchised, to claim a room of her own.
Copyright Diana Smith 2017