There is a range of perfectly reasonable questions to which otherwise perfectly reasonable people make it their business to take offence. Self-identified ‘intellectuals’ seem especially prone to such sensitivity. Once, on a long-haul coach ride, an elderly person sitting next to me – on learning that I was a philosopher – asked ‘So, what’s your philosophy?’ Just as bad would have been if he’d asked me who my ‘favourite philosopher’ was, or whether I’d read Coelho’s The Alchemist. And we all know that the easiest way to make a PhD student in the humanities roll their eyes is for uninitiated to ask them ‘so, what’s your thesis about?’ I once knew a doctoral candidate who was almost brought to tears by an Uber driver who, upon learning she was a political philosopher, asked her who she thought would win the election.
In my case, I was even more annoyed by questions about why I was writing or studying something. This was especially the case when the why referred to motivation. Amateur psychology, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, ruins everything. Surely mathematicians would never tolerate this: ‘Why are you interested in the knot problem? What other knotty problems do you have, I wonder?’ The questioner is an idiot, we conclude. Even at the best of times, when they are legitimate, why questions suffer another serious drawback: they are notoriously difficult to answer.
I remember a lawyer of otherwise exemplary equanimity becoming irritated with me prior to a court appearance as he asked why I’d given the arresting officers a false name and false profession. (I can’t recall the name, but believe the profession was ‘itinerant magician’.) ‘I don’t understand the question,’ I said, offended. ‘Are you asking about causation? About my motivation? I have no idea why I say things like that.’ I am a complex psychological maze, I was saying – I am anathema to the crass reductions of barristers. He got justifiably impatient. He was trying to minimise my sentence, after all, not attempting to kill time with metaphysical banter. Later I reflected that the most honest answer I could have given was it seemed fun at the time.
Many years ago, I sat on a train next to a colleague with whom I’d had little contact. We talked about our respective disciplines and she said something that left a lasting impact on me. ‘Philosophy is interesting,’ she said, ‘but I never know who the audience is. Who are you writing for?’ My answer at the time was neat, vacuous, and embarrassing: ‘For anyone who would read it.’ The element of truth in the answer is that writing is always an address of sorts and discovering yourself as a reader – and person – is surely about who you feel addressed by. Be that as it may, my reply evaded something crucial, which might be glossed in different ways: what kind of person is the philosopher writing for? Who feels so addressed? And why would the philosopher say anything at all, to anyone? Whose idea of fun is this?
I take it as self-evident that meta-memoir must be avoided at almost all costs – and, correlatively, that my pass here is the word ‘almost.’ I’m writing this essay because I was invited by James Gourley (someone who needs to be thanked here, now in a mercenary way, because I forgot to thank him in the book itself) to give a seminar at Western Sydney University about my book On Drugs (Giramondo, 2019). Catriona Menzies-Pike and Andrew Brooks attended – and they asked afterwards if I could write something for the SRB, based on that seminar. I immediately agreed, went home, and put it off for several years.
I didn’t ask why they wanted it. But On Drugs itself did start as the response to a why question – on the back of a rejected essay proposal. I’d not long been back from being a Visiting Something in the United States when the editor and publisher Ivor Indyk contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in writing something for HEAT. I shot back an allcaps YES (you see the pattern) and put together a sketch for an essay on Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. I proposed looking at the roles of addiction and masochism in structuring the protagonist’s behaviour and proposed comparing this to some other characters in Dostoyevsky’s mature work. I thought it was a decent if not spectacular idea. It wouldn’t change the world, any world, but it was at least, I thought, correct. Indyk was nonplussed: ‘Why are you writing about that?’ he replied. It was an unusual question as far as I could see, and I wasn’t convinced I understood him.
‘Because it has never really been written about,’ I replied. This seemed to me at the time an excellent response; it is, of course, a terrible response. To simply point to a gap says nothing about why that gap should be filled. It is the hoarder’s – or the dentist’s – logic. More pointedly, my response didn’t address the question he was actually asking me. I found, in following up on the phone, that the italics fell elsewhere: not why are you writing on that? – but why are you writing on that?
‘Personal reasons,’ I said.
‘What personal reasons?’
‘… reasons … related to addiction.’
‘So why not write about that?’ he asked.
‘I’m not really sure I want people knowing about that.’
‘That’s fine,’ he said, reassuring me. ‘We can decide on that later.’
It was an excellent strategy. I soon came to realise, however, that I didn’t really know how to address the issue to which he’d drawn my attention, didn’t, it seems, know how to write about any of that. Which is not equivalent to saying that my prior writing as a philosopher wasn’t in some senses deeply personal; it was personal in its orientation, in its motivations, and even, at some remove, in its actual subject matter. It was just that I didn’t know how to access any of that stuff directly. I don’t think this is unique. Many of us, I suspect, write at different times from our wounds, from what needs to be somehow both looked at and simultaneously avoided, even avoided by means of a certain kind of looking. I stopped avoiding and started to look and wrote the book.
It took me many years to realise it, but my whole intellectual trajectory in ‘theory’ could have been reverse-engineered by a trauma doctor. (As a matter of record, it was reverse-engineered by a trauma doctor.) Even so, I needn’t have employed psychoanalytic detectives to unearth elementary connections: Why would – or rather, wouldn’t – a child subject to regular, even continual beatings, cuttings and – in a couple of cases – burnings, gravitate towards the study of a thinker, René Girard, about whom I wrote my first book, whose whole theorisation of sociocultural order is framed in terms of exclusion, group violence, and the targeting of scapegoats? I would. And why wouldn’t someone with chronic OCD and childhood ‘delusions of reference’ move ineluctably towards writing about paranoia, conspiracy, and pathologies of desire? None of this was apparent at the time I was writing these things – the connections between my own intellectual obsessions and those obsessions of mine that were only tangentially intellectual.
Even in cases where the connection was clear, between – for instance – my own growing drug problem and an intense interest in addiction as an intellectual issue, I had no real sense that any ostensibly affective issue wasn’t, at base, really an intellectual issue. I thought everything was an intellectual issue. Even my first experiences of therapy, which involved the ubiquitous Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, reinforced this. It seemed to push the idea that emotional problems were somehow ultimately issues of reason. What CBT tended to suggest to me was that negative experiences were somehow ‘wrong’ – not only emotionally unpleasant, but evidence of epistemological malfunction; not only was I feeling bad, but my feeling bad was the result of my bad thinking. (And in this fashion, CBT became yet another a rigorous, peer-reviewed means by which I could self-flagellate.)
My deep sadness, existential malaise, my increasing libido for self-destruction, appeared always as problems to be fixed – and by ‘problems to be fixed,’ I mean puzzles to be solved. My intellectual approach to emotional malaise, meeting deep psychic pain with abstraction, represented a simultaneous confrontation and displacement of that pain, in a sense analogous to the way psychoanalysis conceives of symptoms as ‘negations’ or ‘sublations’ – simultaneous continuations and negations of something.
Treating my pain intellectually allowed it a certain outlet at the same time that it disallowed it from claiming anything like its rightful place. The victim of OCD will count their steps, which placates a certain disquiet while creating its own. But as the placation failed and the costs rose I had to face something I didn’t want to face, because such a reframing seemed like an admission of hopelessness: that OCD can’t be solved like an equation; that treating addiction isn’t like writing a thesis on addiction, any more than writing something called ‘A Discourse on Oranges’ is going to cure scurvy. The fantasy, though, is common enough. In the Dear Enemy hit ‘Computer One,’ the singer asks:
Computer One I’d like to ask a question please,
Tell me where does love go wrong?
Given the song was released in 1983, it is likely that the question was being put to a Commodore Vic 20 with 5MB of RAM. Even then, though, computers could play a mean game of chess. Why couldn’t they answer existential questions? Why would we ever think they might? There’s always the temptation to conclude that if a particular approach to something works well, that it fits every bill. But to think that a hammer’s success at securing a nail could be applied to combing one’s hair is an error only certain tools could make. I had had a track record in thinking and had the grades to prove it. I thought, then, that I could think myself well.
Here’s a story attributed to the thirteenth-century Turkish philosopher and satirist Mulla Nasreddin:
Mulla had lost his ring in the living room. He searched for it for a while, but since he could not find it, he went out into the yard and began to look there. His wife, who saw what he was doing, asked: ‘Mulla, you lost your ring in the room, why are you looking for it in the yard?’ Mulla stroked his beard and said: ‘The room is too dark and I can’t see very well. I came out to the courtyard to look for my ring because there is much more light out here.’
Why was I making addiction and mental illness into intellectual problems? Because the light was better there. Apparently.
My dad was a book collector and serious reader – almost all non-fiction. The last novel he read was War and Peace, in the jungles of New Guinea during the Second World War. And why not since? ‘Back then I needed to be somewhere else other than in mud. But now most people live fictions; they don’t need to read them.’ He said this to me, I think, in 2003. Despite a deficit of novels, his library suggested knowledge of almost every topic and the solution of almost any problem – health and conceptual confusions and religious and scientific problems and even engineering dilemmas. (One part of his library seemed to be devoted entirely to magnets and magnetism.) The chain of book spines advertised to me the potential mastery of the world and one’s self, all within an arm’s reach.
All of this involved, in turn, a sort of faith in language to do things; to invert a classic Christian formula, in my dad’s library the Flesh was made Word. For me – and for years – the strategy for solving my addiction seemed to be looking for a series of phrases or linguistic formulations that would unlock sobriety in the way a spell would unlock some magic container; that addiction was fundamentally cognitive and what I was missing was the perfect set of concepts – and thus endorseable sentences – to placate it. I was in a terrible state, and in a suicidal relationship with drugs, but couldn’t end it – which I took to mean I didn’t have the right books and couldn’t endorse the right propositions. Philosophy was usually uninterested in such issues, and when it was, tediously wedded to the romanticism-lite of valorising ‘excess’; self-help was too pat, too filled with cliché; psychology was a paranoid and over-confident cult pretending to be a science – and so on. Even so, I still thought sentences could get me there; I just didn’t know where to find them.
This type of belief in language seems similar in some ways to the faith of the person who is betrayed by a lover and subsequently wants to ‘talk things through’ One More Time, which is always less about understanding what happened than about being given the opportunity to say things which might change things. The one left behind or broken is trying to find that linguistic combination lock, the magic utterance by which everything can be set right. The cognitive task of trying to find this elusive phrase is, of course, another way of denying what just happened.
But this is not unique, of course – the transformation of the emotional or affective into something it’s not is common. Perhaps it’s even the rule. Even in the academic realm, we know that pure, context-free curiosity is not what drives us. We’ve long heard about ‘disinterested inquiry’ as a synonym for objectivity, and we pay it lip service as an ideal while reprimanding flat-earthers or anti-vaxxers or One Nation voters on social media, all the while knowing that there’s nothing about the idea that’s even vaguely coherent. Many an enraged pundit has begun their diatribe of Reason with the claim ‘This is a very emotive issue,’ before attributing the vast share of emotion in the debate to their adversaries. At a much lower pitch, we select an area of inquiry precisely because we find it interesting, a thesis because it interests us, and focus on certain facts in turn because they are of interest to a particular theory. We are, above all, invested in what we are up to; or at least we feel dismayed when we suddenly find ourselves disinterested in what we thought we loved (which is pretty much the same thing as – and it may be one of the names of – ‘depression’). But there are deeper issues which undergird all of this as well, and they ultimately refer us back to ourselves and not just our intellectual or literary or even political preoccupations.
All acts of writing non-fiction are relays between the concrete and the abstract. We avail ourselves of concepts like ‘family,’ and ‘addiction,’ and ‘democracy,’ and ‘revolution,’ and ‘love,’ and then try to bind these to the particulars of the world – our families, our addictions, this democracy, that coup d’état, the love-as-it-appears to us in this person, or in this novel, this street, this century. The concepts help us see shapes and patterns in the undifferentiated mass we call ‘reality,’ and the particulars constrain the application of our concepts; concepts allow us to see what is before us, where the specific grounds us, stops us from skating too quickly, too glibly, over the realities we believe we’re naming. Abstractions allow us to see, and concrete particulars prevent us from seeing just anything we want. Memoir makes explicit another feature of this process: that in these movements where the world is disclosed, we also disclose ourselves.
Reality, in other words, will have its way with us. The troubling thing is not that the world withholds all its secrets from us, merely that we are subject to rationing. What we call ‘reality’ is, frustratingly, neither entirely our invention nor some autonomous realm whose nature and dimensions stand independently of our thinking of it. In this sense, the worlds outside us and inside us are alike: like the world itself, our lives, our selves, are certainly disclosed, but only ever fitfully – we are neither mere objects in the world, and nor are we inventions of our acts of consciousness. We are always insiders and outsiders, not only with respect to our communities, our families, the world itself – but to ourselves.
We are very used to the idea that fiction is often nonfiction, thinly disguised, and that memoir is a kind of fancy, feigning truthfulness. The characterisation here is too neat; the desire to call something the opposite of what it is, is a perennial human temptation. But it also touches something real. We are aware of celebrated memoirs humiliated by sleuths who show that this or that never happened; or else we hear angry family members and friends asserting their right to be not written about in a ‘novel.’
But the falsehoods uncovered in memoirs diagnose a bigger problem with temptations common in the genre. The greatest risks are for those books that decide that what really matters in any account of a life is the level of melodrama, the extremity of debasements, the gravity of crimes, the volume of blood, sweat, tears, the glory of the victory and the size of the medals. But for those books whose eye is trained not on the intensity of the extraordinary, but the oddness of the ordinary, the unsettling strangeness of the everyday, the potential of what memoir might do is extraordinary.
But it is always merely that, a potential, unguaranteed. Whether the writer’s experiences tap into things which extend beyond them is always a wager – the writer’s own experience of their lives, their own thoughts, their own lacerations and reassurances, hover until they are brought to earth again by a reader. None of this can be underwritten by argument, secured by method, of a species of reasoning, at the writer’s desk. If ‘truthfulness’ means anything in the context of On Drugs, it served initially as a methodological principle, a way of making the task doable. Recollection and reconstruction were overwhelming tasks in themselves; I could scarcely contend with the idea that, on top of this, I also had to invent facts.
Implicit in almost every kind of theory – whether it admits it or not – is a fantasy of closure, of having the last word, of entering a discussion one will henceforth bring to an end. That no theory and no theorist has ever done this is the great embarrassment of the theorist (sometimes read as the great embarrassment of previous theorists), such that the temptation then becomes to write the great treatise on why theory itself is dead. But what is this except more of the same?
Historically, philosophy has been a kind of writing that has had as its raison d’être a kind of self-immolation. It has boasted, at almost every moment of its history, the ambition of concluding itself – which is to say, is equivalent to saying, that each philosopher who wrote aimed to write the final book about the topic in question. There’s something simultaneously optimistic and terminal about this project: enough confidence in oneself – and in the discipline – to be capable of destroying it. Every moment of theory is always at least a partial eulogy to previous ones. The operative hubris is covered by a larger fig leaf, but this only implies that the dick being swung is of correlative size. But every ‘last word’ in theory is a provocation soon met; philosophy always rises to bury its undertakers.
In this sense philosophy’s appeals to a person are valid only to the extent that all that individuates this person is excluded from the appeal – their life history, their blood pressure, their heartbreak. The philosopher himself (philosophy remains, pathologically, overwhelmingly male) attempts to address an audience solely with the voice of reason, and therefore only contingently the voice of the philosopher, a voice de-personalised; the coming together of writer and reader, then, involves not so much an encounter between two minds but one, the universal voice of reason carrying out a monologue.
Memoir accepts that its visions are more personal, more situated than this. It’s not that its truths are not true, nor that its vision is purely personal or ‘subjective’ (whatever sense one might make of such an idea) – merely that there can be no ‘last word,’ even when it comes to one’s own life. Maybe especially then. Maybe not even death will put an end to it. And why would one want that, in any case? Where’d be the fun in that?