A Prehistory of Grace

looking at an old photograph and feeling some feelings about it

In 2001, I went off to college, very excited to put myself to the test, and very high on my own bullshit. I went around telling people that I was a genius for the first few weeks, which was about the most charmless thing that I have ever done, and (I would think self-evidently) not a good way to make friends. Thank goodness that a certain % of people who had to deal with me at that age have seen fit to forgive me, and those that haven’t I completely understand, and promise not to ever bother you again. I think there were even a few who found my general hyperbolic presentation sort of engaging, for the same reason I found Luke Haines engaging (and still do). It’s so obviously compensatory, so obviously designed to fail, that one can’t help but be conscripted into the failure somehow. In “The Oliver Twist Manifesto,” Haines does this strange British snarling chant that, if you didn’t grow up with it, I probably can’t persuade you to like, but still works for me: “and I sleep well when I turn out the light / I’m like an off-duty comedian, at the end of a bad night / easy to admire, difficult to love / you gotta believe me when I say I never wanted to be liked.” Which, if one is following the choreography (as I say, one may not), creates far more affection than edification; I’ve always loved Luke Haines a lot more than I admire him.

Another example of the same move is D. A. Miller’s reading of “I Am What I Am,” from La Cage Aux Folles, a show that Miller doesn’t care for especially, I think. Or, at least, he senses keenly what is lost when the implicit queer psychodrama of classical Broadway (pre-Company) turns into the gay melodrama of Cage, Rent, Rocky Horror, etc. I don’t agree with him about this all the time, but I take his point (and Rent is terrible). Some of the things about us we nurture most are those that we also wish to keep private, or at least (if privacy is too tyrannical a regime) that we also wish to share selectively, to dispense with consciously. I am, I think, more out-and-proud than the median trans woman, and obviously there is much I love about it, but it can be painful too, and I’m sure other trans people get irritated with me for it sometimes. Miller reads “I Am What I Am” as an elegant and complete expression of Broadway bad faith, a statement repeated time and again that I don’t care what you think about me, that exists for one purpose only, to change what you think of me for the better, and to do so by conspicuously failing to appear invulnerable. I felt known, the first time I read these words: 

They smile when they are low • Yet the show tune rhetoric of denial is too brittle not to crack, and not to unmask through the fissures the would-be invulnerable subject put to pasture in its Elysian fields. The latter in fact has only been constituted to conceal–or rather, by concealing badly, to disclose–a radically pathetic subject, who by letting us see that he is trying to hide his sufferings, becomes additionally so. By a ruse as lubberly as the adolescent whom the Broadway musical makes short work of recruiting to the rank of its followers, his self-belief solicits our incredulity, and his no less amazing self-sufficiency our support. “I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses,” but this Yahweh-like claim gets retracted in every subsequent line of Albin’s apologia, which does nothing but badger and cajole the others he professes not to need (“So what if I love each feather and each spangle? Why not try to see things from a different angle?”), so as to extort from them the ovation that, by the time his consummate theatrical sense has inspired him to rip off his wig, fling it in George’s face, and storm off the stage, down the aisle, and out of the theatre, there is no longer any doubt how much he prefers to the hook. All that the show tune finally achieves by its boisterous denial of suffering, therefore, is a certain vulgar ‘tact’ in the latter’s otherwise forbidden display. From this incipient breakdown of stoicism–a breakdown that threatens to spread via the mechanism of identification from the singer to the audience–stems the widespread cultural embarrassment with which Broadway music covers the ill-bred reluctance of personal need to become abstinence.

–D.A. Miller, Place for Us (Harvard, 1998), pp. 8 – 9.

I think a lot of what I am writing about and trying to figure out these days is what “the mechanism of identification” exactly means; how it mobilizes (if it does) the poetics of readerly address - the recruitment Miller mentions; what it means to identify as or with (I tend to find the latter of these two formulations more interesting than the former). I write, often, because I feel a sense of identification, and - at the risk of making my transness sound too Derridean - I have changed my actual 3D, meatspace, flesh-body on the grounds of identifications and their vicissitudes. But I also learn that identification is not merely a relation between me and another (that which addresses me, say, or that by which I am called), but also a relation between me and my own latent condition, the image of myself that is imprinted somewhere in my unconscious, or my soul if you prefer, of which I find glimmers in the world. I use myself to understand the world and I use the world to understand myself. This doesn’t make me special, I suppose everyone does this.

I’m introducing D. to The Up Series right now, which for those who don’t know is a wonderful documentary film series in which the same director interviews the same dozen or so people every seven years, from 1964 until the present (63 Up broadcast in the UK last week).  One remarkable of it is the degree to which the second part of the phrase “socialist realism” so utterly undoes the first part; how radically its commitment to a class-based analysis of human beings is upended by its commitment to establishing and representing the inner lives of all its subjects, even the objectionable poshos. (I’m not saying that the series is right to abandon its class analysis, by the way - just that it does.) Over the years, Michael Apted shows his subjects footage of themselves as children, speaking to the camera, and we watch them attempting, sometimes poignantly, to understand how they came to be who they are on the basis of who they were. Sometimes we are hoodwinked by our own credulity - how, we wonder, did that chirpy little Neil becomes so melancholic? But then we only saw him for a few minutes back in 1964,  and perhaps five minutes after the cameras went off, he was sad. And perhaps, now, he is happier than we can see. Was I always Grace? If you looked at me at 7, or 14, or 21, could you have been able to tell? Does it matter?

I am not a genius - I’m just a regular smart person like pretty much everyone I know. One of the good things about my profession is that, eventually, you can kind of just see that mostly we are all the same degree of smart, and different types. That realization, which necessitated relinquishing the fantasy of ranking myself, has been fairly central to my own happiness over the last few years. An ability to enjoy the brilliance of one’s peers is a gift, I realize, of the relatively privileged (I never have to go on the job market again, for example) and I don’t always succeed in doing it, but it is central to my happiness when I do. Getting sober was extremely helpful in this respect, in that it introduced me to a lot of alcoholics like me. I work at UC Berkeley, which has its own parking lot for Nobel Prize winners, and yet most of my colleagues don’t go around introducing themselves as geniuses. Among alcoholics, though, it’s a pretty common icebreaker. Meanwhile, I have met two actual geniuses in my life: the first a cocktail mixologist named Joe who is able to make you a drink that expresses your feelings, and the second my friend J., who is brilliant in the way I, and D., and you, and everyone is brilliant, only substantially more so. She is also one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and possibly the butchest; she has impeccable taste and judgment; and an unimpeachable sexual charisma that I can only dream of. I love her to bits. My friendship with J. is important to me for dozens of reasons, one of which is to remind me that being brilliant does not require one to be an asshole, and that the most brilliant people are often the most committed to working through, to patience, to method. 

A few months ago, my dear dear friend J. (a different J.) sent me the above picture of myself aged 19 or so, from when we were in college together around 2001 - 2002. I feel embarrassed looking at it. I notice the godawful teenage ‘stache that I’ve failed to shave off - this will perhaps sound counterintuitive, but I hated shaving because it felt too masculine; so I was left with this blurry smear on my top lip. I notice that I’m drunk, and that my affect is difficult to read: am I fascinated, surprised, or confrontational? I notice that my ear looks smaller than they do now. I notice the general picture of an awkward sissy, the opposite of the stylish trans woman I (spend a lot of time trying to) look like today. I suppose my feeling could be characterized as dysphoric, but I think a cringe is slightly different, because I also know that this is very much me, and that the awkward little girly boy in this picture has not gone away entirely.

I want this young person to give me meaning, but I also want to leave room for this person’s story not to have been my story, for this person just to have been an experimenting boy trying to explore some contingent aspect of himself, in a way that could have become something else, could have become anything else. I suppose mostly I want to take this person in my arms and thank them for their strength and courage, even when those qualities presented as deep doucheyness, and for being so very, very clever. Clever enough to figure out a way to stay alive long enough for me to come out safely. Clever enough to figure out who was safe, and where. Cleverer than me, at any rate. Thank you <3.