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Issue 148

Soft Blues
by Johanna Hedva

“The past does not influence me; I influence it.”
–Willem de Kooning
“Know amazedly how often one takes his madness into his own hands and keeps it.”
–Lorine Niedecker


The best thing I got from my relationship with Z was his description of Alvarado Street in Los Angeles being like a river, how the traffic just swims down it.

The second best thing I got was that I was finally disabused of the idea that de Kooning was a genius. Z, a straight cis white boy painter from Texas, without one lick of irony or self-awareness at how ironic it made him look, worshipped de Kooning, idolized and wanted to be him, studied him with righteous devotion, hunted every scrap of biographical anecdote; de Kooning did it like this, de Kooning said this, repeating quotes like the rosary, which was all a big yearning, a hope that, in small ways that were accumulating, through will and determination but also osmosis, by soaking himself in the sticky wet of de Kooning’s everything, Z was comporting himself more and more toward de Kooning, and would one day walk in the shadow that would also be the light of the master.

  • Willem de Kooning, Woman I, 1950-1952, oil on canvas, 192.7 cm × 147.3 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York City. © THE WILLEM DE KOONING FOUNDATION/ARS, NEW YORK/SOCAN, MONTREAL

It’s the kind of behaviour that straight cis white boys are born into, the kind propelled by something that commingles faith and delusion, faith in themselves and their god-given right to be front and centre and always on top, and the ability to ignore completely the possibility that everything they believe to be true about themselves is a delusion. True, it’s a delusion that the whole world believes in, but doesn’t that fact only corroborate its being a lie?

• • •

The German word Malerschwein literally means “painter pig,” but it is figuratively used to describe an archetypal male artist: chauvinistic; lauded; insecure and emotionally irresponsible; egomaniacal but allowed, even urged, to be that way; misogynistic in his art and life, despite that both of those things could not have happened without the wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends who serve him in the capacity of collaborators, advocates, patrons, managers, curators, editors, critics, teachers, therapists, caregivers, mentors, librarians, accountants, assistants, cooks, maids, muses, typists, secretaries, publicists, laundresses, and nurses. No matter his medium, the Malerschwein is a genius of a singular kind, a trailblazer who, in a divinely directed quest à la Moses, ventures to the wild frontier of his craft, spelunks depths that he presumes—and which the world substantiates back to him—have never before been excavated, or if they have, not sufficiently so, not yet by a Genius, for we need a Genius who will show us revolutionary, seminal (from “semen”), ways to understand ourselves and how to live and be.

The Malerschwein is always Great, with a capital G. And he always changes the World, with a capital W.

The goddamn canon is made of Malerschwein. Just Google “genius” and have a nice scroll through the History of Civilization.

• • •

An old boss of mine, an artist to whom I was a studio assistant, once gave me the de Kooning biography to read. “You should know about him,” he told me, and loaned me his copy, saying, “But I want this back.” This is an apt representation of patriarchy in practice.

When I returned it to him, he did not ask me what I thought, but said, “It’s great, right? He was great, right?” though not said as questions. This is a better representation of patriarchy in practice.

While I was working for this man, I had a miscarriage, with complications, a biblical 40 days of bleeding, which ignited a grief in me so brutal that it almost blinked me out of existence. A small hole yawned open to inhale the entire universe, and everything that had been explicable before was now negated, totally, radically, and I was left in a pool of tears and empty skin and I could not—I was not. I have endometriosis, a disease that I was told, when I was first diagnosed at age 20, meant I would probably never be able to get pregnant, and I am genderqueer and have gender dysphoria, the latter of which is also classified as a disease. The fact that I have a uterus at all feels like a weird mistake, a curse nevertheless borne from my DNA; so, when I say that a small hole yawned open, I’m referring not only to a hole that was the absence of an impossible fetus, but to a hole that existed at the very site of the impossibilities that are my self.

One night, bleeding blood that had turned to black ash, I was crying and could not stop, I was a mad dog trying to tear its way out of my own throat, I thrashed around like the female protagonists in Greek tragedy, a cursed woman who has had everything taken from her, so I cursed everyone I knew, and the most unkind curse I gave to myself, so the father of the baby called the police and had me involuntarily hospitalized in the psych ward.

They took me away in handcuffs and wouldn’t let me bring my shoes. Because I pass as white, I was not shot by the police when they arrived at my home. On the way to the hospital, one of the cops looked over his shoulder through the metal fence that divided the front seat from the back, and said to me in a quiet voice, “My girlfriend is pregnant right now, so I, I understand. I’m so sorry.” I looked at him calmly and in a clear voice said: “You don’t have to take me, you know. I’m just grieving.” “I know,” he said, “but we have to. It’s the law.”

This is not a representation of the patriarchy in practice. This is the practice of it. For a practice to become an institution, it has to be instituted and reinstituted. It’s a doing that has to be done.

My boss, who was also my professor at the time, took it upon himself to be my medical “advocate.” He supported the hospitalization, and introduced the notion that came to dominate the discussion, which was that I “should have gotten over it by now,” hence why hospitalization was necessary. I was hysterical, out of control, a danger to myself and others. He wasn’t wrong. But he left out the part that considered the question of how else, if not this, I should have been. How else, I kept asking, should I behave? What is the right way to grieve? And can it ever be lawful?

• • •

A friend, an older woman, upon my release from the hospital, told me, “Remember: Medea may have been hysterical, but she was right.”

• • •

I met Z during the summer after I was released from the hospital. I was living alone in Chinatown, on Chung King Court—one block of a clean, spacious lane where cars aren’t allowed to go. It was built in the ’30s, when LA was young, as part of something for tourists called the “New Chinatown,” but which has since been drained of its commerce. In the ’90s, art galleries moved in and flourished for a few years, and I was staying in a studio owned by an artist whose career had had a similar trajectory. The scene was empty but the red paper lanterns strung across the alley were still turned on every night. It looked like the abandoned set of a racist movie: stray cats, people collecting bottles, an old Chinese woman carrying plastic bags of bruised vegetables, a pair of busboys on a smoke break from a Chinese restaurant, squatting at the foot of a crooked staircase.

I would sometimes walk barefoot at night down the lane. The air was warm and my body felt featherweight, capable of lifting into the air and tumbling away. I’d feel as though my life and my self and my world and what I wanted and who I was were my own. This was the only thing I comprehended in the face of many often contradictory facts, untamed and teeming in their disparity. I had to turn away from them; in the face of too many things, I had to make only one: me. Nothing, of course, actually belonged to me, not least the entity I’d constructed and started calling “me,” but I told myself it did because I live by the law and that’s what I’ve been taught to want: a “me” that I can own, like an object to keep in a pocket.

At the hospital, I had been prescribed medication which would turn out to be the wrong medication. I had been misdiagnosed with depression, because they saw in me only one thing in the face of many, because again, that is how the world is structured. Our collective delusion.

• • •

I should probably define “delusion,” because it’s hilarious. “Delude” comes from “de” and “ludere” (a form of ludicrous): De, meaning “down, to one’s detriment,” and ludere, from the Latin, meaning “to play.” So, a game you play to your detriment.

Who might lose at such a game? Who might win?

• • •

When people with bipolar disorder are given antidepressants, it triggers mania, and this period would ignite in me my first and only true mania, the kind the textbooks and diagnostic codes call “classic.” But I wouldn’t learn that until six months later. For now, the medication was pulling me out of my grief; reborn, I felt pure and unspoiled by all that had happened. The chemicals in my body were cooking hypomania, the early stages of mania, and the charged, fertile wonderfulness of it hadn’t yet turned dangerous. I felt buoyant, overflowing with visions, and untouched by time.

What I mean is that I could not grasp the thought that my actions had consequences, that my body was made of material, and that what I did with it was tethered to reality and its laws. What makes mania feel like mania is the feeling that the force which moves time in one direction has been suspended, making reality a law- less place where everything, past present future, is happening forever and always and right now. It’s a kind of surging that feels both dispersed and radically concentrated, and because it is so extraordinary, the fact that you feel it seems to imply that something about you is extraordinary too.

I’m sympathetic to the notion that time is an illusion, so I’m always frustrated when things that get broken tend to stay broken.

• • •

I like to refer to this manic summer as “The Summer of My 12-Inch Cock.”

My cock is 12 inches long and it’s a gun and a Molotov cocktail and a megaphone and a long, perfectly balanced sword and a power drill that can grind through bone and a really big hammer, a hammer that could crush one of Jupiter’s moons, and a flame-thrower longer than my body and a huge punishing stretch of silence and a ghost and a cave and a vase of bleeding hearts and easy sugar and a deep old forest with ancient mosses and a combustion ex nihilo and it stinks like very expensive perfume and when it lands on the face of my enemies it cracks through the air with a thwack that registers at 150 fucking decibels.

• • •

During manias, it is difficult to remember things you know are true. Lies are difficult to distinguish from desires, reality is impossible to locate amid what feels like a warm dream. It’s easy to get lost and not feel like you’re lost. Also, how can a person be lost if they went there because they wanted to?

There are many etymologies of the word “lost,” the adjective of “lose,” but my favourite is the transitive sense from the 1200s: “to part with accidentally, be deprived of, miss the possession or knowledge of.” I like that it can be an accident, and I like the double meaning of the word “miss,” that it is both a failure and a yearning.

Who gets to say where the line is between what one wants and what one has been taught to want? And who gets to say if that wanting defines a person as the thing they have failed at, or the thing they have yearned for, and aren’t these somehow the same?

• • •

Manias feel great. Doctors don’t want you to know that. Manias are also encouraged in certain kinds of people in certain areas of life, but doctors don’t want you to know that either, because it relies on the premise that sanity is a straw man. A delusion that the whole world believes in.

The DSM-5 criteria for a classic manic episode includes “inflated self-esteem or grandiosity,” “flight of ideas,” and “excessive involvement in pleasurable or risky activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.” Sounds like qualities that are especially encouraged in the Malerschwein, with the exception of the last part—the painful consequences—which sounds like what everyone else will feel upon dealing with him.

You’d think there’d be a definition of “painful” in that diagnostic criteria, because locating the pain, and who will feel it, and why, and how, seems essential to distinguishing how exactly mania is different, and deserving of pathology, than, say, the condition of masculinity at all. But the DSM lets this stay ambiguous.

• • •

Men are less often diagnosed with bipolar disorder than women, and when they are, it usually happens when they are in a depressive episode rather than a manic one. When depressed men are given antidepressants, they swing into mania, but since manic men are hard to distinguish from Geniuses who are changing the World, society tends to support their manic behavior until it stops producing a culture that can be capitalized upon. Manic men often appear drunk on their own divinity, or high on endorphins from the gym, all fired up in a legibly masculine way, so there’s nothing to be alarmed about. If they cause too much trouble, manic men get dumped in jail for the night, and the enforcers of race and class take over from there in terms of where they end up.

When Robert Lowell applied for a teaching job at Cambridge University, one of his referrals listed the signs to look out for that would precipitate Lowell needing to be taken “to the bin,” i.e., that he was in a manic episode. First, he would start a sexual relationship with a student, threatening to leave his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who’d nursed him through many manias and depressions. Second, he’d talk incessantly about Hitler and Napoleon, and start referring to himself as one among them, a great world leader. Third, he’d throw a big party. No big deal, just a heads-up.

When a woman or femme person is manic, on the other hand, she is easily legible as violating the laws of reality: she often fucks a lot and insatiably, spends a lot of money on herself, abandons her duties as a mother or wife or servant of any kind, talks a lot—i.e., “too much”— and usually about herself, all of her potent ideas, the epiphanic discoveries she’s made, and she seems to take great joy in herself, for she believes herself to be important and inspired—i.e., “inflated self-esteem.” And if she’s an artist, she feels as if she’s in the throes of artistic production and worthy of the space and attention that Geniuses deserve. Obviously this is a sign of insanity, because insanity is simply a measure of how one has become untethered to reality and its laws.

“Can a woman be a Malerschwein?” is another way of asking what happens when inflated grandiosity collides with painful consequences, what happens when flights of ideas are brought down to the ground.

• • •

I want the world to allow me all of my delusions about my own importance, to bend over backwards to make my importance be true—not just for me, but for all of you too. I want to snap the jaws of people who get in my way, and have the world applaud this and call it honour. I want to bellow with baseless anger and have the world hear it as a lullaby. I want to whine and mewl when someone wants to take up as much space as I do, and I want the police to shoot them in the back for their gross trespass. I want a secretary and a therapist and a nurse and a maid and a fucktoy in the same body who I never have to pay, and I want to blame everything on my mother, that cunt, I want every evil to be blamed on every mother. When I’m asked to account for myself, I want to be silent, arms folded across my chest, jaw set indomitably, and have this act pull power away from my inquisitors and consolidate it within me. I want to call my inquisitors hysterical crazy bitches, and I want this to become the ideology in the world’s water supply. I want my brittleness to legislate the wretched, but first, I want to declare their wretchedness and to define it recursively, that they are wretched because they don’t look like me. I want my wounds to be the reason we build prisons, guillotines, and guns. I want he world to labour to secure me and I want them to need no other reason to do it other than because I said so. I want this reason to become a universal Truth with a capital T that constructs the World with a capital W. When I break someone else, I want the world to wag its finger not in my face, but in my victim’s, tsk tsk, you should have known better. I want children to be taught not to tempt me, and when they do, I want them to feel for their entire lives the dirty shame of their mistake. I want wealth such that the world has never seen, and then I want my face imprinted on all the coins.

• • •

Whose voice is this—is it my own? No, it’s not mine—but then why have I been taught to want it to be? (What happens to this sentence if the “mine” is changed to “ours,” if the “I” is changed to “we”?)

• • •

When a person who is assigned female at birth comes to understand that they don’t agree with that assignment, often the first gesture away from it is to wonder if they are in fact a man, a swing toward the antipode. Some find solace there, indeed find themselves there: yes, actually, here I am! Some don’t find themselves at “either pole but at some treacherous ineffability between, and the question becomes whether a binary is an accurate framework for gender at all, even though the world insists that it is.

Have you heard of Schrödinger’s cat? The thought experiment of a cat locked in a box with a device that has a 50 percent chance of killing it? At the moment before opening the box, the cat is both alive and dead at the same time because of what’s called its “quantum superposition.” Schrödinger was trying to figure out when the cat would stop being its soupy mess of both states at once at the quantum level, and become, on the level of the cat itself, either a dead one or a live one.

Gender, for me, often feels like the moment right before opening the box when the cat is a blur of probability of both and therefore neither. Perhaps another way to say this is that during The Summer of My 12-Inch Cock, there was a kind of collapsing of the very binary that I thought I knew, and the site of the collapsing was me.

• • •

My time with Z overlapped with my reading the de Kooning biography, and during that summer I had the sense that, like the Holy Ghost hover- ing watchfully behind me, I was being followed by his Woman I painting. I felt exposed to her, by her. When people looked at me, I saw that they saw her, my face scowling like hers, teeth bared, my body’s outline jagged, threatening to shred into the bodies of others.

I cut my own hair down to the scalp, drove too fast, cranked up the stereo to play the same song 50 times a day. I talked a lot, too much, about myself and my work and my soaring ambitions and I had no hesitation in saying what I wanted and exactly how and when. I was hysterical and grandiose and confident and inspired. I flew high on my great ideas. I indulged in pleasurable and risky activities. Self-doubt and caution evaporated, which is a dream come true for an artist. I made new work every day, and it came whole and alive and sizzling with meaning, as if I’d simply walked to the top of a small hill and found god’s word waiting there for me to pick up and hold.

Sometimes I think about how this one experience of mania might never have happened if I hadn’t been misdiagnosed, given the wrong medication, and involuntarily hospitalized by a man who thought I was a danger to myself because I was crying too loud over an obvious grief, one that might have been prevented if I hadn’t had a uterus, if I’d had gender confirmation surgery, if I’d understood who I was earlier rather than later. But it doesn’t matter anymore; the cause and effect are muddled, that line between knowing who you are and knowing who you are not is never a straight one.

• • •

It has taken me five years to write this essay. I’ve had to set it aside for months, I’ve tried to abandon it, to shove it to the back of the desk—it’s as if I drive out into the desert, hours away from the city, and dig a big hole and bury it deep, in the desperate hope that it will finally leave me alone. But it keeps crawling back. It keeps insisting on itself.

I am sympathetic to things that have been told their insistence on themselves is delusional, and yet, at the risk of embracing such delusion as the very ontology of their existence, they keep on insisting.

• • •

Illness is not—despite the world telling you it is—only a personal, individual experience of pain, trauma, and limitation. It happens inside your individual body, and yet, it is an index of the social body. It’s the collision of a lawless body against a body of laws. It produces an embodied experience that undoes who you think you are to such an extent that telling other people how this feels seems impossible, and at the same time, it produces a body that is read and deciphered in terms that are historical, systemic, and political. However, the social vector is usually ignored, so that illness becomes an index of one’s own individual powerlessness, rather than being seen as the experience of how we are all enmeshed within systems of power, how we are all interdependent, for better or worse, and how such enmeshment and interdependence shapes consequences and potentials, desires and rights, dreams and deaths, worlds and realities.

• • •

Just as quickly as I’d fallen into it, one day everything changed and I came out of that summer and all of its mess in a flushed, purifying sweep. One of the comforts of bipolar disorder is that it’s a reliable cycle. What goes up will come down.

Z helped break my fever dream. Not long into dating, I’d told him I didn’t want to be monogamous and that I wasn’t straight and that I wasn’t even a woman. Like many straight cis white boys, he understood the first two of my declarations to mean that I wouldn’t sufficiently appreciate and devote myself unto him alone, and he took the last to mean that his suspicions about me were right: I was unmanageable, unownable, beyond the law. He tried to own me outright, without irony, breaking into my email account, threatening his need, his fragile eyes trembling with vengeance.

The reader might wonder why exactly I was dating a straight cis white boy at all. Good question. Now, when I look back at that summer, this is the one and only bit of evidence that convinces me I was indeed mad at the time.

Sometimes I refer to The Summer of My 12-Inch Cock as “The Summer When I Finally Learned My Lesson About the Patriarchy Because Its Theatre of War Played Out in My Bed.”

The fact that this summer coincided with my being mad should beg the question of whether or not madness is ever not insurrectionary.

• • •

Am I defined by the house I was born in? Or, can my definition come from how I’ve gotten lost?

• • •

I think it’s that the world simply is the law, the law is the world.

The question is whether you’re willing to break it.

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