Motoko Kusanagi from the Ghost in the Shell series. By Jarred Everson www.jjeverson.com
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On ghosts, or why I never want to be anybody’s muse

It took 27 years for me to admit that I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them.

Sometimes I occupy beds that ghosts visit.

There was a strong and pathetic need in me up until a few years ago to become someone’s muse. Whether you think of yourself as a feminist woman or not, sometimes it’s hard to get away from the fact that your role has already been predestined, written in curling, delicate hand about Lord Byron, chiselled into stone somewhere, Edie Sedgwick and her ilk lie in ecstasy in the background of some dark, violent party of the mind, the reason the men are there, but the muses are not the centre of conversation, and yes, they are the glamorous, seductive type you are drawn to. You can’t stop thinking of yourself as the romantic figure, floating in and out of heroes’ lives, a Jane Eyre or another long-suffering woman who is foregrounded in your head but just lives to lend all the ideas you have about the world to another, because they seem to have a firmer hand, a choking grasp on life you do not, because you’ve seen it happen before, and it will happen again. There’s no song lyric “men are doing it for themselves”, well, because, nothing so obvious is ever written down and paid attention to. A blackened part of me understands that there are thousands of voices of women in the chasm of history who only ever spoke through the voices of the men they fell in love with. Some of the greatest works of our time would be even finer if they had been written by the hand who first had the idea.

The only antidote to this is to really pay attention to how utterly fragile talent is when contained within the human body. It is certainly not robust enough to be kept in only men. You stay around anyone you admire for their games or art or writing for long enough and you’ll understand that they are awful in some incredibly profound way, and if they aren’t awful they are a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that it will hurt to think about.

I’ve spoken a lot with the game designer and writer Harvey Smith recently about whether having a privileged background or upbringing helps a person produce better art, or whether having a difficult life helps produce better art (Harvey has a wealth of stories about his background that would make you think the latter). I concluded that when you don’t have things like social ostracisation, war, poverty or sickness in your way, it’s much easier to make things faster, which is probably why middle-class white dudes produce such a vast array of our art. There’s a better hit rate, y’know? And it’s not necessarily that broken people make better art, though perhaps sometimes the ability to communicate pain helps. I don’t believe you have to be beaten down by society to make something profound. You just have to be able to produce it, and that’s the hard part. The hard part is telling yourself you are that person. The person who makes.

There’s something Harvey said recently that really sticks with me, and it’s this wonderful little moment in time in my head. Writers have a real talent for articulating exactly what you didn’t know you thought before, and he said, sitting on the arm of the couch, looking up at me in the loft of his and Leah’s beautiful Lyon apartment, “The hardest part is admitting you want to do it. Saying, I want to be a games designer, or a writer, or anything creative.”

It took me about twenty-seven years, most of them during which I was writing fiction, poetry or criticism, to realise that I was a writer, and that I wanted to be a writer, and that I was a writer who was good enough. I didn’t want to be around people who create things. I didn’t want to be with them. I was already one of them. Why was I wasting time? You do not get to write my story. I write it. I write it myself. Stealing is only legitimate if it’s mutual. There does not get to be a one way road any more. I am no one’s muse because I have the ideas. They are mine.

Perhaps I am fucked up, awful in some incredibly profound way, and if I’m not awful I might be a nice person who is broken and cut up in ways that will hurt for others to think about. Perhaps I am that person that men look at and think, I wish I was her muse, though the canon for some sort of male muse is somewhat absent. None of it really matters to me now, because I understand that talent is fragile and that even trying to articulate it now may be killing any talent I had left.

Right now as I am travelling through France I realise that I have the firmest choke hold on life I have ever had. I do not need the ghosts that I once summoned to my bed: those ghosts that I once thought, perhaps the creativity of life will touch me through them and I will feel good again. Those ghosts that I used to think: they are the only romantic thing about my life. The ones I let go, the ones I could never have, the people who did not respect or love me, the people who slipped through my fingers, or laughed when someone said, “She’s a writer. Sort of.” The ghosts who will watch you sleep and when you wake you are covered in a thousand cuts. The ghosts who whisper hoarse in the dark, they used to say, “You should have asked me to marry you.”

I slit all their throats. And when I occupy a bed with another person who has those ghosts, I can shake the ghosts’ hands and say, I know you, and I have sympathy for you. But you are not welcome. I am waiting for the day this person kills you.

. . . I’ll come back on that day.

This article first appeared on caraellison.co.uk and is crossposted here with permission

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage