Prose by C. Derick Varn
In the late aughts, in the slow humidity of Macon, Georgia, I used to keep a new hardcover copy of Joan Didion’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by bed. I was living in up-stairs of a run-down old house parceled into cheap apartments near Mercer University aimed, I believe, to capture some of the law student loan cash in the form of rents. It’s didn’t. I was a teacher and my wife-at-the-time—a phrase rightly linked with dubious men adjacent to patriarchy-or-whatever-ism one would use for male narcissism—was an auto-pawn manager. The apartment was full of books in milk cartoons and cheap laminate, press wood bookshelves. We are in the crawling muck of class aspiration and I was a poet who had published more in my teens than I had since getting MFA. The whole reek of was mild—although not exactly quiet—desperation.
Flash forward nine years and I am speaking to my co-editor over a shitty internet skype connection on an I-pad for a podcast/youtube video on Joan Didion. My voice is strained and if you can find the recording on Youtube still, brassy and higher pitched than my voice is on most recording. I have defensive of Didion—against the cultural turn against her and her privilege that was inevitable after three books of essays on her grief. I was going through my own grief and at the time not talking about it.
I lived across from an Egyptian prison in Maadi. I was not allowed to take photographs out of my window and post them on social media. I had lost my working visa in a dispute between my employer and government in an attempt to reconcile a political promise without losing labor was allowed to stay in the country. My partner, whom I had secretly married priorly, was alone in Wyoming, driving through the snow into Salt Lake City, to get treatment for stage-four melanoma. She did not know much of my plight and I was literally two continents and an ocean away from hers. I had supplemented my time with podcasts—something that I did for free at this point in my life even if it is a side gig now—but I had no real equipment and was on the internet that was often unable to consistently play videos from youtube. Like the old Soviet and Italian cars I saw as Taxis in the Cairo streets, it felt strange back in time. Yet I was clearly privileged to have these problems: the Egyptian authorities would sometimes check my passport and let me be. Even after the church bombing in Maadi and the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt, I was largely left alone.
My apartment was cheap by American standards and after the crashing of the local currency, I paid a few hundred dollars for it. It has four beds and a master bedroom, tacky furniture and decor out of a particular faux-rich style of the 1980s and a few wall-hangings for clearly Muslim families. The four beds were because this was a small apartment—Egyptian families were often large and middle-class families could have a two-or-even-three wives taking caring six-to-eight kids. I felt alone because I was one man with a partner in America, teaching in my partner’s old position, in a politically tense country. At night, sometimes, I would have someone drive me alone to edge of the desert and I would drink local beer and watch nothing the sands until the particulate dust made it too hard for me to see.
So I don’t know if my voice was brittle for worry for my then-partner or a particularly terrible internet connection and speaking at odd hours, probably after drinking too much and in pain in stomach from complications from a typhoid bout I had in Mexico. But I defended Didion against charges of her “problematic nature” perhaps too hard.
What I have always loved about writers like Didion—even in her old age—was an ice-cold hostility to the way we lie to ourselves. As a person constantly ask to parse the finer points of history and ideology—a poet who studied philosophy and anthropology and, once or twice, taught critical theory—I also distrusted those eschatological narratives and models we are given to spin to make our lives make sense or to limit the damage that contingency or grief or give us.
It’s not as ironic that these two contradictory impulses emerge in the same person. Indeed, the Marxist jargon that would emerge imminently to the occasion, is it is dialectical: the urge to construct grand theories of history and economics, to speak generalizations that can start to clarify but if reduce to simple slide-of-hand of language and abstractions can say less than nothing. In “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.),” Didion writes that she is comfortable “with the Michael Laski’s of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” I both recoil and identify with Laski, despite my sectarian affiliations having never been exactly in the same ideological checkbox, and with Didion’s skepticism of his faith. I have been the weaver of opiates to the people, the voice that helps people find hope in the fetishization and abstractions of life, to clear out the painstaking ideology to replace with it a new one, but I have also been the perpetual skeptic. The person who trusts relationships over ideas—because people betray you but ideas can have you betray ourself.
I have spent years mimicking the turgid and tedious writing style of theorists. I remember in 2005, my MFA advisor telling me, “I don’t normally tell students this but read more fiction and poetry and less theory.” When I set to eat with him four years later, on the precipice of my first divorce and leaving, for what I thought was forever but what turned out to be a little under a decade, teaching in the United States, and heading to South Korea to teach a university there. He said, “You seem so much more together now. Your desperation seems to have matured.” He was right about the second part but utterly wrong about the first.
This is the beginning of reopening my writing. I mostly write poetry and talk theory and history. Lately, more history. I teach high school literature, which is something that I won’t say much on, except that I understand why almost as many writers had contempt for their English teachers as loved them. Reading Didion a decade-and-half-ago, I lost a lot of my will to write prose that wasn’t highly theoretical or political. Debunking this or that trend in education, writing about religious inanity, then shifting to socialism and graduate school misuse of socialist and post-social theory, then critique “the left” from the perspective of “the left.” What amazes me about this, despite reams of turgid and sometimes inchoate prose I produced, is that I actually don’t know that these coherence models of the universe tell as much as we think, even if they are true. That yearning to be correct, to have an answer, to say something that makes the details and facts and interpretation, and the sad errata of human understanding seem redeemable is a good impulse, but it is often the impulse for individuals to weave stories, to lie, and for collectives of people to believe lies.
To make the stories we tell about yourselves true: to be honest about why we are pained when speaking about aging mid-20th century American writer when we are in the desert or to admit that we were very lucky to turn the frustration with public school education into a way to travel the world. To admit that our politics come from our social class backgrounds, our regional interests, and the accumulated history of family and ethnic heritage, more than anything like a rational decision. To admit that our systems of exploring this are often fraught, not as coherent as their commentary, and obtuse. To look into the eyes of our notions of history and admit that maybe there is no brain behind the eyes. This is hard. Didion, whatever her faults and there are probably many, inspired me to write honestly about it.
Ultimately, we all know that the cost of drinking your own kool-aid is dying from the poison you put in it.