27 January 2013

Little Stabs at Happiness, or: Writing with Depression

I've had depression for as long as I can remember (even if there were times in my younger life when I didn't realise it) and I have always wanted to write. It's been a constant depression, rather than bipolar, which has been worse at some points, especially during sustained hot weather, than others, but which has always present. In my early thirties, I've had to grudgingly accept that everything I've tried - trying to pull myself out of it, numerous periods in counselling or psychotherapy, anti-depressants - will not dispel it, and the best I can say is that by now I better recognise the symptoms of particular severe bouts, and that I've managed to arranger my life so that there are very few people around me who are not understanding.

(Rightly or wrongly, I feel bound to clarify that I never thought or intended transition to be a panacea for depression - more that it would make it easier to manage. This has proved the case, and I wrote about the relationship between my gender and mental health, which is ultimately a separate issue, here.)

I realised that I wanted to write during the worst depression of my life, during Years 9 and 10 at school, when I would tell anyone who'd listen that life was fundamentally pointless and that nothing could change this. Not many would listen, certainly not for long - it wasn't until I got to sixth form that I read Camus, Sartre, Kafka and others who would help me to articulate these feelings, and the realisation that there were authors who had shared this outlook provided tremendous comfort. Then, I decided that the only way I could find any meaning would be in trying to make material conditions better for people, as far as possible, and that I was best equipped to do this through writing.

So writing became a tactic against negativity, despair and defeat - it was never hard to find inspiration from the cultural or political climate, but nor was it uncommon to feel overwhelmed by it, unsure of what to focus on and pessimistic about whether anyone was even reading, let alone if it was making any difference. This feeling has hardly changed as my platforms have become larger, and nor has the unwillingness to take part in public debate that comes with depression - the sense that I will have nothing to say at any exchange of ideas, in person or through writing becomes insurmountable during its worst spells. Even if I am still capable of producing rather than procrastinating, the depression shapes the subject - I am far less likely to offer a view that might prove contentious or tackle a controversial issue head on if I'm particularly down, even though some of my favourite articles were written during severe bouts.

The formation of my aims in direct relation to depression often led me to prioritise them at the expense of my own wellbeing - I'm thinking particularly of the Guardian blog on transition, when friends warned me that putting so much of my life into the public eye could have strange and damaging consequences, but I felt that I was already deeply unhappy, so how could it make this any worse? In the main, it was cathartic, allowed me to feel I'd achieved my teenage goal and was positive, but in some ways it exacerbated the problem, especially as it brought me into contact with many people who had found that discrimination had shaped their lives in very sad ways. After several years, unable to shake this feeling that short-term successes always faded into long-term failure, I had a mini-breakdown in December 2011 and had to stop writing for a couple of months whilst I sought more counselling and thought about where my work, and its underlying motivation, had taken me.

So I still can't say if writing makes my depression and anxiety better or worse: I can only conclude (in true History graduate style) that it does both, providing an outlet for and alleviating some sadness whilst constantly keeping it at the surface, often facilitating conversations with like-minded people which can be inspiring or despairing. The drive that it gives during better periods means that I can be very productive, which keeps giving me reason to live; at other times, I feel unable to work at all, each day that passes without a word making me more anxious, the cycle rapidly spiralling, disproportionately affected by the most minor failures or rejections, this fixation often preventing me from pursuing any other action that might improve my mental health (such as taking a holiday, or even a walk, or taking time to cook and eat properly).

Even now, for all my familiarity, it can be weeks before I become aware of it, although I find that keeping a journal helps me to monitor my feelings, tracking heightened periods of depression or self-absorption, and means that I don't stop writing entirely. It's not going to go away, so right now, this is the best solution. Speaking about the subject helps, though, and having raised it on Twitter recently, I was heartened by the number of people who felt able to say that they were exploring a similar relationship, which a range of responses - it gives them ideas and experiences, they lose motivation, sometimes they create a lot (and then have to edit heavily) and at others they cannot write a word. All things I can identify with - how about you?

13 January 2013

RE: Julie Burchill. An open letter to The Observer reader's editor

Dear readers' editor,

I am writing to you to express my anger, disappointment and sadness that Julie Burchill's piece 'Transsexuals should cut it out' was allowed to appear in The Observer today, and on The Guardian's Comment is Free website. I've never written to complain about an article in a newspaper or magazine before, and it's particularly dispiriting that I have to do so to the group that gave me my break in journalism, something they did for reasons which I thought were sound.

As you may know, I spent more than two years working on a rolling blog for The Guardian called 'A Transgender Journey', commissioned by Rachel Dixon and Kate Carter, and hosted at Life and Style. (If not, it's here.) I wrote a blog post elsewhere explaining why I did this, giving background on The Guardian and Observer's historical record on transgender issues, which is here - to condense the post, the newspapers had published a number of pieces over the years attacking transgender, and in particular transsexual people from an ostensibly ethical, socialist and 'radical feminist' position, and that the structure and ideology of the publications and the newspaper industry had allowed them to continue abusing positions of power to ridicule, mock and attack a historically marginalised group of people. (I've lectured on this, too - here.)

As a result, I thought the Guardian Media Group were improving on trans issues - it published my comments pieces, people such as Roz Kaveney, Jane Fae, Paris Lees and Natacha Kennedy, and covered transgender and genderqueer artists such as EVA & ADELE. Also, your counterpart at the Guardian, Chris Elliott, contacted me for some advice when writing an open letter promising that the Guardian would improve its attitude towards trans people - so it's particularly embittering that these principles do not seem to have been adopted at The Observer. I have registered my feelings on a comment on Burchill's piece and on Twitter, and I am talking to other trans contributors to the Guardian/Observer, and to non-trans people I know who contribute, about the best course of action.

At the very least, I really feel that someone of seniority at The Observer should offer a full apology and an explanation of how this came to appear in the newspaper. The sooner the better, obviously - I'm very proud to have written for GMG, and of the specific pieces that I've contributed, but at the moment I'm trying hard not to feel that all of my work for you has been a waste of time.

I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Yours sincerely,

Juliet Jacques.

13 June 2012

After Nietzsche: Bela Tarr and The Turin Horse

Béla Tarr's Turin Horse opens, uncharacteristically, with a joke. Both the film's haunting poster and its opening voiceover recount the (possibly apocryphal) incident on 3 January 1889 that triggered Friedrich Nietzsche's mental illness, when he saw a cabman flogging a horse in Turin's Piazza Carlo Alberto, threw his arms around the creature to protect it and collapsed, weeping, before a neighbour took him home. Nietzsche uttered the 'obligatory last words', "Mutter, ich bin dumm" before living another decade in silence, intellectuals forever arguing over the meanings of his published words, especially after they were appropriated by the far Right. And the joke?

"The fate of the horse is unknown."

We never see Nietzsche. The only people we do see are a cabman (János Derzsi), his daughter (Erika Bok), and then briefly a neighbour, and a group of "gypsies", everyone nameless. We're led to assume that this is the horse whom Nietzsche touched so catastrophically, but we're never told, and the lives of the cabman and the woman could have been led around 1889 or any other time. Alone in a remote farmhouse, they survive on boiled potatos and brandy, water from their well, and, it seems, intermittent trips to the city to trade (what they trade remains a mystery, like so much here). The crucial point is that like the philosopher, the horse (Ricsi) is finished with the world: it refuses to eat. The cabman and his daughter desperately try to persuade the horse, knowing that its premature death will ruin them, but over the narrative's six days, the darkness closes in, reflected in Tarr's shot composition, increasingly devoid of light.

The film is made with Tarr's frequent collaborators, co-director Ágnes Hranitzky, scriptwriter (and novelist) László Krasznahorkai and composter Mihály Vig, whose Werckmeister Harmonies soundtrack was particularly memorable. Tarr's monochrome images of the wind outside the farmhouse and Vig's repetitive score - a single three-chord phrase played on violin and organ -synchronise perfectly with each other, and occasionally with the woman's words - it is this texture, rather than the minimal plot, that lends Turin Horse so much of its power.

An invigorating thinker in the right measure and intoxicating if over-consumed, Nietzsche proclaimed that 'Each great philosopher had one thing to say'. In the films of his that I've seen (all of his full-length features besides the seven-hour Satantango), Tarr has maintained a consistent sentiment: that the intrusion of complex ideas into simple worlds has a destructive effect that can never be reversed. In Damnation (1988), it is sexual convention, as the protagonist becomes obsessed with a married bar singer. In The Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), it's politics and religion, in the form of a circus that visits János's town, consisting only of a 3ft prince who doesn't speak the local language and the world's largest whale, dead and stuffed, transported in a truck. In The Man From London (2007), adapted from Georges Simenon's novel, it's capital, as a switchman at a seaside railway station witnesses a financially motivated murder, irrevocably altering his life.

Here's, it's existential awareness: having been embraced by a man whose insight has driven him insane, the horse is the first to realise the horrors of mortality, and of knowledge. The cabman refuses to engage with the Nietzschean philosophy introduced in a brief visit from a neighbour, who speaks forbodingly of "acquisition and debasement", "losers and victors" before departing, and he's deeply suspicious when his daughter welcomes the "gypsies" who come over the hill on a carriage, promising to take her to America, scaring them off with an axe. After these interventions, nothing can be the same: once she makes tentative attempts to read the scriptures, she is doomed, like Werner Herzog's Kaspar Hauser on being introduced to Enlightenment 'rationality', and one suspects that her going to America would be as calamitous for her as it proves for Herzog's Stroszek.

As in those Herzog films, here's bleak humour here, with Beckett influencing the film as much as Nietzsche. The punctuation of the "gypsies" recalls Pozzo and Lucky's short meeting with Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, neither they nor the cabman realising that these intruders may restore vitality to their lives - something that Nietzsche aimed to do for all who read him. The opposite happens after the cabman rejects them: the well runs dry, and the couple are nearer to their end. The point where the cabman and his daughter decide to take their cart over the hill and towards civilisation, before immediately turning back, reminded me of the scene in Murphy where Beckett's 'hero', playing chess in an institution, moves his pieces out and then systemically returns to their starting points. Indeed, Jean Anouilh's famous pronouncement on Godot - "Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it is terrible" - describes Turin Horse perfectly, in all its forbidding magnificence.

This is to be Tarr's last film. Having left us with several idiosyncratic masterpieces, he's retiring to set up his own film school, where students might be inspired by the esoteric plots, long takes and sparse dialogue that made his work so distinctive, and shift them into something else. But, it seems certain, from Tarr himself there will be silence: perhaps he stared too long into the abyss ...