Leslie Jamison’s incisive, insightful writing on the human condition has earned her comparisons to celebrated authors such as Susan Sontag and Joan Didion. Her 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams explored topics such as the mysterious Morgellons Disease, the West Memphis Three, and a “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” while her 2018 tome The Recovering poignantly examined the intersection of addiction and creativity, telling her own recovery story alongside those of celebrated artists. Her latest, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, plumbs the depths of obsession, haunting and longing with stories about Zagreb, Croatia’s Museum of Broken Relationships, past lives, Second Life, her own life and “the loneliest whale in the world,” among others. With a tender hand, Jamison illuminates the monumental effect that yearning has on our lives – how it shapes us, what it says about the ways we connect with others, and how we might learn to reckon with it.
One of the things I love most about this book is that you drive home the idea that some kind of final resolution or closure is often unattainable. There isn’t an end to yearning – it’s part of the deal. When did your thinking shift toward this perspective?
I guess I’ve been obsessed with ongoingness in some way for my whole life. I can’t remember a time before I had this deep yearning for closure and completeness. But the flip side of that yearning for closure and completeness, I think, is this constant awareness of how impossible they are. Because I actually have a type-A personality. I was just joking with my friend the other night that I feel like I have a very antsy, artistic temperament, especially now that I’m sober. If you could see me now at my desk, you would see me trying to create a very meticulous to-do list so that I can cross everything off of it. I do actually yearn to be done in some way, and try to control chaos in all these ways in my life. But I think that urge for completion or that urge for total order is constantly coming up against my awareness that most of life is full of things that will never be completed, like relationships or yearnings or forms of intimacy with other people, whether those forms of intimacy are ongoing in a relationship or just ongoing as a kind of internal conversation. Which is so much of what “Museum of Broken Hearts” is trying to get at – even once a relationship is done, it’s still living inside you in some way. So, I think my obsession with ongoingness is always in conversation with a craving for completion inside of me, and that tension is always alive more than either side getting to win out.
The book also solidifies this idea that it’s okay to be in that spot where you can’t avoid both craving resolution and understanding it’s never going to happen. I think a lot of our tension ends up coming from not being able to achieve that resolution. I know it’s a shift in my own thinking that I’ve only been able to manage in the past couple years. But it feels like magic – you can have a better understanding of relationships and practise patience better because you know everyone else is going through the same thing.
I heard somebody say the other day – they attributed it to Plato, who didn’t say this, but I think there’s something that’s even more moving about misattributed quotes. My tattoo initially came to me as a misattributed quote. They said, “As Plato said, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And it wasn’t Plato who said it, I think it was some 19th-century Scottish minister. But I love it and I love that people want Plato to have said it. I mean, I talk about it all the time. It shows up in that David Foster Wallace commencement speech that I reference in one of the essays, too, this idea that the annoying person in front of you at the supermarket is fighting a great battle. I think that’s kind of cheesy, but it’s so true. And how instantaneously do we forget it. And how important to try to come back to it.
So – why haunting and obsession? Was there a connecting path from addiction and recovery?
Maybe it has to do with this idea of ongoingness. Because when you initially asked that question about the way this interest in things that can’t be completed or living in that state of incompletion is at the core of the collection, I think that’s really true. One of the places my mind went to is definitely sobriety and how – as I write about in The Recovering and people talk about a lot in recovery – the fantasy of your sobriety being done isn’t possible, because as long as you’re alive, your sobriety is this open-ended thing and you just have to keep living it. You never check it off the list. So I think there is something about addiction and recovery that brings up that idea of ongoingness and this story that can’t quite ever have an end. That definitely fed into the interest in open-endedness that shows up in the concepts of obsession, because you keep chasing a thing; longing, you’re yearning toward something you can’t quite have; haunting, you’re still obsessed with it even once it’s gone. They’re all about ongoingness in some way. So, in that sense I think they do come pretty organically from the way that my writing about recovery and sobriety is also interested in ongoingness.
What’s haunting you right now?
I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine, and we were talking about the predicament of being self-aware people in this world. She said, “I think when you’re super self aware, it can be harder to stay awake or open to the things you don’t yet know about yourself.” Ever since we had that conversation, I’ve really been carrying that question around. “What do I not yet know about myself?” Because I think self-awareness or self knowledge can become this kind of trap where you think, “I understand myself.” But then that self-understanding hardens you in a way. I’ve become really interested in that. What are the ways that I’m going to surprise myself over the next decade? Or handle things in a different way than I had told myself I always did? There’s this big new biography of Susan Sontag coming out this month and I wrote an essay about it for a magazine down here in the States. Sontag was sort of living out the same psychodramas over and over again in her personal life – I mean, aren’t we all? But I think there was something about the claustrophobic stranglehold that her inner demons had on her, and reading an 800-page biography where you see them playing out over and over again made me think, “God, I wish she had had more of that experience of, ‘What do I not yet know about myself?’” Rather than being in the loop. So, yes – ”What do I not yet know about myself?" is my answer to that question.
It’s a good one, and reminds me – I feel I’ve made it to a place where my artistic practice is aesthetically defined, and that feels good. But when I dwell on it, there’s a big part of me that thinks, “I want to burn that down completely.”
I was just having a different conversation with another friend last night where she was talking about something quite related to that impulse to want to burn it down, about the fact people can be so quick to extol the virtues of self-acceptance, but there’s actually a kind of stasis or a deadening in self-acceptance. And a kind of loss, where we’re always living with the companions of these possible, hypothetical versions of ourselves, and self-acceptance involves almost killing off this possible other self you could be, because you’re just accepting the self that you are. I thought that was so smart and I was like, “Oh right. There’s something about dissatisfaction that is generative and alive.” “Make it scream” obviously comes from the William Carlos Williams review of Walker Evans’s photography. But that may be part of what “make it burn” is suggesting: that idea of perpetual reinvention, always burning something down and building it up again.
There’s a part of your essay about The Division of Perceptual Studies where you mentioned that you’ve become skeptical of knee-jerk skepticism itself. When and how did that happen for you? Because to me, through The Empathy Exams and The Recovery, it often felt like that was a defining characteristic of your work – that willingness to believe despite the odds.
In some ways, I think I’ve always had the soul of a believer or an embracer or an agnostic. I think that’s where my temperament naturally wants to go. I’m interested in states of curiosity and wonder and enthusiasm. They feel more generative to me. But it’s almost like that natural disposition was submerged for many years in my teens and 20s because I think I just felt too insecure. I felt too vulnerable and too unsure of myself to be an enthusiast or an agnostic or a believer. Certainly, something like cliché, that would be true for. I was too insecure to try to mount a defence of clichés until I had arrived at enough of a sense of self that I could risk being somebody who might stand behind things. So, in a way, I’ve never really thought about this before or articulated it like this before, but I think it’s right or part of the truth, anyway – it’s almost like I had to do a certain amount of work to find a footing or confidence in the world that would allow me to embrace rather than paper over this natural impulse to, rather than dismiss things, think about what was beautiful or meaningful inside of them.
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