A bad dream. I remembered everything… Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them. But they were part of me. They were my landscape. (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)
I want to speak a little about the places we travel in our memories, in our dreams and our imaginations, and what these imagined landscapes do.
I have a recurring dream about hamsters. I was 11 when I had my first hamster. His name was Lollipop. I loved that hamster more than anything I had ever loved before in life. We would go for adventures climbing up and down the staircase and run free in the garden lawn. A year and a half later when Lollipop got a tumour and died, I cried and cried and wrote letters to him and put them in his hamster-sized coffin to take with him until we met again in heaven. I got another hamster, and then he died, so I got another and another. And then my mother died and I was 15 and I couldn’t look after the hamster anymore and I didn’t feed him anymore or clean his cage or give him new water. And one day I went to his cage and saw a little bundle of fur curled in the corner, all stiff and cold.
In my dreams the hamsters come back to life. They appear in different colours. Sometimes one, sometimes multiple. Sometimes fancy cages, sometimes the cage is dirty and neglected. In the dreams I am overwhelmed by a suffocating dread when I realize the hamster is still alive. I thought I had escaped the responsibility of looking after the hamster. I am weighted by the guilt that I didn’t look after him properly, that I killed him. These dreams continued for 10 years.
On the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death late last year, I received a letter from my grandmother. This was purely coincidental. My grandmother and I write to each other once every couple years. (This is largely due to my laziness). My grandmother’s letters are normally full of niceties and pleasantries (weather and its variations). In my last letter I attempted to break with convention and broach a topic we had never discussed: her dead daughter. In her reply one sentence remained with me:
‘Your Mum always had to have her own way, though it didn’t seem to make her happy.’
Over the ten years grief has revealed many different faces. I gave myself many false promises, fraudulent optimism, delusions of freedom. I clung to the hope of escaping my mother as tightly as I clung to her breast. My mother, I found, was so rooted inside of me, I tried to destroy myself in all sorts of ways to cut her out.
But she began haunting me. In my dreams, she comes back to life. In the dreams I am overwhelmed by a suffocating dread when I realize my mother is still alive. I thought I had escaped the responsibility of looking after my mother. I am weighted by the guilt that I didn’t look after her properly, that I killed her.
For my grandmother, my mother always had her own way. For my grandmother the assumed reason for having ones own way is happiness. It didn’t seem to make her happy. My mother’s choices were a failure – point-less – because they didn’t make her happy. Happiness validates actions; it gives a point actions can be oriented around. When risky, irrational or spontaneous decisions are taken they are justified by a happy outcome.
Perhaps my mother always had her own way because she didn’t know what she desired and she was just trying to find out. Perhaps she was pursuing happiness. Perhaps she was so set on happiness, she neglected the happiness of others. But the truth is I’ll never know who my mother was, her thoughts, hopes and fears. My memories are blurs, rarely given the chance to be active and so fade inconsequentially as life creates new, grey memories to smother the old.
‘You deserve to be happy.’
This burden weighs on me. If you deserve happiness, do you still need to pursue it or will it just arrive. But everywhere I looked, she was there. But it was not really her. She was merely a mirage, fragmented.
Her body presses on me. I feel the strength seep from my limbs and I crumble down to the ground, her body heaped on top of me. My mothers tall slender body feels like a mass of throbbing flesh; an unbearable weight.
Another dream. This time I run to my mother’s bedroom. She is under attack. She is lying in bed as I climb over her and shield her vulnerable body. I scream, ‘Don’t hurt my Mummy’.
When I wake I am relieved, angry, frustrated. I wonder how I can find this happiness I deserve when I cannot undo myself from the unhappy past I revisit again and again in my dreams. In the waking hours I physically travel distances far and near, see new faces, places and experience different sensations. Yet in my dreams I continually walk down the same street. I walk through the same gate, through the same door. I inhabit the same rooms, the same air, touch the same objects. Each dream no matter where I am; a desert, a wasteland, a rainforest; I return back to the house of my childhood.
‘To revolt is to be undone – it is not to reproduce an inheritance.’ (1)
I keep writing the same story. Each narratives feeds into the next in a never-ending spiral. When will it end?
It will end when I let go. When I let go of my mother and our bond of ambivalence I will be happy.
Memories blur and smother, and confuse, forming new realities that distort and disintegrate. The complex tangle of dreams and memories fuse together violently and tear at my daily reality. The memories persist in dreams inhabiting my subconscious. The memories of the dreams – memories of memories – linger in my conscious life. I travel physically, mentally but still remain in the same suffocating space. A space that doesn’t even exist. I visit my old house, it appears changed, no longer easily recognizable. I hope the viewing of this changed image will erase the memory. But it doesn’t. I don’t live there anymore, but I can never leave.
I keep coming undone but without a revolt. I am simply reproducing my inheritance.
‘You never come back from elsewhere because elsewhere always comes back with you.’ (2)
I had another hamster dream. This time I took the hamster cage and put it in a bin. I woke relieved. This was the end I told myself. I do not have to feel the guilt any longer.
But then a few months later the hamster appeared again alive and well.
(1) Sara Ahmed, 2010, The Promise of Happiness.
(2) Mark C. Taylor, 2009, Fieldnotes from elsewhere: Reflections on dying and living.
Filed under: Resistance, Subjectivities | Tags: critique, Gayatri Spivak, homework, Other, postcolonialism, rage
Re-reading The Postcolonial Critic, I feel compelled to to share one of my favourite passages – an invitation to developing critical capacities, a tool evermore vital in the midst of current demands for the relinquishing of thinking, of the increasing depoliticising of our desires for change. Heres to building a history of our individual and collective rage in order to criticize that which binds us…
I will have in an undergraduate class, let’s say, a young, white, male student, politically-correct, who will say: “I am only a bourgeois white male, I can’t speak.” In that situation – it’s peculiar, because I am in the position of power and their teacher and, on the other hand, I am not a bourgeois white male – I say to them: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?” Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you, rather than take this very deterministic position – since my skin colour is this, since my sex is this, I cannot speak. I call these things, as you know, somewhat derisively, chromatism: basing everything on skin colour – “I am white, I can’t speak” – and genitalism: depending on what genitals you have, you can or cannot speak in certain situations.
From this position, then, I say you will of course not speak in the same way about the Third World material, but if you make it your task not only to learn what is going on there through language, through specific programmes of study, but also at the same time through a historical critique of your position as the investigating person, then you will see that you have earned the right to criticize, and you will be heard. When you take the position of not doing your homework – “I will not criticize because of my accident of birth, the historical accident” – that is a much more pernicious position.
In one way you take a risk to criticize, of criticizing something which is Other – something which you used to dominate. I say that you have to take a certain risk: to say “I won’t criticize” is salving your conscience, and allowing you not to do any homework. On the other hand, if you criticize having earned the right to do so, then you are indeed taking a risk and you will probably be made welcome, and can hope to be judged with respect.
Gayatri Spivak (1990) The Postcolonial Critic: Interviews, Strategies, Dialogues. Routledge: London, p62-3.