It has happened again. I was sat in a chair with another book in my hands, one which I had been silently reading, and I found the words I had heard once before being repeated in my ears – I would prefer not to. This time it was spoken even more emphatically, a command now, and I was becoming less certain as to the source, not sure that the words originated in my own thoughts or that they had been spoken to me, “I would prefer not to”, by another person.
Paranoid Schizophrenia? You should create a ‘Timeline’, a friend told me recently who went on to tell me that in its absence we have been lucky so far. That was also my ‘aunty’s’ opinion, at any rate it was when I visit her last in the War Hospital two weeks ago. “You always bring me luck”, she said. Against the odds I thought, as we attempted to recollect together an originating moment in time from a mostly forgotten and uncertain history.
Our campaign and the present offensive in which we are engaged is aimed of course against the citadel of the diagnosis of madness, and in the progress of this long war we are currently entrenched in front of the walls of an enemy redoubt whose name is ‘Relapse’. That at any rate was the description given on the basis of certain events and our hurried retreat some seven months ago that resulted in the sectioning under the Mental Health Act. Since then it has been trench warfare and there have also doubts about our capacity. However, eventually after persistent effort, we were successful in our requests to examine the clinical case notes, not everything since the beginning but at least the last three year. Since when we have been attempting to challenge both the diagnosis and the circumstances of the attack last May with the enemy. Our confusional state it appears on the evidence of the notes clinical was due to the effects of a commonplace urinary tract infection.
I would prefer not to – Are we alone in feeling paranoid? I am certain for instance that I would prefer not to be continuing with this story. Resistance.
The book which I was reading at the time the negative command was given was Tony Judt’s, The Memory chalet (2011 Vintage). His last, and “almost unbearably moving”, it stated on the front cover in front of a fuzzy picture of three red railway carriages curving along a rising gradient and disappearing into a forest of snow laden pine trees. It was winter and snowing hard.
Judt died as is well known in 2010 when he was only 62. “When I was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2008″ – he reminded us of the originating moment of the disease with the habits of the historian in the first piece written under the book’s title (The Memory Chalet), but then another way of writing emerged based on his memories which came to him during the nights of his progressively and completely incapacitating illness of a particular hotel in Switzerland in which he had stayed as a child.
The book had been sent in the post. It was intended for me. Rather, as I think now, it was intended for us. It began as a result of an evening conversation I had with another friend a little over a month ago. She lives in Berlin and is a successful architect. We sat together at a dinner, a family reunion at the end of a day which had involved what would seem to an outside observer a seemingly disconnected series of moments and meetings; one in front of a great mausoleum of white marble great marble, another gathered around the mummified remains of a child on the second floor of a museum, and a third in the ballroom of a fin de siecle mansion in the presence of local government officials and business dignitaries.
A series of complex moments and meetings which it would be difficult to connect together or give meaning to except that they had all occurred during the course of a single day, and in our conversation together during the evening I had attempted to describe them to her in terms of:
1. A fluid continental location (fluid because there is the sense of a necessity of constant movement between one city to another, from one hotel to another, be it in Berlin, Trieste, Kracow, or Istanbul)
2. The writing genre known as the feuilleton (or ‘essayism’ as we would probably have to name it here in the Anglophone world, although I wonder if the Chapter 62 ‘The Earth too, but especially Ulrich Pay Homage to the Utopian of Essayism’ is an adequate translation of the last word of that chapter title, which is to be found in Robert Musil’s famous book A Man Without Qualities)
3. Performance Art (in the presence of an audience of at least one person; let us say of the method that ‘N’ (The number of subjects) is always equal to, or > 1.
Equally undecideable (“undecidable” in the sense that Derrida perhaps might use the word) – that we would prefer not to; including Musil’s argument in the chapter on Essayism against the use of quotations in any later work of writing be it called essay or feuilleton that was criss-crossing the same ground as the original; and including any meaning being intended or implied whenever and wherever we committed towards being decided about anything – who is fighting who, suspect wholes, and the cascading fragments – such as the context for Derrida’s thinking in 1967, his war on Structuralism, and the book he wrote then ‘Writing and Difference’, and the same interdict as Musil had made concerning selective quoting from other sources; and including regurgitation or a shortened form of the entirety of the words which might pass between us, or a description of the setting, or the atmosphere – Except the form of the realist novel, my architect friend had replied during our conversation over dinner, but the image of that moment was already fading in our memories, and we knew our powers would not be adequate to recall it in any truthful or adequate way; and including the exploration of the feuilleton genre , although not on;y in the purist form of satire or polemic as created by Karl Kraus in pre-Great War Austria – Or is it the overlaps which occur betwen Musil’s form of the novel in A Man without Qualities, and Tony Judt’s Memory Chalet, she must have also said during our conversation, although it seems improbable to make the connection now. And I don’t know what sort of genre this is, she added.
The second “undecidable” (rather than “unbearable” in our opinion, and numbered ’2′ in the progression of the book) piece in Judt’s book was called ‘Night’, after which a new section began that was marked by a blank page, and whose first piece was called ‘Austerity’. It was a hard hitting polemical piece that was in fact well in the feuilleton tradition of Karl Kraus, but it was at the end of this piece (Page 32 to be precise) when the affliction returned – “We would prefer not to”. However, it was equally clear to us from having examined the table of contents previously that most if not all of the rest of the book had already been encountered and read by us already. The chapter titles, or numbered pieces, or list of feuilletons if you prefer, which we had once before read and to the end or so it seemed at that moment despite the negative command, included Captive Minds (a visit to the “Red Soil” location of Czeslaw Milosz’s family mansion on the Polish-Lithuanian border), and Edge People (on”My People” and national, and especially European national identity, and the marginals), among the others more lyrical recollections of childhood food, school, adolescence and growing up in postwar London.
We had sat together in silence, listening to the many other speeches that were given during that day in the War Hospital, but we believed that we were being watched, as well as being read and spoken to, and our performance was also being attended.