Fran Lock reviews The Melancholia of Class, by Cynthia Cruz, published by Repeater Books - 'a link in the chain and a light to see by'. Images by Fran Lock unless otherwise credited
It begins, as it must, in shock. We have been asleep, 'asleep in the belief' as Cruz puts it, that our colleagues and our peers regard us as equals. We have entered the academy; we play out the pretence. We are somnambulists, amnesiacs, protected by forgetfulness, by daily acts of effortful dissociation. We are adept at this, so much so that we convince even ourselves, and especially ourselves, and only ourselves. Indeed, our deepest delusion is that anyone else is fooled. It begins, as it must, in the moments we run up against the Real. Cruz' mentor tells her that she doesn't 'dress or talk' like somebody from the working class, and she is stunned, speechlessly bewildered and appalled.
To read The Melancholia of Class is also to be stunned. I experienced this book as a series of concussive blows. This is not hyperbole. We encounter others like ourselves within neoliberal culture so seldom that to meet a shared experience upon the page is to reel from the recognition. In so many ways Cruz and myself have lived parallel lives. No, more accurately, our very different lives have been marked by the same moments of disruption, erasure, and impediment; by the same endlessly iterative series of rude awakenings. We are not regarded as equal. The middle-class culture in which we find ourselves scarcely regards us as human.
Class? What class?
Numerous times over the last ten years I have been told that the “class system” in England is a “thing of the past”, that it has simply “ceased to exist”. Cruz' writing is startlingly sharp on the kinds of Janus-faced manoeuvre that make such pronouncements possible, and on the specific pain, for working-class artists, of occupying the position of the absent subject. She writes:
I was not aware I was not middle-class until my being working-class was interpolated onto me as a child. Furthermore, because neoliberalism insists there are no social classes, there is, according to its ideology, no working class. By default, the working-class subject miraculously does not exist. This being the case, the working-class subject is a ghost, which is to say alive but not living, a double, a contradiction.
Cruz asks how one is to write about social class, something that 'informs every aspect' of her life, when for many, it does not exist? She writes compellingly of how it feels to persist within culture as a haunting, or as a collective hallucination: spectral, a fever dream.
I have often described my own existence as a working-class woman within popular imagination as a kind of poltergeist or boggart. “Pikeys” are spoken around with superstitious fear, approached, but never met; glimpsed but never seen. We are known only by our effects: the saucer of milk upset, the smashed glass, the crackle of static. Within the elite space of the academy, nobody would deny that poverty exists; everyone is quite prepared to perform distress at the existence of poverty. It is a terrible thing, but it is always happening elsewhere to an idealised victim whom you do not resemble. Worse, for many middle-class artists this poverty becomes a kind of inscription surface, an aestheticised stele, a depthless backdrop. The poor and working-class people who negotiate and inhabit this poverty are always somehow missing. The social forces that create and contour the experience of living in poverty are, as Cruz puts it, 'razored out'. We flicker across this backdrop in vague gestures, 'oblique references', 'tropes emptied of meaning'. The rocking chair rocks by itself: spooky.
If you deny the existence of the poor, then poverty becomes empty and up for grabs, another hollow symbol. This is an integral part of the mechanism by which gentrification operates: class is erased in the very instance it is enacted. The middle-class talk endlessly about “regenerating” “deprived areas”. Areas are not “deprived”, people are. The human is edged out of language as a precursor to being edged out of civic space. They arrive in our communities – attracted precisely by the frisson of glamour, the cultural cache, the aura that surrounds poverty – and they begin living life without any responsibility or reference to those their presence has impacted and displaced. They don't ask themselves where we go to. They see florists and boutique bakeries flourish around them and they are well pleased. They walk through people as if we were not there.
Ghosts and ghostliness are significant features in my writing. Cruz identifies the recurrence of the spectral within her own work as signalling the presence or the possibility of death that hovers over working-class existence. Simply put, death and illness 'haunt the lives of the working class', and so they haunt, inform and constitute our art. When I attempt to talk about ghosts I feel as if I have been telling the same story on a loop forever: a photo exists of myself and my London-Irish squat-punk friends, sat on the bridge at Camden Lock. Of the twelve people visible in that photograph, only four of us survive. I am, as far as I know, the only one of those four survivors who might also be said to have “thrived”. I tell this story because our ghosts are also literal, and their existence is everywhere refused. Cruz describes an incident in which work informed by her teenage years living in an abandoned house with other teenagers was mischaracterised by an 'eminent writer' as 'dystopian'. She states that: 'He simply could not comprehend what I had described occurring in the US.' The middle class has been so effectively naturalised as the sole implied audience for art and literature that they feel no qualms about using their own experience of the world as an absolute model for all human experience.
I have written before about how an early manuscript for my second collection was rejected by an independent middle-class publisher because – and I quote – 'working-class people do not speak that way'. I was told that I was 'ventriloquising' and 'inauthentic'. I had explained – I thought, painstakingly – in my cover letter, that the work grew out of an actual correspondence and actual conversations with a person I had loved and whom I had lost. The rejection was arrogant and callous, and a function of almost breathtaking privilege: because my poetic “performance” of class did not comfortably confirm the stereotypes that middle-class culture had itself created about me, I could not “authentically” belong to the working class. Because the working class, as this one white middle-aged, middle-class man imagined them, did not sound or think like myself or my lost friend, then we must be a put-on, a fabrication, a fiction.
Cruz' book is riddled with such moments. As when her mentor measures her against an imagined working-class person and finds her reassuringly dissimilar. As when an 'Ivy League educated professor' tells her simply she is 'wrong' when she points out that the working class do exist; she knows this for a fact because she is working-class. That is real power: when your illusion has more weight than somebody else's reality. Frequently, we are not trusted to be authors of or experts in our own experience. In recent years, my writing has been called “depressing”, “morbid” and “abject”. I have been disparagingly described as a “poète maudit”, accused of “romanticising” “the margins” simply because I write about those who inhabit them with empathy and love. I was asked once where all the “good” or valorous poor people were in my work. That one disturbed me most of all. As if the figures I write about had a moral obligation to be “inspirational” or “heroic” according to the arbitrary standard of a culture they cannot access or participate in. To the middle classes an “inspirational” subject can only ever be one who “transcends” the socio-economic conditions into which they were born. They welcome only work that endorses the belief that this is possible. Further, they refuse to credit any other kinds of “success”, or to understand, as Cruz also points out, that the working class may not want what they want. They refuse, absolutely to recognise their own desires as subjective and contingent. They are the world.
Class-based oppression within art and literature
Time and again while reading The Melancholia of Class, my mind returned obsessively to that initial rejection of my manuscript. Not because the rejection itself is still painful to me, but because it both typifies and exposes a significant aspect of class-based oppression within art and literature, one that I am only beginning at this late stage of my “career” to fully comprehend. What strikes me now is that when encountering my text, the editor in question felt able to discount one of the most fundamental and well-established “rules” for reading poetry: that poetry is, at best, an imperfect sieve for lived experience; that poetic language is not the unfiltered real. How could it be? Poetry is heightened speech, is crafted and refined, whether larded or stripped. I do not write exactly as I think or speak in the supermarket or down the pub, nobody does. I make, as every writer does, aesthetic choices, and these choices are every bit as deliberate and disciplined as those of my middle-class contemporaries. But rather than attempting to understand the aesthetic basis of my work, he insisted upon seeing my various poetic strategies as “proof” of deception or inauthenticity. This reading of my work tells me two things: that he believes poetic invention to be the exclusive property of the middle class, and that a voice characterised by artless “sincerity” is the only kind of working-class voice he could possibly abide. Artless sincerity is not threatening. It confirms him, once again, in the exclusive ownership of intellectual techniques and tools that he understands instinctively as belonging to himself and to his class cohort.
Throughout my erratic trajectory as a writer, words such as “raw” or “edgy” or “fauve” have followed me, heavily disguised as compliments. They function in related but opposite ways to the charge most frequently levelled against my work: that it is – that I am – “too much”. That is “too angry”, “too sentimental”, “too depressing”, “too political”, too “melodramatic”, “excessive” and over-the-top. As I have long understood it, this type of language allows my middle-class critics to admit, without ever having to credit, the rich aesthetic basis for my creative practice. By persistently figuring features as bugs, and choices as accidents of untutored energy, they preserve the myth that rigour and innovation are solely the fruits of middle-class literary production. Reading The Melancholia of Class has helped enormously to clarify my thinking on this process. As Cruz writes:
by creating terms such as “outsider art”, “primitive art” and “Art-brut,” middle-class art historians are able to label work that does not fit into already established modes, work that tends to be made by artists not already inculcated within the middle-class art and literary worlds, as backward or inferior.
This is deeply true of poetry. The book is also particularly insightful about capitalist culture's perpetual cool-hunt; its insistence upon frictionless linear “progression”, its surface-skating quest for the “avant-garde”, the ever-new:
Middle-class culture does not engage with the concrete and material conditions on the ground – or, if it does, it incorporates the symbolic terms or language of such conditions in order to capitalise on their edginess.
A topical gloss, in other words, masking a shallow politic, “Marxy”, to quote UK poet Verity Spott, not actually Marxist. This coolness manifests in riot porn and social safari; middle-class bands posing against a backdrop of somebody else's post-industrial decay. It manifests as poets haphazardly deploying the signifiers of working-class precarity in a gestural and fleeting manner.
If working-class artists are “too” anything, perhaps we are “too present” in the events and experiences we describe. “Cool” presupposes a distance. “Cool” does not grieve. Distance itself is a function of privilege. For working-class and poor people our only option is to inhabit the world with a strained, hyper-vigilant intensity, because to live inside of capitalism demands of us a continuous negotiation. We are eternally reacting, seldom afforded the space for reflection. Neoliberal culture is endured as an exhausting series of assaults on our time and attention; on our communities and persons. The world is a barrage: encroaching and inundating. It requires, always, a pressured attention language, to the business of simply staying alive. And for us, there can be no exit ramp, no territory of tactical retreat. Except perhaps for the hedged retreats of empty sex; of drugs, alcohol, and ultimately, death.
Assimilation or annihilation
Where, after all, would we go? What would we be escaping into? This question haunts Cruz' book, where the urge to “leave” or to “become” something – anything – else is enacted in a variety of ways: the working-class person might – as Cruz did – move far away from the family and community in which they were raised. If they are fortunate, talented, dedicated, with a modicum of support behind them, they might work, in this new place, towards a variety of educational and creative goals. Or perhaps the working-class person will marry “up” and out of their class, tying their fate to a socially mobile partner. Perhaps they will walk a more reckless route, seek temporary respite within the fatal cocoon of narcotics. They might find themselves swallowed up by the military industrial complex, or by sex work, consumed by any one of a million false promises. As Cruz is at pains to point out, even in the best-case scenario, the working-class person is only and always “escaping” into a world where: 'one does not exist, being ignored and, at the same time, being the subject of daily acts of violence.' To live in such a way is 'difficult, if not impossible'. Cruz presents the bind in which we so often find ourselves in the starkest possible terms: 'assimilation or annihilation'. Choices which aren't really choices at all, for “assimilation” can only ever be imperfect:
Having abandoned her working-class origins, coming up against the threshold of the middle-class world (which will not allow her access), she is neither working-class nor is she middle-class. She is a ghost, existing between worlds, a haunting.
I find myself thinking about this a lot, about my own erratic and ultimately doomed attempts at “escape”. These attempts fail for a variety of reasons, not least because I have no objective criteria for success: I neither value or desire anything that neoliberal society has to offer. Their failure is also an imaginative failure: the void at the centre of my escape fantasies. Trained as I am to understand the world as not being for me, I have no future to project myself into. I can imagine my life only in increments: from month to month, from day to day. In part this is the result of a long socio-economic precarity, but it is also driven by a lack of confidence in a version of the future not actively hostile to my existence.
I read a nauseating article recently, which dwelt upon the “enchantment” and the “mystery” of the circus, the fairground, “gypsy” encampments and of other such “liminal” spaces. Not having access to the elite publication arena in which the article appeared, I found no zone of response, and no place of respite from the waves of cold, rolling fury the piece initiated in me. I could type out an essay to no one. I could send it to the two friends I felt would receive it on its own terms, with understanding and empathy. I could submit it to the one online journal that reliably publishes my prose. I could put it out on social media and cause a brief controversy. But the author speaks with the weight of her agent, her publisher, her academic institution, and her entire social circle behind her. Authority and status are encoded into her every pronouncement, her every digital gesture. I am hopelessly outmatched. We are both “early career academics” and published poets, but I am older, uglier, and less sure of myself; it has taken me longer and cost me more to arrive at a less-good version of the same place. I have worked every bit as hard and every bit as well. I have achieved every bit as much. But she is middle-class.
For the author, the margins are devoid of context, of the class dynamics that created them, and so they become a mirror, or a hollow repository for her awe and sense of spectacle. In the process, she erases the real people who occupy those margins, and who have not the opportunity or the ability to reply. As she erases them, she also imbues them with a silent and fascinating power. That power is the pull of her “enchantment”. Cruz tackles this same emptying out in her thorough and loving treatment of director Barbara Loden. Talking about the ways in which middle-class female writers have received and interpreted Loden's film, Wanda (1970), she describes the process of mystification that occurs when an understanding of class dynamics is removed from a reading of the film:
Loden's social class does not exist because the working class is symbolically dead; because we are told that there are no social classes. Or, rather, class does exist, but only the middle class, which is the only class represented in the media. As a result of this deliberate erasure, Wanda appears enigmatic, incomprehensible. At the same time, due to the erasure of her class Wanda and Loden (because for non-working-class female writers the two are one and the same) becomes a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which middle-class writers project themselves.
Cruz points out that Loden has articulated her artistic intentions for the film and the motivations of Wanda's titular character numerous times, but Loden's own words were not consulted by the middle-class writers engaged in draining her film of meaning. Rather, middle-class discourse overwrites the very working-class art it is ostensibly attempting to understand or to describe.
The essay on enchantment made me feel obscurely overwritten too, and all I could do was to push back with my own cancelled voice, as if the author could hear, as if she were listening, as if the voices of people like me counted for anything. I told her: beholder, the magic was inside you all along. I told her there was no “enchantment”; this frisson is the feeling of one who beholds from a place of relative safety. I told her that to run away there must be somewhere to run from. I told her that for the solid middle-class citizen, the circus is an escape from the settled, conventional centre, but that the circus is suffered to survive only because it helps this centre to hold, because it acts as a psychic purgative, a place to keep their secrets, their sex and sugar-rush taboos. On a certain level the circus is the deepest possible expression of a moral and cultural status quo. I told her that “circus” is a word for an illusion; that the word works as a denial of its moving parts, that “circus” is a euphemism, a nominative blurring of the real, a form of abdication, like “porn”, like saying “sausage” so you don't have to reckon with reconstituted flesh. I told her that the lion in the circus is not an Aztec sacrifice; that the lion in the circus is August Ames. A sacrifice is special. A circus animal in one among many instrumentalised “others”, is the other whose otherness is the very argument for their instrumentalisation. The circus is a spectacle, and spectacle at its most fundamental is a retreat from empathy. Of course, this is the crux of the attraction: cheap holidays in other people's misery.
I wrote and I wrote, pointlessly, against my own erasure. Lately, I have felt this pointlessness, this sense of numbing futility, more deeply rooted within the heart of my creative practice than at any time since my early twenties. The Melancholia of Class arrived on my desk at a moment when I felt consumed by a like form of melancholia. Worn down by my repeated attempts to evade, surmount or negotiate a stacked system, frustrated by the hedged or partial nature of even my victories, I also felt – feel – lost in a more amorphous way.
Cruz uses Freud's model of melancholic mourning as a way of understanding that particular feeling of diffuse, pervasive and ambivalent loss experienced by the working-class subject who cannot or will not assimilate into neoliberal culture, and yet who stubbornly persists, “alive but not living”. I was initially somewhat resistant, somewhat sceptical, about adopting a psychoanalytic framework for understanding my own relationship to class, but Cruz is both persuasive and clear: because neoliberal culture refuses to acknowledge social class, and because the working class are symbolically dead, the working-class subject has no language in which to articulate that which they have lost, no language in which to name, and to release their attachment to the lost love object.
Cruz draws on her own formative experiences of having shame of her class background 'interpolated onto her as a child', and the ways in which this shame was internalised, the way it warped her understanding of herself and her community. This feeling is familiar to me. Self-loathing is familiar: this obtrusive and often overwhelming sense that I am defective or “less”; that something is wrong with me. Cruz writes movingly about the mechanics of this experience:
I didn't know that my social alienation was the direct result of my class and that my being marginalized was too. The few friends I had at the time were also bullied. Some dropped out of high school, some ran away from home, moved to San Francisco where they became homeless. Some ended up addicted to drugs, some were forced to sell their bodies in order to survive. Many eventually killed themselves. By the time I left my hometown for college, most of the working-class kids I'd known were dead or had gone missing.
No tools, no space, no way
To read these words produces an uncanny feeling: this is one of many places in The Melancholia of Class where Cruz' experience appears eerily similar to my own. But it is not eerie, merely sad. The intense identification I feel for Cruz in these moments is itself the result of a vast cultural silence surrounding class-based oppression; a fiercely willed inattention to the voices and stories of poor and working-class persons. Myself and Cruz are not, in fact, two exceptional individuals united by some kind of supernatural affinity; I do not doubt that our experiences are shared by hundreds of thousands of other working-class women and girls. But because we were not given the tools to understand ourselves as a class cohort, and because our stories are seldom afforded space within the dominant discourse, we have had no way of apprehending that fact, of finding each other; we have remained isolated. This is one significant reason that Cruz' book is so important: in its appeal to horizontal solidarity, in its empathetic and embracive reach, The Melancholia of Class performs 'an act of communal rite, a calling-into-being'. Through this act, Cruz aims to 'begin to awaken from the death-sleep of amnesia.' This book might awaken others too.
Am I awake? Truly awake? Or simply wondering around the corridors and battlements of my own isolation like Lady Macbeth: my eyes are open but their sense is shut, etc. I am not dazed. I am jaggedly alert, unable to relax. I drink a lot of coffee. When I am working, ideas and images pass in intermittent flickers across the fitful continuum of my attention. This is not an inability to concentrate as such; rather “concentration” itself consists of something other than what is typically meant by “concentration”. Cruz touches upon this in the opening chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about the ways in which working-class people experience and perceive time under capitalism; the ways in which our time is perceived, valued, and managed by others. The middle class are allowed leisure. That is to say that economic and material security afford them the time and the space to be idle. It is also to say that they are permitted this idleness, that no moral taint attends it as it does for the working class. As Cruz writes, we are expected to conform to an endless cycle of 'work and recovery', and any refusal of this pattern is punished both by moral disapprobation and the withholding of essential resources by the systems that administer us. The DWP and like agencies feel perfectly entitled – indeed morally obligated – to waste our time: we do not require leisure because we are not capable of using it profitably.
We have no abstract thought, no long-term desires; we are not curious or enquiring. We cannot appreciate, and consequently we do not deserve travel, or culture, nature, or art. Our pleasures are supposed to be immediate and crude: the compulsive joyless gratifications of sex, food, and alcohol; the stupor of daytime television. We are taught to be ashamed of our idleness. We are told that to rest is “lazy”. My mother and I have both internalised this shame to a dangerous degree. Sometimes the fog clears and I am able to see this objectively: here are two generations of working-class women, workaholic over-achievers who nonetheless feel themselves to be lazy, derelict and failing. When work is offered that we neither want or particularly need, we take it anyway. The flip-side to shame is guilt, the desperate desire to prove that we do not consider ourselves “above” the work that is offered us, however menial or degrading the labour, however over-qualified and eminently unsuitable we are for the work.
We do not wish to appear “ungrateful” for the “opportunity”, when so many working-class people are desperate for employment. This anxiety has permeated every level of our lives. At the time of writing, my mother is so busy, so tied to her desk, that she has not been outside for a walk in over a week. I am, frankly, a doormat at home, piling domestic drudgery on top of research, teaching, writing, editorial and publication commitments. I occupy numerous voluntary positions, all of which I love, but which eat into and through my days like acid. I clean frenetically, cook from scratch. In the free time that remains to me I walk or run. I can “rest” only when I am physically exhausted, when my mind is quiet and I can allow myself to believe that I deserve this respite. I put the radio on and hear nothing. I stare at a screen without appetite or interest.
I have written a great deal about the impact these cycles of shame and guilt have on working-class literary production: for middle-class persons the act of reading is most often conceptualised as a leisure activity, as inherently pleasurable and restorative. But it is also an exercise of pleasure through which the reader participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a prestige-seeking activity, which situates the reader within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading, and being seen to have read the “right” books, contributes to a sense of shared class identity; contributes to a “house style”, a common fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. For the middle class, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. There is often a significant overlap between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume. There is a level of identification and comfort between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. This kind of entitlement is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers. Although we may also read for pleasure, we do so in omnivorous and opportunistic ways, clawing back time and attention from myriad material demands and from the unconducive conditions of home and work. When we read, we must read with the ambient hum of alienation and shame at the back of us. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature, and we feel uncertain of our right to either literature or the time required to access it.
The idea of what constitutes “good” (middle-class) prosody emerges from the mistaken assumption that working-class writers share not only the same material and social capital as our middle-class peers, but that we also share an experience of time. We do not. And compression, interruption, impediment and delay – all the discomforts of working-class existence – combine to exert a peculiar power over the rhetorics and aesthetics of our poetry.
The rhythms of our lived experience are often punctuated and messy. Against the relentless routinised scheduling of work, the endless accounting to government agencies, there is every conceivable kind or disruption or incursion: barking dogs, wailing sirens, the stutter of drills, the screaming of kids; the stereos and televisions of our neighbours, the ticking of a clock that announces we must return to paid employment, take the dinner from the hob, pick the children up from school, or collect prescriptions. This affects how we think, how we read, write, and study: our default is not silence and space. This translates onto the page in numerous ways, and constitutes a central component of our work, its context, its aesthetic basis.
Anorexia, rage and rejection
Am I truly awake? And not just fretting through my days in a state of hyperarousal? I suffered from insomnia for years; insomnia produces its own kind of waking death-sleep. Mine was an experience of mental and bodily exhaustion which served to intensify rather than dissipate the manic energy inside of me, and inside of which I existed. Throughout my life, this insomnia, and the anorexia that accompanies it, have returned to me with varying degrees of ferocity. Cruz is one of the very few writers I have encountered who articulates anorexia as something both disciplined and – in Cruz' terms – 'vigilant'. Uncanniness creeps in again here: Cruz and I share an understanding of anorexia as a form of negation, of principled refusal. To be anorexic, writes Cruz is 'to become indigestible to the capitalist system. The anorexic is rage made manifest. It is a stance, Antigone's No without explanation.' I find myself extraordinarily grateful to Cruz for giving form to these thoughts because I have long struggled to write about my own eating disorder and its complex relationship to my class and ethnic identity.
At times it has seemed to me a manner of resistance, a refusal of work, domestic, emotional, and sexual, as well as in terms of the labour market: drained of “erotic capital”, “unfit” for most forms of paid employment, and sealed inside my own impenetrable act of bodily defiance, I was truly surplus. I had zero utility. I lived counter to the clock, against the grain of routine. But it is more than this. For the longest time starvation was the language of my self-and-world-disgust. I did not have the words for what I felt. Literate, but not articulate in the ways that mattered to me. And having only broken phrases in what should have been my “mother tongues”, I had tried repeatedly and without success to unmake the pain of English with English: a language I belonged to which did not belong to me. English – that is the middle-class English that administered and bound me – suffered me, it seemed, condescended to me. It held me, but held me off, and down, and at arm's length. I found it hard to shape my mouth around it in the approved ways. It was slippery and mean. When English and the English world entered me, it made me feel sick. I swallowed it like a sword.
Anorexia nearly killed me. I didn't want to die, quite the opposite was true. More than anything, I wanted to speak, but my mouth was a nest for an enemy language. I hated the sound of myself. Not English or Irish. Not anything. When I spoke “proper” what proceeded from my mouth could never amount to more than a bargain basement version of my tormentors' voices. In refusing to eat, I was burning the English out of me. I was making myself empty and clean. I could not name the ugly things that happened to me with their ugly English mainland words. By refusing food I was refusing their world. I wanted nothing from it. It could not sustain or nourish me. I would not let it keep me alive. I was completely obsessed with the Hunger Strike, with ascetics and mystics; acts – political and spiritual – of absolute renunciation. How else does one resist? How else to stage my counter-claim? This body is mine. I do not recognise your prison or the laws that it upholds.
Hunger has such a profound relationship to Irish identity, and to working-class Irish identity in particular. Historically, it is not merely something we have suffered, but something we have fought with in extremis, when there was nothing left to lose, nothing else at our disposal but the self. When we are denied our language – as countless generations of Irish and Traveller people have been denied – either by law, or by the slow workings of cultural attrition, then all we have left is gesture. Gesture is both language and a failure of or substitute for language. It is not merely that I had no words for articulating my pain, but that eloquence itself felt deeply suspect. Language acts have a tremendous capacity to devastate, oppress, and to coerce. To speak English and to “talk proper” is to compound and to bolster the original trauma. How can language hope to provide a solution or a “cure” when discourse itself is implicated in producing the wound?
Fran's boots, photographed by Peter Clarke
I had long connected these ideas to my ethnic heritage, but in the fifth chapter of The Melancholia of Class, writing about 'the libidinal working-class body' Cruz brings into focus their relevance to all displaced and traumatised working-class communities. In a long passage about Joy Division's lead singer, Ian Curtis, Cruz explains how 'a body filled with rage and sorrow, that must remain silent in order to survive, is a body reduced to the act of the gesture'. On stage, the silent accumulation of pain is converted into Curtis' signature delivery: compressed, contorted, urgent, flailing. Cruz makes an important and subtle distinction here: Curtis' onstage affects are not a “performance” as such, but a “distillation” of his traumatised working-class identity. It is worth, I think quoting at length from the section in which Cruz describes Curtis' working-class body becoming:
the vessel for his sorrow, for his melancholia. And it is through his body and gestures that Curtis performs this affect. Growing up working-class in a culture that ignores and abhors the working class is to find oneself marginalised both economically and physically. Add to this the daily subtle and not so subtle insults and slights and what you have is a body filled with sorrow and rage. At the same time, the legacy of this poverty (being raised by parents who've grown up in poverty whose parents grew up in poverty) and the violence incurred through the lived experience of this daily poverty, results in trauma […] With no escape from one's life, from its constraints, the body becomes the only vehicle through which to perform the unsayable. The terror and the hopelessness are internalized, repressed, where they gain power.
Cruz uses Freud's notion of the “libido” to explain that the power of Curtis' delivery on stage is derived from his affects – all that pent up rage and pain – being repressed for so long beforehand. On stage we are witnessing the abandonment of the self to its bottled-up libidinal energies. It isn't, as it is with some other bands, a simulation of “sex”, a performance of snarling, unappeased energy. No, Curtis is releasing his own terror and manic intensity without 'the interpretive buffer of cultural translation', without, in other words, the ironising or ameliorating effects of “distance”. This is why to witness Joy Division live was shocking.
Throughout my writing life, one small source of perverse pride has been to have my work described as both “spasmodic” and “grotesque”, words which also attached themselves to Ian Curtis, and to Joy Division's live performances. These visceral descriptors are telling: they identify my writing absolutely with the body that produced it, with the poor, “other”, working-class body that obtrudes into elite literary space. The grotesque bodies of the poor haunt middle-class imagination: dishevelled (Cruz' term) and sloppy, obtrusive and uncouth. We are too big and too loud in every way. Our physical frames are awkward, ill-disciplined and ungovernable. We are too “there”, a physical reminder of the inequalities that govern our existence; of working-class suffering and middle-class privilege. I connect “grotesque” to the middle-class kids at my school calling me “fat”, or “smelly” or “ugly”. I wasn't any of those things, but I was visible, and that was enough. I disrupted their uninterrupted view of a future fully stocked with others like themselves; their seamless illusion that they and their class cohort made up the world. They didn't understand it in those terms of course, and neither did I. I was merely being punished for my “difference”.
When I am anxious, over-tired or angry my carefully cultivated accent suffers slips, exposing me in my paper-thin pretence at “passing”. The speed with which middle-class colleagues, peers and audiences pick up and pounce on these slips is eye-watering. Immediately following the death of my best friend, I was obliged to fulfil a reading commitment in London. Two days before, the shocking news of his loss had reached me in Belfast; I was trying desperately to process this news, but I needed to go straight from the airport to the reading. I had barely slept, and I'd been wearing the same scutty jeans, trainers, and my beloved “Norn” hoody since I received the news. I did not want to be there, but felt constrained to be professional. I knew it was a mistake as soon as I stepped through the door, and an audience member turned in her chair to the friend sitting beside her and hissed chav! in a poisonous sotto voce.
The reading did not go well. The more I tried to keep my voice level and controlled, the more pronounced and wonky my accent became. At the end of the reading, the event organiser, a middle-aged, middle-class man cornered me by the coffee urn, leaned into my face breathing read wine fumes all over me, and told me I was “unintelligible”, that I needed to “enunciate more”, that my voice made me seem “angry”, and began interrogating me about where I was from, as if the way I sound must be continuously explained and atoned for. Accent or vocal identity is inseparable from my status as a working-class woman, and from the expectations that identity engenders. Within elite literary space that sound becomes a way of speaking to and through shifting perceptions of education and class, and subverting or denouncing the political, social and poetic assumptions contained within notions of “accent” or “dialect”. At an event that described itself as “experimental” and that celebrated the decentering of the lyric I, my strong vocal identity complicated and undercut that very decentering, tendering an implied critique of their much lauded “post-identity” poetic moment. They did not like that. And so I was raked over the coals for failing to modulate my class identity, and unsubtly mocked for the way my working-class body presented and took up space.
As Mary Russo writes in The Female Grotesque:
images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily canons of classical aesthetics. The classical body is transcendental and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical and sleek; it is identified with “high” or official culture [...] with the rationalism, individualism, and the normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie. The grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, and changing.'
The grotesque is an open wound, a denial of catharsis, a refusal of what Lara Glenum calls 'the aesthetics of the pure. “Catharsis” is from the Greek verb “to purify”. It is a coercive cleaner-upper of pain, which means, for the working-class artist, a cleaner-upper or banisher of class identity. 'What the public wants from the working-class female artist is a Pygmalion transformation', writes Cruz. 'They want to see the poor working-class girl with her crooked accent, her bad skin, and poor taste traded in for a clean, sleek, aspirational version of her true self.' Cruz points to the tragic trajectory of Amy Winehouse as an example of ways in which the working-class subject who does not buy into this trade-off is hated, hounded and punished.
When Winehouse died her image was everywhere, finally purged of her grotesque, troubling identity, emptied into pure surface, absolute myth. They prefer you dead, those people. They make a fetish out of music's doomed heroes because in their world doom itself is exceptional and exciting, so much so that it confers a kind of status. And being dead, these figures are freed from their difficult contexts, subsumed into a textureless meld with others superficially like themselves. The dead are safe, ready to be packaged, repackaged, re-written, written-over, claimed and reclaimed by discourse: there's a white middle-class discourse for every working-class subculture you care to name. Mediation, intervention. The white middle class create the archive, the archive becomes the crypt. We cannot win. It is only inside of the work that all we are asked to carry and contain briefly spills into life, touches the edges of a complacent middle-class culture, our auditors, our readers. We manifest “too muchness”, excess, not as indulgence, but absolute negation. We supply rather than receive the shock. To work is to wake, to be at our most vulnerable and most conscious, inside of writing, music, inside of our art, if nowhere else.
The heat over the last week has been stifling. I have carried The Melancholia of Class from room to room with me, looking for a cold spot, privately stewing. The weather broils me, heat-sealing me inside of my own skin, but the general slow grinding unfairness of things broils me too, and I am tired. I do not aim to collect grievances, but they accumulate nonetheless, and there is nowhere for them to go. I try to explain to my friends why it is that I am so wound-up: being long-listed for yet another poetry prize is like being picked to play the sheep in the school nativity play, you're acknowledged, but not really. You're included, but only to the extent that your obtrusive presence has made inclusion absolutely necessary. If you so much as suggest that class and race might have anything to do with your inability to ascend, then you're “paranoid” and “chippy”, excusing your own lack of talent by playing a “card”.
One of the unique joys of being a “white, other” is that you present an opportunity for white middle-class people to comfortably indulge both their racism and their classism without ever having to admit to the existence of either. They don't “see” your class, either because you do not present to them like a “typical” working-class person according to the tropes they themselves invented, or because they do not believe that the class system really exists. They filter class out of their world-view in ways that remove (as Cruz also notes) the experience of class-based oppression from black and minority ethnic working-class people, while refusing to acknowledge the roll racism plays in the perception and treatment of working-class white others. My friends make sympathetic noises, but in the main, they don't get it. I want to explain that it isn't the endless barrage of rejections or disappoints in themselves, it's the overwhelming sense of stuckness and delay they feed into, of constantly striving but never arriving, of doing the work but wasting my time.
Time again. For us it is always pressured and constraining. After ostensibly accepting two of my poems for publication and soliciting another, I have now been kept waiting for one year and six months by a “respected” (middle-class) literary journal. I notice that in the interim, the editor has been teaching my book as part of their course on “working-class poetics”, so that we are now in the unusual position that they are able to profit from my work and indeed from my class identity, while I, the actual working-class person who produced the work, hover in limbo. Precarity of this kind is not merely inconsiderate, it is, after a certain point, re-traumatising, inscribing over again the lessons learnt while sitting in Job Centre waiting rooms: that my time and energy not valued, that they do not – that I do not – matter. Hierarchy is etched into this interaction. Their treatment of me is only possible because of the power differential that exists between us.
On days like these Cruz' book is both a comfort and a provocation; when she writes of her alienation inside the academy, and of: 'the voices of teachers and classmates, colleagues and students, who make it clear to me, on a regular basis, that I do not belong in the world in which I now find myself', I am stupidly close to tears. I am crying for and in solidarity with Cruz. I am crying for all of us. I am crying, more selfishly, for me. Throughout the book, Cruz' perceptive essays on working-class creatives are interwoven with strands of memoir, a hybrid form that demonstrates just how entwined is our class with our creativity, performing an ethics of fusion and remix. The Melancholia of Class is a genre-blurring, border-stepping text. Intellectually rigorous and probing, but also tenderly embodied within lived experience. Reading the book, I have come to especially relish Cruz' intelligent and attentive writing about music and musicians; she speaks with such loving precision about the working-class bands (especially The Jam) whose music shaped her formative notions of class solidarity. Equally, I have come to feel a familiar queasy gut-punch each time she writes about encountering a middle-class cultural gatekeeper; each time somebody tells her “no”, sets out to dismiss or diminish her. These dismissals and diminishments are also my own. Life is long, and sometimes I feel them rising up around me until I am immobilised, until only my head is visible: like Winnie in fucking Happy Days, buried up to her neck. Assimilate or die. Assimilate and die. In the end, what's the difference? I feel hopeless, and I am angry at myself for this hopelessness. My life is good. I have work, and finally after many, many years in a south London shit-hole, a beautiful place to live. I am loved. And taken individually each slight or barb or block is easy to dismiss as trivial, petty or imagined, or both. But they are real, and they build and build.
On days like these I miss Marty. Marty was my best friend. He understood. He understood too well. He chose annihilation over assimilation. Marty had fought a daily battle with depression, and addiction. We had lived together for such a long time that I had become intimately familiar with this battle; in many ways I had taken it on as my own. Most days he'd struggle, and most days he lost, but he fought with so much heart. There was courage there, often outwardly obscured by the fuck-ups, busts, and general drama that attends any crippling addiction. When he died, my sense of failure was total, a molten mixture of anger, sadness and guilt. Marty and I were so similar in so many ways. Outwardly, we cultivated the same look, an Irish- squat-punk aesthetic we referred to as “croppy-core”: combining the scrapyard audacities of early punk with pro-Irish Republican and kitschy Catholic signifiers. When we could get hold of the materials, we also incorporated elements of “low-Irish” Victoriana: a dirty and much battered silk topper, a badly dyed black tails shirt. I made, or he shoplifted, most of the clothes we wore. We traded outfits. Seen from behind, with our matching mohawks and anorexic frames, we were often mistaken for each other. We were not the same. Our difference was the distance I had travelled in terms of articulacy, literacy, education, but a number of the things that had scarred him marked me too. We joked that we were, in fact, two halves of the same person, divided by some cosmic quick of fate. We joked that if we could smush ourselves back together, we might make a functioning human being.
Marty went missing and then he destroyed himself. Missingness and ambiguous loss run through my work because of Marty. Not merely because he “went” missing, but because missingness adhered to him like a positive quality throughout his life. Cruz writes at length about the melancholia that besets the working-class subject who leaves their community and yet finds no future to escape into. This feels intimately familiar to me, but there is also this other, related pain, what I have called an exile of spatial dysphoria: a feeling of being bound to a place, but of moving within it disregarded or misunderstood, objected from public cartographies; edged out or spoken over whenever the story of your native place is told.
As I have come to understand it, by the time he was old enough to meaningfully grieve the trauma of his childhood, the sites and settlements of that shared experience no longer existed. His past was not meaningfully registered upon public space, was written over by an iconography of grieving from which he felt excluded. His experience of loss was unaccommodated by Ireland’s nationalistic, religious, and sectarian scripts. If grief and the act of remembrance are experienced in and through physical spaces both public and private, then what should it mean for those of us with a vexed relationship to such spaces? Ireland devours her dead, folding them into her own mythology, inscribing their presence onto civic space. Unless they are not the “right kind” of dead, the dead who do not fit the narrow arc of Ireland's nationally determined story. Traveller dead. Queer dead. Brown dead. Junkie dead.
Within settled communities the legacy of sectarian violence is explicit and readily legible, inscribed upon public space through acts of myriad vandalism and memorialisation; the demolition of buildings, the securitisation of streets. For sedentary communities buildings capture the continuity of collective experience, they stage and reemphasise a shared cultural heritage. In the North of Ireland in particular, public artwork interacts with personal histories; mediates and facilitates the uncanny experience of memory between individuals and their wider communities, between these communities and the wider world. Traveller or homeless communities, whose settlements are, by their very nature, transitory, leave no corresponding trace or wound on the physical landscape. If public space is a container for cultural heritage, then those with no stake in that space, their histories, and their memories, remain uninscribed, are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. To grieve is to grieve inwardly, invisibly. It is to find no place of recognition for your pain.
The hierarchies of grief
Towards the end of The Melancholia of Class, Cruz writes movingly about the ways in which gentrification erases both the past and the future for all poor and working-class communities. There are, as Jahan Ramazani notes, distinct 'hierarchies of grievability', kinds of grief, and grieved-for subjects it is not acceptable to speak of or to mourn. Gentrification is both a denial of persons and a refusal of their pain, and so we are blocked, at every turn, on every level, from releasing this pain: how and where are we to mourn our lost, whose lives are characterised by the provisional, the precarious, the marginal and impermanent? How do we grieve poor, queer, vulnerably housed and homeless subjects? And how do we reckon with the trauma of that grief, when trauma, by its very definition, renders problematic the possibility of representation? How is trauma to be told when, through contact with traumatic experience, individuals lose their ability to fully apprehend or integrate the memories of those experiences; when they are unable to give a coherent or consistent account of those experiences to others?
How is grief to be rendered visible when the trauma of that grief is itself entangled in acts, official and unofficial, of forcible removal, denigration and erasure? Ultimately, where do we even go to grieve once our landscapes are concreted over, our sites broken up, our communities dispersed, our squats torn down, our bars closed down, our dancehalls gentrified, our districts socially cleansed? We can exist nowhere, in our native place nor our chosen home. From Ireland to a council flat in London, forced out of the flat when his mother died; squatting in Camden, moved on by security goons in black bomber jackets so that the area could be “renovated”, “renovated around”, subsisting, existing, becoming thinner and thinner, drinking harder, with skills he cannot use rotting in his hands because to work these days you must be documented, accounted for. In the end, only able to answer rejection with rejection, Marty ghosted, was gone.
There was no place for him in this world. For a while we had punk and punk made a place, a way of life that acknowledged and valued the skills we had: our creativity, our savvy habits of scavenging, our skip-diving resourcefulness, our pressured invention, our shoe-string flair. We would wear our second-hand, customised clothes to death: our battle jackets and boots accumulated and stored lived experience, a tactile repository, an archive of our own. Something we could carry, who did not have the security of solid walls around us. Punk was dead, but that was half the point. As Cruz writes 'this insistence on the past drags it into the present, creating a glitch in the system', and this is also form of resistance: to a homogeneous and disposable culture, to what Rachael Blau DuPlessis describes as the 'malignant rapidity' of capitalism. We opened for ourselves and each other a parallel time-line. Punk's aims had never been realised, its demands never met, our lives had never improved for all of its thrashing and screaming. And so we rededicated ourselves. In Camden we made a last anachronistic redoubt, and briefly we were glorious and annoying.
In recent years the “retro look” has been frigging everywhere, a stylistic expression of the weaponised nostalgia mobilized by the Tories during Brexit and the last general election. Retro is not the same as the anachronistic borrowings made by the rockers and mods Cruz writes about, or the punks of my own misspent youth. Retro is neoliberal culture's way of reabsorbing and recolonising the past, of forcing our avenues of exploration and adventure back into an inescapable circuit with a rotten present. Retro narrows the past into a series of easily identifiable, consumer-friendly images; these images are then ripe for mass production. Retro is copy-paste and shop-bought. It removes any element of archaeology or investigation from the process of creating style. It replaces style with a shallow array of disembodied and impersonal “looks”. All surface, taken in at a glance. Retro shears the past of its textures, subtleties, and secrets. It does not use words like “second-hand”. If clothes are not new, they are “vintage”, that is endorsed by and welcomed into the new, with a price tag to match. In the world of retro there are no human beings. We don't have to think about the bodies that previously occupied these clothes; we don't have to acknowledge the working-class invention that created the style. In the world of retro there are no classes. Retro is for those who have the luxury of forgetting the past, their own past and that of the world. Retro is a past without accessing memory. The working-class subject is tied to their past. We drag it behind us like a withered limb.
Water pours in through the skylight
'It seems she was given an ultimatum', Cruz writes of Chan Marshall, whose sparse, blues-inflected music was co-opted over time into bland and heavily mastered pop, 'forsake your past and survive, or remain with your past and be destroyed. Given the option of two deaths – to die in the past or forsake your past, which is to say to forsake yourself, but survive – which death do you choose?' This is not an idle question. For any of us. The weather broke last night. The dog cowered in the corner, water poured in through a skylight I had neglected to close. It seems a marvel to me that I am able to type the sentence “water poured in through a skylight”, the skylight in my house, my house has a skylight, I have a house. It is a kind of miracle. But a hedged one. Jammed up, allowed to go no further, unable to inhabit this house as if I truly belong there, I rock on the bed in a baggy t-shirt, weighed down with depression and survivor's guilt. I am afraid of forgetting, and exhausted by the impossibility of forgetting. If I push the past down inside of me, it resurfaces time and again in symptomatic and performative traces, little “ghostsings” of syntax and structure; words and images, a sound, a smell.
The latter section of The Melancholia of Class is, in many ways, the most difficult to read. Cruz writes about Freud's notion of the death drive through the slow dissolution and ultimate destruction of various working-class creatives, from Jason Molina to Clarice Lispector. Here Cruz writes about 'The Undead', that is the doubled, the split, the hopelessly divided working-class subject, who tries desperately to become someone or something else, yet reaches, as she always must, an irreconcilable impasse. Cruz writes not just with empathy but with understanding about the addictions and debilities of others. I find myself vigorously underlining the following passage: 'when we have nothing, we have nothing to lose, and it makes sense to want to push through the bottom of the bottom, as if on the other side there might exist a clean slate and the chance to begin again.' Cruz is talking about Jason Molina. But she could just as well have been talking about Marty, or any of those boys from the bridge in the Camden.
Melancholia by Dürer, 1513
None of this is to say that The Melancholia of Class is a hopeless book, even necessarily a melancholy one. What it provides – for myself at least – is a space in which melancholia may be encountered and probed, a place to initiate and access memory. This is perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Cruz' “manifesto”: that the collective action she proposes is a kind of mass memory work, the “undoing” of the coerced amnesia of neoliberal culture. Melancholia, writes Cruz, will not leave us: 'Our collective melancholia is a humming, it is constant. And it will not go away. And although it will not leave us, we can allow it to guide us.' We can – and must – also guide each other, and to accomplish this task we must first recognise ourselves and what besets us. The Melancholia of Class is a node of affective solidarity. It is a link in the chain and a light to see by.