Where you are not – the loss of Tom Lubbock’s words / by Sarah Wishart

First published in English and Croatian in 2012 in the Performing Arts magazine Frakcija issue no. #58/59 ‘On Being Moved’

I first read Tom Lubbock’s account of the experience of having a terminal brain tumour in November 2010, with my Sunday breakfast in bed, just a fortnight before I moved house. Despite the frenzy in the space outside the bedroom, I found myself unable to get beyond Lubbock’s article in The Observer.  I read it over and over again in bed, in that rare quiet moment, and yet I still wanted to read it again, in even more silence, with a better span of concentration.  I carefully folded it up, and consigned the rest of the newspaper to the pile for wrapping crockery.

Despite everything he was facing, as a journalist, Lubbock was well equipped to explain the process of his language skills failing him, and what that meant to him as a writer. As a writer myself, the possible deterioration of the brain terrifies me, so it is perhaps inevitable that his words punctured, scared and moved me with ease. Yet there was something else – it was not only a grim fascination with the subject matter. There was something in the way this was written, and in the way I have read it and re-read it, which makes me think about love poetry.  Not an love poem to the experience of dying, but rather a determination to try and capture in words, a state beyond explanation.

As things start to fall away, Lubbock is determined to try to describe, to everyone outside of his experience, exactly what is happening. When words fail him after his first fit, he follows the experience gently through; ‘I’m no longer fluent. I’ve forgotten how to do it. I can’t do it automatically. I can’t hear whether a word I say has come out right or not. It’s as if it’s not me that’s speaking, but some kind of inefficient proxy forming the words’. He painstakingly recreates the experience of losing a word between the mind and the mouth, reconstructing the experience for us, just as he had to reconstruct the word ‘phoneme by phoneme’.  He wants to understand the process of this loss in a way that echoes Barthes description of the experience of falling in love, ‘suddenly perceiving the amorous episode as a knot of inexplicable reasons and impaired solutions, the subject exclaims ‘I want to understand (what is happening to me)’.  I feel how distressing the relentless expansion between his capacity with the written word and his delivery of the spoken word is. There is a gentle curiosity as if he is watching himself from an external perspective in descriptions of the lost word; ‘my speech is now becoming a radical problem. Sometimes, for a short period, and suddenly, I find that I no longer know what I am saying, but I still go on talking and talking sense – like an inspired sibyl’.  His writing in comparison works well on the page, even as he tells the reader that it was not perfect in its creation. ‘The problems with my writing seem to be worse. The letters come out wrong: I always miss out the first letter of a word; after that, the letters come in the wrong order, or with replacements, and have to be rewritten all the time’.

His determination to describe the process of facing the failure of his language, and within this, death, as it is happening is incredible. Lubbock does not face down death, he dies from this disease and his wife and son lose him. Yet the narrative we are given is not the loss of Lubbock, the significant other, as we are not given the narrative of this affect on his family life. Instead we are given the experience of the losses of the one who writes.

There have been a raft of memoirs concerned with losing a significant other recently; the British actress Natascha McElhone’s After You is a book written as letters and diary entries to her husband who died unexpectedly a day before their 10th anniversary while she was pregnant with their third son. Joyce Carol Oates and Joan Didion’s widow’s memoirs are still on best-seller lists; Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was adapted for the stage and actresses as famous as Vanessa Redgrave played Didion in the role. There are countless blogs from all around the world that deal in some way on issues of loss. For example Matt Logelin’s blog ‘Matt, Liz and Madeline’ is the account of the death of his wife following complications after the birth of their daughter and his subsequent single parenthood.  Logelin’s blog has attracted particular media attention recently, as he publishes a book that stems from this account of his life following Liz’s sudden death. There are countless widow and widower blogs, just as there are countless cancer blogs, HIV blogs, and hepatitis C blogs. The format of blogging as an ongoing exercise, or in the way McElhone writes letters to her dead husband, flags the process as a regular task. That there is something to be written every day assists with the idea that the one who writes does not necessarily have a wider audience in mind. The process of writing can be a focus to get through the day, to distance one’s self from anxiety or fear, or to enable communication to the one who is not there, the one who does not reply.

The fact that these tracts might speak, not only to the absent other, but a future unknown readership is often invisible to the writer at the time the writing takes place. McElhone for example confirms that her letters to her dead husband were ‘never written with the intention of anyone else reading them’ and that she published them for the sake of her children, so that they’d be able to access their father and their parent’s love and relationship at a future point.  Yet their relationship is told in such detail that it can be difficult to imagine a child wanting to access this terrible grief that inhabits his mother, her desolation in stark contrast to her responsibilities as a pregnant mother. I understand the need for McElhone, Oates and Didion to write these texts, but what is less easy is why they might be adapted into a more public format. Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is one such text, adapted for the stage by David Hare, and Didion was played by Vanessa Redgrave. Some reviews focus on the effect of Redgrave’s presence ‘that the audience is rapt is an understatement. We are practically hypnotised by Redgrave’s every movement’. Yet the deeply intimate aspect inherent in reading the book might be lost in this shift to performance. This would be doubly so when the performer is such a well known actress like Redgrave. As one reviewer assesses it – Didion’s focus on the detail of the trauma is reduced by Redgrave’s performance on stage which rather than illuminate that detail instead lends itself to a ‘heroic scale’, the reviewer sums it up when she suggests that, ‘there is no doubt that she is a great artist. So is Ms. Didion. The problem with The Year of Magical Thinking is that their artistry pulls in different directions’. Whether this difference between the two forms expands the telling of this story is questionable.

Another variation on the trauma text was also adapted for stage, following the traumatic end to a love affair, the French artist Sophie Calle wrote a text entitled Exquisite Pain which emerged out of the answers her friends and colleagues provided in response to her question: ‘When did you most suffer?’. Their responses accompany Calle’s narrative on loss of her relationships. This text was ostensibly created to assist her in getting over her heartbreak ‘until I had got over my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition’. This text formed the basis of a performance by Forced Entertainment in 2005 and was the first time the theatre company had used a text that wasn’t theirs. The performance was ‘an excruciatingly long two and a half hours of repeated monologue’. Rachel Lois Clapham writing in Artist Newsletter suggested that rather than attempt to open up Calle’s pain, the company created the work in order to ask particular things of performance, she suggests that ‘the tangible pain that results from experiencing Exquisite Pain has a clear purpose: Forced Entertainment subjects its audience to this hurt in order to ask the question ‘Can the continual repetition of a banal plot be engaging?’ ‘How many repetitions does it take before something becomes interesting?’ It was a test of endurance, and perhaps a new way to experience Calle’s pain, but arguably an experience that pushed the audience away.

In comparison, in their own performances, Forced Entertainment use moments to draw the audience in, even as they immediately then force a distance between audience and performer, emotion and contrasting experience. In Showtime, the performer, Cathy Naden, is asked how she would commit suicide, and Cathy responds softly and slowly into a microphone, in great detail. She talks the audience through each and every step that she’d take to commit suicide in a bath. Once she finishes, Terry O’Connor, dressed as a cardboard tree rushes forward and starts screaming at the audience ‘What the fuck are you looking at? What the fuck is your problem? Fuck off! Voyeurs! There’s a fucking fine line and you’ve just crossed it’.  To pull the audience in and then force them away so violently, can effect a moment of exchange; ‘like your presence at this event had to cost something’.

There is arguably an involvement of the audience in a way absent in either of these adaptations of a trauma text. In comparison to this perhaps unavoidable reduction that adaptation creates, in a recent review in the Guardian, Nicole Krauss describes the process of writing as ‘always an expansion’.  I argue that in this example this expansion occurs specifically in relation to the writers’ understanding of death. Either the reader is being told about a death that devastates the writer, or suspects an impending tragedy as with Lubbock. Yet despite the diagnosis and difficulties, Lubbock continues with this ‘expansion’, he continues as a reviewer throughout his illness. In 2008, after his original diagnosis, first brain operation and the first round of radiotherapy, he writes a review on Vermeer’s View of Delft. Lubbock’s illness had not been made public by this point, so to read the review after his death, it takes on a different tone for the informed reader. In it he focuses, not on the painting’s eerily photographic-like rendition, but instead on the materials, and the effect one small part can have on a viewer. Using the reference from A la recherché du temps perdu, where the novelist Bergotte dies focussing on one small patch of yellow wall in the painting, Lubbock discusses mortality, consciousness, and the skill of Vermeer to capture more than simply a view in 630 words.

In the act of reading about suffering, empathy is foregrounded in the quiet dialogue between reader and writer. I would argue that this is due to what Bersani and Phillips identify as the ‘the jouissance of giving and receiving through embodied language, the subjecthood of others’. Through the exchange of narrative and the word, a gift is given and potentially received; there is the prospect of understanding the other in this exchange. Writing is nearly always a solipsistic activity, and the loneliness of the activity is heightened when one is attempting to come to terms with an absence, a death, or when you are watching yourself for the moments of failure coming in. This may be even more pronounced when the writing focuses an individual so purely on the sudden absence in their lives. As Kate Kellaway muses in her review on Oates’ A Widow’s Story, ‘writing, [..] is a means of making oneself visible to oneself’.

People might seek out blogs like Matt Logelin’s or read sorrow memoirs for various reasons, but it has to be accepted that their response might be peppered with self-concern. When we empathise with a situation, we are in danger, of presuming our own desires, which arise in the process of feeling sympathetic with someone, are empathetic, when actually they might be formed out of self- interest. Grant Kester describes the problems within this process: ‘Empathetic identification (especially of the “I feel your pain’ variety”) has a less salutary side: it can function to deny the specificity and autonomy of others, to ‘make use’ of them for our own emotional or psychic needs, or to project onto them our own imaginary characteristics or desires’.  Kester is describing issues pertaining to empathy specifically in relation to a particular kind of dialogical art making, but it is still relevant to consider this angle in the case of the reader and writer dynamic. For example, a reader might be seeking out some sort of cathartic release in the process of reading a sad story, or perhaps they have a superstitious angle, they want to read about this tragedy because they will then ward off similar suffering. Whilst Kester warns of the problematics of speaking for others inherent in empathy, he also flags up its capacity to alter us. In suggesting that empathy enables us to imagine a different circumstances for ourselves he warns that ‘this identification can never be complete – we can never claim to fully inhabit the other’s subject position; but we can imagine it, and this imagination, this approximation, can radically alter our sense of who we are. It can become the basis for communication and understanding across differences of race, sexuality, ethnicity and so on’.

Tom Lubbock’s article does not pull me in, in the same way that the diary/letter format of the sorrow memoir does. Rather Lubbock’s work is a rendition of an extraordinary experience, its message simple and complicated by turns. This is true of McElhone’s experience as well, but there seems to be a determination in Lubbock’s writing to convey what is happening to him, rather than use the writing as a tool to displace pain. There is a distance set up here even as Lubbock describes vividly what this process feels like. This can often be most frank in the areas where he is distracted by the terribleness of his illness by his sudden understanding of exactly how much we take the brain’s capacities for granted. For example, he sees a mystery that has only presented itself in the process of this disease ‘I am faced continually with a mystery that other people have no conception of, the mystery of the generation of speech. There is no command situation, it goes back and back and back. Where the self lies at the heart of the utterance, the speaker generating the word, is always clouded. This is true for everyone, but for most people this is not something to think about. The generation of words is automatic. For me, that automatic link is broken. Word generation involves strain, guesswork, difficulty, imprecision’.1 The expansion of the process of his language failing him evokes Bersani and Phillips discussion on the analytical exchange in talk. ‘Lacan makes an astonishing claim: “all love is based on a certain relationship between two unconscious knowledges.” The unconscious as knowledge rather than desire’.

Yet even as he describes this failing process of language in writing, he continues in writing. He was writing reviews for as long as he could. He was still writing reviews for The Independent up until at least July 2010. Even as he describes everything failing, he continues. He describes his fear at what is happening to him, but he acknowledges that fear is inextricably bound up with fascination. He explains that ‘the impetus at the start is not to fear but, rather, to be taken up by the strangeness and wonder of it and examine all the new things it brings’.  There is curiosity here – and in his attempt to explain and describe, there is love. Here is the coming together of two knowledges, in this exchange between Lubbock and his reader. Lubbock does not detail his intimate home life and maybe this is why I do not feel as if I am intruding, staring at his family through his eyes, like some unpleasant moment of ‘Being John Malkovich’ voyeurism. Yet despite preferring this to the discomfort that the sorrow memoirs often provoked in me, it is in the (extremely) brief moments when he does reference his home life that I most feel the chasm between speech and writing, and within that gap exists the pain of what this means to his most important relationships. ‘In the daytime, I cannot muster up any conversation. My language is so limited. And it makes such little joy for Marion’.

There is something unbearable, un-writable about the experience of illness, just as there is always something un-writable about the experience of love. As Boucourechliev describes exploring how one feels when one is in love with the written word; ‘to try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little’.  To attempt to write about a lover, the space between one and a lover uncovers the impossibility of the attempt, because the moment one tries, one fails. Writing can never be enough to describe the emotions, to capture the lover, which is at the heart of what Barthes describes here: ‘To know that one does not write for the other, to know that these things I am going to write will never cause me to be loved by the one I love (the other), to know that writing compensates for nothing, sublimates nothing, that it is precisely there where you are not – this is the beginning of writing. The process of writing across the space of the lover’s absence is to begin to attempt to write the event of love. In Lubbock’s case, the space of love’s absence is the increasing absence of language itself.