‘Desire’s temporality is going to be perverse’: Elena Betros López Interviews Lisa Robertson

By and | 1 May 2020

EBL (5 April 2020): Timely indeed. Camila, has been reading me Letters from A Seducer (1991) by Hilda Hilst, its erotic, violent, visceral, deeply perverse, at times frankly disgusting and an equally laughable comment on certain masculine tropes and tendencies. I keep needing to remind myself that it’s written by a woman. The first line she read me was ‘how to think about pleasure, whilst wrapped up in this crap’. I have been wondering how pleasure and desire can figure in this time. Perhaps now is not the time for desire, given my felt absence of future – but pleasure? Here I am figuring desire in its potential to point towards the future, the elsewhere and the otherwise. Subsequently I have been thinking of pleasure as something that we can operate on in the here and now. Yesterday I found myself laughing, heaving full roars from my depths of my belly upon listening to another chapter read to me by Camila from afar. I told her this, and she responded, ‘laughter is medicine’. From this I started to list all the medicines/pleasures that came to mind, some are present and others not attainable immediately or associated with the past. This relation of reading to one another began with me reading your poetry to Camila. I find I can think about this relation in terms of the way you spoke about poetry as offering gifts though abundance. How can this abundance operate in community, with kin and those we hold dear, especially those we don’t always hold proximate intimacy with. How not to let fear and paranoia scare us to retreating into ourselves, yet fold out into ways of carrying each other, through sorrow and creating or facilitating paths to which we can find pleasure as medicine in the face of such distress and breakdown?

LR (6 April 2020): We can experience desire that is not specifically sexual in nature. I say this not to denigrate lust, which obviously is glorious, a teacher, and an energiser, but just to indicate that there will be many times in the long span of one’s life when sexual lust retreats, for long or short periods, because of illness, hormonal change, political stress, or simple tiredness. Other kinds of desire will flourish. This is a possibility, not a given! The longest constant in my own life has been the desire for language, for linguistic experience. While I experience this desire as intimate, very deeply entwined with my inner experiences of memory, vocal and tactile pleasure, shared sensuality, and the joy of invention – all of these such abundant intensities – an inner linguistic sense is obviously also played out in a collective, and historical terrain, to the extent that inner and outer, individual and collective, become useless categories. The relationship of this linguistic pleasure to time-sense, and to living together, is very interesting, and is what literature offers us – such a wildly infinite resource it is, for learning the ways people have experienced and can experience linguistic time and relationships! To me this is sexy. And it doesn’t have to do with finished texts, publication, reputation and all that. I’m talking about the thrill of seeing a few words come together on a notebook page, or in my phone, and the way I can be totally enthralled by a little glimmer of strangeness intimated by that minuscule co-joining. Then I carry that with me for days or weeks, and it might deepen or expand into a new thinking, a possible text. Or it may stay as it is – a small energy to revisit as a private joy. There are other things I do of course that have healing properties in my life – working with plants: gathering, sowing, tending and sharing. I live in the country and I am very fortunate to have a garden right now. I am in love with flowers. Also, my life with animals. I am a dog person and my dear companion Rosa, a mutt from the Poitiers SPCA, passed away last summer, after 15 years with me. Rosa, and before Rosa, Angus, made much of my life in writing possible. They kept me close to the ground for 25 years, between them. And film and art—being with my friends who make such stunning propositions and objects in their studios, being in the dark cinema and feeling the world transform as a result of projected light. I can’t live without this. I guess I am saying that whatever we value becomes a medicine. Preparing a meal, drinking an infused plant, deciding to read Proust in French and doing it haltingly four pages at a time but with total excitement mixed in with the difficulty. Abundance would be our movement towards an expansion of values not sequestered by the state and the political economy. It can be difficult to identify the sites of our own and our friends’ flourishing, but I think this is one thing we must try to offer one another—the space of a flourishing. We must reinvent value however it may become possible, resituate value in the middle of our friendships and communities, not let it become a tool of financialisation.

EBL (1 March 2020): We discussed how your recent novel, The Baudelaire Fractal1, enabled you to reflect on your own ageing, writing and practice over a long duration of time. Within The Baudelaire Fractal you mentioned that you found a formal continuity with Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture2. You spoke about being surprised by this resurgence as things appeared that you had thought you had left behind, after a long latent silence they resurfaced.

LR (22 March 2020): One of the unanticipated pleasures of deepening middle age (I’m 58 – technically past middle age I suppose) is the way I experience the surprising discontinuities of duration. I’ve been writing since I was a child, and in a serious, focused way since I was about 20 or 21. I’ve been publishing my work since I was 30. I’ve tended, when I think back over this expanse of time, to break it into eras or periods, as I have just done here, in fact. I’ve privileged the post-30 period in my self-narratives: that was when I found a community, passionate interlocutors. But in writing The Baudelaire Fractal, which is based on some experiences in my early to mid-twenties, a time when I was striving away in a sort of intellectual isolation, except for books, it’s become apparent that the ardent girl is still me, or, more precisely, the part of me that I’ve patronisingly considered to be my girlish naiveté, is exactly what permitted me to focus and continue. I had a pretty strong sense back then of doing things, things which were basically unsuccessful or not very satisfying in their immediate outcomes, for my future self. I had an intuition that the process, more than the results, would carry me in the long run, and that great patience and persistence would be necessary. I turned out to have been correct, and now I really feel an amazement at my peculiar wisdom. I feel that I owe that striving, earnest girl. So, in a way I wrote this book for her and for those who identify with her. And doing so I recognised that all times are synchronic in consciousness and language. Nothing is left behind. There is no linearity. I’m not sure why it came to me now to write this book, beyond the pragmatics of having received an award that gave me the time to do so. Maybe being in the early stages of old age has given me the space to be curious about immature experience that I avoided contemplating for decades. Is it a kind of ritual transition? Also, materially, I have carried three diaries from that period in the ’80s for decades, from country to country. Now they are decomposing and have an archival status, so I can approach them as a historiographer would, selecting, linking, transcribing, contemplating. Those diaries became characters in the narrative of The Baudelaire Fractal.

As for the connection with The Office for Soft Architecture, it has to do with the resurgence in the novel of things I learned in my earlier architectural research about the linguistic representation of city space, architecture, and the combining of narration and research in a single text. Also, the emphatic seizing upon of the concept of surface, excess, ornament, as the philosophical mode of the sentence. In both texts there is an emblematic coupling of the sentence form, in its baroque excess, with the florescence of the city, and the desiring body. Baudelaire’s jacket made a first appearance in Office for Soft Architecture, in the text ‘The Value Village Manifesto’, then surfaced again, as if from the back of a deep closet, in The Baudelaire Fractal. It makes me feel curious about future texts – what unexpected aspects of past compositions will suddenly declare themselves to be relevant in new ways, and which parts will just gently fall to the side and crumble, compost-like.

  1. The Baudelaire Fractal (Coach House Books, Toronto, 2020), https://chbooks.com/Books/T/The-Baudelaire-Fractal
  2. Occasional Works and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Coach House Books, Toronto, 2006), https://chbooks.com/Books/O/Occasional-Works-and-Seven-Walks-from-the-Office-for-Soft-Architecture
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