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Muscular Sanity: The Language of Pain in Literature

Emily Wells for the LA Review of Books

For the LA Review of Books, Emily Wells on the articulation of pain in literature.

“English,” Virginia Woolf writes in “On Being Ill,”

which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver or the headache … The merest schoolgirl when she falls in love has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her, but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to his doctor and language at once runs dry.

Woolf seeks to establish illness as a serious project in literature, which “does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent.”

However, even in this essay on illness, Woolf only hints at the mental and physical ailments that plagued her throughout her life, asserting that, in the matter of disease, “we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy […] would be intolerable.” Though she potently explores states of illness in her fiction — Rachel’s delirious, raging fever in The Voyage Out, Rhoda’s madness in The Waves, and Septimus’s suicidal mania Mrs. Dalloway — in describing pain explicitly and specifically her own, language does appear to run dry.

Considering this disparity between her fictional and nonfictional treatments of pain, we must ask, is the “running dry” a failure of language, or of the will? Does Woolf’s reticence owe more to the shame that goes hand in hand with sharing one’s pain than to a weakness in the language itself? Perhaps language fails us only when we wish to express our pain, rather than the pain of others. In her 1985 volume The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry echoes Woolf’s lamentations at the limits of language:

Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language […] Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.

Scarry also notes that the language used to describe the physical pain experienced by the individuals she has interviewed often comes from others speaking on their behalf. To the person in pain, there is no reality besides that pain. The effect of this reality-defining pain on an individual identity is modeled in Meghan O’Rourke’s most recent poetry collection, Sun in Days, a poignant meditation on chronic illness:

I discovered what I had always naturally called I was really no longer an “I.”

It changed all the time — in fact, entirely receded as a coherent notion — according to something happening in my cells that no one could identify …

Walking, teaching, writing, I experienced myself as categorically fraudulent.

This experience of categorical fraudulence, in which one lacks the exact word for an experience, may force a writer into the realm of metaphor. Yet in Illness as a Metaphor, Susan Sontag takes issue with disease metaphors. “I want to describe not what it’s really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and to live there,” she writes, “but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation; not real geography but stereotypes of national character.” Throughout, Sontag challenges psychological abstractions that do more harm than good:

We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy […] About that metaphor, the military one, I would say, if I may paraphrase Lucretius: Give it back to the war-makers.

Sontag’s condemnation of metaphor is refreshing and even salutary, but what language is left for those who suffer from diseases that don’t have a precise scientific designation? Can writers who wish to convey the nuanced experience of being in an ill body resist metaphor? In any event, relying on seemingly precise definitions may actually obscure the true meaning of an experience.


Launch for Arkady by Patrick Langley on 21 March

At the ArtReview bar
page 83

Please join Fitzcarraldo Editions and ArtReview in celebrating the launch of Arkady by Patrick Langley from 6.30-8.30pm on 21 March 2018 at the ArtReview bar, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please RSVP to 

The White Darkness

David Grann for the New Yorker

Featured in the New Yorker, David Grann’s longform piece on British explorer Henry Worsley, who successfully retraced Ernest Shackleton’s expedition in the Antarctic in 2009, and sadly died in 2016 during an attempt to cross the Antarctic unaided.


At 10 a.m.—the hour that Shackleton had set out—Worsley and his men leaned into their harnesses and began their trek. This was the moment that he’d been waiting for nearly all his life, Worsley thought. Yet, as he strained with his arms and his legs to propel himself forward and drag the heavy sled, he was gnawed by doubts: “I was nervous about lots of things; of failing the team; of getting injured; of letting down all those people who had supported us; of plainly not being physically up for it—put simply, I feared failure.”

The surface was generally flat and smooth, and as he and the other men headed south, toward the Ross Ice Shelf, they began to gather some momentum. Worsley made sure that they followed the advice of Matty McNair, who had instructed them on Baffin Island: “Stay together, never separate.” She had drummed into them one other rule: “If you get wet, you die.”

After several miles, they came upon another desolate wooden hut. Robert Falcon Scott and his men had built it in 1911, on their fateful South Pole expedition. Ice crept over the timbered walls and glazed the windowpanes like jungle vines. Inside the hut, Worsley and his companions found the chart table where Scott had studied his maps, and the bunk belonging to Captain Lawrence Oates, who had left the party’s tent on the return journey from the Pole, saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” He was never seen again.

As Worsley inspected the objects, he felt uneasy: “I couldn’t shake the sense of pathetic sadness from my mind.” The men quickly resumed tracing the path of their forebears, which had long since been obliterated by the windswept ice. The fresh tracks made by Worsley and his companions gradually vanished as well; tiny granules of ice swirled in the wind like ash. The men used a compass to maintain a southward trajectory. Their breath smoked and their bodies sweated in the arid cold. After slogging for seven hours, Worsley gave the order to stop for the day. They had covered nearly eight nautical miles. In order to reach the ninety-seven-mile mark on January 9th, the men would need to average between ten and twelve nautical miles per day. But it was a promising start.

They began the cumbersome process of making camp: pitching their tent, which was roughly fourteen feet long and seven feet wide; gathering provisions from the sled; squeezing inside the shelter and removing their ski boots and sweaty socks, which they hung on a clothesline above their heads, along with any other damp items; checking their bodies for frostbite and putting on dry socks and tent “booties”; and firing up a gas cooker, melting snow in a kettle, and pouring hot water into packets of freeze-dried meals.

As the men ate, they talked about the relatively warm weather—the temperature had reached fourteen degrees. Adams delivered the evening broadcast, reporting that they had been blessed with “beautiful sunshine, exactly as Shackleton had a hundred years ago on his first day.” Privately, though, Adams confessed to Worsley and Gow that he felt like an amateur hauling his sled, and had a deep sense of unease. “He was right and honest,” Worsley wrote. “None of us knew what the next two months were going to be like.”

Following supper, the men dipped their toothbrushes in the snow and cleaned their teeth, which Worsley believed was essential to maintaining a sense of humanity. Then, jostling for space, they spread out their sleeping bags. Worsley, however, didn’t climb into his. In spite of his aching muscles and the dropping temperature—the sun was now hugging the horizon—he went for an evening walk. He decided to make this a daily ritual, like a mystic who pursues enlightenment through self-abnegation. The harsh reality of Antarctica had seemed only to deepen his entrancement with it. Outside, he often picked up objects—a fragment of a penguin skull, a small rock—and put them in a pocket, despite the extra weight. “We used to take the Mickey out of him for taking all this rubbish,” Gow recalled.

After Worsley’s stroll, which lasted about twenty minutes, he returned to the tent and settled into his sleeping bag. They all kept plastic bottles nearby, in case they had to respond to what Adams referred to as a “call of nature.” Before falling asleep, Worsley wrote briefly in his diary, ending with a quote from Shackleton: “I pray that we may be successful, for my heart had been so much in this.”

Within eight days, they had covered more than seventy-five nautical miles. The scale of the Ross Ice Shelf was dawning on Worsley: it was bigger than France. Shackleton described it as a “dead, smooth, white plain, weird beyond description.” Worsley and his men moved in single file and rarely spoke, hearing only the thumping of their sleds or the soundtracks on their iPods. Adams loved to listen to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; Gow sometimes trudged along to an audiobook of Lansing’s “Endurance.” Worsley’s playlist included Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band playing “Eyes on the Prize” (“I got my hand on the gospel plow / Won’t take nothing for my journey now”) and “We Shall Overcome” (“We are not afraid, we are not afraid”).


Paris in August

Jacqueline Feldman for The White Review

Jacqueline Feldman’s essay on surveillance, paranoia and the emergency state in Paris, featured in The White Review.


‘Our police are behaving more like American police now,’ I heard last February, at a dinner party in the Sixth Arrondissement. As for the United States, no one’s prognosis was optimistic, but finally the other guests agreed that the Americans had been impressive lately in their protests. They looked at me. Bravo, they said. Certainly, they added, aspects of the Women’s March had been problematic, but overall they had been cheered to read of the assemblies. One only hoped the French, too, would turn out so numerously were Marine Le Pen elected President, as the guests expected she would be.

I noticed the poster which read Respond to a terrorist attack in a doctor’s office, and subsequently, I would see it in libraries. It looks like an in-flight safety guide, but these stick figures flee, push a couch against a door, silence their phones and crouch behind a pillar. Also new since I moved away were the guards who searched purses at the doors to grocery stores. While the 1955 law creating an emergency state authorised house arrest for ‘anyone… whose activity proves dangerous to security and public order,’ the 2015 revision specifies that it may be applied to those for whom exist ‘serious reasons to think their behaviour constitutes a threat to security and public order,’ and, in this way, deemphasises their behaviour in favour of what is thought about them. The law that replaced the emergency state on 1 November 2017 requires a judge’s sign off before searches, though not ‘individual measures of administrative control and surveillance’, the former house arrests, but it preserves this wording. Another criterion must, now, co-present: the list of possibilities includes apologia for terrorism. Defined by the November 2015 law, the house arrests – numbering 400 in the law’s first three months, though at last count on 30 October, only 41 were in effect – might have required suspects to stay someplace other than their home, to stay in place for as many as twelve hours, to check in with authorities as many as three times daily, to wear an ankle bracelet, to turn in a passport or to break off a relationship deemed suspicious. The new law diminishes these impositions, for example by widening the bounds of the detainment to an entire town, and by limiting the frequency with which suspects must check in to once daily. Sensibly, both 1955 and 2015 laws stipulate these house arrests should not ‘take the effect of creating camps’. These laws have been compared with the US PATRIOT Act, passed in October 2001; another American analogue for its near-unanimous passage days after the 9/11 Attack, the Authorisation of Use of Military Force, provides for strikes abroad against the perpetrators as well as anyone understood to be ‘associated forces’. The French emergency state, by contrast, addressed an enemy within. It was developed as temporary, requiring a vote after twelve days, but remained in effect continuously after November 2015, involving six renewals of varying lengths. While politicians including the president touted the new law as a way out of this widely ironised predicament of permanent emergency, they simultaneously insisted the law pass before the emergency state expired, so that protection would be continuous. ‘I’ve decided that in November we will emerge from the rule of law,’ Macron said on 19 September in New York. He corrected himself, having meant to say not état de droit but état d’urgence, emergency state.


More generally visible is the governmental threat metric Vigipirate, with its signs hanging in public buildings, and operations of the police or military, such as Sentinelle, which has stationed soldiers throughout the country since the shooting at CHARLIE HEBDO in January 2015. Sentinelle has elicited censure for its expense as well as the question, after a man drove a car into six of these soldiers in the Parisian suburb Levallois-Perret on 9 August, wounding them, as to whether it creates targets. Also controversial has been the surveillance law developed in 2015, which allows the government to monitor phone and Internet usage automatically. Last January, I stayed with environmentalists who, before meetings, collected phones from those present, placed them in a receptacle, set it down outside the room, and closed the door. I hear that lately, they have used a microwave, figuring that it blocks signals completely. The converted barn where they live in Bure, Meuse is a 21-kilometre drive over fields from the nearest market town. They recalled a period of relentless vehicular searches the previous summer. Then as now police were behaving as ‘cowboys’, they told me, using that English word. One of these activists explained that, after breaking the windshield of a car belonging to police who were, by his account, taunting him, he was considered wanted, and that when he was picked up, protesting a revision to French labour law in Nancy, the physical brutality of his apprehension struck him as disproportionate. He could not be sure of this, but it would come to seem of a piece with the other activists’ experiences. He had required new glasses. His treatment may not have been explicitly permitted by the legislation, but, as another of the activists wrote to me, mimicking gendarmes’ remarks, ‘It’s the emergency state, we do what we want.’ This group of activists has made headlines for a foot injury sustained by one of them while protesting, the effect of a gendarme’s stun grenade, as well as a raid on 20 September resulting in the seizure of some forty computers.


A sense of futility had accompanied me following my move back to the US, as if I had, by leaving, given up on Paris. During the attacks in November 2015, I was concentrating in an apartment where I had moved a few weeks previously, drafting an article about the accents of American presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who are from New York City, where I found I now lived. Such commentary had to be formulated from the posture of an observer. I had adopted it cynically. Only when we’re lucky enough to live comfortably do we regard the geopolitical landscape as if through a window. Sometimes, it breaks. Citing N. H. Julius, the nineteenth-century German physician and writer on prisons, Foucault locates Jeremy Bentham’s famous panopticon historically, at the advent of the modern state, with which individuals found themselves engaged in a preeminent relationship. Discipline had been achieved by spectacle, a theatre of the scaffold; now, those who had been onlookers were monitored themselves. While the act of watching characterises the panopticon in the popular imagination, essential too to the machinery is the isolation of the watched, their ‘lateral invisibility’, and their inability to verify the watching. Venetian blinds as well as dividing walls conceal any guard in the watchtower, even the guard’s shadow. In the unfamiliar city I fielded messages from distant friends, who thought that I still lived in Paris. Waiting to hear from Parisian friends, I checked Twitter and, scrolling, wondered whether it was required of me to post.


A Double Room

A short story by Ann Quin

Ann Quin’s tale of a failed affair, ‘A Double Room’ – featured in the newly released collection of Quin’s writings, Another Country, published by & Other Stories – introduced by Danielle Dutton for Electric Lit.

They had arranged to meet at 11 a.m. She arrived at 10:30. I know I must be there early or I won’t go at all. Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time. It drizzled now as she looked out of the station. Cabs swished by. People rushed through barriers. Escape. Escape with my lover. But he isn’t even that. In her small room. On her single bed they had gone so far. Fully clothed. No we’ll wait it wouldn’t be fair I have to leave you soon. Now the weekend he would prove to be

She clutched her bag. Glanced at the clock. And there he was. His hat cuckoo-perched on an unfinished nest. Dressed in a new suit. Mac just cleaned over his arm. Hullo love. If people stopped to look they would think we were father and daughter on our way to an aunt’s funeral. They don’t look. But think dirty old man. As he takes my arm. My bag.

The train. Carriages with long seats. Without divisions. Seats that make one aware of sagging shoulders. She straightened up. Straightened her skirt. Haven’t seen that dress before love — new? He removed his hat. It nestled beside him. He had washed his hair. Had a bad shave. Without adding the bits of cotton wool. The train shuttled forward. Stopped. Now I could say I’ve changed my mind I can’t go on with it I feel ill. Well how are things sweet? OK had a row with the wife oh some trivial domestic thing anyway makes it easier. Looks as if it might clear up. Brighter in the west — forecast said it would. How long does it take? About two hours love should be there in time for a beer and brunch in a nice pub somewhere. The rest of the carriage empty. Maybe someone will get in at the next stop. Pray that someone gets in. Ininininininin the train chugged on over the bridge. Children threw stones into the river. He had on the green shirt. She remarked once how nice he looked in green. Matches your eyes. Eyes now stared directly at her. Was he thinking of the night. Nights ahead. Nights he had saved up for. Relishing in cosy domestic mornings. Reading the papers together. Quietly sipping tea. Quietly satisfied. Three. Four mornings ahead of them. Already I’m thinking in the third person. Seeing us as another passenger might. But no one got in at the next station. He leaned over and took her hand. She looked out of the window. Looked back at him. Cigarette? Her hand released. She dived into her bag. They lit up. He sank back. She took out a paperback. Looked at the words lumped together. Spaces between paragraphs.

The train stopped. A woman with a child got in. The child held a blue teddy bear nearly bigger than herself. They sat opposite. The woman looked across once. The child more than once. Giggling she approached. Adjusted the bear’s arms. What’s his name then? Tethy. He’s nice isn’t he? She passed the bear over. He took it and balanced it on his knees. The child started crying gimmee back gimmee gimmee Tethy gimmee. Judy come here don’t disturb the gentleman there’s a good girl. He smiled and handed the bear over. It growled. The child giggled and passed it over to me. Do you want to hold Tethy it’s his burfday. She sucked her thumb and watched. Watching. He watched.

The houses crammed together. Back yards where men leaned on spades. Women in doorways dried their hands on aprons. Fields where boys played football. In small parks girls paused over prams. The sky strips of blue. Houses spread out. Fields. Cows. Sheep. Away from civilisation. Away from the little rituals they had been going through. Manipulated. Meetings in pubs. Fish and chips afterwards. Parties where she danced. Flirted. While he looked on. Hurried fumblings. Kisses. In a cab. Long talks by the gas fire. Holding hands in the cinema. Being shown off to his friends at dinner parties. I’m so glad he’s found you he does need someone bless him and you seem so suited his wife as you probably know is

The child bounced the bear on the seat. I looked at the paperback. This autobiographical novel is a brazen confession of rebellion, trespass and blatant sexual exploitation in a world of intellectual despair and moral chaos. She closed the book. He looked up from the newspaper. His shoes highly polished. Crease in trousers nicely creased. Oh so nicely creased. Creases under his eyes. Around his mouth. Anticipation anticipation anti anti antiantiantiantiantianti. The train rattled on. The child talked to the bear. Tethy Tethy my Tethy is a naughty Tethy. The woman put away her knitting. They got out. He leaned over. It’s going to be great just great love I know it will. Pressure on my knee. Only another half hour to go love. A dozen hours to come. No. Perhaps he will want to in the afternoon. An after lunch doze. I closed my eyes. Opened. More fields. More boys kicking in an orgy of mud. Men tinkered with cars. Station after station. Signals. Tunnels. Hedges. Then the sea. Flat grey. Flat washed green land on the left. Well this is it love — here I’ll take your case. The hat flew on.


To Be, or Not to Be

Masha Gessen for the New York Review of Books
Masha Gessen at her apartment in Moscow in the early 1990s, when she was in her mid-twenties

Masha Gessen’s essay – which was adapted and given as the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library in December 2017 – on identity and the politics of choice-making.



The topic of my talk was determined by today’s date. Thirty-nine years ago my parents took a package of documents to an office in Moscow. This was our application for an exit visa to leave the Soviet Union. More than two years would pass before the visa was granted, but from that day on I have felt a sense of precariousness wherever I have been, along with a sense of opportunity. They are a pair.

I have emigrated again as an adult. I was even named a “great immigrant” in 2016, which I took to be an affirmation of my skill, attained through practice—though this was hardly what the honor was meant to convey. I have also raised kids of my own. If anything, with every new step I have taken, I have marveled more at the courage it would have required for my parents to step into the abyss. I remember seeing them in the kitchen, poring over a copy of an atlas of the world. For them, America was an outline on a page, a web of thin purplish lines. They’d read a few American books, had seen a handful of Hollywood movies. A friend was fond of asking them, jokingly, whether they could really be sure that the West even existed.

Truthfully, they couldn’t know. They did know that if they left the Soviet Union, they would never be able to return (like many things we accept as rare certainties, this one turned out to be wrong). They would have to make a home elsewhere. I think that worked for them: as Jews, they never felt at home in the Soviet Union—and when home is not where you are born, nothing is predetermined. Anything can be. So my parents always maintained that they viewed their leap into the unknown as an adventure.

I wasn’t so sure. After all, no one had asked me.



As a thirteen-year-old, I found myself in a clearing in a wood outside of Moscow, at a secret—one might say underground, though it was out in the open—gathering of Jewish cultural activists. People went up in front of the crowd, one, two, or several at a time, with guitars and without, and sang from a limited repertoire of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. That is, they sang the same three or four songs over and over. The tunes scraped something inside of me, making an organ I didn’t know I had—located just above the breastbone—tingle with a sense of belonging. I was surrounded by strangers, sitting, as we were, on logs laid across the grass, and I remember their faces to this day. I looked at them and thought, This is who I am. The “this” in this was “Jewish.” From my perch thirty-seven years later, I’d add “in a secular cultural community” and “in the Soviet Union,” but back then space was too small to require elaboration. Everything about it seemed self-evident—once I knew what I was, I would just be it. In fact, the people in front of me, singing those songs, were trying to figure out how to be Jewish in a country that had erased Jewishness. Now I’d like to think that it was watching people learning to inhabit an identity that made me tingle.

Some months later, we left the Soviet Union.

In autobiographical books written by exiles, the moment of emigration is often addressed in the first few pages—regardless of where it fell in a writer’s life. I went to Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory to look for the relevant quote in its familiar place. This took a while because the phrase was actually on page 250 out of 310. Here it is: “The break in my own destiny affords me in retrospect a syncopal kick that I would not have missed for worlds.”

This is an often-quoted phrase in a book full of quotable sentences. The cultural critic and my late friend Svetlana Boym analyzed Nabokov’s application of the word “syncope,” which has three distinct uses: in linguistics it’s the shortening of a word by omission of a sound or syllable from its middle; in music it is a change of rhythm and shift of accent when a normally weak beat is stressed; and in medicine it is a brief loss of consciousness. “Syncope,” wrote Svetlana, “is the opposite of symbol and synthesis.”

Suketu Mehta, in his Maximum City, wrote:

Each person’s life is dominated by a central event, which shapes and distorts everything that comes after it and, in retrospect, everything that came before. For me, it was going to live in America at the age of fourteen. It’s a difficult age at which to change countries. You haven’t quite finished growing up where you were and you’re never well in your skin in the one you’re moving to.

Mehta didn’t let me down: this assertion appears in the very first pages of his magnificent book; also, he moved to America at the same age that I did. And while I think he might be wrong about everyone, I am certain he is right about émigrés: the break colors everything that came before and after.

Svetlana Boym had a private theory: an émigré’s life continues in the land left behind. It’s a parallel story. In an unpublished piece, she tried to imagine the parallel lives her Soviet/Russian/Jewish left-behind self was leading. Toward the end of her life, this retracing and reimagining became something of an obsession. She also had a theory about me: that I had gone back to reclaim a life that had been interrupted. In any case, there are many stories to be told about a single life.


I am dark, I am forest

Jennifer Givhan in Poetry Magazine

Jennifer Givhan’s poem ‘I am dark, I am forest’, featured in this month’s Poetry Magazine.

After Rilke

I carried a bowl of menudo into the forest / I carried my bisabuela’s tripas not daring ask whose intestines I carried / con cilantro y radish y cebolla chopped fine / I carried the sewing machine they’d chained her to in the garment district downtown I carried the forest crackling against asphalt where her chanclas burnt & melted so I carried her too / I wore no red / I bore no basket / there was no forest but an avocado tree in the backyard of the house they made her sell to get her Medicare for her diabetes shots / I carried her sugarwater / a hummingbird great-granddaughter I carried her flickering / her black- 
& white-screened / I carried her face / the scars her warped esposo left her granddaughter / carried those wounds through the womb / not wolf but blue-eyed man / I stirred the menudo / my belly the pot / & scalding into the forest I carried / & that tree I chopped down chopped into a boat & carried my mother & my bisabuela across the chile-red sopa the blood-water broth / named her daughter / what forest have we made for her I cannot see / I carried darkness into the forest & sliced it out.

Falling in Love with an Empty Man: The Work of José Leonilson

Elisa Wouk Almino for The Paris Review

Elisa Wouk Almino on José Leonilson: Empty Man, the Brazilian artist’s first solo exhibition in the US, currently running at the Americas Society in New York.


In Brazil, Leonilson is considered one of the most important artists of his generation. Born in the northeastern city of Fortaleza, he came of age in the 1980s, in the years immediately following Brazil’s twenty-year dictatorship. Emerging from oppressive times, he and his peers embraced the pleasures of painting, and they made bright and figurative work. But Leonilson’s art was also uniquely personal and literary; words float alone or in poetic arrangements (“here comes your man / full of numbers and words”). His presence looms over almost everything he left behind.

Leonilson died in 1993, at the age of thirty-six, of AIDs. He had learned of his illness only two years prior. As his health rapidly deteriorated, he shifted from painting to making small embroideries on pockets, bags, and bits of canvas. The Americas Society exhibition begins with these later, quietly beautiful works, and is framed around a quote by T. S. Eliot: “In my beginning is my end … In my end is my beginning.” An early 1975 self-portrait, made from denim jeans and with buttons for eyes, presages the introspective works Leonilson made in the last years of his life.

“I don’t make impersonal things,” he once said. He liked to paint the body: the brain, the lungs, and the heart. One painting from 1988 delineates human organs, with words flowing through and around them, including the phrase “the streets of the city.” The names of cities he visited—Madrid, Basel, Bordeaux—often appear in his art; but he was more a wanderer than a traveler.

“I am searching for something,” he said, “but I don’t know what I’m looking for.” Leonilson recorded these thoughts in his audio diaries, which he kept on tape cassettes from 1990 until his death three years later. He talks about the time he watched the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas, and how lost the main character appears as he aimlessly walks the desert. Leonilson breaks down into tears, recognizing himself.

His audiotapes weren’t discovered until after he died. In 2015, Carlos Nader, a friend of Leonilson’s, made them into a film titled The Passion of JL. The incredibly moving project, which screened this Thursday at the New School in New York, is narrated solely by Leonilson’s voice, while images of his art flash on the screen. The tapes reveal someone full of feeling and desperately in search of love. “Why am I so alone? Why don’t I have a boyfriend?” he asks. “I am needy.”

Leonilson’s friends remember him as warm and gregarious. Many people, including Carlos Nader, have said the voice of the audiotapes is not the one they knew, but one that, in retrospect, illuminates his art.


I went to the Americas Society exhibition after I saw The Passion of JL. As I walked through the galleries, I heard the disembodied voice of Leonilson’s tapes (“love is the best thing there is”; “I think I will live long”; “I’m not afraid of dying, but of suffering”). I imagined his wounds as I counted the thirty-four tallies that look like stitches in the piece 34 with scars. I wondered if he had cheated or been the one betrayed as I read the word “traitor,” sewn above a sea of crystals. I figured he had cobbled these works together in utter silence, and likely alone.

In 1991, the year Leonilson was diagnosed with HIV, he made the work Empty Man. He used a found piece of linen depicting the children’s tale of the tortoise and the hare racing in a field. Beneath the scene, he stitched the words “salt. blood. salive,” and below that, a man’s torso surrounded by the broken-up phrase, “empty man / lone / ready.” Echoes of this empty, lone man appear elsewhere: the name José stitched in the corner of a faded green rectangle, a single figure labeled as an “island,” and most poetically, the word nobody, sewn on the edge of a pink pillow.



Vadim Nikitin for the London Review of Books

Vadim Nikitin’s diary, about the unearthing of a time capsule buried in Murmansk on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, featured in the LRB:

The time capsule was buried in a secluded square in Murmansk in 1967 on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Inside was a message dedicated to the citizens of the Communist future. At short notice, the authorities brought forward the capsule’s exhumation by ten days, to coincide with the city’s 101st birthday. With the stroke of an official’s pen, a mid-century Soviet relic was enlisted to honour one of the last acts of Tsar (now Saint) Nicholas II, who founded my hometown in October 1916. From socialism to monarchism in ten days. Some of the city’s pensioners accused the local government of trying to suppress the sacred memory of the revolution. ‘Our forefathers would be turning in their graves,’ one woman wrote in a letter to the local paper. The time capsule ‘is not some kind of birthday present to the city; it’s a reminder of the centenary of the great October Revolution and its human cost.’

My father had watched the time capsule being buried. He came to Murmansk aged 17. From his remote village, he had dreamed of the sea but he failed the navy’s eye test. In October 1967, he was a second-year student at the Higher Marine Engineering Academy, an elite training school for the Soviet Union’s massive fishing fleet. As a year-round warm water port, Murmansk – the largest human settlement above the Arctic Circle – is a major fishing and shipping hub, home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers.

The time capsule was put together by the Murmansk cell of the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League. On a Saturday afternoon fifty years ago, my father and his classmates put on their dress uniform – peaked caps and double-breasted black jackets with gold buttons – and marched into the city centre. ‘We weren’t told anything,’ he said. ‘And because we were assembled facing the crowd, I didn’t see much.’

The unearthing ceremony in 2017 fell on a Wednesday afternoon. Perhaps a hundred people, most of them elderly, had gathered at the base of the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention – Murmansk was briefly occupied by British troops during the Civil War. The austere Constructivist structure was the city’s first monument, erected on the tenth anniversary of 1917. A few people were holding Soviet flags. A naval band began to play. Beyond a rope cordon, the boulder and its plinth were pulled away to reveal a concrete slab. As this was being winched out, the mayor gave a speech. The crowd turned towards the hole. There was another slab underneath. This too was prised off, revealing a square cavity filled in with cement. ‘The capsule is missing,’ someone said. ‘Somebody must have got there first.’ A few minutes later, a soldier arrived with a metal detector, followed by men with high-vis vests and hammer drills. They began to chip away at the cement.

Progress was slow. With no sign of the capsule, an archived copy of the original text was produced and handed to a retired local actor. ‘Our dear successors, fellow citizens,’ he read out: ‘We are gathered here on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Great October Revolution, at the foot of a sacred place: the Monument to the Victims of the Intervention. Through five subsequent decades, we extend our hand in brotherly greeting from 1967.’ The letter listed the achievements of the preceding generation: ‘In a half-century of Soviet rule, a sleepy, derelict Russian hinterland became a large industrial and cultural centre, a beautiful city of 300,000. In the tundra we built mines and factories, created a mighty fleet, laid roads and learned to grow rich harvests in the thin Arctic soil.’ There was a smattering of applause. ‘We are proud and happy to live in the 20th century, which signalled the start of the transition from capitalism to socialism,’ he read on. ‘We are certain that you, our descendants, will complete the revolutionary transformation of the world.’ Awkward pause. ‘We even confess to being a little envious of you, who will live to see with your own eyes the fruits of our labours. We took the first step into space; you will fly to other planets. Try to remember us, your ancestors, who built your city and gave their lives to building communism. Fiercely love your wonderful motherland! Let the eternal fire of immortal Leninist ideas always burn brightly in your hearts – the fire of revolution sparked in the unforgettable year, 1917.’

There was polite clapping, and a few hurrahs. As the drilling continued, dusk started to fall on the thinning crowd. Finally the slender, foot-long sharp-tipped metallic cylinder was lifted from the rubble. It looked like a relay-race baton. By that point, only a smattering of reporters and die-hard capsule buffs remained. An official announced that it would be opened another day, when more people could witness it. With that, the last of the crowd dispersed.


York launch party for Daisy Hildyard’s The Second Body

At Pica Studios, 29 November
Second Body

Please join us for the York launch of The Second Body by Daisy Hildyard on Wednesday 29 November, 7-9 p.m., at Pica Studios, 7A Grape Lane, York, YO1 7HU.

Daisy will give a short reading and there will be drinks. The event is free to attend but please do RSVP to

Every living thing has two bodies. To be an animal is to be in possession of a physical body, a body which can eat, drink and sleep; it is also to be embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. When every human body has an uncanny global presence, how do we live with ourselves? In this timely and elegant essay, Daisy Hildyard captures the second body by exploring how the human is a part of animal life. She meets Richard, a butcher in Yorkshire, and sees pigs turned into boiled ham; and Gina, an environmental criminologist, who tells her about leopards and silver foxes kept as pets in luxury apartments. She speaks to Luis, a biologist, about the origins of life; and talks to Nadezhda about fungi in an effort to understand how we define animal life. Eventually, her second body comes to visit her first body when the river flooded her home last year. The Second Body is a brilliantly lucid account of the dissolving boundaries between all life on earth.

‘Part amateur detective, part visionary, Hildyard’s voice is so intelligent, beguiling and important. Like Sir Thomas Browne or even Annie Dillard, her sly variety of scientific inquiry is incandescent.’
— Rivka Galchen, author of Little Labors

‘In its insistence on the illusion of individuality and on the participation of human animals in the whole of earthly life, The Second Body might be an ancient text; in its scientific literacy and its mood of ecological disquiet, Daisy Hildyard’s book is as contemporary as the morning paper. If ecstasy means to go outside oneself, the word usually carries connotations of chaos and inarticulacy. Here, however, is a precise and eloquent ecstasy – and this slender book about who we are beyond our own skins is likewise much larger than itself.’
— Benjamin Kunkel, author of Utopia or Bust

‘Daisy Hildyard has turned her curious, sifting, brilliantly original mind onto the pressing ecological questions of our age. The result is a series of essays as captivating as they are delightful, their object no less than to quietly rewire our thinking.’
— Sarah Howe, author of Loop of Jade

‘Hildyard takes us on a white-knuckle philosophical ride through identity, agency, ecology and molecular biology, leaving us vitally disconcerted, but with a strange new sense of community and solidarity. A curious, oblique, important, and fascinating book.’
— Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast

‘In The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard gives a body to an idea in a series of curious encounters that take us from the floor of a butcher shop to the computer room of a biologist to the wreckage of a flooded home. Heady and visceral both, this essay revels in the mess and splendour of the world.’
— Eula Biss, author of On Immunity

Daisy Hildyard holds a PhD in the history of science, and has previously published essays on the language of science, and on seventeenth-century mathematics. Her first novel Hunters in the Snow received the Somerset Maugham Award and a ‘5 under 35’ honorarium at the USA National Book Awards. She lives with her family in North Yorkshire, where she was born.

Fitz Carraldo Editions