Two years ago, artist Moyra Davey and writer Maggie Nelson were asked to commence a wide-ranging conversation over email for a book project that never came to light. This summer, I invited them to revisit their conversation. What follows is the first of a two-part feature. —Lauren O’Neill-Butler
MAGGIE NELSON: This conversation is something of a time capsule, which is just now seeing the light of day. In 2014, Moyra Davey and I were asked if we’d like to be in conversation for a publication about photography called Entanglements, edited by Arthur Ou and Shannon Ebner. I was excited about the opportunity—Moyra and I had never met, nor was I exceedingly familiar with her work, but I knew enough to understand why Shannon and Arthur thought our pairing might be rich. We have so many influences, obsessions, impulses, in common. Over the course of the next year, I watched all Moyra’s movies (or at least the ones she sent me on Vimeo!), read her essays, and developed a deep admiration of her as an artist, thinker, writer, and person. Her work is steeped in literature and theory without being deformed by contemporary iterations of such; my literary work is steeped in art and aesthetic questions; in some ways, we’re working the same angle, though I don’t spend any time with a camera. We traded lengthy questions and answers over email over the course of 2015, and then met a couple of times in New York City. In 2016, we learned that the Entanglements project had died; our conversation was then set adrift in the ether. In 2017, Lauren O’Neill-Butler at Artforum had the lovely idea of resurrecting it there.
A lot has happened since Moyra and I first talked—the entire horrifying 2016 election season; the even more horrifying election of Donald Trump; a busy time for both Moyra and me professionally; the further growing up of our children; and more. In any case, we’re very glad to have the chance to publish the results of what, for us, was a delightful and meaningful meeting of the mind and heart, which I hope will continue.
Moyra Davey: I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I learned Maggie had agreed to do this conversation. I’d read Bluets and The Argonauts and had twice heard Maggie read in New York. I was a fan. Entanglements was ostensibly to have been about photography, and I did try to steer the dialogue in that direction, and Maggie was willing, but somehow that topic never got off the ground. We were too easily derailed by the joint passions Maggie mentions above.
This conversation does feel like a time-capsule: since we left off The Argonauts climbed the charts; the Chantal Akerman research I discuss became Hemlock Forest, a book and a video. I finished the Knausgaard series, got derailed by Elena Ferrante, and most recently found myself on an Eileen Myles jag in the course of which I read the Myles chapter in Maggie’s book Women, the New York School, and Other True Abstractions. And of course the unimaginable happened in November and continues to be a daily poison, but still I wonder what Maggie is reading/writing now and I eagerly await what comes next.
MD: I got hooked on Karl Ove Knausgaard, because my friend, Jill Schoolman, publishes him and the books arrived on my doorstep. I read Volumes 1 & 2 of My Struggle, and will start Volume 3 soon. He’s a bit of an unlikely fit in the sense that I don’t usually read such long books, but the genre, auto-fiction, is something I’ve been drawn to for a long time. KOK wrote explicitly about shame in an article for New York Times Magazine, about how in Norway you’re raised to never call attention to yourself, to never think you are better or more important than anyone else, etc. And so for him, everything he writes is a shameful act, yet he is also driven to do it. There is so much writing generated you wonder how he can live his life.
In a second NYT article (just out two weeks ago, and he’s on the cover of the mag), ostensibly a kind of travel narrative to describe Viking remains in North America, he writes about taking a giant shit in a hotel room in Newfoundland, clogging the toilet and twice sticking his hand down the hole to try and unplug. Seems kind of like a fuck you to the NYT’s conceit for the article…I loved it. He stayed so true to himself, even in this journalistic genre, and I wonder if the Times has ever published anything like it.
I grew up in a culture of shame and guilt in Catholic Quebec. I have a lot of shame around money, especially, but also around some of the unseemly “calling attention to self” that Knausgaard writes about. I always deal with it in the videos and in my writing, but daintily. I have this fantasy of a vehicle that would hold an outpouring of all the shame and guilt (a “pathography”—Paul Thek’s term), but know it will probably never happen. I was in analysis for almost six years and barely scratched the surface. I am anal and repressed!
Enough about me. Shame came up in relation to you because you seem free of shame. Your writing has a quality of openness, ease, generosity. It flows, it’s the opposite of retentive. You can talk about anal sex, which I know a lot of men will talk/write about, but far less common for a woman to do so. The question I would have asked you when you read in NYC (at NYU?) is: Do you ever have a sense of shame, do you censor yourself, do you edit out certain things from your writing that you consider too far out there? Do you leave in things you feel uneasy about because you want to risk something? Do you agree with Orwell who said: “You can’t trust an autobiography unless it reveals something shameful?” Maybe these are question you’ve dealt with a lot, and don’t want to keep rehashing, and if so, that’s fine.
MN: I’m really interested in your notion of your videos as dealing “daintily” with “calling attention to the self.” I wouldn’t use the word “daintily”! I think what you’re doing, especially in Les Goddesses, is so much more deft, and in its own way, bold, rather than dainty. By filming yourself walking around your house and talking about literature and theory and your family, you’re giving us this remarkably generous self-portrait—of what you think about most, what you read, your own artistic journey, and perhaps, most of all, your body and voice moving through space in the most banal but also intimate and compelling of ways. I became obsessed with the moments at which you pulled up your jeans from time to time, for example! Your posture, your voice, all these elements that one can’t really control, felt very central to me. I just loved it.
I read the 2012 New Yorker piece on Les Goddesses, and while I was glad that it was so positive and in many ways astute, I felt annoyed by the way it felt the need to compliment your great video by setting it up as superior to the straw man of the “narcissistic tell-all.” The critic writes: “By the end of the video, you’ve learned that Davey has multiple sclerosis and has a young son named Barney, who hates art museums. But it’s hard to discern how well you know her. She provides these facts off-handedly and there’s a sense that she’s leaving out as much, if not more, than she includes. There’s a naturalism to this approach that makes Les Goddesses appealing in a way that tell-all memoirs are not. Memoirs so often beg the question, Why would you want to tell me all this?”
Besides mainstream celebrity memoirs or other genres in which artistry need not apply, I really don’t know where all these “narcissistic tell-alls” are, not to mention the fact that there can literally be no such thing as a “tell-all.” All autobiographical presentations are curated—with more or less care, surely, but still. Personally, I never think to myself while reading, “Why would you want to tell me all this?” That question seems to me to speak volumes about the reader/critic more than the writer. What I hear in that question is the baseline assumption that the writer should not be telling you all this, unless proven otherwise—that there’s shame in the telling, and the critic’s job is to wake the artist or writer up to the shame she/he may have missed. At the far end of this logic lies the virulent idea that we’re better off with less speech, less telling, less expression; nearly every nasty review of a work of autobiography I’ve read contains this latent or manifest wish that the writer/artist would just shut up. Maybe this is just journalistic laziness, but it bugs the hell out of me.
Maybe it’s clear by now that I don’t really think of my writing in a matrix about shame and exposure and revelation, etc. That’s not really the tradition of writing that interests me the most. It’s a moralistic cul de sac that impedes the capacity to discuss other things. I’m not naïve enough to think one can escape what Foucault called the logic of a confessing society. But I do think it’s worthwhile to use our critical and creative imaginations to make or take in work without shoving it in those boxes, whether in an attempt to laud or denigrate it.
For those reasons and more, I’m very glad if I seem free of shame to you! I mean, on the one hand, how silly and frightening and probably impossible—a human free of shame! But on the other, it’s true that I just don’t feel a lot of shame these days. Or, rather, I don’t feel shame around certain subjects that seemingly make others tense. (I’ve also spent most of my adult life surrounded by artists and writers whose work and company make mine feel decidedly prude, in comparison.) Often I have the experience that I’m hoarding shame around something that registers as a zero for others. Like in Bluets, I felt really ashamed to write about alcohol—much more than about being horny or heartbroken. But no one has ever asked me about that, which tells me something. It also might be a clue as to the nature of shame itself—it can be so private, and as often as not, met with a shrug by others.
To answer your more specific questions—of course I edit things out from my writing, but usually they are things that I worry might hurt other people, not things that I’m worried about saying about myself. Probably I do leave in things I’m uneasy with for the reasons you say, about taking risks, but luckily, by the time a book is coming out (which takes about a year, after you’ve made the last changes), I’ve made my peace with it, and the uneasiness factor has faded. That may explain the shameless quality you’re noting—it’s really more that I’ve made my peace.
I’ve read three volumes of My Struggle now and I love them. I completely understand and agree with everyone who has noted that women writing about stuffing their toddlers into their shoes and strollers would and do get a completely different treatment, and there’s no doubt that a lot of the frisson of the writing comes from internal and external expectations about masculinity rubbing up against this insistent, often very boring cataloguing of his days, without any Ulysses-like mythos or heroism. But I find the sheer immensity of the project conceptually fascinating, and I too have enjoyed the frank discourse on shame in his work. A lot of the work I love becomes shameless as it delves headlong into shame, and I would put My Struggle in that category. (Importantly, I’ve also read that he personally never thought of the project as “about male shame,” as a reporter once put it to him; for reasons I’ve already gone into, I completely relate to this disavowal. The writing has already alchemized shame and transcended it, so it often seems like it’s the reader who wants to pin the writer back to that incipient state.)
MD: I guess if Knausgaard can write so “shamelessly” about taking a giant shit, it makes you wonder what could he not write about. My friend, Alison Strayer, and I have debated whether he is truly exposing his shame. She doesn’t buy it, finds him a bit disingenuous; in the two books I’ve read, the only place I can really locate the shame is in his drunkenness, which you mention too, apropos of Bluets. I will mention one other conversation on the topic of Knausgaard and shame: my partner, Jason Simon, put forth Teju Cole as an example of someone who truly exposes his shame, as in the shocking revelation that he, or his character (in Open City), may have raped a woman when they were both students. This may be a special case, since until that moment, the novel has read as something closely derived from life—the narrator is a psychiatrist who eases pain, takes long walks, writes about the birds in his neighborhood and histories of social injustice embedded in the city. The confrontation from the woman pivots the structure and throws into doubt any assumptions the reader might have made about genre (auto-fiction?) and veracity.
On Christina Crosby’s panel (at Barnard), which centered on her memoir about her paralysis, A Body, Undone, her partner, Janet, said that in the memoir she is sometimes Janet, and sometimes not, the character ‘Janet.’ When I perform the narrations for my videos I try to dissociate in the hopes that the figure on screen will be read as ‘me’ and ‘not me.’ And because I quote a lot, I’ve even resorted to small fibs/distortions, such as making an unsavory anecdote of my own appear as though it might have been written by Kafka.
When I saw you in NY, you mentioned, perhaps half-jokingly that your genre is “auto-theory,” and then on the panel, I think you said certain readers hungered for you to “make it more personal.” To my dismay I’ve had people say similar things to me. I always thought the literary bits were what made my confessions palatable—they were my cover for the darker stuff I wanted to write. Borges recounts that in his long history of lecturing he found audiences drawn much more to the concrete than the abstract, and he kind of sums it up by saying: “People long for confessions and I have no reason to deny them mine.” In my view you strike a perfect balance between the intimate and the theoretical. But as per Borges I utterly savor and retain your passages such as caring for and playing with a small child in a way that is utterly devoid of rancor and boredom; Harry’s last night with his dying mother, the love and strength he brings to this moment of passage, followed by the no-holds-barred account of you giving birth to Iggy—it is all pretty transformative stuff, and super-generous to the reader. And into all of this you weave radical politics, theory, critique, and you are not shy about calling people out, expressing strong opinion.
I don’t mean to curtail this particular discussion on shame and auto-fiction-theory (we can circle back to it), but since Shannon and Arthur have titled their book Photography and Its Entanglements, I thought to introduce an idea I heard Barthes talk about in an interview (a few years before Camera Lucida was published), a propos of photography, where he asserts that for him, ‘fascination’ is the defining principle of the medium. He sets it up in a kind of drastic way, marginalizing ‘art photography’ (“devoid of interest, it wants to compete with painting”), and journalism, which he says can be very beautiful but entails a separate philosophy.
He says any ontology of photography revolves around fascination, which by (his) definition makes it “outside language.” He calls it a tautological problem: something is fascinating, you want to talk about it, but you can’t, precisely because it’s fascinating (this is my attempt at parsing his tautology). I’m paraphrasing and quoting here, I’ve listened to the recording multiple times (I can probably send you the audio file in French, if you like). It’s an audacious claim, and I really relate to it! I find it so freeing. I almost never want to talk about photography in the abstract, I always found the historical debates quite boring and pointless (e.g. “can it be art if a machine made it?”), and I have a suspicion that the current fixation on the transition from analog to digital is just a new spin on some of the old arguments (pictorialism v straight; appropriation v documentary etc).
I know you are into Barthes, wondering what you think of this ‘fascination’ idea, which seems to me distinct from his notion of the punctum.