Solitary Vices: Mikita Brottman on the Books in Her Life
Mark Dery talks with the critic and psychoanalyst about the terrors of reading.
Whether she’s insisting, in a discussion of her book Meat is Murder!: An Illustrated Guide to Cannibal Culture, that “we’re all cannibals” in the sense that mothers’ milk is our first food and “it’s just a short step...from ordinary erotic kissing and nibbling to devouring”; pleading the case, in her just-published book The Great Grisby, for that object of fond contempt, the childless, middle-aged Woman Who Loves Her Dog Too Much—“Why can’t we let ourselves take dog love too seriously? (Is it because, if we did, we’d have to think seriously about other nonhuman animals, including those on our dinner plates?)”; or declaring herself, in her animal-studies classic Hyena, unequivocally on the side of a creature universally reviled as a “filthy, snickering trickster...lurking in the back alleyways of the animal kingdom,” Mikita Brottman is never less than joltingly original. Her style of mind borders on a kind of Outsider intellectualism, even though she holds two PhD’s, one in English from Oxford—she co-directs the MA Program in Critical Studies at the Maryland Institute College of Art—and another, in psychoanalysis, from Heed University.
Her academic bona fides notwithstanding, she’s blessedly free of the intellectual timidity and cap-doffing obeisance to the household deities of academe that makes so many professors so guffawful when they turn their attentions to pop culture or the transgressive fringe, as Brottman often does. Rarer still for an academic, she’s freaking hilarious, in her wonderfully dry way.
Here she is doing drive-by Freud on the unimprovably anal Art Garfunkel, who maintains an online list of all the books he’s read:
What are we to make of the fact that ... he claims to have read through the entire Random House Dictionary of the English Language—all 1,664 pages of it? Or that, according to those who’ve conducted interviews at his New York home, each book in the Garfunkel Library, after being read, is wrapped in protective plastic and shelved in the order of reading? Without venturing to psychoanalyze Garfunkel’s unconscious fixations, I’d say there are times when you can, in fact, tell a book by its cover—and one of them is when it’s covered in protective plastic. ... This is not just rigid, it’s anal (and Garfunkel might even agree—after all, in August 1973 he read Irving Bieber’s Homosexuality, a Psychoanalytic Survey, and in June 1987 he read Freud’s The Ego and the Id).
And here she is ventilating about some of the less lovably eccentric specimens of nutty professor:
[T]he new hire revealed himself to be an abstemious hermit and hypersensitive to imaginary slights. He was also a compulsive hoarder and frugal to an unusual extreme, regularly to be seen pocketing food from the buffet lunch at faculty meetings. He was finally discovered to be actually living, Bartleby-like, in his departmental office.
Of special interest, for our purposes, is Brottman’s wry polemic, The Solitary Vice: Against Reading. The subtitle is tongue-in-cheek: Brottman is, after all, a professor in MICA’s Department of Language and Literature, and has been a voracious reader all her life. Even so, she casts a skeptical eye on the class anxieties and unrelenting mania for self-improvement that permeate Mortimer J. Adler’s “Great Books” series, sold door-to-door in the 1950s; the eat-your-roughage earnestness of literacy programs like the “Reading is Fun-damental” campaign of the 1960s; and the intellectual insecurity that gnaws at those of us who agonize over not having read Proust, War and Peace, and the Interminable Bard, God rot him. In The Solitary Vice, Brottman questions declinist assumptions that we’re reading less; challenges the literacy-drive orthodoxy that reading is an unalloyed good, regardless of what we’re reading; and wonders, using herself as a case study, about the psychological costs of bibliomania taken to morbid extremes. Growing up gloomy and reclusive and socially awkward in Sheffield, England (when the Yorkshire Ripper was terrorizing the county, she likes to point out), Brottman spent her teenage years, not at dances or on dates, but lost in Victorian literature, horror comics, H.P. Lovecraft. “When I think about my teenage years,” she writes, “I think of myself lying on my bed in the attic reading (shot from above, with a wide-angle lens). ... I don’t have many ‘real’ memories of my teenage years...because I spent so much time reading.” To be buried in books, she suggests, is to be buried alive, oblivious to real time, real experience, real life. It’s a wistful, powerful, probing book and, in a textbook definition of irony, an irresistibly good read.
Mark Dery: Tell me about the first book that really stayed with you after you closed its covers.
MB: My mother read me Alice in Wonderland when I was too young to read, and I remember being enchanted. But when I was old enough to read on my own, it seemed a lot darker. So many of the characters I’d considered kind were, in fact, irrationally cruel. I was disturbed by the Tenniel illustrations, which I hadn’t seen before. Some of them struck me as quirky or fanciful, but many of them gave me an uneasy chill. I was especially put off by the image of Alice with a horribly stretched neck, the flowers with human faces, and the frog footmen. The Mad Hatter, whose face was the same size as his torso, frightened me; I was disturbed that, like the Carpenter and the White Knight, he had a grotesquely swollen nose. I saw the Duchess as a mustachioed monster, the Queen of Hearts as an imperious harridan, and Humpty Dumpty as an egg-shaped nightmare. Most terrifying of all were Tweedledee and Tweedledum—two fat, middle-aged schoolboys.
MD: I couldn’t agree more—which is why I love the Tenniel illustrations! They give us a peek at the lump under the carpet: the Freudian Uncanny that seems to haunt Carroll’s Wonderland in the same way that libidinous energies, not to mention sexualities of all sorts, and class and gender resentments percolate beneath the starchy bourgeois propriety of the period.
Have you come to like the Alice books for their thinly veiled grotesqueries and perversities, manifested in Tenniel’s etchings, or do they still give you the creeps? And, given what I suspect was an active visual imagination, were there other books whose illustrations had a lasting impact on you, for good or ill, whether their texts did or not?
MB: The Tenniel etchings still give me the creeps, but I’ve loved the Alice books ever since I discovered their “dark side.” Aleister Crowley apparently identified Lewis Carroll as a holy man of the occult art, and required his acolytes to read both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He even devoted a chapter of his treatise Magick: Liber ABA to occult secrets concealed in common nursery rhymes and children’s stories, explaining that “deep contemplation of nonsense” can lead to a trance state, and thence to illumination.
Another bizarre interpretation of the stories can be found in a book called The Agony of Lewis Carroll by Richard Wallace, a psychotherapist. According to Wallace, two years after publishing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a child friend asked Carroll what the book was about, and Carroll replied with a single word: “Malice.” Wallace’s reading of the Alice books is notably dark, but he isn’t alone in this; John Goldthwaite in The Natural History of Make-Believe regards Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a “bout of rancor” directed at Lewis’s miserable home life and thwarted ambitions.
Wallace goes much further. In The Agony of Lewis Carroll, he makes the case that the Alice books are crammed with secret confessions in the form of anagrams which, when decoded, show Carroll as a rage-filled, father-haunted pedophile obsessed with prostitutes and bestiality. (He published a sequel in 1997 “proving” that Lewis Carroll was actually Jack the Ripper!) For what it’s worth, the original version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a commonly used psychological test, included a query in which the respondent was instructed to answer “true” or “false” to the question, “I enjoyed reading Alice in Wonderland” (the question was dropped in 1989).
MD: To those of us who grew up in the States in the 1960s, the fantasy literature of our elementary-school years seemed to be an English franchise, in many ways, its imaginative landscapes mapped by Carroll’s Wonderland, Milne (and Ernest Shepard’s) Hundred Acre Wood, Tolkien’s Shire, Lewis’s Narnia, Graham’s Wild Wood and its environs, the London of Mary Poppins and Sherlock Holmes and Oliver Twist. Growing up English, were you as aware of the Englishness of the books on the nursery shelf? You note in The Solitary Vice that you were drawn, in what we’d now call your YA years, to American fare, but I’m wondering if that was equally true in your pre-teen days.
MB: I was aware that many of the children’s books I read—especially those by Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, Kate Greenaway, and Enid Blyton—were set in a world that had absolutely no resemblance to the bleak, gray industrial landscape of Sheffield, where I grew up. They contained a fantasy of an idyllic English childhood, with its nurseries, tea parties, orange marmalade, and treacle sandwiches. There’s something about this world of cucumber frames and vicarage gardens that speaks to me, as it obviously does to many people, yet at the same time, I know it’s a world that didn’t exist and never did, even for the children of Victorian aristocrats. These books are adult fantasies of childhood, fuelled by regressive yearnings.
MD: What’s your most treasured book? And what’s the book you’d most like to own but don’t, because it’s pricey beyond reach, or lost to posterity, or never existed in the first place: The Encyclopedia of Unimaginable Customs, mentioned in Edward Gorey’s Curious Sofa, or the “nightmarish” Book of Sand from Borges’s story of the same name, or The Dynamics of an Asteroid by James Moriarty, referred to by Conan Doyle in The Valley of Fear?
MB: I don’t have any really rare treasures, but I have a collection of occult publications put out by University Books, which was based in New Hyde, New York. They’re beautiful old books with an Egyptian Eye of Horus on the spine. Every book in the series is of the highest literary quality. My collection includes Human Animals by Frank Hamel, Encyclopedia of Occultism by Lewis Spence, Alexandra David-Neel’s Magic and Mystery in Tibet, and the fascinating Poltergeists: an Introduction and Examination, by Sacheverell Sitwell.
A book I’d like to own is The Phantom Prince—My Life With Ted Bundy, by Elizabeth Kendall, Bundy’s girlfriend during the early years of his killing spree. There are always copies available online for around $200, but I’ve never been able to convince myself to pony up.
MD: Okay, I’ll bite: why The Phantom Prince? You talk, at some length, in The Solitary Vice, about the obscure charms of true-crime literature, noting, for example, that it offers a borehole into the homicidal unconscious, where we’re startled to find minds a little too close to our own, in many, unsettling ways. Moreover, as you point out, nonfiction chronicles of crimes afford a peephole view of everyday lives, which are every bit as banal as we’d expect, yet, paradoxically, stranger than we know. But why Bundy, I wonder?
MB: Most mass-market true crime is awful, just unreadable, so it’s rare to come across an intelligent and literary analysis of a case. One exception is The Only Living Witness, by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, on Bundy. Ever since I read that I’ve been curious about the book by his girlfriend, because it would be interesting to read a book about a serial killer that doesn’t discuss his crimes (since she knew nothing about them), his trial, or the court case. I’m curious about the ordinary, mundane details of Bundy’s life. But maybe I’m especially curious just because the book’s so hard to come by (at least, for less than $100). It might well be rubbish.
MD: You mentioned Crowley, earlier, and your occult books with the Eye of Horus on the spine. I’m intrigued by your interest in occultism. The Aesthetes and the Decadents flirted with occultism, mostly with tongues firmly in cheek, finding it useful as a transgressive alternative to mainstream religion, a reliable way to scandalize the bourgeoisie. But in your writings and lectures about Ted Serios (an unemployed, alcoholic Chicago bellhop who enjoyed brief celebrity for his purported ability to materialize “thoughtographs” on Polaroid film), you maintain a neat epistemological balancing act in which you raise an ironic, drily funny eyebrow at Serios’s claims, his allegedly “sociopathic” behavior, and the credulity of those taken in by him, while at the same time leaving open the question of the scientific possibility of thoughtography. My sense is that your interest in the occult is, at its roots, ideologically motivated. I’m guessing your refusal to dismiss such claims on empiricist or positivist grounds is an oblique critique of scientism, the quasi-religious perception of scientific authority as omniscient and infallible.
MB: You’ll think I’m being faux-naïve when I tell you that what I’m always looking for—in terms of occult phenomena, crime, and everything else—is something that gives me a certain frisson. Nabokov says, in his in lecture on Bleak House, “that little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” Whether it’s Bundy’s abduction of a woman in the 10 feet between the elevator and her hotel room, Serios’s impossibly haunting “thoughtographs,” levitating tables, or apparitions of the dead, I’m drawn to anything that gives me that telltale tingle in the spine. At those moments, I feel as if the ground opens up underneath me and I see all the cracks in my ordinary, everyday assumptions about the way things are.
MD: I was fascinated by your reading, in The Solitary Vice, of Freud’s case studies of hysteria as Victorian hauntology, or gothic fiction. The British writer of speculative fiction, J.G. Ballard, famously championed the idea of "invisible literature": writings not intended as literature that, from the parallax view of the insurgent intellect, can nonetheless be seen as literature. Ballard singled out Gray's Anatomy as a textbook example of his imagined genre, calling it “the greatest novel of the 20th century.” What nonfiction tomes—psychological, criminological, forensic, or whatever—would you nominate for literary status based on their compelling style, engaging narratives, delicious turns of phrase, unforgettable insights, or other virtues? Put another way, what scientific books or journal articles or essays have you come across, in your studies, that stand out for literary reasons, as opposed to purely scientific ones?
MB: I’m currently spending much of my time listening to audio files and transcripts of court cases. As well as court transcripts, I like reading psychological case histories and crime scene reports. They’re surprisingly easy to get hold of (medical records are more difficult). Court audio and transcripts can be ordered by phone from the clerk of any circuit court for a fee. There’s a lot of good stuff to be found digging around in National Criminal Justice Reference System. I use search engines like PubMed and PsychInfo and keywords like “bizarre” and “unusual.” I’ve developed a private radar for the little nuances of tone and inflection in police reports that subtly imply superiority or disbelief. Sometimes, the most banal statement will be phrased in a way that gives it an odd kind of weight and momentum, so it sounds like a sentence that could have been written by Conrad.
My favorite sources for invisible literature are The Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, The Journal of Forensic Science, The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, and The Archives of Sexual Behavior. There are some good compilations that are more accessible, too. I’d particularly recommend The Murder Trial of Wilbur Jackson, published by the Criminal Justice Series. There are also some fascinating court transcripts and police reports available at The Smoking Gun website. My book Thirteen Girls is a collection of semi-fictionalized documents of this kind.
MD: Give us the juicy details. What are some of the most memorable articles you’ve excavated from the journals you’ve mentioned? What qualities does a case study have to have to pique your interest? Do you read them as scientific studies or short stories? If the latter, what aesthetic movement or specific writer do they most closely resemble, when read through a literary-critical lens?
MB: Some of my favorite journal article titles: “Post-mortem decapitation by domestic dogs: three case reports and a review of the literature.” “Unusual intracranial stab wounds inflicted with metal tent stakes for a case involving a family murder suicide.” “Foreign object ingestion in complex suicide: A case report and review of the literature.” “An Unusual Death due to the Impalement of a Gear Stick into the Brain Stem through the Nasal Cavity: A case report.” They are sui generis, redolent of no aesthetic movement (or perhaps a new kind of poetry), though the strange distance and formality of the language puts me in mind of Conrad, as I say above. I’m compelled by the way they allow us to see everything from a dissonant perspective; they show us how utterly bizarre human beings can be, while at the same time reminding us that, as the saying goes, nothing human is alien to us. What I find most engaging is the contrast between the matter-of-fact, totally objective prose and the information that prose is conveying.
MD: On a related note, some of the most bravura passages in The Solitary Vice, for my money, are what I’d call your felicitous misreadings of texts—a sort of perverse hermeneutics that is related to, by not exactly synonymous with, the Barthesian strategy of reading against the grain. You do this with Freud, as I’ve mentioned, and with true crime, and with the courtroom transcripts and psychoanalytic case studies we’ve been talking about. I’ve long been a fan of this sort of thing, compiling a mental list of felicitous misreadings, foremost among them Gore Vidal and Orson Welles’s hilarious deconstruction of Rudy Vallee’s autohagiographic memoir, in Vidal’s essay “Remembering Orson Welles.” Can you talk about any specific books or articles you like to read from an oblique angle, willfully misreading them to perverse, subversive, or simply idiosyncratic effect?
MB: I live in an old hotel, and I’ve recently been researching old newspaper items about the suicides that happened here, and the notes people left. However brief, I find them infinitely suggestive. They’re little vignettes of private tragedy, windows onto the changing century. They contain snippets of peripheral history—the introduction of automobiles, the development of telegraph and telephones, the advent of Great Depression, the injustice of segregation, and the changing nature of the hotel trade. There are also insinuations about social class, alienated parents, sons with too much money, businessmen suffering from existential ennui. There’s a sense of nostalgia in these little case studies as well—of a Baltimore that was both genteel and bohemian, whose kings were society men, tobacco lords and bootleg emperors. Another interesting feature of these vignettes is their reliable supporting cast, consisting of desk clerks, bellboys, maids, doctors and coroners. I find the suicide notes especially touching, with their polite, self-deprecating apologies, often expressing regret to the hotel staff for the necessary cleanup job.
MD: Let’s end with a thought experiment or two: you’re trained as a psychoanalyst, well-versed in the legendary literature of your field (by which I mean Freud, primarily) and, I imagine, the clinical side of things as well. Which fictional character would you most like to analyze, and what do you imagine would be some of the more fruitful areas of inquiry in his or her psyche?
MB: The first character that comes to mind is Melville’s Bartleby. But on second thought, I realize I’d be looking for an explanation for his behavior—something more, that is, than the story of his past in the Dead Letter Office—and any explanation would ruin the story. It’s better, I think, that we don’t understand Bartleby at all. His inner world is inviolable and inaccessible; he remains “alone, absolutely alone in the universe.”
MD: Desert Island Books?
MB: All I want is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Just as certain pieces of music can’t be understood until you’ve heard them over and over again, some books need to be read many times. Every time I read Heart of Darkness, I stumble on something new, or recall something I’d forgotten. It seems magically self-renewing, like the loaves and fishes. I could read it indefinitely.
When I first encountered Heart of Darkness, I thought you could take out nine of every 10 sentences, and the story would still get told. I found the style repetitive and overbearing, the protagonist unsympathetic and inscrutable. Yet whenever I come back to it, more of the “in-between matter” makes sense, and previously invisible pictures start to take shape—images that eventually become more intriguing to me than the surface plot. My early struggles to make sense of these images were full of misunderstandings, and partly because of this, it took me time to feel comfortable with them. It took many re-readings to appreciate the book’s complexities and come to terms with Conrad’s difficult prose; even now, I’m not sure how much I fully “understand” the book, and to what extent my “understanding”—any “understanding”, perhaps— is essentially a confused projection.
Bearing this in mind, I think the book would be useful, for the marooned, in a practical sense. For one thing, it would remind me focus to on getting things together, building a shelter, catching fish, keeping out of the sun, just as Marlow has to drag his half-submerged steamer out of the Congo mud, repair the damage and make it seaworthy. He has to keep the boiler stoked and the pipes from leaking. While he doesn’t necessarily enjoy all this toil, he knows it’s crucial. The work absorbs his attention, keeping his mind from dwelling on the violent cruelties perpetrated by the colonizers. In other words, he’s dedicated to his work not for itself, but for what it precludes. “What saves us is efficiency,” he claims, “the devotion to efficiency.” Marlow believes work can bring you a sense of purpose, a kind of order and stability that can keep you grounded and out of trouble. For Marlow, life is tragic only at the rare moments when he becomes conscious of its meaninglessness. He occupies himself in his work with dignity and authenticity, he’s engaged not by any particular outcome or desired result, but by conscious immersion in the struggle itself.
The book would also help me to live alone, and to remind me that communication with other people is basically a sham. When Marlow tries to describe Kurtz to his listeners, he realizes he can’t do it. He says, “He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream…” He’s talking about how language gives the illusion of bringing us closer but it actually cuts us off from one another. Marlow actually says it explicitly at the end of this passage: “We live as we dream: alone.”
Conrad has a way of twisting words out of shape until you start to see them in a new way and think differently about what they do, how they work. It’s the outsider—the foreigner like Conrad, the loner like Marlow—who can make us see who we are. Ironically, if anything in this obscure tale is made more lucid by words, it’s our inability to make each other understand our experiences. I see Heart of Darkness as a study in existential despair, and in this sense it might not sound like the most appropriate book for life on a desert island. But if Marlow faces despair, he also learns to distract himself from it, and that’s a vital lesson for everybody.
MD: You once said to me, “I tend to get obsessed with particular examples rather than patterns. There are books that I read constantly, teach regularly, return to again and again, like Heart of Darkness, but I'm not especially interested in Conrad’s other work, colonial literature or anything like that; it’s just a specific obsession with that particular book. I’m drawn to specific details, taxonomies of types, such as dogs in literature, or cats, or kangaroos, items of furniture, breakfast table scenes, descriptions of shoes—anything like that. Individual types, details, incidences: I like making those kind of taxonomies.” What, exactly, did you mean by that?
MB: Why taxonomies? I don’t know if I can put my finger on it exactly. Partly it’s a way of keeping things tidy, in control, compartmentalized. It’s also a way of finding secret, private underground connections between ostensibly totally different texts. Put another way, looking at texts in this way opens up a level of connection transcending that of the “ordinary surface,” allowing for a much deeper style of unconscious communication between texts in the same way that dreams, free associations and prophecies often rely on the smallest, seemingly irrelevant details. In the occult, as in psychoanalysis, what matters most is always on the periphery.
— Mark Dery
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