I first encountered the work of J. D. Daniels in an issue of The Paris Review. I was living in Singapore at the time, suffering a kind of physical or psychological breakdown—I couldn’t tell which (part of the problem). It was an essay documenting his participation in an occult group encounter retreat, and the psychotic episode that followed him home. That essay, “Letter from the Primal Horde,” and five others (two of which are billed as fiction) make up his debut collection, The Correspondence. Beyond whatever personal resonance I felt, I understood immediately that I was reading something extraordinary—dark, hilarious, wholly original. The kind of stuff (as Daniels says), “to make your heart burn with envy and hate.”
If that sounds like hyperbole, listen to Dwight Garner in The New York Times: “the moment you crack it open, you’re in the presence of an original voice.” Sarah Manguso calls Daniels “a blazing virtuoso of the English sentence.” John Jeremiah Sullivan says his work “gives off the unmistakable crackle of an original writer who has found a new form.” The Whiting Foundation committee noted, upon issuing to Daniels one of those giant novelty checks (or so I imagine), “his work has an exhilarating nimbleness, the ability to pivot or shift within a sentence and open up new territory.” Again and again they say it: virtuosic, nimble, original, and new.
The Correspondence, by J. D. Daniels. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
In this interview, we talk about science fiction, teaching, psychoanalysis, Daniels’s upbringing in Kentucky, and his unconventional path to writing. We also talk quite a bit about the text itself. It is my hope you will read the book first, but in case you don’t, I’ve tried to wedge in the references.
At one point, I ask him about the idioms and tonalities the book moves between (nimbly). I’m especially interested in his mash-up of the psychoanalytic and the vulgar; the clinician’s language and the tongue of his southern, working-class upbringing. He offers an idea he picked up while playing jazz: “you play fast over a slow beat, slow over a fast beat, cool over hot, hot over cold.” That sentence—more than any other description I’ve read—best captures the mesmeric rhythms of the book.
I spoke with Daniels by phone in June of 2017.
• • •
LISA WELLS: I’m hoping you can talk about the pieces in the collection—the time frame. What is the oldest piece in the collection, and the newest, and what was the process for selecting them?
J. D. DANIELS: “Letter from Cambridge” appeared in The Paris Review in 2010. “Letter from the Primal Horde” was 2015. I used to keep the magazines down here as a trophy rack for me to look at. To buoy myself up. But then it became vanity, and I banished them to the attic, so I don’t have anything to refer to. Mitzi Angel at Farrar, Straus and Giroux bought my collection. She wanted to see everything I’d ever done. We had made our choices together, and I had started doing stuff custom for our book, and then she left the company, and Lorin Stein came back. [Stein, who left FSG in 2010 to edit The Paris Review, returned to the publishing house recently as an editor-at-large. —Eds.] I had already worked with him, of course. Everything in the book has been published in The Paris Review.
How we picked them for the book? I love Lorin, I trust him, but I’m not him. We disagreed, and we hammered it out.
WELLS: I guess I’m wondering if there was an organizing principle. I have my own idea about how the pieces resonate, one to the next.
DANIELS: What Lorin had to do was protect me from my own worst impulses. There were articles I wanted to put in, but trying to include them changed the concept. Too many far-out things in a book don’t make it look like a bold exploration. They make it look zany, which is dismissible. I’m interested in psychotic states, and I’m interested in participant journalism, but I don’t want to come off like a hobo hitting himself over the head. Lorin helped me moderate my enthusiasms.
WELLS: What falls into the category of “bold exploration” and what falls into the category of “zany,” in your estimation?
DANIELS: We decided against all of my essays on science fiction. I’ve written a lot about it. Philip K. Dick, Jules Verne, Barry Malzberg, H. P. Lovecraft, William Gibson. In the Mouth of Madness, Urutsokidoji Legend of the Overfiend, The Omega Man, I Am Legend, Vincent Price in 1964’s The Last Man on Earth. A terrible movie called Event Horizon. Promise me you won’t watch it.
WELLS: Oh, I’ve seen it. “Where we’re going we don’t need eyes to see.”
DANIELS: Well done. Yeah, it’s terrifically stimulating. My science-fiction essays were repetitive. The looser or more journalistic my presentation was originally, the more I found my necessarily finite fund of insights turning up in essay after essay. A book shouldn’t be predictable. So anywhere I seemed to be recapitulating a favorite argument, not to say beating a dead horse, that had to go.
WELLS: Speaking of “zany”—it’s not synonymous with “vulgar,” the low, or whatever—but obviously one of the book’s characteristics is a marriage between the high and the low, as they say.
DANIELS: Yes, gosh. Yes.
WELLS: You have an interest in psychotic states, and you get at that explicitly at some point, but to me it actually feels more subtly done and kind of accumulative through the book. Maybe that interest becomes most explicit in “Letter from the Primal Horde.” One of the tensions, as I see it, is this idea of being permeable to the other and having this kind of ongoing confusion of selves. But at the same time the voice is very controlled, even when it’s going blue. This guy, i.e. you, is having to work to keep himself zipped in his skin.
DANIELS: I’ll make the mistake I often make, and talk before I think. Death and life are in the power of the tongue. A man can slit his throat with his own tongue. Thoughts lose a certain quality when they are communicated. What is it Schopenhauer said? There are many thoughts that are valuable for a man to have, but few of them have the power to interest an audience. And also: thoughts obey gravity. That is to say, they travel from the mind, down the hand, to a pencil very easily. But for them to rise from a book, up into a reader’s mind, is a whole other prospect.
WELLS: That’s Schopenhauer? Rise from the book. Very easily done, I’m sure.
DANIELS: You’re talking about a guy trying to hold himself together. Keep himself zipped in his skin, you said. And that’s real. That’s what’s happening for me right now, at this moment. Trying to hold myself together. Speaking with you doesn’t feel like being able to speak, it feels like being unable to restrain myself. A failure of continence.
WELLS: Huh. Which becomes literal, throughout the book. And this is a family trait, right? For example, your mother vomiting from grief in “Letter from Majorca.” Later, your father shits his pants, and toward the end of that essay, you’re “finally shitting your father.”
DANIELS: Yes. It’s true. Gosh. A real interview.
WELLS: So, that’s a question. You have this line where the teacher says, “Are you waiting for your father to die before you finally write something honest?” Anxiety about your family of origin runs throughout the book. I’m curious about that on a practical level. Speaking as a person who also writes about their family and feels fucked up about it. What has that process been like for you?
DANIELS: The process was terrible, as I’m sure it is for everybody. You feel like you’re in a food processor, getting processed. There’s not much to like there. When my father read the book, he said, “Johnny, I liked it a lot. Of course, I don’t suppose I’m the only person who wouldn’t want people to know he had done these things.” I said, “Maybe we have different memories of the same events.” And he said, “No, son, that’s what happened.”
DANIELS: That’s one of the best things that ever happened in my life.
WELLS: I don’t want to pry, but can you say more about that? It seems there might be another layer connected to why that’s gratifying.
DANIELS: You say you don’t want to pry, and I appreciate it. I don’t want to be coy. But there are some things that I don’t know how to talk about. Just like anybody else, sometimes I’ve had to fight for my version of the facts, and it was a deforming part of my life, saying, No, I am right and everyone else is wrong. It’s unfortunate, because that’s the unlikeliest thing that could ever happen on earth, that I’m right and everybody else is wrong. It’s extremely unlikely. Extremely unlikely. Unfortunately, it actually happened once. And I learned far too much from that unusual experience. Now I have a habit of acting like I’m right and everyone else is wrong, which is unattractive and not helpful. But you do have to fight for your version of events. Fighting for your version, just for your right to tell your competing story. You tell your story, I’ll tell my story. Some people want to tell their story, and then they want you to tell it, too. I gave a lecture at the Harvard Extension School, and this girl said, “My sister gets upset when she reads what I wrote about our family, she doesn’t agree with me, what should I do?” And I said, “Tell her to write her own version, and not expect you to write it. You tell your story, she tells her story. ”
WELLS: So you’re back to teaching?
DANIELS: No, I’m not, although I am going to Bennington tomorrow to do a one-off. I liked it, and I was good at it, although that might not be clear from the stories I’m telling you. I had spongy boundaries, and the task expanded to fill the available space. I quit paying attention to the other things I wanted to do in life and decided to be the best teacher I could be. And I was really good, so that’s good: there are a lot of things I try to be good at, and I don’t make any progress. But that made it more seductive: the more energy I pour into this, the better I get at it? Then why shouldn’t I drain my whole tank?
Have you done any teaching?
WELLS: I’m a part-timer.
DANIELS: Do you ever have the feeling that it draws up out of the same well that you yourself need to drink out of?
WELLS: Yeah. I don’t know if I’m as enthusiastic as you. What really followed me home—I mean, talk about leaky boundaries—I would worry a lot about their well-being. That’s the problem with so-called creative writing, because you’re to maintain a boundary between the classroom and their lives, but they’re writing about their lives.
I wanted to ask you what you’re doing for work now, but obviously I feel a little self-conscious given that section in “Letter from Majorca,” when people keep asking you What do you do? and you tell them you’re an “AM/FM clock radio” and that you “manufacture organic catheters,” et cetera. But then I realized, there’s quite a bit about vocation in the book. Especially as it relates to your antecedents.
DANIELS: I had a lot of jobs. Right now I’m having the best year of my life as a writer, and, miraculously, that is what I’m doing now. I was given a terrific prize called a Whiting, and it’s a lot of money. And I wrote something for Esquire, and they were very generous. And before you know it, I’m doing okay this year.
WELLS: That’s still a leap of faith on your part.
DANIELS: Don’t be deceived. I made my money the old-fashioned way: I married it.
WELLS: Can you give me a sense of your trajectory in becoming a writer? When did it start for you? I gather you’ve had a sort of unconventional past.
DANIELS: It’s all I ever wanted, but it did not seem the likeliest outcome. It was the secret dream in my heart until puberty, when I conceived a different dream and chased after that. I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, a big music town. This is, like, ’89 to ’95 or ’96. I was playing music in bars. I was in bands. Everybody wants to be Jimi Hendrix, so just buy a bass and you can work every night. I had a lot of fun, and I got in a lot of trouble. Then suddenly I was out of high school. Time for college, but we didn’t have any money. I got into some nice schools, but I didn’t even know there was such a thing as student aid. I never had a credit card. I thought taking money like that was sinful, frankly. I grew up religious. And so I wound up going to a state school, the University of Louisville, on a scholarship. I paid my way.
But I didn’t like college at all. I had enjoyed high school, which I gather is unusual. I made good grades. I had a lot of friends. But college I didn’t like at all, and I just kept dropping out. And I worked. I was an exterminator. I worked at the trailer plant with my dad.
I was an unusual exterminator. I worked on an airfield. I worked on cargo planes bound for citrus states like Florida and California, and we had to make sure there weren’t any Japanese beetles on them, because suppose the Japanese beetle were to infiltrate California and propagate and eat all the oranges: the world orange juice market would collapse. That’s the way it was represented to us at our morning meetings. I spent all day scrambling into cargo planes, and then sealing them and bombing them, you know, fumigating them. It’s not like doing someone’s house. You’re talking to a whole team on CB radio and driving trucks. What’s great about the airfield is, if you park your van the wrong way, and the plane turns the wrong way, the backwash from the jet exhaust will just catch the broad side of a van like a sail, full-on, and pick it up and throw it like a baseball.
WELLS: Holy shit.
DANIELS: It’s like a monster movie. [Laughs.] That was fun.
WELLS: Your van got caught?
DANIELS: No, not mine. I was careful. You only have to see it once. You don’t have to be personally involved in it to learn the lesson.
WELLS: The image sticks with you.
DANIELS: You know what happened? We had these belt loaders that opened up like Pac-Man mouths, so the incline would open and the belt would go and take the packages up into the belly of the plane. And a kid was standing next to the belt loader when one of the vans got picked up and thrown, and it pinched him in between the van and the belt loader. And all that happened was: he sprained his ankle. We all said, That will never happen again, next time somebody is going to die. Nobody ever made that mistake again.
I was an exterminator. I slapped giant potato-chip decals on tractor-trailers. Before that, I worked in a textile factory on an assembly line—that was a job my Dad got me. I drove a truck, like the guy in my book. And bit by bit, I kept going to college, and after a while I had a bachelor’s degree. I had an assistantship in the college library. And I got promoted to management. So I supervised what they were pleased to call stacks maintenance, which is just a fancy way to say reshelving the books. Blue-collar labor with white-collar objects. When I couldn’t do that anymore, I worked for the Census Bureau. And while I was working for the Department of Agriculture in the census bureau, this lawyer who was moonlighting said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school?” I said, “Roy, how am I supposed to pay for that?” And he said, “Dummy, don’t you know they’ll pay for you to do it?” I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” If the people in your family didn’t go to college, that’s not something you know.
WELLS: Sure. I relate.
DANIELS: It’s beautiful for people in your family not to go to college. I wouldn’t trade my family for anything. But I didn’t have that valuable piece of information.
WELLS: It seems like a scam. They pay you.
DANIELS: You’re going to pay me to sit in the air conditioning and read books? You all must be out of your mind. Well, I did that. What happened was, I had another assistantship where I set up chairs for visiting writers, a perfect job to make your heart burn with envy and hate. And this nice man came down called Leslie Epstein. I was driving him around, showing him the old cast-iron storefronts of downtown Louisville, and he thought it was pretty Podunk. He said to me, “Let me ask you a question. What are you doing here?” I said, “Sir, I live here. My family is here. All my people are here.” He said, “Why don’t you leave?” And I said, “Make me an offer, smart guy.” And that’s exactly what he did. That is how I came to Boston University. Leslie Epstein changed my life.
WELLS: He was teaching there?
DANIELS: He was running the writing program there. I had to apply like everyone else. It wasn’t some weird Illuminati backdoor. That’s how I came up here. I love my hometown. I lived there for thirty years. But if I had known there was a place like this? I can admit it, I would have moved here earlier.
WELLS: You were thirty when you went to Boston.
DANIELS: I was twenty-eight, I think. I was married. I owned my house, I sold my house. And when I got to Boston, the mortgage payment on my house in Kentucky was less than the rental on my parking space in Boston.
DANIELS: Sold that car.
WELLS: You went to grad school, and the rest is history?
DANIELS: I’d done a conventional academic master’s degree on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I used to sit in my study carrel and congratulate myself and say, Boy, you’ve come a long way. But what was I doing? I’m doing cryptonumerology in Protestant versification in the Renaissance. So I got, what, my theosophical solar logos in one hand, doing numerology like a run-of-the-mill stoner, and I’ve got the Holy Bible my mother gave me in my other hand. How far have I come? Not one inch. All we did was dress it up in furs. That’s all we did. Then I came to Boston and—you went to Iowa, right?
WELLS: I was thirty when I started, so it took me a while, too.
DANIELS: Then I’m guessing our experiences were somewhat similar. Let’s compare. You get there. You want to make friends. You want to be the only writer in the world, but you know that is not realistic. You want to make friends, but these kids, they’re so young, and some of them, all they’ve done is go to Princeton.
You were thirty, you were married. I was married, too.
WELLS: It’s all very familiar.
DANIELS: I didn’t want to hate them. I couldn’t help it. Everybody has flaws, and these are some of mine.
WELLS: But didn’t you kind of suspect that all the shit-shoveling you’ve done would pay off? And hasn’t it? I mean, you had an edge all the while.
DANIELS: As I said earlier, I’m prone to thinking that I have an edge on people, that I’m right and they’re wrong. Whether I actually do have an edge or not? It’s like if the floater in my gas tank is cracked, it fills up with gas and sinks, and it reads empty when it’s full. Yeah, it seemed to me like I had an edge on them, but I know I’d be liable to think that whether I did or not, so I couldn’t trust my instincts. Which is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Other than cutting your hands off, I guess.
WELLS: At the behest of your teacher.
DANIELS: At the behest of your teacher. And I was hard to get along with. I was a bad drunk. And that brought its usual set of problems. But they gave me my degree. You can send your degree to Random House, and see if they publish it.
WELLS: You started publishing stories in The Paris Review. That seems like a benchmark.
DANIELS: It happened in a silly way. I was working in a deli up here . . .
WELLS: Making sandwiches for Weimaraners. (This reference is from “Letter from Majorca.” He writes, “Probably I made a lot of sandwiches for dogs without knowing it, but the lady I am thinking of made it clear to me I was to be careful with her dog’s sandwich: ‘Take it easy on the Russian dressing.’”)
DANIELS: That’s true. In a tony neighborhood. Some people are nice, some are not. I’m sure every deli is the same. One of the people who was nice to me was this lady who taught Old Testament Hebrew up the street at Harvard, and I always wanted to learn Hebrew. She was going to be my Hebrew tutor. And I went to dinner at her house. I was introduced to one of the guests, and this man said, “Hello, I’m James Wood,” and I said, “I know who you are.” He was friendly. I liked him a lot.
Then I picked up this new magazine called n+1. The first issue. Now they’re famous, great. But I picked up the magazine, and the first page was them trying to differentiate themselves and forge their identity. They were taking on my new friend, James Wood, saying all these nasty things about him; but if you stand him next to them, I dare you to tell the difference. The narcissism of small differences. And they wrote some stuff about factory work, and it was clear to me—look, a lot of people work in factories, it doesn’t make me special, but nobody at n+1 knows anything about it. That’s just a fact. They’re smart kids, but they don’t know about that, and I do. Well, I got myself in a tangle, and I wrote them a nasty letter. Don’t make fun of this guy, I met him, what would you know about working in a factory? And they were open and direct. Rather than saying, Don’t talk to us like that, Mark Greif said, “Your letter was interesting, would you like to have coffee?” We made friends. I wound up doing some work for n+1, which is the Harvard Mafia Newsletter. I came to the attention of Lorin Stein, who was, at that time, at FSG. And fifteen years later, Lorin was the editor of The Paris Review.
WELLS: And he winds up the editor for your book. Pretty amazing.
DANIELS: I worked hard, but there’s a lot of luck, too. A lot of people work hard and don’t get lucky. I try not to fool myself.
WELLS: I guess, luck. Sure. But I think what these people are writing on the back of your book—I haven’t read your mean letter to the editor, but it does occur to me, that kind of makes sense as an origin story. There’s a tendency in the book to poke at people’s pretensions. I wouldn’t call your work confrontational, but it’s so honest sometimes, even in its oblique fashion, that I think it can feel antagonistic. One thing I noticed about the reviews—I don’t know if you’re reading them—but there’s this weird begrudging texture. They’re like, “You know, I thought this was going to be some bullshit, but I’ve got to eat my hat on this one.” [Laughter] And I’ve been thinking about that. What is it that makes somebody say that? I think it must have something to do with truth telling. Tom Bissell is like, What is this? Is this poetry? To me, these are lyric essays, but unlike a lot of lyric essayists, you’re not fixated on the epiphanic and reverent and self-serious. You’re interested in debasement and humiliation, in the daily degradations. That’s what feels true about it. Maybe that’s what is antagonistic about it.
DANIELS: I feel like you’re telling me the story of my life. I don’t know what else to say. Of course I have read the reviews of my first book. And I learned a lot. Bernhard said—you know Bernhard, you’d think Bernhard wouldn’t care—but Bernhard said, Look, I am trying to communicate, and I am interested in how my communication is received. A lot of people say they don’t read their reviews. The only person I ever believed was Carlos Fuentes. I bet Carlos Fuentes did not read his reviews, which does not speak well of his character. We are who we are in ourselves, but we are also what other people tell us we are; and I’m a pretty socially de-calibrated person, so if someone is going to help me—that’s a big if—if someone is going to help me and give me feedback, dense textual feedback, I will read it. I can use all the help I can get.
WELLS: I didn’t get a review copy, so I don’t know if there was some language from FSG that was pushing this idea of “masculinity,” but that kept coming up, too. I mean, masculinity is definitely in the background, but that doesn’t feel to me like the primary issue. All the violence, if you don’t mind me giving my read on that—
DANIELS: Tell me.
WELLS: A stronger thread to me, throughout the book, is that self-consciousness I mentioned earlier. The leaky boundary thing. One of the cures to the problem of disintegration is violence. That’s a direct way of integrating in a moment. A way to stop observing and start reacting, right?
DANIELS: Yeah. And I would add—self-quotation is a vice, but I’m going to do it—“I decided to spend some time at sea, where my bewilderment might make more sense, because disorientation and chaos would actually be happening.” Violence is like that, too. I made a conscious choice when I quit drinking. I thought, I feel like I’m getting attacked all the time, and I’m going insane. And I thought, Why don’t I go somewhere where I’m actually getting attacked all the time?
WELLS: It’s been suggested to me for working through trauma, to release the trapped fight . . . That’s why I read the illness narrative in the book as a tragedy. It’s like the healthiest position is in “Letter from Cambridge,” when you’re doing jiu-jitsu every day, and things sort of unravel from there. The book ends with three anti-psychotics. That’s the final image.
DANIELS: I want to go back to something you said earlier, about “masculinity”—yes, it was on the jacket copy. Some of these cats just review the copy on the jacket. They do as they’re told. So the jacket copy is important. Somebody milder than me would say persuasion. I say it’s out-and-out mind control. You will find that a lot of them are reviewing the jacket copy, and, you know, I didn’t write the jacket copy.
Look, I love my jacket copy. But what I wrote is on the inside of the book. The German translation just came out, and my German is make-believe, you know—I can read a menu—but I got it translated with help, and the Der Spiegel reviewer is the first person to say, The word “masculinity” does not actually appear anywhere in this book, will you guys chill. I was grateful to him for that.
WELLS: I wonder if “masculinity” is some kind of code for “working class.”
DANIELS: That’s interesting. Could be. I don’t know. Code.
WELLS: Can I ask you something about the book as an object, as long as we’re talking about copy?
DANIELS: Isn’t it pretty? Oh, you should ask me the question first.
WELLS: I think it’s beautiful. But it’s an interesting object because it’s slim and it’s hard cover and it has this kind of classic feel . . . like a book I would have picked off the library shelf as a kid. And there’s no bio. That’s unique, and it also lends itself to this enigmatic impression that comes up again and again in the blurbs. “Instant classic,” et cetera.
DANIELS: I’m grateful to them. This is the book I wished for. I don’t know what would have happened if I had disagreed, they might have done it the way they wanted, but since I agreed, it seemed to me that everything was going my way. The cover came to Lorin in a dream he had, about an edition of Keats.
I’ll tell you a little story about the colors of the book. After the “Letter from the Primal Horde,” when I could first walk around again, I was walking through Harvard Square, and I got a cup of coffee and I sat down. There’s some pretty far-out guys in Harvard Square, and crazy people can smell the crazy on you. This guy walked up to me and he said, “Hey, sir. Hey, sir, my grandmother was a witch and I can see things. I’m a warlock. That’s like a man witch. It’s hard to explain to human people. Do you want to know what I see when I look at you?” I said, “Yeah, but I’m afraid to find out.” And he said, “I see green and gold everywhere.” And then, you know, they made the book green and gold.
WELLS: “Letter from the Primal Horde” was the first essay of yours I read, in The Paris Review. Part of what I loved about it—it casts the same kind of spell that a book like R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self does, in the sense that it has a kind of cool exterior, it’s almost the clinician’s language, it’s cool to the touch. But it also conjures in the reader what it describes. In a sense, you’re experiencing some measure of the psychosis as you’re reading about it.
DANIELS: That’s interesting. I’m not sure it’s desirable, but it’s interesting. Lara Pawson, in the Times Literary Supplement, said, “Daniels does something that is hard to pin down. Something shifts and you feel unsettled. At this point in the book, I felt a sort of rising hysteria in my body. I was laughing a lot but wasn’t sure why. I even toyed with the idea that The Correspondence is part of a PSYOP experiment.”
You say cool to the touch. I used to play in this jazz combo, and that is when I realized my limitations as a musician: champagne taste and beer technique. But you play fast over a slow beat, slow over a fast beat, cool over hot, hot over cold. And “Letter from the Primal Horde” was one of the hottest things that ever happened to me, so I couldn’t tell the story in an overheated way. I had to get the ice tongs.
WELLS: It’s interesting to find out you’re a musician. I wanted to ask you, speaking as a person who has no real knowledge of music composition, though I am a poet, and that’s where I learned that form is content. Anyway, to my mind, the essay structures seem to unfold almost like musical phrasing. Thinking back to the idea of the high and low, there is a kind of rhythmic logic to each piece that must be part of their brilliance—your feel for this. I don’t know if this is something one can be trained in, that toggling back and forth, tension and release. For example, we might be talking about Proust and Bartok, and then it’s like, Okay, enough of that, now we have to talk about bowels.
DANIELS: My beloved Schopenhauer, who we talked about earlier, can get unreadable, but the best parts of The World as Will and Representation are about music. And what you’re saying about this phrasing, or rhythmic logic—where is it in Gide’s diaries or journals that he says, “The spirit will come to inhabit a beautiful form”? For me, this is something I think about every day, in a variety of conjugations, whether it’s “the posture is the yoga,” or “the mask is the face,” or “thoughts go in search of a thinker.” Jim Harrison, in his poetry book After Ikkyu, says, “Try to become the pencil that can write the poem.” Schopenhauer is desperate for relief from his unbearable, compulsive cognition. Music has no intelligible content, it’s just pure form. Schopenhauer’s rotten little heart goes out into this form, it’s a container where he can finally have an emotion. Somewhere Camus says this, too. He’s joking, but he says, “Look, you should get married so then at least your emotions will make sense. Because feelings are like the weather, and if you’re just sitting in a room, you’re going to think: oh, I love, I hate, I’m sad, I’m happy; and it won’t make any sense. You should get married so you will have an object—so you can think I love her, I hate her, I’m sad about her.”
WELLS: That’s the container. Maybe we can return to psychoanalysis, because this is obviously a theme—I mean, it’s content, but it’s also one of the structures that emerges and recedes. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a dialect quite like this, the analytic language pushed up against the poop and vomit and stuff. At some point it occurred to me, Of course! That’s a marriage that makes so much sense because the analyst wants to investigate the human latrine, so to speak.
DANIELS: I didn’t do it on purpose. But I agree with what you said. In this limited sense, analysis is a subspecies of toilet training: a paternal inspection of your diet through your feces. You are what you eat. What did you eat? And how did it change when it was in you? Show me the result of your internal processes, and show me the disowned. And show me the confusion, because defecation is a child’s idea of creation. But shit is not a creation, it is a waste product. Your healthy body is the creation. You eat, and create your body. Feces is what we discard.
And, somehow, out of this spirit comes a wealth of shit jokes. I didn’t do it on purpose. We could call it a failure to symbolize. I can be very literal. I’m glad I have managed to make something out of that, glad to have turned it into something of value to other people.
WELLS: We need the tactile, as readers. I mean, it doesn’t have to be shit, but we need the world to anchor us.
DANIELS: I have always felt deeply at fault for not being more of a, let’s say, sensual writer. In the sense of Conrad’s preface—to make you hear, to make you feel, to make you see. I’ve often thought, John, create a world of the senses for readers to inhabit. And now I feel that what you’re saying to me is that, without quite realizing it, I have created a tactile world, but it’s a slimy world of shit and vomit. It’s interesting to learn that.
WELLS: Oh, good. I’m glad.
DANIELS: I know I’ll be thinking about our conversation for a long time.
WELLS: Well, that’s one way of talking about the subconscious as it makes itself apparent to us in the “real world.” One of the things that is kind of mysterious to me that reoccurs in the book is the refrain of negation. I don’t know if you were thinking of it as denial. Lines like “Then I died, but no one ever dies”; or “There’s no such thing as a door or a chair”; “Psychoanalysis doesn’t exist.” What’s that all about?
DANIELS: A lot of people have a to-do list. I have a to-don’t list. There’s a lot of things I don’t know how to do. Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do that either. Don’t do that. And then whatever is left, I guess, is the way I’m going to do it. I do think I proceed by negation, just as a general thing. There’s a lot of things I only know the wrong way to do. I avoid them. I felt like I could write that “Primal Horde” essay for the rest of my life. I don’t know how I ever managed to send that to the magazine. It was called “The Selected Correspondence of Charles H. Masterson,” and it was hundreds of pages long. And it was letters between me—real letters, you know, redacted—between me and those people. I knew I was coming off like a crackpot, but I thought, This could be fun for someone else to read. I fictionalized the whole thing, and I sent it to the magazine. It was called the B. L. Arborio conference, rather than A. K. Rice. But Lorin ran it by legal, and he said, “Why not just say what happened?”
DANIELS: They ought to be in jail. It was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. But I don’t understand why they’re permitted to do it.
WELLS: Do other people get sick there?
DANIELS: Very common. If you like systems, you’ve got to read this cat Fred Alford. This guy’s like Wile E. Coyote, he’s a super-genius. He teaches political philosophy at a university in Maryland. What Evil Means to Us. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Greek Tragedy. He’s not a psychoanalyst. He wrote a book on whistleblowers that’s all about systems, and boundaries, and who is the identified patient in the system. Who contains the disowned knowledge. The whole system has the knowledge, but only the whistleblower knows it. The thing I’m interested in—I don’t know what to call it yet—is: what would it be like for a de-identified patient? What would it be like for somebody who was so quiet at his center that his powerful, benevolent influence could limbically regulate the system? Not somebody valenced to receive the anxiety such that it would blow up and explode, and he would be a human sacrifice. Who is the witch doctor who could eat the poison and live?
WELLS: That’s the Dalai Lama, right? I think that’s the idea, for example, in entering a room with an audience—to become very still and radiate out, and yeah, limbically balance the room.
DANIELS:Radiate out is educational for me, because I’m always thinking sin-eater, drawing-in, emotional money laundering. It’s interesting to think of what is given back, or how someone is radiating out, as you say.
WELLS: One of the questions that interests me is: What happens to the system when someone is excluded? Similar to what you described happening to Tommy in the “Primal Horde” essay. The group’s energy constellates around the absence and produces all kinds of compensatory symptoms.
DANIELS: If I could only tell you what happened to them after I left. But I promised I wouldn’t. If I could just get this straight, in my mind, I could make a real contribution to the field. There is an apparently irreducible racial-and-sexual stereotyping component to how people scan each other at these events. You can dress up and put a tie on, but if your body shape or skin color codes you for this or that role in a given system, what are you supposed to do? Of course, this is true everywhere and at all times, but it gets overheated in these experiments for generating and observing decontained psychotic anxiety.
And the other thing is physical-environmental conditioning. Where are bodies located in space? What hierarchy does the container imply, or create? And how does it do that, why does it work that way? Didn’t I write about what happened when people were seated behind the analytic conference’s director?
WELLS: The image is so clear in my mind. Everyone covering their mouths.
DANIELS: Yes. And Tommy’s behind them, and Tommy, so-called Tommy is . . . you know, your analyst sits behind you: but who sits behind your analyst? Tommy is the director’s unconscious, walled off. There is so much I didn’t write about. The first thing the group tried to do was maul and cannibalize this old man who was running the conference. It was called “Working Across Differences,” so naturally the first thing they tried to do was collapse all differences and merge with his authorized power. And I shouldn’t say they, because I was there, too, and I was part of it. It’s not us-and-them. I am they.
WELLS: There’s a moral component where you want to believe that your individual conscience can somehow rise above that of the group, and I just don’t know if it’s all that feasible.
DANIELS: It’s not feasible. It’s not. Fred Alford calls it narcissism moralized: “They dread living with the corrupted self more than they dread living in isolation from others.” But after you’ve tried the radical isolation, suddenly the so-called corrupted self doesn’t seem so bad. What is corruption, anyway? Am I so very pure? Are other people mere contaminants?
Donald Meltzer talks about people who live claustrophobically, projectively identified into the terrifying hierarchy of the asshole, and about their anxiety of being demoted, shitted out, exiled to solitary confinement on “the schizophrenic ice-cap.” Not mere loneliness, but absolute and comprehensive decontainment. Zero social-mirroring. What happens when your fragile psychic body is exposed to the vacuum of space?
For most human beings, resisting the siren song of the group is not feasible. There is no such thing as an ant, the colony is the organism, a lone ant is more like an organ; and no doubt you have noticed that you rarely see a freestanding thymus or pancreas wandering around.
It’s like when someone stuck in traffic complains about the traffic. You are the traffic.
LISA WELLS is a poet and nonfiction writer from Portland, Oregon. Her debut collection of poetry, THE FIX, won the 2017 Iowa Poetry Prize and will be published in 2018. A new book of nonfiction is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2019. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Best New Poets, The Believer, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, Third Coast, and elsewhere, and has been recognized with grants and fellowships from Caldera Arts, The Regional Arts and Culture Council, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and from Yale-NUS College, where she was 2015 Emerging Writer in Residence. She currently lives in Tucson.