A Riff-Report on Elisabeth Sheffield’s Fort Da: A Report

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First steps in my Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and the exponentially more crushing and debilitating fear it would produce each step I took outside of my apartment, required morning chats with my brain. As in: “Brain, when I go out there today, you’re going to make me think when I see y. I know you’re going to do that, and expect it”–and here’s the worst part of it–”so bring it on.” I still do it. And it helps. And the silliness of that last phrase hasn’t left. Maybe because of pride, or because it does offer some small affirmation that OCD is distinct from me or, instinctively, “I” feel all therapy is fundamentally justification and posturing. But a necessary justification and posturing nonetheless. This might also apply to literature, criticism, philosophy, art, etc. Bernhard: “When one thinks of death, everything is ridiculous.” Kraszhnahorkai, in an interview with The White Review, says, “there is no medicine.” Just because there is no medicine does not mean that we can not strive for medicine, even if that medicine is “there is no medicine.”

Alternatively, I might try something that the narrator/character/subject/patient/object Rosemarie Romeo Ramee from Elisabeth Sheffield’s novel/report/study/apologia Fort Da: a report (FC2) employs. “Disguised” as a report on her “affair” with a pre-adolescent/pubescent Cypriot boy named Aslan, Ramee confesses and searches for understanding and empathy by externalizing her self, “RR,” in a supposed strict description of the events to a Ms. Wall, who we learn was RR’s AP English 12 instructor. We begin at the end of RR’s story, writing from some where that’s part-prison, part-clinic, with legal prosecution waiting for her. RR’s “account” of the ways in which she sexually, emotionally and physically consumed Aslan is dissociating the “I” away from her own constructions of Self. (For more on this, I recommend Michael W. Clune’s fantastic essay on Beckett and Bernhard at NonSite). My therapist suggested a similar approach. In not so many words, he said “write out your trauma as if it were a play, like stage directions.” But in the attempt to objectify and externalize an ostensible past iteration of my self, at least to Ramee,  presupposes failure.

For we know at this stage in evolution, the amygdala has a greater influence on the cortex than the cortex has on the amygdala–allowing emotional arousal dominate and control thinking. A person doesn’t want to be unreasonable, but feeling is a variable that cannot be discounted. // Another is the nature of memory. The inherent inexactitude of the internal record of external events–this must be acknowledged. Yes it must be acknowledged that the neuronal record of reality is selective, if not capricious, a spotty chronicle at best. … Also, it must be conceded that an illness such as cerebral malaria can diminish the reliability of the record even further, smearing the ink, so to speak, deleting entire pages. … Therefore, this account will probably fail as an etiology–the sequence of cause and effect being incomplete. Nevertheless, it will be as rigorous as possible. And she will try not to cry. (19-20).

Part of my OCD compulsions involved researching empirical and scientific writings on the biological causes of OCD. They only further buried and barreled me further into fear circuits. They only reaffirmed how passive I was relative to OCD. Basically, something in the brain called the amygdala sends “flight” signals to the cortex. Triggers can be anything. Mis-seen images of Satan in toast, for example, for a sufferer of Scrupulosity OCD may send her into a circuit of compulsions (i.e., hand-washing) to alleviate the anxiety of the amygdala’s misfires. But each time the sufferer performs the compulsion, the more the amygdala understands that the toast, Sin’s representative, is a real fear. Though rationally, she knows it is fiction. So Ramee defers to the inscrutability of origin myth, and the failures of neuroscience.

Is a monster–in the original sense of a formal or structural aberration, like the sphinx with its lion’s body, eagle’s wings and woman’s head and breasts, or to give a more contemporary example, the goat genetically altered to lactate the protein for spider’s silk. On the other hand, in the sphinx-riddled society of ancient Greece a disposition towards adolescent and even prepubescent males was considered natural, comprehensible, and even virtuous. // Hence, it was as if Aslan had suddenly transformed into a statue, the two white globes that filled his orbits a marmoreal substitute for the living green of before. (27, 87).

A reader-in-the-know might first notice that Sheffield’s title is a nod to the infantile game made famous by Freud, Fort (gone) Da (here). Freud theorizes, after watching his grandson play the game with a stick tethered to a ball by string, compulsively sending it forth and bringing it back, like a fishing rod, that sufferers repeat childhood traumas by sublimating primary losses–e.g., the heterosexual boy’s loss of the mother as a sexual object–into other circuits. In that light, we might say that all libidinal cathexes, incestuous and/or homoerotic, are mutated into socially justified interpersonal forms of relation in the subject as an adult. But the body-memory, Ramee might say, will haunts in completely illicit forms, which she desperately, vainly tries to justify as a product of neurons, myth and trauma. Do we understand that, she asks us, can you understand that? Can you understand that, whether or not this was her fault, morality is as plastic as our societal norms? Even with, she contends, the seeming universal acceptance of the incest taboo?

… Or to put the situation in laywoman’s terms, a girl who diddles her daddy is more likely to bake a botched bun. Therefore, it is in the best biological interest of society to disallow copulation between individuals with overlapping genetic materials. Science does not explain, however, why the incest taboo extends in many cultures to interactions between individuals with less congruent chromosomes (e.g., to the interactions between stepsisters and stepbrothers, or between stepparents and their stepchildren). The truth is that many of the rules governing social behavior lack biological support, their roots sustained by the dubious nutrients of myth. Unfortunately, the absence of solid ground does not make the consequences of breaking such rules any less real. (129).

This is a book formed by sublimation. The death of RR’s younger brother, Tom Tom (Tomcat, perhaps) is Fort‘d back through Aslan (the Turkish word for lion). RR may or may not have been at fault for TT’s death. After all, it was her who was shtupping the rich kid with access to angel dust, the same dust that saw TT’s “lust for dust” through to death by drowning at a house party’s pool. TT’s penchant for rhyme is sublimated into Aslan’s  affected Cockney.

“Well, me tin plates back in London town called me Oz or Ozzie on account of Aslan being clapped out. I mean those Captain Cooks aren’t bad–I took a squiz at them when I was a teapot–but the fact is that next to J.K. Rowling old C.S. is a bit of a womble. Course now that I’m an old pot me pash is Neal Stephenson.” … Therefore, it was vital to know what Ozzie, no Aslan (always Aslan), who, still behind his uncle’s back, was now smiling and rolling his eyes back in his head (a trick which made him further resemble a piece of classical Greek statuary)… (75, emphases mine)

It should be noted here that Aslan suffers from a rare sleep disorder–RR’s field at the Schlafzentrum (Center for Sleep) in Kiel–called Kleine-Levin Syndrome, whose symptoms include, but are not limited to, and are obsessed over by RR, hypersexuality. RR’s previous relationships with grown men are less-then-stellar, and so RR’s “description” may also be apologia. She tacitly acknowledges, through these wild leaps of logic and argument, that she is invalid in many, many ways. But you have to understand, she asks, I wasn’t totally in control. Yet, she does not ask for forgiveness. She asks for understanding. She asks to understand how truly broken a person can be. The body wants what it wants, look at my examples of Greek culture and neuroscience, she says.

Fort Da‘s conceit is obvious and transparent, but this is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. A review in Gulf Coast notes that RR’s sophomoric and desperate clinging to a detached, scholarly tone amplifies RR’s crushing passivity to what she tries to posture as primordial & genetic causes, explained through the motif and theme of Greek myth. Again, a fact about Freud that barely needs a reminder. Sheffield puts both guilt and shame into play through RR’s status as a nebulous matriarch. The guilt of losing her brother may be redeemed by “having” Aslan. So, the greatest parts about Sheffield’s novel are to be found in the gradual splitting of RR’s already broken mind. But, by the end of the novel, there’s a sense that she has woken up, as it were, from her circuits. She comes back to her I.

No, Aslan would probably not be opposed to a visit, although to be sure, the problem at present was whether the softly respiring, but currently noncogitating body on the bed actually be considered Aslan. Cogito, ergo sum, said the philosopher. but what happens when “I” am comatose, psychotic or simply fast asleep? The dilemma in the bedroom that night is in fact one of the major problems of modern neuroscience; that is, where does body end and mind begin? Or where am “I” when”‘I” am not “there”? (122)

Shame here is dependent on guilt: fort-da is, in a way, a chance to redeem herself, fix any guilt over Tom Tom’s death. What we are meant to feel, however, are the complications from trying to burrow into your self, however externalized, and the immanent terrors and pain of trying to accept total failure embodied in one’s self. And, boldly, to sympathize. Perhaps empathize, however sublimated.

Sheffield, however, is not perverse or pornographic. In fact, she’s admirably sympathetic to others’ trauma, which is the real joy of reading Fort Da. Sheffield raises a lot of questions. Big questions we probably we won’t ever answer, because it’s important that we do not answer some questions. They keep us human or, rather, open. Vulnerable. Like, “how did we make meaning?”

RR would say that all experience is sublimation, all mediation. Language as the cathectic sublimation for the horror of being alive. Inherently false and postured, if one wants to be the skeptic. And in RR’s case, her reality. The novel ends on a footnote, a desperate plea to get to the end of the story of Aslan & RR, as if there are only words, but there is no way out for RR.

…Just write the end but I don’t want us to stop

We seem to have lost

A few words

Will look like a zipper

Nobody I can feel comfortable with

You don’t talk

Dose that matter or make sence

want to know what

I feel

Just write (310, sic).

Before Aslan runs away, he says, sucked into the screen of his Game Boy (purchased by RR): “‘Oh boo hoo. You know what I think? I think this is all about you’” (220). And from here, RR is not only perverse, but she’s stuck. Her trauma has left her stuck in teenaged emotional understandings of love. Her “rival,” lovingly called “the Lipilina,” wife of RR’s colleague at the Schlafzentrum, mysteriously follows RR on her quest to find the lost Aslan. Aslan was always unattainable, Lipilina indicts: “‘…[T]here was never anything there with Ozzie, no substance, not even the faintest trace or powdery dusting of life. It was laughable, your idea of a boy, completely laughable. You know that, don’t you?’” (291).

But Sheffield is a radical optimist; she does not discount the effort and  necessity of trying to understand, even if failure is the promised answer. What’s shared, perhaps, is a call for the reader to radicalize her own limits of sympathy and empathy. To be sure, Sheffield counts on us condemning RR’s behavior, but questions how those social conventions RR breaks are normalized. RR, a person who’s slipped through the cracks of societal norm, stuck in a circuit of compulsion and fort-da, reminds us that we are all fucked unless we look directly at ourselves, however dissatisfying the outcomes.           

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