Vandalizing Words

Early on in All That Was Not Her, as he recounts the difficulties of writing about Beverly, there is a sentence that catches her eye: “I seek to write the negative without vandalizing it” (p. 10). Negative is one of her favorite words. It marks a condensed, indispensable, impossible conceptual space. But this time it is vandalize that gives her pause. It’s an unexpected and appealing lexical choice. The Oxford English Dictionary tells her that a vandal is a “wilful or ignorant destroyer of anything beautiful, venerable, or worthy of preservation.”

So at the beginning of All That Was Not Her, something curious is being said about the negative. He wants to not vandalize it. He wants not to be the destroyer of this splendid idea. He wants to keep it from injury or harm. She tries to figure out what this could mean, because she is writing about Valerie Solanas’s mad and beautiful writing, and struggling with similar quandaries of how to read hostility, destruction, and antagonism as psycho-political forces (creating “a record of how her milieu and her psyche were knotted together” p. 87).

What, then, is he trying to preserve? It isn’t the anti-Black racism, poverty, psychiatric debility, and illnesses that give shape to Beverly’s psychic and social life. These kinds of negativity are precisely what he is writing against: “the real threat of persistent, unrelenting chronic illness, is bounded by the reality of precarity and harm that derive from racism and other prejudices in the everyday world in which Beverly lives” (p. 9-10). The negativity that he wants to preserve is something else; something much harder to define than the social harms that organize Beverly’s world. Indeed, there are a lot of synonyms for negativity, especially early in the book, as though naming this other kind of negativity is giving him some grief. For a few paragraphs starting on p. 30 she finds: dreadful, tedious, despair, regret, deformed, recriminations, untamable, heavy, opaque, savage, meager, weakness, erode. And eventually the word that much later will encapsulate the entire project for him: failure (“I sensed failure was my object long before I found the nerve to name it” p. 155).

Most often these synonyms for the negative refer to his own feelings or to the miscarriage that he contends his writing about Beverly’s has become. The whole enterprise seems to have been sickening and repetitive for him. In the final paragraphs, for example, he notes that he has written about Beverly before, in another language. All That Was Not Her however “is a different book than [that] one. Even when I return to a few of the same moments, I do so from a less stable vantage point, the book here is a record of losing ground” (p. 201).

She wonders whether one of the things that happens as All That Was Not Her unfolds is that Beverly comes to be a figure for the negativity that, intolerably, he wants to address, understand, and preserve. Beverly is a difficult person. She spoils his epistemological grounding: “I know less about Beverly now than when I met her nearly two decades ago” (p. 41). He shows us that, alongside her care and love, she dissembles and lies (p. 76), she is prone to paranoid and distressing behavior (p. 92), she has enjoyed being mean to him (p. 193): “she passed bad checks in more ways than one” (p. 166). There is something in writing about Beverly that isn’t simply the depiction of a life contending with precarity, but a desire to think about what is most difficult about her (and the rest of us): a negativity that ought to be preserved intellectually.

This is where failure must inevitably come to pass.

She thinks about putting failure in quotation marks—to give the word some distance from being a negative judgment of All That Was Not Her. But in a gesture of solitary with him, she decides not to vandalize the word. What has made his writing so compelling for her is that his ruminations gesture towards a negativity that isn’t simply coterminous with the reality of Beverly social conditions. He calls the latter “a low snarl of violences outside of her, folded into her” (p. 119). The other negativity breaches this epistemology of social reality. It might not be able to hold the distinction between the inside and the outside stable, for example. The other kind of negativity also runs athwart our words. This makes a coherent account of Beverly impossible, and not only because there may have been little coherence in Beverly’s words and actions to begin with (p. 160). Any account of this unnamed, unlocatable negativity is doomed to failure from the start.

What his account of Beverly gets her to think about, even though she can’t really grasp it, is the importance of reading for negativity even in those most crushed by the violences of late liberalism. In such an enterprise, our politics will have to be vandalized, experiments in academic writing will need to be undertaken, and the failures depicted in All That Was Not Her will remain beautiful, venerable, and worthy of preservation.

Elizabeth A Wilson is a Samuel Candler Dobbs professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. Her most recent book, co-authored with Professor Adam Frank is A Silvan Tomkins Handbook: Foundations for Affect Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 2020). She is currently working on anger, madness, and the writings of Valerie Solanas.