Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mad for Narcissus: Transgender Suicide as Corporate Sin

“For whanne he wepte, 
he sih hire wepe, 
And whanne he cride… 
sche cride also.”

John Gower
The Tale of Narcissus

The following is a transcript of a paper,
"Mad for Narcissus: Transgender Suicide in 
Medieval Confessional Literature" 
presented at "Religion Interruptus: 
The Affects of Sex, Politics, and Bodies”
at Syracuse University February 27–28,2015


Isolation and Solidarity

Lives made mad in isolation, can be made livable through solidarity. Solidarity begins by knowing the names of the dead. On November 15th, 2014, Leelah Alcorn, a transgender girl, stepped in front of oncoming traffic on Interstate 71 and died. These are the material facts. 

The day before, Alcorn posted a suicide note to her tumblr where she confessed the instrumental and formal causes that made her suicidal. “I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness” but when she told her mom, “she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes” (Leelah Alcorn's Suicide Note). This confession between mother and daughter turned from a “speaking-together” into a diagnosis of sin located in Leelah. Leelah's mother took her to “Christian therapists,” who in a psychiatric version of confession, again turning away from speaking-together with Leelah to elicit a private confession of pathology, “more Christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help” (Alcorn's Note). 

When Leelah turned to her classmates for support, rallying around a gay identity, “thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock” but as a result her parents withdrew her from public school, took away her phone, computer and social media (Alcorn's Note). “This” she writes, “was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed… I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just … the cruelty of loneliness” (Alcorn's Note). When she got back her privileges, she found her former school mates no longer engaging with her, leaving her alone, distracted by high-school life. Here, Leelah decided, “I’ve had enough… Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. … People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse. That’s why I feel like killing myself” (Alcorn's Note).

At this point Alcorn’s narrative shifts into a critique of the audience and the form of the suicide note itself. “Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you,” challenges Acorn, “it’s good enough for me” (Alcorn's Note). This supposition of an antagonistic readership should not be surprising to those paying attention to the instrumental causes that leads Alcorn to her suicide, its the formal cause implicit in the genre of the note. Alcorn dies, we learn, again and again, not because of a personal sin of pride but pride in its social forms: isolation, individualism, privatization, and securitization. 

Alcorn is not essentially individual, but made an isolated subject, a solitude that makes her mad. Mad not only as breaking from the social and theological logos of her Christian community, but mad, angry, pissed at injustice. She is pissed at us for reading her suicide note. It is because of our abandonment of her that compelled her note and compelled her death. Indeed, up until this point, the note is hardly remarkable. As Alcorn notes, her death is not a small minority of trans narratives, nor a minority at all, as studies over the past ten years testifying that 50% of trans people attempt suicide by the age of 20 (For more info: 41%, 45%46%50%, 50%54% attempt, 84% consider).

That is a lot of suicide notes – Notes written with the impossible promise of explaining why a sane person kills herself. The conclusion that the now doubly pathological transgender suicide is insane isn’t an accidental result of failed narratives but integral to work by the genre of suicide notes. The focus on locations of trauma in the life of an individual is not a break from the confessions demanded by Christians and psychologists but their culminating end. At last the demand that the transgender child be made solitary is now circumscribed by the narrative of countless suicide notes as expressions of singular lives and exceptional problems that excuse even demand increased securitization of problematic individuals.


Confession and Corporate Sin

What then is the alternative narrative for the lives of trans children and the way these narratives move beyond the narcissism that has long defined transgender as pathological in theological and psychiatric texts as well confessional narratives? I propose a critical turn to a medieval confessional literature and a medieval Narcissus will flip the modern script from personal to corporate sin, where confession takes the form of speaking together rather than as a inscription of the self as distinct and isolated, where narcissus is critically trans rather than transgender constituting a form of narcissism. I call on the model of confession from Augustine of Hippo (Augustine Letter to Darius), as "speaking together," and its 14th c. deployment in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (Confession of the Lover).

Many have claimed Augustine’s Confessions as the first autobiography, a pre-medieval classical, strangely modern post-medieval analogy of the individual subject. Yet Augustine himself strongly resisted attempts to define his story as a story about himself. In a letter to his reader, Augustine writes, “Here observe what I have been in myself and through myself. And if something in me pleases you, here praise Him with me--him whom I desire to be praised on my account and not myself” (Augustine Letter to Darius) If one reads Augustine’s confession as centrally about Augustine, even or especially as a revelation of his personal sins, you work counter to the project of pre-modern confessional narrative. Augustine calls for readers of confession not to see the text as a window into a private life but a mirror, even a broken mirror, that in countless facets tells a story not of the man but of what made the man. If Augustine’s Confessions reveals sins, they are corporate sins. Pride is not in the text but in reading and isolating sin or praise in a singular person, the mad(e) instead of the makers. To confess, “like a Christian” then is not to reveal the self, but to speak-together, to reveal the society that compelled the narrative from its victim (Augustine Letter).

Responding to a rise in confessional and penitential literature following an outbreak of the plague that killed 60% of Europe and pushing diverse crowds to seek salvation, materially as well as spiritually, in urban centers like London, Gower wrote his Confessio Amantis as a meditation on the seven deadly sins framed around the thesis: “man; The which, for his complexioun / Is mad upon divisioun” (Gower Prologue 974-975). Meaning hinges around a pun evident in Anglo-Norman but impossible in modern English, where “mad” means both “made” as in ‘made out of division’ but also “mad” as in ‘mad because of division.’ Following Genesis I and book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, from which he derives most of the stories which populate the text, he defines creation as an act of division: light from dark, the water above and the water below, cold and hot, moist and dry. We exist because we are made as and from contradictions in kind, trans-ing gender and genus, yet because of this we will stand “evermore in such debat” (Gower Prologue 980)  We would “Engendre upon that unité. / Bot for ther is diversité” (Gower Prologue 987-988) We move not towards singularity or security but towards more genders, more kinds, more engendering, more change, more death. 

To underline this argument, the first sin Gower breaks open is Pride, where he turns the “Tale of Narcissus” into a medieval story of transgender suicide and the social mechanisms that isolate trans, queer, and femme bodies, making singularities out of a coextensivity. As in Alcorn’s text, readers encounter how a youth, a “lords sone,” is set apart physically and socially “So was ther no comparisoun / As toward his condicioun” (Gower I.2275-2284) Even when he goes on a hunt, a group activity in the Medieval context, he finds himself separated from the group, drawn away from the rest. He is left to wander in the woods alone, a place of interiority, in search for a hart – a pun analogizing the hunt for a deer with the need for love, for connection.


Flowers on a Winter Grave

What Gower’s Narssisus finds in the woods is his own critical madness reflected back at him, a dysphoria that reveals the diversity which constitutes his world and sets him into debate. Suddenly, he breaks off from his hunt for his hart, because “The day was wonder hot withalle, / And such a thurst was on him falle, / That he moste owther deie or drinke” (Gower I.2307-2310) He is too hot and dry and needs cool water. In humoral language this is too say, he was too much a man and could not live without embracing femininity, men associated with the dry rhyming with "dye." 
Finding water, “he caste his lok / Into the welle” and saw an ymage / Of such a nimphe as tho was faie,” He saw himself but strangely, as a fairy, which even in medieval terminology was suggestive of queer possibilities, and in particular he sees himself a nymph, a queer woman (Gower I.2313-2317). “Began, as it was after sene,” writes Gower, “Of his sotie, and made him wene / It were a womman that he syh” (Gower I.2320-2321). At this moment, Narssisus goes mad, out of his mind, because he has been remade in his own eyes as a woman. This critical act of folding back on himself reveals to him the goal and the cause of his isolation from women that alienated him from himself.

The text insists that this dysphoric folding and unfolding of Narcissus’s gender into and out of itself is a repeated action that suggests the spiraling of a long struggle. “Ever” he “gan… And preith… And otherwhile he goth… And otherwhile he draweth… And evere he fond hire in o place” (Gower I.2333-2337) The repetition of the word ever and and suggests the passing of time through a repetition and a return, but also an addition. He is stuck in the time and the place of the “and.” “The more he cam the welle nyh,” we read, “The nerr cam sche to him agein” (Gower I.2322-2323). Here even the syntax is reflective. He cam / cam she. Came is repeated with he becoming she. Mirroring becomes speaking together. “For whanne he wepte, he sih hire wepe, / And whanne he cride… sche cride also” (Gower I.2325-2327).

What we glimpse here is beyond modern pathology of gender dysphoria, a man seeing himself as a woman, but an ontological womanhood, a salvation of the self which is impossible without solidarity with those the privelaged have rejected, a salvation that is not an escape from the world but a going out of the self in order to turn back and see the world in the self. She comes, he comes, she weeps, he weeps, she cried, he cried. Narcissus learns to love women, which is to love himself, which means to feel what they feel, go where they go, to speak together and reveal how we are all already coextensive.

This revelation of our madness is too much for many, “an hard eschange” love. For Narcissus is too weak by himself, does not have the power to become and to face the world as a woman, “to beginner / Thing which he mihte nevere winn” (Gower I.2330-2332). We read, helplessly as “He wepth, he crith, he axeth grace, / There as he mihte gete non” (Gower I.2338-2339). He calls for help but none comes. As a trans woman, he is utterly alone and so he takes “a roche of ston” and “smot himself til he was ded” (Gower I.2340-2342). We witness at his death a spiral of the isolation that made him and now unmakes him. Yet no sooner is is completed, than Gower reveals the conceit of his confession. Suddenly after his death “the Nimphes of the welles” and all others “Unto the wodes belongende” come to mourn his death (Gower I.2343-2347). This should give us pause. Narcissus was made to cry alone at the well. He called for help and none came, but he was not alone. The nymphs waited and watched, like us readers, as narcissus dies, and did nothing. They, like us, are good at grieving the dead and making memorials, but will not lift our fingers to embrace the living and to interrupt the narrative of suicide. Solidarity begins with knowing the names of the dead, but cannot end there. Out of these memorials, writes Gower, new flowers bloom “in the wynter freysshe and faire… contraire / To kynde” so that we might take example of the mad things we make (Gower I.2355-2357).

“As for my will,” writes Leelah Alcorn in the second part of her confession, “I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money… be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups … The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was” (Alcorn's Note). Alcorn, like Augustine, like Narcissus, hold a mirror back at us and tell us not to mourn for them but for the world that made them. The world and the lives that remain. Confession becomes a turn from the individual to the collective where we may find power and meaning by speaking together. 

“My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year,” concludes Leelah, gesturing to the 50 to 60% of trans kids who will attempt suicide by the age of 20, gesturing to the two who attempted suicide this last week, gesturing to the trans person killed every 26 hours, gesturing to Narcissus, gesturing to you and me. In life Leelah was made to be alone, in death she demands we stand with her in solidarity (Alcorn's Note). “I want someone to look at that number and say that’s fucked up and fix it,” ends Alcorn, “Fix society. Please” (Alcorn's Note ) . Solidarity begins with knowing the names of the dead, but it cannot end there, we all need to be mad, allow ourselves to be with them insanely, lovingly, furiously mad. 

Mad for Leelah, Mad for Narcissus, Mad for all those we make to be impossibly individual.


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