Take, eat

Issue 3/1994 | Archives online, Authors, Extracts, Interviews, Non-fiction

Annika Idström interviewed by Tuva Korsström; from Berättelsernas återkomst (The return of the narratives, Söderströms, 1994), a series of interviews, by Tuva Korsström, with contemporary European writers

Tuva Korsström: If one looks at what you have written, it’s had to do with things that no one talks about: mother-hatred, father-fixation, incest-fantasies; child-abuse and maltreatment of women… In general it’s always the unpleasant and depressing things that are made taboo: all our effort goes into normalising life according to a norm of niceness. Yet all these terrible things are there in our subconscious. You bring them out into the light, and it just can’t be very nice. You talk about what we’ve kept secret. Your method can perhaps be compared to psychoanalysis.

Annika Idström: My most recent book is about love, or rather about the possibility of love. It takes its origin not in an image but in my intensive reading of the Swedish psychoanalyst Jurgen Reeder’s book Begär och etik (‘Desire and ethics’).

It’s surprising that psychoanalysis wants to stubbornly cling to the simple idea that love is something the subject in a teleological sense ‘matures’ into unless its path of development has been hedged around by too many difficulties and disappointments. It’s surprising that people go in search of a discourse about love’s fundamental or innate harmony, when instead it ought to be obvious that what we call love is in the best case a ‘symptom’, behind which the individual finds himself torn apart by disparate forces.

Begär och etik

Even the blurb on the back of the book struck me as enormously interesting. In it the illusion of love is shattered, and the illusion about what man and woman are. The basic idea in my book, too, is that love between the sexes, love that includes desire, cannot exist, that it is based on an error. An error about the sexes and about the notion that desire can be satisfied.

When I first discovered Reeder’s book about a year ago, it became my way to French psychoanalysis. I have always been interested in psychoanalysis, and have been in therapy myself. But I had dodged away from the central problems, because the therapeutic aspect has been so dominant here in Finland, not the philosophical one, the one that questions and searches. Freud was also probably originally interested in the questions that examine man’s essence and his existence. For me Lacan’s significance is that he reflects on this, he is more philosophical than therapeutic.

Tuva Korsström: When you say that you are interested in psychoanalysis, do you mean that the process of writing also functions for you as a kind of psychoanalysis?

Annika Idström: In a way, but then I’m talking about psychoanalysis in a philosophical sense, not a therapeutic one. You could say that one doesn’t write in order to be well, but in order to explore. That has been an important insight for me, because it has liberated me from the fear of falling ill myself. I find it hard to refute people who say: your books are sick. That has always been a dilemma.

In the new book I use by preference expressions like ‘I felt a morbid enjoyment.’ To be ‘sick’ is really a gift, if one knows how to exploit the hypersensitivity that deviance imparts. But I don’t want to be labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘sick’, I’m still a writer. I’m not a psychotic eccentric who dabbles in self-therapy.

Tuva Korsström: I suppose it’s a healthy sign if one can write about these difficult things.

Annika Idström: It’s interesting that there are so many people of this type among women writers in particular. It can also be argued that there are more psychotics and crazies among women in any case, which is perhaps connected with the fact that mother and daughter are of the same sex. It’s a real shame to think of them all: Victoria Benedictsson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Marina Tsvetayeva… that they didn’t get the chance to exploit their so-called illness, or sensitivity, rather, as a lifesource.

… was it because of the increase in numbers of women students or what that the subjects of dissertations had changed, had become — how could one put it tactfully – vague and somewhat insubstantial. Soon research would be being done into goodness knows what, the influence of the planets on traffic or of love on the adult population of the metropolitan region…

‘I think that would be a good subject for a dissertation,’ I said. Which one, I was asked, and I answered: the second. Had I heard aright? I repeated word for word what I had heard. I said that it would be good, first, to consider whether the entire metropolitan population would be appropriate as an object of research, or whether it would be better to isolate a smaller group, of men between the ages of 25 and 45, for example. Yes, I said, I would most like to study men. Then I noticed amused smiles on the lips of the assistant lecturers.

Luonnollinen ravinto (‘A natural diet’)

Tuva Korsström: Is the fact that you are a woman writer important to you?

Annika Idström: I notice that the question of sex and language is one that preoccupies me a lot just now. I think it is hard to find a female identity and a female language when I write. I have been very aware of this while working on the new book, of questions like what is my ego, what is my sex, what is my language? I feel as though I ought to be writing in some kind of home-made gobbledygook that would only be my language.

When certain French feminists say that woman has no language, and when Lacan says that she is the Other’s other, I think that there is a terrible truth in those words. And then we come to the question of whether there are any female writers left now anyway, of whether there is any real female literature, other than that which was born as an offshoot of the dominant male literature.

Tuva Korsström: So you recognise neither a women’s literature based on a striving for equality nor one that is based on protest?

Annika Idström: I don’t think women ought to be equal to men. They ought to be the distinct beings they are. I think women are different because of their gender really different. And men are different, too. That’s why I feel I operate in a vacuum, in a language that is structured by men. The tradition of thought has been entirely written by men. But that’s where one ends up, because writing is an intellectual occupation, even if it is at the same time an emotional one.

Tuva Korsström: There is a line in the manuscript of your new book that caught my attention. The central male character is a successful member of parliament and he is married to a slightly scatterbrained housewife. In one of her monologues she says, in passing, ‘(birdbrain that I am)’:

One doesn’t always eat out of hunger, does one, but because one simply feels like it… You know exactly what I mean; suddenly you just feel like some of mother’s berry-porridge, pork gravy and mashed potato, so that when you’re eating it you’re not sure whether you’re eating the mashed potato or the mashed potato is eating you.

I’m not a good speaker, but sometimes, as if by accident (birdbrain that I am), even I find a grain, and then it’s a joy to see how so-called irrelevances were useful after all and led to an insight, however impossible it might sound.

Luonnollinen ravinto

You put it in parentheses. Does it come quite naturally to her to see herself the traditional way men have always seen women?

Annika Idström: Well, I’d like to stress that that’s an enormously important line, because for me it was a great insight, that I can’t find the woman in myself and woman’s language if I don’t stand one hundred per cent behind a female tradition. The Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko said some time ago that the poet ought to acquaint himself with real life, business life. The same thing might be true of women. But how would a woman be able to acquaint herself with business life? After all, she lives in the context of men. It was extremely liberating for me to describe a totally irrational woman like this one, who has spent all her life at home making jam – and make her into the triggering factor, who makes the world of men come toppling down. It is the wife who leads the husband into a trap. I lived myself into the birdbrain tradition and in doing so freed myself from it.

Tuva Korsström: You make the wife join a sophisticated organisation of cannibals whose planned next dish is the member of parliament himself. Where does the theme of cannibalism in your work come from? There were glimpses of it in Kirjeitä Trinidadiin (‘Letters to Trinidad’, 1989), where Seppo Siren dreams of becoming a wolf that devours his wife.

Annika Idström: Cannibalism is in the air, you can find it all over the place in our terrible extravagance and the way in which we are destroying the planet. When some years ago I came home from the tourist paradise of Greece I was depressed. lt’s cannibalism when we devour whole countries.

Tuva Korsström: The association with the exploitation of the Third World comes out strongly in your book through the wife’s so-called hallucinations, she starts seeing refugees’, emaciated people trudging along the roads and climbing over the fence of her villa.

One rainy day in August or September last year, my husband was sitting in front of an open fire, and I was looking out of the window. On the road in front of our house, behind the white thorn hedge, a thin and unhappy woman had appeared again.

‘There’s another one of them on the road,’ I said, and from the silence that followed I knew that I would have to say aloud the word my husband loathed, and speak up for the cause again. ‘There’s a refugee there again, I said and then my husband left the room and got to grips with a draft for a party-political manifesto that advocated humane but strict values or slunk off to the city to relax, I don’t remember which.

I couldn’t understand what he had against refugees; of course I understandthat we couldn’t take them home to live, even though, now that the children had left home, we had about three hundred square metres at our disposal, butthat one should not be allowed to feed them, not give them temporary shelter when the weather was bad…

Luonnollinen ravinto

Did you develop that theme with a conscious desire to educate?

Annika Idström: Not at all a conscious one. It all started from that line, ‘birdbrain’ that I am’, it all opened out from that crystal-clear truth. For once I could birdbrain equipped with so-called feminine logic, a fool, an idiot. The insight on the refugee question probably came to me during my stay in Greece, and it foundexpression in the wife-figure in my book.

Tuva Korsström: When you write, you often anchor your ideas in quite ordinary, slightly stupid people.

Annika Idström: They’re clichés, like that member of parliament, for example. I take a shell which I then begin to penetrate. In fact, I think there are all kinds of depths in quite ordinary people. No one, in the end, is really boring or ordinary; it’s just that people carry around so much caution and so many conventions. But making the real central character a member of parliament was very important for me.

Tuva Korsström: Why did you want him to be a member of parliament?

Annika Idström: The Finnish word kansanedustaja – one who represents the people – is in itself calculated to prop up a false ego. The member of parliament is also a symbol of power, he exists in a so-called vantage point, where he acquaints himself with different aspects of society. At the same time it is a profession m which one isolated from society. I wanted to use the member of parliament as an archetype who represents blind power in our society.

Tuva Korsström: You make the member of parliament into a Don Juan-type. You have all theman’s female lovers go past in an absurd picture-parade, and they are all riddled withcancer or other illnesses:

If I remember correctly, two of them had a breast missing, three had no hair or teeth, two were lying on drips in hospital and one was so thin — presumably anorexic – that I was amazed she had survived to have the photograph taken. I wasn’t shown any corpses, but did see a coffin in the crematorium chapel and a gravestone on which there was a name I knew, and which made me feel sick.

Luonnollinen ravinto

Annika Idström: He’s not a real Don Juan – 384 mistresses isn’t anything unusual… But of course the way in which men consume women is also a kind of cannibalism. The member of parliament needs women in order to nourish himself, and the women suffer from a lack of something and seek it in a man. If the man had it, the women would be satisfied, but since he doesn’t, the women’s only way out is to start eating themselves. It’s actually a theory about cancer – that people eat themselves.

This is my paraphrase of the idea in Jurgen Reeder’s book about love in a teleological sense. We live in the delusion that if we find love our lives will come right. Our culture is enormously love-fixated. We are fixated on something that is basically impossible; perhaps that is why our culture is so cannibalistic.

Tuva Korsström: When you describe the love act in your books, you most often make it into a repulsive activity. People usually say nice things about love.

Annika Idström: I’d like to point out that I’m not really describing the love act, since in love the man and the woman encounter each other. They encounter each other, even if it is an encounter based on an illusion. But I am not describing a love like that, because I have not yet succeeded in getting a man and a woman to meet so that they find a concordance. If one day I find it, then perhaps I will never write another word, because it’s precisely that question that makes me write.

A meeting like that is the deepest one there is. What happens on the sexual level, on the really sexual level, goes right back to the symbiosis with the mother. There is something mysterious there that women have seldom written about. If one does it, it doesn’t work out very well. For example, Milan Kundera has apparently understood nothing of women. His woman is truly the Other’s other.

Tuva Korsström: When you describe intercourse, which isn’t really a true love-act, you describe mostly the revulsion, the abjection, if one wants to use the psychoanalytic term Julia Kristeva has given it. The element of revulsion is strongly present in your books, and not just in the question of intercourse.

Annika Idström: It just comes, it exists in me, that abjection. As if one had had too much of something and then had to completely do without it. A psychoanalyst like Melanie Klein would immediately associate this with the mother’s large breast that now chokes the child with milk, now leaves it unsatisfied and hungry.

Tuva Korsström: You say that our age is cannibalistic, and you are quite correct in saying that cannibalism is in the air, both in psychoanalysis and in art. Were you conscious of this when you were writing?

Annika Idström:No, I had no theory before I wrote the book, not about female identity either. This autumn I went to a series of lectures on women’s studies at Helsinki University and noticed to my pleasure that these questions are being discussed, not among us, but somewhere else. It confirmed for me that fact that the seed of cannibalism lies buried deep, even deeper than the love stratum, somewhere in the relation between mother and daughter. Another source of inspiration has been the ancient drama, the fact that during Bacchic revels the women drank themselves into a state of ecstasy. They tore apart, if not people, then at least wild animals and ate their raw flesh and drank their blood.

In some ways it’s the reverse side of the sacred, this revolting, loathsome and horrifying thing. This feature doesn’t exist in Christianity. In Christianity, forgiveness is the central thing – not fury and wildness. I think that is unsatisfactory, almost dangerous. For me it’s important to find the violent tearing-apart. Only behind it can I find the piety and the calm.

Things just didn’t have the meaning they should have had, because if you had removed meanings, swapped them for example with a liver casserole, your wife had swapped them with emptiness, a certain liberating absence that cleared the way for something new and unknown.

As a researcher, I should control myself and remain neutral, and not give scope to my feelings, but for some reason I feel I want to laugh…

Excuse me, right honourable sir, if I speak forthrightly, but your wife was thinking of meat… She was just thinking of meat, she was thinking that you, her husband, were nothing but meat, no more.

Luonnollinen ravinto

Tuva Korsström: Has it ever occurred to you that the whole of the Christian ritual rests on cannibalism, on one’s eating and drinking one’s god every time one takes communion?

Annika Idström: Jesus had a dramatic cast of mind, he was consistent right up to the last, and he and spoke in paradoxes. The way I see it, it was an attempt to make people go and face up to the most shameful and most forbidden things, affirm them and be liberated from them. What can be more shameful, and perhaps precisely for that reason desirable, than to be carried away by one’s desire to the point where one eats one’s fellow human beings? But when one eats God – if he is God – one eats pure spirit and unites oneself with it. For what one eats, one is. It was also a way of choosing sides and showing that one was convinced that Jesus was God, something there was a lot of doubt about. And Jesus, if he himself was one of the doubters, would receive confirmation.

Tuva Korsström: But the cannibalism you write about has nothing to do with communion, does it?

Annika Idström: I haven’t consciously followed any Christian tradition, or any other tradition for that matter. Communion is a holy sacrament, an attitude, a commitment, an ordeal by fire if you like. With the communion one accepts one’s divisioninto flesh and spirit, evil and good, gives the spirit priority and rejects the flesh. And after nearly 2,000 years of Christian tradition in the West, the flesh and evil rule over mankind. Is one to interpret that as meaning that one ought to be careful with paradoxes and avoid dividing things in two?

Tuva Korsström: You make your member of parliament go through a process of purification and suffering like that of Seppo Siren in Kirjeitä Trinidadiin. Seppo realises the truth about his daughter. Does the member of parliament arrive at an insight about anything?

Annika Idström: Yes, but at an insight that is a fresh delusion. But of course it is a man’s inner processes that are being described. I operate with a dream state that reflects the man’s deep-lying fear of being devoured by a woman, and thus being identified with his mother. But at the same time I want to show the pleasure, the slightly perverted enjoyment the man gets out of being completely abandoned to the woman’s desire.

Via that dream a childhood memory is awoken that is connected with his mother. I don’t want to psychologise, but I want to give the reader a lead because in the background there is a cannibalistic, devouring mother. The memory comes from the war. He remembers the shortage of food, how everything was rationed and his mother sacrificed herself in order to buy food on the black market for her son. He remembers how there arose a strange symbiosis and a bonding between them, through the food.

In other words, the man has split himself in two and cut away his past and his libido, his subconscious. The point is that he is free to leave his dark prison in the restaurant at any time, but he always goes back there. It’s again the woman, the young A. this time, who is the triggering factor that makes him act. She attracts and repels, she is at once repulsive and attractive and bears a secret which he cannot do without.

Tuva Korsström: Perhaps it’s not so strange that you write about cannibalism, for you’re always eating yourself, aren’t you?

Annika Idström: I don’t see it that way. I think others would eat me if I didn’t write. I have a sense that by exposing myself to others and myself I have more strength at my disposal. Explain what you mean by eating myself!

Tuva Korsström: You make ever bigger parts of yourself and your subconscious into material for your writing. You use yourself and the world of your experience to such an extent that one can almost say that you eat it. And you keep swallowing more bits.

Annika Idström: Call it cannibalism if you want to. That’s probably what art is, giving of what one has. Being deeply personal and touching others. In order to say it beautifully and completely honestly: if one gives, one receives. In this process there is, in spite of everything, a deep satisfaction, almost a meaning.

Translated by David McDuff

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