Transcript of the First Annual Bedroom Debates
Hello and welcome to the first annual 2010 Bedroom Debates! I’m Arielle Seidman, and I’ll be your host for a fascinating few pages of reclined repartee!
Today’s two constants are two fabulous and famous writers, both of whom deal in their own individual way with the controversial topic of mental health. On one side of the bed, we have Alice James, a nineteenth century lady diarist who spent most of her life confined to her bed with various and sundry ailments. On the other side, a first time contestant on our show, is Claudia Rankine, the more physically active twenty first century author of the prose and poetry collection, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely.
All of the questions in today’s debate focus around the following poem, an untitled excerpt from Rankine’s book:
I felt it too
I let it happen
By not feeling
That’s too much
Maybe, or death is second
Second to what?
Define loneliness (Rankine 58)
Our first question is: What is loneliness?
I think my poem really says it all very clearly. Loneliness is what happens when you don’t allow yourself to really live. You create loneliness in yourself, allow it to happen to yourself by withdrawing from the world around you and confining yourself to places and things that will prevent you from having to suffer, or to feel any painful or terrible emotions. Pain, sadness, anger, all of the negative things that we spend our lives trying to avoid are inevitable pieces of our lives, and our lives would not be whole without those feelings. You can’t have anything positive without something negative, and so without the negative parts of our spectrum of feeling, we are too dead to be living, or too separate from life to be anything but lonely.
I agree with you about one thing, Claudia. Emotions are something that we cannot stifle, cannot repress no matter how hard we try to shut out the rest of the world. A rich personal, emotional, inner life is really all that is needed to stave off loneliness and it is for that reason that I keep a diary. I am most interested in the way that I feel, and the way that I think, and so I have created a diary for myself to be able to articulate those emotional states to myself. I am the only one who has control over my emotional state, and only I can control how those states are represented. By avoiding the rest of the world, and confining my emotional outbursts to my personal memoirs, I retain that control.
Claudia, you have three minutes for a rebuttal.
I think you sort of misunderstand me, Alice. Yes, I do certainly agree that experiencing and living our emotional states is absolutely necessary to having full lives, and you really do seem to be in favor of embracing your emotions. On the other hand, being in bed all the time, being unwilling to experience the outside world definitely contributes to your loneliness. I assume that’s occurred to you already. If death is second to living, why are you so eager to be dead?
Wait, Claudia, that’s not exactly on topic-
I never said that death was second to loneliness. Those are your words. I once asked my father to give me permission to die, and he told me that he couldn’t stop me from doing so, if it was my will to die. He couldn’t stop me, and he couldn’t even suggest stopping me, it was my right. Death, life, these are both states of being over which we have will and control. We can live when we please, and we can die when we please. Loneliness is a quality of life, something that makes me want so much more to be dead than I do to be alive.
You’ve barely experienced life from that bed.
I have experienced plenty. I have gone through more illnesses than you have ever heard of, my dear, and by your own reasoning, through those experiences and those sensations, I have truly lived, even if they were unpleasant. The more unpleasant, the stronger the feelings and sensations, and I have a right to be proud of my ability to have remained an indestructible commodity through it all.
Sounds like you really are more proud of life, have put more emphasis on the feelings associated with living than you like to think, or like to make us think.
Ladies, please! This is getting totally out of hand! We have another question to answer, and I need some decorum.
Our next question, also based on the poem, is this:
What is death?
I think that I am better qualified to answer this question, seeing as I am actually dead. I am fascinated by the idea of death, the simplicity and yet the complexity of it all. Once you die, for example, disposing of your remains, by, say, cremation, is both inexpensive and not terribly messy, but what is so complex is how to appease all of your supposed loved ones with what you do with the ashes. The problem is solved so much more easily, however, than any encountered by the living. Death is also, as a cousin of a friend of mine once did, a way to get back at people for being cruel to you in your life. I certainly have changed my will several times, to make sure to leave out those individuals who didn’t work hard enough to be especially sympathetic…although, to be really honest, I despise sympathy. Anyone who gives up their own identity in order to claim that they relate so very well to another ought to be despised…but I digress.
You certainly do. Claudia?
Death is nothing of the kind, Alice. You can’t use death in any way, it’s a static state. One doesn’t have to be reduced to ashes or fed to worms to be dead. Your heart can be beating, and your breath can be going in and out, and you might still be dead to the world, even to yourself. A woman, for example, not to refer to anyone in particular, who lies in bed all day and stares at the wall, refusing to engage in any enlightening conversation, or feed herself with anything that might cause in her any particular emotions, is essentially dead. Sickness isn’t death until you allow yourself to medicate so thoroughly that all of your sensations have evaporated, and those supposedly healing medications have put you into a state of…well, living death.
I don’t think you’ve actually read my diary.
Not my style.
Not surprised. It is very clear to anyone who actually has read my diary that I have an extremely rich intellectual life, that I don’t allow anything to dull my mind. One of my particular favorite pastimes is observation, sometimes on my own, sometimes through what Katherine or Harry tell me, or write to me in their letters. I’ve developed a very keen sense of individuals, and I can determine their motivations, read their actions. I’m quite qualified to judge, in fact, being so adept, as I am, at reading the lives of other people. I would say that counts as enough emotional interaction to satisfy even you.
Thank you, Alice, are you finished? Our third question –
What? I don’t get a rebuttal?
Certainly not. Technically, Alice wasn’t supposed to have one either. I am never hosting two opinionated women on this show ever again. Next time there’s gonna be a script for each of the contestants. But anyway, I digress.
ALICE JAMES: You certainly do.
Ahem. Our third question is: Does Alice James actually want to be dead?
I think she’s proven to us, here, on this show, that she doesn’t want to be dead. Alice has justified her life in so many ways that I’m almost ready to believe she really has lived a worthwhile one. She embraces her ability to overcome physical obstacles, as is obvious by her insistence on being proud of her “indestructibility.” She not only embraces sensation and feeling, she writes long diary entries about both her own sensations, and the feelings and important moments of other people. She has found little ways to revel in her own pleasures and in her own pain, as well as in the pleasures and pain of others. According to my poem, being alive is all about experiencing the good and the bad, and Alice knows, deep inside her, that all of her experience of the bad has made her prouder of herself, perhaps haughtier, when it comes to dealing with others. That diary she writes is a world, a world that she has created out of her own mind and her own thoughts, in order to have somewhere to better live.
That simple question has yet another very complicated answer. Yes, I am living, and yes, I place a great deal of importance upon living through one’s trials and experiencing a very real world of emotional imagination, but the fact is, I am not happy. The fact that I accept the importance of experiencing the negative feelings does not mean in any way that I enjoy them. I once read something by George Sand…I’m sure you know the name. George Sand stayed in bed, for a time, and spent it bemoaning her ailments and the conduct of others, making scathing remarks about the things going on around her while doing nothing in particular to change their nature. I was disgusted with that, found it worthy of all the disdain that George Sand herself seemed to have, and I am too intelligent and self aware not to see that Sand’s condition is only a reflection of my own. While to others, and sometimes even to myself, I often find myself able to justify my way of life, there are other times when I find it abhorrent…although most of the time, it is abhorrent only when I see it reflected in other people. It’s a flawed condition, and yet every real, living person does have significant flaws.
Thank you, both of you, for a really scintillating (and, for me, exhausting) debate! Goodbye, and see you next time when preferably someone else hosts the third annual Bedroom Debates!
James, Alice. The Diary of Alice James. Ed. Leon Edel. Northeastern University Press, Boston.
Rankine, Claudia. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – An American Lyric. Graywolf Press, Minnesota.