The conversion of nothing into something is the task of criticism. Literature is the storehouse of these rescued somethings. In discussing literature one has to use, unfortunately, the same language that one uses in discussing experience. But even so, literature is preferable to experience, since it is for the most part the closest one can get to nothing.
—Laura (Riding) Jackson (‘A Complicated Problem’, Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 18)
The land alongside the highway has changed in the past year. Some would say that it is developing, and it is certainly a development, but whether it is good or bad remains to be seen. I miss the landmarks, most noticeable on walks, but also apparent while driving. The path to the grocery store used to fall into an easy rhythm of shade and light, respite from sun or rain, depending: the forest path, then across an undeveloped gravel lot (which we called ‘the moon’), then through the grounds of the local school, then along another forest path beside the highway, past a large anthill itchy with life, past the storage center where the path is briefly paved, then a short jaunt unshielded by trees to the grocery store parking lot. Now the path is jagged: the moon paved over for a convenience store and bordered by a sidewalk to nowhere, as mandated by local building codes; the school plastered with arrowed signs directing parents and drivers to uncertain destinations; the second path broken by a gravel ramp just next to the anthill, which is silent now and partially crushed by a modest boulder; half the trees next to the highway have been cut down and a large swath has been cleared for some unstated purpose – perhaps another trailer park. In the clearcut, two circles of cinders mark the remains of the trees. Along the path, a lost house key has been hooked onto a branch and glints in the sunlight.
What even is one supposed to call her? Born Laura Reichenthal, she took the name Riding with her appearance as a poet (by way of being Riding Gottschalk after an early marriage); when she renounced poetry, she became (Riding) Jackson. To assign her early work to the later name would seem to go against her intentions; to call her by anything other than her chosen name would disrespectful. One makes one’s choices.
And speaking of calling, why, I wondered, did Laura so emphatically call Ma Katharine when everyone else called her Kit or Kitty and always had? There was an unpleasant ring to the way Laura said Ma’s name.
—Griselda Jackson Ohannessian (Once As It Was, p. 134)
What one reads of Laura (Riding) Jackson tends to disconcert, so she is not read as widely as she might be, were either her words or her character more palatable. This is not meant to discount (Riding) as an author, or any reader as an interpretant. She disconcerts. She aims to disconcert. She makes one uneasy, and it is difficult – as it often is with, say, Heidegger – to determine how far this uneasiness is the result of the ideas or the authorial personality.
In the case of (Riding), her writing lets the reader escape neither, as in the case of the prose work Experts Are Puzzled, which is neither criticism nor fiction nor prose poetry, but all and none of these at once. As one narrator observes: ‘But my manner here, as you must be beginning again to notice, is beginning again to get a little out of hand, that is cruel. And while I do not wish to put any restraint upon my self, I do wish to be as pleasant as possible without doing so’ (‘An Account of the Matter’, p. 37). This captures, in a sense, the (Riding) project, at least in prose: there is manner – that is, pose or performance, a thing put on to create an effect; there is cruelty – that is, a self-indulgent (narratorial or authorial, it is not clear) habit of insulting the interlocutor (or reader); and there is the knife between the ribs – that is, the desire to be as ‘pleasant’ as possible without submitting to any restraint. That the ‘pleasantness’ appears in the form of neologistic obfuscation which has the effect of putting the interlocutor (or reader) more firmly in their (lower) place is (not) beside the point. That she is always talking down perhaps indicates that she has no one to look up to – an unenviable state of affairs, a fall from a great height. In her introduction to Anarchism Is Not Enough, Lisa Samuels laments that (Riding) Jackson does not engage with more serious thinkers who were working along a similar intellectual trajectory (p. li): but that misses the point – one cannot talk down to equals and remain in the conversation. Or continue to receive invitations. Not everyone is a glutton for punishment.
In another story, the narrator Laura (not Riding) addresses Robert (not Graves) at once belittling his lack of understanding and asserting her own perception of reality: ‘Madness, it is agreed, is when a person loses her nature. But it is clear that I have not lost my nature: it is clear that my nature is even more certain than yours. I think you had better give in and agree as well that death is my nature’ (‘Obsession’, Experts Are Puzzled, p. 92). Is it clear? Why had one better give in? Better for whom? Why shouldn’t one fight? Why must one agree? These questions are not answered, though there is the strong suspicion that perhaps only ‘I’, only Laura, will get what she wants. As with so much of (Riding) Jackson’s prose, the shying away from genre – is it fiction or is it not? – becomes coercive, corrosive: it was (only) a story, wasn’t it? Was it? I am not certain, and it is not clear whether one, as a reader, is meant to be certain: ‘In the art of not living one is not ephemerally permanent but permanently ephemeral’ (‘The Myth’, Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 11). Indeed, the sort of thing one could renounce – one didn’t mean it, after all.
After (Riding) Jackson jumped out of an upper story window because the sexual liaisons in her then ménage were not falling out the way she wished, she wrote to Gertrude Stein and asked Stein to come visit and take care of her. Stein very prettily declined this opportunity (see also). I read this in a footnote to an essay in a book on women bookbinders. It was unexpected, but not unsurprising.
It was my original intention to include more from Griselda Jackson Ohannessian’s charming memoir Once As It Was, which recounts the meeting of Laura Riding (as was) and Schuyler Jackson – the origin story of (Riding) Jackson. In thinking it over I realized that the uncanny, witchlike, artificial, phony, out-of-the-ordinary simulacrum (that tattled and scolded and fainted when crossed) was just another wicked stepmother from a fairy tale and could have only a tenuous relationship with the non-reality in which I was interested. It is no surprise, given the provocation (and the provocation did seem quite real, as real as any Dictionary of Rational Meaning or orange groves in Florida), that the author should be a less-than-patient Griselda, but that is not what we are talking about.
The world of Self is not to be deduced from the world of Nature; there is but one world, and the self is in this, a like fact with other facts, not a subjective fact in a shadowy world of analogy.
—Laura (Riding) Jackson (‘Jocasta’, Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 77).
The first word that springs to mind when I think of her is ‘babyhood’ – based on Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (‘praise be to babyhood!’) – and the second is ‘կռիվ’, a word always accompanied in my mind with the motion of making a fist – in rage or fear or petulance or solidarity or katalepsis – and also a false echo of grief and grieve and grievance: the cause of the quarrel. These are not the words I would choose, but the words that are. I did not choose them: they appeared. In denying myself this choice, I impose this choice. It is not what I would choose. Yet here it is.