Considering Garth Greenwell’s Revolutionary Erotics
Ben Miller on Cleanness and Comradeship
Garth Greenwell’s new work of fiction Cleanness, like his debut, What Belongs To You, takes place in post-Soviet Bulgaria, a site of economic devastation and hopelessness, of the “there is no alternative” politics of austerity and shock therapy. The narrator, an American English teacher who is slowly abandoning his profession to become a writer (the same narrator as in What Belongs To You), travels across nine linked stories, meeting current and former students in encounters suffused with nurture, attraction, and regret, pursuing a relationship with a Portuguese college student, engaging in casual sex and political protest.
Images of a decaying Bulgaria haunt the book. A festival of lights designed to attract visitors to a small town reveals the seams of repair on its collapsing fortress walls; in the same town, paintings hang in an unvisited gallery whose owner proudly describes an expansive Bulgarian nation centuries old. For the narrator’s students, unsure whether to laugh or cry or roll their eyes, those legends are the stuff of tacky government propaganda; those students, and their parents, obsessively calculate their futures in other countries, paranoid that any failure will doom them to stasis among the post-Soviet ruins.
It is in the third story in the collection, “Decent People,” which discusses protests against the incumbent government and its austerity policies in 2013, that the collection’s narrator attempts to offer his students a salve, a balm, a technology with which they can rebuild: poetry. The students, sitting in a stifling classroom, can’t offer the narrator an answer to the question of what defines contemporary Bulgaria: some suggest soccer stars, others say that there is nothing at all available to them, no option. The narrator begins to tell them about Whitman, about “Song of Myself,” and its attempt to make a politics anyone can buy into. Democracy and modernity (for Whitman, both embodied by the United States) required a new poetics of political belonging beyond shared language, shared heritage, shared blood and soil. Whitman’s concept of what might suffice began from his experience of cruising Brooklyn’s streets and wharves.
Only outside “Song of Myself” do Whitman’s most radical suggestions, the suggestions most likely to dissolve the framework of the nation itself, become visible. His “‘Calamus”’ poems describe the “manly love of comrades,” an affection that “shall solve every one of the problems of freedom.” Crucially, comradeship overwhelms even Whitman’s cherished selfhood; he writes, “I am indifferent to my own songs—I will go with him I love, It is to be enough for us that we are together.” This way of being together can transcend not only Whitman’s insistent self and voice, it can also transcend his own raced and gendered specificities. In her recent book Comrade, Jodi Dean describes communists and socialists around the world expanding on Whitman, adopting “comrade” to describe the relationships necessary to enacting and imagining radically different ways of living and relating. If identities represent, in some imperfect sense, what people already are; “‘comrade”’ is something that people, in their commitment to make the world otherwise, can do together.
I am tired of much loudly political art, of the self-confidence inherent in the idea that making a book or a play is more useful for change than stuffing envelopes or knocking on doors or taking the streets. Change requires more foot-soldiers than poets, though one can of course be both within the same day. If art has any political value it comes when it is chewed, digested, reacted to; when it occupies our minds and then creates space in that occupation where a desire to subsume ourselves to struggle can go. Greenwell does precisely this in Cleanness; offering a series of gestures at and descriptions of the shattering of the self needed to envision a communist horizon, a comradely relation. This is the comradeship with which the poetry of Walt Whitman was suffused, a comradeship that originates in the erotics of the dissolving boundary. If Greenwell’s descriptions of formal politics are limited, his prose inhabits and describes spaces of unbounded connection, on the streets and in the sheets.
“Decent People” is the book’s most obviously political chapter; and there is, at least to this reader, much naiveté in its approving mentions of the European Union as a guarantor of various forms of liberal rights. EU budget regulations, after all, have played a large role in Bulgaria’s enforced austerity, what the activist and sociologist Jana Tsoneva refers to as its “post-political consensus.” Nevertheless, Greenwell’s prose communicates the experience of resistance against this consensus. “We thought we would make something out of our country,” a taxi driver tells the narrator, driving through traffic-choked Sofia, remembering the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1990, “finally we were free. Free, he said, then sucked hard on his cigarette…we thought we would make something new but we didn’t.” As in many other communist countries, protesters seeking communism with new leaders ended up with capitalism and the same leaders. “We were all fucked but we had solidarity,” says the driver, now “nobody cares about the others, everybody steals what they can.” The narrator witnesses, in contrast, a diverse crowd gathering on the streets to march; students, workers, young and old, careful to note that people are smiling at one another in unusual ways. From the basis of this smiling, the crowd, like all groups of comrades, becomes more than its parts as it marches through the streets; it becomes “formless… primordial, chthonic.” Jodi Dean warns us that comradeship will evoke attendant fears of losing ourselves in the mass; the narrator is prevented from running away only by the fact that there is nowhere to go.
Slowly, he begins to be subsumed; from “the sound of the crowd” imagined by the narrator as outside him, we arrive, within the same paragraph, to a description of held breath described in the possessive, held breath eliciting pressure, “unbearable, demanding release… we hung fire, that’s what it felt like.” The narrator has joined the we, as he will later join in the crowd’s chant, a promise to take the streets the next day. The narrator returns to his friends only to discover that masked thugs in the crowd have beaten up a friend of his for holding a pro-gay protest sign. “It was pointless for me to stick around,” the narrator says at the end of the story, reflecting on his inability to help his friend, his sudden affective ejection from the mass of protestors, some of whom have just viciously attacked his friend and most of whom, unlike him, lack the privilege of easily leaving the country. The comrade relations created are transferred from the crowd to his friend, and the small group helping him; “I wasn’t any help at all,” the narrator says, “but I let my bag drop to the grass anyway, I sat down with them to wait.”
It is in its descriptions of sex; productively graphic and unsparing, as with all of Greenwell’s prose conveyed in a throbbingly ardent yet classically beautiful line closer to operatic vocal singing than most prose writing, that Cleanness most unconventionally models the conditions that are capable of creating comrades. Two mirrored stories near the beginning and end of the book, “Gospodar” and “A Little Saint,” show the narrator engaged in, respectively, submissive and dominant roles in violent sex. These encounters, at first glance, appear to offer little in the way of constructive politics; in “Gospodar,” especially, the encounter spins off the rails of consent and self-conscious playacting that bound safe and sane S/M explorations.
The narrator travels to the home of a Bulgarian man; when asked to narrate his desires he feels himself beginning to depart from “the usual words… the script that both does and does not express my desires,” arriving at something “more searching…until I found myself suddenly in some recess or depth… there were things I could say in his language, because I spoke too poorly, without self-consciousness or shame, as if there were something in me unreachable in my own language, something I could reach only with that blunt instrument by which I too was made a blunter instrument, and I found myself at last at the end of my strange litany, saying again and again I want to be nothing.” This dissolution of the self might first seem a simple expression of the death drive. It can also be productive, according to the academic and theorist João Florêncio’s forthcoming analysis of experiments in and depictions of kinky and extreme gay sexual encounter. In his writing on pornography depicting gay “pig” scenes, and interviews with participants in those scenes, experiments in radical porosity and vulnerability, experiments in the exchange of bodily fluids and the performance of acts understood as debasing, can become a form of ethics emphasizing solidarity with the strange and the foreign.
In “Gospodar,” the experiment fails: the dominant man turns violent, and his assault on the narrator demonstrates the risks of this shattering vulnerability. In “A Little Saint,” some of its promises begin to become visible. Once again, the “rituals and codes” of scripted sex begin to dissolve into something more troubling but also more promising, more alluring. The text begins to provide guides to the new relations that are emerging; the younger Bulgarian man who is submitting to the narrator sexually is described as straddling his body “not quite in the position Whitman says the soul assumes in relation to the body,” the narrator begins to feel himself becoming someone else, “something bursting free in me, corrosive and hot, without end… you’re nothing, I hammered into him as I felt it rise in me, that cruelty and rage, that acid grief, and when I came I felt him come beneath me, his body shaking, I heard him give a cry of joy.” After this sex, the submissive man, indifferent to disease and risk, describes as his ideal world a kind of Whitmanesque sexual utopia, “everyone fucking all the time, everywhere,” something that, like Florencio, the narrator describes as an “ethics,” coherent, wholehearted. The narrator, embarrassed at what has overtaken him during their encounter, tries to hide from the man, who giggles and cuddles him as they lay together, laughing and crying at the same time.
This transcendence and this ethics offer a glimpse of a communist horizon; the disillusion of the self can make space for something beyond it. In dark corners of cities men with little in common can meet and find that their bodies communicate in unexpected ways. Gay liberation dreamed that a great explosion of anality would fundamentally reorient society. Anal sex has not yet opened up communist horizons, but the conversations, the meetings, the door-knocking and envelope-stuffing and street-taking that follow afterwards, might. The self-shattering in “Gospodar” threatens to destroy the narrator; but at the end of “A Little Saint,” after climax, the Bulgarian who has submitted sexually pulls the narrator in for a hug. “Don’t be like that,” he says, as the narrator puts his arms around him. “Do you see? You don’t have to be like that… You can be like this.” I read this not as a condemnation of the rough encounter the two men, who have little else in common, have just had, but as an affirmation of what the hug, arrived at after a sexual script eroded all boundaries between and within them, has made of them. “That” is us before we are comrades, and “this” is us when we are comrades. “That” is neoliberalism’s apocalyptic crises, and “this” is a present we can survive. If we become comrades, it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be like this.