This past weekend, I and four others were ordained at my Zen temple and received among other things a new name and lineage. The names come in pairs; by convention the first part is meant to reflect some aspect of one’s present self, and the second a future aspiration. Fuba 風馬 reads “wind-horse”; I’d never thought of myself as all that equine, but I guess I did turn into a leggy girl with a mane. I have hope it’s going to sit better than whatever nervous small animal I used to evoke.
Jien 自圓 in English would be “self-circle”; the en is the same as in ensō. I haven’t yet talked it over with the teacher who gave it to me, but I fancy it points toward integration and wholeness, a highly incomplete project from this current vista point. Falling rocks next n miles.
Along with the name I received lineage papers tracing a line of dharma transmission from the historical Buddha down a historical chain with plenty of fiction in it (Nagarjuna, Bodhidharma, Huineng, Dōgen, onward), to Shunryu Suzuki and Sojun, who passed away a few days after the depth of my gender quandary finally became visible to me, and so to my present teacher and so to me. Since the document is a wholly patriarchal affair (as far as anyone knows, with the possible exception of Prajnatara) until we ladies get involved at bottom, a second paper was given with a compilation of women ancestors from history and myth arranged not in a line but in a circle, since whatever notion of ancestorship is in play, it’s not like the one by which titles and property are passed from father to son. More contemporaneous that way, it feels like.
Playing catch-up as I have with the recent crop of trans novels, I’m struck by how many of them are also concerned with ancestry, and the need to posit or rewrite a lineage. Casey Plett’s Little Fish does this in the most literal way, by having the trans protagonist discover that her grandfather may have been trans as well, and while the knowledge doesn’t inspire or comfort in any way—so scant and equivocal, it barely counts as knowledge—it does provide a lightweight supporting structure for what is otherwise a catalog of present-day hardship. Jeanne Thornton’s Summer Fun makes ancestry out of fandom, orienting the present-day narrator back toward a Brian Wilson-like figure whose life, at least in fabulation, is given a trans arc. It’s this notion of ancestry I’m drawn to; the books I keep on my shelves and the records I held onto after streaming ate the world are, more or less, the forebears I most recognize, and naturally I have my own way of reading them.
My trans friends who have read The Warm South think of it as a novel about Keats as a trans woman. (They also say, how could you have written that book and not known?) Obviously knowledge in general has a funny status here, but it’s true that I poured as much of myself into the character as I was able, whether or not I understood it, and also true that the attested Keats’s relation to the feminine, the Diana of Endymion or the agonizing love object of the short lyrics, is a tangle of identification and distance that is all too familiar to me, and one of the things that originally drew me in. To think of femininity as a home country from which one has been inexplicably banished invites all kinds of confusion into one’s relations with individual women. As Thornton tells it, placing her young musician protagonist in a young woman’s room:
Mona is already asleep. Her room’s arranged neatly for her, the laundry all in its hamper, the outsize desk tidied… one red candle flickers on the bookcase full of notebooks she has filled. You snuff the candle, drink your milkshake, and take your khakis and striped, reeking performance shirt off. At first you never knew where to put it—on the floor is unacceptable, in her hamper is unacceptable; your horrible androgen sweat will invade and corrupt everything she owns. You’ve settled for folding it on the cot Mona’s parents have installed in the room, by way of keeping up appearances, and taking it with you when you come and go. Slowly you’ve been training yourself to imagine that her belongings won’t crack when you look at them.
One use of the epistolary style is that the second person in English places no default gender on the addressee. Third-person narration, I’ve been discovering lately, tends to get defeated by the epistemological closet of egg mode, in which “she” is unearned, a future teleology imposed too soon, but “he” feels like the repetition of an old lie. How do you describe such a state? And who’d want to imagine their ancestors into it? It feels ghoulish, like the posthumous Mormon baptisms; yet you have to go looking, even though it’s a state that could never dare speak its name because it had no name to speak. At most you’re looking for an affect, the nameless “certain sensation” of Wittgenstein’s private-language speculation, that he imagines marked by a cryptic “S” in a diary. As the observable trace of this fugitive sensation, you might expect corporeal revulsion? Objectless yearning? A sense of metaphysical bad faith, a wrong fit running down to the core?
Kafka, of course. Cao Xueqin, worth his own post. The Rilke files. Kurt Cobain, already addressed by the internet but rawest, I think, in the barely coherent B-sides (I got a dick, dick, hear my fucking hate / I got my titillate spayed). Elliott Smith didn’t wear it on his sleeve in the same way, but the best songs, each a delicate wound (And I feel pretty / Pretty enough for you / I felt so ugly before / I didn’t know what to do), all sound to me like a lost girl looking for home. At minimum what you can say about all these is that they have the trick of speaking to everyone in a way that feels entirely private, a whisper for you alone; and others on my shelf don’t do it. It’s nowhere in Joyce; the cross-dressing cabaret of “Circe” and HCE’s “buckgoat paps… soft ones for orphans” are play-of-signifiers fun, but I don’t find myself in them any more than in a drag show. David Foster Wallace often reads like a man who hated being a man, but his gender-bending yields only a gallery of grotesques. Hemingway is a locked box; whatever was going on in The Garden of Eden and whatever Gloria had to contend with, it’s silent in the rest of the prose. T.S. Eliot has an early twinge—why does Prufrock find life as a man so impossible? why the fear and yearning when “The Waste Land” speaks as Marie (“In the mountains, there you feel free”)?—but in the end, old Tiresias with wrinkled female dugs takes the price of his vision to be collaboration with tradition and authority, and the later poetry, though it does many things, ceases to do that.
When I light a candle on November 20 it’s the lost girls I think of. If we can’t say who might or might not number among them, that’s part of the point. God knows what anyone might have done in a different time; God knows finding oneself in this way isn’t sufficient condition for happiness. I have no illusions about illuminating any particular path for the spirits. Sometimes a gesture has to make do, when it’s not possible to find the word.