provisions: erin mcnellis’s “impossible loves”

proviso: A clause in a document making a qualification, condition, or restriction.

provisions: the providing or supplying of something, especially of food or other necessities.

My friend Erin McNellis has just published a short, brilliant essay collection called Impossible Loves. Make time for this book. It may be exactly what you have been waiting for.

In 93 briskly moving pages, she chronicles one period in her life, a period during which she became intensely restless with her training in Buddhist thought and meditation. Seeking a point of contact between what she had learned, and what everyday life had to teach her, McNellis embarks on passionate readings of mystic Simone Weil, of philosopher Georges Bataille, of filmmaker Werner Herzog. She returns to poems she has loved for many years, her eyes now open to their emergent weaknesses, but also to what makes them endure. Each text, in its own way, is a disappointment, yet something remains.

Her odyssey begins with her response to Richard Hugo’s poem “With Kathy in Wisdom,” a rather bad poem that makes for a terrific point of departure. McNellis writes, “Dreams get broken in the living; they are full of impossibilities.” Having reached that difficult, essential place in which everything becomes open to question, she finds herself “star[ing] down the void,” in search of people who will join her and be unafraid. She ends with the line from Hugo’s poem, “Be my contraband.”

From there, she turns to Mark Greif’s essay attacking marriage and conventional nuclear families. It’s a turning point; Greif has lost her sympathies. She complains, “something about this article didn’t sit quite right with me.” The sorts of enormous, radical leaps Greif proposes — let’s rebuild the world from scratch! — strike McNellis as ridiculous and destructive. This, I think, is where the collection as a whole announces its theme: how does one navigate the distance between the real and the ideal, pragmatically, so that there is no cynicism but also no fancifulness?

From there, McNellis turns (in Pt. 2) to inspect several serious projects for revolutions in the practice of living. She holds up to the light the short and affecting life of Simone Weil, somewhat unknown today, who “lived in bare, unheated rooms, wore shapeless black rags, and distributed nearly all her wages to the poor.” As McNellis observes, Weil actually chose the existence that utilitarians like Peter Singer have mostly just theorized about. At the same time, as much as McNellis wants to idolize Weil, she is frustrated by Weil’s obvious fetish for self-destruction. Weil seemed to be looking for a poetic way to die, and the world obliged her: she died young of tuberculosis.

McNellis attempts triage on Weil. She absolves Weil of masochism by emphasizing the woman’s compassion, a quality that brings McNellis back to Buddhist ideas about compassionate attention. McNellis contrasts Weil with Georges Bataille, who like Weil was trying to abjure the world, but was trying to do it through glamorous acts of real and imaginary debauchery, rather than through the imitation of Christ. Bataille is a lot of fun to read about here, because he’s so enthusiastic about the joys of naughtiness, but he comes across as a buffoon who treats every casual sexual encounter as a philosophical revelation. If he achieves the “little death,” he sees into the heart of Joy, and if he suffers from erectile dysfunction, it’s because he has been broken on the wheel of Taboo. McNellis chuckles at Bataille, but admires his moments of honesty. At least he knows he is “at times, the Fool.” At least Bataille presents us as we are; we must, McNellis writes, “embrace our flawed, contradictory, selfish selves.”

At this point, all the pieces are out on the board: the intersection between Buddhism and Christianity, the difficulty of living with one’s principles, and the quixotic nature of grandiose projects of conduct. The problem, McNellis implies, is not that somebody like Weil was unrealistic — she lived up to her ideals, alright — but rather that life is too valuable and too complex for such inflexible attitudes. McNellis comes closest to the Christian view in “Everything Need Not, Actually, Be Illuminated,” writing about universal love pure and simple, but she demurs. She doesn’t want to end up exchanging one code (secular Buddhism) for another, and yearns for texts “that leave some of the dark places unlit.” Her essay on Grizzly Man reads Timothy Treadwell as a false prophet, trying to convert bears into gentle family members, and humans into untamed bears, and getting himself killed for his efforts.

Behold, a poet shouts from a corner of one of McNellis’s last essays, “I CAN CALL SPIRITS FROM THE VASTY DEEP.” Indeed: we have been visited by the spirit of Weil, and the spirit of Treadwell, and even the suffering, living spirits of Greif and others. The question McNellis raised by rejecting Greif — “need there be more than everyday life, and familiar good things?” — she answers in her final essay, in which she finds everyday life restored to fullness by the carnival of the Burning Man Festival. At the very end, McNellis decides, “the price of vision, then, is pro-vision.” The line profoundly echoes her essay on Neruda, in which she describes the searing pleasure of the metaphors in Neruda that refigure and darken the world, awakening curiosity and awe. She smuggles the prayer she didn’t write at Burning Man into this book, so that, alongside her doubts, she can offer her companions a hope. Let what is familiar be eclipsed, she implores of us. When normal life resumes, it will be as daybreak, full of morning wisdom.

These essays are provisions for that journey.